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Pushing the African Union to Prevent Conflicts on Its Own Turf


At the 27 ordinary session of the African Union, July 2016: Alpha Condé, president of Guinea; and John Mahama, president of Ghana.
At the 27 ordinary session of the African Union Commission, July 2016: Alpha Condé, president of Guinea; and John Mahama, president of Ghana.

As the African Union ambitiously strives to end conflict and “silence the guns,” as it says, by 2020 amid rising instability across the continent, a new review by the World Peace Foundation on peacemaking efforts lays out how the African Union can become a stronger, more viable force in preventing and resolving violent conflict on its own turf.

In “African Peace, African Politics,” the authors undertook a broad study of peace missions, encompassing a continuum of diplomatic to military operations by consulting experts and reviewing case studies, cross-cutting themes and issues relating to the African Union’s structure. The continent has the most United Nations peacekeeping missions in the world.

That fact is boldly declared in the preface by Thabo Mbeki, a former president of South Africa, and Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat and UN mediator, who bemoan the continent’s ability to throw off the shackles of colonialism only to devolve into war in many of its regions. They call on Africans “to end the curse which appears to have dictated that Africa becomes the world exemplar of conflict and instability that has necessitated the deployment of all those successive UN Peace Operations.”

The report was released recently by the World Peace Foundation, which aims to provide “intellectual leadership for peace” and was founded by a Bostonian, Edwin Ginn, in 1910 as the International School of Peace. It is now affiliated with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Alex de Waal, executive director of the foundation, wrote the report with Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, director of the foundation’s African peace missions program.

The key wisdom from their findings is the need to place the “primacy of the political” at the heart of the African Union’s approach to peace and security. This entails more emphasis on preventing crises rather than reacting to them.

With this guiding principle in mind, de Waal and Gebrehiwot offer recommendations spanning from the reinforcement and consistent application of norms to the strengthening of African Union instruments for peace and stronger cooperation between the organization and other international bodies.

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The report urges that Africa’s most important task is to respect the norms stipulated in the African Union’s Constitutive Act and other agreements. These norms provide the framework that is needed to pursue an effective peace and security agenda.

Singled out is a commitment to constitutional democracy, as contested government transitions remain a leading source of conflict, and the principles of nonindifference to humanitarian emergencies and inclusivity in peace negotiations. Nonindifference, whereby the African Union is allowed to intervene in member countries to stop grave atrocities like war crimes and genocide, is considered vital to informing preventive action. It should be applied more consistently to address emerging security situations.

Equally, including diverse parties in peacemaking processes is also crucial to achieving a sustainable peace and ought to be done more rigorously. The authors particularly recommend that further attention should be paid to the interests of neighboring countries in conflict areas to ensure they do not spoil but promote peaceful reconciliation.

Two additional principles to steer the African Union’s peace and security agenda are suggested: African “ownership” of the continent’s politics and prioritizing the political objectives of peace operations.

De Waal and Gebrehiwot argue that African control of its own political destiny is essential, requiring that reliance on other actors, such as the UN and NATO, be reduced. To set its own agenda, Africa needs to take responsibility for financing its peacemaking initiatives.

“It is unclear how African ownership can be retained if the AU is seeking funds from others that have their own political priorities,” the report says, using the acronym for African Union.

By shifting from reactive military to preventive diplomatic approaches, as the report recommends, the Union could achieve better results while using fewer resources.

The authors also warn that in operations involving the deployment of troops, underlying political objectives tend to be relegated below more immediate concerns of sustaining operations. As operations, however, exist for the sake of fulfilling a political purpose, it is crucial that objectives be well-defined, streamlined and regularly reported on and monitored.

As to African Union instruments, the report argues that various peace and security mechanisms should be strengthened. Conditions for membership in the body’s Peace and Security Council should be properly observed, especially regarding constitutional government and material investment in collective security.

The Peace and Security Council should also better coordinate with the elected African members of the UN Security Council, subregional economic communities and extraregional organizations through regular briefings and joint meetings.

Regarding peacekeeping and enforcement operations, the authors recommend that the African Union focus on early-deployment political missions, staffed by mediators, military observers and human-rights monitors who act before a crisis develops. Missions involving armed forces should mostly be left to the UN, which has “proven capacity and long experience” in this field.

If troops are to be deployed by the African Union, such operations must be guided by a formal peacekeeping doctrine that puts the protection of civilians at its core, promotes flexible mandates that can be renegotiated as situations evolve, includes more women among mission personnel and enforces zero tolerance policies for all misconduct.

Other important recommendations concerning the AU’s peace instruments include more systematic use of high-level panels and committees of experts. Such panels, envisioned as consisting of current and former heads of state and government, can be used for influential mediation; and committees can monitor specific situations as part of early-warning mechanisms.

The report also supports deeper coordination with subregional groups whose mandates overlap with that of the African Union, and with regional groups outside of Africa with whom the AU shares territory or seas, to clarify responsibilities and develop integrated responses to emergencies.

As Mbeki and Brahimi emphasize in their preface, it is up to the African Union to ensure that is has “the capacity and the will to discharge its responsibilities” as Africa’s first and leading respondent to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts across the continent.

Dali ten Hove writes for PassBlue in his personal capacity. He is a reporting officer in the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was the researcher on the memoir of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World.” He also was part of the UN’s 75th-anniversary team. He has worked in peace-building with Cordaid in The Hague and has served on the boards of the UN Associations of the Netherlands and the UK and has consulted for the World Federation of UNAs. He has a master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University.

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