Africa is experiencing the highest number of humanitarian crises since the 1990s. As the new chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, takes office, International Crisis Group suggests how he can strengthen the organisation's response to threats to continental peace and security.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the new chair of the African Union Commission (AUC), takes office in mid-March as the continent faces its worst spate of humanitarian crises since the 1990s. The most alarming is in the Lake Chad basin where more than eleven million people need emergency aid. In Somalia, 6.2 million (almost half the population) face acute food shortages and in South Sudan, where the UN recently declared a famine, nearly 5 million are severely food insecure. The suffering is largely man-made: the effects of drought have been exacerbated by prolonged wars and mass displacement.
More promisingly, Gambia's peaceful transition, negotiated by the Economic Community of West African States with AU support, is one of the steps toward democracy and rule of law being taken in much of the continent.
Whether these gains can be multiplied across Africa depends on how well Mr Faki, Chad's former foreign minister, will use the tools at his disposal to persuade member states to address the triggers and longer-term drivers of conflict: fraught electoral processes; leaders who refuse to leave office as scheduled; corrupt, authoritarian or repressive governments; population growth; joblessness and climate change. These same forces precipitate two other major continental challenges, migration and the threat from religious extremists and other violent non-state groups.
Mr Faki arrives at a time of upheaval for the AU. At January's summit, heads of state agreed to proposals from Rwanda's President Paul Kagame that the organisation should focus only on a limited number of key priorities with continental scope, such as political affairs, peace and security and continental integration, and that institutional structures should be redesigned to reflect this. He will have to carefully manage this radical reform, as well as Morocco's recent re-admission, to avoid aggravating existing tensions and divisions and maintain morale in a beleaguered secretariat.
The geopolitical context for multilateral diplomacy is also changing rapidly. The influence of China, the Gulf states and Turkey (especially in the Horn, the Sahel and North Africa) cannot be ignored. Growing nationalism in Europe and the uncertainty of U.S. President Donald Trump's policies have created new concerns.
There are opportunities here for the AU along with challenges, but to take advantage of them, Mr Faki will have to push it and its member states to take greater responsibility, both politically and financially, for conflict prevention and resolution. Crisis Group offers below ideas on how the new chair of the AUC can drive change and revitalise key relationships so as to strengthen the AU's response to threats to continental peace and security, as well as suggestions for how the organisation can help prevent conflict escalating and move peace processes forward.
1. Build support for a stronger, more self-sufficient union
In a deeply unstable global environment, with old power centres in disarray and Middle East rivalries infecting the continent, African multilateral diplomacy is more necessary than ever. The new chair's challenge is to convince member states of the AU's worth, in particular the value of its peace and security architecture. That leaders signed on to a bold reform agenda would seem to suggest they want a more effective AU. But for the process to be truly transformative, they must make tough choices on sovereignty, and the tensions between popular aspirations for more open government and the authoritarian tendencies of many of those governments.
Working closely with presidents Kagame, Idriss Déby (Chad) and Alpha Condé (Guinea), the troika appointed to supervise implementation of the reforms, Mr Faki should build a coalition of leaders representing each region, who are committed to reform. But, building political support for a stronger AU will not be enough. Member states also need to provide adequate funding. Aside from the loss of credibility and ownership that reliance on external donors brings, the AU can no longer count on the same levels of external financing from the U.S. and Europe.
The AUC's ability to work effectively depends on member states willingness to implement the July 2016 summit decision for a 0.2 per cent levy on imports, with proceeds going to the AU. Only a handful of states have begun to enact the tax into law. Mr Faki should provide full support to the AU's High Representative for the Peace Fund, Dr Donald Kaberuka, and encourage member states to fulfil their financial commitments. Those who pay only lip service to the idea of a stronger AU must recognise that without significant additional African financing, AU peace support operations will likely remain blocked from sustainable funding from UN assessed contributions as well.
2. Make effective use of the existing conflict prevention architecture
The AU has the tools necessary for conflict prevention but finds it difficult to use them effectively because of resource constraints and the great influence member states willing to play the sovereignty card to avoid scrutiny wield. Changing leaders' thinking is hard, and Mr Faki should focus on building political support for conflict prevention among like-minded members. Even without such a coalition, there are ways to improve existing mechanisms. Translating data and analysis of the AU's early warning system into early action has been hampered, in part, by the way information flows within the AUC and between it and the regional economic communities (RECs). The chair should break down AUC barriers, especially between the Political Affairs and Peace and Security departments.
