Thinking about security in Africa



Thinking about security in Africa
Thinking about security in Africa
Constructing images of ‘Africa’ has always been popular among western politicians
and pundits alike. ‘Africa’ has long been a source of the exotic and the unknown;
a place for exploration, adventures and safaris, not to mention civilizing missions.
But today’s popular images reveal many different ‘Africas’. There is Africa as ‘a
scar on the world’s conscience’: a stricken continent in need of charity, whose
development should be seen as a moral imperative. There is Africa as a haven for
‘terrorists’: a potentially dangerous continent that needs order and strong governments capable of effectively policing their territory. There is Africa as a source of
risks, threats and problems such as war, famine, drought, migration, disease and
environmental degradation: a neglected continent that needs fixing before these
problems wind up on our own shores. And there is Africa as a source of opportunity and riches with abundant sources of minerals, energy and wildlife: a bountiful
continent that is ripe for a renaissance but in need of stability and investment.
Each image serves various purposes for particular audiences, and each captures
something of the multiple realities experienced by the continent’s inhabitants. These images are also reflected in contemporary political and development
indices. By many indicators, the world judges Africa to be its most insecure region.
For instance, according to the Failed States Index 2007, Africa contains eight of
the world’s ten most failing states (in ascending order they are Sudan, Somalia,
Zimbabwe, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], Guinea
and the Central African Republic).1 A similar picture is evident in Freedom
House’s conclusion that Africa is home to eight of the world’s 20 most repressive
regimes (Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya, Swaziland, Somalia,
Sudan and Zimbabwe).2 And according to the UN Development Programme
(UNDP), the continent is also home to 35 of the world’s 40 most underdeveloped
For their constructive criticisms of earlier drafts of this article, thanks go to the participants at the International Affairs workshops, Alex Bellamy, Daniela Kroslak and an anonymous reviewer. I acknowledge research
support provided by the Economic and Social Research Council’s New Security Challenges programme
(Project Grant RES 223–25–0072).
Foreign Policy magazine/Fund for Peace, ‘The Failed States Index 2007’,, accessed 19
Sept. 2007.
The 20 regimes are those that scored the worst rating of 7 for either political rights or civil liberties. This list
does not include Morocco’s rule over Western Sahara, which also falls into this category. See Freedom House,
‘Freedom in the World 2007’, at, accessed 19 Sept. 2007.
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Paul D. Williams
states.3 The daily realities behind these figures include the uncomfortable facts
that half the continent’s people live on less than one dollar a day, more than half
lack access to hospitals or doctors, one-third suffer from malnutrition, one in six
children die before their fifth birthday, and the average African’s life expectancy
is just 41 years.
Ultimately, the point of thinking about security is to affect political practices
and outcomes on the ground. The purpose of this article, however, is simply to help
clarify some of the conceptual terrain which provides the backdrop for contemporary debates about security in Africa. This is important because, whether we
recognize it or not, we live our lives within theories—usually ones devised and
supported by powerful others. Analysts can help by clarifying the often confused
and confusing vocabulary used to debate contemporary security challenges: not
least, what does security mean, what are the most appropriate referents and agents
for security (and what should be the relationship between them), and whose
perspectives should be accorded priority?4
In Africa, it is abundantly clear that the status quo is not working for the vast
majority of Africans. Consequently, security will require significant political
change. But what types of political change will help promote security, and for
whom? I share the view of the developing literature on Critical Security Studies
(CSS) that the route to true, stable security is through the promotion of emancipatory politics. Put simply, CSS calls for an approach to security based on people,
justice and change.5 In relation to regional security, it poses some basic but fundamental questions, none of which have settled or uncontested answers: Whose
version of the real world should we analyse? What is security, and whose security
are we talking about? Which ‘Africa’ should we study? What should the relationships be between regional and global structures and processes? Who or what are
the most appropriate referents for security? Who is best placed to deliver it? What
principles should security policies promote? And whose answers to these questions
should we listen to?6
As an intersubjective concept, security has no objective meaning. Instead,
(in)security is what people make it. That said, most analysts think of security as
being the alleviation of threats to acquired values, particularly those threats that
are considered to have a degree of urgency and necessity about them. Although
security is often concerned with threats to survival, security and survival are not
synonymous. Rather, as Ken Booth has argued, there is an important distinction
to be made between survival (an existential condition) and security (having the
conditions to pursue cherished political and social ambitions). For Booth, security
UN Development Programme, ‘Human Development Index 2006’,,
accessed 19 Sept. 2007.
For an up-to-date overview see Paul D. Williams, ed., Security studies: an introduction (London: Routledge,
Ken Booth has been the pioneer of this approach. See his ‘Security and emancipation’, Review of International Studies 17: 3, 1991, pp. 313–26 and Theory of world security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
These questions and much of the inspiration for my approach can be found in Ken Booth and Peter Vale,
‘Critical Security Studies and regional insecurity: the case of southern Africa’, in Keith Krause and Michael C.
Williams, eds, Critical Security Studies (London: UCL Press, 1997), pp. 329–58.
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Thinking about security inAfrica
is best understood as ‘survival-plus’, ‘the “plus” being some freedom from lifedetermining threats, and therefore some life choices’.7
With this in mind, Africa’s current insecurity predicament is neither a natural
nor an inevitable state of affairs. It is the product of human choices taken under the
influence of powerful international forces such as colonialism, capitalism, statism
and globalization, as well as factors more specific to Africa. True security in Africa
must therefore be about changing odious configurations of power and authority,
and finding alternatives to the business-as-usual mentalities that got the continent
where it is today.
Referents for security
Whose experiences and perspectives should security analysts focus on and listen to?
In short, whose security are we talking about? The choice of referents is important,
not least because it shapes the way we think about and respond to threat agendas.
