Conflict Resolution in Africa
Conflict Resolution in Africa
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Commentary / Africa 3 minutes

Conflict Resolution in Africa

This time last year, the world was cautiously optimistic that at least some of Africa’s deadly conflicts were on course for resolution. After having claimed some two million lives, Sudan’s twenty-year civil war appeared close to an end. The peace process that had stopped the slaughter in the Democratic Republic of Congo – where more than 3 million Congolese had died during some 4 years of war, starvation and disease – appeared to be largely on track. Neighbouring Burundi’s transition to democracy was looking increasingly viable. And in the west Liberia’s strongman, Charles Taylor, long a propagator of violence in the region, had been forced from power.

What a disturbing difference a year makes.

Darfur, a place largely unknown to the international community a year ago, is now shorthand for the new century’s worst humanitarian crisis. The slow motion ethnic cleansing going on there has killed tens of thousands, and may well derail efforts to resolve Sudan's two-decade-long civil war. A surge in fighting in the Great Lakes region of Africa in recent months is perhaps the harbinger of a return to full-scale war in the Congo, threatening to draw in Rwanda and spill over into Burundi. Rioting in Liberia in late October was a reminder of the challenges facing peace-builders in that country. The Ugandan army is currently winning its fight against the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army cult in northern Uganda but the cost has been devastating to local communities. In the west conflict has exploded in Cote D’Ivoire and now threatens to reignite west Africa's long-running regional wars. And the list goes on.

So is there any reason to be optimistic? Perhaps. Two new institutions now at work in Africa hold some promise for the future.

The first is the newly established Africa Union (AU), the organisation launched in 2002 to replace the discredited Organization of African Unity (OAU). The AU has so far displayed a genuine will to resolve African conflicts, unlike the OAU which stood by (with the rest of the world) while Rwanda's genocide unfolded.

It is in Darfur that the AU faces the first real test of its credibility. It has commendably made Darfur a test case of its ability to play a central role in preventing and resolving conflict across Africa.

Despite a sometimes uneven performance, the AU has performed reasonably well in Darfur to date. First, it committed a small force of 300 troops to the region. Now, it is leading peace talks between the Government of Sudan and the rebels, and it is working on getting the Sudanese Government to accept the deployment of more than 3000 AU troops and police to the region. Right now, the AU is the best option to resolve a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 and displaced some 1.5 million people. But it is desperately short of capacity and resources, and much more remains to be done. The international community must provide meaningful support to this African effort, starting with strong political backing from the UN Security Council. And the AU will have to demonstrate here and in future conflicts that it is willing to stand up to powerful African states in the interests of all Africans.

The second institution that may help resolve some of Africa’s long running conflicts is the International Criminal Court (ICC).This fledging body has made a bold start, with the ICC’s Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, this year announcing the commencement of investigations into crimes committed in the Congo and Uganda.

Perhaps surprisingly, these investigations follow requests from the Presidents of the Congo and Uganda respectively. While these Presidents may have had objectives other than simply bringing perpetrators to justice (in Congo’s case, leverage against former rebels, and in Uganda’s, distracting the Prosecutor from Uganda’s own reprehensible role in the Congo war), the Prosecutor is fully conscious of the challenges facing his investigations. Foremost among them is how to conduct investigations in countries still in a state of conflict. But by far the most difficult challenge he will face is negotiating his way through the fraught politics of these conflicts – will he pursue those former militia leaders in the Congo now close to government; and likewise will he risk the wrath of Uganda's president by holding the Ugandan army accountable for its abuses?

In the end, the ICC will be judged on its ability to expeditiously conduct fair and transparent investigations and to bring those most responsible to justice for their crimes. No small task. The international community must support the Prosecutor's efforts, as the realistic threat of prosecution is one of the few ways in which the impunity of entrenched government and rebel leaders can be tackled.

So amongst all the negative news coming out of Africa this year, the early performance of these two new institutions holds some promise for efforts to resolve conflict on the continent, despite the significant challenges they face. These institutions deserve the support of the international community, as their success would go some way to saving countless lives in that long-suffering continent.


Former Deputy President and Chief Operating Officer
Former Project Director, South Africa

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