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10 Conflicts to Watch in 2013
10 Conflicts to Watch in 2013
Op-Ed / Global

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2013

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Every year, around the world, old conflicts worsen, new ones emerge and, occasionally, some situations improve. There is no shortage of storm clouds looming over 2013: Once again, hotspots old and new will present a challenge to the security of people across the globe.

What follows, then, is a "top 10" list of crises that does not include the ongoing, drug-related violence in Mexico, the simmering tensions in the East China Sea, or the possibility of conflict on the Korean peninsula after a rocket launch by Pyongyang. As if this mix wasn't combustible enough, there are new leaders in China, Japan, and on both sides of Korea's de-militarized zone who may well feel pressured to burnish their nationalist credentials with aggressive action. Nor do I mention the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe, the ongoing trauma in Somalia, or the talk of war in response to Iran's nuclear program. Any of these could credibly make a top 10 crises list.There is, of course, an arbitrariness to most lists -- and this list of crises to watch out for in 2013 is no different. One person's priority might well be another's sideshow, one analyst's early warning cry is another's fear-mongering. In some situations -- Central Asia, perhaps -- preventive action has genuine meaning: The collapse into chaos has yet to happen. More complicated is anticipating when it will happen, what will trigger it, and how bad it will be. In others -- Syria, obviously -- the catastrophe is already upon us, so the very notion of prevention can seem absurd. It has no meaning save in the sense of preventing the nightmare from worsening or spreading.

Focusing on countries also makes it more difficult to highlight some of the undercurrents and tensions percolating through the various crises we are likely to confront next year. So, before we begin our list, here are four examples, in brief.

Elections, we know, place enormous stresses on fragile polities: they're a long-term good that can present short-term challenges. The 2011 presidential polls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo failed to meet this challenge, and the current violence in the DRC's eastern provinces is at least in part driven by the bankruptcy of governance that the elections, if anything, exacerbated. Much attention in the coming year will be on how Kenya and Zimbabwe manage their forthcoming votes, and on how the region and the world respond.

A similar tension lies between the long-term benefits of justice -- promoting accountability and addressing an accumulation of grievances -- and the reality that it can often pose immediate risks. Whether in Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Kenya, or Colombia, the "justice or peace" debate is in need of fresh thinking.

The role of sanctions in preventing conflict also seems too often to involve a dialogue of the deaf. Did sanctions encourage the changes in Myanmar (also known as Burma) -- or simply punish the people, not the rulers, of that country? Have they become part of the problem in Zimbabwe rather than a driver of change? And most prominently, how will sanctions defuse the Iran nuclear crisis, when they appear to signal to Tehran that the goal is to change not the regime's behavior but the regime itself? It might behoove the international community to avoid the temptation to impose sanctions as an automatic default response to a given situation; sanctions will only be effective as part of a coherent, overall strategy, not as a substitute for one.

And finally, a word on the rule of law. Too often, we see this well-worn phrase used in the sense of "rule by law": That is, autocratic rulers co-opt the language and trappings of democracy, using the law to harass rather than protect. Hence the use of law to harass rather than protect; hence the international community's tendency to train and equip law enforcement units who, in the eyes of the civilians they are charged with protecting, likely don't need to become more efficient in techniques of repression. The international community needs to be more vigilant toward this charade and more focused on the substance of the rule of law -- perhaps most importantly the notion of equality before the law -- than its form.

The laws of war may also need to adapt to the evolving nature of modern warfare. Asymmetric warfare and the language of the "war on terror" challenge the critical distinction between "combatants" and "civilians." Technology, too, presents new dilemmas. Despite claims of surgical accuracy, drone strikes produce collateral civilian damage that is difficult to measure, while exposing one side to no risk of combatant casualties. In some instances, drones also may be self-defeating: They terrorize and cause deep trauma to those communities affected, potentially increasing support for radical groups.

It's difficult to convey all this in a list. But, with that said, here is the International Crisis Group's "top 10" list of global threats for the coming year. It is non-prioritized, and seeks to include a mix of the obvious risks and those we believe are bubbling beneath the surface. And because we're optimists at heart, it includes an addendum of three countries where recent developments suggest that the coming year could bring peace -- not torment. We certainly wish that for all.


Unsurprisingly, the "Sudan Problem" did not go away with the South's secession in 2011. Civil war, driven by concentration of power and resources in the hands of a small elite, continues to plague the country, and threatens to lead to further disintegration. Divisions within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), growing popular unrest, and a steady national economic meltdown also could send this country off the rails.

Sadly, 10 years ago, the situation was almost identical -- only then Khartoum was fighting against the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), representing the entire South, whereas now government coffers are drained by ongoing fighting against the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an alliance of major rebel groups from Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states. The victims, as always, are the civilians caught in the middle. As it did in the South, the government has sought to use access to humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, essentially using mass starvation as part of its military strategy.

The only lasting solution is a comprehensive one, bringing all of Sudan's stakeholders together to reform how power is wielded in a large and diverse country. Over the long term, the status quo -- incessant warfare, millions displaced, billions spent on aid -- is intolerable for all parties. If it is to be resolved for good, the NCP and international players will need to offer much more than at any time in the past -- the former a process of genuine all-inclusive dialogue, the latter economic and political incentives.


Freezing weather in the mountains this fall and winter has slowed fighting in the decades-longinsurgency waged by Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), but the omens look worrying for spring 2013. Already, 870 people have been killed since the PKK resumed its attacks, and security forces revived their counterterrorism operations, in mid-2011. That's this conflict's worst casualty rate since the 1990s.

Political tensions in Turkey are also rising, as the legal Kurdish movement, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), takes an increasingly pro-PKK line. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to lift its MPs' immunity to prosecution, and the state has arrested several thousand Kurdish activists on charges of pro-PKK terrorism since 2009 -- even though many are not being accused of any act of violence. The Turkish government has also stopped secret talks that it conducted with the PKK from 2005 to 2011 and abandoned most of the "Democratic Opening" that had offered hopes of greater equality and justice for Turkey's 12 to 15 million Kurds, who comprise as much as 20 percent of the population.

The government could still win over most of Turkey's Kurds by announcing a comprehensive set of reforms. These would include launching a process to offer education in mother languages, amending the election law to reduce electoral and funding barriers, increasing decentralization to Turkey's 81 provinces, and ending all discrimination in the country's constitution and laws. It should also work toward a ceasefire, urge insurgents to stop attacks, avoid large-scale military operations, including aerial bombings, and stand up to pressure for ever stronger armed responses.

The likelihood of a major U-turn is, however, low. It appears to be Erdogan's ambition to win Turkey's 2014 presidential elections, for which he has been aligning himself ever-more firmly with rightwing and nationalist voters. More militaristic factions in the PKK, emboldened by their allies' successes in Syria, are also gaining the upper hand, and likely will continue attempts to hold areas in the southeast and attack symbols of the Turkish state in 2013.


Plagued by factionalism and corruption, the Afghan government is far from ready to assume responsibility for its own security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014. Relations with Washington continued to deteriorate in 2012, particularly when scores were killed in February following reports that U.S. troops burned dozens of copies of the Quran and other religious materials, and when U.S. soldier Robert Bales in March shot 17 villagers, including nine children, in the southern province of Kandahar. A spate of insider attacks since then has contributed to the increased distrust between Afghan and U.S. military leaders, while friendly fire incidents undermined the Afghan National Security Forces' morale.

The looming political transition in Kabul is possibly even more important for the future of the country and the wider region. Although President Hamid Karzai has signaled his intent to exit gracefully when his term ends in 2014, fears remain that he may try, directly or indirectly, to retain influence over the post-election setup. A reasonably credible election -- something Afghanistan has yet to experience -- could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence in the government's capabilities.

The best guarantee of Afghanistan's stability is to ensure the rule of law during the political and military transition in 2013 and 2014. If the leadership fails at this, the coming crucial period will result in deep divisions and conflicts within the ruling elite, which the Taliban-led insurgency will exploit. At worst, it could result in the fragmentation of the security services and trigger extensive internal conflict. Some possibilities for genuine progress remain -- and we have to remain hopeful -- but the window for action is narrowing.


