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A demonstrator prays with her hand on a policeman's shield in front of a barricade in Independence Square, Kiev, February 2016. MAGNUM/Larry Towell
Special Report 2 / Global

Seizing the Moment: From Early Warning to Early Action

Wars can be prevented or mitigated by early, clear and well-designed political and diplomatic engagement. Yet policymakers are increasingly stretched by a myriad of global crises. Refocusing on knowledge, relationships, frameworks, strategic communication and pathways to peace is crucial to limiting and resolving the world’s current upsurge in deadly conflict.

Executive Summary

After a period of relative calm, an upsurge of crises is testing the international system, pitting major powers and regional players against one another and highlighting the weaknesses of preventive diplomacy. Governments and international organisations were taken by surprise by the Arab uprisings in 2011 and slow to react to crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) in the years that followed. Global and regional rivalries have weakened diplomacy over Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Policymakers, stretched by the symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism, struggle to focus on conflict prevention. 

Yet, preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. The Iranian nuclear deal, progress toward peace in Colombia and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015 have been reminders of what intensive international engagement can deliver. If politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex “framework diplomacy” with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.

This report, drawing on Crisis Group’s field-centred analysis and policy recommendations from the past five years, sets out a broad strategic framework for preventive diplomacy. Its primary focus is on conflicts, like those in Ukraine and Syria, which directly involve outside powers. While classical inter-state conflicts remain rare, internationalised civil wars are a leading source of regional and global frictions. Building frameworks to address both the internal and external tensions that shape them is likely to be a recurrent challenge for big powers, regional players and multilateral organisations in the years ahead. 

The first half of this report focuses on the internal drivers of recent and current crises. It argues that while it is exceedingly hard to identify specific triggers of future conflicts, it is possible to identify likely threats to peace and work out how they may play out if left unaddressed. It emphasises the need to understand the political dimensions of conflicts and, especially, the leaders and elites whose choices for or against violence are pivotal. Grasping how such leaders make these decisions is essential for effective early warning, but it must be buttressed by much broader political analysis covering, inter alia, the dynamics of ruling parties, opposition groups and civil society, not just at the national but at all levels of society. 

Building anticipatory relations with all these actors constitutes a bedrock for effective early action by outside partners, once a crisis looks set to break. It is important, too, to grasp the politics and strategies of militaries and internal security forces in cases such as Egypt, or of non-state armed groups in chaotic environments like Libya. The report also highlights the sources of many conflicts in countries’ marginalised peripheral regions. Local rebellions in Yemen, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan and CAR, to name a few, have expanded unexpectedly and exponentially, causing widespread violence and overthrowing a number of governments. 

A focus on the internal players in countries at risk must be complemented by efforts to engage and balance the interests of external actors, while recognising that the distinction between “internal” and “external” actors is moot in many crises. In the Middle East and Central and West Africa, conflicts frequently flow across borders, and regional powers simultaneously fuel conflicts and position themselves as peacemakers. Ethnic groups such as the Kurds in the Middle East straddle multiple countries, while organised criminal networks and transnational extremist groups are not restricted to individual states. This means that experts engaged in early warning and early action must treat regional and wider international factors as integral to their conflict analysis and development of appropriate policy.

The report goes on to look more closely at the varieties of “framework diplomacy” that can facilitate the requisite engagement. In many crises it is necessary to look beyond established multilateral frameworks – important though these can be – and pull together case-specific groupings of states and institutions to manage a problem, or at least minimise frictions. Sometimes neither formal nor ad hoc inter-governmental arrangements will be suitable: back-channel diplomacy led by local “insider mediators”, specialised international NGOs or other actors may be the best initial way to handle looming tensions.

The remainder of the report reviews the means available for directly engaging in conflicts as they escalate or in anticipation of their outbreak. It emphasises the need for inclusive approaches to political dialogue, meaning not only outreach to civil society, women’s groups and other constructive forces, but also marginalised minorities and armed groups – including some highly controversial actors such as Islamist extremists. In addition to mediation and other diplomatic options such as deploying high-level envoys, tools include a range of coercive measures and incentives for peace. Coercive tools include diplomatic “naming and shaming”, threats of international legal action in response to atrocities and the use of sanctions. All have significant limitations and can worsen rather than alleviate crises if not well coordinated and aligned to a broader political strategy.

This report, drawing on Crisis Group’s field-centred analysis and policy recommendations from the past five years, sets out a broad strategic framework for preventive diplomacy.

At least equal caution should be applied to the use of force. As the Arab intervention in Yemen has underlined, like many interventions before it, military action can prove costly and counterproductive. This caution also applies to deployments of military peace operations, which have become a standard part of international crisis management (especially in Africa) and increasingly tend toward more robust forms of peace enforcement. While such missions can and do save lives, they can also become entangled in local conflicts, get bogged down in situations from which they have no exit strategy and become overly aligned with governments that do not always enjoy much popular support.

Whatever direct or indirect means of engagement states use, they should set explicit and limited political goals and communicate these clearly to other actors (including their opponents) to avoid violence spiralling beyond control. While coercion may have a role to play in management of a specific crisis, it should be balanced with clear incentives for leaders, elites and their supporters to follow paths away from violence. These may include aid for post-crisis demobilisation, governance reforms and reconstruction. 

More strategically, the best peace incentives that outsiders may be able to offer are ideas and advice to actors in a crisis on how to structure mutually-beneficial arrangements to share power and resources. In Libya, for example, the interest all sides ultimately have in a functioning energy sector could be a point of consensus even while political disputes create friction.

No one group of analysts and forecasters is consistently right in its early warnings (Crisis Group included), and no early action strategy is foolproof. Tackling conflicts as they emerge and develop is an inherently chancy business, and governments and international organisations that engage in it inevitably risk failure. Nevertheless, early, strategic, well-designed engagement predicated on the discipline of close analysis, development of anticipatory relationships and framework diplomacy may help prevent conflict or limit its escalation. To the extent that their resources permit, governments, regional bodies and international organisations should invest in four key areas:

  • Knowledge and relationships. Policymakers, working directly or through others, should develop the closest possible knowledge of troubled countries’ political systems and cultivate channels for frank discussions with leaders, elites, security forces and civil society over the risks of crisis. “Early warning” should, in sum, rest not only on economic and other indicators of danger (although these are useful), but also on in-depth political links with crucial actors.
  • Framework diplomacy. Given the dangers of international and regional tensions exacerbating a crisis, policymakers should make early and concerted efforts to bring international players to the table to assess their interests, hear their analyses and develop common positions on how to act. This can take place in formal multilateral settings or ad hoc, but it is essential to choose mechanisms that enable real bargaining, resulting in frameworks for handling a conflict, rather than formal exchanges or public recriminations. 
  • Strategic planning and communication. It is easy for policymakers to stumble into crises without a clear grasp of what they aim to achieve. The constant need to make statements, launch initiatives and satisfy calls for action makes strategic thinking and planning difficult. It is crucial that governments and international organisations invest in laying out clear overall goals for engaging in crises and communicate these clearly both to the players involved in a conflict and other international actors with interests at stake. 
  • Creating pathways to peace. The ultimate goal of all this relationship-building, framework diplomacy and strategic planning is not simply to guide early action, but to signal to the parties at the centre of a conflict that they can take paths to peace rather than wade into violence. Outside actors can rarely compel leaders and factions on the brink of conflict to step back. But if they are able to engage in well-informed political and diplomatic work and sketch out ideas for lasting peaceful solutions to a conflict, they may persuade their interlocutors to pause before escalating – and perhaps follow an alternative political route that avoids, or at least limits, all-out violence.

Brussels, 22 June 2016

I. Introduction

Five years ago, the Arab uprisings exposed the weaknesses of existing models of early warning and early action in response to political crises. While many analysts were aware of the political, social and economic factors that led to the uprisings in early 2011, few if any foresaw the wave of disorder that spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Governments and international organisations resorted to a variety of policy tools – ranging from offers of mediation to economic sanctions and threats of international prosecution – that frequently failed to alter the calculations of embattled political elites. In many cases, their efforts backfired badly.

While the United Nations (UN) Security Council mandated military action in Libya to protect civilians in March 2011, the uprising against Muammar Qadhafi resulted in a fractured state that slid into chaos while outside powers focused elsewhere. In Yemen, an initially successful UN mediation ran out of steam, paving the way for the Saudi-led intervention in 2015. Arguments over these crises also fuelled geopolitical confrontations, variously involving the West, Russia, China, and Arab and African powers, that have severely complicated later attempts at conflict management. Doubts about international crisis response have since been compounded, as conflicts have escalated from South Sudan to eastern Ukraine. In some cases, such as Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), analysts and officials saw crises escalate but did not react promptly or decisively. In others, as in Ukraine, the pace of events appeared to take outside actors by surprise.

By 2014, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) has calculated, there were some 40 conflicts worldwide, eleven involving over 1,000 battle deaths a year: “the highest number of conflicts since 1999”.[fn]Therése Pettersson and Peter Wallensteen, “Armed Conflicts, 1946-2014”, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 52 (4), p. 536. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), with a different methodology, contends that conflicts worldwide have in fact declined since 2010, but there has been a “steady increase in lethality” (which levelled off overall in 2015, despite increased deaths in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen) and a long-term rise in conflict-related displacement. Anastasia Voronkova, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Voronkova (ed.), Armed Conflict Survey 2016 (IISS, 2016), p. 5.Hide Footnote  Many governments and international organisations focus on managing the fallout from these conflicts. Donors have had to repurpose funds to handle the record numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). International coalitions are trying to contain and rollback violent Islamist extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa with a mix of military aid to both state and non-state actors, covert operations and airstrikes. These measures crowd out discussion of long-term conflict prevention and resolution.

This is short-sighted. As UN officials have recently emphasised, the key to stemming the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East is not only to increase funding to aid agencies, but also to resolve the conflicts there. Crisis Group has argued that vital to countering the influence of groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda is to ratchet down regional confrontations, in particular the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran; redouble efforts to contain (if not immediately resolve) the conflicts these groups exploit; and work toward local solutions based on the inclusion, rather than alienation of vulnerable communities. Panels convened by the UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have underscored the need to focus on politics and diplomacy in addressing conflicts.[fn]“One Humanity: Shared Responsibility; Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit”, UN document A/70/709, 2 February 2016, pp. 6-12. Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016. “Our Shared Responsibility”, Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, (UN) A/70/95 – S/2015/446, 17 June 2015; “Back to Diplomacy”, Final Report and Recommendations of the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project, OSCE, 3 December 2015.Hide Footnote

The strategic case for effective early warning tools and early action mechanisms to avert potential conflicts, or at least stop them from escalating and spreading into broader confrontations, seems clear enough.

Even if governments pay lip service to such notions, many have resorted to covert or overt military actions to manage crises: examples range from Russia in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen to Uganda and Sudan in South Sudan. While the bulk of current conflicts are intra-state wars, at least a third are internationalised – with foreign forces from one or more other countries in the fight – exacerbating regional and wider international tensions and rendering conflict resolution significantly more complex.[fn]Pettersson and Wallensteen, op. cit., p. 537. A recent summary of the political economy of armed conflicts underlines that most “do not fit neatly” into the categories of intra- and inter-state wars, due to the complex nature of their violence and divisions. Achim Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violent Conflict”, in Armed Conflict Survey, op. cit., p. 20.Hide Footnote  This report thus pays most attention to internationalised intra-state conflicts, but also draws lessons from other flashpoints, like the South China Sea.

The strategic case for effective early warning tools and early action mechanisms to avert potential conflicts, or at least stop them from escalating and spreading into broader confrontations, seems clear enough. Yet, there is a daunting mix of obstacles to effective early international response. These range from understanding the implications of political frictions in peripheral areas of weak states, such as Mali, to the diplomatic challenges of forging international frameworks to handle cases like Syria. Few if any of these challenges are unprecedented – for examples of the problems of volatile peripheral areas, one can go back to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a century ago – but addressing them requires sharp political insight, judgment and action that still often elude policymakers.

In parallel with the deterioration of particular conflicts, the norms that have underpinned much post-Cold War thinking on conflict prevention and resolution are in flux. Russia, China and other non-Western powers argue that NATO abused the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) during the Libyan crisis in 2011. Even if political pluralism and representative government still offer the best hope of stability in most countries, the difficulties of democratisation are obvious. Conflict prevention specialists are now as likely to emphasise the dangers associated with elections in fragile states as their advantages. The post-Cold War trend toward strengthening international justice, symbolised by the International Criminal Court, is also encountering increasing pushback. Yet, the last quarter century’s ideals still have some purchase. In Africa in particular, the African Union (AU) and sub-regional bodies repeatedly, if inconsistently, cite human security, prevention of mass atrocities and defence of legitimate governments to justify interventions.[fn]See, for example, Crisis Group Africa Report N°234, Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III): West Africa, 14 April 2016, p. 9.Hide Footnote  Rather than rising or declining linearly, these norms ebb and flow on a case-by-case basis.

This report maps out how governments and multilateral organisations can best respond to looming crises in this uneasy international environment. It begins by asking how relevant existing thinking about early warning and early action is today. It then explores recent lessons about drivers of conflict, including elite decision-making, localised violence and regional political factors. Finally, it turns to the diplomatic tools, coercive measures and incentives typically available to policymakers trying to address crises and the strategic and diplomatic frameworks needed to put these tools to use. It is necessary to be realistic about the chances of halting fast-moving crises, but effective and rapid action is often possible.

II. Early Warning and Early Action: In Search of Political Strategies

“Early warning” and “early action” are phrases open to multiple definitions. This report concentrates on early warnings of violent conflict and strategies of early action that external actors may take to address those risks. There is a perennial debate about what “early” means: should it include long-range indicators of instability and long-term actions, such as economic assistance, that may alleviate them? While acknowledging the value of long-term warnings, this paper takes a narrower view and focuses on medium- and short-term warnings and responses to political dynamics that have a clear potential to lead to violence. This encompasses imminent threats and risks that may require some years to come to fruition. The precise timeline is less important than the presence of signs that leaders, political factions or other armed groups are taking steps that could ultimately lead to conflict.

This focus on looming conflicts requires three qualifications. The first is that poli­tical analysis should identify not only threats, but also actors who favour peace and unexpected opportunities for settling disputes. As noted in Section III below, officials and analysts should build relationships with political figures, civil society members and others who can promote non-violent solutions to a crisis.

The second qualification is that, while this report largely discusses emerging and escalating crises, it is essential to keep watch for unexpected developments in active and ongoing conflicts. Events such as the rise of IS in Syria in 2014 or the upsurge of violence in Ukraine in early 2015 can fundamentally transform the dynamics of an existing war. The detailed political and security analysis promoted below can and must continue even after a conflict explodes.

Thirdly, it is necessary to ask who is best-placed to conduct this analysis and direct early action. This report does not focus on the early warning and early action mech­anisms of any one government or international organisation. The lessons and advice it offers are designed to apply to a wide range of governments and other bodies concerned with international security; generic references to “outsiders” and “policymakers” are deliberately non-specific.

As Section IV emphasises, who does early warning and early action is increasingly complicated and contentious. When Crisis Group launched in the mid-1990s, the U.S., its allies and the UN appeared to dominate the field. Today, a diverse array of often mutually mistrustful states, organisations and non-governmental groups are engaged. The exact mix of relevant players differs from case to case. Complex “framework diplomacy” – painstaking efforts to establish case-specific diplomatic mechanisms for analysing, managing and mediating conflicts – is frequently required to bring them together, or at least limit friction. By taking a broad view of who can deal with crises and how, this paper points to some principles for such cooperation.

A. What Can “Early Warning” Do?

A focus on political actors and analysis is in line with earlier studies that argued early engagement in crises must rest on an understanding of political dynamics. The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict concluded in 1997 that “mass violence invariably results from the deliberately violent response of determined leaders and their groups to a wide range of social, economic and political conditions that … usually do not independently spawn violence”.[fn]“Preventing Deadly Conflict”, Carnegie Corporation of New York, December 1997, p. 29.Hide Footnote  Although political scientists and forecasters search for statistically verifiable causes of conflict, such as economic factors, many are giving more weight to leaders and political factors as creators of violence.[fn]See Michael C. Horowitz, Allan C. Stam and Cali M. Ellis, Why Leaders Fight (Cambridge, 2015).Hide Footnote  Whereas researchers once claimed that ethnic cleavages were an innate cause of conflicts, analysts now emphasise that leaders’ deliberate use of ethnically-loaded rhetoric plays a crucial part in dividing and radicalising communities.[fn]Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violent Conflict”, op. cit., p. 22; Crisis Group Africa Report N°235, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, 20 May 2016, pp. 5-7.Hide Footnote  Recent work on climate change and environmental degradation, for example, indicates that these “only trigger violence if the social and political context of a country are particularly disadvantageous”.[fn]Gerald Schneider, Nils Petter Gleditsch and Sabine C. Carey, “Exploring the Past, Anticipating the Future: A Symposium”, International Studies Review, vol. 12 (1), 2010, p. 5.Hide Footnote

This basic assumption about the importance of political factors has long underpinned policy thinking on early crisis response, with a focus on developing strategies to shape crucial elites’ decision-making. If diplomats or international officials want to engage in a country on the verge of conflict, they need not only to develop a sense of its underlying problems, but also to have a working knowledge of the interests and political calculations of the leaders, parties and factions involved.

