Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2020
Addis Ababa (ANN)-The African Union has been taking a larger role of late in addressing questions of peace and security on the continent. Our annual survey identifies eight situations where the organisation’s timely intercession could help resolve, mitigate or ward off conflict
The African Union has been taking a larger role of late in addressing questions of peace and security on the continent. Our annual survey identifies eight situations where the organisation’s timely intercession could help resolve, mitigate or ward off conflict.
What’s new? African leaders meet in Addis Ababa this week for the annual African Union (AU) summit. This year’s theme is “Silencing the Guns”, reflecting the continental body’s earlier aspirations to end conflicts and prevent genocide in Africa.
Why does it matter? The AU has assumed greater responsibility for conflict management in Africa, with some successes, including recently in Sudan and the Central African Republic. Yet on many conflicts it could do more. African leaders appear increasingly less committed to collective peacemaking and warier of the AU’s peace and security role.
What should be done? The AU itself and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who assumes the rotating AU chair for 2020, should use the Addis meeting to spur African leaders into more rigorous efforts to tackle the continent’s deadliest crises. This briefing sets out eight priorities for the body this coming year.
African leaders will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week for the annual African Union (AU) summit. This year’s theme is “Silencing the Guns”, reviving an aspiration set out by African leaders in 2013 to end war and prevent genocide on the continent by 2020. Though the aim of resolving all conflicts in seven years set the bar high, the AU has scored some successes. Just this past year, for example, it stepped in at critical moments to preserve Sudan’s revolution and stop it from descending into violence; and helped produce an agreement between the government and rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR). Elsewhere, however – from Cameroon to the Sahel to South Sudan – it has fallen short. Moreover, African leaders today appear cagier than in the past about collective peacemaking, with some apparently wanting to restrain the continental body’s peace and security role. South Africa, which will assume the rotational AU chair when the summit starts, could use the meeting to reinvigorate African efforts to calm the continent’s deadliest crises.
The AU made notable interventions in two major crises in 2019. The Peace and Security Council (PSC), the continent’s standing decision-making body for conflict prevention, management and resolution, showed its mettle after President Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in Sudan. Despite opposition from the AU chair, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the PSC suspended Sudan’s membership in early June after the military putschists massacred peaceful protesters. The AU then helped mediate between civilian and military leaders. The AU also asserted its primacy in CAR’s peace process, sponsoring an agreement between the government and fourteen rebel groups while absorbing a Russo-Sudanese initiative that threatened to become a parallel dialogue. The deal may not have significantly reduced violence, but it renewed outside attention to the crisis and united diplomats behind a single mediation effort.
In other countries, the AU has not been so successful. It failed to prevent the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon from spiralling into almost full-blown civil war; it has largely been a bystander to the instability sweeping the Sahel; and it has taken a back seat in efforts to end South Sudan’s brutal conflict. More broadly, while it has spoken out against coups, it has struggled to respond to rigged elections or to leaders’ schemes to change rules in order to hold on to power. Particularly worrying is that African leaders’ commitment to multilateral efforts to tame conflicts across the continent seems to have waned. The PSC rarely meets at the heads of state level. Despite the supposed focus on “silencing the guns”, the forthcoming summit’s draft agenda suggests that discussions on peace and security will not take centre stage and that the number of planned high-level side meetings about individual conflicts will be fewer than in past years. If true, that would be cause for regret, as many crises on the continent would benefit from greater and more sustained engagement from African leaders.
AU housekeeping in 2020 also risks sapping attention from peacemaking. First, preparations for the 2021 selection of a new commission, the AU’s secretariat, could hamper work. Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki and other commissioners will be eligible for re-selection under new, more rigorous recruitment procedures. They will likely campaign to retain their posts, which is reasonable, but they ought not to let core business slide.
Secondly, a merger of the political affairs and peace and security departments is under way. The amalgamation makes sense, as the two departments’ tasks are inextricably linked: politics lie at the core of most of the continent’s conflicts and efforts to resolve them. But African leaders view the merger as an opportunity to axe jobs, save money and weaken the commission, whose influence in the area of peace and security many regard warily. Current proposals envisage a more than 4o per cent cut in positions. Such a large cull of already understaffed departments would be devastating to morale and reduce the AU’s ability to respond to continental crises. Member states should reverse course and ensure that the commission is adequately staffed and resourced.
