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South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse
South Sudan’s Risky Political Impasse
Twelve Points for the New African Union Commission Chairperson
Twelve Points for the New African Union Commission Chairperson
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.

Moussa Faki, former Chadian Foreign Minister and the new African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson, speaks during an interview at the AU in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 31 January 2017. AFP/ Zacharias Abubeker.
Statement / Africa

Twelve Points for the New African Union Commission Chairperson

Africa is experiencing the highest number of humanitarian crises since the 1990s. As the new chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, takes office, International Crisis Group suggests how he can strengthen the organisation’s response to threats to continental peace and security.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, the new chair of the African Union Commission (AUC), takes office in mid-March as the continent faces its worst spate of humanitarian crises since the 1990s. The most alarming is in the Lake Chad basin where more than eleven million people need emergency aid. In Somalia, 6.2 million (almost half the population) face acute food shortages and in South Sudan, where the UN recently declared a famine, nearly 5 million are severely food insecure. The suffering is largely man-made: the effects of drought have been exacerbated by prolonged wars and mass displacement.

More promisingly, Gambia’s peaceful transition, negotiated by the Economic Community of West African States with AU support, is one of the steps toward democracy and rule of law being taken in much of the continent. Whether these gains can be multiplied across Africa depends on how well Mr Faki, Chad’s former foreign minister, will use the tools at his disposal to persuade member states to address the triggers and longer-term drivers of conflict: fraught electoral processes; leaders who refuse to leave office as scheduled; corrupt, authoritarian or repressive governments; population growth; joblessness and climate change. These same forces precipitate two other major continental challenges, migration and the threat from religious extremists and other violent non-state groups.

Mr Faki arrives at a time of upheaval for the AU. At January’s summit, heads of state agreed to proposals from Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame that the organisation should focus only on a limited number of key priorities with continental scope, such as political affairs, peace and security and continental integration, and that institutional structures should be redesigned to reflect this. He will have to carefully manage this radical reform, as well as Morocco’s recent re-admission, to avoid aggravating existing tensions and divisions and maintain morale in a beleaguered secretariat.

The geopolitical context for multilateral diplomacy is also changing rapidly. The influence of China, the Gulf states and Turkey (especially in the Horn, the Sahel and North Africa) cannot be ignored. Growing nationalism in Europe and the uncertainty of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies have created new concerns. There are opportunities here for the AU along with challenges, but to take advantage of them, Mr Faki will have to push it and its member states to take greater responsibility, both politically and financially, for conflict prevention and resolution. Crisis Group offers below ideas on how the new chair of the AUC can drive change and revitalise key relationships so as to strengthen the AU’s response to threats to continental peace and security, as well as suggestions for how the organisation can help prevent conflict escalating and move peace processes forward.

Strategic Direction

1. Build support for a stronger, more self-sufficient union

In a deeply unstable global environment, with old power centres in disarray and Middle East rivalries infecting the continent, African multilateral diplomacy is more necessary than ever. The new chair’s challenge is to convince member states of the AU’s worth, in particular the value of its peace and security architecture. That leaders signed on to a bold reform agenda would seem to suggest they want a more effective AU. But for the process to be truly transformative, they must make tough choices on sovereignty, and the tensions between popular aspirations for more open government and the authoritarian tendencies of many of those governments.

There are opportunities here for the AU along with challenges, but to take advantage of them, Mr Faki will have to push it and its member states to take greater responsibility.

Working closely with presidents Kagame, Idriss Déby (Chad) and Alpha Condé (Guinea), the troika appointed to supervise implementation of the reforms, Mr Faki should build a coalition of leaders representing each region, who are committed to reform. But, building political support for a stronger AU will not be enough. Member states also need to provide adequate funding. Aside from the loss of credibility and ownership that reliance on external donors brings, the AU can no longer count on the same levels of external financing from the U.S. and Europe. The AUC’s ability to work effectively depends on member states willingness to implement the July 2016 summit decision for a 0.2 per cent levy on imports, with proceeds going to the AU. Only a handful of states have begun to enact the tax into law. Mr Faki should provide full support to the AU’s High Representative for the Peace Fund, Dr Donald Kaberuka, and encourage member states to fulfil their financial commitments. Those who pay only lip service to the idea of a stronger AU must recognise that without significant additional African financing, AU peace support operations will likely remain blocked from sustainable funding from UN assessed contributions as well.

