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Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2019
Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2019
Africa Union Chairperson Paul Kagame (7thL) and Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki (6thL) stand with heads of states and governments after a session of the Assembly of the African Union on 17 November 2018. Monirul BHUIYAN / AFP
Commentary / Africa

Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2019

In 2019, the African Union faces many challenges, with conflicts old and new simmering across the continent. To help resolve these crises – our annual survey lists seven particularly pressing ones – the regional organisation should also push ahead with institutional reforms.

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Introduction by Robert Malley, President & CEO of International Crisis Group

With this commentary, coming in the wake of our annual Ten Conflicts to Watch and EU Watch List, Crisis Group turns to what 2019 will mean for the African continent and the African Union (AU) ahead of its February summit. The broad trends identified in those two preceding publications are mirrored here as well, to wit: a transition wrapped in a transition, wrapped in a transition.

The first transition is occurring at the local level, where entrenched governments face a perilous mix of social unrest and political contestation. 2019 is still young, but it already bears ugly scars of violent repression, in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Cameroon, as well as older wounds from persistent crises in places like the Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia or South Sudan. The remarkable transition witnessed in Ethiopia stands as a powerful counterpoint, but in too many places – as elsewhere across the globe – autocratic rule, immovable elites, predatory state behaviour and corruption are fuelling popular anger. A question we pose in the pages that follow is whether the African Union is up to the task of dealing with these challenges.

Which brings me to the second transition, taking place at the regional level: faced with persistent and seemingly intractable crises and determined not to allow non-African powers to project their agendas onto the continent, the African Union has been searching for ways to better address issues of peace and security. There were some notable diplomatic advances in the past year, led by Moussa Faki Mahamat, AU Commission chairperson: easing tensions ahead of a fraught election in Madagascar, defusing a crisis around a constitutional amendment process in Comoros, and bringing the parties to the table in the CAR crisis, even if the agreement’s implementation remains a challenge. But cracks have been showing in the AU’s overall approach.

In particular, charged with maintaining continental stability, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) has become more tentative since the AU Assembly overturned its December 2015 decision to send an intervention force to Burundi. Too, its agenda increasingly is packed with thematic deliberations on important topics such as child marriage and illicit financial flows, but at the expense of discussions regarding existing and emerging conflicts. At the AU’s July summit, leaders curtailed the PSC’s work on Western Sahara in order to mollify Morocco, which had re-entered the AU in 2017 following a 33-year absence, and assigned a troika of heads of state plus the AU Commission chairperson to report directly to the AU Assembly. That’s an unfortunate precedent, and one that could severely undercut the PSC’s ability to assert itself in future crises. What is needed now is the kind of institutional reforms championed (with varying and uneven success) by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. What is also needed is the kind of political assertiveness to involve itself in domestic affairs with a legitimacy and sensitivity to local realities which the West typically lacks.

The locus of the third and broadest of these transitions is on the global stage, where shifting power relations revive old-style great power politics. The impact on the continent might not be immediately clear, but it is palpable nonetheless: China’s increased economic involvement; Russia’s intermittent political/military forays (see, eg, Libya, the Central African Republic or Sudan); and, after a period of dimming attention to Africa regarding anything but its counter-terrorism priorities, the U.S.’s reawakening, less out of any particular preoccupation with the continent’s well-being than as an offshoot of its intensifying rivalry with Beijing. It would be good, in theory, to see such revived interest in Africa and its affairs; not so good to see it inspired by a scramble for influence rather than a search for stability, peace or development.

2019 is still young, as I noted, but already the AU’s track record has been mixed. In January, faced with an electoral crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it first hinted at a bold stance before retreating into silence and confusion when its efforts were rebuffed by Kinshasa. Elsewhere – from Sudan to Cameroon – it has struggled to make its influence felt. From reforming institutions, to safely and credibly steering political transitions, to tackling festering conflicts and crises, the list of AU challenges is long. 2019 is still young, and there is ample time to get it right.

Robert Malley
President & CEO

CRISISGROUP

1. Institutional Reforms

Unlike past AU Assembly chairs, who were largely figureheads, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame energetically pursued his reform agenda and exerted considerable influence over the organisation’s direction in 2018. But there remains much work to be done. Kagame, as the designated champion of reform, should remain actively involved, working with the incoming AU chair Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Commission chairperson Faki, to continue pushing the project forward.

Attempts to make the AU more financially transparent and self-sufficient are moving, but slowly.

Kagame’s record may well have been mixed, but his efforts in 2018 generated important momentum and produced several concrete achievements. In March, he secured agreement to establish a Continental Free Trade Area, which aims to create a single African market with free movement and a currency union, after more than six years of discussion. Almost 50 countries have signed the treaty, which has so far been ratified by nineteen, just three shy of the 22 it needs to come into force. Although falling well short of his ambitious goals, Kagame’s efforts on organisational streamlining yielded some progress. At November’s extraordinary summit African leaders decided to consolidate the departments of political affairs and peace and security, as well as the departments of economic affairs and trade and industry, bringing the total number of portfolios down from eight to six.[fn]The six portfolios are: Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Environment; Economic Development, Trade and Industry and Natural Mineral Resources; Education, Science, Technology and Innovation; Infrastructure and Energy; Political Affairs, Peace & Security; and Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development. "11th AU Extraordinary Summit: Summary of Key Decisions", press release Nº05/2018, AU, 18 November 2018.Hide Footnote Finally, Kagame successfully pushed for changes that will make the selection process for the Commission chairperson, his or her deputy and the six commissioners, more rigorous, although these changes failed to give the chairperson the power to appoint the Commission’s senior leadership or make them directly accountable to the chair, as originally envisaged.[fn]Kagame’s original reform proposals centred around four key recommendations: sustainable self-financing; reducing the AU's mandate to four key priorities: political affairs, peace and security, Africa’s global representation and unified voice, and economic integration; realignment of institutions; and increasing management efficiency. For more, see Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°135, Seven Priorities for the African Union in 2018, 17 January 2018; Crisis Group Africa Report N°255, Time to Reset African Union-European Union Relations, 17 October 2017; and Crisis Group Africa Statement, “Twelve Points for the New African Union Commission Chairperson”, 13 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Much work still lies ahead. Attempts to make the AU more financially transparent and self-sufficient are moving, but slowly. At the July summit, leaders adopted measures to make the AU budget process more credible and transparent by, among other things, providing for finance ministers to participate in the drafting process and introducing spending ceilings. The AU also decided to impose more stringent consequences on member states that do not pay their dues in full and on time, which will be increasingly important as the AU decreases its reliance on donor support. At the same time, however, only half of member states are contemplating collecting the 0.2 per cent levy on “all eligible goods” imported to Africa, which is supposed to be used to finance the AU, and some are refusing to put it in place at all.

Meanwhile, little progress has been made on reforms to bolster the AU’s peace and security mechanisms. Of particular concern is continuing confusion about how responsibility is divided among member states, regional economic communities (RECs), and the AU. The AU’s Constitutive Act and guiding documents are unclear. However, the principle of “subsidiarity”, which gives RECs the lead on peace and security matters in their respective regions, was explicitly endorsed for the first time by leaders in November, making it almost impossible for the AU to step in when regions reach an impasse on specific crises unless invited to do so.