Experts on early warning are often rightly wary of quantifying these issues: “the exact degree to which elites are in harmony or conflict, to which opposition movements have popular support, or to which the ruler is supported by neighbouring or foreign states, is not always easy to pin down”.[fn]Jack A. Goldstone, “Using Quantitative and Qualitative Models to Forecast Instability”, United States Institute of Peace, 1 March 2008, p. 6.Hide Footnote  It is arguably even harder to anticipate the precise trains of events that lead to specific acts of violence. Some potential flashpoints, such as divisive elections or the death of an authoritarian leader, may have a high chance of engendering instability. Nonetheless, “long term trends (‘causes’) are often clear enough, but not the proximate causes, or triggers…. What precipitates a conflict may be a sudden, unforeseen event: an accident, misreading or miscalculation, or a temperamental leader’s flash of hubris”.[fn]Joost Hiltermann, “Chemical Wonders”, London Review of Books vol. 38 (3), 4 February 2016, p. 3. Hiltermann is Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director.Hide Footnote

We can, however, still identify and assess the political factors that make a crisis more or less likely and explore how that crisis might play out. Through detailed information gathering and analysis, it is possible to show how the policies and strategies of leaders and other power-brokers are liable to raise tensions, destabilise societies and initiate conflicts. It is feasible to foresee the political dividing lines that might emerge at trigger moments in the future. In some cases, this information also allows observers to estimate how the ensuing confrontations could unfold, if often only roughly, offering a spectrum of possible developments. A review of Crisis Group reports demonstrates the potential of such analysis to flag looming risks, even if it cannot identify precise triggers.

A good example of a medium-term warning comes from Crisis Group’s work on Iraq. In August 2013, it published a report highlighting sectarian tensions and that “Prime Minister al-Maliki has implemented a divide-and-conquer strategy that has neutered any credible Sunni Arab leadership”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°144, Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State, 14 August 2013, p. i.Hide Footnote  The report warned that many Sunni Iraqis now felt that their “only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms”. While noting the increased activism of the “newly minted” IS, it did not foresee the speed and scale of the group’s offensive in northern Iraq the following year. But in identifying the poisonous effects of Maliki’s political strategy, its impact on Sunni opinion and the probability of armed conflict, it did diagnose many of the drivers of the 2014 crisis. At a time when the U.S. was keen to put the Iraq war behind it, and its allies had disengaged, however, the warning went largely unheeded.

Crisis Group similarly laid out well in advance the dynamics that led to the recent crisis in Burundi, highlighting President Nkurunziza’s strategy of centralising as much power in his hands as possible. Crisis Group insisted in 2012 that the country was “regressing” toward a “one party system characterised by the end of dialogue between the opposition and the ruling party, the government’s authoritarian drift and the resumption of political violence”. Nonetheless, international actors with a stake in Burundi’s stability largely attempted to work with the government rather than confront it: the EU increased aid, while the UN cut back its political presence, even as warning signs grew stronger.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°192, Burundi: Bye-Bye Arusha, 25 October 2012, p. i. Thierry Vircoulon, “Burundi: How to Deconstruct Peace”, International Peace Institute Global Observatory, 24 November 2015. Vircoulon was then Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group was, for example, one of the first to recognise how the growing power of the Huthis in Yemen could upset the country’s fragile peace.

These two cases show how focusing on the strategies and behaviour of leaders can help identify impending crises, even if those strategies and behaviours are informed by deeper contextual factors. Where conflicts intensify, analysts may also be able to identify how short-term political developments may create instability and potentially reshape dynamics. Crisis Group was, for example, one of the first to recognise how the growing power of the Huthis in Yemen could upset the country’s fragile peace. The group did not initially appear to be a major spoiler, but military success turned it into a significant and ambitious political force in 2013-2014. In February 2014, a Crisis Group Conflict Alert raised the possibility it would try to take the capital, Sanaa.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014; and “Yemen: Conflict Alert”, 26 February 2014.Hide Footnote  Yet, many outsiders, keen to see Yemen as a success story, focused on UN-led efforts to consolidate a new political settlement and played down the threat until the Huthis did indeed enter Sanaa that September.

Elsewhere, early warnings have more successfully led to early action. In late 2014, Crisis Group was among organisations that emphasised signs Nigeria’s 2015 presidential elections could lead to large-scale violence. Signals included increasing low-level sectarian attacks and local politicians arming followers in anticipation of worse to come. Crisis Group advocated a high-level international push to persuade President Goodluck Jonathan and his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, to renounce violence. Following intensive personal diplomacy by luminaries such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, coupled with pressure by domestic powerbrokers, Jonathan accepted his eventual defeat gracefully. Research in the Niger Delta, a centre of his support, suggests that local leaders had been ready for violence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 220, Nigeria’s Dangerous 2015 Elections: Limiting the Violence, 21 November 2014; and 231, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (III): Revisiting the Niger Delta, 29 September 2015, p. 14.Hide Footnote

Analysts with a good grasp of the political dynamics can also make credible (if inher­ently probabilistic) assessments of how events will unfold. In late 2011, for example, Crisis Group assessed the increasingly chaotic security picture in Syria and identified factors that have since come to characterise the conflict, including the prevalence of “sectarian retribution and criminal activity” and the mounting risks of “foreign intrusion”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°31, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics, 24 November 2011, pp. 5-6.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group certainly does not always foresee future developments accurately: it did no better than others in forecasting the 2011 Arab uprisings and gave no advance alert of South Sudan’s collapse or the Ukrainian crisis.[fn]Like governments and other actors, Crisis Group’s analysis is affected by resource constraints: it did not have staff in Ukraine in 2013 (this has since been remedied).Hide Footnote  At best, analysts work with partial information and have to make judgment calls about which risks are most pressing. If policymakers are sometimes inclined to discount warning signs, there is a parallel danger of “over warning”, of perceiving every fresh political twist as a harbinger of inevitable conflict.Nonetheless, good analysis-based early warning can identify not only the underlying risks of future conflicts, but also (i) how political actors are exacerbating the dangers of a crisis through their medium-term strategies; (ii) how shorter-term tactical developments may accelerate tensions; and (iii) what possible paths a conflict could take if not controlled. The goal of early action is then to determine how to persuade or push actors to pursue alternative courses that avert or minimise violence, or, where the internationalisation of a conflict is a risk, at least contain it.

B. The Complexities of Early Action

Early action “tools” fall into three broad categories: (i) facilitative (high-level diplomacy, mediation and confidence-building measures); (ii) coercive (diplomatic penalties, sanctions, threats of international justice and, ultimately, use of force); and (iii) incentives (such as financial aid, security guarantees and institutional support for new power- and resource-sharing arrangements). While it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of specific tools, they can only rarely be utilised in isolation from each other.

It remains true, as argued in a 2000 essay on early action, that “preventive diplomacy will usually require ‘mixed strategies’ combining coercive elements capable of posing a credible deterrent, and inducements and other reassurances that provide positive incentives for cooperation”. Optimally, such strategies should include a concept of a peaceful end-state to a crisis that all major players can buy into. “In even the most terrible of civil wars, for some there is always a threat more terrifying than the war itself”, noted a former UN official, namely, “the wrong peace”.[fn]Bruce W. Jentleson, Opportunities Missed, Opportunities Seized: Preventive Diplomacy in the Post-Cold War World (Carnegie, New York, 2000), p. 13. Tom Hill, “Fear of the Peace: Why Assad is Not the Main Obstacle to a Deal on Syria”, The Daily Telegraph, 3 October 2015.Hide Footnote  Parties to a conflict may ignore both coercion and incentives if they believe they will lose fundamentally from a final political settlement. This long-term view must be factored into early action where possible, even if there is inevitably always a short-term focus on averting an immediate crisis.

This is all hard. Devising and applying “mixed strategies” to manage emerging or ongoing crises typically involves bringing together not only the tools available to a single government or international organisation, but also pooling the influence and resources of multiple actors, who often have very different short- and long-term perspectives. Even where concerned international actors have roughly similar strategic goals, it can be hard to match up their strategies. In 2015, for example, Crisis Group warned that the Security Council risked undermining regional peace-making in South Sudan by threatening sanctions on six generals who actually favoured a settlement (two were sanctioned, duly creating resentment).[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “South Sudan: No Sanctions Without Strategy”, 29 June 2015. This case underlines the advantage of close political analysis. The Council targeted the generals largely due to their positions; Crisis Group argued they were comparatively moderate due to their views.Hide Footnote

More daunting still, it is sometimes necessary to coordinate strategies with actors with deeply opposed views, as in recent efforts involving regional powers, Russia and the West in Syria. In such cases, it is impossible to distinguish neatly between mediators and parties to the conflict and strategic competitors and diplomatic collaborators. As Crisis Group President Jean-Marie Guéhenno has argued, such situations demand a “multi-layered” response with wider international, regional, national and local diplomatic efforts continuing in parallel.[fn]“The World’s Fragmenting Conflicts”, Crisis Group “Future of Conflict series, 26 October 2015.Hide Footnote

III. Identifying Dangerous Political Dynamics

If diplomats, analysts and international officials want to recognise warning signs of political dynamics that are liable to lead to violence, what should they look for? It is necessary to nod to the cliché that all politics is local, and no two crises play out precisely the same way. Nevertheless, Crisis Group reports highlight four recurrent sets of warning signs: (i) evidence that leaders and elites are adopting political strategies conducive to conflict, or signs of breakdowns in the bargains that hold leaders and elites together; (ii) evidence of discontent or political radicalisation among militaries and security forces; (iii) violence in “peripheral” areas with potentially broader implications; and (iv) signals that outside actors are engaging in an “internal” conflict, or spillover effects from such a conflict. This section concludes with thoughts on how policymakers can use knowledge of such warning signs to build “anticipatory relationships” and take very early preventive action.

A. Leaders and Elites

Some observers argue that there is an “end of leadership” globally, as transnational communications and organisations gain influence at the expense of national figures. Where a leader such as Nigeria’s President Jonathan is willing to release his grip on power, however, underlying political and social tensions can be eased, while a recalcitrant chief can have the reverse effect. As Crisis Group observed in 2011, the initial protests in Syria, having created an “unprecedented sense of awareness, solidarity and responsibility among large segments of the population”, had the potential to engender peaceful change, but President Bashar al-Assad guaranteed wider violence by whipping up the fears of his base, especially in the Alawite community, and signalling his intention to “go down fighting”.[fn]Moisés Naim, The End of Power (New York, 2014). Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°31, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics, 24 November 2011, p. 3.
Hide Footnote

It is essential to understand not only individual leaders but also the political currents around them. As Guéhenno has argued, “political leaders have lost some of their capacity to control outcomes, and multiple actors, from the bottom up, need to be influenced”. This involves understanding the political organisations, factions and elites that underpin any leader, as well as the strength and strategies of opposition groups and the wider constellation of local leaders, armed groups and other secondary players who might exploit a crisis.[fn]Guéhenno, “The World’s Fragmenting Conflicts”, op. cit. Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violence”, op. cit., pp. 23-26.Hide Footnote

As Guéhenno has argued, “political leaders have lost some of their capacity to control outcomes, and multiple actors, from the bottom up, need to be influenced”

The need to understand such secondary political actors was made clear in South Sudan in 2013. For much of that year, there were signs of an “unravelling” of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which had papered over serious internal divisions on gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. Civilian and military factions now jockeyed for control of the party, creating discontent in the army and threatening President Salva Kiir's grip on power. While symptoms of this struggle became increasingly public, UN and Western diplomats focused on working with Kiir. They arguably missed opportunities to engage with a wider range of actors and were caught badly off-guard when the country collapsed into war that December. A host of armed groups and ethnic militias joined in, fighting grew exponentially, and “communal mobilisation and spiralling violence quickly led to appalling levels of brutality against civilians, including deliberate killings inside churches and hospitals”.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°217, South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name, 10 April 2014, pp. 3-5, p. i.Hide Footnote

Egypt has also highlighted the importance of tracking opposition and other interest group dynamics. From their 2012 election, President Mohamed Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party had a confrontational relationship with the bureaucracy, which went “on an informal strike”. He and his foes adopted polarising policies, culminating in emergence of the Tamarod opposition movement, supported by a mix of “activists, political parties and establishment figures” and later businessmen and religious leaders.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Briefing N°35, Marching in Circles: Egypt’s Dangerous Second Transition, 7 August 2013, p. 3, fn. 6 (interview, senior National Salvation Front member, Cairo, 9 June 2013); p. 4.Hide Footnote  The security services and military manipulated these groups and exploited Morsi’s intransigence to legitimise his overthrow.

In more propitious circumstances, civil society and economic interest groups can act as restraints on violence. The National Dialogue Quartet (a coalition of civil society groups with a strong popular base) helped to avert a similar breakdown in Tunisia in 2014. “In a region where civil-society groups often face repression and are marginalised”, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director noted, “the Tunisian example shows the value of having actors outside formal politics play a role in moments of crisis”.[fn]Issandr el Amrani, “Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example”, Crisis Group, 10 October 2015.Hide Footnote  In West Africa, Guinea has avoided the full-scale wars that affected many neighbours in part thanks to the role of civil society groups as “powerful balancing mechanisms” against violence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°178, Guinea: Putting the Transition Back on Track, 23 September 2011, p. 29.Hide Footnote

Where there is high political polarisation and few domestic constraints on violence, leaders can easily initiate civil conflict by design or accident.

“Civil society” is, of course, an amorphous phrase that covers very different types of entities with variable levels of leverage in different societies. These are most likely to have a positive effect when and where they have a solid popular base, and key poli­tical factions have some willingness to compromise. In Tunisia, the Quartet was able to sustain peace in part because the Islamist government chose to relinquish power voluntarily, due both to its leaders’ greater inclination toward compromise and their fear of suffering Morsi’s fate. Where political factions are intent on violence, civil society may only be able to mitigate the resulting conflict. National Christian and Muslim leaders have, for example, called for peace throughout the CAR crisis but could not stop the deterioration in 2013. Some lower-level religious figures actually incited sectarian violence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°96, Central African Republic: Better Late Than Never, 2 December 2013, p. 4.Hide Footnote

This brief cross-section of cases shows that the best way to predict how crises may evolve is to have a clear picture of the politicians and factions at the centre of decision-making and that political drivers of violence must be analysed from a range of angles. First, it is necessary to recognise when a leader is willing to address threats to his/her rule through long- or short-term strategies of polarisation and radicalisation. It can be helpful to focus on inflection points in political processes, such as elections or the date of a constitutionally-set term limit, which are likely to be polarising moments. Of course, analysts should not concentrate solely on such risky moments lest they miss other tensions and flashpoints.[fn]On “inflection points”, see Richard Gowan, Bruce D. Jones, Sara Batmanglich and Andrew Hart, “Back to Basics: The UN and Crisis Diplomacy in an Age of Strategic Uncertainty”, NYU Center on International Cooperation, pp. 12-15. In 2012, for example, Crisis Group warned that violence around Libya’s first post-war election risked “undermining an already fragile transition”. It was relatively successful but arguably lulled many outsiders into a false security sense, so they did not track the ensuing deterioration closely enough. Crisis Group Alert, “Libya’s Elections under Threat”, 3 July 2012. President Jonathan’s concession in Nigeria’s 2015 election may have averted serious violence in the Niger Delta, but that region remains tense. Nnamdi Obasi, “Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, But Other Troubles Surge”, Crisis Group, 30 May 2016.Hide Footnote Secondly, it is important to understand the coalition of political actors that support – or aim to undermine – a leader in his/her party, such as Kiir’s opponents in the SPLM. Thirdly, how opposition forces and civil society may fuel, defuse or mitigate a political crisis must be assessed. Where there is high political polarisation and few domestic constraints on violence, leaders can easily initiate civil conflict by design or accident. Conversely, they may take advantage of conflict abroad to strengthen their position at home, as Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have done in Ukraine.

B. The Security Sector and the Military

Egypt also highlights the need to monitor national security forces and militaries as sources of instability. A strong army’s capacity to threaten constitutional government is obvious. Yet, it is also necessary to recognise the dangers associated with security forces that have lost status and self-confidence (post-2011 revolutionary Tunisia), lack cohesion to ward off internal and external enemies (Iraq, 2014), are not rooted as an established institution (Libya) or are linked to only part of society (Syria). While outsiders often invest heavily in training and equipping militaries and security forces, their political dynamics tend to be poorly understood.

It is not enough to ask to what degree civilians formally control the military and security structures. In many states, relations between uniformed and civilian authorities are a matter of constant manoeuvre. In the run-up to the 2012 coup that combined disastrously with secessionist violence in the north to push Mali to the brink of collapse, Bamako was “buzzing with accusations of dangerous liaisons between political and military elites and major drug and hostage traffickers and rumours of plots by junior officers angry about the way the president pampered senior officers”. In Tunisia, tensions are growing between the army, Internal Security Forces (ISF), poli­tical parties and the public. ISF “isolation” from the public is a potential source of fresh political friction. There is evidence of breakdowns in the ISF chain of command and “emergence of mutually exclusive clans” in units that limit their ability to fight dangerous Islamist extremists.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°189, Mali: Avoiding Escalation, 18 July 2012, p. 18; Middle East and North Africa Report N°161, Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia, 23 July 2015, pp. 15-16.Hide Footnote

Outsiders concerned by such security dynamics need to assess (i) whether nation­al security forces have the political cohesion to threaten a government in their own right; (ii) whether their divisions could lead to in-fighting or create security vacuums; and (iii) if, where states face external threats or internal disorder, security forces have the capacity to provide an adequate defence and the discipline and professionalism to maintain public trust.

