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South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse
South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse
Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2019
Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2019
The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers stand at attention at a containment site outside Juba, 14 April 2016. AFP/Charles Lomodong
Commentary / Africa

South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse

International actors are struggling to respond to the evolving situation in South Sudan, meanwhile regional actors are busy creating facts on the ground.

One year ago, the main warring parties in South Sudan – the government and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) signed a peace agreement designed to end South Sudan’s nearly two-year civil war. The government only signed under concerted pressure from regional and international powers; yet despite Juba’s reservations, the agreement stopped the worst of the fighting. 

By mid-2016, peace implementation halted and fighting erupted between the government and rebel forces brought into Juba under a contentious post-agreement security deal. Following the brief fighting, the first vice president and SPLM/A-IO leader, Dr Riek Machar, left Juba and remained in the bush, waging a limited guerrilla conflict, for over a month. As the international community was focused on the security of Juba and their nationals, the South Sudanese government seized the opportunity and replaced Machar with the SPLM/A-IO’s General Taban Deng Gai as first vice president. 

Last week, the UN Security Council authorised a regional protection force, on the basis of regional endorsement for the force after the clashes in Juba. Despite agreeing in principle to a protection force, the South Sudanese government strenuously objects to the mandate, leaving little option but negotiations to secure consent for deployment. The regional force is to operate under the existing UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which includes more than 13,000 troops and police. The over-focus on a new peacekeeping mandate at the expense of political developments in the country reflects international disunity and a lack of political strategy. International actors are struggling to respond to the evolving situation while regional actors are busy creating facts on the ground. A stronger government, watered down peace agreement, a new regional force under the UN (which has little linkage to peace implementation) and growing regional divisions are some of the outcomes of the last month’s events.

How We Got Here

The regional organisation for the Horn of Africa, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), launched the peace talks that eventually resulted in the government and SPLM/A-IO signing the Agreement on the Resolution on the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS). The agreement called for the establishment of a transitional government and, through subsequent negotiations, Machar returned to Juba in April with a force of over 1,000 to take his place as first vice president of the transitional government.

Many members of both the government, led by President Salva Kiir, and the SPLM/A-IO were only interested in the parts of the agreement that would benefit them, while others engaged in political brinkmanship to seek maximum advantage from the deal’s various provisions.

By the middle of this year, implementation of the peace agreement had stalled. In this environment, IGAD-PLUS – a grouping intended to bolster the peace process that includes the African Union (AU), China, European Union (EU), the IGAD Partners Forum (IPF), Norway, UK, UN, and the U.S. – failed to recognise that Juba was a powder keg. The dangers were compounded by poorly designed post-ARCSS security arrangements that involved opposing forces in their thousands in the capital.

Conflict in Juba

Fighting between government forces and former rebels erupted in Juba in early July. As tensions increased, a series of violent incidents led to fighting at the Presidential Palace – where both Kiir and Machar were meeting. The fighting was started by a rogue SPLA-IO officer attempting to gain entry to the palace. Despite the protection he received from the president and senior security personnel, Machar failed to control his forces’ actions.

Amidst further fighting, the remaining SPLA-IO forces and much of its leadership, including Machar, withdrew from Juba. Government forces then took control of the Jebel area on the outskirts of Juba where the SPLA-IO forces and large UN base were located and were involved in violence and looting in that area. Machar’s predominantly ethnic Nuer SPLA-IO forces joined with Equatorian SPLA-IO members in different parts of Equatoria region (but not in close proximity to Juba), where there have been sporadic clashes, of varying degrees of seriousness, since.

During the fighting, Kiir protected many senior SPLM-IO officials, some of whom remain in Juba. Leading this group is Taban, Machar’s former chief negotiator. In a controversial meeting on 23 July, the few SPLM/A-IO members remaining in Juba appointed Taban as the group’s chairman. Following July’s fighting, many SPLM-IO members in Juba said they believed that Machar would not be able to return to Juba and work with the president. They think Taban was unlikely to seek the presidency, and therefore Kiir would be able to work with him. Taban was sworn in as first vice president on 26 July.