The reform process provides an opportunity to reset the working relationship between the AU and the RECs. A clear framework for sharing analysis and information should be established and existing mechanisms, such as regular meetings between the PSC and its regional equivalents, should be operationalised. This will build trust between the RECs and the AU, ensuring that regional bodies are more fully engaged in AU efforts on peace and security, and might also help mitigate some of the political barriers to collective action and decision-making.

Moves to reform and bolster the PSC have languished. Kagame wanted to ensure that member states sitting on the Council be both committed to and capable of effectively carrying out their responsibilities. He also hoped to review and suggest improvements to the PSC’s working methods. Those efforts have yet to yield fruit, bumping up against member states’ desire to preserve their own power rather than yield it to Addis Ababa. Optimally, the process undertaken by Kagame would continue with the goal that member states select as Council members only countries that meet the criteria set forth in the PSC Protocol, including a commitment to upholding the AU’s principles, respecting constitutional governance, adequately staffing missions in Addis and New York, contributing financially to the Peace Fund, and participating in peace support operations.[fn]In addition to the criteria mentioned above, the PSC Protocol also stipulates that candidates for Council membership must contribute to the promotion and maintenance of peace and security in Africa; have the capacity and commitment to shoulder the responsibilities entailed in membership; participate in conflict resolution, peace-making and peacebuilding at regional and continental levels; have the willingness and ability to take up responsibility for regional and continental conflict resolution initiatives; respect the rule of law and human rights; and commit to honor financial obligations to the Union. "Protocol relating to the establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union", AU, 9 July 2002.Hide Footnote

Fears that Sisi will seek to reverse progress already made seem exaggerated: Egypt has publicly stated its commitment to continuing the reform process.

With so much left to do on the institutional reform agenda, Kagame’s departure will be keenly felt, all the more so since the incoming AU chairperson, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has strongly opposed certain aspects of the agenda. This is in part because Cairo prefers the AU to remain neutral in the continent’s conflicts and crises; it is still smarting from its own suspension from the AU following the 2013 ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi and wishes to reduce the Commission’s influence. Fears that Sisi will seek to reverse progress already made seem exaggerated: Egypt has publicly stated its commitment to continuing the reform process.[fn]Tweet by Osama Abdel Khalek, @EgyptAbaba, Egyptian Ambassador to Ethiopia and the AU, 5:22pm, 3 February 2019.Hide Footnote

2. Burundi

Burundi has been in a state of crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza’s April 2015 decision to seek a disputed third term in office, which triggered mass protests, a failed coup attempt, armed opposition attacks, targeted assassinations and brutal government reprisals. The government has since engaged in low-intensity warfare against armed insurgents and brutally repressed peaceful dissidents. Violence, rising unemployment, the collapse of basic services and deepening social fractures have forced more than 430,000 Burundians to flee the country, according to UN figures.[fn]On the economy, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°254, Helping the Burundian People Cope with the Economic Crisis, 31 August 2018. "Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan, January - December 2018", UNHCR, 2018.Hide Footnote A referendum in May 2018, held in a climate of fear and intimidation, approved constitutional amendments that consolidate the government’s rule and open the way for the dismantling of ethnic quotas in parliament, government and public bodies (including the army). These quotas are intended to protect the Tutsi minority and were a key component of the 2000 Arusha agreement that brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “Burundi’s Dangerous Referendum”, 15 May 2018.Hide Footnote In short, risks of a violent deterioration are high and the need for external involvement urgent.

Yet the AU faces considerable obstacles in this regard. Its role in Burundi waned significantly following the PSC’s failed attempt to deploy a protection and conflict prevention force in January 2016.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°122, The African Union and the Burundi Crisis: Ambition versus Reality, 28 September 2016.Hide Footnote More recently, relations between the AU Commission and Burundi deteriorated sharply. On 30 November, the government issued an arrest warrant for Pierre Buyoya, a former Burundian president and the AU’s high representative for Mali and the Sahel, accusing him of complicity in the 1993 assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, Burundi’s first president representing the Hutu majority. The same day, the government boycotted the East African Community (EAC) summit, which was due to discuss a report on mediation between Burundi’s political forces. Finally, after Faki called on all sides to refrain from measures “likely to complicate the search for a consensual solution”, government-backed protesters took to the streets of the capital in anger. President Nkurunziza, in other words, appears to be pulling Burundi further toward isolation, shoring up his domestic base and pre-empting any attempt by the AU or the EAC to encourage compromise ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Such hurdles notwithstanding, the AU will need to try to actively reengage ahead of those elections: urging the government to open political space ahead of the 2020 polls and allow political parties to campaign freely; insisting its human rights observers and military experts be allowed to remain on the ground; and urging the government to sign a memorandum of understanding enabling these AU personnel to carry out their mandate in full. As the polls draw nearer, the AU should steadily increase the number of its monitors and advisers to prepare the ground for a long-term election observation mission.

Given December’s events, the role of the Commission and its chair will likely be constrained; intervention will have to take place at the level of heads of state. In particular, the AU should consider resurrecting the high-level delegation it appointed in February 2016 (composed of Ethiopia, Gabon, Mauritania, Senegal and South Africa), or a similar structure, to help build regional consensus on the mediation process and interact directly with Nkurunziza. Alternatively, the AU could encourage the Arusha guarantors (besides the AU, the DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and the U.S., as well as the EU and the UN) to form a contact group, to fulfil a similar mandate.[fn]In a letter dated 9 May 2018 to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni ahead of May’s referendum, Faki wrote, “it is critical that, as guarantors of the Arusha Agreement, we redouble our efforts, with the view to enabling the Burundi stakeholders to overcome the current challenges and preserve the hard-won gains in terms of peace”.Hide Footnote

In addition, the PSC should meet regularly on Burundi, especially during the run-up to the elections when the risk of an escalation in violence will be heightened. This, however, will be difficult if Burundi is elected to the Council in February, as expected.

3. Cameroon

Cameroon, long considered an island of relative stability in a troubled region, is steadily sliding toward civil war as the crisis in the country’s two Anglophone regions deepens. Demonstrations in October 2016 against the increasing use of French in the regions’ educational and legal systems sparked wider protests against the marginalisation of Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, about one fifth of the population. The central government’s refusal to acknowledge the Anglophones’ grievances or engage their leaders, coupled with violent repression and arrest of activists, fuelled anger and drove many protesters, who had originally advocated autonomy and improved rights, into the arms of separatist groups. October’s disputed presidential election further raised political tensions and exacerbated ethnic cleavages: President Paul Biya, in office for 36 years, won a questionable poll in which few Anglophones were able to vote.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°250, Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis at the Crossroads, 2 August 2017; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°142, Cameroon: Divisions Widen Ahead of Presidential Vote, 3 October 2018; Hans De Marie Heungoup, “Uncertainties Deepen in Cameroon after Divisive Election”, Crisis Group Commentary, 5 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Around eight separatist militias are now battling Cameroonian security forces and pro-government “self-defence” groups. Since September 2017, fighting has killed at least 500 civilians, forcing 30,000 to flee to neighbouring Nigeria and leaving a further 437,000 internally displaced in Cameroon, according to UN figures. At least 200 soldiers, gendarmes and police officers have died in the violence – more than in the five-year fight against Boko Haram in the Far North – and another 300 have been injured. Separatist casualties number more than 600.

