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Human suffering underlines the urgency to do more in 2019

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In 2019 the Peace and Security Council (PSC) is likely to see crises in places such as South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Sahel remain on its agenda. Other burning issues such as Cameroon could spiral out of control if not handled by the continental body.

The withdrawal of the United Nations Mission in Liberia after 14 years in the country, the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, progress in reforming the African Union (AU) and the warming of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea after two decades of tension were some of the major positive developments in Africa in 2018.

In a speech to the 2018 African Dialogue Series, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described Africa as ‘driving its own agenda’ and ‘a continent on the move and on the rise’.

Yet despite these positive developments Africa is still the continent most affected by conflict. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project of the University of Sussex shows that the continent experienced at least 1 495 incidents of conflict-related violence between January and October 2018, with 21 772 associated deaths reported.

This represents a drop in the number of incidents and associated deaths over the same period in 2017, but the enormous human suffering in Africa continues. Crises in north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, South Sudan and Cameroon have underlined the urgent need for the AU to do more to try to solve conflicts in 2019.

The Horn will hinge on Ethiopia

In the year ahead, developments in Ethiopia will have the most impact on peace and security in the East and Horn of Africa. Despite the encouraging developments since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018, the impact of the loosening of the current regime’s hold on the country’s political and security system will be tested in 2019.

Emerging contestation for political inclusion from hitherto marginalised groups, the weakness of the ethnic federal system, worsening insecurity in parts of the country, unmanaged expectations and the wide-reaching effects of the fight against corruption are potential threats to the reform process in Ethiopia in the coming year.

The increasing need to address challenges at home is also likely to reduce Abiy’s active role in regional matters. This could see the tripartite arrangement initiated by the leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia strengthened. Meanwhile, the successes of the reforms in Ethiopia will place enormous pressure on Eritrea to reform as well.

Without Ethiopia taking a clear lead, Sudan and Uganda could step up to the plate and cooperate on various peace and security issues. Yet they will also compete when it comes to safeguarding their interests, especially regarding the implementation of the revitalised South Sudan peace agreement.

No guarantee of peace in South Sudan, Somalia

The security situation in South Sudan will remain precarious in 2019. Tensions on a local level over unresolved underlying issues will continue to cause conflict in many parts of the country. 

Opposition groups are likely to splinter, leading to possible political re-alignments in the run-up to or during the transitional period. Mistrust between President Salva Kiir, opposition leader Riek Machar and Vice-President General Taban Deng will be the biggest threat to the implementation of the revitalised peace agreement, signed in September 2018. While the situation in the country is likely to improve, the conflict will not end in 2019.

In Somalia, the progress made these last few years will be tested in 2019. Two main questions will have to be answered: will the country be able to implement milestones in preparation for the 2020/21 elections, and will gains be sustained in the fight against al-Shabaab?

In the midst of these key challenges, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) will remain relevant in 2019, as the Somali army will not be ready to take over from the African force.

Developments in the Gulf will also have to be watched, as that could further impact political developments in Somalia, particularly in terms of the already frosty relationship between the federal government and member states.

Cameroon will be a thorn in the side of Central Africa

The eastern DRC and the CAR will remain major crises in Central Africa. The crisis in Cameroon is, however, likely to be the region’s new big problem. Despite the worsening of the crisis in 2018, there were few regional and continental diplomatic efforts to address it. The PSC did not place Cameroon on its agenda the entire year.

This could change in 2019, as silence from the AU becomes untenable. As such, a robust continental strategy is essential to prevent the crisis from further deteriorating.

Spread of terror groups in West Africa

According to an October 2018 report by the African Center for Strategic Studies, the activities of terror groups in the Sahel tripled between September 2017 and September 2018.

Institute for Security Studies experts recently warned that violent extremism could be spreading to West Africa’s coastal regions. Countries in the Gulf of Guinea, particularly Ghana, Togo, Benin and members of the Mano River Union, will be at greater risk. This comes despite various counter-terrorism initiatives in the Sahel, which will see the groups continue losing territory to government forces. Yet these groups will keep on adapting in 2019 by spreading into new areas and targeting civilians.

Popular protests on the rise

Across the continent, beyond the traditional peace and security threats, popular protests are on the rise. These are driven by the push for greater political and economic inclusion. The rising cost of living and growing unemployment fuel protests in otherwise stable countries such as Uganda and South Africa, and in North African countries such as Tunisia.

In Uganda, for instance, popular musician turned politician Bobi Wine is likely to continue shaking up the country’s politics, despite efforts to silence him in 2018. Yoweri Museveni’s regime is increasingly being contested by a youthful population hungry for change.

These protests are expected to continue if governments do not find adequate responses to people’s grievances.

Options for the PSC in 2019

Given the AU’s efforts to position itself as relevant to African citizens, the need to take charge of challenges in 2019 is an opportunity that should not be missed. 

The PSC could, firstly, up its engagements on existing crises in the various regions. This can be achieved through the deployment of regular field missions to hotspots, facilitating regular briefings by the AU Commission and independent experts, and regularly featuring specific crisis areas on the PSC agenda. This will enable the PSC to follow the evolution of conflicts and thereby position it to respond appropriately and in a timely manner. Increasing the number of field visits to crisis areas will also raise the AU’s visibility in those areas, in line with its commitment to be relevant to citizens.

Secondly, the PSC could make regular use of the good offices of the AU Commission chairperson and the commissioner for peace and security to deploy into specific countries at crucial times, monitoring progress and encouraging behavioural change. This is particularly useful in countries where conflict parties have agreed to specific roadmaps.

Thirdly, the PSC should pay more attention to specific simmering tensions. Despite the need to respect the sovereignty of member states, there are certain situations that require the PSC to respond early. Current examples are the tensions in Cameroon and Gabon.

Finally, the PSC should be ready to apply pressure in cases of clear impunity by spoilers. This can be through either naming and shaming or the use of appropriate sanctions.

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