Mediation mechanisms are fragmented, with little oversight and direction from the chair or the Peace and Security Council (PSC). Creation of the mediation support unit (MSU) has been a good first step, but Mr Faki must ensure it is well-staffed by skilled, experienced specialists. For it to be truly effective, all mediation activities, including those of the Panel of the Wise, special envoys and representatives, liaison offices and special political missions, should be under its purview. There is little transparency in how special envoys and representatives are selected.
Mr Faki should work to change this as well as examine their performance and mandates, making changes where needed. He should also use the reform process either to reinvigorate or dispense with the Panel of the Wise. Likewise, he should engage more personally in preventative diplomacy, especially to unblock stalemated processes in Burundi, Central Africa Republic (CAR) and Mali, and work to build consensus at the local, regional, continental and wider international level so as to bring coherence to the efforts of all those involved in peacemaking. Mr Faki should understand the limitations of his office and bring respected former heads of state into the mediation process.
Many crises are predictable, especially those linked to poor governance and disputed political transitions. The effects of generational and demographic changes, the slow pace of economic growth in many countries and the persistence of repressive or authoritarian regimes mean we can expect increasing discontent and violent protest. Mr Faki must ensure that AUC fulfils its responsibility to alert the PSC to impending conflicts, engaging with affected member states and encouraging the PSC to put them on its agenda at the first signs of crisis. This will be uncomfortable and provoke backlash, but it cannot be avoided if the AU is serious about conflict prevention.
3. Strengthen the institution
The January summit adopted Kagame's bold reform outline, which aims to streamline the AU, making it more efficient, focused and results oriented. The new chair is charged with realising these ambitions. This is not the first reform attempt; ten years ago an independent panel drew up a comprehensive program on which Kagame's team drew heavily.
Mr Faki must learn from previous failures by not rushing the process and building broad support by consulting widely within the AUC and with member states. He should push forward on the reforms linked to the most urgent needs (eg, implementing the PSC protocols and strengthening sanctions mechanisms) and which have the greatest consensus.
The AU's relationship with the RECs, vital for effective conflict prevention and resolution, is often strained and competitive. The principles, rights and obligations governing this relationship are clearly set out in PSC Protocol (Article 16) and the 2007 memorandum of understanding. The chair should ensure these instruments are implemented. Some tension could be eased by more effective communication. Mr Faki should seek opportunities to work collaboratively with RECs and encourage direct, frequent exchanges at all levels during the lifecycle of a crisis.
RECs should be consulted before major decisions, such as the selection of a special envoy or deployment of observers. Uncertainty regarding the principle of subsidiarity limits the AU's its ability to intervene when regional peace processes stall, as in Burundi and South Sudan. He should use the reform process to establish comparative advantage, not subsidiarity, as the basis for the AU-RECs relationship.
4. Revitalise security partnerships
During the past decade, the AU has taken on a greater role in preventing and resolving conflicts. At the same time, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has increasingly delegated to it a central role in political management of Africa's conflicts, in part due to a growing recognition that it cannot manage these crises alone. The AU's confidence and capacity have increased, but it still relies on partners and donors to fund its peace and security activities and fill capacity gaps. As a result, relationships are often strained, sometimes blighted by mistrust and misunderstanding.
Collaboration with the UN, arguably the AU's most important security partner, has increased, but room for improvement remains. Together with the UN Secretary-General, Mr Faki should ensure that UNSC and AU PSC agendas are more closely aligned and reflect the continent's priorities.
By preparing PSC positions ahead of major UNSC decisions, there is a greater chance Africa will speak with one voice and so increase its influence on decisions. Closer AU-UN cooperation, including collective assessments and joint field visits, would foster more understanding and help build common positions and a shared analysis. Mr Faki should take the lead in this area, setting the tone and direction for the rest of the commission.
The European Union (EU) is identifying its strategic interests in Africa, and Mr Faki should ensure the AU defines its interests so common security challenges can be determined. The EU is a vital partner, but the relationship was tested in 2016 by its decision to reallocate 20 per cent of its funding for the AU's Somalia mission, AMISOM, and stop directly paying Burundian troops serving in it.
