Insights from African Contributions to Global Security Norms

The world is benefiting from the logic of African actors who are shaping contemporary norms in international security.

This is the first of a series of blogs that complement the book African Actors in International Security: Shaping Contemporary Norms. The book is a OEFR supported project evolving out of a call for research surrounding the role of southern regions in norm creation and contestation in an African context. This blog series explores a sampling of the themes addressed in the volume and provides further commentary on the ways African actors have contributed to the development of international peace and security norms.

The African continent has continued to deal with violent conflict in multiple jurisdictions. Civil wars prevail in Libya, South Sudan, Nigeria, Mali, Somalia, Western Sahara, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi—to mention but a few. The continent has faced millions of conflict-related deaths in the last twenty-five years. International security news from the continent remains a matter of grave concern. There are fears that Cameroon could be the site of the next civil war on the continent. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that several institutions have been set up to confront these occurrences. The African Union (AU) and regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the eight-country trade bloc of East African countries headquartered in Djibouti known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the South African Development Community (SADC) are among the more prominent.

The establishment of security agencies within these organizations to deal with violent conflict is benefiting from the logic of African actors who are shaping contemporary norms in international security. Norms are broadly defined as standards or patterns of accepted behavior in a given social context. In this context, norms refer to the prevailing standards of accepted behavior that serve to maintain global peace and security. One Earth Future Research has been involved in the production of a recently published book on this topic, African Actors in International Security: Shaping Contemporary Norms, edited by Katharina Coleman of the University of British Columbia and Thomas Tieku of King’s University College, Western University, Canada. The book brings to light what these norms are and how they are affecting international security discourse. In the edited volume, four ways of shaping norms are examined: “participating in the creation of global norms; developing and diffusing African norms; shaping global norms through creative implementation; and contesting global norms.” What do these norms and the pathways they belong to tell us?

Milk and Honey

First, contrary to the prevailing narrative, key norms, rules, and best practices for international security do indeed come from the African continent, where the bulk of global violent conflict also occurs. The contributions of African actors in shaping global international peace and security norms have often been drowned out by stories of conflict and the ensuing erroneous impression that African actors are mere “bystanders in the development and promotion of key international norms.” The pathways demonstrate that even in the arena where violent conflict exists, efforts to reduce the impacts of these unfortunate events result in shaping how not only the confrontations pan out but also events much further afield. This realization of what is happening on the continent is aptly captured by the prominent African proverb, “Milk and honey have different colors, but they share the same house peacefully.”

Second, the fact that these pathways exist indicates there is a concerted effort to understand how violent conflict can be dealt with on the continent. The pathways address aspects of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. Peacemaking is tackled in the works that address challenges to the primacy of the UN Security Council and the localization of transnational justice norms. Peacekeeping is illuminated by the norms of implementing protection of civilians and that of the anti-coup sentiment, respectively. Peacebuilding is exemplified by the elimination of conflict diamonds and other conflict-prone minerals as well as by restricting the spread of small arms and other light weapons. These norms and pathways represent new insights akin to what is found in the Senegalese proverb, “There can be no peace without understanding.”

Carrot and Stick

Third, and closely related to the point above, movement from a state of conflict, still prevalent in many parts of the continent, to that of peace and inclusive development will take a multipronged approach. The suite of tools and processes that will lead to stability on the continent requires systems and structures that address the root causes of conflict to put a stop to already existing wars. These include soft and hard power. A clear demonstration of the former is in the chapter on the conflict-mediation role of elder statespersons. The latter is discussed in relation to the anti-coup norm where violent confrontation can be a last but necessary resort in reconstituting a validly elected government. This multifaceted approach is probably what was intended by the West African proverb, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

Fourth, norms with origins on the African continent can have profound impacts, as demonstrated by the anti-coup norm and the conflict-mediation role of elder statespersons. In the case of the anti-coup norm, the African continent is seeing a marked reduction in coups, and new coup plotters are finding increasing reluctance by the public to accept their coups. Three factors are driving these reductions of African coup incidents. First is the rise of a new generation of Africans—especially young people and a growing middle class. A second driver of this reduction is the evolving international environment: the world is no longer bipolar, as it used to be in the Cold War era. During the Cold War, interference in African countries by major powers was common and deemed critical to maintaining influence and the international balance of power. The world is now a much more complex place. The third driver and an important plank of the anti-coup norm, as discussed in the edited volume, is the pressure from Africa-led institutions such as the AU and ECOWAS in tandem with the international community to not only condemn but place sanctions on individuals deemed to be responsible for overthrowing democratically elected governments. The continent is evidently building institutions that find the Somalian proverb, “If you can’t resolve your problems in peace, you can’t solve war,” relevant.

A Place at the Table

Finally, African actors—especially at the state level—are beginning to find and assert their voice in the pursuit of peace on the continent. This process is demonstrated by the establishment and increasing importance attached to African bodies such as the AU, ECOWAS, SADC, and IGAD. With time this has manifested in other arenas, such as the UN Security Council, where representatives from the African continent readily contest and resist the primacy of the Security Council and its associated organs, including the International Criminal Court, in determining affairs on the continent. This is the contestation of global norms discussed in the last two chapters of the book. The African actors shaping this category of norms may be finding value in the Ghanaian Ashanti proverb, “When a king has good counselors, his reign is peaceful.”