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Alumni Discuss Security Sector Reform and Governance with Peers and at the African Union

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The Africa Center strives to offer programming relevant to emerging trends and security threats. This is exemplified by recent rule of law programming which has preempted and responded to African Union (AU) priorities and events this past year. Last August, the Africa Center assembled a group of experts in Banjul, The Gambia to discuss security sector reform and governance (SSR/G) at the national level and produce recommendations for countries facing the impacts of government transitions and civil wars. A few of these experts subsequently attended in November an AU conference to analyze the implementation of the AU’s Security Sector Reform Policy Framework. This guide, released around ten years ago and approaching SSR/G from a continental perspective, intended to provide AU Member States and regional economic communities (RECs) with a framework “to formulate, design, implement, monitor and evaluate Security Sector Reform processes.”1 After the AU conference, Dr. Cat Kelly, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Justice and Rule of Law, saw an opportunity to reconvene the experts ACSS gathered in August 2023 to discuss the AU’s framework and examine how, if at all, it coincided with their national-level recommendations. This virtual reunion was bolstered by the inclusion of participants from the Africa Center’s 2024 West Africa and Southern Africa Parliamentarian Forum programs.

Dr. Kelly sat down with Victoria Sumner from the Engagement Team to discuss SSR/G, takeaways from the events, and how the Africa Center’s wider alumni base can benefit from these discussions.

Would you mind starting with a brief introduction of security sector reform and governance? How do individuals, institutions, and ideas impact the field?

“It’s a strategic approach to shaping how different formal and informal institutions in the state and in society in different countries are work together, in concert sometimes and in tension at other times, to provide oversight over the services that the state is providing and the defense and security domain.”

Dr. Cat Kelly (CK): Security sector governance itself from an academic and practitioner perspective is a growing specialty field. It’s one that offers Africa Center alumni, who often come from defense and security backgrounds, a lot of jumping off points to figure out how they can engage each other across the different sectors and institutions they represent – and the different types of knowledge they have – to enhance the delivery of security as a public good to citizens. Security sector governance as an idea is all about institutions. It’s a strategic approach to shaping how different formal and informal institutions in the state and in society in different countries work together, in concert sometimes and in tension at other times, to provide oversight over the services that the state is providing and over the defense and security domain. In terms of programming, we’re hoping that through the rule of law work that the Africa Center does with eminent experts from across the continent, we are providing opportunities for people across different branches of government to come together, to think across those lines about synergies, and to understand one another and how their different functionalities play off of one another to create and maintain a system that delivers the kind of legitimate and accountable security that citizens say that they want. The whole point is to support Africa Center program participants who are committed to advancing citizen security through ideas, individuals, and institutions. The Africa Center alumni community has important knowledge and expertise to contribute to conversations about “what works” to enhance effective security sector governance in different African contexts.

How did the rule of law virtual reunion in March 2024 come about?

CK: This rule of law virtual reunion was about reuniting the subject matter experts from the August 2023 Gambia roundtable to come back together eight months later and think about how the work they’re doing on the national level in their countries could fit into the broader security sector reform and transitional justice agendas on the AU level. Because the Africa Center has a unique convening power, able to invite both uniformed and civilian officials, we thought it would be interesting to leverage that power, while also bringing security and justice officials, to have a truly interdisciplinary and interagency discussion about SSR/Gl.

Why did you decide to include participants from the 2023 West and Southern Africa Parliamentarian Forum programs in the virtual reunion?

CK: For both of these programs, we recruited parliamentarians from defense and security committees, parliamentary staff with relevant specialties, and defense and security officials with duties to liaise with the legislature to come together. The goal was to provide a trusted platform for them to expand mutual understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities, and for them to analyze how they can capitalize on synergies and navigate tensions in their work, particularly on issues like professionalism and ethics, budgets and strategy, and relationship-building with communities and citizens. We thought it would be really interesting to connect these officials who are focused on legislative oversight of the security sector with the experts from The Gambia roundtable, who are focused on military and civilian justice influences on the security sector.

