Insecurity in Africa is increasingly acknowledged as a threat to global security. But tackling it often prioritises the interests of the international community at the expense of people in Africa and the Continent’s long-term stability.

The nature of the threat is rarely traditional and military in nature, but has its roots in governance weakness. Narrowly focussed security-led interventions in Africa can lead to uneven development of African security sector capabilities. As a consequence, fragile and conflict afflicted states in Africa are at risk of becoming brittle – apparently strong but in fact inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of citizens.

Threats from Africa vs threats to Africa

Africa generates a number of threats to the wider world. These include migration driven by poverty, conflict and natural disaster; trans-national organised crime facilitated by lack of effective governance; terrorism; and piracy. These threats do not lend themselves to traditional military-security responses and the extent to which Africa itself is threatened by them is debatable. Few are actually the stuff of day to day security concern amongst ordinary Africans who are more likely to prioritise safety and security in their communities and the effects of corruption. Clearly international and African concerns share common roots. But the extent to which this is recognised by international security practitioners is limited.

Narrowly focussed security led responses

International efforts to counter insecurity from Africa often involve targeted interventions to address proximate threats. International concerns about terrorism often lead to the development of operational police and military units designed solely to partner international security agencies. The global impact of piracy often leads to the development of coast guard and naval capacities which characterise the maritime domain only as a source of threat to be controlled rather than as an economic resource to be regulated, policed and sustainably exploited.

Uneven security sector development

This narrow focus risks leading to the uneven development of African security sector agencies. Those agencies thought to be vital to tackling international security concerns receive the lion’s share of international support, whilst others – those more associated with the delivery of security as a basic service to ordinary people – receive little or no attention. This inevitably leads to a crisis of legitimacy for the security agencies in receipt of international support who are at risk of becoming increasingly capable but increasingly less accountable.

Integrated approach

Tackling insecurity in Africa in such a way as to address proximate global security concerns and the longer term developmental needs of African states requires an integrated approach. Security partnerships with Africa need to identify, enlarge and be built upon areas of genuine common interest. Building niche security sector capacities designed to counter a narrow spectrum of insecurity leads to uneven development of security sector capabilities and the inevitable de-prioritisation of the security needs of ordinary people. The international community – especially its donor agencies – needs to understand the links between development and security; and the need to work with African governments to make their security sector agencies accountable, adequate, affordable and appropriate. Security interventions in Africa which simply build the capacity of the governments to act robustly risk converting fragile and conflict afflicted states into brittle ones.