Political Impasse

Despite enjoying the support of the government and most of the SPLM/A-IO leaders in Juba, Taban does not have the support of the diverse military groupings that comprise the SPLM/A-IO. (However, the northern Bahr el Ghazal SPLA-IO forces defected to the government during July’s fighting.)

Meanwhile, Machar and remnants of his SPLA-IO forces in Juba moved to other parts of the Equatoria region. Some have remained peaceful while others are responsible for new recruitment and attacks against government and civilian targets, including South Sudan’s main Juba-Nimule road (a situation of concern to Uganda, which uses the road for profitable exports to Juba). Most of Machar’s forces that were expelled from Juba remain in the Equatoria region – far from the SPLM/A-IO strongholds in Greater Upper Nile. This is an untenable position, despite indications that his forces are receiving some material support from Sudan.

Amidst diplomatic conversations about putting South Sudan under UN trusteeship, sending an intervention force and imposing an arms embargo, other opposition figures from across the political spectrum ramped up anti-government agitation. With a perceived “power vacuum” in opposition leadership, new alliances emerged and leaders sought external support for rebellion.

Sudan’s limited support to the SPLM/A-IO effectively constrained both the activity and number of armed groups in South Sudan over the past three years. Khartoum’s current participation in talks with Juba over armed group activity, as well as the government’s preference to carry on with peace implementation with Taban as first vice president and begin integration offers, may be the only realistic alternative to further widespread conflict.

The diplomatic community in Juba is increasingly resigned to accepting Taban – a significant deal on armed group integration could cement his position and may offer the only viable option to pull back from renewed conflict, especially as Machar is unlikely to be welcomed back to Juba. In the midst of these significant developments, disunity and the lack of a political strategy among IGAD-PLUS leaves it struggling to respond to the evolving realities shaped by the South Sudanese and regional actors.

Regional Geopolitics

South Sudan has long been an arena in which regional powers competed for influence, and the geopolitics of its conflicts are now undergoing their most significant shift in more than a decade. The thaw in relations between Sudan and Uganda; ongoing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia; South Sudan’s strengthening of ties with Eritrea, and the deterioration of its relationship with Ethiopia have all created new opportunities and constraints both for South Sudanese parties and external peacemakers. Efforts to resolve the current conflict and pursue “punitive” measures against the South Sudanese government have run into opposition both within the region and on the UN Security Council.

This puts Juba’s supporters and those who propose measures that would have a negative effect on the government in increasingly polarised positions. Unlocking these complex geopolitical dynamics should be part and parcel of developing a political strategy that reduces regional tensions while bringing competing groups in South Sudan back into dialogue.

Sudan and Uganda

The outbreak of civil war in South Sudan in December 2013 brought longstanding tensions between Sudan and Uganda to the fore and caused many to fear a further regionalisation of the conflict. Yet through frequent meetings between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the two came to terms over South Sudan and took a series of steps toward a less confrontational relationship. The countries did not have long to settle into this posture before facing new challenges. July’s outbreak of conflict, subsequent discussions over an intervention or protection force, and SPLA-IO leader Riek Machar’s replacement as first vice president has placed the new relationship under an immediate stress test. Though both sides are taking actions to keep the peace, a renewed rift between Sudan and Uganda, with each side backing their favoured actor, could escalate conflict and further divide the region.