Troubling examples include the “shambolic” nature of Nigerian law enforcement in areas Boko Haram threatens and the Kabul government’s use of the “cheap and dangerous” Afghan Local Police. The Pakistan army’s “poorly conceived counter-insurgency strategies, heavy-handed methods and failure to restore responsive and accountable civil administration and policing” complicate efforts to oust Islamist extremists from tribal areas, creating or exacerbating more problems than they resolve. Elsewhere, security forces may act as forces for restraint in volatile situations: there are indications Venezuela’s military has played a positive if opaque role in lowering tensions after potentially explosive 2015 elections.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, Africa N°s 216, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014, p. 32; 237, Nigeria: The Challenge of Military Reform, 6 June 2016; Asia N°s 268, The Future of the Afghan Local Police, 4 June 2015, p. i; 242, Pakistan: Countering Militancy in PATA, 15 January 2013, p. i; and Latin America Briefing N°34, The End of Hegemony: What Next for Venezuela?, 21 December 2015, p. 7.Hide Footnote

The difficulties of assessing the intentions and capacities of formal military and security forces are often compounded by the proliferation of militias and informal armed groups with uncertain affiliations. In the wake of the Minsk II agreement to halt fighting in Ukraine in February 2015, for example, Crisis Group warned that both Moscow and Kyiv needed to be ready for a “mass collapse of discipline” among the militias that had sprung up in the east (including such oddities as “an Orthodox Christian unit, now in schism”). In the event, Russia has kept a firm grip over these groups, but it is sometimes necessary to treat irregular and semi-regular armed groups as serious political actors, not marginalise them. Crisis Group has thus criticised the UN-led political process for not including “a concerted effort to bring [Libya’s] security actors together in support of [a national] government”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°235, Eastern Ukraine: A Dangerous Winter, 18 December 2014, p. 13. Testimony by Claudia Gazzini, Crisis Group senior analyst, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on “Libya: The Path Forward”, p. 4.Hide Footnote  While outsiders may be tempted to write off “warlords”, it remains necessary to assess – and potentially engage – them as real political actors.

C. Peripheral Conflicts

Studies of armed groups can link to another, often-overlooked challenge to weak states: disruptive political dynamics and trends in violence in peripheral regions, where central authorities have poor relations or little control or oversight.[fn]“Peripheral” refers here not only to geographically remote regions (though in many cases, such as northern CAR, volatile areas are far removed from national power centres), but also to those that are marginalised politically and/or economically, or cut off from state institutions. A more detailed study would also look at the emergence of “peripheral” areas within cities, where services and rule of law are absent. Crisis Group recently chronicled Mexico’s efforts to address social and economic alienation in Ciudad Juaréz as part of its campaign against drug cartels. Latin America Report N°54, Back from the Brink: Saving Ciudad Juaréz, 25 February 2015. Robert Muggah, “Visualizing Urban Fragility”, UN University Centre for Policy Research Blog, 10 February 2016.Hide Footnote  Outside observers sometimes assume that widespread disorder in outlying regions is either insignificant or normal.[fn]National elites can easily fall into the same trap. Addressing the Syrian regime’s instability in 2011, Crisis Group experts Peter Harling and Robert Malley noted that “today’s ruling elite has forgotten its roots. It has inherited power rather than fought for it, grown up in Damascus, mingled with and mimicked the ways of the urban upper class and led a process of economic liberalization that has benefited large cities at the provinces’ expense. The state abandoned vast areas of the nation, increasingly handling them through corrupt and arrogant security forces”. “How the Syrian Regime is Ensuring its Demise”, The Washington Post, 1 July 2011.Hide Footnote  This happened at the start of the CAR crisis, when the Seleka rebel group that overthrew the government in 2013 was initially dismissed as a “heterogeneous consortium of malcontents” from the perennially unstable north east.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°203, Central African Republic: The Priorities of the Transition, 11 June 2013, p. 6.Hide Footnote  Yet, it morphed into a serious threat, as it seized territory, realised it could overthrow the government and became more radical.

Similar threats have emerged in the peripheries of other weak states with highly destabilising results: recent major crises have often been tied to regions where minority groups feel cut off from, or threatened by, national political dynamics, such as the Tuaregs in northern Mali, ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Huthis in northern Yemen. In 2015, Nepal’s gradual recovery from civil war was severely set back when its ruling parties rushed through a constitutional statute that alienated minorities, including those in the southern plains, where mass protests contributed to a five-month blockade on goods entering from India.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°276, Nepal’s Divisive New Constitution: An Existential Crisis, 4 April 2016.Hide Footnote  Even where there is no immediate trigger, disputes over ethnic issues, language rights or religion in peripheral regions can combine with economic grievances to create fertile conditions for political tensions and violence.[fn]For a further case study by Crisis Group of a little-known region facing this mix of problems, see Europe Briefing N°63, Georgia: The Javakheti Region’s Integration Challenges, 23 May 2011.Hide Footnote

Watching how authorities handle a specific area’s problems can illuminate dangers affecting the state as a whole. Crisis Group recently explored heavy-handed army tactics in Arsal, a Lebanese border town host to many Syrian refugees, as a case-study of a much wider “self-reinforcing loop in which the measures the government takes to compensate for its shortcomings make matters worse”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°46, Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town, 23 February 2016, pp. 2-3. For other recent examples of analysis of peripheral towns and regions see Africa Reports N°s 198, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (i): War in South Kordofan, 14 February 2013; 204, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (ii): War in Blue Nile, 18 June 2013; and 209, Sudan: Preserving Peace in the East, 26 November 2013.Hide Footnote

It is often hard for diplomats and international officials in capitals (or further afield) to get a clear picture of developments in peripheral regions. If violence is widespread, they may be banned from travelling, leaving them reliant on other sources, such as humanitarian workers who resent being turned into “spies with food”. Central governments are often happier to relay “news” that is not always reliable: in Russia, “a powerful propaganda machine promotes the ‘success story’ of today’s Chechnya”, despite its continued “intimidation, humiliation and violence”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°236, Chechnya: The Inner Abroad, 30 June 2015, pp. i-ii.Hide Footnote  Observers should look past such misinformation to ask how direct security threats may emerge from peripheral regions and how arguments over ways to engage these regions may feed back into central political tensions in capitals.[fn]Not all conflicts emerge in peripheral regions. Disorder in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Kyiv’s Maidan can be equally or more threatening. Politically and culturally symbolic sites are potential flashpoints: the Holy Esplanade in Jerusalem (the Temple Mount and Noble Sanctuary to Jews and Muslims respectively) has become “a microcosm of the Israeli Palestinian-conflict. It sees repeated violent upsurges that never decisively end, only fade; as a final status issue it is in a stalemated peace process [and] its disposition remains unclear”.[8] Crisis Group Middle East Report N°159, The Status of the Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, 30 June 2015, p. i.Hide Footnote

D. External Drivers of Conflict

A focus on national leaders, political factions, security politics and peripheral conflicts can give outside observers a clearer understanding of the chains of events that may destabilise a government or create conditions for violence. But, as noted above, it is also necessary to evaluate how these internal factors are tied to external political pressures and outside actors’ interests, and how international actors may assess each other’s engagement. One country’s peripheral conflict may be another’s bid for security or influence: there is evidence that the emergence of Seleka as a threat in CAR was at least abetted by neighbouring Chad. Moscow used ethnic Russian concerns in Ukraine to legitimise its incursions in 2014. Saudi Arabia interpreted the Huthis’ rise in Yemen as proof of Iranian meddling in its backyard, though it may have overestimated Tehran’s original involvement and pushed the Huthis closer to its regional rival by intervening.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, Central African Republic: The Priorities, op. cit., p. 8; Middle East N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016, pp. 10-12.Hide Footnote

Strains within security forces and between uniformed and civilian leaders in a fragile country may also be exacerbated by external threats. In 2014, Crisis Group tied growing rifts in the security apparatus to broader anxiety arising from Tunisia’s insecure neighbourhood: “an increase in violence along the Algerian border; the chaotic situation in Libya; the advance of radical Islamism in the Middle East – all made all the more acute by an alarmist anti-terrorist discourse”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°41, Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation, 21 October 2014, p. 1.Hide Footnote  It added that arms and drugs traffickers had become increasingly active along the borders. Transnational criminal networks frequently exacerbate instability in other vulnerable regions. Crisis Group’s Latin American experts, for example, regularly balance political analyses with research on parallel dynamics in the drug trade.[fn]Just as analyses of the Libyan and Ukrainian conflicts must pay attention to the outlooks and capacities of armed groups, it is necessary to see how shifting balances of power inside criminal networks affect their trajectories. “The capture of … local drugs lords has shaken once powerful organisations”, Crisis Group observed regarding Central American trafficking, “allowing a new generation of sometimes more violent leaders to emerge”. Latin America Report N°52, Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border, 4 June 2014, p. i.Hide Footnote

The activities of cross-border political movements, bound together by ethnicity, faith or strategic calculations, can also easily result in spillover conflicts. This pattern is all too familiar from past Balkans cases and is currently a matter of urgency in the Middle East, where the rise of Syria’s Kurds has contributed to Turkey’s repressive approach toward its own Kurdish population.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°49, Steps Toward Stabilising Syria’s Northern Border, 8 April 2016.Hide Footnote

However, policymakers now tend to prioritise two facets of the internationalisation of conflict: the spread of violent jihadist groups, primarily al-Qaeda and IS, in many troubled states in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia; and regional and wider international powers’ roles in proxy wars, including in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. Given the prominence of these trends in diplomatic discourse, it is worth testing their importance.

There is no doubt that jihadist groups have played a brutal part in recent conflicts in the Arab world, in addition to instigating and inspiring terrorist acts globally. Yet “jihadists’ growing prominence over the past few years is more a product of instability than its primary driver”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., p. 8.Hide Footnote  The Iraqi government’s prolonged marginalisation of Sunnis, noted above, fuelled the rise of IS, which then benefitted from President Assad’s vicious, radicalising response to the Syrian uprising. In Mali, Libya and Yemen, IS, al-Qaeda or other extremist movements have taken advantage of existing instability to seize territory.

The activities of cross-border political movements, bound together by ethnicity, faith or strategic calculations, can also easily result in spillover conflicts.

It would be foolish to argue these groups are not a serious threat in many regions. Their presence vastly complicates efforts to end conflicts, given the increasing military potency of some of them and that their aspirations and ideology are hard to envisage as part of a political settlement; in any case, few show much interest in peace processes.[fn]But Crisis Group believes it is as necessary to understand the political goals of jihadists as of other actors, since “what they want, particularly related to the state system, their openness to sharing power and tolerance toward other sects or religious groups, bears on policy” (ibid, p. 29).Hide Footnote  Overall, though, these groups prey on existing crises and wars more than they start new ones. There are risks Western policymakers will see Syria, Libya, Yemen and the rest of the Muslim world solely through the prism of a renewed “war on terror” (or “countering violent extremism”), targeting jihadist movements but not addressing other, deeper stresses. Applying a counter-terrorism lens to such cases risks stigmatising members of disadvantaged communities as potential extremists, reducing the chance to solve their underlying grievances.

Equally, there is nothing new about outside powers engaging in proxy warfare, subversion and direct intervention in long-suffering states such as Yemen. As Stephen John Stedman underlined on the basis of a monumental study of civil wars in 2001, the greatest threats to peace agreements are “spoilers – factions or leaders who oppose the peace agreement and use violence to undermine it – and neighbouring states that oppose the peace agreement and assist the spoilers”.[fn]“Implementing Peace Agreements in Civil Wars: Lessons and Recommendations for Policymakers”, International Peace Academy, May 2001, p. 2; Stedman, Donald Rothchild and Elizabeth M. Cousens (eds.), Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements (Boulder, 2002).Hide Footnote

Nonetheless, the tense international politics that surround many of today’s conflicts – and that so many powers have overt or covert military roles in other states’ wars – fundamentally complicates efforts to analyse and respond to existing and looming crises. In South Sudan, Uganda’s decision to send troops to back President Kiir in the 2013 crisis, coupled with Sudan’s support to his foes, threatened to turn the conflict into a proxy war. In eastern Ukraine, the supposed leaders of the separatist groups know they are “expendable” and that “all major political and military decisions are taken in Moscow, and their implementation is overseen by Russian officials on the ground”.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°223, Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts, 29 January 2015; Europe and Central Asia Briefing N°79, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, 5 February 2016, p. 7.Hide Footnote

The Libyan conflict has been fuelled by arms supplies and other forms of military aid from countries including Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates; in some cases this is motivated by security concerns, in others by “ideology and regional rifts, notably over what role Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood will play in Libya and whether they will use its wealth to support like-minded movements elsewhere”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°157, Libya: Getting Geneva Right, 26 February 2015, p. 11.Hide Footnote  The regional animosities and great power tensions that have grown up around the Syrian civil war are even more complex and destructive, if it is possible to quantify such things.

This report considers how governments and international organisations may be able to manage such complicated tensions around future conflicts. Yet, the divisions that have sprung up around these cases are not simply the product of chance or bad policy. They represent deeper shifts in the international context for early warning/early action. Much thinking on these issues dates from the first ten to fifteen post-Cold War years, when Western analysts presumed (sometimes optimistically) that the U.S. and its allies could line up sufficient states behind specific conflict management and resolution strategies if only they tried. While Washington retains far more power to play a guiding role in managing conflicts than any other state, the geopolitical context is shifting: lining up political actors for early action is becoming more difficult, a dilemma considered in greater depth below.

E. Beyond Analysis: Anticipatory Relationships and Actions

The preceding pages have laid out a series of issues that should interest analysts and policymakers looking for signs of looming crises. These include: (i) evidence of leaders promoting political polarisation or radicalising their bases, and signs of political elites and parties breaking up and/or interest groups mobilising against leaders; (ii) political discontent and divisions among security forces and military actors; (iii) emerging threats from violent groups in peripheral regions of weak states; and (iv) signs of external actors fuelling conflicts through military engagement, supplying weapons or political and diplomatic means.

Policymakers and analysts need to combine tracking these issues with other indicators, such as economic trends, to strengthen their understanding of potential risks. They should also use knowledge of developments in countries at risk as the basis for early, direct, low-key political action; useful analysis should identify not only how key players are behaving, but also chances to nudge them away from dangerous stra­tegies. Diplomats and international officials can build on early warning by creating a network of “anticipatory relationships” with relevant actors.[fn]“Back to Basics”, op. cit., p. 4.Hide Footnote

Optimally, this should include channels for frank communication with leaders on choices and strategies. Persuading presidents like Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza or the DRC’s Joseph Kabila to respect term limits should be a long-term project, not a hasty gamble: “There comes a point when leaders are so entrenched that there seems little point in challenging their right to hold office. Calling it early is therefore vital to avoid a position where all the options look bad”.[fn]Richard Moncrieff (Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director), “The reluctance of Joseph Kabila to cede power could push Congo to the brink”, The Guardian, 2 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Outsiders who build close ties with authoritarian leaders can, however, become over-entangled with them. As an ex-UN official put it, “we pick or create a leader who is capable of dealing with the international community, but forget to engage with the rest of the society and political sphere”.[fn]Crisis Group communication, 10 May 2016. Richard Gowan, “The Peacekeeping Quagmire”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 16 (2), pp. 39-46. There is, of course, a parallel danger of choosing “good” rebels and opposition figures who prove to be misleading partners, as in the U.S. administration’s collaboration with Iraqi exile politician Ahmad Chalabi prior to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. See Loveday Morris and Brian Murphy, “Ahmed Chalabi, Iraqi Exile Who Helped Spur U.S. Invasion, Dies of Heart Attack”The Washington Post, 3 November 2015.Hide Footnote  Diplomats should aim to reach beyond the relatively narrow range of officials, contacts and polite society in a capital to include more opposition figures, security officials and representatives of marginalised communities. As noted, international actors’ lack of insight into South Sudan’s politics in 2013 meant they struggled to engage with its breakdown. It may be possible to cultivate potential “insider mediators” (figures from civil society or official circles in a country at risk who may be able to guide crisis talks better than outsiders) or work via international NGOs with more leeway to engage key opposition actors and non-state armed groups than formal diplomats.[fn]Simon Mason and Oliver Wils, “Insider Mediators: Their Key Role in Informal Peace Processes”, Berghof Foundation for Peace Support, 2009.Hide Footnote

Building anticipatory relationships may go hand in hand with “anticipatory actions”: steps to resolve structural dangers in troubled societies, such as misuse of justice, before they fuel worse trouble. Crisis Group recently highlighted that Bangladesh’s “dysfunctional criminal justice system” has potential to fuel wider conflict by “provoking violent counter responses, benefitting violent party wings and extremist groups alike”. It argued that donors should tie some aid to government efforts to improve this. Western countries often prioritise institutional reforms and capacity-building, as these may offer a path to lasting stability, or at least give fragile states “the tools to deal constructively with the violent potential of future conflicts”. However, it is important to recognise the stakes many actors have in stymying reforms and potential political repercussions. In Bangladesh as elsewhere, “years of partisan recruitment, promotions and postings have polarised… institutions to the point that officials no longer conceal their allegiances”.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°277, Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice in Bangladesh, 11 April 2016, p. i. Sophie-Charlotte Brune, Anne Kovacs, Anaïs Reding and Maryse Penny, “Crisis and Conflict Prevention Strategies: An International Comparison”, RAND, 2015, p. 4.Hide Footnote

In some cases, outsiders may be better advised to focus on supporting civil society groups and other unofficial actors who may help constrain violence, but doing so requires considerable time, and may meet high-level political opposition. Given the mixed chances of success of such preventive actions, it is necessary to consider the tools that external actors can bring to bear on crises as they escalate.

IV. Dilemmas of Early Action

Successful early action consists of steps – including efforts to facilitate a political process, coerce key actors or create incentives for peace – that may open paths to a sustainable settlement of a crisis. A sustainable settlement may range from tweaking the status quo in an unstable country to make it acceptable to all sides, through steps such as limited political reforms, to a large-scale rebalancing of power, including constitutional changes and leadership transitions. Where conflicts are internationalised, territorial compromises and/or the creation of new regional security arrangements may be necessary, albeit difficult steps.