2. Make effective use of the existing conflict prevention architecture

The AU has the tools necessary for conflict prevention but finds it difficult to use them effectively because of resource constraints and the great influence member states willing to play the sovereignty card to avoid scrutiny wield. Changing leaders’ thinking is hard, and Mr Faki should focus on building political support for conflict prevention among like-minded members. Even without such a coalition, there are ways to improve existing mechanisms. Translating data and analysis of the AU’s early warning system into early action has been hampered, in part, by the way information flows within the AUC and between it and the regional economic communities (RECs). The chair should break down AUC barriers, especially between the Political Affairs and Peace and Security departments.

Mediation mechanisms are fragmented, with little oversight and direction from the chair or the Peace and Security Council (PSC). Creation of the mediation support unit (MSU) has been a good first step, but Mr Faki must ensure it is well-staffed by skilled, experienced specialists. For it to be truly effective, all mediation activities, including those of the Panel of the Wise, special envoys and representatives, liaison offices and special political missions, should be under its purview. There is little transparency in how special envoys and representatives are selected. Mr Faki should work to change this as well as examine their performance and mandates, making changes where needed. He should also use the reform process either to reinvigorate or dispense with the Panel of the Wise. Likewise, he should engage more personally in preventative diplomacy, especially to unblock stalemated processes in Burundi, Central Africa Republic (CAR) and Mali, and work to build consensus at the local, regional, continental and wider international level so as to bring coherence to the efforts of all those involved in peacemaking. Mr Faki should understand the limitations of his office and bring respected former heads of state into the mediation process.

Many crises are predictable, especially those linked to poor governance and disputed political transitions. The effects of generational and demographic changes, the slow pace of economic growth in many countries and the persistence of repressive or authoritarian regimes mean we can expect increasing discontent and violent protest. Mr Faki must ensure that AUC fulfils its responsibility to alert the PSC to impending conflicts, engaging with affected member states and encouraging the PSC to put them on its agenda at the first signs of crisis. This will be uncomfortable and provoke backlash, but it cannot be avoided if the AU is serious about conflict prevention.

3. Strengthen the institution

The January summit adopted Kagame’s bold reform outline, which aims to streamline the AU, making it more efficient, focused and results oriented. The new chair is charged with realising these ambitions. This is not the first reform attempt; ten years ago an independent panel drew up a comprehensive program on which Kagame’s team drew heavily. Mr Faki must learn from previous failures by not rushing the process and building broad support by consulting widely within the AUC and with member states. He should push forward on the reforms linked to the most urgent needs (eg, implementing the PSC protocols and strengthening sanctions mechanisms) and which have the greatest consensus.

The AU’s relationship with the RECs, vital for effective conflict prevention and resolution, is often strained and competitive. The principles, rights and obligations governing this relationship are clearly set out in PSC Protocol (Article 16) and the 2007 memorandum of understanding. The chair should ensure these instruments are implemented. Some tension could be eased by more effective communication. Mr Faki should seek opportunities to work collaboratively with RECs and encourage direct, frequent exchanges at all levels during the lifecycle of a crisis. RECs should be consulted before major decisions, such as the selection of a special envoy or deployment of observers. Uncertainty regarding the principle of subsidiarity limits the AU’s its ability to intervene when regional peace processes stall, as in Burundi and South Sudan. He should use the reform process to establish comparative advantage, not subsidiarity, as the basis for the AU-RECs relationship.

4. Revitalise security partnerships

During the past decade, the AU has taken on a greater role in preventing and resolving conflicts. At the same time, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has increasingly delegated to it a central role in political management of Africa’s conflicts, in part due to a growing recognition that it cannot manage these crises alone. The AU’s confidence and capacity have increased, but it still relies on partners and donors to fund its peace and security activities and fill capacity gaps. As a result, relationships are often strained, sometimes blighted by mistrust and misunderstanding.

Collaboration with the UN, arguably the AU’s most important security partner, has increased, but room for improvement remains. Together with the UN Secretary-General, Mr Faki should ensure that UNSC and AU PSC agendas are more closely aligned and reflect the continent’s priorities. By preparing PSC positions ahead of major UNSC decisions, there is a greater chance Africa will speak with one voice and so increase its influence on decisions. Closer AU-UN cooperation, including collective assessments and joint field visits, would foster more understanding and help build common positions and a shared analysis. Mr Faki should take the lead in this area, setting the tone and direction for the rest of the commission.