What takeaways did the alumni who attended the AU conference share?

CK: For one thing, they discussed aspects of the African security landscape that are currently affecting SSR/G, which Africa Center alumni already know very well from their life’s work. Looking to the future, they also discussed the technical and operational guidance to be developed for practitioners to apply across different contexts. A variety of areas that are ripe for innovation and improvement were also mentioned: strengthening internal oversight and accountability of the security sector, expanding national-level capacity-building and making capacity-building opportunities more sustainable, linking national SSR/G processes to global reporting processes and to SSR/G efforts on the level of the RECs, bringing the justice sector into SSR/G discussions more consistently, and “networking the networks” of military, police, judicial, and independent oversight officials to facilitate synergistic work, and furthering the ongoing shift of paradigm from national and regime security to human and citizen security in the sphere of defense and security policymaking. Each theme was undergirded by an emphasis on civil-military relations and the awareness that security sector reform and governance tools which improve delivery of security and defense services to citizens are central for the security sector to build trust with the populace. Sometimes, SSR/G can be difficult to use as an effective tool to improve the state’s delivery of security services to citizens if there are gaps in civilian knowledge of how the military or the police work. There can also be requisite gaps the other way around. Reunion participants were considering, how do we fill those gaps and build better contextual understanding of one another?

One of the recommendations from the Africa Center roundtable in The Gambia that stuck out was the idea of ‘fostering networks of solidarity.’ Is the Africa Center a place where these networks can be developed?

CK: At the Gambia Roundtable, the experts discussed how the leaders of some oversight institutions in various countries can have somewhat lonely professional experiences if they’re pursuing an agenda for reform, particularly in cases where they’re at the very beginning stages of such reform and face some resistance. They can also face challenges depending on when they take on their duties and responsibilities as oversight institution leaders. The domestic political situation may not always match up to create opportunities or spaces for them to engage in a way where they can get the institution moving in the direction that it was designed to. The idea behind “networks of solidarity” was that if there was enough interest across alumni at the Africa Center, could we connect people who have done legislative, judicial, and independent oversight work of the security sector during some part of their careers? I think that’s a question that we want to ask the alumni community through this article: who in our community has done this work in the past or is doing it now?  Do you already feel sufficiently supported by your local and global networks of institutional peers, or would there be value in expanding your discussions and connections to this epistemic and professional community through the Africa Center’s network?

How can Africa Center alumni get involved?

CK: Alumni interested in rule of law and security sector governance should feel free to be in touch with me and with others on the Africa Center team with their ideas, updates, and experiences in these areas. They can also read up on what was recently discussed at Africa Center programs. There is an executive summary from the most recent Parliamentary Forum, for example. To understand what the alumni experts discussed at The Gambia roundtable on strengthening rule of law to enhance SSR/G after conflict and transition, I would suggest they review the roundtable conclusions and read them along with the AU SSR Policy Framework and the AU Transitional Justice Policy, which were reference documents for the exchange. Readers are welcome to review the syllabi (Southern Africa Parliamentarians Forum 2023, Strengthening the Rule of Law to Mitigate Harm, West African Parliamentarians Forum 2023) and read-ahead documents from these programs, as well. Are there conversations that we are not yet having that you think we should consider addressing at an alumni community event?

What is next?

CK: I would love to know what alumni want to be next for this group. What would the alumni who are interested in rule of law and security sector governance hope for us to do next in this area? Is there interest in having discussions about accountable governance, and in deepening exchange about good practices for legislative, judicial, and independent oversight of the security sector through our Africa Center alumni channels?

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  1. The African Union (AU) Security Sector Reform (SSR) Policy Framework A Decade of Implementation: Successes, Challenges, and Perspectives for the Future | African Union (African Union, 2023)