Drone strikes continued to cause tension between the United States and Pakistan in 2012, though NATO supply routes did reopen in early July following a U.S. apology for a deadly attack on Pakistani soldiers in November 2011. There also was some political progress between Pakistan and Afghanistan: The two countries joined forces in December to ask the Taliban and other insurgent groups to disarm and enter peace talks.

With fresh elections taking place in 2013, Pakistan's government and opposition must urgently implement key reforms to the electoral commission to cement the transition to democracy. The ruling Pakistan People's Party and its main parliamentary opposition, Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League, should put aside their political differences and focus on preventing a perennially intrusive military from disrupting democratic life. An increasingly interventionist judiciary, which appears bent on destabilizing the political order, also must not be allowed to undermine the country's chance for its first peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another through a credible election.

Pakistan's humanitarian crises also need urgent domestic and international attention. Three successive years of devastating floods have threatened the lives of millions, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced due to military operations and militancy. These twin crises have given Pakistan's radical Islamist groups opportunities to recruit and have increased the potential for conflict. Since Pakistan's democratic transition began in 2008, some progress has been made, but much more is needed in 2013 to build the federal and provincial governments' disaster and early recovery response.

Sahel: Mali, Nigeria, and beyond

Instability in the Sahel region of Africa increased on a number of fronts in 2012, and attempts to stem that trend will be high on many countries' agendas in 2013. Mali -- where a military coup toppled the government in March, while separatists and al Qaeda-linked fundamentalists took over the country's north -- tops the list of regional troubles.

The coming year will see both the rollout of a necessary international intervention in Mali, and possibly more important, a political process to reunify the country. On the former, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the African Union have already approved a mission of 3,300 soldiers to help the Malian state wrest control of the northern part of the country from Islamist fighters, pending international endorsement of such a move by the U.N. Security Council.

Fear of an intervention without end has led to reluctance in many quarters about deploying an international force in the vast northern desert. But the risks of inaction are just as great. Getting boots on the ground will take some time, as will the desperately needed restructuring and training of Malian units by a separate EU mission.

On the political side, it is necessary to make sure that the process of reuniting the country is truly inclusive. Some of the groups controlling the north are clearly beyond the pale -- they are terrorists, and they are not interested in coming to the negotiation table. Others may be more amenable to a deal. But much depends on the Malian government's political and military leadership, which remains shaky after the interim prime minister was forced to resign by the military in December. The new and ostensibly more consensual prime minister might facilitate a national dialogue aimed at designing a roadmap to resolve Mali's political crisis and organizing for elections in 2013. However, with the military coup leaders showing a worrying propensity to remain enmeshed in civilian political life, the country's future remains uncertain.

The Sahel region also has another deeply worrying conflict in northern Nigeria, where the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has been blamed for thousands of deaths in recent years. The government's response has been an uneven mix of confused talk about possible negotiations and heavy-handed, often indiscriminate, security efforts that may have aggravated the violence and sent more recruits into the hands of the extremists. Without concerted attention and a dramatic about-face in government policy, look for 2013 to be another bloody year in northern Nigeria.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

The April 2012 mutiny in the east by M23 rebels, former rebels turned military turned rebels again, created a distinct feeling of déja vu. Once again, after so many years of conflict, regional and international actors are left scrambling to contain an insurgent rebel group, with a range of ostensibly domestic demands but clearly profiting from external backing, and prevent another regional war in the DRC. The consequences of the latest round of violence have been tragic for civilians, with reports emerging of wide-scale human rights abuses, extrajudicial executions targeting civil society, and massive displacement of local populations.

Mediation efforts by the regional International Conference of the Great Lakes Region have seen the withdrawal of M23 from the eastern city of Goma and the initiation of peace talks, but the risk of repeated rebellion and widespread violence remain. Previous attempts at post-conflict reconstruction in the DRC have met with little success. Without adequate pressure on both the DRC government and Rwanda-backed rebels to enact crucial governance reforms and open political dialogue, the sad history of civil conflict will likely continue to repeat itself in the DRC in 2013.

Congo's dismal state should also force the international community to take a hard look at its own behavior. Ten years into a massive commitment to shore up stability in the DRC, bring legitimacy to the government in Kinshasa, and protect civilians in the east, the situation is going from bad to worse. The government of President Joseph Kabila lacks national buy-in; the citizens of the eastern Kivu provinces -- despite the presence of the largest-ever U.N. peacekeeping operation -- remain woefully unprotected; and the country's integrity remains prey to the whims of predatory neighbors.


Despite reforms to address the shortcomings and violence of the 2007 polls in Kenya, significant structural drivers of conflict remain. Youth unemployment, poverty, and inequality are high, security sector reform has stalled, and ongoing land disputes continue to deepen ethnic polarization. As the planned March 2013 elections approach, the risk of political violence is high.

Two leading presidential aspirants, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, have been charged with crimes against humanity and are due to face trial at the ICC in April 2013, raising hopes that finally a serious attempt is being made to erode long-standing immunity for political elites. But the cases could just as easily dash hopes of accountability if they aggravate ethnic tensions or tarnish political opponents, leading to a fresh bout of violence.

Having an indictee as president, or as vice president, will have enormous implications for not only Kenya's foreign relations but also internal reforms. The 2013 elections will likely play out against a backdrop of threatened attacks by Somalia-based militant group al-Shabab and protests by the separatist Mombasa Republican Council. Either could provoke a backlash against the country's sizable ethnic Somali and Muslim communities, causing further destabilization during what will already be a difficult year for Kenya.

Syria and Lebanon

The conflict in Syria has continued to take numerous ugly turns, and will probably continue to do so. The regime has proved difficult to topple, and its foes even harder to eradicate. As those in the region and further afield speculate about the coming fall of the regime -- the initial post-Assad stages carry enormous risks, not only for Syria's people but for the region at large. Just getting through the winter will be hard, as growing numbers of Syrians are displaced, entire neighborhoods are leveled, state institutions further erode, and international aid falls short.

President Bashar al-Assad's approach in dealing with those opposed to his rule tore Syrian society apart. The opposition's gradual radicalization in response has fuelled a self-reinforcing cycle in which both sides have increasingly relied on military solutions over political ones. As Syria's religious and ethnic communities have polarized, regime supporters have dug in their heels -- committing atrocities spurred on by their perception of facing a "kill or be killed" situation, and their fears of large-scale retribution when Assad falls.

The violence devouring Syria has also made it fertile ground for hardline Sunni Islamists, who have managed to rally around them those disenchanted with the West -- not least thanks to their access to Gulf Arab funding and jihadi military knowhow acquired elsewhere. To reverse this dangerous trend, the opposition needs to articulate a more credible, less nihilistic vision for the future, members of the international community need to coordinate their policies, and a perilous military struggle needs to move towards a political solution.

Inevitably, and especially due to the sectarian undertone this conflict has acquired, Syria's war is leaking over its border into Lebanon. History bodes ill: Beirut seldom has been immune to the influence of Damascus. It is crucial that Lebanon's leaders address the fundamental shortfalls of their governing structure, which exacerbate factionalism and leave the country vulnerable to the chaos next door.

Central Asia

This region provides a laundry list of countries on the brink. Tajikistan lumbers into 2013 with nothing good to show for 2012. Relations with Uzbekistan continue to deteriorate, and internal domestic disputes threaten to foment separatist ambitions in Gorno-Badakhshan. This mountainous and remote eastern province had little time for the central government in Dushanbe -- even before government troops clashed with local fighters, many of them veterans of the Tajik civil war, whom they described as members of an organized crime group. Some of the fighters, including one of their leaders, were members of Tajikistan's border forces. Additionally a number of residents of Khorog, described at one point as youth who had been misled by anti-government propaganda, also participated. (The area has long been deeply suspicious of the central government).

Kyrgyzstan is no better. It continues to ignore festering ethnic tensions and rule-of-law issues in the south while a long-anticipated ethnic policy languishes unadopted in the office of the president. The central government's reach in Osh grows progressively weaker, and the international community again seems to have little or no interest in all the early warning signs.