Outsiders must tread carefully when pursuing these goals. All early action involves engaging in fluid political environments. There is a high chance of political friction, with misunderstandings and miscalculations derailing plans. No form of crisis response is neutral. Domestic actors will always perceive outsiders as biased. In some cases they will still welcome engagement as a means to secure their own goals, resolve complex policy issues or minimise violence; in others, they may decide to misuse such help, for example by extending political talks indefinitely.

Understanding domestic political actors’ intentions and interests, which as argued, is at the centre of early warning, is thus also crucial to effective early action. Pathways outsiders want to help devise to avoid or curtail violence must be based on appreciation of what local factors will accept. In country-focused Crisis Group reports in the first third of 2016, 61 per cent of recommendations were aimed at governments or domestic political actors. External actors often appear unable to do more than encourage contacts to behave responsibly. When it comes to complex steps needed to unravel many crises – reducing political influence over institutions, for example, or reining in security services – even the best-placed outsider usually lacks the insights or contacts to do more than nudge national leaders to act.

There are also constraints on external actors in most cases. Policymakers who consider engaging in an escalating conflict assess whether it is in their own interests to expend the resources and take the risks. Internal political issues and competing bureaucratic priorities may militate against acting, even when good policy options are available. This report does not reflect at length on these problems, but it is essential to keep in mind that even when decision-makers want to launch early action to end a crisis abroad, they do not have infinite resources.

In the current context of internationalised conflicts, policymakers face a further layer of dilemmas: how to balance, align or corral other international actors to follow a more-or-less coherent strategy. The trend toward states acting as both combatants and peacemakers (Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Russia and the U.S. in Syria) has been noted but is only one facet of the growing complexity of conflict management. There is a broader diffusion of conflict prevention and peacemaking responsibilities, with new powers, ambitious regional organisations and non-governmental actors taking roles that might once have been filled by the U.S., its allies or the UN. New actors may vary as markedly in strength and style as China and Chad.

China often appears tentative in crises outside its immediate Asia-Pacific area, even if it has been increasingly prominent in Afghan affairs since NATO drew down its main force there in 2014. By contrast, Chad has tried to downplay its internal weaknesses and develop regional leverage in Africa by “pursuing a strategy of military diplomacy, hoping to lead the fight against terrorism in the region”, including operations in Mali and CAR and the fight against Boko Haram.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°244, China’s Central Asia Problem, 27 February 2013, p. i; Africa Report N°233, Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, 30 March 2016, p. i.Hide Footnote

Regional and sub-regional organisations have, meanwhile, increasingly attempted to take primary responsibility for conflict issues in their own areas. The best known examples are in Europe and Africa, but others include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, in Colombia, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). These actors often enjoy clear advantages of legitimacy and local contacts, but internal political divisions and capacity gaps can hold them back. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), for instance, is candid about “the lack of coordination and cooperation between [its] different departments and slow implementation of decisions”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III), op. cit., p. 23.Hide Footnote

In the current context of internationalised conflicts, policymakers face a further layer of dilemmas: how to balance, align or corral other international actors to follow a more-or-less coherent strategy.

Multiple local, regional and other international actors often pile into efforts to resolve new crises and create frictions between themselves. ECOWAS “believes the AU disregards it and tends to take over its role at the first opportunity”. It is not hard to find AU officials equally critical of African sub-regional bodies or convinced the UN treats them with disdain; UN officials grumble that the AU sometimes overreaches.[fn]Ibid, p. 22. On sub-regional organisations’ weaknesses, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°181, Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (I): Central Africa, 7 November 2011.Hide Footnote  The tensions are almost endless and perhaps inevitable.

“Framework diplomacy” is thus an essential element of handling any crisis: working out which international actors should (i) set strategies; (ii) handle direct contacts with key political actors; and (iii) manage information exchange and other practicalities.[fn]“Framework diplomacy” is taken from Jack F. Matlock, Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray – And How to Return to Reality (New Haven, 2010), pp. 31-56, referring to U.S.-USSR negotiations over the global framework to end the Cold War.Hide Footnote  Since the Cold War, diplomats have created multiple frameworks for individual conflicts with mixed results, including the Contact Group for Bosnia and later Kosovo, the Quartet for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and multiple “friends groups” at the UN.[fn]See Teresa Whitfield, Friends Indeed? The United Nations, Groups of Friends, and the Resolution of Conflict (USIP Press, 2007).Hide Footnote  Recent cases include successful, low-key cooperation by Cuba, Chile, Norway and Venezuela to assist Colombia’s peace talks (see below) and the higher-profile, larger and troubled International Syria Support Group (ISSG) Russia and the U.S. formed under UN auspices in 2015.

The South Sudan case shows the complexity of framework diplomacy. After the country’s collapse, regional leaders – including some of those overtly and covertly fuelling the conflict – initially attempted to mediate a solution under the Inter-Gov­ernmental Development Authority (IGAD). After more than a year of failure, the AU, China, Britain, Norway, the U.S. and others joined an “IGAD-PLUS” format as a “bridge between an ‘African solution’ approach and concerted high-level, wider international engagement” that forged a peace deal in August 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°228, South Sudan: Keeping Faith with the IGAD Peace Process, 27 July 2015.Hide Footnote

IGAD-PLUS’s complexity is not unique. In an attempt to resolve the long-running insurgency on Mindanao in the southern Philippines in 2009, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UK formed a “hybrid” International Contact Group with four international NGOs. In the view of one of the latter, this was useful, as “states provide a level of diplomatic leverage that NGOs do not have”, but NGOs “provide specific expertise in conflict transformation, which embassies do not necessarily have”.[fn]Kristian Herbolzheimer and Emma Leslie, “Innovation in Mediation Support: The International Contact Group in Mindanao”, Conciliation Resources, 2013, p. 3.Hide Footnote  The group helped midwife a peace deal in 2012 that has since faltered.

Framework diplomacy can extend to mandating parallel mediators and, in a few, generally difficult, cases such as Syria or Darfur, deploying joint mediation teams and peace operations. Transaction costs are high, but the alternative is often fragmentation of international efforts, as in Libya in 2011, where the AU insisted on mediation, while NATO and the Arab League engaged in military action.[fn]Alischa Kügel, “Three’s a Crowd? Inter-organizational Cooperation in Conflict Mediation”, Global Peace Operation Review, 19 November 2015. Emily O’Brien and Andrew Sinclair, “The Libyan War: A Diplomatic History, February-August 2011”, NYU Center on International Cooperation, 2011, p. 14.Hide Footnote

Multiple local, regional and other international actors often pile into efforts to re-solve new crises and create frictions between themselves.

Concrete interests and trade-offs lie beneath disputes about which international actors should “own” a peace process. Policymakers must balance their approach to one crisis with their stakes in others. European officials cannot help viewing the Middle East through the prism of the refugee issue; the U.S. seeks to complement implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal with efforts to contain Iran’s strategy of “forward defence” in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; Iranian policymakers try to reconcile implementation of the nuclear deal with fears that the U.S. seeks regime change. Efforts to resolve Burundi’s crisis are complicated by the fact that its troops play significant roles in Somalia and CAR.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°166, Iran After the Nuclear Deal, 15 December 2015, p. 20; Statement, “Burundi: Time for Tough Messages”, 24 February 2016.Hide Footnote

Once again, these difficulties are not new. The “herding cats” problem in conflict management has persisted since the end of the Cold War; many mediation difficulties in cases such as Burundi echo 1990s Balkans dilemmas.[fn]See Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela A. Aall (eds.), Herding Cats: Multiparty Mediation in a Complex World, United States Institute of Peace, 1999.Hide Footnote  A sub-set of today’s crises, however, presents especially acute coordination challenges: those that pit the U.S., Russia and China directly or indirectly against one another.

Escalation risks and obstacles to framework diplomacy are especially great in cases such as Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Even if China has often been “tentative” outside its immediate sphere, its “foreign policy decision-making and implementation skew toward stridency” when its core interests are at stake. A similar logic has guided Moscow in recent years and can still gain traction in Washington.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°267, Stirring up the South China Sea (III): A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm, 7 May 2015, p. ii; Europe Report N°231, Ukraine: Running out of Time, 14 May 2014, pp. 18-20.Hide Footnote  Cooperation over a serious crisis is not impossible for the main powers, as the P5+1 (E3+3) process with Iran demonstrated, but it often relies on fissiparous negotiating mechanisms, such as the ISSG and the “Normandy format” for Ukraine.[fn]The P5+1 were the five permanent Security Council members (China, France, Russia, the UK and U.S.) and Germany; E3+3 refers to the same states in a Europe/non-Europe configuration.Hide Footnote  In many cases, leader-to-leader contacts are necessary, which can leave regional allies alienated, risking new tensions: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran have all pushed back against U.S.-Russian efforts to find an accommodation over Syria.Under these circumstances, framing strategies for early action in looming crises typically involves acting on at least three levels: (i) preparing a response to the immediate circumstances; (ii) assessing and addressing regional political dynamics; and (iii) where necessary, engaging with international powers. Understanding and balancing the external actors’ competing priorities is difficult and time-consuming. A key dimension of any early action strategy should be rapid, multi-level diplomacy to bring on board as many actors as possible. This also involves understanding which policy tools may affect a crisis.

A. Facilitation

Facilitative tools make the most straightforward contribution to creating short-term pathways to avoid violence, if they have political credibility. These include (i) deployment of senior officials for leader-to-leader talks; (ii) mediation; and (iii) confidence-building, including military or civilian monitoring missions. Governments and international organisations have invested heavily in mediation in recent years, often setting up special units to assist high-level envoys.[fn]Multilateral examples include the UN Mediation Support Unit, EU Mediation Support Team and Commonwealth Good Offices Section.Hide Footnote  Even so, “the institutional capacity to provide effective support has not caught up with the collective aspiration to offer it”. Senior envoys “resist the idea of support outside their trusted staff, grounded in the confidence that they have been engaged for their lifetime experience and authority, and no further expertise or training is required”.[fn]Teresa Whitfield (senior adviser to Crisis Group’s president), “Support Mechanisms; Multilateral, Multi-Level and Mushrooming”, Global Peace Operations Review, 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote

While this confidence is not always justified, senior figures remain in demand as crisis managers. Crisis Group frequently notes that outsiders’ best entry-point for dealing with a crisis is leader-to-leader contacts, as shown by the contributions of envoys such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in persuading Nigeria’s President Jonathan to avoid post-electoral violence in 2015. It is now the norm in many African crises for serving or ex-senior politicians to mediate rapidly developing conflicts. South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki has had an extensive post-presidential career in cases such as Côte d’Ivoire and the Sudans.[fn]See African officials’ comments on the uses of high-level mediators in Nora Gordon, “Meet the Envoys”, Global Peace Operations Review, 7 December 2015.Hide Footnote  Nor is this solely an African phenomenon: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have been essential interlocutors with President Putin; Kerry bases much of his Syria strategy on ties with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Senior political engagement is often tricky to initiate and maintain. Even when willing to engage, top politicians are busy. A good mediator does not mean a particular crisis is actually amenable to resolution or containment: Kofi Annan ended violence in Kenya in 2008 but had little leverage as UN envoy in Syria in 2012. Overreliance on very senior figures can hamper the work of middle- and lower-level officials on details of a political process. Crucial time was lost when IGAD’s leaders took responsibility on South Sudan: “Without them, no one was empowered to advance the process, and often little was done for weeks, and the parties were left to refocus on the war rather than the peace process”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: Keeping Faith, op. cit., p. 16.Hide Footnote

Alternatives to big-name mediators include quiet diplomacy and using NGOs, such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and Crisis Management Initiative, or local civil society groups to undertake back-channel talks. The value of discreet discussions has been clear in the peace process between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While not an early action example, it emerged from a year of secret contacts Cuba, Venezuela and Norway facilitated. That process also confirmed the importance of senior leaders: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez helped enable it via confidential contacts with both sides that required a high degree of secrecy.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°45, Colombia: Peace at Last?, 25 September 2012, pp. 1, 16. The conflict, dating back to FARC’s formation in the early 1960s, is one of the world’s oldest.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group often advocates such quiet diplomacy and that there should be no taboo on talking to non-state armed groups, despite the difficulty: “Opportunities to open discreet lines of communication to at least try to define whether groups have demands that could be used as the basis for talks and can be moved away from those that are irreconcilable are usually worth pursuing”. Opportunities have been missed to engage leaders in such groups, including in Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria and Soma­lia, in ways that might have offered hope of reducing violence.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., pp. 45-48.Hide Footnote

A major challenge is often to move as quickly as possible from initial contacts to creation of a framework and recognised process for discussing and defusing tensions. Inclusivity is a recurrent stumbling block: in the rush to set up a mediation process to avert escalation, it is easy to exclude essential participants. Inclusivity is open to interpretation and is often used as shorthand for involving civil society and women in peace processes. As a recent UN report highlighted, this is frequently more a matter of rhetoric than reality: “A study of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 revealed that only nine per cent of negotiators were women”. There is evidence that such exclusion reduces chances of sustainable settlement. Minority groups in peripheral regions are also frequently excluded, such as the “progressively marginalised” Rohingya in Rakhine State, who have become targets of serial violence during Myanmar’s transition to democracy.[fn]Radhika Coomaraswamy et al., “Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace: A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325”, UN Women, 2015, p. 14. On the importance of civil society inclusion to sustainable settlements, see Desirée Nilson, “Anchoring the Peace: Civil Society Actors in Peace Accords and Durable Peace”, International Interactions vol. 38 (2), 2012, pp. 243-266. Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013; and 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote

Yemen shows the danger of getting inclusion wrong. In 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Western powers and the UN stopped immediate violence by setting up a transitional political process, “protecting traditional power centres to prevent war”. This alienated factions in both north and south, including the Huthi movement, which later “thrived by presenting itself as an uncorrupted outsider”. By contrast, pro-government and opposition groups in Mali have made positive efforts to reinforce their political agreements with lower-level pacts “involving local actors and strengthening their trust in a peace otherwise externally imposed”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016, pp. 2; Africa Briefing N°115, Mali: Peace From Below? 14 December 2015, p. i.Hide Footnote

There are also risks of processes becoming ends in themselves and of conflict parties deliberately stringing out talks as cover for political games or violence. In eastern Ukraine, “the Minsk process [risks] becoming a substitute for a settlement”, as Russia follows a deliberate strategy of making “parties concentrate more on the process than the settlement”. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been criticised as “low-intensity management of the conflict masquerading as the only path to a solution”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing N°79, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, 5 February 2016, p. 1; Middle East Report N°122, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Palestinians and the End of the Peace Process, 7 May 2012, p. 29.Hide Footnote  In situations where great power interests are at stake, it is difficult to push back. In other circumstances, it may be possible to hustle talks forward by setting timelines and parameters for bargains: though the South Sudan peace process dragged on for nearly two years, regional leaders, the U.S. and China finally strong-armed President Kiir into a peace deal in August 2015.

Alternatively, mediators may try to disaggregate difficult political questions and persuade actors to address specific problems in isolation. This can include focusing on particular economic issues: Crisis Group has argued, for example, that to stop the energy sector falling apart, Libyan factions should hold focused talks on economic governance in parallel with broader political reconciliation efforts. Where no political progress on any level seems likely, it may still be possible to keep open humanitarian talks to minimise suffering or technical military talks to avoid accidents. Crisis Group has highlighted a need for China and neighbours to have functioning capital-to-capital hotlines to handle South China Sea incidents.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°165, The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth, 3 December 2015; Report, Stirring Up The South China Sea (III), op. cit., noting that hotlines are “important but insufficient” tools for handling potential crises (p. 29).Hide Footnote

Confidence in political processes can also be built by measures such as international observer missions to monitor factions’ behaviour in parallel with talks. In Ukraine, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission has gradually expanded overview of frontline areas; while its position is fragile, it has helped consolidate a reduction in hostilities. Crisis Group has often argued for similar arrangements, such as increased monitoring of the Sudan-South Sudan border in 2014 to address passage of armed groups.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts, op. cit., pp. 23-24.Hide Footnote  While such presences may help sustain trust, they can easily be marginalised by radical actors: the light UN supervision mission deployed to Syria in support of the Annan peace plan was a courageous effort with little impact.