Most security studies literature on Africa, as on other parts of the world, focuses
on the actions and perspectives of Africa’s governments. In most cases, however,
Africa’s states have failed to provide their people with security. Indeed, Africa’s
people have long been the victims of a powerful but warped version of regime
security. One damaging consequence of neo-patrimonial state power in Africa
is the stultifying effect it has had on civil society and consequently the struggle
for individual and social rights and freedoms on the continent.8 During 2006, for
instance, Freedom House classified 19 African states as ‘not free’. Moreover, its
analysis suggested that during that year nine African governments became more
repressive to the extent that they moved into a new Freedom House category
(Burundi, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar,
Mauritius, Somalia and South Africa), while only six regimes moved into a
less repressive category (the Comoros, DRC, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania and
Zambia). In addition, Freedom House’s trend indicators suggested that another
seven African governments became more repressive but remained within the same
category (Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Kenya, Seychelles and Zimbabwe),
while the trend was towards less repression in only one state (Benin).9
States should, therefore, be viewed as a means to provide security for their people,
not as the ends of security policies. Indeed, as Bill McSweeney has argued,
It would be absurd to postulate a subject of security other than people … It is from the
human need to protect human values that the term ‘security’ derives its meaning … and
that a security policy derives its legitimacy and power to mobilize resources. [In short,]
security must make sense at the basic level of the individual human being for it to make
sense at the international level.10
Booth, Theory of world security, ch. 3.
On the limited political breathing space in Africa for civil society, see Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz,
Africa works: disorder as a political instrument (Oxford: James Currey, 1999).
Freedom House, ‘Freedom in the World 2007’, at, accessed 19 Sept. 2007.
Bill McSweeney, Security, identity and interests: a sociology of international relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 33, 16.
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Of course, if human beings are considered the ends of security policies, this raises
the thorny question: which individuals deserve priority in any given context? The
CSS response to this question is that because true, stable security will exist only
when others are not deprived of it, analysts must place at the heart of their agenda
those individuals and groups who are rendered insecure by the prevailing order.11
As Edward Said eloquently put it, this means taking seriously the perspectives of
‘the poor, the disadvantaged, the voiceless, the unrepresented, the powerless’.12
With this in mind, it is important to note that women constitute the majority of
Africa’s poor and often enjoy far fewer political rights and civil liberties than men.
Consequently, ‘The plain truth is that without the emancipation of women across
[Africa] there will not be regional security.’13
Given the extent and nature of neo-patrimonialism on the continent, a central
policy problem is how to enhance the security of those Africans who remain
unfavoured by such regimes. Part of the problem, as Chabal and Daloz have argued,
is that in Africa the truly destitute are those without patrons.14 An important
practical issue for outsiders is thus to explore how they might promote security for
those insiders who are viewed as opponents by the incumbent regimes in the states
where they live. Individuals shunned or actively persecuted by their governments
are likely to find that their basic needs for recognition, security and identity are
met by alternative non-state forms of community such as insurgency movements
or spiritual associations. Groups such as these may thus form the practical referents
for some security discourses. But once again, all such groups should, ultimately, be
seen as means rather than ends of security policies.
Another fundamental referent for security is the African environment itself. This
dimension of security in Africa has traditionally received very little attention, but in
several respects it is the most fundamental. Of particular concern is the continuing
destruction of ecosystems and the inability of people (both foreigners and locals) to
stop a variety of processes such as climate change, deforestation, desertification and
land degradation (affecting both cropland and pasture), as well as increasing water
and food scarcity. Given the shaky foundations of much knowledge about African
environments, the speed, extent, drivers and political consequences of environmental change on the continent remain distinctly unclear and contested.15 Nevertheless, as discussed below, environmental issues have clearly started to generate
concern among political elites both inside the continent and beyond.16
Although it is naive to expect consensus on which referent objects should be
prioritized, analysts would do well to help competing groups forge shared conceptions of the most salient threats and the most appropriate ways to overcome them.
Richard Wyn Jones, ‘“Message in a bottle?” Theory and praxis in Critical Security Studies’, Contemporary
Security Policy 16: 3, 1995, p. 309.
Edward Said, Representations of the intellectual (London: Vintage, 1994), p. 84.
Booth and Vale, ‘Critical Security Studies’, p. 344.
Chabal and Daloz, Africa works.
See Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns, eds, The lie of the land: challenging received wisdom on the African environment
(Oxford: James Currey, 1996).
e.g. the AU Assembly Decision, 29–30 Jan. 2007, Addis Ababa, Assembly/AU/Dec.134 (VIII); Ban Ki-moon,
‘A climate culprit in Darfur’, Washington Post, 16 June 2007, p. A15.
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A necessary first step towards establishing common identities and interests is to
recognize that Africans and their continent are inextricably caught up in a broader
set of complicated relationships that link the local to the global.
Local and global
Although often depicted as the marginalized continent that globalization forgot,
Africa and Africans are not immune from the wider processes driving world
politics. Indeed, not only has politics on the continent been shaped by its interactions with outsiders for centuries, but its recent wars have exemplified what might
be termed the dark side of liberal globalization.17
Of all the many processes affecting world politics, it is humankind’s evolving
relationship with planet Earth that will probably turn out to be the most significant. As J. R. McNeill has observed, although the twentieth century witnessed
few genuinely new kinds of environmental change, what mattered were the scale
and intensity of human activities, especially in the three crucial areas of economic
growth, population growth and energy usage. As discussed below, each of these
processes has important repercussions for security in Africa.