The EU-Africa November summit in Côte d'Ivoire is an opportunity to renew the partnership, discuss priorities and confirm areas of cooperation. The migrant crisis and terrorism threat will likely reshape EU-AU relations and feature prominently there. The chair must try to counter EU desire to focus narrowly on unpromising short-term curbs of migration to Europe by emphasising the need to address the drivers of the exodus: war, poverty, repression and the youth bulge.
5. Beyond a military response to "violent extremism"
The past decade has shown the costs and limits of a military response to jihadist groups and other violent non-state actors, especially in the absence of a political strategy. Military action is sometimes a necessary part of a strategy - the efforts against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin and jihadists in Mali are cases in point - but recent history in Africa and elsewhere suggests governments cannot rely on coercion alone.
The AU and its member states must not overlook the conditions that enable jihadist groups and other violent non-state actors to thrive: distrust of the state, especially in the peripheries; declining state authority; underdevelopment and social deprivation; readily available weapons; and heavy-handed, ineffective security forces. Mr Faki should articulate a stronger focus on developing coherent plans for returning effective government to affected areas.
The possibility of a U.S. return to heavier-handed counter-terrorism policies could encourage others to adopt similar approaches. This is especially dangerous in Africa, where rule of law is often weak or absent. The chair should remind leaders that in dealing with these groups they must not forget human rights obligations, and he should dissuade them from labelling all opponents as "terrorists" or "violent extremists".
Contrary to government claims, the crisis is far from over. Intimidation, disappearances and killings continue and could quickly escalate, infecting a volatile region. Exact causes and motivations are hard to judge, as authorities have made no serious attempt to investigate and have frustrated the efforts of others, including the AU. The government and ruling party are intent on unilaterally dismantling the gains of the Arusha process that ended the last civil war, of which the AU is guarantor, including all vestiges of genuine power sharing and the critical presidential term limit. Internal debate on the direction is not permitted. The stability and relative peace Burundi recently enjoyed was premised on political pluralism and respect for Arusha's main tenants, notably power sharing. The current path is highly likely to increase violence if left unchecked; the government's drive to change the constitution to allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to run again would undoubtedly be a major spark.
In December, Benjamin Mkapa, the East African Community-appointed mediator, spoke out against the opposition's maximalist demand that the 2015 election result be revisited but did not balance this with criticism of the regime's crackdown. The ruling party made no concessions and continues to refuse dialogue with exiled opposition.
The AU's path is difficult, especially following its retreat from active engagement after the failed January 2016 attempt to send an AU peacekeeping mission. Mr Faki should personally re-engage the government, but he should hold to principled positions. The absence of PSC discussion makes it difficult for the AU to intervene, and the chairperson must encourage the PSC to put Burundi back on its agenda. The AU can support future mediation by clearly stating the current dangers, underlining that violence and intimidation is unacceptable, abuses must be investigated, and free, democratic debate is vital for stability. The AU should also emphasise that opposition violence is unacceptable and dangerous. Burundi's future direction, including continued application of Arusha Agreement, should be freely debated by all parties.
7. Central African Republic
2016's peaceful elections raised hopes of a longer-term resolution of the crisis that began in 2012. Yet, barely twelve months after President Faustin-Archange Touadera's victory, little has changed. A fifth of the population is internally displaced or refugees in neighbouring countries, intercommunal tensions are high, and armed groups de facto control most of the country.
Though security in Bangui is improved, violence against civilians and fighting between armed groups have intensified in the provinces. In the east, ex-Seleka factions compete for territory and resources, triggering massive new displacement and strong anti-Fulani sentiment. In the west, the exclusionary "centrafricanité" concept that emerged in circles close to François Bozizé in 2013 and stigmatises Muslim as "foreigners", prevents return of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The government, though legitimate, is not in full control and cannot respond to all the challenges. Little has been done at national level to advance reconciliation, and talks between the government and armed groups over disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration are blocked. Regional powers have organised several parallel initiatives to kick-start talks between armed groups, including meetings in 2016 in Chad and Angola.