Widespread and systematic human rights abuses, meanwhile, are still the norm in Uzbekistan. To make matters worse, there are no plans for political succession once President Islam Karimov, 74, leaves the stage -- a recipe for regional upheaval. Until the United States clears the last of its troops and materiel from Afghanistan, however, the issue is not likely to get much traction in Washington.

If trends continue, Kazakhstan faces another violent year ahead -- 2012 saw a record number of terrorist attacks in western and southern parts of the country by previously unidentified jihadist groups. Astana's attempt to cast itself as a stable ship in a regional sea of unpredictability is undermined by the fact that this is a country where protesters are shot dead and activists jailed. Socioeconomic grievances may yet be the undoing of the Kazakh state.


As Syria descends deeper into chaos, knives are being sharpened and battle lines being drawn in Iraq. The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has chosen to side with Iran, Russia, and China in an attempt to avoid the reshaping of the region by Sunni Gulf states, Turkey, and the United States.

Maliki has repeatedly burned his bridges with Iraq's other religious and ethnic communities, taking measures to expand his control over political institutions and the security forces. His actions violate the Erbil agreement, which was formulated in 2010 to limit the powers of the prime minister and grant fair power sharing to Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties.

Maliki now faces resistance not only from the president of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, but also from Sunni and secular opponents -- and even from cleric Muqtada Sadr in his own Shiite Islamist camp. The incapacitation of President Jalal Talabani, a key mediator in the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil, adds to political uncertainty in the new year. Pouring fuel on the fire, al Qaeda continues to shatter the relative calm with devastating bombings. Maliki has clearly lost the trust of a good part of the political class, which accuses him of veering toward indefinite, autocratic rule. But efforts to hold a parliamentary no-confidence vote against him have foundered over deep divisions among his opponents.

This effectively leaves Maliki as caretaker prime minister until the next elections in 2014. It is a recipe for violence, and it is certainly possible for a spiraling sectarian-tinged civil war in neighboring Syria to exacerbate tensions in Iraq and usher the country into yet another round of strife in 2013.

And now, for some good news -- Colombia

Finally, a political solution to Colombia's long and bloody guerrilla war may be in sight. Following a year of secret contacts, formal peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas opened in October 2012.

The broader dynamic of the conflict also encourages a political settlement. The FARC has been weakened militarily, and this generation of leaders have possibly their last opportunity to vindicate decades of struggle by signing a peace deal that allows the guerrillas to participate in building peace. The government operates from a position of strength -- its military advantage, if not decisive, appears irreversible.

The success of the talks is not assured. Differences over policy issues on the agenda are substantial, skepticism toward the FARC remains widespread among many in Colombia, and -- even though a majority of Colombians back the process -- support for the negotiations has been falling. But mainstream political forces remain committed to the talks, and opponents have so far failed to make much headway. The security forces are also better aligned with the civilian leadership than in the past and have a seat at the negotiation table, reducing risk of the coordination failures between political and military agendas that have marred previous peace attempts.

A decade of intense counterinsurgency warfare has greatly weakened the combat strength of the guerrillas and pushed them into ever more remote rural hideouts, substantially reducing their impact on the major urban centers. But the conflict still costs lives on a daily basis, holds back socioeconomic development, and impedes the consolidation of a truly inclusive and pluralistic democracy. The road ahead will not be short or smooth, but Colombia cannot afford to miss this chance for peace.


This could be the year that sees the Philippines take decisive steps toward establishing lasting peace in the troubled south, after the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's largest and best armed insurgent organization, signed a breakthrough peace agreement inOctober. The deal follows 15 years of fitful talks and setbacks and is the best chance yet of ending the 40-year insurgency, which has killed an estimated 120,000 people. The conflict with the MILF is the major -- though by no means only -- source of violence plaguing the region. Warlords, kidnappers, and violent extremists who harbor terrorists from elsewhere in the region also have the capacity to wreak havoc for years to come.

The peace agreement aims to solve these problems by creating a new, genuinely autonomous region in the Muslim-majority region of Mindanao. It will have more authority, more territory, and more control over resources -- and if things go according to plan, will be in place by the time President Benigno Aquino leaves office in 2016.

The October deal put off several tough questions that still need to be resolved, including legislation to set up the region and the future of MILF fighters. The MILF will need to sell some tricky provisions in the deal to its supporters. The Aquino administration will need to persuade Congress to pass the new law and clear constitutional hurdles before it can devolve power to the government in the new autonomous region. The obstacles are huge, but hopes are high that peace in the southern Philippines is finally within reach.


Myanmar's leaders continue to fulfill their pledges on reform, moving the country decisively away from its authoritarian past. Political prisoners have been released, blacklists trimmed, freedom of assembly laws implemented, and media censorship abolished. President Thein Sein has built a partnership with the opposition, especially the National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was voted into parliament this year.

But the road to democracy is proving hard. Widespread intercommunal violence in Rakhine state, targeting principally the Rohingya Muslim minority, has cast a dark cloud over the reform process. Such tensions often arise as more freedom allows buried conflicts to resurface -- even so, the continued risk of communal violence in Rakhine is very alarming and will need a concerted, unambiguous response from the government and Aung San Suu Kyi to make clear it has no future in the new Myanmar. The inability to sign a ceasefire in Kachin State, another festering ethnic conflict, also risks undermining the president's new peace initiative with ethnic armed groups.

The West has moved quickly to begin dismantling sanctions on Myanmar and end its diplomatic isolation. President Barack Obama's visit in early November showed the strength of U.S. support for the reforms. But Myanmar isn't out of the woods yet: Both the government and the opposition need to show moral leadership to achieve a lasting solution to lingering ethnic-based conflicts, which threaten their country's reform process and stability.

Opening ceremony of the 39th ordinary session of the executive council of the AU. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 14 October 2021. EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP
Briefing 177 / Africa

Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2022

The African Union’s twentieth anniversary in the coming year gives it a chance to assess its achievements as well as reinvigorate its work to safeguard peace and security on the continent. This briefing points to eight conflict situations needing the organisation’s urgent attention.

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What’s new? In the first week of February, the African Union (AU) will hold its annual heads of state summit ahead of its twenty-year anniversary in July. The meeting offers an opportunity for AU member states to assess the organisation's achievements to date as the continent’s foremost peace and security body.

Why does it matter?  It has been a turbulent year for Africa: tens of thousands killed in wars in the Horn of Africa, countries falling back under military rule, and struggles with faltering transitions and Islamist militancy. The AU’s institutions must be able to tackle these problems, as well as climate change-related security threats.

What should be done? The AU should redouble efforts to address crises in the Horn, the Sahel and Mozambique; chart a future for its Somalia mission; press for a successful transition in Chad; and put climate security on the global agenda. This briefing sets out eight priorities for the AU in the coming year.


July 2022 will mark twenty years since the African Union (AU) officially came into being in Durban, South Africa. A founding principle of the organisation is to promote peace, security and stability on the continent. African leaders built a bespoke architecture that would enable the AU to fulfil this mandate. The organisation’s twentieth anniversary offers an opportunity for member states to assess its achievements so far, as well as to examine the AU’s role in Africa’s evolving peace and security challenges.

The year 2021 was tumultuous in Africa, with coups in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan, an orchestrated power grab in Tunisia, protracted fighting in Ethiopia and a rising threat from transnational Islamist militancy. The AU’s response to these crises has been mixed. It has had difficulty acting on two highly pressing conflicts – Ethiopia’s civil war and the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region – largely because the governments have resisted what they perceive as external meddling, insisting that their respective crises are domestic affairs. The AU has remained largely a spectator as Libya’s political transition risks derailing. Chad and Somalia each rejected the AU’s choice of high representative, calling into question whether member states accept its primacy in continental peace and security.

The AU’s inconsistent response to the slew of unconstitutional changes of government has been particularly damaging. Often heralded as a major achievement of its twenty-year history, the AU’s established norm against coups took a significant hit when its Peace and Security Council (PSC) decided to maintain Chad’s membership after the military took power in April, following the sudden death of the long-time president. Although it swiftly suspended Guinea and Mali following military takeovers in September and May, the Council was deeply divided in trying to articulate a response to the October coup in Khartoum. Some faith in the AU’s willingness to uphold this key principle was restored, however, when, after intense deliberations, the PSC decided to suspend Sudan. Most recently, on 24 January 2022, Burkina Faso’s military ousted President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, a move which the AU Commission chair swiftly condemned. The country was then suspended by the PSC on 31 January.