Most of the changes wrought on the planet have been undertaken in the process
of conducting economic activity, as a result of which world GDP in the late
twentieth century was about 120 times as large as it was in 1500, with most of
the growth taking place after 1820. The major features of this economic history,
according to McNeill, were industrialization, Fordism and economic integration. Environmentally speaking, the major problem was that these developments
‘mattered because economists thought, wrote, and prescribed as if nature did
not’.18 Environmentalism, after all, was a late developer in the ideological story of
the twentieth century. This period also experienced the final stages of the second
great surge in human population history, with most demographers expecting one
more doubling to come. In relation to energy consumption, the scale and intensity
were delivered courtesy of the internal combustion engine and refined oil. This
permitted human beings to deploy more energy since 1900 than in all of human
history before that date. Taking all these factors together, McNeill concluded that
during the last century ‘The human species has shattered the constraints and rough
stability of the old economic, demographic, and energy regimes.’ In so doing,
it had unintentionally ‘undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on the
Although Africa was not at the forefront of any of these revolutions, it has been
caught up in their wake and is now experiencing an intensification of pressures in
all three areas. Like the rest of the world before it, Africa is now faced with more
and more people living in bigger urban areas. According to one estimate, between
See Jean-François Bayart, ‘Africa in the world: a history of extr0version’, African Affairs 99: 395, 2000, pp.
217–67; William Reno, Warlord politics and African states (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998).
J. R. McNeill, Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the twentieth-century world (New York:
Norton, 2001), p. 335.
McNeill, Something new under the sun, pp. 16, 4.
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1750 and 1996 Africa’s population increased from 95 million to 732 million people.20
By 2016, the population of sub-Saharan Africa alone is estimated to increase by
more than another 200 million.21 Among other things this has had huge repercussions for levels of food and water scarcity on the continent, especially in urban
areas (see below).
Whereas for about 8,000 years of human history cities had been what McNeill
called ‘demographic black holes’, in recent times they have stopped checking
population growth and started adding to it. In 1890 approximately 5 per cent of
Africans resided in urban areas; by 1990 the figure was 34 per cent.22 The number
of mega-cities on the continent has also mushroomed: in 1900 there was just one
(Cairo); by 2000 there were 36 cities with populations of between 1 million and 10
million people, and two (Cairo and Lagos) with populations of over 10 million.23
In effect, these cities have giant metabolisms: they have massive appetites for
energy, water and food, and they spew out huge quantities of pollutants, garbage
and solid wastes. And around the urban cores shanty towns and slums have quickly
arisen. In many respects, Africa’s slums are the very epitome of urbanized insecurity, with their residents generally lacking law enforcement, regular sources of
employment, sanitation, water, electricity and health-care facilities. With eviction
an almost constant possibility, it makes little sense to devote much time or money
to neighbourhood improvements, and so the environment quickly decays. Shanty
towns are also among the most densely populated land in Africa. The sprawling
urban slum of Kibera in Nairobi, for instance, is home to somewhere between
500,000 and 1 million people, with about 2,000–3,000 people per hectare.24 This
density only increases the scale and intensity of the problems. For more and more
Africans, it is living in environments of this kind—not international anarchy—
that best captures their primary, urbanized security dilemma.
Africa has also been caught up in the global scramble for oil and other sources
of energy.25 Older oilfields, such as those in Algeria and Libya,26 have been
supplemented by newer discoveries including those in the Niger Delta, Cabinda
and Sudan, and the race is well under way to find the next significant deposits,
especially around the Gulf of Guinea, which some predict will be the world’s
number one source of oil outside OPEC by 2010.27 With Africa accounting
for approximately 9.4 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves and sub-Saharan Africa alone accounting for 15 per cent of the United States’ imported
oil by 2002, the continent’s oil-producing governments inherited substantial
new-found wealth, although significant domestic discord usually came with it.
McNeill, Something new under the sun, p. 271.
UN Development Programme (UNDP), Human Development Report 2006 (New York: UNDP, 2006), p. 55.
McNeill, Something new under the sun, p. 283.
McNeill, Something new under the sun, pp. 285–6.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 38.
See Nicholas Shaxson, Poisoned wells: the dirty politics of African oil (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007).
The US government’s decision to lift most of its remaining sanctions against Libya in September 2004 prompted
renewed activity there by US oil companies such as Chevron and Occidental Petroleum.
Wall Street Journal, cited in Michael Klare and Daniel Volman, ‘The African “oil rush” and US national security’, Third World Quarterly 27: 4, 2006, p. 610.
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For the consumers of African oil, the political instability surrounding the major
oil-exporting regimes, and the fact that Africa is poised to increase its oil exports
significantly, have already had important repercussions for their own national
security and foreign aid policies. As part of its concerns about energy security and
winning its ‘long war’ on terror, the US government, for instance, has stepped up
its naval operations, military training and assistance programmes, and search for
military bases in Africa, as well as agreeing to establish the Pentagon’s new Africa
Command. Among the main concerns of such consumers are the endemic corruption involved in the political economy of African oil and the safety of the facilities
and production personnel.28 Even without the conflict that has often accompanied
oil wealth, the process of extraction has usually come at a terrible environmental
cost. In 1992, for instance, the UN declared the Niger to be the world’s most
ecologically endangered delta.
Developments in global trends related to economic growth, demographic change
and energy usage have thus clearly had significant impacts on African politics.
However, given the strikingly different trajectories apparent in different parts of
the post-colonial world, security analysts should also be curious about what might
be termed global–local interactions, that is, how some specifically African factors
have interacted with external processes to produce today’s political realities. For
example, Jeffrey Herbst has emphasized how the continent’s governance problems
are linked to the continent’s political geography, especially the longstanding difficulties involved in trying ‘to project authority over inhospitable territories that
contain relatively low densities of people’.29 In addition, Stephen Ellis and Gerrie
ter Haar have ably demonstrated the importance of the spirit world in the way
many Africans think about power. In other words, politics in Africa cannot be
fully grasped without reference to religious ideas, that is ‘a belief in the existence
of an invisible world, distinct but not separate from the visible one, that is home
to spiritual beings with effective powers over the material world’.30
It is thus within the complex interrelationships between global processes
(including those related to demography, urbanization, energy and the environment) and local contexts (including inhospitable political geography and religious
ideas, practices, organization and experiences) that the main threats to security in
Africa will emerge.
