Tripartite Changing of the Guard
Tripartite Changing of the Guard
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

Tripartite Changing of the Guard

With leadership transitions at the United Nations, African Union and in the United States creating uncertainty, Crisis Group's Africa Program Director Comfort Ero and African Union Relations Adviser Elissa Jobson spotlight the three main challenges to Africa's peace and security in the coming months.

In January 2017, Donald Trump and António  Guterres will take office in the United States (US) and at the United Nations (UN), respectively. Later that month, the African Union (AU) will elect a new commission chairperson. The US, the UN and the AU, each in their own way, have played a vital role in attempts to secure peace and stability in Africa. But the uncertainty of Trump’s Africa policy – he barely mentioned the continent during the campaign – has left most guessing as to what his presidency will mean for US engagement.

These significant leadership changes come at a time when the policy environment for conflict prevention and resolution has grown considerably more complex. Washington, like other Western powers, has lost some of its traditional leverage in an increasingly regionalised and multipolar world, especially as China’s foothold in Africa has strengthened. The credibility of the UN and the AU has been dented by their hesitant response to the Burundi crisis and inability to shape a political strategy for beleaguered South Sudan. But a retreat from international cooperation – whether in intergovernmental forums or on a bilateral basis – will make it harder to address the main challenges these leaders must confront in Africa: violent Islamic radicalism, the assault on democratic governance and the persistent failure to prevent conflicts erupting or reigniting.

Africa will not be a top priority for president-elect Trump, and he could well maintain the status quo of his predecessors – including their approach to the threat from jihadist groups like Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Islamic State in Libya. But the past decade has demonstrated the limits and costs of military intervention, especially in the absence of a political strategy. An increasingly militarised response, coupled with extreme rhetoric on Muslims, could spur recruitment for violent extremist groups on US, as well as African, soil. Similarly, the AU should guard against its propensity for military solutions to combat rebel groups – Islamist and non-Islamist alike. Guterres should caution against using UN peacekeepers in dangerous counter-terrorist operations like those in Mali

Since winning the election, Trump has not repeated his statements regarding the use of torture in counter-terrorism activities. Any attempt by his new administration to authorise its use would be disastrous, especially in Africa where the rule of law is weak or absent. Any signs of ambivalence would embolden African regimes engaged in their own brutal campaigns to suppress political opponents and those they deem violent extremists.

Democracy and the rule of law are under severe strain in Africa, Nigeria’s peaceful political transition in 2015 notwithstanding. Disregard for constitutional term limits has become commonplace, and corruption and maladministration feed grievances that can be exploited by armed opposition groups. Africa’s autocrats may feel that a Trump administration will pay less attention to projecting democratic values and be more forgiving of their transgressions. But the president-elect has vowed to “drain the swamp of corruption in Washington” and fix a system in which “political insiders can break the law without consequence”. These are sentiments that will resonate with many African citizens. Linking US aid to good governance would be a positive step, but it would need to be applied equally, including to traditional allies.

Perhaps the greatest threat to democratic consolidation and the UN’s legacy of post-Cold War state-building comes in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In 2017, presidential elections where there is a risk of violence will take place in Kenya, Liberia and Rwanda. But perhaps the greatest threat to democratic consolidation and the UN’s legacy of post-Cold War state-building comes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. President Joseph Kabila’s determination to stay beyond the two-term limit threatens a dangerous political impasse that could have catastrophic consequences for the Great Lakes region. The US, the UN and the AU must align themselves with the vast majority of Congolese and ensure an inclusive transitional government and a monitored electoral calendar with a clear statement that Kabila will not run again.

Globally, deadly violence is on the rise for the first time in a generation, with unprecedented humanitarian consequences. The international community appears continually caught off guard when new conflicts erupt and short on options to prevent those crises it does foresee.

Guterres has signalled his intention to focus on early warning and action, telling journalists his top priorities would be “prevention, prevention, prevention”. It seems unlikely this will be the bedrock of the Trump administration’s policy on Africa, but the new AU chair should likewise make prevention their top priority. 

Both the AU and the UN have access to tools for conflict prevention. Using them effectively has proven problematic, especially for the AU, given its resource constraints and the influence wielded by member states with competing political interests. A more self-sufficient AU Commission might have greater confidence in its own early-warning and early- action capabilities, and full support should be given to its efforts to increase its financial independence.

Multilateralism does not have a cost when done right, something that should appeal to business-minded Trump.

For conflict prevention to be successful, cooperation between the AU and the UN needs to be more effective. The Burundi crisis clearly demonstrated their inability to act collectively. President Pierre Nkurunziza capitalised on divisions, stalling the deployment of AU-authorised human rights and military observers, and UN Security Council-sanctioned police.

Much will also depend on improved cooperation at the Security Council, where disagreements in other contexts – Syria and Ukraine – have affected decisions on Africa. The prospect of less-strained relations between the US and Russia could ease tensions here. 

New leadership at the UN and AU may provide opportunities for earlier and more cooperative responses to crises in Africa. Multilateralism does not have a cost when done right, something that should appeal to business-minded Trump. It is too early to tell what his “America first” approach to foreign policy may mean for peace and security in the continent. But it could force the AU and its member states to take even greater responsibility, both politically and financially, for shaping conflict prevention and resolution – a welcome outcome.


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