The February summit provides an opportunity for the AU and African leaders to make a clear statement of intent toward ending some of the continent’s worst crises. South Africa will take over the rotational chair from Egypt when the summit starts and has made “silencing the guns” a priority for its term at the organisation’s helm. South Africa has punched below its weight abroad for more than a decade, but simultaneously holding the AU chairmanship and a seat on the UN Security Council should provide Pretoria with a rare opportunity to focus attention on conflicts that are important not only to its national interests but also to the AU and UN agendas. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa should seek to spur African leaders into more rigorous efforts to promote peace and security on the continent. Eight areas where he and the AU can focus during the course of the year are:
1- Seeking a compromise with the UN over co-funding of peace operations.
2–Supporting pivotal elections in Ethiopia and standing ready to mediate in the event of disputes over results.
3- Deterring leaders in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea from using constitutional amendments to hold onto power.
4- Helping calm Burkina Faso’s insurgency and avert election violence.
5- Pressing Yaoundé and separatists toward more inclusive dialogue to help end the crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions.
5- Pushing the Somali government and regional leaders toward a compromise ahead of Somalia’s elections.
7- Pressing East African heads of state to step up their efforts to keep South Sudan’s peace process on track.
8- Supporting Sudan’s transition by offering to act as a guarantor of the deal between the security forces and civilian leaders.
While not exhaustive, this list represents opportunities where the AU likely can have the greatest impact over the coming year. The steps outlined below will not silence the guns across Africa, but they would go some way toward curbing the destruction and trauma wrought by the continent’s
Seek a Compromise with the UN Over Co-funding of Peace Operations
The AU and the UN have been wrestling for more than ten years with the question of whether UN assessed contributions might be used to support AU peace support operations. But over the last two years the discussions have become more intense – and more fraught. In September, the AU pressed pause on negotiations over a deal that might allow for UN co-financing of certain AU missions so that its leaders could review key elements of the proposed arrangement and formulate a common position.
At the core of the discussion is the AU’s effort to secure an agreement whereby the UN would cover 75 per cent of the costs for Security Council-authorised, AU-led peacekeeping missions and the AU would cover the remaining 25 per cent. An arrangement along these lines would serve both the AU and the UN, neither of which is well positioned to face the continent’s rapidly changing conflict dynamics without the other’s help. While the AU is willing and able to mount the type of counter-terrorism and peace enforcement missions now regularly needed to help stabilise African countries, it lacks the financial resources necessary to provide them with steady and predictable support – something the UN can offer. For its part, the UN Security Council stands to benefit from the AU’s willingness to undertake challenging missions that have peace and security ramifications well outside Africa, and that are beyond the scope of traditional UN peacekeeping operations.
Nonetheless, the need to work through complex, politically loaded issues has made it difficult to come to terms on a co-financing arrangement. In recent years, AU-UN talks have foundered on three of these. First, the parties have been unable to reach a clear understanding about how the AU would meet its financial obligations under the proposed 25:75 split in practice, with some Security Council members doubting the African body’s will to honour its commitment. Secondly, Security Council members have questioned the capacity of AU missions to comply with both international human rights law and the UN’s financial transparency and accountability standards. Finally, the two institutions have sparred over which of them should have overall command of the forces.
The timeout in negotiations presents a much-needed opportunity for the AU and UN to clarify their respective positions and to decide how far they are willing to go to achieve a compromise. If the two institutions want to make co-financing work, the outlines of a deal appear within reach: the AU could offer troop contributions (which it would not ask the UN or donors to subsidise) as an in-kind payment toward the 25:75 burden sharing formula; the UN could give greater credit for the progress the AU has made in setting up human rights compliance mechanisms while recognising that the real test of compliance will only come once missions are under way; the AU and UN could rely on the UN Fifth Committee to police financial governance; and the parties could require force commanders to report to both organisations.