The threat agenda
If security is understood as being about alleviating the threats faced by Africa’s
people rather than its states, an expansive threat agenda is unavoidable. This may
appear daunting, but it has the benefit of providing a more accurate description of
the daily realities of insecurity faced by Africans than the artificially narrow focus
Klare and Volman, ‘The African “oil rush”’.
Jeffrey Herbst, States and power in Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 11.
Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar, ‘Religion and politics: taking African epistemologies seriously’, Journal of
Modern African Studies 45: 3, 2007, p. 387. See also Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar, Worlds of power: religious
thought and political practice in Africa (London: Hurst, 2004).
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on the relations among the continent’s states. In addition, even expansive agendas
need to distinguish between priority issues and problems of lesser importance.
As Booth and Vale have argued, ‘placing threats in order of priority is a problem
that has to be resolved in the political process. It cannot be settled by theoretical
discussion.’31 This is correct, but for the purposes of this article I identify three
areas of threat that deserve a high priority because of the insecurity they generate
across large swathes of Africa: violence, health challenges (particularly HIV/AIDS
and other related infectious diseases) and environmental degradation.
Too many Africans face the threat or use of violence daily, usually from their own
government’s police, soldiers or other ‘security forces’. In the sense I am using it
here, violence is a broad category stretching from household incidents (such as
physical abuse) to the nexus between criminality, warlordism and more traditional
notions of armed conflict. In exploring the dynamics and contexts of violence in
contemporary Africa, political and anthropological accounts have shed far more
light than the traditional approaches of economists.32
In relation to traditional understandings of armed conflict, during the 1990s
Africa bucked the general trend throughout the rest of the developing world
towards fewer and less deadly armed conflicts.33 In particular, the continent suffered
three devastating clusters of wars centred respectively on West Africa (Liberia,
Sierra Leone, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire), East Africa and the Horn (Ethiopia, Eritrea,
Somalia, Sudan), and the Great Lakes (Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire/DRC, Uganda).
With the exception of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, most of the casualties
of these conflicts have not occurred in large-scale military engagements. Rather,
death is more commonly brought about through the intentional massacre of civilians or indirectly by malnutrition and disease intensified by displacement, which
has affected mostly women and children. Although peace made some progress in
Africa between 2002 and 2006, the continent still suffers from more than its fair
share of armed conflicts.
As the Uppsala Conflict Database demonstrates, armed conflict remains a prevalent feature of the African landscape.34 This data set is useful precisely because it
takes account of the important non-state dimensions of violence occurring on
the continent. According to Uppsala’s most recent data, in 2005 Africa witnessed
seven minor armed conflicts between governments and rebel groups (in Algeria,
Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia [×2], Sudan and Uganda); 16 non-state armed conflicts
fought between armed non-state actors (in Ethiopia ×2, Côte d’Ivoire ×2, Kenya ×1,
31 Booth and Vale, ‘Critical Security Studies’, p. 336.
Compare, for example, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, ‘On the incidence of civil war in Africa’, Journal
of Conflict Resolution 46: 1, 2002, pp. 13–28 with Reno, Warlord politics; Paul Richards, ed., No peace, no war:
anthropology of contemporary armed conflicts (Oxford: James Currey, 2005), esp. chs 1, 6–8; Preben Kaarsholm, ed.,
Violence, political culture and development in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 2006).
See The Human Security Report 2005: war and peace in the 21st century (New York: Oxford University Press,
The database is available at, accessed 19 Sept. 2007.
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Nigeria ×3, Somalia ×6 and Sudan ×2); and ten cases of one-sided violence, that is,
where civilians are intentionally attacked by governments or formally organized
armed groups (in DRC ×2, Egypt ×2, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan ×3 and Uganda).
Of the ten cases of one-sided violence, two of the guilty parties were governments
(Egypt and Sudan).
Since its official inauguration in 2004, the Peace and Security Council of the
African Union (AU) was supposed to be the main institution for managing armed
conflicts on the continent. However, as discussed below, it is massively underresourced and has engaged only selectively with these armed conflicts, focusing
primarily on those involving government forces.
The causes and dynamics of Africa’s wars hold important clues for how security
policies should be devised. Although Africa’s contemporary armed conflicts often
exhibit important international dimensions, including complex webs of pacts
between governments and foreign insurgents, the root causes of most of them lie
in domestic state–society relations. In other words, most African wars start because
of internal grievances against the incumbent regime rather than external threats
from expansionist neighbours.35 In this sense, as Robert Jackson pointed out long
ago, Africa’s international relations are relatively free of the security dilemma.36
As a result, the path to true security depends less on devising interstate confidencebuilding measures than on building stable, democratic societies that can resolve
their conflicts without resorting to violence.37 Of course, the security dilemma is
not completely extinct in Africa, as the persistence of interstate tensions between,
for instance, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Rwanda and the DRC, Chad and Sudan, and
Morocco and Algeria attests. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the route
to resolving most of the continent’s wars is through building forms of political
community within which members can settle their conflicts without resorting to
This is particularly apparent in relation to Africa’s continuing struggles for selfdetermination, such as those in Western Sahara, Southern Sudan and Somaliland. In
essence, self-determination struggles are precisely rooted in the need to construct
forms of political community that fulfil people’s needs for recognition, representation, well-being and security. If the continent’s states worked for their people
there would be fewer demands to break away from them. Since in some cases they
have not, analysts need to think through the conditions under which new states
See e.g. Jeffrey Herbst, ‘Economic incentives, natural resources and conflict in Africa’, Journal of African Economies 9: 3, 2000, pp. 270–94; Morten Bøås and Kevin Dunn, ‘African guerrilla politics’, in Morten Bøås and
Kevin Dunn, eds, African guerrillas (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007), pp. 9–38.