The European Union (EU) is identifying its strategic interests in Africa, and Mr Faki should ensure the AU defines its interests so common security challenges can be determined. The EU is a vital partner, but the relationship was tested in 2016 by its decision to reallocate 20 per cent of its funding for the AU’s Somalia mission, AMISOM, and stop directly paying Burundian troops serving in it. The EU-Africa November summit in Côte d’Ivoire is an opportunity to renew the partnership, discuss priorities and confirm areas of cooperation. The migrant crisis and terrorism threat will likely reshape EU-AU relations and feature prominently there. The chair must try to counter EU desire to focus narrowly on unpromising short-term curbs of migration to Europe by emphasising the need to address the drivers of the exodus: war, poverty, repression and the youth bulge.

5. Beyond a military response to “violent extremism”

The past decade has shown the costs and limits of a military response to jihadist groups and other violent non-state actors, especially in the absence of a political strategy. Military action is sometimes a necessary part of a strategy – the efforts against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin and jihadists in Mali are cases in point – but recent history in Africa and elsewhere suggests governments cannot rely on coercion alone.

Military action is sometimes a necessary part of a strategy ... but recent history in Africa and elsewhere suggests governments cannot rely on coercion alone.

The AU and its member states must not overlook the conditions that enable jihadist groups and other violent non-state actors to thrive: distrust of the state, especially in the peripheries; declining state authority; underdevelopment and social deprivation; readily available weapons; and heavy-handed, ineffective security forces. Mr Faki should articulate a stronger focus on developing coherent plans for returning effective government to affected areas. The possibility of a U.S. return to heavier-handed counter-terrorism policies could encourage others to adopt similar approaches. This is especially dangerous in Africa, where rule of law is often weak or absent. The chair should remind leaders that in dealing with these groups they must not forget human rights obligations, and he should dissuade them from labelling all opponents as “terrorists” or “violent extremists”.

Major Crises

6. Burundi

Contrary to government claims, the crisis is far from over. Intimidation, disappearances and killings continue and could quickly escalate, infecting a volatile region. Exact causes and motivations are hard to judge, as authorities have made no serious attempt to investigate and have frustrated the efforts of others, including the AU. The government and ruling party are intent on unilaterally dismantling the gains of the Arusha process that ended the last civil war, of which the AU is guarantor, including all vestiges of genuine power sharing and the critical presidential term limit. Internal debate on the direction is not permitted. The stability and relative peace Burundi recently enjoyed was premised on political pluralism and respect for Arusha’s main tenants, notably power sharing. The current path is highly likely to increase violence if left unchecked; the government’s drive to change the constitution to allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to run again would undoubtedly be a major spark.

In December, Benjamin Mkapa, the East African Community-appointed mediator, spoke out against the opposition’s maximalist demand that the 2015 election result be revisited but did not balance this with criticism of the regime’s crackdown. The ruling party made no concessions and continues to refuse dialogue with exiled opposition.

The AU’s path is difficult, especially following its retreat from active engagement after the failed January 2016 attempt to send an AU peacekeeping mission. Mr Faki should personally re-engage the government, but he should hold to principled positions. The absence of PSC discussion makes it difficult for the AU to intervene, and the chairperson must encourage the PSC to put Burundi back on its agenda. The AU can support future mediation by clearly stating the current dangers, underlining that violence and intimidation is unacceptable, abuses must be investigated, and free, democratic debate is vital for stability. The AU should also emphasise that opposition violence is unacceptable and dangerous. Burundi’s future direction, including continued application of Arusha Agreement, should be freely debated by all parties.

7. Central African Republic

2016’s peaceful elections raised hopes of a longer-term resolution of the crisis that began in 2012. Yet, barely twelve months after President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s victory, little has changed. A fifth of the population is internally displaced or refugees in neighbouring countries, intercommunal tensions are high, and armed groups de facto control most of the country.

Though security in Bangui is improved, violence against civilians and fighting between armed groups have intensified in the provinces. In the east, ex-Seleka factions compete for territory and resources, triggering massive new displacement and strong anti-Fulani sentiment. In the west, the exclusionary “centrafricanité” concept that emerged in circles close to François Bozizé in 2013 and stigmatises Muslim as “foreigners”, prevents return of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

The government, though legitimate, is not in full control and cannot respond to all the challenges. Little has been done at national level to advance reconciliation, and talks between the government and armed groups over disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration are blocked. Regional powers have organised several parallel initiatives to kick-start talks between armed groups, including meetings in 2016 in Chad and Angola. A proliferation of processes with unclear agendas could undermine attempts to persuade groups to disarm. All initiatives should support Touadera, who must develop a clear strategy for the negotiations, so that his government leads the process. The AU could be important in this, coordinating the initiatives and pushing armed groups to join the talks. A major challenge will be dealing with armed-group leaders – much of the population views their exclusion from government as a prerequisite for a sustainable solution.

8. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

The 31 December agreement brokered by the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO) calmed tensions resulting from the failure to hold elections the previous month. The deal was more inclusive than what the AU mediated in October and shortened the new date for the delayed polls from April 2018 to December 2017. But implementation is stalled over three issues: its timelines; appointment of the prime minister and composition of the interim government; and functioning of the oversight mechanism.

The death in February of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi has suspended the talks, aiding the ruling majority, which consistently seeks to postpone elections. His loss deprives the Rassemblement, the main opposition coalition, of a genuinely popular leader able to cut deals, at a time when its inability to mobilise large protests undercut its legitimacy. The competition to replace Tshisekedi threatens the Rassemblement’s cohesion and could push the opposition to more hard-line positions.

The AU, in close cooperation with the region and the UN, should call on all parties to implement the 31 December agreement.

Armed conflict has displaced more than 2.2 million persons and is increasing in many provinces. In addition to the recurrent fighting in North Kivu, instability is spreading. In Kasai-Central, the August 2016 killing of a traditional chief by security forces has pitted militias against government forces and displaced some 200,000. In Tanganyika, fighting between the Twa (Pygmy) and Luba (Bantu) communities is taking an increasing toll and also affecting Haut-Katanga and Haut-Lomami provinces. Increased tension in Kongo-Central province directly affects the capital, Kinshasa. Rising insecurity is linked to a crisis of state legitimacy, combined with deepening economic crisis. All this makes the organisation of elections increasingly unlikely and creates real risk of an implosion.

The challenge is to ensure credible elections are held on schedule, and the constitution is respected. The AU, in close cooperation with the region and the UN, should call on all parties to implement the 31 December agreement and prioritise organising polls as soon as realistic. It should give full support as CENCO tries to keep the signatories on track. Mass violence remains a distinct possibility, the outcome of which could be state collapse and the entire region’s destabilisation. The PSC has taken a backseat on the DRC but needs to fully engage in attempts to broker a political transition.

9. Libya

The immediate priority remains preventing an escalation of violence. The country’s de-facto partition into eastern and western areas dominated by loose, fractious military coalitions has been reinforced by failure of the Libyan Political (Skhirat) Agreement. Escalation would most likely come from an advance on Tripoli by General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, buoyed by their takeover of oil facilities in the Gulf of Sirte and the dwindling international consensus behind the Skhirat deal. This would provoke fierce fighting, particularly with Islamist militias in the capital and from Misrata. Preventing this probably requires Egypt and Russia to dissuade Haftar; even with foreign backing, he cannot conquer the entire country. Resetting Skhirat is essential. Direct talks are needed between the Tripoli-based Presidency Council and politicians from the east, leading toward a new, broader-based unity government. A parallel security track should include Haftar and major western armed groups.

But the diplomatic process is in limbo: the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, barely functions, and there is a lack of direction from major outside powers. Only Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia appear to be proposing new solutions, but Algeria and Tunisia support the GNA, while Egypt is close to Haftar. The three share security concerns but differ on how inclusive a negotiated solution should be, especially toward Islamists.

Time is not with the GNA. Electricity and water shortages, looming collapse of the health sector, shortages of local and foreign currency all have made life much tougher for ordinary Libyans. This gives GNA foes, especially Haftar, an opportunity. Signs of wider confrontation in the absence of a viable peace process abound, and local conflicts (for instance between Arabs, Tebus and Touaregs in the south and among Tripoli-based militias) are gaining importance.

The AU should support Algeria’s and Tunisia’s more inclusive approach and urge more pressure on Haftar from Egypt, whose legitimate interests must be accommodated. AU support might help impose a solution proposed by neighbours (ultimately bringing in Chad, Niger and Sudan) and help it gain wider support. At a time when the peace process lacks clear direction, encouraging consensus among neighbours could show the way for the UN and non-African powers.