For the most part, the government has signalled its determination to crush the insurgency rather than address Anglophone concerns. In a welcome gesture, authorities released 289 Anglophone detainees in mid-December, but it remains unclear whether the government has had a genuine change of heart: hundreds, including separatist leaders, are still incarcerated. Nor is it clear whether this move alone will convince hard-line separatists to talk rather than fight.

So far the AU has been surprisingly reserved on the Anglophone crisis, despite the high number of casualties and the danger of wider civil conflict.

Confidence-building measures are an essential first step. These should include the government’s release of all remaining Anglophone political detainees; a ceasefire pledge from both sides; and support for a planned Anglophone conference, which would allow Anglophones to select leaders to represent them in wider negotiations. These measures could open the way for talks between the government and Anglophone leaders, followed by an inclusive national dialogue that would consider options for decentralisation or federalism.

Yet so far the AU has been surprisingly reserved on the Anglophone crisis, despite the high number of casualties and the danger of wider civil conflict. Cameroon is not on the PSC’s agenda; the Council has accepted the government’s characterisation of the crisis as an internal matter even though it threatens regional stability. AU Commission chairperson Faki visited Yaoundé in July and issued statements condemning the escalating violence, but the severity of the crisis calls for greater and more consistent AU engagement. This will require a proactive approach; indeed, it is almost unthinkable that Biya, a long-time AU sceptic who rarely attends the organisation’s gatherings, will invite it to intervene.

Leaders at February’s AU summit could instruct the Council to schedule regular meetings on Cameroon and call on Faki to double down on efforts to bring the parties to the table. They should also call for implementing the confidence-building measures listed above and for beginning a national dialogue. To this end, heads of state should affirm that any obstruction could lead to sanctions against individuals hindering peace, whether government or separatist.

4. Central African Republic

Clashes throughout 2018 in the capital Bangui and a number of major towns illustrate the deadly threat posed by armed groups – a mix of pro-government militias, ex-rebels, bandits and local “self-defence” units – that control much of the country. MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping force, has failed to neutralise these groups and, as a result, is mistrusted by the general public. Likewise, the national army, slowly being deployed in parts of the country, has been unable to constrain the armed groups’ predatory activities. The humanitarian situation remains dire, with more than one million people internally displaced or fleeing to neighbouring countries and 2.5 million in need of assistance, according to the UN.

Russian involvement has complicated dynamics further. Since the end of 2017, Moscow has been providing the army with equipment and training and President Faustin-Archange Touadéra with personal protection, as well as organising parallel talks with CAR armed groups in Khartoum. The first two such meetings galvanised the AU into restarting its own mediation efforts, which have been stalled throughout 2016, and to persuade Touadéra of the merits of a single, African-led effort. Intense diplomacy, especially by AU Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui, led the AU to convene new talks between the government and armed groups, also hosted in Khartoum. An accord was signed early February, but still needs ratification. According to media reports, the negotiations led to some agreement on joint patrols and the integration of armed groups into the security forces, as well as on the reshuffling of the cabinet and the inclusion of armed groups’ representatives in the government.

In the past, talks held in foreign capitals – involving some but not all armed groups – degenerated in a cycle of broken promises. In contrast, local peace processes held inside CAR, many initiated by religious organisations, have had modest success, easing intercommunal tensions and instituting temporary truces in certain areas. They have also taken some account of armed groups’ political demands while not losing sight of the concerns of local communities in which they operate.

A sustainable political solution in CAR would benefit from a new approach to mediation that involves greater international military pressure on armed groups, and attempts to negotiate with them at the local level where possible. This approach would also recognise that many have local agendas that cannot be addressed without the participation of the local population. To this end, and in the wake of the Khartoum agreement the AU should bring its mediation efforts back in-country and organise separate talks with those parties that have interests in a particular conflict zone, as well as community dialogues aimed at addressing truly local grievances. Ideally, these local initiatives would lead to a second phase of consultations with groups with national claims and ties to regional states, providing a more realistic framework for a program of national mediation. Chad and Sudan offer backing or safe haven to some insurgent factions, many of whose members originate in these neighbouring countries. Their agreement to cut support and accept the repatriation of fighters will be critical.

The September proposal to appoint a joint AU-UN envoy appears to have been shelved. If so, a structure nonetheless should be put in place to build consensus between Bangui and key regional governments, chief among them Chad and Sudan, with the aim of securing buy-in to the AU-led mediation and reducing support from neighbouring countries to insurgent groups in CAR.

5. Democratic Republic of Congo

A political crisis erupted in the DRC in the wake of last December’s presidential race. The election pitted Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, outgoing President Joseph Kabila’s preferred candidate, against two opposition leaders, Félix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu – the latter supported by Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moïse Katumbi, political heavyweights barred from contesting the vote. Although official tallies gave Tshisekedi a narrow victory, a parallel count by the Congolese Catholic Church confirmed by leaks from the electoral commission indicated that Fayulu had won by a landslide. The clear implication was that Kabila and his allies had rigged the results in favour not of their initially favoured candidate – whose victory would have been met with incredulity and would have united the opposition – but of the opposition candidate they found more palatable. In response, Fayulu filed a challenge with the Constitutional Court, the DRC’s highest.

Initial reactions by most African and Western diplomats were muted. In stark contrast, an ad hoc meeting of African leaders assembled by AU Chairperson President Kagame, issued a surprisingly bold statement on 17 January. Besides raising “serious doubts” about the provisional results, it called for suspending the proclamation of final results and announced the urgent dispatch of a high-level delegation to Kinshasa to help defuse the post-electoral crisis.[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “DR Congo: A Recount and Talks to Find a Way Out of the Crisis”, 19 January 2019.Hide Footnote Kinshasa acted quickly to pre-empt any such action: in a snub to the AU and Kagame, the Constitutional Court refused to delay its decision and rejected Fayulu’s appeal, thereby upholding Tshisekedi’s purported win. SADC (the Southern African Development Community) together with several regional leaders, including some who had appeared to support the AU statement, quickly recognised Tshisekedi’s presidency. The AU cancelled the planned high-level visit, taking note of the court’s ruling and signalling its willingness to work with the new government. The rest of the international community soon followed suit.

AU leaders should strongly encourage Tshisekedi to demonstrate his independence from the former regime and reach out to Fayulu as well as his supporters to build a broad-based coalition.

The episode was damaging to the AU. To begin with, its failure to halt the Congolese election’s manipulation raised further doubts about its ability to uphold electoral and governance standards. For the PSC, Kagame’s decision to bypass this organ in favour of a seemingly random gathering of leaders called the Council’s authority into question. But the greatest damage would be to the continent as a whole if the AU, chastened by this embarrassment, were deterred from acting in future situations of this type, giving autocratic regimes an implicit green light to continue to rig elections with impunity.

Even in the DRC itself, the AU’s role is not over. This highly controversial background aside, the new president and government have a responsibility to focus on stabilising the country and avoid spill-over from internal conflicts affecting the rest of the region. Of course, Tshisekedi will have to work with Kabila, who enjoys a large majority in the newly-elected parliament. But AU leaders should strongly encourage Tshisekedi to demonstrate his independence from the former regime and reach out to Fayulu as well as his supporters to build a broad-based coalition. The PSC in particular ought to keep the DRC on its agenda, as unrest in the East is likely to worsen, which could also exacerbate already serious tensions among Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.