Robert H. Jackson, ‘The security dilemma in Africa’, in Brian L. Job, ed., The (In)security dilemma (Boulder,
CO: Lynne Rienner, 1992), pp. 81–94. The security dilemma in international politics refers to the tragic way
in which uncertainty may lead decision-makers to be fearful of others’ intentions and thus engage in behaviour
that assumes the malign intent of the other party while simultaneously expecting their own actions to be seen
as purely defensive. In extreme cases, the resulting spiral of insecurity may result in two parties engaging in
warfare when neither side originally intended to harm the other.
A point made in Booth and Vale, ‘Critical Security Studies’, p. 348. See also Eboe Hutchful and Kwesi Aning,
‘The political economy of conflict’, in Adekeye Adebajo and Ismail Rashid, eds, West Africa’s security challenges
(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004), pp. 195–222.
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should be formed and allowed to join the club of international society.38 Until
this is done, Eritrea’s long, costly and heavily militarized struggle will continue
to be seen as a model for success on the continent. This is unfortunate, because
although Eritrea had an exemplary case for statehood, it has yet to resolve its territorial conflict with Ethiopia and its regime has become one of the world’s most
repressive. Would it not make more sense to create an alternative role model by
bestowing statehood on an entity like Somaliland, which has an excellent legal case
for independence and has quietly worked hard to become an island of multiparty
democracy amid a sea of anarchy?
In sum, violence remains at the centre of the continent’s threat agenda, but
neither its extent nor its dynamics can be adequately grasped when viewed through
state-centric lenses. Instead, the complex interrelationships between domestic
violence, criminality, warlordism and more traditional concepts of armed conflict
must be analysed. The larger analytical point this raises is whether state structures
and institutions are capable of meeting today’s human security challenges. The
problem for the continent’s political elites is that, as Hedley Bull noted on more
than one occasion, the pursuit of genuine security for human beings is necessarily
subversive of the very foundations of international society.39 Given international
society’s poor track record of promoting human security in Africa, this may be no
bad thing.
Health challenges
A second cluster of threats revolves around the number of Africans who lack access
to adequate health facilities, especially those needed to combat the spread of infectious diseases, most notably HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. In recent years
the spotlight has fallen on HIV/AIDS, which is clearly one of the most deadly
transnational challenges currently facing the African continent.40 In 2005, for
instance, an estimated 38.6 million (figures range from 33.4 million to 46.0 million)
people worldwide were living with HIV, the majority of whom were unaware of
their status. During that year it is estimated that 4.1 million people became newly
infected and 2.8 million died of AIDS-related diseases. With almost 25 million of
those infected with HIV living in Africa (see figure 1), the continent ‘remains the
global epicentre of the AIDS pandemic’.41 These figures suggest a level of HIV
prevalence among Africa’s 15–49-year-olds of approximately 7.5 per cent.42
Within the continent, southern Africa remains—by far—the worst affected
region. It is also notable that in this region the majority of people killed by AIDS38
For an interesting attempt to do precisely this, see Jeffrey Herbst’s ‘Responding to state failure in Africa’, International Security 21: 3, 1996/7, pp. 120–44, and ‘Let them fail’, in Robert I. Rotberg, ed., When states fail: causes
and consequences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 302–18.
Hedley Bull, The anarchical society (London: Macmillan, 1977), p. 146.
For more details, see Nana Poku, AIDS in Africa (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), and Alex de Waal, Aids and power
(London: Zed, 2006).
UNAIDS, Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic: Executive Summary (Geneva: UNAIDS, 2006), p. 6.
Nana K. Poku and Alan Whiteside, ‘25 years of living with HIV/AIDS: challenges and prospects’, International
Affairs 82: 2, 2006, p. 250.
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Figure 1: The HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, 1985–2005
Source: UNAIDS, Report on the global AIDS epidemic: executive summary (Geneva: UNAIDS,
2006), p. 7.
related diseases are between 20 and 50 years of age, the most important group for
a well-functioning economy, polity and society. Not surprisingly, therefore, the
need to combat and prevent HIV infection has figured prominently on the agenda
of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for some time.43
Positive results, however, are few, and the situation is likely to get significantly
worse before it gets much better.
After a very slow start, Africa’s leaders eventually afforded HIV/AIDS the sort
of official attention it deserved. In 2001, for example, the Organization of African
Unity adopted the Abuja Declaration and the Abuja Framework for Action for
the Fight against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Other Related Infectious Diseases
in Africa.44 These two documents reflected the growing seriousness and urgency
with which the threat was perceived by Africa’s leaders. The declaration, for
instance, suggested that AIDS had caused ‘millions of deaths’ and was ‘decimating
[Africa’s] adult population’ to the extent that a ‘State of Emergency’ existed in the
continent. Overall, HIV/AIDS was said to represent ‘the greatest global threat to
the survival and life expectancy of African peoples’. Consequently, the declaration stated, ‘containing and reversing the HIV/AIDS epidemic … should constitute our top priority for the first quarter of the 21st Century’. The plan of action
established the AU’s ‘primary goal’ as being to ‘reverse the accelerating rate of
HIV infection’ by addressing twelve priority areas and calling upon the Union’s
members to implement the plan ‘immediately’.
Under Article 5.1(i) of the amended 2001 version of the Treaty of the SADC, one of the organization’s objectives is to ‘combat HIV/AIDS or other deadly and communicable diseases’. The SADC discussed HIV/AIDS
as a challenge with major security and defence-related dimensions in its Strategic Indicative Plan for the Organ on
Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation (SADC, 2004),
OAU doc. OAU/SPS/ABUJA/4, 29 April 2001.