The AU has had some wins in the past year. It played a positive role in ensuring that Zambia’s election dispute ended in a smooth, peaceful transfer of power. It has continued its strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic, lobbying for equitable access to vaccines and debt relief for particularly vulnerable countries where the economy has slumped because of the outbreak. The coronavirus crisis is far from over: most countries on the continent face worryingly low vaccination rates as underfunded health systems struggle to deliver what vaccines are available to rural areas, while national government messaging has done little to overcome vaccine hesitancy, even among health workers. Still, the AU helped procure nearly 500 million vaccine doses for the continent, with China pledging to supply an additional one billion shots in the coming year.

February’s summit will see the chair of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State, the organisation’s highest decision-making body, rotate from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Senegal (it changes hands every year). Senegalese President Macky Sall says he will focus on COVID-19 during his time as chair, in particular working to secure access to more shots from abroad and accelerate vaccine manufacturing in Africa. His priorities for peace and security will inevitably be driven by events on the ground, but he will likely need to pay close attention to counter-terrorism, given the spiralling threat of jihadism in the Sahel.

The summit will also see a complete renewal of the PSC, as all fifteen members will soon reach the end of their two- or three-year terms. The outcome of the council elections will influence the AU’s direction, in particular around contentious issues like unconstitutional changes of government, at a time when the continent faces many urgent crises. Aside from the conflicts and crises already in train, several elections will require the AU’s attention in the course of 2022, including Kenya’s highly charged presidential contest, delayed polls in Somalia, and votes in Chad and Libya that should mark milestones on the transition to democratic rule. For its part, Mali’s transitional government is unlikely to stick to its commitment to hold elections in February. Ensuring that these processes stay on track will be a challenge for the AU.

The organisation’s twentieth anniversary year will also be an important one for multilateral engagement. AU and European Union (EU) leaders are due to meet for their triennial summit – postponed from 2020 – on 17-18 February in Brussels. Egypt will host COP27, the next edition of the UN’s annual conference on climate change, providing an opportunity for the AU to steer the direction of global conversations about how climate change drives conflict.

When African leaders meet in February, the continent’s most pressing peace and security crises should be at the top of their agenda. Eight areas to which Sall, his counterparts and the wider AU should direct their energy in 2022 are:

  1. Keeping Chad’s transition on track;
  2. Securing a ceasefire in Ethiopia;
  3. Developing a strategy for the return of foreign fighters from Libya;
  4. Promoting a multipronged approach to Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado crisis;
  5. Supporting dialogue in the Sahel;
  6. Reforming the AU Mission in Somalia;
  7. Helping restore Sudan’s transition; and
  8. Putting climate security on the international agenda.

This list, which is certainly not exhaustive, highlights opportunities for the AU to positively shape trends, curb conflicts and save lives over the coming year. As it celebrates its twentieth birthday, the organisation should seek to reinvigorate its role in continental peace and security and redouble efforts to tackle Africa’s crises.

1. Keeping Chad’s Transition on Track

Following the battlefield death of long-time Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno on 20 April 2021, a group of army generals installed his 37-year-old son Mahamat Déby as leader of a fifteen-member Transitional Military Council. In 2000, the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, adopted rules allowing it to suspend membership of states that have had an unconstitutional change of government. The AU has enforced those rules before, but in this case it did not sanction Chad.[fn]“Lomé Declaration on the framework for an Organisation of African Unity response to unconstitutional changes of government”, AU AHG/Decl.5 (XXXVI), July 2000.Hide Footnote Now, however, as it deploys additional personnel to N’Djamena, the AU should work to hold the military council to the promises it made when it seized power: a national dialogue, due to begin in mid-February, and elections to be held before the end of 2022.[fn]André Kodmadjingar, Le dialogue national tchadien repoussé au 15 février”, VOA, 4 January 2022.Hide Footnote

Mahamat Déby’s appointment led to intense debate among PSC members over whether to suspend Chad from the organisation. Supporters of suspension wanted to avoid perceptions of double standards, given that the AU had previously disbarred Guinea and Mali over their respective coups.[fn]Some member states complained that the fact that the AU Commission chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, is Chadian influenced member states’ decisions. Others said Chad had used its own PSC seat to shield itself. Crisis Group online interviews, African and Western diplomats and AU officials, November-December 2021.Hide Footnote Others argued that Chad should be spared because it contributes so many troops to counter-terrorist missions in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin and because suspension could destabilise its domestic politics. Additionally, they reasoned that Chad’s leadership change was constitutional because the speaker of parliament, next in line for the presidency under the constitution, publicly supported the transition, and because the ruling party stayed in power.[fn]“AU balancing act on Chad’s coup sets a disturbing precedent”, Institute for Security Studies, 2 June 2021. Crisis Group online interview, AU official, December 2021.Hide Footnote

In order to find a middle ground, the PSC decided not to suspend Chad, but instead to set a number of ground rules for the junta.[fn]“Communiqué on the 996th meeting of the AU PSC on the consideration of the report of the fact-finding mission to the Republic of Chad”, AU PSC PSC/BR/COMM.(CMXCVI), 14 May 2021.Hide Footnote These included, among others, demands that the junta alter the transitional charter to limit the interim period’s length to eighteen months and bar its leaders from running in eventual elections. The military council swiftly agreed to these conditions, but it has yet to amend the charter, saying the revisions will be a topic of discussion during the national dialogue. The PSC also called for the appointment of a high representative who would work with Chadian authorities to organise free and fair elections, as well as the creation of an AU-led support mechanism – a team of electoral and constitutional experts and political and military advisers backing the high representative.

Some observers perceived the decision not to suspend Chad as undermining the [AU's] credibility.

The AU’s response to the Chadian situation has faced some criticism. Some observers perceived the decision not to suspend Chad as undermining the organisation’s credibility.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, African and Western diplomats and AU officials, November-December 2021.Hide Footnote In early July, the AU took another blow when N’Djamena rejected Senegalese diplomat Ibrahima Fall, its choice for high representative, on the grounds that it had not consulted the junta about the decision – a version of events the AU disputes.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “Getting Chad’s Transition on Track”, 30 September 2021.Hide Footnote Since Idriss Déby’s death, the AU’s international partners have looked to it to take the lead on Chad. Now, with Congolese diplomat Basile Ikouébé installed as its high representative, and its support mechanism being deployed, the AU should step up efforts to ensure that the Chadian transition stays on track.

The transition has made some encouraging progress. Most Chadian stakeholders have agreed to join the forthcoming national dialogue, which is aimed, among other things, at resolving contentious constitutional and electoral issues. Citizens have also been able to voice their expectations of the process through local consultations. Before the dialogue takes place, however, the junta will need to shore up support from the public. To this end, the AU, backed by international partners, should encourage the military council to reaffirm publicly that the transition will not exceed eighteen months and that military council members will not run in the presidential election.[fn]In May 2021, the AU called upon the Chadian authorities to review the transitional charter and put these conditions, as well as others, in place. Communiqué on the 996th meeting of the AU PSC, op. cit.Hide Footnote The AU could also provide support to help the dialogue’s participants reach consensus on key electoral rules. Such an agreement would go some way toward lessening political tensions during the transition’s final stage.

Authorities have also taken steps to include armed groups – known in Chad as “politico-military groups” – in the national dialogue. In August, the junta asked a committee led by former President Goukouni Oueddei to make an inventory of the main rebel groups’ demands. One of these mainly Libya-based insurgencies was involved in the fighting that led to Déby’s death and, although it is weakened, it could launch new offensives if negotiations with Chadian authorities fail. Late in 2021, Oueddei’s committee spoke with armed group representatives in cities outside Chad, including Paris, Doha and Cairo. Since then, the junta has accepted some of the conditions that rebel leaders say must be met if they are to participate in the dialogue, including amnesty and restitution of property.

