Friday, January 31, 2014

AU Must Deal With Harsh Realities

Africa must close the gap between fine words and harsh realities to end conflict

Turmoil in South Sudan and Central African Republic means African Development Bank guidance is likely to go unheeded

As the UN and the African Union (AU) grapple with crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), the publication of an African Development Bank (AfDB) report on ending conflict and building peace in Africa is nothing if not timely.

The study, Ending Conflict and Building Peace in Africa: A Call to Action – prepared by the bank's high-level panel on fragile states, chaired by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president – looks at the pressure points that could lead to conflict: youth unemployment, urbanisation, governance in the extractive industries, climate change, and poverty and inequality.

Particularly pertinent, given the turmoil in South Sudan and CAR, is what the report has to say about statebuilding, the issues surrounding which can be expected to weigh heavily at the AU summit beginning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Thursday. The summit was supposed to discuss agriculture and food security, but these crises are likely to dominate discussions.

"The fact that these humanitarian tragedies are unfolding in the two countries at a time when we are talking about an 'African renaissance' must be painful to all of us," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Ethiopian foreign minister, this week.

The report says attention must be given to the transition of national movements into statebuilding and peacemaking. Suggested areas of focus include the importance of inclusive political settlements, the re-establishment of security and justice, economic competence and the delivery of public services.

It adds: "Overcoming fragility is first and foremost about building or re-establishing the underlying political settlement on which the state is constructed. Without solid political foundations, attempts to build resilient institutions are unlikely to succeed."

Regional partners within the framework of the AU have their role to play as conflict can spread and destabilise neighbours. Past examples have included the spread of conflict through the Great Lakes (east Africa) and Mano river (west Africa) regions and the destabilisation of Chad and CAR as a result of the Darfur conflict.

The report's analysis and recommendations are all well and good, but the current crises underline the chasm between sage words on the page and harsh realities on the ground. In South Sudan, the political settlement looked inclusive enough, bringing the rival egos of Salva Kiir and Riek Machar into the cabinet. Western officials also said they were impressed by the wide-ranging consultations ahead of an expected "new deal" compact with aid donors.

Yet it all fell apart as simmering tensions between Kiir and Machar boiled over last December, pushing the world's newest state to the brink of civil war. Events in South Sudan show how hard it is to follow the script as laid out by the AfDB report, which states that political settlement "must establish the power relations between contending groups in society. If any significant political force or social group is excluded from participation, they are likely to pursue their interests outside the political process, creating the risk of conflict."

Countries that do follow the script show what can be accomplished. Somaliland, the self-declared republic that broke away from Somalia in 1991, is one example. Left to their own devices, without myriad peace conferences, Somaliland's clans managed to thrash out a political deal that has ensured a degree of stability and democratic rule in the volatile Horn of Africa.

While the report talks of the importance of regional efforts to ensure stability, South Sudan and CAR underline the impotence of the AU, which was specifically mandated to prevent a repetition of the Rwandan genocide. For well over a decade, there has been much talk of an African standby force that can intervene in emergencies such as the one in CAR, but plans have yet to get off the ground. The problem is as much about leadership as resources.

As Martin Plaut has argued, the AU's ability to intervene has been badly undermined by a failure of African leadership. Nigeria and South Africa are rivals for a possible seat on the UN security council, but are saddled with weak presidents who cannot provide a sense of direction to the continent.

In other recommendations, the report urges states that are in the process of building effective institutions to look to civil society to build resilience. The private sector is seen as a vital stabilising force, "creating alternatives to conflict economies based on predatory or illicit activity".

The report also highlights the importance of women in building resilience, but notes how they are largely marginalised from national peacebuilding and statebuilding. It says: "The benefits of empowering women during transitions out of fragility are many. At the national level, they bring an alternative voice to the political process, to challenge established lines of division … international partners should therefore place a strong emphasis on supporting women's agency, encouraging their progressive inclusion in politics and government at all levels, while recognising the diversity of women's voices and interests."

Laudable sentiments, but will leaders meeting in Addis pay any heed?

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