That deal might not be perfect from either side’s perspective, but it would be better than the alternative, which would require AU peace support missions to continue struggling under ad hoc financial arrangements and risk leaving critical peace and security needs in Africa unmet. The parties have a chance to get an agreement that would help both institutions fulfil their common mandate to prevent, manage and resolve conflict in Africa. They should take it.
Our interactive timeline shows the evolution of the AU-UN co-financing debate.
Prepare to Support Ethiopia’s Election
Ethiopia, the continent’s second most populous country, is in the midst of a promising but turbulent transition. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government pledges that elections tentatively scheduled for 16 August 2020 will be the most peaceful and competitive in the country’s history. But growing intercommunal friction, which has left hundreds dead and displaced millions over the last few years, threatens to mar the vote – or even derail it – because leaders could try to manipulate social divisions to their advantage. The AU is understandably reluctant to intercede in domestic Ethiopian affairs, not least because its headquarters is located in the capital, Addis Ababa. But given the critical importance of the elections for the country’s transition and stability, it should offer to support election preparations and to send a large observation team. It should also be ready to mediate in the event of disputes over the ballot’s outcome, if invited to do so.
Since coming to power in April 2018, riding mass protests that began in 2014, Abiy has made major strides toward opening up the authoritarian system he inherited: freeing political prisoners; allowing the return of dissident groups; and appointing reformers to key institutions, including the refreshed National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. But this very openness has allowed ethnic tensions that were once buried, including longstanding resentments among and within the three most influential communities, the Oromo, the Amhara and the Tigray, to surface. The election could further entrench ethno-regional fault lines, while continuing insecurity might make it difficult to conduct a credible poll.
Ethiopia’s inexperienced new electoral board is under pressure to organise nationwide elections in less than seven months. The institution won praise for its management of the November 2019 referendum on regional statehood for Sidama Zone, but the forthcoming polls present a much greater challenge. The electoral board’s incapacity is already showing: it has yet to undertake voter registration or publish electoral regulations. The AU should offer technical support to the board, including advice on election security and dispute resolution.
The AU should also signal its readiness to send an election monitoring mission. The vote’s sheer size and complexity – there will be around 50,000 polling stations and 250,000 staff – requires a large observer team. It should deploy well in advance of the polls, so as to cover the whole country, and pay particular attention to potential flashpoints. The AU can also play a valuable role in coordinating international monitors, as it did during Kenya’s disputed 2017 election, when it shared information and issued joint statements with the EU and other observers. Selecting a head of mission with the political weight and experience to act as a mediator, if needed, would be a useful precaution. The AU – and the mission, once it deploys – should also call on Ethiopian leaders to dial down the inflammatory rhetoric that increasingly mars the transition.
Avert Violence Fuelled by Leaders Changing Rules to Hold on to Power
In addition to Ethiopia, 21 other African countries are due to hold presidential, parliamentary or local elections in 2020.
Many of these countries are suffering or recovering from conflict, and contentious polls could spark bloodshed. In some cases, “constitutional coups” – ie, attempts by incumbents to change rules in order to extend their tenure in office – risk fuelling anger and increasing the threat of election-related violence. Since its foundation in 2002, the AU has strongly condemned military takeovers, ostracising perpetrators to the point that few are still willing to carry out such overt coups. Yet it has been less censorious of leaders’ circumvention of term limits. Its inability or unwillingness to speak out undermines its important position against unconstitutional changes of government. In 2020, elections in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea in particular risk generating violence due to highly controversial constitutional revisions against which the AU should take a stronger stand.
In Côte d’Ivoire, President Alassane Ouattara, who has already served two terms, has made conflicting statements about whether he will seek re-election in October. He declared several times that he may not stand again. Recently, however, he has said he will announce his final decision in July 2020. He has also threatened to run if his main rivals – in particular ex-president Henri Konan Bédié – decide to contest the vote. Ouattara fears that Bédié could beat his preferred successor, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, the current prime minister. The president has also long maintained that a third term is viable, despite the two-term limit in the constitution. He argues that the constitution is new, having been approved in 2016, and that the terms he served before it came into force do not count against the two-term limit
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