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10 Conflicts to Watch in 2016
10 Conflicts to Watch in 2016
Op-Ed / Global

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2016

Originally published in Foreign Policy

From Syria to the South China Sea, the conflicts and crises the world will face in the coming year.

Pulling together a list of the wars most in need of international attention and support in 2016 is challenging for all the wrong reasons. For 20 years after the end of the Cold War, deadly conflict was in decline. Fewer wars were killing fewer people the world over. Five years ago, however, that positive trend went into reverse, and each year since has seen more conflict, more victims, and more people displaced. 2016 is unlikely to bring an improvement from the woes of 2015: It is war — not peace — that has momentum.

That said, there are conflicts whose urgency and importance rise above. This year’s list of 10 is weighted toward wars with the worst humanitarian consequences: Syria and Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Lake Chad basin. It includes those in influential and functioning states, like Turkey, as well as those that have collapsed, like Libya. It features conflicts that are already bad but are poised to get much worse without intelligent intervention, such as Burundi, as well as tensions, such as those in the South China Sea, that are simmering but have yet to boil over. The list also considers the hopeful example presented by Colombia, where considerable progress is being made toward ending a 51-year insurgency.

Half of the conflicts on this year’s list involve extremist groups whose goals and ideologies are difficult to accommodate through negotiated settlement, complicating efforts to plot a path to peace. Looking ahead to 2016, it’s time to dispense with the notion that fighting against violent extremism suffices as a plan for world order — or even the basis of a solution for a single country like Syria. To be sure, stopping the abominations of the Islamic State and other jihadis is vital, but it also exposes policy dilemmas: The fear of what follows the demise of authoritarians (Iraq and Libya being prime exhibits) creates a strong incentive to back repressive regimes, but order based solely on state coercion is not sustainable. The dramatic increase in the reach and influence of jihadis over the past few years is a symptom of deeper trends in the Middle East: mounting sectarianism, a crisis of legitimacy of existing states, and escalating geopolitical competition, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. When the enemy comes from within a given region, military action directed from abroad is more likely to aggravate than assuage.

There is an alternative to this approach: States could work pragmatically at managing differences rather than overcoming them while leaving political space open for local actors to speak up. This will require courage, patience, and creative diplomacy, but the two most important diplomatic successes of 2015 — the Iran nuclear deal and the agreement on climate change — give reason to believe an international approach based on finding common interests could work. There are other glimmers of hope, too: major strides forward in Colombia’s peace talks, a cease-fire in Ukraine bolstered by the Minsk process, progress in Myanmar’s democratic transition, and a welcome, if long overdue, resolution from the U.N. Security Council on Syria.

Most of the conflicts listed here require action at several levels — between major powers, regionally and locally — and none are amenable to a quick fix. Given the challenges of ending conflicts amid the upheaval of a revolutionary era, it is all the more urgent to provide humanitarian aid and to mitigate the human toll of violence — evidenced starkly in the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled toward Europe in the past year. States must also redouble efforts to forge political agreements, taking advantage of even the narrowest openings to find opportunities for compromise. The fluidity of the present moment can and must be used to shape a new, better-balanced order.

Syria and Iraq

At the close of the year, the war in Syria is the world’s gravest, with its effects stretching across the region and sucking in major powers. More than a quarter of a million Syrians have been killed and almost 11 million — about half the country’s population — displaced in or outside the country. The rise of the Islamic State, which now controls a large swath of eastern Syria and northwest Iraq, has drawn in firepower from countries including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia. As yet, however, none of these countries has articulated a coherent strategy to defeat the Islamic State.

Worse still, Moscow and Western powers have been working at cross-purposes, with Russian jets bombing anti-Islamic State rebels that Washington considers partners against the jihadi group. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to use indiscriminate aerial bombardment and other methods of collective punishment, inflicting civilian casualties in Sunni-majority areas that dwarf the numbers of victims claimed by the Islamic State’s violence. Assad’s tactics fuel continued cycles of radicalization, in Syria in particular, but also across the region, by fanning sectarian flames and feeding the sense of Sunni victimization from which the Islamic State profits.

The pace of diplomatic action has quickened, spurred in part by Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September and the Islamic State-sponsored terrorist attacks in Paris in November. While the growing internationalization of the conflict presents many dangers, it may also open possibilities for diplomacy. In December, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire and political solution in Syria. The resolution sets forth an ambitious timetable, with talks between the government and the opposition to start in January; a Syrian-led political process to establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months; and elections within a year-and-a-half. Questions about Assad’s future — which provoke the most vehement disagreement between major powers on the Security Council, rival regional powers, and Syrian factions — remain unaddressed.