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As if this situation were not bad enough, HIV/AIDS is not the only deadly
disease facing the continent; malaria and tuberculosis also represent major sources
of insecurity for many Africans. Indeed, malaria remains the continent’s biggest
killer, with some 3,000 Africans (mainly children) dying from the disease every
day. In addition, some diseases are making an unwelcome resurgence in parts of the
continent. In 2005, for instance, West Africa experienced 63,000 cases of cholera
leading to 1,000 deaths, while in early 2006 an epidemic was claiming 400 lives per
month in Angola.45 It is thus clear that human security in Africa is inextricably
related to access to effective health facilities. While malaria still kills more Africans
than HIV/AIDS, the latter has received most international attention. Given the
complex ways in which HIV/AIDS impacts upon social, economic and political
structures, and given its potential to wreak even greater levels of damage, a focus
on the disease is justifiable. But it should remain only one part of a holistic perspective that attempts to overcome Africa’s numerous health challenges.
Environmental crisis
A third cluster of threats to Africa’s people are rooted in environmental issues.
The degradation of Africa’s environment is not solely a result of warfare, but at
the intersection of war and repression one is likely to find an environmental crisis.
Take the case of Sudan. According to recent data, Sudan is classified as the world’s
most failing state, is a site of several continuing armed conflicts, and is ruled by a
regime that Freedom House describes as one of ‘the worst of the worst’.46 In spite
of these classifications Sudan ranks ‘only’ 141st out of a total of 177 states analysed
in the 2006 Human Development Index.47 It appears that at least some Sudanese
do reasonably well in such grim circumstances.
Not surprisingly, Sudan is experiencing an environmental crisis. Not only is
it situated in a region where droughts are endemic, with significant events occurring every three to five years, but its local ecosystems are also collapsing under
the interrelated impacts of land degradation, deforestation and climate change.48
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), while armed conflict has
degraded Sudan’s environment, environmental issues such as competition over oil
and gas reserves, Nile waters and timber, as well as land (especially rangeland and
rain-fed agricultural land), have been contributory causes of conflict. The links
between land degradation, desertification and the conflict in Darfur are particularly strong. Of course, environmental changes on their own do not produce
conflict, let alone war; whether such changes stimulate greater cooperation or
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 46.
See ‘The Failed States Index 2007’; the Uppsala Conflict Database; Freedom House, The worst of the worst:
the world’s most repressive societies 2007 (New York: Freedom House, 2007). For a critical discussion see Paul D.
Williams, ‘State failure in Africa: causes, consequences and responses’, in Africa South of the Sahara 2008 (London:
Europa World Yearbook/Taylor & Francis, 2007),, accessed 19 Sept.
2007., accessed 19 Sept. 2007
See UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 156; UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Sudan: post-conflict
environmental assessment: synthesis report (Kenya: UNEP, 2007).
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conflict is ultimately down to decisions taken by the political authorities.49 But
where environmental degradation and bad governance mix, as in Darfur, durable
solutions to the conflicts are unlikely to be achieved by elite agreements alone;
they will require the painstaking (re)building of local livelihoods.
Sudan’s massive, conflict-generated population displacement (now affecting over
five million people) has itself caused significant environmental damage, especially
in areas around the larger displacement camps. According to records dating back
to the 1930s, Sudan has also experienced increasing levels of desertification, with
the boundary between semi-desert and desert moving southwards by an estimated
50–200 kilometres. Desertification brings with it reductions in food production
and an increased threat of drought and floods. At the same time, pressures on
resources in general and the rangelands in particular have been intensified by the
country’s rocketing number of livestock (from 28.6 million in 1961 to 134.6 million
in 2004). The picture in relation to deforestation is also grim. Between 2000 and
2005 Sudan suffered the third largest annual net loss of forest area of any country
worldwide, losing some 589,000 hectares per year.50 This process is driven principally by energy needs and agricultural clearance. In Darfur, for instance, a third of
the forest cover was lost between 1973 and 2006.
Similar patterns can be observed across Africa more generally as the level of
environmental degradation in relationship to demographic and economic trends
has become a disturbingly serious source of human insecurity. Data concerning
deforestation and water and food scarcity are particularly alarming. In 2005 Africa
contained 16.1 per cent of the planet’s forests, but between 1990 and 2005 lost
more forest than any other region of the world. Between 2000 and 2005, Africa
lost the title of most destructive continent to South America, but still suffered
the second largest net loss in forests, with 4.0 million hectares disappearing every
year. Moreover, six of the ten countries worldwide that suffered the largest annual
net loss in forest area during this period were in Africa (in order, Sudan, Zambia,
Tanzania, Nigeria, DRC and Zimbabwe).51
In relation to water scarcity, the UNDP estimates that by 2015 sub-Saharan
Africa alone will account for more than half the global clean water deficit and just
under half of the sanitation deficit.52 Although the continent is reasonably well
endowed with water, some of its major lakes (including Lakes Chad, Nakivale
and Nakuru) are shrinking because of overexploitation, and its water sources are
unevenly distributed. Since water is not easily transferable in bulk quantities, what
usually matters most is local availability. The DRC, for instance, has more than
one-quarter of the continent’s total, while Kenya, Malawi and South Africa have
already passed the water stress threshold.53 Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa has the
most water-stressed states of any of the world’s regions. Ironically, while some
See Alex de Waal, ‘Is climate change the culprit for Darfur?’, Social Science Research Council blog, 25 June
2007,, accessed 19 Sept. 2007.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005, FAO Forestry
Paper 147 (Rome: FAO, 2006), p. 21.
See FAO, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 57.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 135.
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African states are predicted to get more rain in the future they will actually lose
more water overall through evaporation as temperatures rise as a result of global
climate change.54
Where water is scarce, so is sanitation. By 2005, only one in three people in
sub-Saharan Africa had access to sanitation. In Ethiopia, the figure was one in seven
people.55 In addition, many Africans have to share what domestic water sources
are available with a growing number of animals. Across the Horn of Africa the
picture has been especially grim, with more than 20 million people being affected
by drought in 2005 alone.56 Indeed, droughts are now endemic across much of the
Sahel, East Africa and southern Africa. In East Africa, it is estimated that reductions in water availability may result in productivity losses of 33 per cent for maize,
more than 20 per cent for sorghum and 18 per cent for millet.57 This is particularly
worrying because not only is most of sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture rain-fed
rather than irrigated, but between 1990 and 2004 the G8 cut its aid to agriculture
in the region by $590 million.58 Doubling the area of land under irrigation by 2015
was one of the Commission for Africa’s recommendations.59
Water scarcity thus poses a significant and urgent set of security challenges.