6. Somalia

The Federal Government of Somalia’s manipulation of December’s presidential election in South West state is illustrative of a raft of unresolved tensions in the country, particularly between the federal government and member state governments. It is also likely to sow further instability. After multiple delays, the government held the controversial poll, and Abdiasis Mohammed “Laftagareen” a former member of parliament and minister, won. His victory was secured when Mogadishu ordered the arrest of his popular Salafi opponent, Mukhtar Robow “Abu Mansur”, a former Al-Shabaab leader, and deployed Ethiopian troops in key towns to suppress the resulting dissent. In doing so, the federal government took a significant risk: that of alienating Robow’s huge clan constituency, inflaming anti-Ethiopian sentiment and signalling to other Al-Shabaab defectors that relinquishing their struggle could land them in prison. Most important, Mogadishu has thrown away an opportunity to build a local power-sharing model with a conservative Islamist who could potentially be a bridge to the Salafi community and undercut support for the Al-Shabaab insurgency.

The crisis in South West state exemplifies President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed’s determination to check the power of regional politicians. It also is a manifestation of his government’s increasingly centralising tendencies, of which Crisis Group previously warned.[fn]See Rashid Abdi, “Somalia’s South West State: A New President Installed, a Crisis Inflamed”, Crisis Group Commentary, 24 December 2018; Crisis Group Africa Report N°260, Somalia and the Gulf Crisis, 5 June 2018.Hide Footnote The subsequent decisions to expel Nicholas Haysom, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia, for questioning the legal basis of Robow’s arrest, and to execute a number of Al-Shabaab prisoners, play well with Farmajo’s base but do little to advance the country’s stability. Gains made during the last eighteen months – including agreement on the Roadmap on Inclusive Politics, adoption of the National Security Architecture and commitment to the Somalia Transition Plan – risk being undermined or reversed.

The AU has taken a security-focused approach to Somalia since AMISOM, the AU’s peace enforcement mission in Somalia, was first deployed in January 2007. This in turn has limited the organisation’s ability to effectively contribute to a lasting political solution to the conflict. (The UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, UNSOM, has managed the politics to date.) The planned drawdown of AMISOM forces, which is supposed to be completed in 2020, makes it all the more imperative to strengthen the political dimension of the AU’s engagement to ensure territorial and political gains achieved by the use of force against Al-Shabaab are not lost. The PSC has acknowledged the importance of the undertaking, calling on the Commission in a February 2018 communiqué to “ensure a coherent and unified political approach on Somalia”. The AU is coming late to the party, however, so any political strategy it develops should complement not duplicate those in existence by taking into account the division of labour between the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the AU and the UN, as well as Somalia’s bilateral partners. It should also clearly identify and build upon the AU’s comparative advantages, which include AMISOM’s access to wide areas of the country off-limits to the UN and other partners, as well as its potential to be a more neutral arbiter within the region.

7. South Sudan

2019 offers hope, however fragile, for a reduction in fighting in South Sudan, following five years of brutal civil conflict in which some 400,000 people have died and nearly four million have been displaced internally and externally. In September 2018, President Salva Kiir and his main rival Riek Machar, the former vice president-turned rebel leader, signed a power-sharing agreement. Violence has subsided and, for now, that is reason enough to support this fragile accord. The deal, brokered by Presidents Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, the regional leaders with the most at stake in South Sudan, is not a final settlement to the war. But it opens the door to a new round of fraught negotiations that could lead to a unity government and, eventually, elections.

There are abundant reasons for scepticism. This new pact builds on a previous deal, concluded in August 2015, which collapsed less than twelve months after it was signed, triggering a surge in fighting. By calling for elections in 2022, the agreement perpetuates the Kiir-Machar rivalry and risks yet another violent showdown. Worryingly, security arrangements for the capital, Juba, have yet to be finalised, as have plans for a unified national army. In addition, donors, tired of financing failed deals, are waiting for concrete action by Kiir and Machar before committing funds. The U.S., the long-time driver of Western diplomacy in South Sudan, has stepped back.

This caution and broader cynicism are understandable, given the parties’ track record and the fact that they squandered billions of dollars in past donor support. But momentum is being lost, and if this deal fails the country could plunge back into bloody warfare.

Although the AU took a back seat in South Sudan from the outset, essentially supporting mediation efforts of the regional bloc IGAD, it has an important role to play going forward. The High-Level Ad Hoc Committee on South Sudan – composed of Algeria, Chad, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa, and known as the C5 – forms part of the body tasked with finalising the formation of regional states, the number and boundaries of which are disputed. Building consensus on this politically sensitive and highly technical issue will require consistent engagement from the C5 heads of state, who would be well advised to draw on support from the AU Border Program and partners with relevant expertise.

The new accord is supposed to be guaranteed by a region that itself is in flux – alliances are shifting following the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea – and that does not agree on what form a lasting political settlement should take or how to reach one. By stepping up their engagement on South Sudan, the C5 and PSC could help keep regional leaders focused on ensuring that the deal does not disintegrate and encourage them to begin building consensus for a wider settlement that shares power more equitably across South Sudan’s groups and regions.

8. Sudan

Anti-government demonstrations have engulfed towns and cities across Sudan since mid-December 2018, when the government ended a bread subsidy. Security forces have killed dozens in a crackdown that could intensify further. President Omar al-Bashir, in power since 1989, has survived past challenges to his authority by resorting to brutal repression. But the scale and composition of the protests, coupled with discontent in the ruling party’s top echelons, suggest that Bashir has less room for manoeuvre this time around. Beyond the immediate humanitarian costs, significant bloodshed would undermine Sudan’s incipient rapprochement with the West, scuttling future aid or sanctions relief, thereby deepening the country’s economic woes.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°143, Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan, 14 January 2019.Hide Footnote

The AU’s first priority should be to minimise violence against demonstrators. African leaders with influence in Khartoum should publicly warn against the use of deadly force and call on the government to keep the security forces in check. Behind the scenes, they should encourage Bashir to step aside and provide incentives, such as guaranteeing asylum in a friendly African country, for him to do so. If necessary to facilitate a managed exit, they should work with the UN Security Council to request a one-year deferment of the International Criminal Court’s investigation of him for atrocity crimes during the counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur.

Addis Ababa/Nairobi/Brussels, 6 February 2019

A Yemeni man gestures at the site of an air strike in the capital Sanaa, on November 5, 2017. Yemen's rebel-held capital was struck by overnight air raids that continued well into the next day, targeting the defence ministry and a popular public square. MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP
Commentary / Global

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019

As U.S. leadership of the international order fades, more countries are seeking to bolster their influence by meddling in foreign conflicts. In this new era of limit testing, Crisis Group’s President Robert Malley lists the Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2019.

In a world with fewer rules, the only truly effective one is knowing what you can get away with. The answer today, it turns out, is: quite a lot.

As the era of uncontested U.S. primacy fades, the international order has been thrown into turmoil. More leaders are tempted more often to test limits, jostle for power, and seek to bolster their influence – or diminish that of their rivals – by meddling in foreign conflicts. Multilateralism and its constraints are under siege, challenged by more transactional, zero-sum politics. Instruments of collective action, such as the UN Security Council, are paralysed; those of collective accountability, including the International Criminal Court, are ignored and disparaged.