Chadian authorities and armed groups are set to hold further talks in Doha in February. Participants are likely to discuss thorny issues such as disarmament, tied to possible financial compensation, as well as integration of rebel fighters into the army. The AU should support these talks and put pressure on the various stakeholders to keep their commitments following the negotiations.

2. Secure a Ceasefire in Ethiopia

Over the last fourteen months, Ethiopia’s civil war has killed tens of thousands and displaced an estimated two million. It now threatens more than nine million with acute hunger. Reports describe widespread use of sexual and gender-based violence as a weapon of war on all sides. The momentum has ebbed and flowed between the federal coalition, which includes Eritrea’s military, and the Tigray region’s forces, but in December the Tigrayans’ retreat to their home region and their leaders’ call for talks created an opportunity for peace. Although fighting has continued on Tigray’s borders, the federal government has said it will not push further into the region. It released jailed opposition leaders in early January.[fn]“Ethiopia says its army will not advance further into Tigray”, Africa News, 24 December 2021. Dawit Endeshaw, “Ethiopia frees opposition leaders from prison, announces political dialogue”, Reuters, 8 January 2022.Hide Footnote The parties must seize this moment if they are to avoid the loss of countless more Ethiopian lives. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the AU’s high representative for the Horn of Africa, should keep working closely with U.S. and EU counterparts, as well as the UN secretary-general and Kenyan officials – all of whom have been trying to stem the crisis – to kickstart a process that can bring an end to hostilities.

The AU has faced criticism for inaction since armed confrontations began in November 2020. Indeed, the AU has found it hard to weigh in on the Tigray conflict, in part because the federal government frames the fighting as a domestic problem. The fact that Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa is home to the AU headquarters complicates matters. Ethiopia’s seat on the AU PSC has also stymied efforts to put the crisis on the Council’s agenda. The country’s term on the PSC ends in 2022, and unless it secures a second term, its absence from the council could allow more frequent discussions and firmer action.

Despite these hurdles, the AU has tried to engage on Ethiopia. In November 2020, the AU Assembly chairperson, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, dispatched three high-level envoys to Addis. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rebuffed their calls for dialogue and dismissed their requests for access to Tigray. It then took the AU Commission chair until August 2021 to appoint Obasanjo as his envoy.[fn]“The Chairperson of the AU Commission appoints former President H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria as High Representative for the Horn of Africa”, press release, AU, 26 August 2021.Hide Footnote While Obasanjo’s mandate covers almost the entire region – except for Somalia and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – it was widely understood that he would focus mainly on the Tigray crisis.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, African and Western diplomats and AU officials, November-December 2021.Hide Footnote Still, to take a lead in securing a formal ceasefire, Obasanjo will need more support from the AU than he receives at present. The AU Commission and AU member states should ensure that he has the resources and authority to hire the specialised personnel required – including, if requested, staff seconded from external partners.

With a strong team in place, together with international counterparts, Obasanjo should try to persuade federal authorities and Tigray’s leadership to formally cease hostilities before discussing detailed ceasefire arrangements and ideally a political settlement. He should insist that the government lift restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian aid to famine-stricken Tigray and restore services. If talks get under way, an initial confidence-building step could entail the two sides first recognising each other’s legitimacy and exchanging prisoners of war. The AU, alongside other outside actors, should support federal government plans to facilitate a national dialogue, lobbying for a fully inclusive process. The dialogue should be preceded by an amnesty – building on the welcome releases in early January – for all opposition figures who are on trial for terrorism and other alleged offences. Obasanjo’s team should advocate for such an amnesty as part of its push for an inclusive dialogue. It should also call for the release of thousands of mostly Tigrayan and Oromo civilians detained without charge under emergency laws introduced in November.

The AU and its partners should ... support existing international and regional investigations of human rights abuses.

To support Obasanjo’s efforts, the AU could propose broadening Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s bilateral engagement to bring in other African heads of state in order to constitute a group of five mediators, one from each of the AU’s geographical regions. Such an initiative could enhance Obasanjo’s chances of success, especially if it can convince Eritrea to play a less destructive role. The AU has undertaken similar mediation efforts before. Both Kenyatta, who has discussed with leaders and previously tried to bring the warring parties’ representatives together, and Sall, the incoming AU chair, are well placed to lead such an initiative (even if Kenyatta may be preoccupied with tense elections at home in August). Additionally, the AU PSC, which held its first stand-alone meeting on Ethiopia on 8 November 2020, should convene regularly to support Obasanjo’s work on the crisis and push for the steps mentioned above.[fn]“Communiqué of the 1045th meeting of the AU PSC”, AU PSC/PR/COMM.1045(2021), 8 November 2021. Although the communiqué from this session added little new to the AU position, merely featuring it on the PSC agenda signalled that AU member states were watching.Hide Footnote Given the serious reports of sexual and gender-based violence during the civil war, the AU and its partners should also support existing international and regional investigations of human rights abuses.

3. Develop a Strategy for the Return of Foreign Fighters from Libya

Libya’s peace process is slowly advancing, but its political transition appears at risk of derailing after the presidential election scheduled for December 2021 was cancelled at the last minute. The country is now due to hold the vote in 2022. But various factions, including politicians in power, continue to lobby to postpone it indefinitely. The same groups want to put off the legislative elections that are supposed to happen a few months after the presidential vote. The AU has very limited sway over Libya’s internal politics and should instead support UN-led political mediation aimed at drawing up a new roadmap. But where the AU could carve out a space for itself is in facilitating the removal of Chadian and Sudanese fighters operating in Libya. 

Libyan parties and outside powers agree that Libya’s future stability is contingent on the departure of foreign fighters, as set out in an October 2020 ceasefire. The AU and its member states have expressed grave concerns about the forcible removal of Chadian and Sudanese armed groups from Libyan soil, however, fearing the consequences of such a move. They understandably worry that the fighters, who operate as guns for hire in Libya but hail from rebel groups opposed to authorities in their home countries, could threaten the region’s stability if they are forced to leave Libya against their will. While much of the discussion on Libya focuses on the country’s internal dynamics, the AU should consult with, and lobby on behalf of, African states that will be directly affected by the measure to help minimise the potentially negative impact of the fighters’ return.[fn]“Ministerial session on the consideration of the projected impact of withdrawal of foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya on the Sahel and the rest of Africa”, Amani Africa, 30 September 2021.Hide Footnote

The AU should press Libya, Libya’s partners and the receiving countries to develop a clear strategy for relocating the [foreign] fighters.

The AU, whose PSC has met repeatedly to discuss the issue, should work to encourage a smooth withdrawal process. At its most recent meeting, on 30 September, the PSC stressed that foreign fighters should withdraw in an “orderly, coordinated and incremental manner”. The AU should press Libya, Libya’s partners and the receiving countries to develop a clear strategy for relocating the fighters, focusing on disarmament and reintegration.

Having long felt excluded from peacemaking in Libya, the AU is now getting more involved. Libya has been a source of great discontent for many at the AU since 2011, when the organisation’s calls for political dialogue were ignored in favour of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led military intervention to oust Muammar al-Qadhafi. Since then, the AU has been marginal to the Libya peace process. While some Western countries agree that the AU should have a role in Libya discussions, they complain that when given a seat at the table, the AU often fails to show up or capitalise on the opportunity.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°166, Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2021, 3 February 2021.Hide Footnote Recently, though, the AU has increased its engagement on Libya, including a visit by members of the AU’s Political Affairs and Peace and Security Department to carry out a needs assessment with stakeholders in the country.

In order to further strengthen its engagement, the AU should better organise the myriad of initiatives it maintains. These include the High-Level Ad Hoc Committee, the special envoy of the AU Commission chairperson and the supporting liaison office in Libya. The AU should clarify the division of labour among these initiatives, many of which have overlapping mandates. Further, the AU should follow up on a 2020 decision to upgrade the AU liaison office to the level of mission and to give it the political, diplomatic and military staff it requires. Strengthening the AU’s presence in Libya could also increase its ability to consult with the country’s neighbours in discussions about the removal of foreign fighters.

