KEGORO: AU’s role in peaceful competition for political power

Saturday January 25 2014

PHOTO | AFP Rwandan troops prepare to board a US military aircraft in Kigali on their way to the Central African Republic as part of an African Union mission to the war-torn nation on January 16, 2014.

PHOTO | AFP Rwandan troops prepare to board a US military aircraft in Kigali on their way to the Central African Republic as part of an African Union mission to the war-torn nation on January 16, 2014.  

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Amid the clash of arms in South Sudan, leaders convene this week for the 22nd edition of the summit of heads of states and governments of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the same city where the mediation of the South Sudan conflict is taking place.

There is older conflict in the Central African Republic which, like the South Sudan crisis, has led to massive fatalities and displacements and a huge humanitarian crisis.

The Central African Republic conflict has, however, been largely ignored by the AU and was completely eclipsed by the attention the summit gave to the Kenyan cases before the International Criminal Court, which dominated the two ordinary sessions last year, and still needed a third extraordinary session.

With the Kenyan cases now relatively settled, the summit can give some attention to the crisis in Central Africa, the resolution of which has been monopolised by the international community, including the European Union.

The problems in the Central African Republic are complicated, and date back at least 10 years. The current episode started in December 2012 when a group of rebels, known as Seleka, forcibly took over several towns in the country and caused President Francois Bozize to abdicate and flee the country.


The leader of the rebels, Michel Djotodia, then declared himself president and was eventually recognised as the transitional leader by sub-regional powers.

However, the fighting in Bangui never stopped, and the last one year has been dominated by increasingly sectarian violence, allegedly characterised by acts of cannibalism.

The UN has repeatedly pointed to the gravity of the situation and, in December, warned that the country risked sliding into genocide.

African leaders will be relieved that the Igad-led mediation process on the South Sudan conflict has resulted in a cessation of hostilities agreement, which was signed in Addis Ababa last week.

The 10-part agreement obligates all sides to “commit to immediately cease all military operations and freeze their forces at the place they are in”, and also requires them to cease hostile propaganda against each other, to protect civilians within the areas falling under their control, to open humanitarian corridors and to commit to the immediate formation of a Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (MVM) under the leadership of Igad.

Going forward, the main challenge will be how to enforce the agreement. In the Central African Republic, fighting has been going on despite the warring parties having signed the Comprehensive Libreville Agreement, which committed them to bring an end to violence, and there is fear that this may happen in South Sudan.

In South Sudan, there is concern that both sides have lost central control of their troops and, therefore, the ability to stop them from fighting. Also, the Riak Machar-led rebels have lost much of the territory they initially controlled, including the strategic towns of Malakal and Bor, and retain little to negotiate with.

The summit is expected to agonise over what else can be done in relation to the South Sudan situation beyond the signing of the agreement.

The resolution of the South Sudan crisis is taking a Kenya-like approach with negotiations now concentrating on the possibility of a Philip Waki-like commission of inquiry that will investigate the ongoing violence and bring accountability against the perpetrators.

There are also discussions about the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission.

One difficulty that South Sudan faces, however, is the fragility of its justice institutions. After decades of war, the judiciary of the newly-established country is very weak and is still facing teething problems.

While a technical cooperation agreement with Kenya has provided the South Sudanese judiciary with much-needed expertise, it will take years before reliance can be placed on the judiciary for the kind of accountability issues that the on-going violence has brought about.

At the same time, both the AU and the South Sudan government have repudiated the ICC, with President Kiir declaring at the last summit that his country will never join the court.

It remains to be seen what solutions the AU will fashion out in response to the justice needs of South Sudan.

The tragedies of South Sudan and the Central African Republic constitute a growing problem around Africa of elite competition for political power turning violent.

This was evident in Kenya in 2007 and also in several African countries including Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and, of course, much of the Arab world.

A feature of these new forms of conflict is that parties strongly mobilise along identity lines.

While the AU is properly concerned that the crises in the two countries is resolved, the long-term question, which needs addressing, is what role the AU can play to ensure that competition for political power within its member states is managed in a manner that avoids violent confrontations between the competing groups as has been evident in all these countries.

The AU has united behind the position that no “unconstitutional change of government” will be tolerated in its member states, and has been suspending the membership of countries where governments are violently overthrown, including the Central African Republic.

However, the question that the AU has not started addressing is how to make it possible for meaningful political competition to thrive in its member states, how to make incumbents accept electoral defeat, and how to ensure that minorities can also access political power, without having to break the rules, or to resort to violence.