Despite many reasons to be skeptical, it is worth hoping that this latest initiative marks the beginning of a meaningful effort to resolve the conflict. A conference in Riyadh in December exceeded expectations by bringing together an unprecedented range of the opposition’s armed and political factions to agree on a negotiating team. Participants pledged their commitment to a pluralistic Syrian future and conditional willingness to engage in the peace process. For a national cease-fire to work, however, there must be a strategy for dealing with spoilers — especially al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, which is geographically, and often operationally, integrated into the non-jihadi opposition in much of western Syria.

In Iraq, meanwhile, the Western strategy to defeat the Islamic State relies largely on military offensives by Iraqi Kurds, a mostly Shiite Iraqi army, and Iran-backed Shiite militias. This risks feeding the resentment of Sunni Arabs in areas currently under Islamic State control. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government is under pressure from rival Shiite factions for a host of reasons — including anger over corruption, the state’s failure to provide basic services and security, resistance to his reform agenda, and intramural jockeying for power. Shiite militias are not only fighting the Islamic State, but have organized to fill the security vacuum and defend Baghdad and Shiite holy sites. The militias’ partial success resonates with many unemployed youth, who have been at the forefront of street protests. The Islamic State rules partly through brutal coercion but also by exploiting fear of the Shiite-dominated government and by empowering formerly marginalized segments within the Sunni community. Iraqi forces have spent months trying to retake Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, after a humiliating withdrawal last May, and in the last week of the year managed to finally gain control of the city. The next priority will be to oust the Islamic State from Mosul, the northern city where it is perhaps best entrenched.


Recent photographs from the southeastern city of Diyarbakir show young militants with assault rifles manning sandbagged roadblocks and engaging in bloody urban battles. Such images capture a dangerous escalation in Turkey’s long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a confrontation that has killed more than 30,000 people since 1984. Many factors have fueled the sharp upsurge in violence following the end of peace talks last spring and the collapse of the cease-fire in July. Turkey’s Kurdish movement backs the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the PYD, which has made gains in fighting against the Islamic State. Ankara worries that cross-border Kurdish solidarity will further strengthen demands for a separate state. This perceived threat has weakened Turkey’s focus on the fight against the Islamic State, leading many Turkish Kurds to conclude that Ankara supports the terrorist group that is ostensibly their common enemy.

Over the past six months, the conflict has escalated to its most violent point in two decades. Both sides know that there is no military solution; however, each wants to weaken the other as much as possible while waiting for the Syria quagmire to settle. To prevent the Middle East’s ethno-sectarian violence from spilling further into Turkey, both sides should urgently end violence, agree on cease-fire conditions, and restart peace talks. Free from electoral pressures for four years, the new Justice and Development Party (AKP) government should formulate a concrete reform agenda to address demands for Kurdish rights — including decentralization and mother-tongue education — that can be advanced within a democratic framework.


The Saudi-led war in Yemen — backed by the United States, Britain, and allies in the Gulf — has been grinding on since March 2015, with no end in sight. U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland in mid-December yielded only an agreement to resume negotiations on Jan. 14. Nearly 6,000 people have reportedly been killed, almost half of them civilians. More than 2 million people have been uprooted from their homes; an additional 120,000 have fled the country. The war has destroyed the country’s already weak infrastructure, deepened political divides, and introduced a narrative of sectarianism where previously there had been little or none. The conflict threatens the security of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Saudi Arabia itself, by feeding the growth of terrorist networks like al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The violence has its roots in a botched political transition following the departure of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced out amid protests in 2011. After years of indecision about the country’s political future, Houthi militias took matters into their own hands and captured the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. The Houthis — a predominantly Zaydi Shiite movement rooted in the north — began moving south in alliance with forces loyal to Saleh. On March 25, 2015, they seized a strategic military base near Aden and held the defense minister hostage. The next day, Saudi Arabia launched a major military campaign — Operation Decisive Storm — to roll back the Houthi advance and restore the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Houthis bear much of the responsibility for triggering the war, but the Saudi-led campaign has only escalated the violence and thus far proved largely counterproductive.

Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as proxies for Iran. While Iran’s role has been minimal, Tehran has not hesitated to make political hay of Houthi successes, thereby further raising the stakes in a volatile region. The perception that it is meddling has alarmed Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as ascendant and having hegemonic ambitions. A peaceful solution to the Yemen war may well require a prior accommodation between these two regional superpowers, currently a remote possibility.


The Islamic State’s apparent consolidation of its base around Sirte, on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, has brought fresh urgency to international efforts to end a political crisis that has left the country in a shambles.