4. Promote a Multipronged Approach to Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado crisis

An insurgency in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado has killed more than 3,000 people and displaced over 750,000.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°303, Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, 11 June 2021.Hide Footnote Forces from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have managed to drive the insurgents out of their main strongholds, but militants have broken into smaller groups to mount hit-and-run attacks on soldiers and civilians. Some groups are spreading into neighbouring Niassa province.[fn]“Cabo Ligado Weekly: 29 November-5 December”, Cabo Ligado, December 2021; Joseph Hanlon, “Mozambique: War spreads to Niassa”, All Africa, 2 December 2021.Hide Footnote While the international military intervention has dealt a significant blow to the insurgents, resolving the crisis will require further measures that get at its underlying causes. The AU should push the Mozambican government to consider ways to address the militants’ grievances, primarily their demand that the province’s population benefit more from exploitation of its mineral and hydrocarbon resources. Though the militants are now on the back foot, they could easily rebound to regain territory if Maputo’s partners were to pull out prematurely.

It will first be crucial for the AU to find ways of supporting the SADC Mission in Mozambique. SADC and Rwandan officials say the Mozambican army could need twelve months to acquire the capacity it requires to tackle the Cabo Delgado crisis alone.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, SADC and Rwandan officials, Pemba, December 2021.Hide Footnote Some Mozambican officials say the upgrade may take even longer, possibly several years.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mozambican defence official, Maputo, December 2021.Hide Footnote At a SADC meeting in Pretoria in December, several officials questioned whether the mission in Mozambique can secure future funding, expressing concern that Maputo might ask it to stay on the ground for a prolonged period.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, sources close to the talks, including SADC officials, Pretoria, December 2021.Hide Footnote

The AU could help identify alternative funding sources for the SADC mission. The EU has signalled that it would be willing to use its new funding mechanism, the European Peace Facility, to support the mission.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, EU diplomats, Addis Ababa and Maputo, November-December 2021.Hide Footnote But Brussels will not cover the operation’s entire cost, as it is determined to avoid repeating the experience of footing the bill for the AU’s mission in Somalia, now in its fourteenth year.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, EU diplomat, Addis Ababa, November 2021.Hide Footnote

[The AU] should ... encourage Maputo to open direct dialogue with insurgents.

Beyond the SADC mission’s future, the AU should press Maputo to deal with the insurgents’ substantive demands. While many of the insurgency’s leaders – some of whom are foreigners, mostly from Tanzania – appear to be hardened jihadists, the group’s rank and file are Mozambicans, motivated less by ideology than by frustrations with perceived political and economic exclusion. The development of Cabo Delgado’s vast mineral and hydrocarbon deposits, in particular the French company Total’s multibillion-dollar liquefied gas project, has aggravated these grievances. The AU should push Maputo to redouble development efforts in the province to win back the trust of disillusioned youth who may otherwise be tempted to join the insurgency. It should also encourage Maputo to open direct dialogue with insurgents, aimed at persuading them to surrender with assurances that they can do so safely. A government-funded demobilisation program that allows fighters to quit the insurgency and prepare for return to civilian life is also needed.

The AU can also assist in efforts to address the insurgency’s cross-border contacts. The insurgents rely for training and financing, as well as some recruiting, on networks reaching up the Swahili coast as far up as Somalia, and possibly westward to the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as to cells in South Africa. The AU could encourage collaboration between regional bodies facing the transnational jihadist threat – the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, East African Community and SADC. For example, it could push relevant member states to increase intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, focusing on investigations into transnational financial networks underpinning the insurgency and restricting the movement of jihadists trying to join the fight in Cabo Delgado.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, South African security sources following the Islamic State’s financial trail in the SADC region, Johannesburg, December 2021. Notably, the Allied Democratic Forces – a rebel group that emerged in Uganda in the early 1990s and later took refuge in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – has since 2018 absorbed more foreign fighters, including from Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, and also gave combat training to insurgents from Cabo Delgado as late as that year. For more details, see Dino Mahtani, “The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications”, Crisis Group Commentary, 19 November 2021.Hide Footnote The AU could also support the SADC counter-terrorism cooperation centre that is being created in Tanzania by coordinating relevant information from other regions and its own counter-terrorism centre.

5. Support Dialogue in the Sahel

Turbulence in the Sahel continues to mount, with a particularly bloody end to 2021. The coalition that has tried to stem the chaos for nearly a decade – a patchwork of local, regional, French, European and UN forces – is floundering as jihadist insurgencies stiffen their resolve to impose sharia in areas under their control and political discord in Mali deepens. After acknowledging the limits of its military-first approach, France has begun to withdraw troops from the Sahel, handing over responsibility for the counter-insurgency campaign it has led to a European task force. Mali’s transitional authorities have said they want closer cooperation with Russia, while the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, has reportedly begun sending mercenaries to buttress the anti-jihadist fight.[fn]Around 450 mercenaries have already arrived in Mali, according to French military sources cited by Radio France Internationale. The Malian authorities deny hiring the Wagner Group, however, and state that they are working with Russian instructors. “Mali: 200 mercenaires du groupe Wagner à Ségou dans le nord-est du pays”, RFI, 10 January 2022.Hide Footnote With efforts to stabilise the Sahel thus entering a new phase, the AU should redefine its approach to the crisis by identifying where it can best bring value. It should also encourage dialogue efforts and regional attempts to maintain, or return to, constitutional rule.

Jihadist violence and intercommunal conflict have killed thousands in recent years, feeding perceptions that Sahelian governments are unable to protect their citizens. Discontent is growing, as is anti-French sentiment. In May, officers in Mali orchestrated a second coup in less than a year, shifting attention from the security crisis to political intrigue in Bamako. In Burkina Faso, an outcry after the deadliest militant attack on the security forces to date led the government to collapse in December. Then, on 24 January, the armed forces ousted President Kaboré, receiving immediate support from part of the population that feels a military officer would be better able than a democratically elected civilian to halt jihadist violence. Although seemingly more stable than its neighbours, Niger also faces persistent militant attacks in its western reaches. Authorities thwarted an attempted coup two days before President Mohamed Bazoum took office on 2 April 2021, and continued insecurity could foreshadow similar incidents in the future.

The stalemate has pushed some Sahelian governments to engage in dialogue with militants, often indirectly. Dialogue initiatives in Mali and Burkina Faso have produced local ceasefires and at least temporary lulls in violence. While governments should continue to support local dialogue, high-level negotiations with top jihadist leaders are worth exploring as an option that could yield stronger prospects for peace. Mali’s transitional authorities have said they are thinking about starting such talks, but Burkina Faso and Niger remain officially opposed to the idea.

The AU, which last published a stabilisation strategy for the Sahel in 2014, needs to refocus its efforts. Although the military-first approach has failed to reduce the bloodshed, the AU Commission and some member states appear to be mulling over a proposal put forward in late 2020 to deploy 3,000 AU troops to the Sahel. Several other member states oppose the plan, which lacks a sustainable funding source and clarity as to which countries would contribute troops or how command and control would work. Even if the AU resolves these questions, it is far from clear how dispatching additional soldiers to the Sahel would benefit the existing security setup. The AU should consider abandoning this time-consuming initiative and rededicating itself to diplomacy.

The AU should lend its support to mediation efforts [between Sahelian governments and militants].

The AU should lend its support to mediation efforts, even if they are a distant prospect for now. If an elected government in the region warms up to the idea of high-level talks with jihadist commanders, the AU could help mediation teams independently or in concert with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) prepare the ground for such talks. To best support Sahelian states in exploring the dialogue option, the AU needs to bolster its existing mission for Mali and the Sahel, known as MISAHEL. The organisation recently expanded the mission’s mandate to include supporting Guinea’s transition, but MISAHEL has so little money it can barely perform its duties.[fn]Following a coup that saw Guinea’s special forces arrest President Alpha Condé on 5 September, the AU suspended Guinea from all AU activities. “Communiqué of the 1030th meeting of the AU PSC on the situation in the Republic of Guinea”, AU PSC/PR/COMM.(1030(2021)), 10 September 2021.Hide Footnote The AU should consider appointing staff dedicated to each country that MISAHEL covers and add personnel specialised in mediation to the mission’s team, to help support existing mediation efforts. To boost mediation capacity, it could then draw on insights from local think-tanks and scholars.