A proliferation of processes with unclear agendas could undermine attempts to persuade groups to disarm. All initiatives should support Touadera, who must develop a clear strategy for the negotiations, so that his government leads the process. The AU could be important in this, coordinating the initiatives and pushing armed groups to join the talks. A major challenge will be dealing with armed-group leaders - much of the population views their exclusion from government as a prerequisite for a sustainable solution.
8. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
The 31 December agreement brokered by the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO) calmed tensions resulting from the failure to hold elections the previous month. The deal was more inclusive than what the AU mediated in October and shortened the new date for the delayed polls from April 2018 to December 2017. But implementation is stalled over three issues: its timelines; appointment of the prime minister and composition of the interim government; and functioning of the oversight mechanism.
The death in February of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi has suspended the talks, aiding the ruling majority, which consistently seeks to postpone elections. His loss deprives the Rassemblement, the main opposition coalition, of a genuinely popular leader able to cut deals, at a time when its inability to mobilise large protests undercut its legitimacy. The competition to replace Tshisekedi threatens the Rassemblement's cohesion and could push the opposition to more hard-line positions.
Armed conflict has displaced more than 2.2 million persons and is increasing in many provinces. In addition to the recurrent fighting in North Kivu, instability is spreading. In Kasai-Central, the August 2016 killing of a traditional chief by security forces has pitted militias against government forces and displaced some 200,000.
In Tanganyika, fighting between the Twa (Pygmy) and Luba (Bantu) communities is taking an increasing toll and also affecting Haut-Katanga and Haut-Lomami provinces. Increased tension in Kongo-Central province directly affects the capital, Kinshasa. Rising insecurity is linked to a crisis of state legitimacy, combined with deepening economic crisis. All this makes the organisation of elections increasingly unlikely and creates real risk of an implosion.
The challenge is to ensure credible elections are held on schedule, and the constitution is respected. The AU, in close cooperation with the region and the UN, should call on all parties to implement the 31 December agreement and prioritise organising polls as soon as realistic. It should give full support as CENCO tries to keep the signatories on track. Mass violence remains a distinct possibility, the outcome of which could be state collapse and the entire region's destabilisation. The PSC has taken a backseat on the DRC but needs to fully engage in attempts to broker a political transition.
The immediate priority remains preventing an escalation of violence. The country's de-facto partition into eastern and western areas dominated by loose, fractious military coalitions has been reinforced by failure of the Libyan Political (Skhirat) Agreement. Escalation would most likely come from an advance on Tripoli by General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, buoyed by their takeover of oil facilities in the Gulf of Sirte and the dwindling international consensus behind the Skhirat deal.
This would provoke fierce fighting, particularly with Islamist militias in the capital and from Misrata. Preventing this probably requires Egypt and Russia to dissuade Haftar; even with foreign backing, he cannot conquer the entire country. Resetting Skhirat is essential. Direct talks are needed between the Tripoli-based Presidency Council and politicians from the east, leading toward a new, broader-based unity government. A parallel security track should include Haftar and major western armed groups.
But the diplomatic process is in limbo: the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, barely functions, and there is a lack of direction from major outside powers. Only Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia appear to be proposing new solutions, but Algeria and Tunisia support the GNA, while Egypt is close to Haftar. The three share security concerns but differ on how inclusive a negotiated solution should be, especially toward Islamists.
Time is not with the GNA. Electricity and water shortages, looming collapse of the health sector, shortages of local and foreign currency all have made life much tougher for ordinary Libyans. This gives GNA foes, especially Haftar, an opportunity. Signs of wider confrontation in the absence of a viable peace process abound, and local conflicts (for instance between Arabs, Tebus and Touaregs in the south and among Tripoli-based militias) are gaining importance.
The AU should support Algeria's and Tunisia's more inclusive approach and urge more pressure on Haftar from Egypt, whose legitimate interests must be accommodated. AU support might help impose a solution proposed by neighbours (ultimately bringing in Chad, Niger and Sudan) and help it gain wider support. At a time when the peace process lacks clear direction, encouraging consensus among neighbours could show the way for the UN and non-African powers.
With implementation stalling there is a real possibility the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement could dissolve. The Malian parties have little faith in the significantly flawed deal they were pressured to sign. Insecurity could increase with the fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l'Azawad, into new community-based armed groups.