Nostalgia can be deceptive. Too fond a portrayal of the era of Western hegemony would be misleading. Iraq’s chemical weapons use against Iran in the 1980s; the 1990s bloodletting in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia; the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Sri Lanka’s brutal 2009 campaign against the Tamils; and the collapse of Libya and South Sudan: all these happened at a time of – in some cases because of – U.S. dominance and a reasonably coherent West. A liberal and nominally rules-based order hardly stopped those setting the rules from discarding them when they saw fit. The erosion of Western influence, in short, looks different from Moscow, Beijing, and the global south than it does from Brussels, London, or Washington.

As the West’s influence declines [...] leaders across the world are probing and prodding to see how far they can go.

Still, for better and for worse, U.S. power and alliances have for years shaped international affairs, set limits, and structured regional orders. As the West’s influence declines, accelerated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s contempt for traditional allies and Europe’s struggles with Brexit and nativism, leaders across the world are probing and prodding to see how far they can go.

In their domestic policies, many of those leaders embrace a noxious brew of nationalism and authoritarianism. The mix varies from place to place but typically entails rejection of international institutions and rules. There is little new in the critique of an unjust global order. But if once that critique tended to be rooted in international solidarity, today it stems chiefly from an inward-looking populism that celebrates narrow social and political identity, vilifies minorities and migrants, assails the rule of law and independence of the press, and elevates national sovereignty above all else.

Trump may be the most visible of the genre, but he is far from the most extreme. The wind is in the sails of strongmen worldwide. They realize, at times perhaps to their surprise, that constraints are crumbling, and the behavior that results often fuels violence or crises. Myanmar’s mass expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya, the Syrian regime’s brutal suppression of a popular uprising, the Cameroonian government’s apparent determination to crush an Anglophone insurgency rather than tackle the grievances fueling it, the Venezuelan government’s economic warfare against its own people, and the silencing of dissent in Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere are but a few examples. All are motivated in part by what leaders perceive as a yellow light where they used to see solid red.

The wind is in the sails of strongmen worldwide.

Beyond their borders, these leaders test norms, too. Having annexed parts of Georgia and Crimea and stoked separatist violence in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russia is now throwing its weight around in the Sea of Azov, poisoning dissidents in the United Kingdom, and subverting Western democracies with cyberwarfare. China obstructs freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and arbitrarily detains Canadian citizens – including the International Crisis Group’s Michael Kovrig. Saudi Arabia has pushed the envelope with the war in Yemen, the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, and the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul. Iran plots attacks against dissidents on European soil. Israel feels emboldened to undermine ever more systematically the foundations of a possible two-state solution.

Such actions are hardly new or equal in magnitude. But they are more brazen and overt. They have this much in common: They start with the assumption that there will be few consequences for breaches of international norms.

The U.S. government has hardly been an innocent bystander. Trump’s disdain for human rights and penchant for transactional diplomacy have set a strikingly negative tone. So too has his flouting of America’s international commitments: tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and, worse, threatening to impose economic punishment on those who choose to abide by it; hinting he will leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty if U.S. demands are not met rather than working within it to press Russia to comply; and signalling, through attacks on the International Criminal Court and chest-thumping speeches about U.S. sovereignty, that Washington regards its actions and those of its friends as beyond accountability.

The danger of today’s free-for-all goes beyond the violence already generated. The larger risk is of miscalculation. Overreach by one leader convinced of his immunity may prompt an unexpected reaction by another; the ensuing tit for tat easily could escalate without the presence of a credible, willing outside power able to play the role of arbiter.

True, not everyone gets away with everything all the time. Bangladesh seemed poised to forcibly return some Rohingya refugees to Myanmar but stopped, almost certainly in response to international pressure. The feared Russian-backed reconquest of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, has, for now, been averted, in no small measure due to Turkish, European, and U.S. objections. The same is true (again: for the time being) when it comes to a potential Saudi-led offensive on the Yemeni port of Hodeida, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi largely deterred by warnings about the humanitarian impact and cost to their international standing.

Elsewhere, leaders anticipating impunity have been taken aback by the severity of the response: Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, by the stiff sanctions and show of united resolve that Western powers have maintained since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the killing of its former agent on British soil; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by the outrage that followed Khashoggi’s murder.

Overall, though, it is hard to escape the sense that these are exceptions that prove the absence of rules. The international order as we know it is unravelling, with no clear sense of what will come in its wake. The danger may well lie less in the ultimate destination than in the process of getting there. As the following list of 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019 amply illustrates, that road will be bumpy, and it will be perilous.

Video: 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019

An overview of the 10 conflicts Crisis Group will be watching most closely this year. CRISISGROUP

1. Yemen

If one place has borne the brunt of international lawlessness over the past year it is Yemen. The humanitarian crisis there – the world’s worst – could deteriorate further in 2019 if the key players do not seize the opportunity created over the past weeks by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in achieving a partial ceasefire and encouraging a series of confidence-building steps.

After more than four years of war and a Saudi-led siege, almost 16 million Yemenis face “severe acute food insecurity”, according to the UN. That means one in two Yemenis doesn’t have enough to eat.

Fighting started in late 2014, after Huthi rebels expelled the internationally recognised government from the capital. It escalated the following March, when Saudi Arabia, together with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), began bombing and blockading Yemen, aiming to reverse the Huthis’ gains and reinstall the dislodged government. Western powers largely endorsed the Saudi-led campaign.

All parties seem to believe that time is on their side.

In late 2018, Yemeni militias backed by the UAE surrounded Hodeida, a Huthi-controlled port, through which aid for millions of starving Yemenis passes. The coalition appeared determined to move in, convinced that taking the port would crush the rebellion and make the Huthis more pliant. But the consequences of such an offensive would be almost unimaginable. The top UN relief official, Mark Lowcock, has warned it could provoke a “great big famine”. That, and the fallout from Khashoggi’s murder, prompted Western powers to begin restraining the Gulf coalition. On 9 November, the U.S. announced it would no longer refuel coalition jets conducting air raids in Yemen. A month later, Griffiths, with Washington’s help, reached the “Stockholm agreement” between the Huthis and the Yemeni government, including a fragile ceasefire around Hodeida.

There are other glimmers of light. U.S. pressure to end the conflict could intensify in 2019. The Senate has already voted to consider legislation barring all U.S. involvement in the war. Once the Democrats assume control of the House of Representatives in January 2019, they could move more aggressively in this direction.

That and more will be needed to end the Yemen war or at least avoid it taking another turn for the worse. All parties – the Huthis and their Yemeni adversaries, but also the Saudis and Emiratis – seem to believe that time is on their side. Only pressure from Europe, Oman, and Iran on the Huthis; from the U.S. on Saudi Arabia and the UAE; from those two Gulf countries on the Yemeni government; and from Congress on the U.S. administration stands a chance of making a difference.

2. Afghanistan

If Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, Afghanistan suffers its deadliest fighting. In 2018, by one tally, the war killed more than 40,000 combatants and civilians. Trump’s reported decision in mid-December that half of U.S. forces in Afghanistan would leave brought further unease. In principle, Washington’s signal that it is ready to pull out could advance diplomatic efforts to end the war by focusing belligerents’ and regional actors’ minds. But the ad hoc nature of the decision—seemingly made without looping in top officials—and the spectre it raises of the U.S. cutting and running could bode badly for the coming year.

In 2018, the war exacted a higher toll than at any time since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul more than seventeen years ago. A three-day ceasefire in June, which the Taliban and the government enforced and which prompted joyous celebration by fighters and civilians alike, offered a short respite, though fighting resumed immediately afterwards. Taliban fighters now effectively control perhaps half the country, cutting off transport routes and laying siege to cities and towns. A sharp uptick in U.S. airstrikes has not curbed their momentum.