Indeed, the UNDP estimates starkly that in 2015 there would be 124,000 fewer child
deaths in Africa if the water and sanitation targets of the Millennium Development
Goals were met.60 For the current situation to be reversed, water resource management needs to become a focal point for regional cooperation across the continent’s
major river basins. As Peter Vale has argued in relation to southern Africa, it would
be more logical to organize regional politics around the natural watercourses than
the sites of state sovereignty that the region inherited from various colonial powers
whose primary goal was resource extraction rather than community-building. Of
course, the region’s states will struggle against attempts to make them irrelevant;
but, as Vale suggests, ‘a politics of community in which water is at the centre can
surely operate alongside existing states’.61 Until it does, sovereignty may encourage
attitudes that permit water scarcity to become a motor for regional conflict, whereas
it could, and should, become a driving force for regional cooperation.
Sites of insecurity
In spite of the processes of globalization, most threats still travel more easily over
short distances than long ones.62 Consequently, the effects of these three clusters
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 165.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 12.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 15.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 15.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 169.
Commission for Africa, Our common interest (London: Department for International Development, 2005), p.
UNDP, Human Development Report 2006, p. 58.
Peter Vale, Whatever happened to the post-apartheid moment? Past hopes and possible futures for southern Africa (London:
Catholic Institute for International Relations, 2004), p. 26.
Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, Regions and powers: the structure of international security (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003), p. 4.
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of threats—those of violence, disease and environmental degradation—are experienced more intensely in some locales than others. In short, the political geography
of insecurity still matters, even under conditions of intensifying globalization.
Although the continent contains various enclaves of privilege where the lucky
few can enjoy the pickings of globalization, here I am interested in four important generic sites of heightened insecurity: specifically, war zones, shanty towns,
displacement camps and rural peripheries.
Africa’s war zones are clearly sites of intense insecurity, with effects that are
often simultaneously localized and regionalized.63 That is, while military engagements can occur in very specific areas (for example, they may engulf one village
but not directly target another village just a few kilometres away), the effects
of localized violence will quickly be felt elsewhere. At the same time, Africa’s
war zones are often regionalized in the sense that they cross political borders or
involve international networks and/or economies of support for one or more of
the belligerent parties. In such places displacement is the norm. Where locals stay
put, the impact of warfare on economic, political and social systems will ensure
that they have to employ a variety of coping strategies to preserve any reasonable
degree of normality.
Another important site of insecurity is camps for the displaced. Far from being
areas of refuge and security, these are often little more than places where people in
great danger, especially children, congregate.64 Precisely because such camps attract
foreigners with a relative abundance of resources, such as peacekeepers or humanitarian workers, they also attract belligerents looking to refuel their war efforts
and recruit new supporters, or simply as a place to organize. Indeed, insurgencies
such as the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the Polisario Front, and the
soldiers and militias of Rwanda’s genocidal regime became adept at utilizing such
camps for strategic purposes.
As noted above, the continent’s rapidly expanding urban areas also pose their
own unique sorts of security challenges, both from the perspective of governments trying to control them and from that of residents trying to survive in them.
Shanty towns and slums present their residents with a long list of daily insecurities, including precarious (if any) employment, usually a lack of law enforcement,
and rare or absent regular supplies of food, water, sanitation, electricity and health
care. Many of these problems are also present in a fourth challenging environment,
namely peripheral rural areas. Given the extent of Africa’s environmental crisis,
sketched out above, those living in the continent’s rural peripheries often face
similar scarcities to the slum dwellers, and in addition a much greater prospect of
falling prey to predatory soldiers, paramilitaries and/or rebels, especially (but not
exclusively) in times of war. Each of these sites of insecurity deserves far greater
analysis than any has received to date in the security studies literature.
See Carolyn Nordstrom, Shadows of war: violence, power, and international profiteering in the twenty-first century
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
For the view that unprotected camps for the displaced are ‘the primary determinant of child soldier recruitment rates’, see Vera Achvarina and Simon F. Reich, ‘No place to hide: refugees, displaced persons, and the
recruitment of child soldiers’, International Security 31: 1, 2006, pp. 127–64.
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Paul D. Williams
The agents of security
To move beyond merely thinking about security to also engaging in action to
change policies and outcomes requires committed and innovative actors. Of course,
governments are clearly important in this regard. Indeed, the dynamics of pursuing
regime security have played a central role in shaping Africa’s post-colonial international relations. But top-down approaches and the politics of putting sovereignty
first have badly failed the continent’s people. Fortunately, governments are not
the only significant agents in Africa’s security dynamics. For one thing, as Christopher Clapham has argued, the conceptual and functional dividing lines between
governments and insurgencies are often very hazy: for certain populations, some
insurgencies fulfil many of the functions of government, while the behaviour of
some governments differs little from the insurgents they are fighting. Both types
of actors exhibit what Clapham called greater or lesser degrees of statehood.65
From a CSS perspective, actors within civil society may hold the key to both
rethinking and remaking security policies within Africa. The continent’s women
will have an especially important role to play in alleviating threats involving issues
of disease and demography. But they clearly face an uphill battle to reform the
continent’s most deeply entrenched neo-patrimonial and repressive regimes. Elites
in such regimes are unlikely to provide either political breathing space or significant
resources to associations that might criticize their activities. As a result, a strong
element of transnational solidarity and support may be required to furnish local
activists with the oxygen necessary to ensure their political survival and keep their
activities going. Symbols of solidarity may take various forms, including financial remittances or editing publications abroad. Some particularly relevant ideas
about what peace and security might look like in Africa have emerged in various
civic forums. One interesting attempt, for instance, emphasized the two important
points that Africans need to reduce the central place the ideology of militarism
has held in the continent’s search for security, and that, in a continent where most
people are under 18 years of age, policies need to be devised that provide young
people with the feeling that they have a stake in the future political order.66
While outsiders clearly have only limited ability to dictate outcomes in Africa,
they have the potential to create an international environment that is supportive
of local struggles to promote justice and security. Of course, outsiders do not
have a good track record of promoting security in Africa; so the relationship must
be built on a foundation of genuine dialogue aimed at discerning what constructive engagement might entail. The Royal African Society recently suggested that
a reasonable place to start would be for external actors to ensure that they stop
engaging in practices that make Africa’s predicament worse, such as turning a
blind eye to the corruption and money-laundering of their African friends and
allies, poaching from Africa’s relatively small pool of professionals, selling arms to
a continent already awash with weapons, and exploiting—as opposed to sensibly
Christopher Clapham, ‘Degrees of statehood’, Review of International Studies 24: 2, 1998, pp. 143–57.