Following NATO’s military intervention and the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, assorted political parties, tribes, and militias have been fighting for power and control over the nation’s vast oil and gas riches. Since mid-2014, the country has been governed by two rival factions — another way of saying that no one is really in charge. A U.N.-brokered deal to form a national unity government emerged in December, thanks to heavy lifting from the United States and Italy. Members of both factions signed up, but many powerful constituents still oppose the deal. The unity government may not be able to govern much, especially if opponents prevent it from taking a seat in Tripoli.

Meanwhile, lawlessness continues to take a heavy toll. Thousands of detainees languish in prisons without proper judicial review while kidnappings and targeted killings are rampant. Libya is also a major transit hub for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe from other parts of the Middle East and Africa. The unchecked flow of arms and fighters through Libya has fueled conflicts across the Sahel, including in Mali and the Lake Chad basin (see below). Western intelligence officials say that the impoverished Fezzan region in the south is swiftly becoming a haven for criminal networks and radical groups. On top of all this, economic collapse looms on the horizon unless oil production increases and officials act to maintain the integrity of Libya’s core financial institutions, which the two rival administrations have been squabbling over.

The first task for the new Libyan government, and its international partners, must be to bring aboard those Libyans who currently oppose it. At best, the recently signed agreement should be seen as a beginning, not an end, to the peace process.

Lake Chad basin

Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon face an evolving threat from the jihadi militant group Boko Haram. Over the past six years, the group has transformed itself from a small protest movement in northern Nigeria to a powerful force capable of mounting devastating attacks across the Lake Chad basin. Last March, it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State — an affiliation that appears to have had little impact beyond improving Boko Haram’s online presence.

This past summer, Cameroon experienced the greatest increase in attacks by Boko Haram, followed closely by Niger and Chad. Nigeria, however, remains the epicenter of the conflict. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office in May, ambitiously pledged to end the insurgency by December. While this remains a distant goal, Buhari — a former army major general — has shaken up his country’s security establishment and joined with regional forces to drive Boko Haram from the areas in northeastern Nigeria it had seized earlier in 2015.

Boko Haram is, however, resilient, adaptable, and mobile. Military efforts, to date, have had limited success in countering its use of suicide bombers, who are often young women and girls. Its terrorist attacks on remote and unprotected villages — and even on regional capitals, like N’Djamena — continue. Indiscriminate responses by state security forces and insufficient efforts to win over the affected communities only pour fuel on the fire. Regional governments are still failing to address the factors behind radicalization. Decades of political corruption, festering grievances, and poor access to basic social services have bred deep anger and alienation. These issues are compounded by rapid population growth and environmental degradation, which drive social tension and migration.

South Sudan

Yet again, the world’s newest country is at risk of descending into full-blown civil war. The peace agreement reached between the government and the largest armed opposition group in August after intensive African-led mediation is on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, independent armed groups outside the deal are proliferating.

The roots of the conflict date back to internecine competition among various factions during South Sudan’s decades-long independence struggle. South Sudan won independence from Sudan, only to explode into civil war on Dec. 15, 2013, as divisions within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement led to fighting and targeted ethnic killings in the capital of Juba. Only hours after the conflict erupted, tens of thousands of people sought refuge at U.N. bases to escape ethnic massacres and sexual violence. Today, nearly 200,000 people live under the direct protection of U.N. peacekeepers.

Over the past two years, more than 2.4 million people have been displaced, and tens of thousands have been killed. A report released by the African Union in October detailed atrocities by both sides, including mass killings and rapes. Now, with an increasing number of the country’s more than 24 armed groups aligned with neither the government nor the main opposition forces, the prospect of a multipolar war is real. Regional actors, especially members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which mediated the peace agreement, and international powers, including IGAD partners China, Norway, the United States, and the United Kingdom, must take urgent, united action to push South Sudan’s leaders to respect their commitments to the peace deal and avert a catastrophic return to war.


Almost daily, dead bodies appear on the streets of Bujumbura, with the circumstances surrounding their deaths often unknown. More than 300 people have been killed since last April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to seek a third term in office despite widespread opposition. Nkurunziza’s re-election in July, following a failed coup attempt, sparked a season of confrontation between government forces and armed opposition fighters. Escalating violence raises fears of a return to conflict after a decade of relative peace. At least 300,000 people died during Burundi’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 2005 after dogged peace-building efforts led by former Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

In December, the African Union Peace and Security Council took the bold step of authorizing an African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi to halt the slide toward civil war and mass atrocities. Nkurunziza reacted angrily and said Burundians would “stand up and fight” against foreign troops. The African Union has reached out to the government and is calling on both sides to cooperate with peace talks, with the next round scheduled for Jan. 6. It is not clear if the African Union has sufficient member support to impose a mission against the will of the Burundian government.