In September, Washington appointed the veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as an envoy for peace talks – a welcome sign that it was prioritising negotiations to end the war. Taliban leaders appear to be taking the talks seriously, though the process is stuck over their continued insistence that the U.S. commit to a timeline for full withdrawal of international forces as a precondition for a wider peace process involving other Afghan factions, a sequence that would be a win for the Taliban while saddling other Afghans with uncertainty.

Only days after Khalilzad’s latest talks with the Taliban came Trump’s bombshell. Withdrawing 7,000 troops in itself will probably not be militarily decisive: U.S. forces now mostly perform support roles. Indeed, there could be value to the U.S. making clear it is serious about bringing troops home. All sides understand that a rapid pullout could provoke a major new civil war, an outcome nobody, including the Taliban, wants. With a U.S. drawdown in the cards, the Taliban’s suspicion about Washington’s motives might ease, propelling talks forward.

Neighbouring countries and others involved in Afghanistan [...] want the Americans out eventually, but none of them wants a precipitous withdrawal.

Neighbouring countries and others involved in Afghanistan – notably Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China – all want the Americans out eventually, but none of them wants a precipitous withdrawal. They may be more inclined to support U.S. diplomacy if they believe that Washington will eventually give up its strategic foothold in South Asia. Trump’s announcement could therefore spur them to help end the war, but regional powers could just as easily increase their meddling by doubling down on Afghan proxies to hedge their bets.

The rashness of Trump’s decision risks outweighing any potential silver lining. Its timing appeared to catch everyone – from Khalilzad and top U.S. military chiefs to the Afghan government – off guard. The fact that it was not coordinated with Khalilzad meant that the envoy could not extract any concessions from the Taliban in return for such a key pledge that partially addressed their core demand. In Kabul, the sense of betrayal was palpable. A few days later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani nominated two hard-line anti-Taliban officials as his defence and interior ministers, suggesting a move away from his compromising tone of the past year.

The festivities that greeted the June ceasefire revealed broad support for peace, and there are signs that the war’s core protagonists are open to a settlement. But that was always an uncertain bet. Trump’s decision has only added to the uncertainty.

3. U.S.-Chinese Tensions

The standoff between China and the U.S. is not a deadly conflict, no matter how bitter the trade war between Washington and Beijing has become. Still, rhetoric between the two is increasingly bellicose. If relations, already at their lowest ebb since the Tiananmen protests almost three decades ago, continue to deteriorate, the rivalry could have graver geopolitical consequences than all of the other crises listed this year.

In a deeply divided Washington, one position that wins bipartisan consensus is that China is an adversary with which the U.S. is inexorably locked in strategic competition. Most U.S. policymakers concur that Beijing has exploited institutions and rules to its own end – joining the World Trade Organization or signing up to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, even as it acts inconsistently with the spirit of both. President Xi Jinping’s ending of term limits, rapid expansion of China’s military, and extension of the Communist Party’s control across state and society confirm to many in Washington the dangerous turn the country has taken under his stewardship. The U.S. government’s 2018 National Defense Strategy cites “inter-state strategic competition” as its primary concern, with China and Russia named as primary competitors, after many years in which terrorism took the top spot.

Heightening the sense of lawlessness is Beijing’s unjust detention of three Canadians – including one of my colleagues, the North East Asia expert Michael Kovrig – widely seen as a tit for tat for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, wanted for Iran sanctions violations by the U.S., with which Canada has an extradition treaty.

Beijing is ever readier to throw its weight around in multilateral institutions and its region.

In reality, China likely has no short-term desire to fundamentally challenge the world order. Nor will it match Washington’s global clout anytime soon, provided the Trump administration takes steps to stop haemorrhaging allies and credibility. But Beijing is ever readier to throw its weight around in multilateral institutions and its region. In Asia, it expects a Chinese sphere in which neighbours are sovereign but deferential. U.S. policymakers mostly regard such an arrangement as inimical to U.S. alliances and interests.

Mounting U.S.-Chinese tension has implications for conflicts in Asia and beyond. For the two superpowers, pooling efforts to end crises has never been easy. An increasingly bitter rivalry would make it much harder. China would be less likely to back either tougher sanctions against North Korea, if stuttering talks between Washington and Pyongyang break down, or U.S. diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan.

Risks of direct conflict remain slim, but the South China Sea is a troubling flash point. The past two decades have seen occasional run-ins between Chinese forces and U.S. planes. Beijing stakes claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea, stopping mere miles from the Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Philippine coastlines, and has aggressively built bases on strategic natural and man-made islands. From Beijing’s perspective, such manoeuvres are standard operating procedure for what Xi calls a “big country”. China wants what the U.S. has: pliant neighbours, influence around its periphery, and the capacity to control its sea approaches and transport lanes. Others, of course, see it differently. The smaller South East Asian nations object, and some look to Washington for protection.

Beijing and Washington could reach some form of trade deal in the months ahead, which would help ease tensions. But any respite is likely to be short-lived. On both sides, leaders believe a long-festering geopolitical and economic clash has reached a point of rupture.

4. Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Israel, and Iran

Much like 2018, 2019 presents risks of confrontation – deliberate or inadvertent – involving the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. The first three share a common view of the government in Tehran as a threat that has been emboldened for too long and whose regional aspirations need curbing. For Washington, this has translated into withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, the restoration of sanctions, more aggressive rhetoric, and threats of powerful retaliation in the event of Iranian provocation. Riyadh has embraced this new tone, and – mainly in the voice of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – suggested it will fight back and seek to counter Iran in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and even on Iranian soil. Israel has focused on Syria, where it has regularly struck Iranian and Iranian-aligned targets, but it has also threatened to target the Iranian-backed militant group Hizbollah in Lebanon.

So far, Iran – confident in long-term trends and deterred by the possibility of retaliation – has opted to hunker down. While it has resumed missile testing, and the U.S. has accused it of using its Shiite proxies in Iraq to threaten the U.S. presence there, its response appears calculated not to invite a harsh reply. But as economic pressure builds on Iran, this posture may not last. Moreover, the risk of an accidental clash originating in Yemen, in the Persian Gulf, in Syria, or in Iraq cannot be discounted.

The main source of tension, so far, has been the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the reimposition of secondary sanctions against countries engaged in business with Tehran. That Iran has not responded in kind to what it describes as economic warfare owes much to the efforts of the deal’s other signatories, namely European countries, Russia, and China. Their attempts to preserve a modicum of space for trade coupled with their continued diplomatic engagement with Tehran have given sufficient reason for Iran’s leaders to adhere to the terms of the deal. Those leaders also seem to be hoping for a one-term Trump presidency.

Hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is playing out in proxy struggles across the Middle East, from Yemen to Lebanon.

This calculus could change. While U.S. and Saudi hopes that sanctions will force Iran to modify its disruptive behaviour or prompt regime change almost certainly will be disappointed, the economic squeeze is hurting ordinary Iranians. As more pain is inflicted on Iran’s citizens, hard-line voices urging the Islamic Republic to eschew the agreement will grow louder, especially as jockeying for President Hassan Rouhani’s and, possibly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s posts heat up. Even if they comply with nuclear constraints, the temptation could grow in Tehran to make Washington pay a price for its actions by taking aim at its presence in the region, for example by encouraging attacks by Iraqi Shiite militias against U.S. targets in Iraq.

Hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is playing out in proxy struggles across the Middle East, from Yemen to Lebanon. Any of these conflicts could escalate. Yemen is arguably the most dangerous. Should a Huthi missile inflict casualties in a Saudi city or if the Huthis target international commercial shipping in the Red Sea – a move they have long threatened to make – the conflict could enter a far more dangerous phase.

In Syria, Israel has so far been adept at striking Iranian targets without prompting a wider war. Iran, no doubt aware of the potential cost of such escalation, calculates that it can absorb such attacks without endangering its deeper interests and longer-term presence in Syria. But the Syrian theatre is congested, Iranian forbearance is not limitless, and the likelihood of a miscalculation or an attack gone awry remains a risk.

Hanging over these dynamics will be continued reverberations of the October assassination of Khashoggi. The murder amplified criticism in the U.S. of both Saudi foreign policy and the seemingly unconditional U.S. support for it. These feelings will intensify next year as Democrats assume control of the House. One can only hope this leads to stronger U.S. pressure on Riyadh to end the war in Yemen and to greater congressional scrutiny of U.S. and Saudi escalatory policies toward Iran.

5. Syria

As 2018 came to a close, it looked as if the Syrian conflict would continue along the same path. It seemed that the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with Iranian and Russian help, would win its battle against the opposition. The war against the Islamic State would approach the finish line. Foreign actors would maintain a fragile equilibrium in various parts of the country: among Israel, Iran, and Russia in the south west; Russia and Turkey in the north west; and the U.S. and Turkey in the north east. But with a mid-December phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Trump upended that balance; increased the odds of a bloody conflict involving Turkey, its Syrian allies, Syrian Kurds, and the Assad regime; and, in so doing, potentially gave the Islamic State a new lease on life by fueling the chaos on which it thrives.

The Trump administration’s earlier policy of indefinitely retaining a military presence in Syria was always of questionable value. It was unclear how 2,000 U.S. troops could curb Iranian influence or create meaningful pressure on the Assad regime. The fight against the Islamic State is not over, but it need not require maintaining U.S. troops on the ground. That said, a precipitous withdrawal presents one major risk: it will leave the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the Kurdish-dominated armed group that partnered with U.S. forces against the Islamic State and now controls roughly one-third of Syrian territory – perilously exposed.

The real question for the U.S. should not have been whether to stay or go, but under what timetable and what conditions to withdraw.

The YPG could now face an attack from Turkey (which considers it a terrorist organisation due to its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK) or by the Assad regime (which aims to reassert control over the entirety of the country, including the oil-rich north east). Should disorder ensue, the Islamic State could seize the opportunity to stage a comeback by regrouping and recapturing some of the territory it has lost over the past two years.

In short, the real question for the U.S. should not have been whether to stay or go, but under what timetable and what conditions to withdraw.

Both the U.S. and Russia should have an interest in preventing an all-out scramble for the territory abandoned by the U.S. because it could revitalise the Islamic State and because (from Russia’s perspective) it could result in Turkey controlling more of Moscow’s ally’s land. Averting this scenario will require Washington and Moscow (separately or in tandem) to persuade Turkey not to launch an assault on YPG-held territory, to persuade the YPG to lower its armed profile, and to facilitate a deal between Damascus and the YPG that entails the return of the Syrian government to the north east coupled with a degree of Kurdish self-rule in the area. Such an outcome would simultaneously allow Syria to restore its sovereignty, reassure Turkey by limiting YPG authority and firepower, and protect the Kurds from military attack. It might be too late to achieve this goal. It is not too late to try.

6. Nigeria

Nigerians will go to the polls in February 2019 to elect a president and new federal legislature, and again in March to choose state governors and lawmakers. Nigerian elections are traditionally violent affairs, and conditions this time around are particularly combustible.

The presidential contest between incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and his main rival, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, will be hard fought. Relations between Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress and Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party – which governed for sixteen years until Buhari came to power – are as acrimonious in the capital as they are in hot spots across the country. Disputes between Buhari and the leaders of parliament’s two chambers, both of whom defected from the ruling party in July, delayed funding for the electoral commission and security agencies, hindering election preparations. The opposition’s distrust of both the commission and security forces heightens risks of protests during and after the vote. Such protests have a troubled precedent: demonstrations after the 2011 polls morphed into attacks on minorities across northern Nigeria in which more than 800 people died.

Nigerian elections are traditionally violent affairs, and conditions this time around are particularly combustible.

The election comes atop other challenges. Levels of violent crime and general insecurity remain high across much of the country. Civilians in parts of the north east bear the brunt of the brutal conflict between government troops and a resilient Islamist Boko Haram insurgency. One militant faction, known as Islamic State West Africa Province, appears to be gaining ground. Violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt this past year between predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian farmers escalated to unprecedented levels, killing approximately 1,500 people. Though that bloodshed has calmed over past months, it has frayed intercommunal relations – especially between Muslims and Christians – in those areas, which are likely to see fiercely fought elections, as ballots from there could swing the national presidential vote. Already, politicians are stoking divisions for political ends, including by using inflammatory, identity-based language against rivals.

In the oil-rich Niger Delta, too, tensions between locals and the federal government could boil over this year, given simmering anger at the latter’s failure to fulfil pledges to clean up oil pollution, build infrastructure, and increase social investment over the past few years.

The immediate priority for the government must be to avert an election crisis by beefing up security in vulnerable states and taking steps to ensure that security forces act impartially, while all parties pledge to campaign peacefully and handle disputes lawfully. That in itself will not resolve Nigeria’s many problems. But it would be a necessary start.

7. South Sudan

Since South Sudan’s civil war erupted five years ago, 400,000 people have died. In September, President Salva Kiir and his main rival, the former vice president-turned rebel leader Riek Machar, signed an agreement to hold fire and rule together until elections in 2022. The deal satisfies – for now at least – the two antagonists’ interests and those of Presidents Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, the two regional leaders with the most sway in South Sudan. Most importantly, it has reduced violence. For now, this is reason enough to support the accord. Yet the odds remain stacked against it ushering in a new era of stability.

First, the deal is worryingly similar to a pact the two men signed in August 2015, which collapsed the following year, triggering a surge in fighting. By envisaging elections in 2022, the deal perpetuates the Kiir-Machar rivalry until then, paving the way for another showdown. It also remains a work in progress. Most alarming, security arrangements for Juba, the capital, remain contested, as do plans for unifying a national army.

By envisaging elections in 2022, the deal perpetuates the Kiir-Machar rivalry until then, paving the way for another showdown.

In Sudan, meanwhile, Bashir faces what could be a serious challenge to his own rule. In mid-December, protesters took to the streets in many towns and cities decrying high prices and urging the president to step down. The protests’ endgame is unclear. But a prolonged crisis in its northern neighbour could be hugely destabilising for South Sudan.

Finally, donors, wary of funding deals that have collapsed in the past, are now mostly sitting on the sidelines. The U.S., which until recently spearheaded Western diplomacy in South Sudan, has stepped back. Others are waiting to see tangible steps forward by Kiir and Machar before opening their check books.