Jihadist organisations, like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Eddine, are still operating - striking provincial and district centres from rural bases. Insecurity is also rising in long neglected areas like central Mali, which is not covered by the northern peace process. The emergence of new groups, such as the Islamic State in the Great Sahara, and the possible incursion of defeated IS fighters from Libya further complicate the fraught security landscape.
The crisis is now spilling over borders. The G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) thus announced the creation in February of a regional force to combat terrorism and transnational crime. The AU is well placed to give political and logistical support, as it does for the Multi-National Joint Task Force fighting Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin. But Mr Faki should push the G5 to take a realistic approach and work primarily on border security and improved intelligence sharing and to develop economic cooperation, not focus solely on military action.
A recent high-level Follow-up Committee meeting convened by the international mediation, was a last-ditch try to revive the peace process. It must not be squandered. Through Pierre Buyoya, the AU Special Representative, the chair should work with other partners to maintain momentum, focussing on relaunching the Mécanisme Opérationnel de Coordination (MOC) in northern Mali, including Kidal, and continuing to push for the newly-appointed interim authorities to start working effectively.
Despite a fractious, fraudulent and corrupt electoral process beset by divisions and delays, Somalia elected a new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, with unprecedented cross-clan support. This is a chance for progress toward peace, economic prosperity and political stability. Expectations are inordinately high, however, and to avoid a backlash he must move swiftly on pledges to rebuild the security forces and state institutions, tackle corruption, improve justice and unify the country.
His nationalist rhetoric, supported by Islamist factions in his government, threatens to antagonise powerful neighbours capable of undermining his administration. It is critical for Mr Faki to encourage discreet diplomacy and foster dialogue between Somalia and its neighbours, especially Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen.
Farmajo's credibility and popular support improves the odds of progress in the government's stalled national reconciliation process. A bottom-up approach has the greatest chance to produce lasting political settlements with and between federal member states. Mr Faki must seize this opportunity and encourage the new government to revive the process and help it mobilise technical and financial resources. Failure to reduce clan tensions and build sub-national administrations would create openings for Al-Shabaab and an emerging, albeit small, IS branch.
Despite significant successes against Al-Shabaab, AMISOM is struggling to win a guerrilla war it is ill-suited and inadequately resourced to fight. Internal challenges, national rivalries and frictions among troop contributing countries compound this problem, hampering military effectiveness. The AU should help to repair cohesion and encourage more realistic, strategic thinking in preparation for a well-managed drawdown framed around Somalia's security sector needs. Hasty withdrawal would be disastrous for Somalia and the region.
12. South Sudan
Famine, driven by a deadly combination of conflict, economic crisis and drought, has left 100,000 on the verge of starvation with a million more at serious risk. Almost eighteen months since a peace agreement was signed, fighting, accompanied by atrocities, shows little sign of stopping in Equatorias, Upper Nile and Unity states. Fierce combat in Juba last July between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) forced ex-First Vice President Riek Machar to flee.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development and other major international actors have acquiesced in his exile and replacement by First Vice President Taban Deng Gai. Without Machar, the SPLM/A-IO is less cohesive, and new armed groups are emerging, while President Salva Kiir strengthens his position in the capital and the region.
Kiir's December 2016 call for a renewed ceasefire and national dialogue presents an opportunity to promote negotiations between the government and parts of the armed opposition (including groups outside the transitional government) and to address the grievances of disaffected communities at the grassroots level. This will only succeed if the government is willing to negotiate fairly.
Mr Faki should ensure that the AU High Representative Alpha Oumar Konaré receives the support needed to fulfil the mandate given him at the IGAD-UN-AU meeting in January 2017 to encourage all stakeholders to begin genuinely inclusive discussion on the scope and format of a national dialogue. He should also look for ways in which the AU and its partners can support local communities in this process, in particular by helping them formulate and articulate their complaints.
Under the August 2015 peace agreement, the AU is responsible for establishing the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, mandated to investigate and prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the recent civil war. Insecurity and severe restrictions on freedom of speech make it currently unfeasible to set up the court, but Mr Faki should ensure that preliminary work defining operation, funding and composition goes ahead and that the collection of evidence begins.