With greater prominence in the Sahel, the AU would also be better positioned to caution against unconstitutional changes of government and help dissuade restive militaries from taking repressive action in response to popular malaise. In Mali, the junta is reneging on its previous pledge by signalling its intent to stay in power well beyond 2022 rather than step aside after holding elections in February – a recent calendar they put forward envisaged elections in December 2025. In response, ECOWAS placed additional sanctions on the Malian authorities.[fn]“4th Extraordinary Summit of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government on the Political Situation in Mali”, communiqué, ECOWAS, 9 January 2022.Hide Footnote The AU endorsed this decision but did not go so far as to suspend Mali’s membership, instead calling for a return to constitutional order within sixteen months.[fn]"Communiqué of the 1057th meeting of the PSC on the situation in Mali”, AU PSC/PR/COMM.1/1057(2022), 14 January 2022.Hide Footnote Coordinated international pressure will be needed to impel the junta to organise polls sooner rather than later. The AU’s recent offer to mediate between Bamako and ECOWAS is a step in the right direction.

Still, engagement in the Sahel may become more complicated following the coup in Burkina Faso, which threatens to upset the balance of power in the region. Events in Burkina Faso, along with coups in Guinea and Mali in 2021, mean that military leaders now rule one fifth of the ECOWAS member states. There is a risk that the three countries could form an alliance to resist pressure from ECOWAS, the AU and beyond. Indeed, in a first indication of this dynamic, Guinea’s junta leader, Mamadi Doumbouya, decided not to close his country’s border with Mali, despite an ECOWAS embargo. Complicating matters further is the fact the new junta in Ouagadougou enjoys some popular support. Following its suspension of Burkina Faso, the AU should now work to support any national or regional attempts to restore constitutional order.

6. Reform the AU Mission in Somalia

The UN mandate for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was due to expire on 31 December 2021, but after much discussion, the UN Security Council extended the mandate by three months, giving partners additional time to hammer out a plan for the mission’s future, although the window is rapidly closing. Questions remain, however, over modalities including the mission’s funding, composition and exit plan. The AU and AMISOM’s five troop-contributing countries seek reliable funding to keep the mission going. Yet the main donor, the EU, which pays AU soldiers’ stipends, is increasingly weary of bankrolling a costly intervention that lacks a clear termination plan. It has signalled more funding cuts in 2022. Like other outside actors, Brussels feels that the mission provides declining value for money.

There is general consensus that the AU mission needs to change but not about precisely how. Initially serving as an offensive mission following its deployment nearly fifteen years ago, AMISOM today acts more as a holding force preventing Al-Shabaab’s insurgency from recapturing areas it has cleared of militants. The government wants Somali troops to take over AMISOM’s security responsibility, but the national army is still developing and often too weak or divided to keep Al-Shabaab at bay, partly because political tensions between Mogadishu and Somalia’s regions, or federal member states, have disrupted plans to solicit troops from these regions for the federal army. Al-Shabaab’s resilience means that stakeholders are reluctant to wind AMISOM down now. But while donors and partners acknowledge that AMISOM urgently requires major changes, the AU, UN and Somali government have expressed fundamental disagreement about the shape of those reforms.

The [Peace and Security Council's] persistent pursuit of a hybrid [AU-UN] mission damaged already weakened ties with Mogadishu.

In 2021, the quarrel between the AU and UN came to a head over the composition of an independent assessment team, commissioned by the UN Security Council to explore AMISOM’s future. Denied joint leadership of the team, the AU set up a rival enquiry and instructed its staff, including those in AMISOM, not to cooperate with the UN investigation.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, AU and UN officials, November-December 2021.Hide Footnote The two bodies then published separate evaluations with distinctly different conclusions. Complicating matters further, the AU PSC has insisted on transforming AMISOM into an AU-UN hybrid mission – one of four options outlined in the AU’s report – in part because it would draw on UN assessed contributions, providing more predictable financing than it now enjoys. The proposal is a non-starter, however. The U.S. and UK oppose funding AMISOM through UN assessed contributions, while the Somali government rejects the idea of a hybrid mission. The PSC’s persistent pursuit of a hybrid mission damaged already weakened ties with Mogadishu.[fn]Aggrey Mutambo, “Ghana ex-president Mahama quits as African Union Envoy to Somalia”, The East African, 21 May 2021. In mid-2021, the AU appointed former Ghanaian President John Mahama as an envoy to help mediate a political impasse in Somalia, but the Somali government rejected him, citing bias. On 4 November, Mogadishu declared AMISOM’s deputy head persona non grata and ordered him to leave the country, stating that his activities were incompatible with both AMISOM’s mandate and Somalia’s security strategy.Hide Footnote

In late January, the parties took a positive step. A technical committee made up representatives from the AU and the federal government of Somalia outlined a basic plan that bypassed the hybrid option – although it left questions around funding and mission size unanswered. This plan has yet to come before the PSC, however.

In order to repair relations with the UN and Somali government, and to move the tortuous discussion of AMISOM’s future forward, the PSC should formally endorse the option of a reconfigured AU mission. The UN Security Council should reciprocate by committing to help the AU find predictable funding. Once a compromise has been found, all parties can then focus on the technical details of the new mission’s structure. Further, setting a clear timeline for the reconfigured mission will enable better planning and reassure donors, as long as it reflects ground realities. The federal government insists on a transition by the end of 2023, but a longer horizon might be more realistic in order to give Somalia’s leadership adequate time to resolve political tensions with federal member states and bolster the army.

There are clear steps the AU can take to reinvigorate AMISOM. These include diversifying AMISOM’s troop-contributing countries, which would add new capabilities and reduce the dominance of the five countries in Somalia’s immediate neighbourhood that are supplying the boots on the ground – and some of which pursue their own political interests in Somalia. AMISOM should also start closing remote bases that serve little strategic purpose, which would free up troops and allow the mission to undertake more offensive operations.[fn]For detail on these steps, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°176, Reforming the AU Mission in Somalia, 15 November 2021.Hide Footnote

The AU should try to solicit new bilateral donors for [the African Union Mission in Somalia].

To cover the funding gap left by expected reductions in EU contributions, the AU should try to solicit new bilateral donors for AMISOM, for example by reapproaching countries that have an interest in maintaining stability in Somalia, including China, Turkey and Gulf Arab monarchies. (The AU tried to get funding from these countries in 2018, when the EU previously cut its AMISOM contribution, but to no avail.) Further, the AU, which argues that it provides support in kind and whose soldiers have already paid a high price in combat, should review its own funding capabilities. For example, it could draw a small amount from the AU Peace Fund. Though this gesture would be largely symbolic, given the small sums available in the fund, it could strengthen the AU’s relationship with AMISOM’s current and potential donors.[fn]While it is highly unlikely that the Security Council will agree to using UN assessed contributions, the UN could instead look at creative ways of increasing financing to its support office in Somalia and call on member states to add to AMISOM’s trust fund.Hide Footnote

7. Help Restore Sudan’s Transition

On 25 October 2021, Sudan’s military leaders announced a state of emergency and dissolved the Sovereign Council, the civilian-military executive body piloting the transition following the April 2019 ouster of Omar al-Bashir. One month later, Sudanese-led mediation efforts culminated in an agreement reinstating deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The deal faced heavy criticism from many Sudanese men, women and youth, who came out in the thousands to protest the power grab. Nor did it receive the backing of the civilian officials who had signed on to the 2019 agreement with the military. On 2 January, Hamdok resigned in frustration after failing to persuade the generals to honour their commitments. The AU and other outside powers should exert pressure on Sudan’s top brass to engage with representatives of the protest movement and agree on a roadmap for the restoration of civilian rule, lest the country plunge deeper into prolonged, bloody unrest.