The humanitarian situation is dire. More than 200,000 people have fled the country, and U.N. officials have warned that without immediate action there is a risk of “catastrophic violence.” So far, the crisis is more political than ethnic. However, some leaders appear to be exploiting ethnic divisions, and there is a risk of mass atrocities if violence continues unchecked. It also threatens to further destabilize the fragile Great Lakes region, with increasing numbers of refugees fleeing to Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


U.S. President Barack Obama’s endgame in Afghanistan seems ever more remote, as the country remains mired in conflict more than 14 years after the United States intervened to oust the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda. Today, the Taliban, despite internal splits, are still a formidable force; al Qaeda maintains a presence, and the Islamic State has established a foothold. A short-lived breakthrough in Pakistan-brokered peace talks last July was scuttled after opponents of the talks disclosed that the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had died in 2013. The Taliban eventually confirmed these reports and announced that longtime deputy Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour had taken over. Mullah Mansour, who reportedly has close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services, consolidated his leadership position with a string of military victories, including the temporary capture of Kunduz in late September. Yet factionalism continues to bedevil the Taliban movement. Unconfirmed reports surfaced in early December indicating that Mullah Mansour may have been injured or killed in a firefight with rivals in Pakistan. A handful of field commanders throughout the year declared allegiance to the Islamic State.

Fighting across multiple provinces continues to inflict heavy civilian casualties — one reason that Afghanistan is second only to Syria as a leading source of refugees. Rampant corruption and abuse of power by local authorities continue to be the chief drivers of support for the insurgency. The United States now says that it will maintain troop levels at 9,800 for most of 2016, and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission is committed to providing financial support for Afghan security forces until 2020. But given the potency of the insurgency, there is clearly no military solution to the conflict. And the splintering and proliferation of militant groups threaten future efforts to broker peace. President Ashraf Ghani’s attempts to resume negotiations with the Taliban are controversial and strain the cohesion of his national unity government. For talks to succeed, they must be broadly Afghan-led and owned, and driven more by the interests of the Afghan people than by those of powerful external players like Pakistan and the United States.

South China Sea

The South China Sea risks becoming a theater of big-power competition, as the United States challenges China’s large-scale land reclamation and construction on several disputed reefs. China’s aggressive assertion of its territorial claims sets it on a collision course with several Southeast Asian nations with competing sovereignty claims in one of the world’s busiest waterways, an area rich with fisheries and possible oil and gas reserves. Tensions flared in May, when a U.S. spy plane flew near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago, where China is building an airfield. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called for an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation in the disputed area and announced that the United States “will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” In October, a U.S. Navy warship approached another disputed reef in the Spratlys, prompting a sharp rebuke from Beijing that the action was illegal and posed a threat to its national security. In November, Obama announced an aid package worth $259 million over two years to boost the maritime security of Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, all rival claimants to China.

In what could prove a landmark case, a tribunal in The Hague is considering an arbitration request filed by the Philippines accusing China of violating international law in the South China Sea. Beijing refuses to participate or accept the court’s jurisdiction, but the case could still help unite international opinion and nudge China toward greater cooperation. A decision is expected in 2016.

Beijing should realize that its use of sharp elbows diminishes confidence in regional self-governance and encourages its neighbors to turn to the United States for protection. In turn, Washington must use its words and actions to defend the global commons and support multilateral diplomacy, rather than merely asserting its military supremacy. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations should drive negotiations with China to commit all parties to a code of conduct to manage maritime disputes before small ripples grow into big waves.


Peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) achieved a series of breakthroughs in recent months, raising hopes that the country may finally see an end to its 51-year-old armed conflict in 2016. The conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 220,000 people; 50,000 have been “disappeared,” and a staggering 7.6 million people have registered as victims of the conflict.

In December, the two sides announced a milestone agreement on transitional justice, one of the toughest issues on the agenda. They had previously reached agreements — with some matters left open for discussion — on rural development, political participation, and drug policy.

President Juan Manuel Santos has declared an ambitious March 23 deadline for reaching a final agreement, but he has pushed back the date for a bilateral cease-fire. Sensitive questions continue to dog the disarmament and reintegration of rebel forces, as well as monitoring mechanisms to ensure implementation. Other complex issues include how to confirm the peace agreement: The government has committed to a popular vote, while the FARC has long called for a constituent assembly. A smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), must also join the peace process. And the huge challenge of healing the scars left by decades of war in a country still plagued by illegal armed groups remains. All that said, there are positive signs that the continent’s longest-running, and last-remaining, armed conflict will soon come to a conclusion.

This article first appeared in Foreign Policy.

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