B. Coercion

The slow progress of many mediations has also led some governments to favour more coercive responses to crises. These may first include relatively limited diplomatic penalties, such as the AU’s threats to suspend members which have had coups, but they have a mixed track record at best. There is minimal evidence repeated resolutions and condemnations from the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly have influenced Syria’s government since 2011. In some cases, key local players have little knowledge of or respect for the far-off gestures. In others, they do not believe the outrage matters. Crisis Group noted on the CAR crisis that “international organisations always condemn unconstitutional changes of government in Africa, but very rarely try to restore constitutional order by force”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Central African Republic: The Priorities, op. cit., p. 16, fn. 109.Hide Footnote

This does not mean human rights diplomacy is valueless. In Syria, for example, a UN Commission of Inquiry has gathered much evidence on the use of violence and torture that has challenged false narratives. The Human Rights Council has helped maintain pressure on Sri Lanka to address abuses committed during the war against the Tamil Tigers. Quantitative studies suggest “naming and shaming” helps limit atrocities; nonetheless, statements of concern still often go unheard.[fn]See the Commission’s report “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic”, UN document A/HRC/31/CRP.1, 3 February 2016. Jacqueline H.R. De Merritt, “International Organizations and Government Killings: Does Naming and Shaming Save Lives?” International Interactions, vol. 38 (1), 2012, pp. 1-25.Hide Footnote

More stringent forms of coercion include threats of international prosecution of leaders involved in crises and sanctions. The former’s impact is controversial. The International Criminal Court (ICC) appears to have deterred some elites from human rights abuses; other threats of prosecution have been counterproductive. Prospect of prosecution may cause a leader to become more radical. Security Council referral of Libya to the ICC in 2011 left Qadhafi “boxed in”, more willing to fight. In other cases, the evidence is mixed: Crisis Group found that senior Kenyans the ICC accused of crimes relating to the 2007 elections used the cases to “shore up their ethnic bases” before 2013 polls (ironically uniting 2007 foes against the ICC), but also that ICC attention may have helped avert new violence. A wide-ranging study concluded that “the effects of justice mechanisms on the outlook of armed groups or criminal regimes is not likely to hasten an end to atrocities except on rare and unpredictable occasions”, and “states should avoid the use of international justice as an instrumental tool to affect the dynamics of conflict”.[fn]For links to recent and ongoing quantitative studies, see Kevin Burke, “The Deterrent Effect of the International Criminal Court”, Citizens for Global Solutions Blog, 2 March 2015. Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Hillary Clinton, ‘Smart Power’ and a Dictator’s Fall”, The New York Times, 27 February 2016. Crisis Group Africa Report N°197, Kenya’s 2013 Elections, 17 January 2013, p. 2; Briefing N°94, Kenya After the Elections, 15 May 2013. Anthony Dworkin, “International Justice and the Prevention of Atrocity”, European Council on Foreign Relations, October 2014, p. 44.Hide Footnote

Polarisation over the ICC, especially in Africa, complicates framework diplomacy. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir (indicted in 2009 for Darfur) is particularly effective at “mobilising Arab, Islamic and African countries against the court by pitching it as a Western instrument of regime change”. The U.S. and its European allies had prolonged differences over whether to invoke the ICC over Syria, as Washington feared it would hurt diplomacy with Moscow; Russia and China vetoed a French Security Council resolution on this in 2014.[fn]Fouad Hikmat, “Hard Road to Peace After ICC Indicts Bashir”, The East African, 4 March 2009. Ian Black, “Russia and China Veto UN Move to Refer Syria to the International Criminal Court”, The Guardian, 22 May 2014.Hide Footnote

At the least, policy makers should carefully calculate the likely impact of any call for international justice in a crisis. The Security Council referred Libya to the ICC a day after the Human Rights Council instituted a Commission of Inquiry.[fn]Human Rights Council Resolution S-15/1, 25 February 2011. On Security Council-ICC relations, see Eran Sthoeger, “International Courts and Tribunals”, in Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M. Ma­lone and Bruno Stagno Ugarte (eds.), The UN Security Council in the 21st Century (Boulder, 2015), pp. 517-521.Hide Footnote  The latter was arguably a wiser decision and would have been more effective without the former: it sent a message to Qadhafi that he could face legal action one day, but lacked the chilling effect of invoking the ICC. It is impossible to say how Qadhafi would have acted if the Security Council had held back, but the Human Rights Council’s more subtle message was lost.[fn]See also the “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry into Libya”, 8 March 2012 (UN document A/HRC/19/68).Hide Footnote  In some cases, the best way to promote accountability is through special national or hybrid national/international justice mechanisms. Crisis Group has praised the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CIGIC) for empowering citizens and tackling corruption.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°56, Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, 29 January 2016. Though supported by the UN, CIGIC follows Guatemalan law and works closely with domestic prosecutors.Hide Footnote Yet, developing such mechanisms takes time and requires consent from local power brokers that may be unavailable in a fast-moving crisis.

The value of sanctions, both targeted against individuals and entire sanctions regimes, is also often contentious, as are cuts in aid. Sanctions and economic penalties have helped bring some conflicts to a decisive conclusion – as in the EU’s economic isolation of Côte d’Ivoire, 2010-2011 – and appear to have shaped, in combination with many other factors, recent calculations in Iran and Myanmar. Crisis Group has underlined the need to maintain sanctions pressure on Russia over Ukraine. Elsewhere, economic tools have been less effective, especially in changing the short-term thinking of leaders. Denied some EU economic aid in 2015, Burundi simply took cash from elsewhere in its budget.[fn]Crisis Group Briefings N°s 79, Russia and the Separatists, op. cit., p. 2; N°111, Burundi: Peace Sacrificed?, 29 May 2015, p. 3.Hide Footnote

A study found that 22 UN targeted sanctions regimes led to an increase in corruption and criminality in 69 per cent of cases and strengthening of authoritarian rule in 54 per cent, while only 22 per cent could be broadly classed as successful.[fn]Thomas Biersteker et al., “The Effectiveness of United Nations Targeted Sanctions”, The Targeted Sanctions Consortium, November 2013, p. 17. See also Sue Eckert, “The Role of Sanctions”, in The UN Security Council, op. cit., pp. 413-439.Hide Footnote  Crisis Group typically emphasises that sanctions are only worthwhile policy tools if embedded in a wider political strategy, have a clear purpose, enjoy sufficient multilateral support to be effective and are tied to clear conditions for their lifting.

The risk of applying sanctions without strong political messaging on goals beca­me clear in tense periods of the Iran nuclear negotiations. Crisis Group warned:

Critical differences exist between how policymakers in Washington and Brussels on the one hand and Tehran on the other view and interpret the sanctions regime. … the West views it as an instrument of coercive diplomacy, primarily designed to pressure Tehran into curtailing its nuclear activities … Iran sees it, and indeed the nuclear issue as a whole, as a thinly disguised pretext to undermine the regime.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°138, Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions, 25 February 2013, p. 39.Hide Footnote

While the Iranian leadership has not completely shaken off its suspicions of Western intentions, improved communication over the aims of sanctions after 2013 helped make a deal feasible.

In sum, threats of international justice and sanctions may nudge political actors away from escalation but must be tied to a path back from violence.[fn]A partial exception in the sanctions field are arms embargoes, which may limit the deadliness of a war but are porous.Hide Footnote  They should be used sparingly and pointedly.

It is less clear whether military force can be applied in a controlled fashion. Crisis Group does not object in principle to use of force. It has advocated that the U.S. retain its forces and even conduct further military activities in Afghanistan as part of a broader strategy of balancing and engaging with the Taliban in recent years. However, it has also raised concerns about many recent efforts to resolve escalating conflicts by military means in the absence of an overarching political strategy. It warned in 2011 in Libya that “Western calls for military intervention of one kind or another are perilous and potentially counterproductive”. After NATO’s air campaign began, it argued for a ceasefire and search for political settlement, because Qadhafi’s fall could be followed by “a potentially prolonged vacuum that could have grave political and security implications for Libya’s neighbours as well as aggravate an already serious humanitarian crisis”. Recently, it said the Saudi-led operation in Yemen “did more to terrorise civilians than to harm the Huthis”.[fn]Crisis Group Impact Note, “Pushing for a U-Turn in Afghanistan”, 2015; Media Releases, “A Ceasefire and Negotiations the Right Way to Resolve the Libya Crisis”, 10 March 2011 and “Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving Toward Legitimate Government”, 13 May 2011; and Middle East Report N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016, p. 4.Hide Footnote

The arguments against military interventions are as old as thought about warfare: once underway, initially limited campaigns tend to take on their own logic, strategic goals change, and violence can breed resistance that can itself escalate dangerously. Crisis Group thus often urges actors that insist on military action to limit its duration (as in calls for a Libyan ceasefire) and link it to political goals that targets can understand. In Yemen, for example, it urged the Saudis to “communicate specific security requirements” to help end their campaign.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, op. cit., p. iv.Hide Footnote

It is also necessary to consider the political implications of covert operations and support to proxy groups, common tools for big powers in recent crises. The U.S. and its allies have given covert support to Syrian rebels and Kurdish groups in Iraq. This is sometimes seen as a limited option, involving few or no (declared) boots on the ground and relatively inexpensive. Yet, it has unintended effects, such as empowering Kurds against the state, exacerbating Baghdad’s challenge to restore a national order and “giving the Kurds not only greater military capability, but also diplomatic cover”. Supposedly trustworthy militias can collaborate with more radical forces. Outside actors may not view such actions as limited: Russia reacted to U.S. and Arab covert support in Syria with its own direct intervention in 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°158, Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict, 12 May 2015, p. 25. “Coalition members see arming the Kurds as a quick security fix, divorced from broader political considerations”, ibid. Jeremy Shapiro (ex-U.S. official), “Obama’s Syria Failure is a Perfect Case Study in How Bad Foreign Policy is Made”, Vox World, 16 March 2016.Hide Footnote  Even when using covert means, governments must recall the political goals they are meant to serve and the diplomatic messages they send.

Military deployments can make immediate and medium-term contributions to peace in many situations, but it is necessary to be realistic about their limits.

Similar considerations apply to another form of military action not always classed as “coercive”: deployment of multilateral peace operations and stabilisation missions. Mandating these is common in post-Cold War conflict resolution. Over 100,000 troops and police are under UN command worldwide, with entities such as the AU, EU and NATO heavily involved. UN officials warn against deploying troops where there is “no peace to keep”, but there is a trend in the Security Council and elsewhere to do just that.[fn]See the data gathered at John Karlsrud, “The UN at War: The Consequences of Peace-Enforcement Mandates for the UN Peacekeeping Operations in the CAR, the DRC and Mali”, Third World Quarterly, vol.36 (1), pp. 40-54.Hide Footnote  The AU and African sub-regional bodies have pushed for early deployments to stabilise countries in crisis, including Mali and CAR. There is evidence that deploying peacekeepers leads to significant reduction in violence, but it has risks: African troops have come dangerously close, particularly in CAR, to being a conflict party. The risks are also high for peacekeepers in such cases: the UN has lost over 60 to insurgent attacks in Mali since 2013.[fn]See on statistical evidence in favour of peace operations, Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman and Megan Shannon, “United Nations Peacekeeping and Civilian Protection in War”, American Journal of Political Science, vol. 57 (4), pp. 875-891; on risks, Somini Sengupta and Alan Cowell, “Chad, Amid Criticism, Will Pull Troops from Force in Central Africa”, The New York Times, 3 April 2014; on UN Mali casualties, Olga Abilova and Arthur Boutellis, “UN Peace Operations in Violent and Asymmetric Threat Environments”, International Peace Institute, March 2016.Hide Footnote

The long-term presence of peacekeepers can freeze political divisions rather than provide a framework for their resolution. The UN’s DRC mission has faced significant implementation challenges: “political agreements, military operations and attempts at reconstruction have all come up against the same problem … there is a lack of political will to implement agreements and organise indispensable reforms”. Crisis Group has emphasised that “peacekeeping is a tool, not a strategy”, and CAR requires far broader support. Operations often settle into a cycle of “haphazard crisis responses, contingent decisions, and unintended consequences” (otherwise known as dealing with “one damn thing after another”) and can lose strategic direction. In some cases, international forces end up cooperating with governments that lack popular support or target their own citizens.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°91, Eastern Congo: Why Stabilisation Failed, 4 October 2012, p. 13; Africa Report N°219, The Central African Crisis: From Predation to Stabilisation, 17 June 2014. Richard Gowan, “The Security Council and Peacekeeping”, in The Security Council, op. cit., p. 752. For Darfur, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire cases, see Colum Lynch “See No Evil, Speak No Evil: U.N. Covers Up for Sudan’s Bad Behavior in Darfur”, Foreign Policy (online), 21 November 2014; and Giulia Piccolino and John Karlsrud, “Withering Consent, but Mutual Dependency: UN Peace Operations and African Assertiveness”, Conflict Security And Development vol. 11(4), pp. 467-472. Recurrent revelations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers exacerbate the problem. Marco Odello and Rósín Burke, “Between Immunity and Impunity: Peacekeeping and Sexual Abuses and Violence”, The International Journal of Human Rights, vol. 20(6), 2016, pp. 839-853.Hide Footnote  Military deployments can make immediate and medium-term contributions to peace in many situations, but it is necessary to be realistic about their limits.

C. Incentives

If facilitation is complicated and coercive strategies can backfire, can outsiders respond to looming crises by offering political actors incentives to avoid or limit violence? These can take many forms, including proposals to win over leaders under pressure. The initially successful 2011 political transition plan for Yemen specifically protected President Ali Abdullah Saleh from domestic prosecution. In Darfur, Crisis Group suggested the Security Council could suspend ICC pursuit of President Bashir if Sudan adhered to its promises to end violence and promote reform in the region.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°125, Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition, 3 July 2012, p. 1; Africa Report N°152, Sudan: Justice, Peace and the ICC, 17 July 2009. Saleh faced a simultaneous sanctions threat; the UN referred transitional justice questions to the Yemeni national dialogue conference, rather than endorsing a blanket amnesty (Crisis Group communication with UN official, 4 May 2016).Hide Footnote  More broadly, incentives fall into three categories: (i) offers of specific assistance to implement political agreements to avoid violence; (ii) greater economic and political assistance to reduce short- and medium-term risks and tensions; and (iii) efforts to help factions come to long-term agreements on the division of resources or political responsibilities to lower their interests in violence.

Help for implementation of political agreements to avoid or end violence can range from specific proposals to back new political mechanisms to broader efforts to support processes such as disarmament, security sector reform or local forms of transitional justice. In many mediations, such structures are agreed on for political reasons without reference to costs. The South Sudan peace deal, which, as noted, involved a convoluted high-level process, demanded “more than twenty new institutions, [including] the cantonment of tens of thousands of fighters and … other costly provisions”. China helped resolve one obstacle by offering electrical generators for cantonments, but donors are wary of such projects, as hard to evaluate and frequently open to corruption and waste. The head of the UN Peacebuilding Support Office has complained, “in 2013, … support to legitimate politics, security, and justice systems represented only 16 per cent (or $6.8 billion) of the $42 billion in gross development assistance for 31 conflict-affected countries”.[fn]Casie Copeland, “South Sudan’s Peace Needs More than Tents and Generators”, Crisis Group In Pursuit of Peace Blog, 23 February 2016. Oscar Fernandez Taranco, “A New Deal or a New Global Partnership for Conflict-Affected States?”, Africa in Focus, 30 March 2016.Hide Footnote

In South Sudan and other cases, donors need to overcome qualms and support post-conflict mechanisms to help solidify peace agreements (while assessing which mechanisms are truly useful and which may be marginal). Nonetheless, as in other cases of capacity building, it is necessary to recognise that these are inherently political, not solely technical processes. Efforts to disarm or reform corrupt militaries should take into account factions and patronage networks that have grown up inside them and who loses from reform. In cases like Ukraine, though “the inter-penetration of the corrupt political class and super-rich oligarchy is the main obstacle to reform”, it is necessary to offer financial aid to keep the state afloat.[fn]Andrew Wilson, “Survival of the Richest: How Oligarchs Block Reform in Ukraine”, European Council on Foreign Relations, April 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote

Such economic assistance may at times seem to do little more than buy time and make limited contributions to lasting resolutions. However, outsiders may be able to play a positive, if less direct, role by helping antagonistic leaders and factions identify long-term mechanisms for distributing resources. This is an important element of creating a path away from conflict: if actors agree on possible economic bargains, they may chart political ways forward together.

Resolving Crisis In the Middle East: An Iranian Perspective


Crisis Group, as noted, has for example advocated a push for national consensus on economic governance in Libya, which relies entirely on energy sales, and “the institutions that manage production, sale and export of oil and gas and the wealth they generate … remain the bedrock of what is left of the state and a key to its control”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Prize, op. cit., p. 1.Hide Footnote  As a result, much of that war is driven by contests for physical and political control over these assets and institutions. At the same time, a sustainable unity government “is a prerequisite to tackling the complex issues around security and management of the hydrocarbon economy”. It is potentially a point of leverage for outsiders that framing political discussions in terms of protecting and sharing economic gains may persuade divided parties to compromise.

Crisis Group has applied similar logic, in different circumstances, to the South China Sea, where competition for underwater energy reserves may lead to clashes. A mechanism is needed to reduce immediate risk of unintended confrontation, while collaborative efforts are explored to exploit the resources. Economic planning may help China and its neighbours envisage a compromise to share control.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°275, Stirring up the South China Sea (IV): Oil in Troubled Waters, 26 January 2016.Hide Footnote

While early action inevitably centres on short-term issues, policymakers trying to avert conflict should start thinking about long-term end-states they can help local actors imagine and achieve. If this sounds hubristic, one must keep in mind that leaders and their followers may refuse assistance if they believe they will end up in a “wrong peace”, ie, a situation in which their fundamental security and interests will be compromised. Sketching realistic terms for a “good peace” (a situation in which all sides feel secure with the outcome) may help reframe leaders’ risk analyses and calculations, though this may take a long time.

In 2006, Crisis Group proposed “delayed limited enrichment” to resolve tensions over Iran’s nuclear program that could include “a several-year delay in … [Iran’s] enrichment program, major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a highly intrusive inspections regime”. That early Crisis Group concept, unpopular with both sides at the time, proved, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently acknowledged, to be a major contribution to the deal concluded in 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°51, Iran: Is There a Way out of the Nuclear Impasse?, 23 February 2006, p. i. “Resolving Crisis in the Middle East: an Iranian Perspective”, Australia National University, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote

D. Bringing Policy Tools Together

None of the tools available for early action are perfect or even consistently useful. There is a tendency for policymakers to adopt what organisational theorists call the “garbage can” theory of response to crisis: throwing whatever policy tools they have to hand at it and hoping that something will work. This is particularly pernicious where, in the absence of effective framework diplomacy, multiple states and organisations are simultaneously bidding to manage a looming crisis. Different agencies and bureaucracies in powerful states such as the U.S. or diffuse bodies such as the UN often follow confused or internally contradictory policies, despite repeated calls for more integrated approaches. Looking at American policy towards Kurdish groups in Syria, Iraq and Turkey for example, Crisis Group has argued that the U.S. should “unify and clarify its messaging, which has not been understood by many actors in the field, in part because it has not been consistent”.[fn]Michael Lipson, “A ‘Garbage Can’ Model of UN Peacekeeping”, Global Governance, vol. 13 (1), 2007, pp. 79-97. Crisis Group Briefing, Steps Toward Stabilising, 0p. cit., p. 9.Hide Footnote

Even if many calls for greater coherence in crisis response have gone unheeded, it is worth repeating their basic message. Governments and international organisations are likely to perform better in a crisis if they establish clear central planning and oversight functions early to guide overall strategy and can also communicate their strategic goals clearly and explicitly to allies and opponents. In every organisation there are reasons why these tasks are difficult, but in an era when crisis management requires so much framework diplomacy to establish even minimal levels of cooperation, individual players must be clear over their own goals.