Such caution is understandable. But if this deal fails, it is not clear what would replace it, and the country could collapse into major bloodshed again. Some form of third-party shuttle diplomacy among regional heads of state, who back different sides and largely focus on protecting their own short-term interests, will be necessary. An envoy, clearly backed by Western and other actors outside the region, might help keep regional leaders focused on ensuring the deal does not fall apart, as well as build consensus for a wider settlement that shares power across South Sudan’s groups and regions. Without that, the fragile opportunity for peace that currently exists could evaporate.

8. Cameroon

A crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone areas is on the verge of escalating into civil war and destabilising a country that was once considered an island of relative calm in a troubled region.

The tempo of the crisis has escalated steadily since 2016, when Anglophone teachers and lawyers took to the streets to protest the creeping use of French in the education and legal systems. Their demonstrations morphed into wider protests over the marginalisation of Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, which represents about one-fifth of the country’s population. The government refused to acknowledge the Anglophones’ grievances or engage their leaders as security forces violently repressed protests and jailed activists.The response fuelled Anglophones’ anger at the central government, pushing many protesters who had initially called only for autonomy and rights into the arms of separatist groups, whose attacks started in late 2017. A disputed presidential election this October, which President Paul Biya, aged 85 and in power for 36 years, won and in which few Anglophones voted, hardly helped.

Nearly ten separatist militias now battle government forces, while two organisations provide direction from abroad: the interim government of Ambazonia (the putative name of the self-proclaimed Anglophone state) and the Ambazonia Governing Council. The separatists are pitted not only against Cameroonian security forces, but also against pro-government “self-defence” groups. Criminal gangs in Anglophone areas have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their activities.

At least 500 civilians have died in the violence. The UN counts 30,000 Anglophone refugees in Nigeria and 437,000 internally displaced in Cameroon.

According to the International Crisis Group’s estimates, fighting has already killed nearly 200 soldiers, gendarmes, and police officers, with some 300 injured, and killed more than 600 separatists. At least 500 civilians have died in the violence. The UN counts 30,000 Anglophone refugees in Nigeria and 437,000 internally displaced in Cameroon.

Defusing the crisis will first require confidence-building measures. These should include the government’s release of all political detainees, including separatist leaders; a pledge from both sides to implement a ceasefire; and support for a planned Anglophone conference, which would allow Anglophones to select leaders to represent them in negotiations. These steps could pave the way for talks between the government and Anglophone leaders, followed by some form of national dialogue in which options for decentralisation or federalism would be on the table.

Cameroonian authorities made a welcome move in mid-December when they released 289 Anglophone detainees, though hundreds, including separatist leaders, are still behind bars. It remains unclear whether this signals a genuine change of heart by the government, which has appeared determined to crush insurgents rather than address Anglophone concerns. Nor is it clear whether the release can, on its own, persuade hard-line separatists to talk rather than fight.

Without meaningful, mutual compromise, Cameroon is in danger of sliding toward a major and destabilising conflict.

9. Ukraine

The war in Ukraine continues to smoulder with no end in sight. Sparked by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its subsequent support for separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, it also fuels the wider geopolitical standoff between Russia and Western powers. The latest flash point is the Sea of Azov, where in November Russian and Ukrainian vessels clashed and Russia effectively blocked access to the Kerch Strait, at the mouth of the sea. The confrontation suggests that neither side sees any advantage in compromising.

As Kyiv sees it, the attack on Ukrainian military ships and seizure of two dozen sailors is the culmination of months of Russian attempts to squeeze Ukrainian boats out of those waters, violating a 2003 bilateral treaty that guarantees both countries free shipping. Moscow claims the boats were entering its coastal waters and that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko provoked the skirmish to shore up Western backing and his domestic base ahead of presidential elections scheduled for March 2019. Poroshenko’s subsequent efforts to introduce martial law didn’t help; the Kremlin, together with the president’s domestic critics, painted it as a political stunt. Either way, the incident clearly showcased Moscow’s newfound willingness to use overt force against Ukraine.

As Kyiv sees it, the attack on Ukrainian military ships and seizure of two dozen sailors is the culmination of months of Russian attempts to squeeze Ukrainian boats out of those waters.

Meanwhile, fighting in the Donbas continues, and civilians living along front lines – abandoned by both Kyiv and the separatists – are paying the price. Neither Ukraine nor Russia has taken steps to end the war. Kyiv refuses to devolve power to Donbas – something it pledged to do as part of the Minsk agreements that set out a path to end the war – until Russia withdraws arms and personnel from separatist-held areas, which Moscow shows scant willingness to do. Proposals for possible peacekeeping missions have not gone far.

Absent a meaningful shift in tack by either side, 2019 will most likely see more of the same. Kyiv is unlikely to budge before elections (in addition to the presidential vote, parliamentary polls are due before the year’s end). Russia may chafe at the cost of keeping separatist-held areas afloat, but it is unlikely to give up influence in the Donbas any time soon. The Ukrainian elections or domestic developments in Russia might bring opportunities for peacemaking. But as the Azov spat shows, the danger of escalation is ever present.

10. Venezuela

Home to enormous oil reserves, Venezuela ought to be the envy of its neighbours. Instead Latin America is watching apprehensively as the country’s implosion threatens to provoke a regional crisis.

Venezuela’s economy is in freefall, with a devastating social impact. Poverty and malnutrition are rampant. Once-eradicated diseases, such as diphtheria, have made a comeback. Some 3 million of Venezuela’s 31 million people have fled the country, primarily to Colombia and other neighbours. The U.N. expects that number to climb to 5.3 million by the end of 2019.

President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling clique [...] refuses to admit the depth of Venezuela’s agony or accept most humanitarian relief.

President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling clique, having badly mismanaged the economy, now refuses to admit the depth of Venezuela’s agony or accept most humanitarian relief. The government has dismantled the country’s institutions, stripping the opposition-controlled parliament of its powers and stage-managing the election of a rubber-stamp legislature in its place. On 10 January 2019, Maduro will start a second term, though neither his domestic opponents nor much of the outside world consider his re-election credible. For its part, the opposition is paralysed by infighting, with a vocal faction (mostly in exile) calling upon foreign powers to topple Maduro by force.

Venezuela’s neighbours are struggling to accommodate the influx of people fleeing and anxious at the prospect of more. One barometer of Latin American impatience is the stance of Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States: in September, he said the region “should not exclude any option”, implying a military intervention could be coming. The Trump administration has made similar hints. Such talk may be just that, and one of Maduro’s strongest critics, new Colombian President Iván Duque, disavowed it in October – fortunately, given that external military action would almost certainly provoke further chaos.

There are few good policy options. The U.S. and Europe have targeted Maduro’s inner circle with sanctions, with Washington adding financial restrictions, though broader trade penalties are inadvisable, as they would harm the population. Peru and others suggest cutting diplomatic ties, but that would isolate Venezuelans as their plight worsens.

If concerned outsiders are to help while discouraging talk of armed intervention, they should press for a peaceful transition, likely involving negotiations on political and economic reform between the government and opposition and some form of transitional administration. Maduro has little incentive to agree to such a step, of course. But Latin American leaders could increase the pressure by imposing their own sanctions on top Venezuelan officials, to be lifted if the government complies (although such regional sanctions would be almost unprecedented).

Without such steps, Venezuela’s collapse remains possible, and the suffering of its people looks set to continue, with the country’s neighbours left to pick up the pieces.

Originally published in Foreign Policy: 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019