Ethiopia and South Sudan

At the civil war’s outset, Ethiopia hosted peace talks and tried to take a neutral position between the government and SPLM/A-IO, as well as with Sudan and Uganda. Ethiopia’s intention was to prevent South Sudan’s civil war from becoming a regional conflict. Still, South Sudan saw Ethiopia’s hosting of Machar, and even the peace talks, as being “unsupportive”, and viewed its close relationship with the U.S. – the main proponent of punitive measures against the government – as un-neighbourly. Following the tremendous pressure that Juba came under during negotiations to sign the ARCSS in August 2015, tensions continued to grow. The cold war between Addis and Juba is ever more apparent, and Juba’s belief that Addis is partial makes it increasingly difficult for Ethiopia to play a leading role in ARCSS implementation and potentially in the regional force. The two countries share a restive border and violent inter-communal clashes are common; conflict dynamics along the border will continue to be influenced by events in Addis and Juba.

Eritrea and South Sudan

Eritrea worked closely with the SPLA in the 1990s, particularly on its short-lived eastern front. During the period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005-2011), relations soured and Asmara was widely accused of providing material support to anti-SPLA groups. However, in 2014, the SPLM/A-IO was disappointed to discover that Eritrea would not provide them with support. As relations between Addis and Juba became increasingly complicated, Juba pursued a rapprochement with Asmara. With plans to strengthen ties, including the shipment of humanitarian assistance through Eritrea’s Massawa port, the restart of regular flights between the two countries and an increase in official bilateral activity, the relationship appears set to deepen. This sets off alarm bells in Addis and will further complicate the relationship between Ethiopia and South Sudan. Meanwhile, South Sudan may now provide an alternate stage for the projection of unresolved matters between Asmara and Addis.

Ethiopia and Egypt

Beyond the IGAD region, Egypt’s role in South Sudan has increased in importance, particularly following its ascension to a seat on the UN Security Council, where it generally takes a non-interventionist stance. Egypt is in a long-running dispute over Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Egypt believes the dam will reduce the flow of the river, particularly as its reservoir fills, violating principles on preventing downstream harm (one reason the World Bank declined to support it) and treaties on Nile water usage. Other Nile basin countries have challenged the continuing validity of treaties created while most of these states did not exist and have proposed a new one, which Egypt rejects. The dam is anticipated to finish in 2017, and current negotiations focus on the timeline for filling the reservoir. Egypt has engaged South Sudan in talks on how to increase the water flow from the White Nile. This mutually beneficial relationship gives Juba a key ally on the Security Council at a time when it faces calls from other council members for further sanctions, arms embargos, demilitarisation of the capital and a regional force. Ethiopia, which does not always share the same approach to South Sudan as Egypt, will join the Security Council in 2017.

Regional Protection Force

Following July’s fighting, IGAD agreed to send a regional force to South Sudan. This was a revival of its 2014 proposal for a regional protection force, intended to put some weight behind the IGAD mediation, but it faltered in negotiations with the UN. The new force was subject to more than a month of debates over its mandate, composition and size. While the South Sudanese government consented in principle to the force, it strenuously objected to the mandate agreed on in UN Security Council Resolution 2304 on 12 August.

The mandate calls for a force of 4,000 to protect civilians, UN and humanitarian personnel, and ceasefire and peace agreement monitors. Controversially, it also calls for the force to control the airport; secure entry and egress from Juba; “disarm” government security forces who threaten civilians or protected persons; and take action in extremis in Juba or elsewhere – security tasks the government believes violate their sovereignty. That the forces are regional does not ameliorate the government’s concerns, given the region’s vested interests in South Sudan (which are not always the same as Juba’s).

Some Council members supported the mandate based on the belief that the SPLA-IO was capable of launching a large-scale attack against the capital, which it is not. After peacekeepers failed to respond to attacks on foreigners last month, many believed a stronger mission was necessary to prevent a repeat of these events. Rather, the previously Juba-based SPLA-IO forces’ destabilising presence in the Equatoria region is almost entirely unaddressed by the mandate. Many Council members who abstained were concerned about the mandate’s lack of focus on a political path forward and connection between the force and political objectives. Other diplomats and advocates questioned the utility of additional forces from regional countries that are already part of UNMISS and have a spotty record in discharging the pre-existing mandate. Senior UNMISS officials are concerned about the mission’s ability to absorb an additional 4,000 troops, as well as about the negative implications for the safety of mission staff and ability to carry out its core mandate to protect civilians.

