analysisBy Paul-Simon Handy and Liesl Louw-Vaudran
An absolutely catastrophic situation. This is how Adrian Edwards, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson, described the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this month. The stories pouring out of the capital Bangui and the hinterland of the landlocked CAR sketch a landscape of fear and horror.
The former Seleka rebels, who have been terrorising the population ever since the coup in March this year, are now being attacked by Christian militias, the so-called anti-Balaka. In one week alone over 600 people were killed, according to the UN, of whom 450 were in Bangui.
As 2013 draws to a close, Africans are once again confronted with the images of French armoured vehicles rolling into a war-torn African country.
This time they are attempting to drive out and disarm the rebels and restore order to the war-torn CAR. Earlier, in January 2013, France had sent over 4 000 troops to Mali and led a successful campaign against radical Islamists in the north of the country.
Elsewhere on the continent, a UN Special Intervention Brigade, made up of South African, Malawian and Tanzanian troops, together with the Congolese army, successfully drove out the M23 rebels from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in November 2013.
In short, military intervention (generally African-led with a strong international component) has been the norm for solving complex conflicts on the continent this year.
In Mali, the DRC and the CAR, but also in places like Somalia and Nigeria, with their own complex Islamist threats, the hard-line military approach has triumphed.
Though sometimes necessary and unavoidable, military solutions are always a last resort and as such reflect the failure of preventive measures such as mediation.
Despite notable improvements in the last few decades and clear commitments, Africa still lacks a wide corpus of professional mediators.
The laudable efforts of some leaders in mediating the continent's conflicts (such as former South African President Thabo Mbeki in Sudan) are more due to their personal qualities and experience than to a systematic investment in the generation of professional mediators. As boots on the ground require financial and technical means that most African countries don't have in abundance, prevention remains the best option.
Conflict prevention in Africa must take into account the ever-changing nature of the problem. Conflicts have become more fluid with non-conventional actors alternating between insurgency and normal life, making it difficult to draw a clear line between warring parties.
The brutality of the conflict in the CAR and the addition of an unexpected religious element are a testimony to this. Mediation efforts need to carefully assess and reflect the main characteristics of each conflict. And, of course, it is very challenging to mediate conflicts involving actors who have a genuine interest in perpetuating instability.
In many instances in 2013, mediation was attempted but failed, not necessarily because of the weakness of the mediators, but because of the complexity of the crisis and the challenges posed in terms of the choice of negotiating partners.
This is the case when an internationally recognised government is negotiating with fractious groups, sometimes a mixture of rebels, smugglers, illegal traffickers and jihadists.
In Mali, for example, Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré mediated talks with Touareg rebels for months in 2012, only to find their occupation of the north of the country had been overtaken by radical groups like Ansar al-Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
This kind of conflict, fuelled by groups who have no interest in peace and stability because it does not suit their business interests, can only be solved by a substantial demonstration of lethal force.
In Nigeria, the government's battle with the extremist Boko Haram, which has unleashed unprecedented violence on civilians in the north of the country, purportedly with the aim of establishing sharia law in Nigeria, differs from the conflicts in Mali, the CAR, the DRC or Somalia because the country has refused any outside involvement from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU).
It has, especially since the imposition of a state of emergency in some states in May 2013, taken an extremely hard-line stance against the militants, who also claim a jihadist ideology.
Yet it is clear that in the long run, Nigeria can't sustain such a battle because it goes hand in hand with the restriction of civil liberties. The military onslaught against Boko Haram has largely failed up to now. Nigeria has to keep a door open to negotiations. But the command structure of Boko Haram is so loose that, as in the case of Mali, it is extremely difficult to negotiate any kind of lasting settlement.
Islamic extremism also fuels the conflict in Somalia and, together with an irredentist element, in northern Mali. The religious element is also present in the CAR conflict - not because of one group espousing a jihadist ideology, but because of the perceived socio-economic cleavage between Christians and Muslims.
This introduces a new element in a country that has faced decades of socio-political instability. For now, no-one knows for sure who is the enemy in CAR. One has to contend with a militia-like rebel group, now attacked by other loose and insufficiently organised militias, with France caught in the middle.
If a military solution is inevitable to stabilise the situation, a medium- to long-term political solution is needed to end the crisis in the CAR; and this political solution cannot consist of the usual liberal approach to peacebuilding that France seems to prefer.
The liberal peacebuilding approach sees elections as the end stage of a process involving heavy military and civilian intervention. This generally only works after a long transition or a coup d'état that didn't alter the institutional fundaments of political life.
In the CAR it is evident that such an approach would be disastrous because there is hardly any structured system of political organisation or strong parties. Civil society is also extremely weak.
The country will need a bold solution that could come about through some form of international trusteeship - probably not with the current government - to end the cycle of coup d'états, international (French) intervention, and political instability. In the CAR, socio-political stability is anything but the norm. Rushing into elections now may just make matters worse and sow the seeds of another crisis.
In the last throes of 2013, President Michel Djotodia did, timidly, offer to negotiate with the anti-Balaka groups, but he is probably not the right man to do so.
After a year like this, perhaps the AU should reconsider the way it engages in post-coup mediation and how it attempts to solve military-political crises. Is simply deploying an increasing number of heads of state or former statesmen to mediate in a conflict really the best strategy?
Numerous so-called high-level panels have been sent to crisis areas - the latest in Egypt after the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi - with very little success.
The credibility and political position of the mediators should also be reconsidered. In the DRC, for example, mediation efforts led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni failed for various reasons, but it certainly didn't help that Museveni is no longer considered a democrat and has never been on good terms with his neighbour President Joseph Kabila.
Mediation is a highly sophisticated and challenging job. Barring a few exceptions - like Mbeki, who is having some success in the Sudan-South Sudan conflict - heads of state cannot always be designated to do this simply because of their stature.
In 2014, imaginative solutions will have to be found to ensure peace in countries where conflict has dragged on for too long. Even the most hardened generals know that no conflict can end without some kind of a political deal.
Opting for military solutions to crises in Africa will make the continent even more dependent on external actors like France, the UK and the USA. This is another reason to invest heavily in structural conflict prevention as the AU has committed to do.
Paul-Simon Handy, Head, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria and Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS consultant