The African Union’s conflict early warning system is no more. What now?

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Since 2017, the African Union (AU) has undergone institutional reforms to increase its efficiency and effectiveness. The gist of these reforms was proposed by the so-called Kagame Report commissioned by the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government.

An advisory team led by Rwanda president Paul Kagame took on “the chronic failure to see through African Union decisions”. This had led to the AU being seen as having limited relevance to African citizens.

The team also addressed financial overdependence on external partners, the underperformance of some organs and institutions, and the ambiguous working relations between the African Union Commission, and regional entities and member states.

One reform proposed was the merging of the Political Affairs and Peace and Security departments in 2021. It’s now called the Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security.

However, the result was that one of the five pillars of the African Peace and Security Architecture – the Continental Early Warning System – has disappeared. Established in 2002, the early warning system was created to anticipate and prevent conflicts in the continent.

It was recently argued that the warning system’s functions would be incorporated across the new portfolio department. However, its major functions can no longer be performed. These include coordination and harmonisation with regional economic communities, and assisting member states in conflict analysis and mitigation.

As a former advisor to the African Union’s Peace and Security Department, I am deeply concerned about the effect this will have on the continent’s capability to prevent violent conflict.

The warning system’s major achievements included analytical reports that informed the chairperson of the African Union Commission and the Peace and Security Council on impending conflict situations. It also established regular, direct relations with the council and helped regional economic communities develop their own early warning systems.

It further facilitated early warning exchanges across the continent, and helped member states address issues of structural stability and root causes of conflict.

The continental system additionally offered regular analyses in pre-election situations that had in the past escalated to violent conflict.

Establishing the system

The African Union’s Continental Early Warning System became operational in 2012, 10 years after its formation. This followed the careful design of its systems, workflow and structure.

Historically, the core of the system was the Conflict Management Centre. This was set up in 1993 for the Organisation of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor.

The early warning system functions included information monitoring and collection. Second was conflict and cooperation analyses. Third was the formulation of response options for decision-makers. The first was carried out by the so-called Situation Room while the second and third were carried out by analysts.

The early warning analyses were to be used by the chairperson of the African Union Commission:

to advise the Peace and Security Council on potential conflicts and threats to peace and security in Africa, and recommend the best course of action.

Early warning practices

Numerous early warning reports were developed, such as the automated Africa News Brief or Daily Reports. There were also in-depth, analytical early warning reports that offered concrete policy recommendations.

The early warning system also developed a strong dimension of long-term conflict prevention practices. It resulted in strategies that countries could use to assess their potential for conflict and develop mitigation strategies. In 2017 and 2018, Ghana became the first country to voluntarily go through this process.

Another problem to be overcome was the ‘silo mentality’ among African Union Commission stakeholders who were acting in isolation to each other. For this purpose, a separate conflict prevention framework was established in 2015. The task force was partly operational, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit the continent.

In engaging decision-makers, the Continental Early Warning System developed a horizon-scanning practice. From 2016, it briefed the Peace and Security Council twice a year. However, this was also discontinued during the pandemic.

The effect of institutional reform

The Continental Early Warning System was unfortunately obliterated under the broad AU reforms in 2021 that created a new department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security.

The Situation Room has been retained, but the early warning system analysts were redeployed to regional desks. There are now three regional desks: West and Central Africa, East and Southern Africa, and North Africa. They are staffed by five analysts each.

Obviously, they are preoccupied with conflict management in the many cases of violent extremism and terrorism, or unconstitutional changes of government. They simply don’t have the time and structure to also do early warnings. This means the dedicated place for early warnings is gone.

So, what are the practical implications of these decisions?

First, the question arises: can these rather dramatic changes be made without the African Union Assembly revising the Peace and Security Council Protocol? As stated earlier, the early warning system is one of five statutory pillars of the African Peace and Security Architecture.

Second, it’s not clear what role the system’s technical staff will play within the union’s peace and security apparatus. Or what becomes of the tools that have been developed and customised for data collection and analysis over the past 13 years.

Third, there is no dedicated unit left to prepare the statutory horizon-scanning briefings for the Peace and Security Council.

Fourth, there’s no unit in place to continue assisting member states to identify and address structural vulnerabilities at an early stage to build more resilient and prosperous nations. This core function is quite different from the work of the African Peer Review Mechanism and cannot be replaced by it.

Finally, there’s no indication which organ will now coordinate and harmonise the early warning relationship between the African Union and regional economic communities.

A possible future

The current structure of the new Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security basically doesn’t fulfil the early warning mandate of the Peace and Security Council Protocol.

It also doesn’t address the ambitious aims spelled out in the African Peace and Security Architecture Roadmap and the Master Roadmap on Silencing the Guns.

The African Union had years of steady progress in implementing the early warning dimensions of the Peace and Security Council Protocol, and even going beyond it. There is a strong need for its decision-makers to realise that these early warning functions and practices must be re-organised quickly, systematically and substantively.

On the issue of early warning and conflict prevention, the well-intended institutional reform of the African Union has gone a step too far.

However, this can be easily rectified.

A possible way forward can be borrowed from another structure that was dissolved under the new organogram: the African Union Border Programme.

The border programme had developed an important track record in addressing ill-demarcated borders and border conflict in amicable ways. Its “need for dedicated capacity and required resources” was recently acknowledged during a meeting of the Specialised Technical Committee on Defence, Safety and Security held in Ethiopia on 12 May 2022.

Taking stock of the achievements and current needs of the continental early warning system should follow soon.

Written by Ulf Engel, Professor, Institute of African Studies, University of Leipzig.



Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.