A 5 August IGAD communiqué laid out some of the controversial tasks that were included in the mandate and called for the next step to be a meeting (which Juba believed would be a negotiation) with South Sudan and the region’s military chiefs. This meeting had not happened by 12 August and the Council, having already delayed consideration once, voted on the mandate drafted by the U.S., the regular penholder on South Sudan on the Council. The debate was contentious and, though the mandate passed, four Council members, including Russia, China, Egypt and Venezuela, abstained. The absence of consensus on the Council and Juba’s objections to the resolution call into question whether the mandate will be implemented as intended.

There is doubt as to whether a threatened arms embargo – conditions for which are spelt out in the resolution’s annex – is a realistic punitive measure. Several Council members are reluctant to impose an arms embargo, so it may not pass a vote – and, absent more unified Council support, may not be particularly effective regardless. Likewise, many non-Council members in the Horn of Africa are experts at skirting arms embargos and restrictions on arms transfers. If they are not fully committed to implementation, this could also limit an embargo’s effectiveness. There are further questions about how an effective arms embargo would impact Juba’s ability to provide border security or address internal rule of law challenges – which include rebel groups other than the SPLA-IO.

Juba has already expressed its displeasure and is likely to seek to make the peacekeeping mission’s operations even more difficult – including through limitations and delays on movement and clearances of personnel, and harassment of UN staff – as it negotiates over the new force. Routine and pre-agreed unit changeovers may be subject to delays given suspicions that the UN will use these changes to surreptitiously increase the force size.

Next Steps

At this juncture, the transitional government, with Taban as the first vice president, appears set to use a combination of carrots and sticks to implement the ARCSS – along lines far more favourable to the wartime government than originally envisioned by IGAD-PLUS. Deals on armed group integration – within or outside the parameters of ARCSS – could significantly reduce tensions between Khartoum, Juba and Kampala, break apart Machar’s fragile coalition and maintain Taban as the first vice president. Such a situation could result in stability in Juba and in many parts of the country, while leaving other areas still in conflict. Juba is unlikely to accept another mediation in an international forum as it did in 2014-2015, choosing to manage the ongoing conflict on its own, with its closest neighbours remaining deeply involved.

Discussions within IGAD, the African Union and Security Council over a regional force have sent the relationship between South Sudan and the west, particularly the U.S., into a downward spiral – benefiting no one. The government is now seeking to make clear through restrictions on the UN inside South Sudan that it is not possible to send in a 4,000-strong force without consent. Additional negotiations with the UN, IGAD and regional participants in the force are likely to continue to occupy key actors at the expense of engagement on a political resolution to the conflict. The UN should be cautious about the use of force without clear political objectives, and it should work with other IGAD-PLUS members to reassess how the ARCSS can be realistically implemented in a manner that increases stability given the shift in dynamics in-country.

Juba has succeeded in clawing back from its position a year ago when it signed the ARCSS with significant reservations. At this stage, a partially implemented agreement favouring the government and presenting no threat to Kiir’s presidency is the most likely outcome of the past month’s tumult. This would mean relative stability in Juba and much of the country, with perpetual conflicts elsewhere.

Divisions within the international community, and IGAD-PLUS in particular, are likely to inhibit the formation of an overarching political strategy to address ongoing conflict and governance challenges. Instead, the South Sudanese will seek to shape the country’s future trajectory, with regional influences – whether Juba welcomes these influences or not. Yet, a key aspect of the ARCSS is the devolution of power, some of which is still possible. IGAD-PLUS should coordinate its efforts with the transitional government to devolve power in line with the agreement’s power-sharing ratios to disaffected groups and communities who hoped to benefit from the agreement.

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