V. Conclusion

Though this report has laid out a framework for approaching early warning and early action in an increasingly complex international environment, it must be recognised that all forms of diplomatic engagement are risky and have unpredictable results. It is easy to be pessimistic, but letting conflicts escalate is often risker than addressing them early. Strategic, well-designed engagement predicated on the discipline of close analysis, development of anticipatory relationships and construction of framework diplomacy may all help prevent or limit conflict. As Crisis Group President Guéhenno has noted, “we should approach our responsibilities with humility and set clear limits to our agenda. We must be modest, but we must not be defeatist”.[fn]Jean-Marie Guéhenno, The Fog of Peace: a Memoir of International Peacekeeping in the 21st Century (Washington, 2015), p. 317.Hide Footnote  To the extent resources permit, governments and regional and wider international organisations should thus invest in four key areas:

  • Knowledge and relationships. In addition to economic, demographic and other indicators, policymakers, working directly or through others, should develop the closest possible knowledge of troubled countries’ political systems and those actors who could play essential roles in shaping the outcomes of future crises. Approaches include (i) cultivating channels for frank discussions with leaders and elites; (ii) close monitoring of shifts in political alignments; (iii) deepening contacts with militaries and security services to understand their political positions; and (iv) tracking tensions in volatile peripheral areas.
  • Framework diplomacy. Both in anticipation of and in the immediate run-up to potential crises, policymakers should place early emphasis on constructing diplomatic frameworks and mechanisms among regional and wider powers to discuss policy options and reduce tensions. The faster frameworks can be constructed, whether under the aegis of international organisations or ad hoc, and the more robust the discussions they permit, the more likely they can provide a platform for resolving or at least managing an otherwise divisive crisis.
  • Strategic planning and communication. Where powers or organisations choose to engage directly in a crisis, they must define their goals early and clarify them to both domestic and external players rapidly and explicitly. This is especially true when overt or covert military options are in play.
  • Creating pathways to peace. While decision-makers can use a wide range of tools to try to resolve a crisis, these should be paired with ideas and proposals for a mutually-beneficial peace agreement that can offer a long-term horizon for antagonists to aim at. Outsiders can use back channels, second-track diplomacy and other means to define peace parameters. To do this, however, they need the mix of analysis and relationships required in the first place for effective early warning; indeed, it is hard to know how a conflict can be avoided or halted without a thorough sense of how it begins. Effective preventive diplomacy begins with getting deep inside the dynamic of a conflict – a process that involves grinding analytical work, political risk-taking and uncertain success, and yet can, if done right, create a basis for avoiding unnecessary crises.

Brussels, 22 June 2016

A Nigerian policeman stands guard as APC supporters march towards the Independent National Electoral Commission Office in Port Harcourt during a demonstration calling for the cancellation of the presidential election in the Rivers State, on 29 March 2015. AFP/Florian Plaucheur
Report 268 / Africa

Nigeria’s 2019 Elections: Six States to Watch

Nigerian elections are high-stakes affairs often marred by street clashes and worse. As the 2019 contests approach, the risk of disturbances is particularly high in six states. The government and its foreign partners can limit campaign-related violence by enhancing security and promoting dialogue among rivals.

What’s new? As presidential, gubernatorial and legislative elections draw near in Nigeria, the risk of violence is widespread, particularly in six states where stakes are high or other conflicts fester.

Why does it matter? Nigeria’s last three elections have been deadly. More than 100 people died during and after the 2015 polls – and those were peaceful compared to the previous two. In 2019, with parts of the country in turmoil, violence could take more lives and jeopardise the country’s stability.

What should be done? The Nigerian government should move to defuse tensions, bolstering police deployments in vulnerable states and fostering dialogue between antagonists. Nigeria’s foreign partners should monitor hotspots and warn politicians of consequences for inciting violence.

Executive Summary

Nigeria will hold national and state elections in February and March 2019. Voters will choose a president, governors for 29 of the country’s 36 states, and federal and state lawmakers countrywide. Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) faces a stiff challenge from Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which dominated national politics from 1999 to 2015. Many contests for state governor also involve high stakes, given the enormous spoils that elected office brings. Electoral politics in Nigeria is a brutal affair with a winner-take-all ethos and a history of violence, often driven by local as much as national dynamics. Already there have been incidents of violence, with some states displaying particularly troubling signs ahead of the vote. In such hotspots, the Nigerian authorities should enhance security plans; encourage rivals to pledge jointly to campaign and resolve disputes peacefully; sanction politicians using inflammatory rhetoric or inciting violence; and promote local dialogue in states suffering intercommunal strife.

Recent Nigerian elections have all been violent, the 2011 polls particularly so. More than 800 people died, as post-election protests morphed into mob attacks on minorities in twelve northern states. Even the more peaceful 2015 polls saw scores killed during campaigning and after the vote. A range of factors conspire to heighten risks of bloodshed nationwide around next year’s vote. These include the “win or die” attitude of many politicians, acrimony between the two major parties as they head into what appears likely to be a closely fought contest, widespread popular distrust of security agencies, opposition parties’ misgivings about the electoral commission’s neutrality, and the prevalence of conflict and deadly criminal violence in parts of the country. It remains uncertain how either side would respond to losing, particularly if the margin is narrow.

Risks of violence appear to be highest in six states: Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau and Adamawa. Dynamics in each state vary, but all feature at least two of four major triggers: an intense struggle between the APC and PDP for control over states with large electorates, vast public revenues or symbolic electoral value; local rivalry between former and incumbent governors; tension resulting from ethno-religious or herder-farmer conflict; and the presence of criminal groups that politicians can recruit to attack rivals and their constituents. Local violence is not only a problem for the areas affected. It can have wider implications, with pre-election bloodshed undermining the vote’s credibility and aggravating risks of disputes, and local protests after the ballot potentially ballooning into a national crisis.

At the national level, Nigerian authorities can take a number of steps to reduce risks. The federal government should speedily release all funds that are outstanding from the allocations that the federal legislature, the National Assembly, approved for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and security agencies but that are still stuck in the bureaucracy, to let them prepare for the elections properly. Political parties should fulfil commitments their leaders have recently made to avoid inflammatory rhetoric, campaign peacefully, pursue grievances lawfully and rein in any supporters in the event of their defeat. The electoral authorities should intensify outreach to political parties aimed at winning their confidence and firm up logistical arrangements, particularly for election day. Security agencies should act professionally, ensure neutrality between all parties, and finalise contingency plans for preventing or responding to violence.

In addition to these national-level steps, the authorities should redouble efforts to prevent violence in hotspots. While policies should be tailored to each state, priorities include:

  • Improving security arrangements by identifying and sanctioning politicians and groups using inflammatory rhetoric, inciting violence or plotting to perpetrate it; ensuring order at campaign rallies; strengthening inter-agency cooperation; and protecting polling centres in a non-partisan and non-threatening manner;
  • Encouraging leading politicians at the state and local levels to honour commitments, already made at the national level, to campaign and pursue any grievances peacefully and lawfully (ideally, the main rivals in conflict-prone states would make joint pledges to do so in public ceremonies);
  • Holding confidence-building dialogues between the local leaders of ethnic, religious and farmer-herder communities that are locked in conflict, as a way to undercut efforts by politicians to stoke divides for their own ends.

For their part, Nigeria’s international partners, through their diplomatic missions in the federal capital, Abuja, should set up a forum to coordinate their messaging, particularly to the main political contenders and electoral and security institutions. They should consider establishing an international working group, comprising prominent statespersons with sway in Nigeria, which could intervene in the event of a major crisis. Such a forum and working group helped lower tension and ensure a peaceful transition around the 2015 elections. Those sending observers should pay particular attention to hotspots. Diplomats also could warn state-level politicians, many of whom travel frequently abroad, that those responsible for inciting violence could face travel bans, asset freezes and other targeted sanctions.

Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 21 December 2018

I. Introduction

Nigerians go to the polls in February 2019 to elect a president and national legislators and again in March to select governors and state assembly members. With hundreds of sought-after posts up for grabs, and many races laced with communal tensions and bitter personal rivalries, the elections promise to be fiercely fought.

The election management agency, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has 91 political parties on its register, 69 of which are presenting candidates for the presidency. But two contestants will dominate the presidential election: the All Progressives Congress (APC)’s Buhari, president since 2015, and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)’s Atiku Abubakar (widely known as Atiku). Both Buhari and Atiku are Muslims from Nigeria’s north, which somewhat lowers the risk of bloodshed (violence during past elections has sometimes pitted Christians against Muslims; contests in which a presidential candidate from the north competes against one from the south have tended to accentuate such risks).[fn]For background on campaign violence countrywide, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°126, Nigeria: Failed Elections, Failing State?, 30 May 2007; N°113, Nigeria: Want in the Midst of Plenty, 19 July 2007; and N°220, Nigeria’s Dangerous 2015 Elections: Limiting the Violence, 21 November 2014. See also Crisis Group Africa Briefings N°79, Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?, 24 February 2011; and N°81, Lessons from Nigeria’s Elections, 15 September 2011.Hide Footnote Yet the election faces significant dangers of disruption, some familiar, others recent and more worrying.

Nigeria’s election history augurs poorly for the security of the 2019 contests.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Nigeria: Failed Elections, Failing State?, op. cit., Crisis Group Briefing, Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration, op. cit., and Crisis Group Report, Nigeria’s Dangerous 2015 Elections: Limiting the Violence, op. cit.Hide Footnote Over the eight years from June 2006 to May 2014, there were about 915 cases of election violence in the country, resulting in about 3,934 deaths, according to Nigeria Watch, a research project that monitors lethal conflict and human security.[fn]Shamsudeen Kabir Bello, Political and Electoral Violence in Nigeria: Mapping, Evolution and Patterns (June 2006-May 2014), IFRA-Nigeria Working Papers Series, No. 49, 2015. Nigeria Watch, which started monitoring violence in the country in 2006, has been based at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan, supported by the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA), since July 2013.Hide Footnote The 2007 polls were widely condemned as the most massively rigged in the country’s troubled history and saw widespread violence during the campaign and polling. The 2011 vote was cleaner, but also deadlier, with more than 800 people killed in post-election violence that targeted in particular minorities in northern cities. The most recent polls, in 2015, were peaceful by comparison; but even then, according to the National Human Rights Commission, at least 108 people were killed – 58 in pre-election violence, and another 50 or so on polling day and afterwards, as fights broke out between the major parties’ supporters in nine states.

Nigerian elections are blighted by violence in large part because they are high-stakes battles for the huge rewards of public office, and in many states also for control of power and revenues between rival ethnic and religious identity groups. Impunity is rife: attackers are rarely punished due to deficits in both political will and judicial capacity.[fn]INEC has been unable to prosecute offences due to four main factors: it has no mandate to sanction violence before and after elections as these incidents are classified as disruptions of public order under the purview of security agencies; it lacks human and material resources to document and follow up on the many offences committed in the 120,000 polling units across the country; it lacks prosecutorial power over election-day offences, which is vested in the police and justice ministries; it cannot compel prosecutions that are often undermined by political interference, with state attorneys-general often filing notices of nolle prosequi that terminate charges against suspected perpetrators. Crisis Group interview, former senior INEC official, Abuja, 14 December 2018.Hide Footnote Violence has traditionally blighted all phases of the entire election season. Before the vote, parties’ supporters clash and politicians often deploy thugs against their rivals. Around voting, those same thugs invade polling centres and snatch materials and intimidate voters. After the vote, defeated parties and aggrieved constituencies launch protests, clashing with security forces; in 2011, those clashes evolved into a major crisis across the north. Ahead of the 2019 elections, there have already been violent incidents.[fn]For instance: on 17 October, two thugs were killed in a fight at a political rally in the Obanikoro area of Lagos, Lagos state; on 26 October, gunmen shot a PDP member of the Ekiti state House of Assembly, Michael Adedeji – he died 29 October; on 27 October, gunmen believed to be hired assassins stormed the residence of the APC chairman in Enugu state, Ben Nwoye, and severely wounded his police orderly (Nwoye said the attack was a “politically calculated assassination attempt” arising from controversy over the party’s primaries in the state); on 14 November, about 25 gunmen attacked a rally organised by local PDP leaders in Ipo community, Ikwere local government area, Rivers state, with the local government chairman, Samuel Nwanosike, narrowly escaping death; on 1 December, some APC leaders were almost lynched when thugs attacked their meeting in Nasarawa village, Gwaram local government area, Jigawa state.Hide Footnote A number of factors heighten risks ahead.

The piecemeal release of funds for INEC and the security agencies, largely due to bureaucratic red tape, may be delaying election arrangements and could threaten the administration and security of the polls. INEC says it anticipated delays and made contingency plans, but concerns remain over its preparations for elections that will be more logistically challenging than in 2015, involving more parties, candidates and voters than the contests four years ago.[fn]Crisis Group interview, INEC official, Abuja, 29 November 2018. Also, addressing a conference at the end of November, INEC’s head of health infrastructure, Amina Zakari, said: “With over 120,000 polling units, the biggest challenge the commission will encounter is the election day logistics. Our problem will be transportation in terms of movement of electoral materials”. “INEC to deploy one million personnel for poll”, The Nation, 29 November 2018.Hide Footnote Security agencies similarly claim readiness, yet as of 14 December (exactly two months before the presidential polls), the federally controlled public safety agency, the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), said it had not received funds allocated to it by the National Assembly for the elections.[fn]“Our challenges ahead of the elections are enormous – NSCDC boss”, Leadership, 14 December 2018.Hide Footnote It needs this money to arrange for logistics ahead of elections among other expenses. Delays could thus hamper such arrangements, potentially jeopardising the security and credibility of the vote and creating grounds for violent post-election disputes.

The perceptions among opposition politicians that the security forces are partisan could also trigger violence around the polls.

The perceptions among opposition politicians that the security forces are partisan could also trigger violence around the polls. The conduct of federally controlled security agencies in recent gubernatorial elections in Ekiti and Osun states and their apparent dislike of some opposition leaders raise doubts about their impartiality.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, several civil society leaders and foreign diplomats, Abuja, 27-29 November 2018.Hide Footnote Such mistrust could fuel disputes and protests over results.

Heightened insecurity in parts of the country adds risks, too. The escalation of herder-farmer violence in the first half of 2018 has ratcheted up ethnic and religious tensions in much of the Middle Belt. Neither of the two main parties enjoys a clear edge in those areas and the campaign there is likely to be hotly contested as Middle Belt votes could swing the presidential contest. Already local politicians have stoked divisions among communities to shore up their bases.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Abuja, 16 November 2018.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, the surge of attacks by Boko Haram’s Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) faction in the north east during the second half of 2018, and the spread of banditry in Zamfara and other north-western states, pose significant threats to the conduct of elections and integrity of outcomes in those areas.

Uncertainty over how the major political camps will respond to losing, nationally or locally, adds further to the danger. President Buhari has pledged that the vote will be free and fair, and all the major parties, on 11 and 12 December, signed a new accord sponsored by the eminent citizens’ group, National Peace Committee, committing to peaceful campaigns and respect for the results. But there is no guarantee that the parties and their supporters will respect this accord across the country, especially in areas where the vote suffers significant logistical deficiencies or is won with narrow margins.

Civil society, research and other organisations have identified risks of violence in most of the country’s 36 states. For instance, on 29 November, the Civil Society Joint Action Committee, a coalition of civil society groups, warned of likely disturbances in twenty states.[fn]Briefing for journalists by Chidi Odinkalu, senior team manager for the Africa Program, Open Society Justice Initiative, Abuja, 29 November 2018. For other warnings of 2019 political violence, see Aly Verjee, Chris Kwaja and Oge Onubogu, “Nigeria’s 2019 Elections: Change, Continuity and the Risks to Peace”, United States Institute of Peace, September 2018; and Idayat Hassan, Voting Amidst Insecurity: Nigeria’s 2019 Elections, Briefing Paper, Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja, 20 October 2018. The Lagos-based geopolitical intelligence group, SBM Intelligence, believes “electoral violence in 2019 will be of a greater magnitude than in 2011”, with sixteen states at particular risk: Abia, Adamawa, Akwa Ibom, Bauchi, Benue, Cross River, Imo, Kaduna, Kano, Kogi, Nasarawa, Osun, Oyo, Rivers, Taraba and Zamfara. “The Year ahead – choose your evil”, SBM Intelligence, 4 December 2018.Hide Footnote That said, while problems are possible almost nationwide, concerns appear particularly high in six states, namely Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau and Adamawa.

This report looks closely at those concerns, laying out the risk factors specific to each of the six states. It offers recommendations to both the Nigerian government and its foreign partners for mitigating the risks, both in especially conflict-prone states and nationwide. It is based on dozens of interviews with Nigerian officials, national- and local-level politicians, election monitors, diplomats, scholars and civil society leaders.