Alex de Waal, ed., Demilitarizing the mind: African agendas for peace and security (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press,
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managing—the continent’s natural resources.67 It is right that Africans should
decide their own political arrangements, and so the Royal African Society’s stress
on stopping the harmful practices continued by western governments seems both
sensible and pertinent.
The institutions of security
Africa’s reformist elites and civic associations, as well as the external actors who
help them, will be better able to promote security if they can construct institutions to support their endeavours. Not only do institutions provide actors with a
context for learning and developing ‘a new consciousness about security’,68 but
over time, if nurtured and supported, they can develop a degree of autonomy from
state power.69 In Africa’s case, the development of institutions with autonomous
power will be a crucial part of the struggle for security policies focused on people,
justice and change.
One important issue is the relationship between formal and informal institutions
on the continent. For many Africans, informal institutions play a crucial role in
their daily commercial activities and their search for community, and sometimes
also in their physical security (for example, through self-defence militias, such as
the Kamajors in Sierra Leone). In the formal realm, Africa has developed a complex
set of overlapping security institutions at the subregional and continental levels.
Not placing all the continent’s eggs in one institutional basket is probably a sensible
strategy, but it can raise awkward issues of coordination and priorities when the
memberships of subregional arrangements overlap. Nevertheless, building effective
institutions that promote respect for democracy and the rule of law is a crucial part
of changing the continent’s security dynamics. Arguably the most important of
these, at least in the medium term, is the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC).
The PSC is supposed to act as the primary forum through which to ‘promote
peace, security and stability in Africa’.70 It is composed of 15 member states which
are elected for terms of two or three years. Formally at least, members of the
PSC should exhibit a commitment to uphold the AU’s principles and demonstrate
respect for constitutional governance, the rule of law and human rights.71 To date,
the PSC has held more than 80 official meetings on matters of conflict management and has issued communiqués and statements on developments relating to
conflicts in 15 states: two coups (Togo and Mauritania), two interstate conflicts
(DRC–Rwanda and Ethiopia–Eritrea), problems resulting from electoral processes
Royal African Society (RAS), Damage We Do Report (London: RAS, June 2005), http://www.royalafrican, accessed 19 Sept. 2007.
Booth and Vale, ‘Critical Security Studies’, p. 344.
See Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore, Rules for the world: international organizations in global politics (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).
‘Protocol relating to the establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’ (9 July 2002),
article 6(a). The protocol came into force on 26 December 2003 and the PSC officially began its work on 16
March 2004, at the ministerial level, at the margins of the 4th Ordinary Session of the AU Executive Council.
‘Protocol relating to the establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’, articles 5(2)
(a) and 5(2)(g).
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(the Comoros) and a variety of intrastate conflicts (Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, Burundi,
DRC, Somalia, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Liberia and the Central African Republic). In
three cases, the PSC has authorized the deployment of an armed AU peace operation (Sudan, the Comoros and Somalia).72 While many of the Council’s efforts
have been laudable, it remains constrained both by a severe lack of human and
financial resources and by the varying political will and priorities of its members.
Over time, however, a well-resourced PSC secretariat staffed by committed
experts might just develop some of the autonomous bureaucratic power needed
to encourage African governments to live up to some of their rhetoric on questions
of justice and democracy.
Most formal institutions, including the PSC, are based on states, and as such
engage in sovereignty-first politics. If security policies based on people, justice and
change are to emerge there must be greater dialogue between these state institutions and representatives of civil society. Not only is it right for governments to
listen to their citizens, but the expertise and experience needed to solve some of
the most pressing security challenges discussed above may often lie within civil
society. In this sense, the West African Civil Society Forum’s attempts to shape the
official agenda of the Economic Community of West African States are a promising
example of the type of engagement that is needed across the continent.73
This article set out to clarify some of the central questions and distinctions that
provide the necessary backdrop for thinking in a sophisticated manner about
security in Africa. Drawing on the developing Critical Security Studies literature,
it has suggested that an understanding of security based on people, justice and
change offers the surest route to a stable future. It has sketched preliminary answers
to some fundamental questions, namely: Whose security should be prioritized?
How have security dynamics in Africa been influenced by the wider processes
driving world politics? What clusters of threats are the most salient? Where do
these threats have the most pernicious effects? Which actors are best placed to
alleviate those threats? And what sort of institutions should be built to assist in that
process? Of course, the answers to these questions are up for debate; but outsiders
like me should try to ensure that as many Africans as possible are able to voice their
opinions on these crucial issues.
The AU authorized the creation of the AU Mission in Burundi (AMIB) in 2003 before the PSC was formally
established; see ‘Communiqué of the Ninety-first Ordinary Session of the Central Organ of the Mechanism
for Conflict Prevention, Management, and Resolution at Ambassadorial Level’, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2 April
For details see, accessed 19 Sept. 2007.
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