The AU, together with Ethiopia, was instrumental in brokering the 2019 civilian-military power-sharing agreement that laid out a clear roadmap for Sudan’s transition to democratic rule. It has since stepped back from its role as guarantor and watchdog. It did, however, play an important part in responding to the October coup. Despite significant divisions among its members, the PSC suspended Sudan’s AU membership until such times as the civilian-led transitional authority is reinstated.[fn]“Communiqué of the 1041st meeting of the PSC on the situation in Sudan”, AU PSC/PR/COMM.1041 (2021), 26 October 2021. The decision was hard-fought: PSC members Algeria and Egypt reportedly wanted to send a PSC fact-finding mission before making a decision on suspension. Crisis Group online interviews, African diplomats, Addis Ababa, November-December 2021.Hide Footnote Since then, unfortunately, the AU has largely sat on the sidelines.[fn]Although Obasanjo, the newly appointed AU Horn high representative, briefly visited Khartoum on 3 November, the PSC has not undertaken a mission to Sudan to meet with stakeholders and the AU chairperson has yet to dispatch an emissary, as called for in the PSC’s 26 October 2021 communiqué.Hide Footnote

Sudan’s political impasse presents an opportunity for the AU to take a lead in the mediation, as it did in 2019. To be most effective, the AU should appoint a high-level envoy solely mandated to Sudan and based in Khartoum to enable consistent, sustained engagement. He or she could be part of a panel that could be led by the AU’s high representative for the Horn of Africa or stand alone. Both of these options would require clear division of labour between the two envoys. The Sudan envoy should be supported by AU representatives already in the Sudanese capital.

If [Sudan's] generals refuse to compromise, the AU should impose individual sanctions on anyone spoiling progress.

Together with other external actors, the AU should exert pressure on the military to meet with representatives of the protest movement to chart a path toward a return to a civilian-led transition. Largely mobilised by neighbourhood committees – informal grassroots entities – this movement demands the military’s exit from politics. But given the coup and the generals’ decades-long dominance, some role for the military is inevitable. A middle ground might be restoration of the status quo ante, with a civilian prime minister fronted by the protest movement and mandated to appoint a cabinet, and a consensus-based roadmap to free elections and full civilian rule. Military leaders’ fear of facing charges for crimes committed during the Bashir era and losing the large parts of Sudan’s agricultural and industrial sectors they control might be a factor in their decisions. If the generals refuse to compromise, the AU should impose individual sanctions on anyone spoiling progress – it took similar measures against Guinea’s junta in 2009.[fn]“Communiqué of the 207th meeting of the AU PSC on the situation in Guinea”, AU PSC/AHG/COMM.2(CCVII), 29 October 2009.Hide Footnote

Crucially, the AU must remain engaged. A lack of attention – from the AU and others – left the previous civilian leadership unsupported, opening space for the generals to oust it. The PSC should demonstrate that it is seized of the situation by holding regular meetings on Sudan to track the transition’s progress. Further, the Commission should focus on bolstering the capacity of its liaison office in Khartoum, a step it has long planned but not yet actually taken. Persistent pressure on the transitional leadership will be needed until the date of elections and afterward.

8. Put Climate Security on the International Agenda

In November 2022, the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (known as COP) returns to Africa, with Egypt hosting its 27th edition. While COP and other international forums, including the UN Security Council, have struggled to address the impact of climate change on peace and security, the AU and its member states have already recognised the risks that changing weather patterns pose to the continent.[fn]“Communiqué of the 984th meeting of the AU PSC at the level of Heads of State and Government on ‘Sustainable Peace in Africa: Climate Change and its Effects on Peace and Security in the Continent’”, AU PSC/AHG/COMM.1 (CMLXXXIV), 9 March 2021; “Communiqué of the 1051st meeting of the AU PSC on ‘Climate Change and Peace and Security: The need for an Informed Climate-Security-Development nexus for Africa’”, PSC/PR/COMM.1051 (2021), 26 November 2021.Hide Footnote With all eyes on Africa in 2022, the AU should seize the opportunity to put climate security front and centre.

So far, climate security has not featured on the official COP agenda, and action on the issue seems likely to lag behind other items, in part because participants feel it could prove too divisive for a forum that seeks apolitical shared solutions. The AU, UN and World Bank have nonetheless made efforts to include climate security on the COP27 agenda.[fn]Among others, the Africa Climate Mobility Initiative – a collaboration between the UN, AU Commission and World Bank launched on 28 September 2021 – aims to support the Commission and African nations’ efforts to harness the potential of mobility – including migration, planned relocation and forced displacement – amid the climate crisis, as well as to address climate-forced displacement and migration.Hide Footnote Even if the issue remains excluded, any climate adaptation proposals that are advanced at COP will need to take account of conflict risks, lest the measures wind up harming the very people they are intended to help. An alternative to putting climate security on the agenda itself would be to hold an annual high-level conference on the issue on COP’s sidelines. Such an event could help ensure that COP negotiators do not disregard conflict dynamics during their deliberations. Egypt, as host, should consider setting one up at COP27.

It is not just at COP that climate security is inadequately discussed – the UN Security Council has also had difficulty addressing the issue directly. Climate change is often described correctly as a “threat multiplier”, but many members interpret this phrase to mean that the Council should discuss only the dangers that climate distress exacerbates – such as political and socio-economic tensions – and not climate change itself. In December 2021, Russia vetoed a draft resolution calling for enhanced international efforts to respond to the implications of climate change for peace and security. India opposed the draft on similar grounds to Russia, and China abstained.[fn]“Russia vetoes UN Security Council resolution linking climate crisis to international peace”, The Guardian, 13 December 2021; Crisis Group Commentary, “How UN Member States Divided Over Climate Security”, 22 December 2021.Hide Footnote

[Africa] stands to be one of the worst-affected by global warming and is already experiencing climate-induced violence.

By contrast, the AU PSC has met numerous times to discuss climate-related security challenges.[fn]“Communiqué of the 984th meeting of the AU”, op. cit.; “Communiqué of the 1051st meeting of the AU PSC”, op. cit.Hide Footnote It is not surprising that African countries recognise the importance of addressing the issue, as the continent stands to be one of the worst-affected by global warming and is already experiencing climate-induced violence. South Sudan is but one example. There, several years of catastrophic flooding have displaced hundreds of thousands, including ethnic Dinka herders who fled southward to the Equatoria region. The forced migration has further strained relations between Equatorian and Dinka elites, aggravating pre-existing grievances and intercommunal tensions over land and power, while exacerbating the conflict dynamics in the region.[fn]For more, see Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°169, South Sudan’s Other War: Resolving the Insurgency in Equatoria, 25 February 2021.Hide Footnote

Many climate-fragile countries also face conflict and poor governance, which tend to delay adaptation and mitigation measures to combat climate change. In the Sahel, climatic distress has resulted in the erosion of traditional land use arrangements, inflaming farmer-herder disputes and uprooting hundreds of thousands as in South Sudan. In some Sahelian locales, failure to regulate land use has contributed to the rise of jihadist and self-defence groups.[fn]Ulrich Eberle and Andrew Ciacci, “Getting Conflict into the Global Climate Conversation”, Crisis Group Commentary, 5 November 2021.Hide Footnote

The AU PSC has meanwhile taken several steps prioritising climate security. In May 2018, it requested that the AU Commission chair appoint an envoy for climate change. Two years later, in a head of state-level meeting, the PSC reiterated its desire for an envoy, called for a common African position and established an AU Special Fund for Climate Change.[fn]“Communiqué of the 984th meeting of the AU”, op. cit.; “Communiqué of the 1051st meeting of the AU PSC”, op. cit. At its 26 November 2021 meeting, the PSC clarified that this fund would support measures to combat the negative impact of climate change, as well as the Continental Civil Capacity for Disaster Preparedness and Response.Hide Footnote It also called for a climate-related security risks assessment study, which will likely lay the foundation for the AU’s response to climate security, and continues to press member states to adopt a common position on the issue.[fn]“Communiqué of the 1051st meeting of the AU PSC”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The AU should follow through on these commitments. African leaders should make good on their pledge to develop a common continental position. The Commission should strive to complete the risk assessment, while its chair should appoint an envoy with sufficient political weight to lobby international actors to support climate-related conflict prevention efforts and develop standards for how to avoid aggravating local conflict when spending climate adaptation funds. Additionally, the Commission should increase cooperation among the different departments that work on climate change, including Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Environment, Infrastructure and Energy, and Political Affairs and Peace and Security.

Nairobi/Brussels, 1 February 2022

Appendix A: The African Union’s Priorities in 2022