II. Rivers: Reigniting an Old Rivalry

Rivers state, in the oil-producing Niger Delta, has seen several fiercely fought elections, replete with vote buying, rigging, ballot box snatching and blocking of roads to hinder access to polling stations, as well as kidnappings and assassinations of candidates and prominent supporters. In 2015, it recorded the most election-related fatalities of any state, mostly occurring around the gubernatorial vote.[fn]A commission instituted by then-Governor Rotimi Amaechi to investigate politically motivated violence reported an average of nineteen killings per month between November 2014 and April 2015, the six-month period before the elections. See Commission of Inquiry to Investigate Politically Motivated Killings and Damage to Property Before, During and After the 2015 General Elections in Rivers State, Final Report, 21 May 2015, p. 7.Hide Footnote On polling day, INEC reported that Rivers state witnessed almost a quarter – sixteen out of 66 – of the incidents of violence targeting polling stations, the commission’s officials, voters and election materials countrywide.[fn]“INEC confirms poll violence in Akwa Ibom, Rivers, others”, The News, 12 April 2015.Hide Footnote Counting down to 2019, the factors fuelling the past attacks are still in place.

First, the state remains a major theatre of the national contestation between the APC and PDP, the latter of which, except for a two-year interlude, has held power in the state since 1999. In Nigeria, governors often siphon off state revenue with impunity, notably under the guise of so-called security votes.[fn]See for example, Matthew Page, “Camouflaged Cash: How ‘Security Votes’ Fuel Corruption in Nigeria”, Transparency International, May 2018. “Security votes” are funds meant for discretionary spending on public safety measures at the state and local level. But because no one audits the expenditures, several state governors have embezzled the money and transferred it to their personal or political campaign accounts. Others make it a point not to include “security votes” in their state budgets to avoid the appearance of illicit spending. Not every governor has escaped justice for such transgressions; two former governors – Jolly Nyame (Taraba) and Joshua Dariye (Plateau) were jailed for corruption, in May and June 2018 respectively.Hide Footnote Because Rivers state, as a major oil producer, is the second highest recipient of federal fiscal transfers (after Akwa Ibom), as well as the second highest generator of internal revenues (after Lagos), it is widely believed to be a main source of PDP funding.[fn]“States generated N579.5 bn in six months – NBS”, The Punch, 28 November 2018; “$1bn: APC funded 2015 presidential campaigns with stolen money from Lagos, Rivers – PDP”, Vanguard, 18 December 2018. The federal government shares revenue, much of it from oil production, with the 36 states according to a complicated formula.Hide Footnote The PDP will go to any lengths to retain control, and the APC will spare no effort to capture the state, so as to deny its chief adversary this vital revenue stream, at least for the next four years.[fn]Crisis Group interview, professor of political science, University of Port Harcourt, Abuja, 19 November 2018.Hide Footnote

A second risk stems from the state’s internal politics, particularly the bitter rivalry between Nyesom Wike, the incumbent governor, and Rotimi Amaechi, his predecessor who served from 2007 to 2015. The two former allies parted ways in 2013, when Amaechi defected from the PDP to the APC. The acrimonious 2015 gubernatorial race deepened the rift, as Wike, running on the PDP ticket, defeated Amaechi’s APC candidate, Dakuku Peterside. Amaechi, now federal transport minister and Buhari’s re-election campaign chief, played a key role in drafting Tonye Cole, billionaire co-founder of Sahara Energy, one of the biggest indigenous oil and gas firms in Nigeria, as the APC’s challenger to Wike in 2019.[fn]“Rivers 2019: How Amaechi convinced me to run as APC candidate – Tonye Cole”, Vanguard, 11 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Until early December, the gubernatorial contest in the state seemed headed for a straight fight between Wike and Cole. Both men were approaching the polls with considerable strengths: the governor commands vast state resources and boasts grassroots support; his challenger has ample personal resources and the federal government’s backing. On 12 December, however, following a suit by an APC faction challenging the conduct of the party’s primaries in the state, the Appeal Court nullified the primaries, invalidating Cole’s governorship candidacy, as well as those of all others vying for seats in the Senate, House of Representatives and the state’s House of Assembly.[fn]The ruling also nullified the congresses that produced the party’s ward executives, local government executives and state executives.Hide Footnote Cole’s camp insists he is still in the race, as three other appeals remain before the court, aimed at overturning the primaries’ nullification. If these appeals uphold Cole’s candidacy, the risk of inter-party violence will remain high; if they fail, the APC in effect would be excluded from the campaign, and the risk may drop considerably.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Port Harcourt-based official of election monitoring group, Abuja, 14 December 2018.Hide Footnote

As in previous elections, many [armed gangs and cults] are offering their services to politicians to intimidate opponents and rig the polls.

A third threat stems from armed gangs and cults.[fn]For detailed analysis of the backgrounds and profiles of these gangs and cults, see Nicolas Florquin and Eric G. Berman (eds), Armed and Aimless: Armed Groups, Guns and Human Security in the ECOWAS Region, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, May 2005. Over the years, four groups – Deybam, Deywell, the Greenlanders and the Icelanders – have emerged as the most notorious, while lesser-known ones include the Doctor’s Squad, the Italians, the Blood Hunters, the Junior Vikings and Bermuda. See “Rise in Cult Violence and Insecurity in Rivers State”, The Fund for Peace, et al, November 2015; and “Organized Crime in the Niger Delta: Implications for the 2019 Elections”, The Fund for Peace, et al, April 2018.Hide Footnote These groups have penetrated the state’s Emohua, Ikwerre, Khana, Ogba, Egbema, Ndoni and Ahoada local government areas.[fn]The gangs and cults are also prevalent in Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Delta states.Hide Footnote As in previous elections, many of them are offering their services to politicians to intimidate opponents and rig the polls.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Port Harcourt-based civil society leader, Abuja, 12 November 2018.Hide Footnote They could contribute significantly to election violence, particularly in remote riverine villages with little or no law enforcement – or where the overstretched federal police fear to tread.

The state government’s establishment of a new security organisation, Rivers State Neighbourhood Safety Corps Agency in March 2018, and the federal government’s clampdown on the agency’s recruits in November, may have added to the risk.[fn]On 15 March 2018, Wike signed Neighbourhood Watch Safety Corps Law No. 8 of 2018. The group appears similar to those in several other states, including Lagos and Kogi.Hide Footnote The agency’s stated objective is to supply federal security agencies with intelligence to help fight crime and improve public safety.[fn]“Wike gives assent to Rivers State Neighbourhood Watch Safety Corps Law, others”, This Day, 16 March 2018.Hide Footnote Some opposition leaders had expressed fears that members of the organisation, who feel beholden to Wike, may harass his opponents; or that the governor could deploy them to obstruct and disrupt the expected heavy deployment of federal security personnel in the state during the elections, much as the PDP and others say such deployments aided the APC’s victories in the gubernatorial elections in Ekiti and Osun states.[fn]“Buhari militarising electoral process, PDP alleges”, Daily Sun, 24 November 2018. Civil society organisations have also expressed concerns over heavy security deployments during the gubernatorial elections in the two states. For instance, in a communiqué at the end of its conference on “Securitization of the electoral process and prevention of violence towards the 2019 elections”, held in Abuja on 4 December, the Peace and Security Network, an umbrella group of over 500 Nigerian civil society organisations, urged security agencies to “avoid being used as agents of intimidation through heavy-handed militarization during the 2019 elections as witnessed in the 2015 elections and recently in Ekiti and Osun States governorship elections”.Hide Footnote

On 29 November, soldiers, claiming they had discovered an “illegal militia training camp”, disbanded the agency’s recruits who were being trained at the National Youth Service Corps camp at Nonwa Gbam in Tai local government area.[fn]“Rivers govt, army bicker over militia training camp”, The Guardian (Lagos), 30 November 2018.Hide Footnote Wike said the army’s action was politically motivated, as the high command was duly informed about the organisation and its objectives. He also said the state government would continue training the recruits.[fn]“Army’s shutdown of Rivers security group gets political”, Daily Trust, 8 December 2018; “Rough road to 2019 polls in Rivers”, Leadership, 17 December 2018.Hide Footnote Some locals worry that the Neighbourhood Safety Corps members may clash with soldiers around the polls.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Port Harcourt-based civil society leader, Abuja, 16 December 2018.Hide Footnote

There have already been notable incidents of election-related violence. In August 2018, INEC had to suspend indefinitely a by-election in the state capital, Port Harcourt, following widespread disruption by thugs.[fn]According to the state’s Resident Electoral Commissioner, Obo Effanga, the commission was compelled to take action after “miscreants and hoodlums, accompanied by heavily armed security personnel in uniform, stormed the various polling units and Registration Areas, disrupting voting activities, destroying and carting away election materials, including smart card readers and ballot boxes” and also “manhandled, injured and held hostage” many election officials. “INEC suspends Port Harcourt 3 state constituency by-election”, INEC News, 18 August 2018; and “Rivers by-election remains suspended – INEC”, The Punch, 15 November 2018.Hide Footnote On 11 November, gunmen abducted the APC’s organising secretary in Ikwerre local government area, Samuel Wanjoku, and another party member, Moses Ogu: a search party found Wanjoku’s dead body in a forest six days later and police later found his missing colleague alive.[fn]“Rivers communities live in fear as gunmen run riot in Ikwerre LGA”, Vanguard, 27 November 2018.Hide Footnote On 14 November, two people were killed and many wounded as about 25 gunmen attacked a PDP-organised rally in Ipo meant to educate voters about the need to collect their Permanent Voter Cards.[fn]The chairman of Ikwerre local government area, Samuel Nwanosike, who was at the event, narrowly escaped death.Hide Footnote On 16 November, assailants in Old Bakana district of Degema local government area shot at the APC gubernatorial candidate, Cole, and members of his team. The politicians escaped unhurt.[fn]“Rivers APC gov candidate escapes assassination”, The Nation, 18 November 2018.Hide Footnote PDP and APC leaders traded blame for the attacks.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, journalist based in Port Harcourt, 18 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Charges and counter-charges of parties acquiring guns raise the spectre of more violence. Governor Wike alleges the APC-led federal government is colluding with security agencies to disrupt the gubernatorial election, including the planting of 800 guns in order to “destabilise the state” and the use of subsequent unrest as an excuse to “mobilise security agencies to manipulate the results”.[fn]“FG allegedly plotting to plant 800 guns in Rivers to destabilise state, alleges Wike”, This Day, 24 November 2018.Hide Footnote The APC counters it has uncovered an “ongoing distribution of illegally acquired arms to some PDP leaders in the various local government areas of the state”.[fn]“Rough road to 2019 polls in Rivers”, Leadership, 17 December 2018.Hide Footnote These charges are yet to be proven, but all signs point to greater danger of violence as the Rivers state campaign heats up.


III. Akwa Ibom: Dimming Prospects for Peaceful Polls

Akwa Ibom state, also located in the oil-producing Niger Delta, has been a PDP-governed state since the return to civilian rule in 1999.[fn]Governors include Obong Victor Attah (1999-2007), Godswill Akpabio (2007-2015) and Udom Emmanuel (2015-present).Hide Footnote In local elections on 2 December 2017, the party won in all the state’s 31 local government areas.[fn]“Akwa Ibom council polls: PDP wins in all 31 local governments”, Premium Times, 3 December 2017.Hide Footnote Akwa Ibom also has a history of election-related violence, including deadly clashes between supporters of opposing parties and assassinations of candidates.[fn]In March 2011, more than twelve people were killed in a fight between supporters of the PDP and the opposition Action Congress, with extensive property damage, including the campaign office of then-President Goodluck Jonathan. “Election violence leaves 12 dead in Nigerian Akwa Ibom state”, VOA, 22 March 2011. In the 2011 gubernatorial election, both main parties reportedly employed thugs in the state: the most violent incident, after a campaign rally, left several dead and many injured, the president’s campaign office destroyed, and about 500 private and official vehicles burned. In 2012, at least seven people were killed in violent clashes after the PDP’s councillorship primaries. “Akwa Ibom: Seven die in post-PDP councillorship primaries violence”, The Will, 6 April 2012. Several attacks occurred during the 2015 campaign, including the assassination of the deputy speaker of the State House of Assembly, the APC’s Obong Okon Uwah, who was seeking re-election. In the 2015 elections, INEC reported, five of 66 violent election incidents occurred in Akwa Ibom. “INEC confirms poll violence in Akwa Ibom, Rivers, others”, The News, 12 April 2015. In the December 2017 local government elections, thugs attacked the state’s independent electoral commission office, killing at least one person and wounding many others. “Violence, apathy mar A’Ibom council polls”, The Nation, 3 December 2013. Akwa Ibom state has a growing culture of violence. In the second quarter of 2018, 46 people were killed in communal conflict, violent criminality, gang and cult clash and other forms of violence. “With 46 casualties, Akwa Ibom, most violent state in Niger Delta”, International Centre for Investigative Reporting, 11 August 2018.Hide Footnote Risks around the 2019 elections arise from both national and local politics.

First, the stakes are high. Akwa Ibom, like Rivers, is emerging as a major battleground in the APC-PDP battle for revenue. It receives the most federal money of any state, and it is widely believed to be a pillar of PDP finances.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official of Niger Delta Development Commission, Abuja, 30 November 2018.Hide Footnote

A second factor is partisan rancour in the state, aggravated by the split between PDP Governor Udom Emmanuel and his predecessor Godswill Akpabio, as well as the struggle for control of the state House of Assembly. Emmanuel, a key figure in Akpabio’s state cabinet, was his anointed heir in 2015.[fn]Emmanuel was secretary to the state government from 2013 to 2014, when he joined the race for the state governorship.Hide Footnote Soon after he assumed office, however, their relationship began to sour. Some attribute the falling-out to Emmanuel’s alleged reluctance to complete some projects started by Akpabio; others say it was a dispute over control of the state machinery.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Akwa Ibom House of Representatives member, Abuja, 30 November 2018.Hide Footnote At any rate, on 8 August 2018, Akpabio defected to the APC, switching his support to Nsima Ekere, who later emerged as the APC’s gubernatorial candidate.[fn]Nsima Udo Ekere was Akpabio’s deputy governor for seventeen months from May 2011 to October 2012, but hurriedly resigned to avoid impeachment planned by the state’s House of Assembly, after he fell out of favour with his principal. In November 2016, President Buhari appointed him managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission. He retains that post while running for governor.Hide Footnote Taking along two state House of Assembly members – Idongesit Ituen, who represents his Itu state constituency, and Gabriel Toby – as well as two commissioners in Emmanuel’s cabinet, one of them Akpabio’s brother.[fn]The two were Commissioner for Culture and Tourism Victor Antai and Commissioner for Labour, Productivity and Manpower Planning Ibanga Akpabio.Hide Footnote Three other lawmakers also dumped the PDP, raising the number of APC legislators in the 26-member state House to five.

The PDP-dominated House responded by declaring the defectors’ seats vacant. Ituen sought an injunction from a federal high court in the state capital, Uyo, but it rejected his request and instead upheld a countersuit filed by House Speaker Onofiok Luke.

Amid the heated inter-party wrangling, the five embattled defectors held a session at which they “sacked” Speaker Luke and replaced him with one of their own, Nse Ntuen. That action invited a police siege of the House, ostensibly to prevent factional clashes. Two days after police lifted the siege, as directed by the federal Senate, the five defectors met again, allegedly trying to impeach Governor Emmanuel, who was backed by the majority PDP lawmakers. The five, along with some of their supporters, were battered and dispersed by a band of security personnel and thugs, led by the governor himself.[fn]“Akwa Ibom governor leads security officials to chase away APC lawmakers”, Premium Times, 27 November 2018.Hide Footnote

The PDP alleges that the APC orchestrated the crisis, deliberately stoking violence to provide the federal government with justification for declaring a state of emergency. This in turn would warrant postponing the vote to a later date, when the ruling party would deploy a large number of troops to intimidate voters and rig the ballot.[fn]“PDP accuses APC of instigating violence in A/Ibom, others”, The Nation, 21 November 2018.Hide Footnote The APC denies the charge.[fn]“Emmanuel responsible for Akwa Ibom crisis”, The Nation, 5 December 2018.Hide Footnote Whether the PDP’s claim is true or false, the developments in November signal that the state could suffer violence between the two parties’ supporters before, during and after the elections.


IV. Kaduna: New Tensions Aggravate Old Grievances

Kaduna state has a long history of lethal ethnic tensions. It was the state hardest hit by the 2011 post-election violence, accounting for about 500 of the over 800 people killed across twelve states.[fn] A number of factors make Kaduna a likely hotspot as the 2019 polls draw near, including increasing communal strife and political feuding.

Violent incidents in Kaduna – pitting ethnic rivals against one another, Christians against Muslims, herders against farmers, and bandits against community vigilantes – have killed more than a hundred since the beginning of 2018.[fn]See “24-hour curfew imposed in Nigeria’s Kaduna after scores killed in communal violence”, CNN, 23 October 2018. Some of the more notable incidents are as follows: on 5 May, at least 71 people were killed in an attack on Gwaska village in Birnin-Gwari local government area. “Kaduna killings: Death toll rises to 71”, The Nation, 7 May 2018. In October, at least 77 people died in ethnic and religious confrontations in different parts of the state. “El-Rufai relaxes curfew on Kaduna metropolis, environs”, Premium Times, 28 October 2018. On 16 December, gunmen killed at least fourteen people Angwan Pah village, Jama’a local government area.Hide Footnote Tensions generated by these incidents are running high and could turn ugly around the elections.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kaduna-based politician, Abuja, 17 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Local politics add to the risk. While 36 candidates are running for the governorship, the race appears to be largely between the incumbent APC governor, Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, and the PDP candidate, Isa Ashiru. El-Rufai’s policies and governing style have alienated key members of his party in the state, essentially splitting the party into three factions. His feud with the state’s three senators in the National Assembly led two of them to defect – Suleiman Hunkuyi to the PDP and Shehu Sani to the People’s Redemption Party.[fn]Hunkuyi had earlier accused el-Rufai of ordering the demolition of a building belonging to his APC faction. “Why we demolished factional APC building – Kaduna govt”, Premium Times, 20 February 2018. The state government responded that the building “was removed for flagrant violations of land use and non-payment of ground rent since 2010. This illegal violation of use had begun to distress neighbours who were being forced to endure an influx of thugs and blockage of the road”. “Outrage as El Rufai pulls senators building”, Sahara Reporters, 21 February 2018.Hide Footnote The contest between these incumbents and el-Rufai’s preferred APC senate candidates could become violent if their supporters clash ahead of the polls.