10. Mali

With implementation stalling there is a real possibility the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement could dissolve. The Malian parties have little faith in the significantly flawed deal they were pressured to sign. Insecurity could increase with the fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad, into new community-based armed groups. Jihadist organisations, like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Eddine, are still operating – striking provincial and district centres from rural bases. Insecurity is also rising in long neglected areas like central Mali, which is not covered by the northern peace process. The emergence of new groups, such as the Islamic State in the Great Sahara, and the possible incursion of defeated IS fighters from Libya further complicate the fraught security landscape.

The crisis is now spilling over borders. The G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) thus announced the creation in February of a regional force to combat terrorism and transnational crime. The AU is well placed to give political and logistical support, as it does for the Multi-National Joint Task Force fighting Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin. But Mr Faki should push the G5 to take a realistic approach and work primarily on border security and improved intelligence sharing and to develop economic cooperation, not focus solely on military action.

A recent high-level Follow-up Committee meeting convened by the international mediation, was a last-ditch try to revive the peace process. It must not be squandered. Through Pierre Buyoya, the AU Special Representative, the chair should work with other partners to maintain momentum, focussing on relaunching the Mécanisme Opérationnel de Coordination (MOC) in northern Mali, including Kidal, and continuing to push for the newly-appointed interim authorities to start working effectively.

11. Somalia

Despite a fractious, fraudulent and corrupt electoral process beset by divisions and delays, Somalia elected a new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, with unprecedented cross-clan support. This is a chance for progress toward peace, economic prosperity and political stability. Expectations are inordinately high, however, and to avoid a backlash he must move swiftly on pledges to rebuild the security forces and state institutions, tackle corruption, improve justice and unify the country. His nationalist rhetoric, supported by Islamist factions in his government, threatens to antagonise powerful neighbours capable of undermining his administration. It is critical for Mr Faki to encourage discreet diplomacy and foster dialogue between Somalia and its neighbours, especially Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen.

Farmajo’s credibility and popular support improves the odds of progress in the government’s stalled national reconciliation process. A bottom-up approach has the greatest chance to produce lasting political settlements with and between federal member states. Mr Faki must seize this opportunity and encourage the new government to revive the process and help it mobilise technical and financial resources. Failure to reduce clan tensions and build sub-national administrations would create openings for Al-Shabaab and an emerging, albeit small, IS branch.

Failure to reduce clan tensions and build sub-national administrations would create openings for Al-Shabaab.

Despite significant successes against Al-Shabaab, AMISOM is struggling to win a guerrilla war it is ill-suited and inadequately resourced to fight. Internal challenges, national rivalries and frictions among troop contributing countries compound this problem, hampering military effectiveness. The AU should help to repair cohesion and encourage more realistic, strategic thinking in preparation for a well-managed drawdown framed around Somalia’s security sector needs. Hasty withdrawal would be disastrous for Somalia and the region.

12. South Sudan

Famine, driven by a deadly combination of conflict, economic crisis and drought, has left 100,000 on the verge of starvation with a million more at serious risk. Almost eighteen months since a peace agreement was signed, fighting, accompanied by atrocities, shows little sign of stopping in Equatorias, Upper Nile and Unity states. Fierce combat in Juba last July between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) forced ex-First Vice President Riek Machar to flee. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development and other major international actors have acquiesced in his exile and replacement by First Vice President Taban Deng Gai. Without Machar, the SPLM/A-IO is less cohesive, and new armed groups are emerging, while President Salva Kiir strengthens his position in the capital and the region.

Kiir’s December 2016 call for a renewed ceasefire and national dialogue presents an opportunity to promote negotiations between the government and parts of the armed opposition (including groups outside the transitional government) and to address the grievances of disaffected communities at the grassroots level. This will only succeed if the government is willing to negotiate fairly. Mr Faki should ensure that the AU High Representative Alpha Oumar Konaré receives the support needed to fulfil the mandate given him at the IGAD-UN-AU meeting in January 2017 to encourage all stakeholders to begin genuinely inclusive discussion on the scope and format of a national dialogue. He should also look for ways in which the AU and its partners can support local communities in this process, in particular by helping them formulate and articulate their complaints.

Under the August 2015 peace agreement, the AU is responsible for establishing the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, mandated to investigate and prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the recent civil war. Insecurity and severe restrictions on freedom of speech make it currently unfeasible to set up the court, but Mr Faki should ensure that preliminary work defining operation, funding and composition goes ahead and that the collection of evidence begins.