El-Rufai’s selection of a fellow Muslim, Hadiza Abubakar Balarabe, as his running mate, has heightened tensions further.[fn]Balarabe is former executive secretary of the state’s primary health care development agency. The current deputy governor, Barnabas Bala, is running for the senate.Hide Footnote This choice is a departure from long-running tradition whereby governors choose their deputies from the other main religious group. It is also controversial because Balarabe hails from southern Kaduna, a part of the state that is predominantly Christian, and where many view his action as a deliberate affront to Christians.[fn]Crisis Group interview, retired army general from Kaduna state, Abuja, 28 November 2018.Hide Footnote The governor has defended his action, arguing that he chose Balarabe strictly on her merits, as she was the best of the 32 people proposed for the job, that he had President Buhari’s approval and that the governorship is not a religious office but a means of serving the people.[fn]“I picked running mate on merit”, The Nation, 14 November 2018.Hide Footnote

But critics, mostly but not exclusively Christians, view this choice of a Muslim-Muslim ticket as insensitive, especially since religious tensions are already high. Christians fear that the ticket, if it succeeds, could create the impression that they are inconsequential in the state’s politics and thus set a dangerous precedent.[fn]Crisis Group interview, retired army general from Kaduna state, Abuja, 28 November 2018.Hide Footnote However noble the governor’s intentions may have been, his choice has further polarised the electorate along sectarian lines, heightening the risk of election-day disturbances.[fn]

V. Kano: Struggle for Strategic Battleground

Kano, with an estimated 11 million people, is Nigeria’s second-most populous state after Lagos. And with over five million registered voters (again, second only to Lagos), it is an electoral prize in itself. Kano is currently under an APC government. The risks of violence around the 2019 elections stem from both national and state politics.

Located in the president’s home region – Buhari hails from neighbouring Katsina state – Kano was a theatre of post-election violence after he lost in 2011 and was key to his victory in 2015. The state is again a crucial battleground heading into 2019. On 27 July 2018, Buhari’s campaign coordinator, Amaechi, vowed that the APC would sweep the state even if the president conducts the race “on a sickbed”.[fn]“Buhari’ll win in Sokoto, Kano, Bauchi even on sickbed – Amaechi”, Punch, 28 July 2018.Hide Footnote Undoubtedly, Kano is pro-Buhari: the APC claims that he garnered 2.9 million votes in the state’s primaries, almost 21 per cent of his 14 million votes countrywide. Former Governor Ibrahim Shekarau’s return to the APC from the PDP on 25 November (he had defected earlier) further boosted Buhari’s chances. Current Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje has promised that the state will deliver five million votes for the president. Yet the PDP is seeking to undercut him, so as to at least reduce his margin of victory.

Another risk lies in the feud between the previous APC governor, now a PDP senator, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, and his former deputy and successor Ganduje, running for a second term on the APC ticket. While in office from 1999 to 2003 and again from 2011 to 2015, Kwankwaso and his deputy worked harmoniously together. But after Ganduje took over, their relationship deteriorated. Sources in the state say the two parted ways over control of the state apparatus, just like Emmanuel and Akpabio in Akwa Ibom state: Kwankwaso wanted to retain some authority, and Ganduje brooked no interference.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kano-based politician and civil society activist, Abuja, 12 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Over the last two years, the squabble intensified, resulting in several clashes between their respective supporters – known in the local Hausa language as the Kwankwasiyya and the Gandujiyya. Kwankwaso, now based in Abuja, has been unable to hold meetings, rallies or other public events in the state. His campaign called off a planned January 2018 visit when police said they could not guarantee order after one of Ganduje’s men, Commissioner for Special Duties Abdullahi Sunusi, was seen on video urging Gandujiyya to “stone” Kwankwaso if they ever saw him in Kano.[fn]“Kano commissioner asks supporters to ‘stone’ Kwankwaso”, Daily Trust, 11 January 2018.Hide Footnote Kwankwaso’s defection (along with his supporters) to the PDP has drawn the battle lines even more sharply. He is backing a PDP candidate, Abba Kabiru Yusuf, for governor. Though the Kwankwasiyya were weakened when some members switched to the APC on 25 November, they could still clash with Gandujiyya during the campaign.

VI. Plateau: Continuing Ethno-religious Tensions

Located in the Middle Belt and currently ruled by the APC, Plateau state has seen long-running tension between earlier-settled communities that consider themselves “indigenes”, and others who migrated to the region since the 19th century, whom they  regard as “settlers” or even “strangers”.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°196, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (I): The Jos Crisis, 17 December 2012.Hide Footnote This dichotomy is a permanent source of  animosity and insecurity in the state, sometimes degenerating into violence.

For the 2019 elections, a first risk of violence stems from the deterioration of security in parts of the state. Over the last two years, clashes have escalated between Fulani herders and Berom and Irigwe farmers. On 12 November, the Committee on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), set up by the state government five months prior, reported that recent attacks in the state have killed over 1,800 people and displaced more than 50,000 in Jos North, Jos South, Bassa, Riyom, Barkin Ladi and Bokkos local government areas.[fn]“1,801 persons killed in Plateau attacks, says report”, This Day, 13 November 2018.Hide Footnote The raw feelings left by these killings could lead to renewed clashes around the elections.[fn]“1,801 killed, 50,212 displaced in Plateau attacks – IDP C’ittee”, New Telegraph, 13 November 2018. The situation is further complicated by population displacements resulting from the conflict. The IDP resettlement committee’s recent report identified 87 villages where farmlands were destroyed and “in most cases annexed by Fulani herdsmen”. There are fears that, as was the case in 2015, attempts to return IDPs to vote near their homes where they registered for the elections, could spark violence between the IDPs and those who had occupied such areas. Crisis Group interview, journalist based in Plateau state, 18 December 2018.Hide Footnote

The state is also expected to witness a ferocious gubernatorial contest involving 22 candidates, but basically setting the APC incumbent, Simon Lalong, against a PDP senator, Jeremiah Useni. Among “indigenes”, Lalong’s refusal to introduce laws banning herders from letting their livestock graze on farmland, has cast him as a Fulani “sympathiser”, diminishing his support among mostly Christian farmers (such laws are on the books in other states on the fault line, such as Benue).[fn]“It’s your turn, Lalong”, The Sun, 28 June 2018. For more on farmer-herder conflict, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°252, Herders against Farmers: Nigeria’s Expanding Deadly Conflict, 19 September 2017; and N°262, Stopping Nigeria’s Spiralling Farmer-Herder Violence, 26 July 2018.Hide Footnote Senator Useni, 75, a retired army general from the small “indigenous” ethnic group, Tarok, is rallying all “indigenes” to oust Lalong.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lecturer, University of Jos (Plateau state), Abuja, 21 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Jos North local government area, which recorded incidents of electoral violence in 2002, 2008 and 2011, is a particular flashpoint. Locals allege that many young men from Tilden Fulani, a city in neighbouring Bauchi state, came to register for the elections in Jos North, in order to tilt the balance in the Fulani’s favour. Those who consider themselves “indigenes” are threatening to block “outsiders” from casting votes.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Berom youth leader, Abuja, 20 November 2018.Hide Footnote If they follow through with this threat, the result will be bloodshed.

VII. Adamawa: Between President and Challenger

Adamawa, in north-eastern Nigeria, is one of the country’s most diverse states, with about 70 ethnic groups split among the Muslim majority and largely Christian minorities. From 2012 to 2015, the Boko Haram insurgency spilled over into Adamawa from Borno state, posing a serious challenge to the 2015 elections in the north east of the state. Since then, the insurgents have been virtually pushed out, yet the 2019 elections here could still be violent, because of the state’s symbolic importance, escalating farmer-herder conflict and growing problem with armed youth gangs.

First, at the national level, Adamawa state is strategic territory in the APC-PDP power struggle. Though under APC rule since 2015 and the birthplace of Buhari’s wife, Aisha, the state is also the home state of Atiku Abubakar. APC officials vow to retain control, for the symbolic purpose of showing that Atiku is unpopular even at home.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior APC member, Abuja, 1 November 2018. See also “Atiku will suffer humiliation in north-east”, Leadership, 17 December 2018.Hide Footnote Atiku, by the same token, sees a win in Adamawa as required if he is to credibly claim victory elsewhere in the country. His investiture on 25 November as the Adamawa emirate’s new waziri, the chief kingmaker and adviser to the Lamido (traditional ruler) of Adamawa, appears part of his effort to boost his local legitimacy ahead of the elections. Furthermore, while Buhari and Atiku both hail from the north, some of Atiku’s supporters see his candidacy as a historic opportunity to break the tradition of northern presidents hailing from Buhari’s north west, rather than the north east.[fn]Crisis Group interview, leader of Abubakar support group, Abuja, 30 November 2018. Seven of the eight northerners who have headed the Nigerian government have been from the north west. The only exception was Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the country’s first and only prime minister (1960-1966), who hailed from Bauchi state in the north east. Abacha, head of state from 1993 to 1998, though a Kanuri from Borno state, was born and raised in Kano and was buried there.Hide Footnote Adamawa will be a key battleground between the two parties.

Secondly, at the state level, the escalation of herder-farmer conflict, particularly since late 2017, adds to risks of electoral violence. Over the last year, Numan, Demsa and Lamorde local government areas have witnessed recurrent confrontations between Fulani herders and mostly Bachama farmers, with hundreds killed, numerous villages destroyed and tens of thousands displaced, both within Adamawa and to neighbouring Gombe state. The displacement and prevailing insecurity could depress turnout in some areas. Worse, since the herders are predominantly Fulani and Muslim while farmers are ethnically diverse and in many cases Christian, the conflict has aggravated intercommunal tension across the state. There is a danger that politicians from all parties may whip up ethno-religious hostility to advance their partisan or even personal objectives.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, journalist based in Yola, Adamawa state, 19 December 2018.Hide Footnote

A further risk arises from the activities of youth gangs, known locally as the Shila Boys. As during previous elections, politicians may recruit gang members – along with other unemployed youths – to intimidate opponents. In one incident before the gubernatorial primaries in October, a band of youths attacked a meeting of an APC faction that had been pushing for direct primaries, wounding several persons and damaging vehicles. A senatorial aspirant, Ibrahim Waziri, alleged that the attackers were working for Governor Mohammed Bindow, which the governor’s aides denied.[fn]“Unhappy with APC’s direct primary decision, ‘Governor Bindow’s thugs’ attack Babachir Lawal’s office”, Sahara Reporters, 4 September 2018.Hide Footnote The state may witness more such violence around the elections.[fn]There have already been allegations of serious threats. For instance, in September, three journalists, TVC correspondent Adenusi Owolabi, Sahara Reporters correspondent Phineas Padio and Punch freelancer Hindi Livinus, told police that security operatives attached to the government house had organised a hit squad including “a horde of political thugs” to kill them for their reporting, which could “have negative consequences on Governor Mohammed Jibrilla Bindow’s re-election bid in 2019”. “Journalists petition IGP, DSS on killer squad in Adamawa”, The Guardian (Lagos), 14 September 2018. At press time, there had been no follow-up reports on these allegations.Hide Footnote

VIII. Mitigating Risks in Conflict-prone States

The first step toward peaceful 2019 polls is to reduce tensions at the national level. The government itself can do much in this regard, particularly by speedily releasing all funds earmarked for INEC and the security agencies. It should also avoid any act that could be construed as deploying security agencies for electoral gains, such as sending anti-corruption agencies to target opposition leaders and states. For their part, federal security agencies should strive to show professionalism and impartiality, by relating to all parties even-handedly, in all election-related actions, in order to retain or regain the parties’ trust and build confidence around the polls.

Following their 11-12 December signing of a peace accord, at the behest of the National Peace Committee, political parties and their candidates should publicly urge their supporters to stop inflammatory rhetoric, campaign peacefully, pursue grievances lawfully and remain calm in the event of their defeat. Atiku did not attend the signing of the accord on the same day as Buhari, robbing the event of the powerful symbolic message it was supposed to convey. Nonetheless, all signatories should respect the accord’s provisions.

Brewing tensions in the six states of greatest concern suggest that the authorities should make further efforts to prevent or manage local violence.

In addition to these steps, brewing tensions in the six states of greatest concern suggest that the authorities should make further efforts to prevent or manage local violence. While risks differ among states, the government ought to focus on three areas:

Improve state and local security arrangements: Security agencies, particularly the Nigeria Police Force, which is the lead agency on election security, should step up efforts to detect and manage election-related threats. On 1 November, Inspector-General Ibrahim Idris issued a “red alert” to his commissioners in all 36 states to respond proactively to challenges that may arise ahead of the elections.[fn]“2019: IGP places police on red alert”, Daily Sun, 2 November 2018.Hide Footnote This step is welcome, but further action should follow.

State police chiefs should intensify monitoring aimed at identifying and pre-empting politicians or groups who may be plotting violence. They should collaborate more closely with local civil society and community-based groups that already have programs in place for such election-related monitoring. They also should review and follow the recommendations of national and international observers, particularly to maintain order at campaign rallies impartially, secure polling centres in a non-intimidating manner and manage likely public protests over election results without resorting to excessive force. For now, police (and military) responses to protesters – from members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria to pro-Biafra agitators – suggest that the force has not improved its strategies for crowd control. They should strengthen their cooperation with other security agencies under the Inter-agency Consultative Committees on Election Security, established to coordinate election security arrangements. Such coordination is presently weak in some states and barely exists in many local government areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Abuja, 27 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Both civil society organisations and international partners have expressed serious concerns about the conduct of security agencies, particularly the police.[fn]“Local EU Statement on elections and conduct of law enforcement services”, European Union Delegation, Abuja, 9 August 2018.Hide Footnote To address this, the Police Service Commission, which is vested with oversight and disciplinary powers over all police personnel (except the inspector-general), needs to exercise those powers more effectively.[fn]Police Service Commission (Establishment) Act (No. 1) of 2001.Hide Footnote Specifically, it should raise awareness of the telephone lines it dedicates to public complaints about police conduct, deploy nationwide more than the 400 monitors it fielded in 2015 and sanction any officer proven to be acting in a partisan manner.

Encourage state-level actors to commit to non-violence: The National Peace Committee, which has already committed political parties to peaceful campaigns at the national level, should further engage with state-level branches of the Inter-party Advisory Committee, the umbrella body of registered political parties in Nigeria, as well as with influential civil society groups to the same end. More broadly, it should urge major actors in all states to commit to non-violence. In some cases, such as the Kwankwaso-Ganduje feud in Kano state and the Akpabio-Emmanuel contest in Akwa Ibom state, the two committees and influential civil society actors should bring the antagonists together and get them to commit to campaign peacefully, pursue disputes without violence and call on their supporters to follow suit. A model is Sokoto state, where gubernatorial candidates have formed a Sokoto State Gubernatorial Candidates Forum and will soon sign an agreement committing them to peaceful elections. Other states should replicate their example.[fn]Crisis Group interview, House of Representatives member from Sokoto state, Abuja, 12 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Hold confidence-building dialogues: In states like Adamawa, Kaduna and Plateau, where ethnic, religious and herder-farmer tensions could contribute to election violence, institutions dedicated to peace-building at the state level, such as the Plateau Building Peace Agency and the Kaduna State Peace Commission, should urgently organise intercommunal forums for dialogue. Such forums could take place at state, local government and community levels, and could help restore a degree of trust among divided communities ahead of the elections and undercut attempts by politicians to exploit those divides for political ends.

For their part, Nigeria’s foreign partners, already supportive of the elections, ought to take further steps both to deter violence and to be prepared in the event a crisis erupts. In Abuja, they should create a diplomatic forum to coordinate messaging to President Buhari, political parties, candidates and security agencies. The statements jointly issued by European Union (EU) member states, the U.S. and the UK, following the Osun state governorship elections in September and at the commencement of the election campaigns on 18 November, are welcome steps in this regard.[fn]Joint Statement by the EU, UK and US on the Osun election, European Union Delegation, Abuja, 2 October 2018; “Statement on the occasion of the beginning of 2019 election campaigns”, European Union Delegation, Abuja, 19 November 2018. The statements were jointly signed by the U.S. and other countries with missions in Nigeria including, France, Germany, the UK, Austria, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.Hide Footnote They should also set up a high-level international working group, spearheaded by prominent statespersons with sway in Nigeria and access to the two main presidential contenders, that could intervene in the event of a major electoral crisis.[fn]Crisis Group, EU Watch List 2018 – Third Update, 25 October 2018.Hide Footnote

International observers (notably from the EU, U.S. organisations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States) as well as Nigerian civil society platforms (such as the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room, Peace and Security Network, Centre for Democracy and Development and CLEEN Foundation) should devote particular attention and resources to potential hotspots. Nigeria’s major international partners, including the UN, EU, U.S., UK and Canada, should step up communication with key state-level politicians, particularly in the six vulnerable states identified here, and urge them to avoid violence around gubernatorial and legislative contests. They should complement these efforts with warnings to Nigeria’s politicians, many of whom travel abroad frequently, that they could well pay a price for inciting violence, such as incurring visa bans for them and their families as well as other targeted sanctions.

Nigeria’s last several elections have witnessed spates of campaign-related violence, up to and including assault and murder. The government and its foreign partners should remain vigilant in detecting threats, and proactive in heading them off, so that the 2019 contests do not see a repeat performance. 

Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 21 December 2018


Appendix A: Map: Six States to Watch