Disputed Elections top the list of the AU’s Early Warning for 2016

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Frederic Ngoga Gateretse

The African Union (AU) has made an effort to prevent conflict through early warning, but this has turned out to be a formidable task. The PSC Report spoke to Ambassador Frederic Ngoga Gateretse, Head of the Early Warning and Conflict Prevention Division in the AU Peace and Security Department.

PSC Report: There are various crises that erupt in Africa despite early signs of tensions; is early warning effective at the level of the AU?

Ambassador Frederic Ngoga Gateretse: We have come a long way in the operationalisation of the Continental Early Warning System [CEWS]. Today I can gladly say that it is fully operational, although challenges remain, such as human resources constraints and the necessary information and communications technology [ICT] infrastructure to enhance data collection efforts and exchange information more efficiently with our Regional Economic Communities [RECs]. We have also made considerable progress in strengthening coordination and collaboration with the early warning systems of the RECs. The issue is to more efficiently link early warning to early response. We are also making efforts in this regard through the horizon scanning that we provide to the AU Peace and Security Council [PSC], the decision-making body on peace and security matters. 

PSC: What are the challenges in coordinating with regional mechanisms?

FNG: I would not call it challenges but rather the need to enhance the already existing coordination mechanism. We get most of our information from our RECs and we have been working hand in glove on many crises. As a matter of fact, our next biannual meeting with our RECs will take place in the coming month in Addis Ababa. The objective will be to look at potential crises. It is extremely important to have a common and shared understanding of what is happening in order to develop a common strategy. Our commissioner, Smaïl Chergui, has stressed on numerous occasions the concept of ‘jointness’. It is essential because the AU alone cannot address the challenges we face on the continent. So we are compelled to forge strong strategic partnerships – a priority in our conflict prevention effort.

PSC: Last year, a structural prevention of conflict framework was adopted. Where are we in the implementation of this document?

FNG: This framework was adopted by the PSC because there is an acknowledgement that conflict prevention must tackle structural issues. We need to act earlier rather than dealing with situations that are already in crisis form. The tools exist and now we are reaching out to member states and encouraging them to take advantage of these. The tools will help us to build the in-house capacities of our member states to have a conversation about their structural vulnerabilities and consider mitigation strategies. So this technical assistance is available for our member states.

PSC: Aren’t you concerned that member states are not ready to have such a conversation about their vulnerabilities?

FNG: The Country Structural Vulnerability Assessment is a voluntary process. I think member states are committed to preventing conflicts and they will do everything humanly possible to avoid any crises. Some 30 or so countries are already having this conversation through the APRM [African Peer Review Mechanism] and our Continental Structural Conflict Prevention Framework [CSPF] will complement this. 

PSC: Elections continue to be a major cause of crises – what do you do to prevent it?

FNG: As an issue, elections are within the purview of the Department of Political Affairs [DPA]. Elections are an opportunity to consolidate democracy and to renew ideas. With many elections planned for 2016, we expect that the majority of the elections will remain largely peaceful, but with the possibility that some might experience turmoil and violence. From past experience, disputes over the composition and membership of election management bodies; complaints about the lack of adequate consultations on impending election timelines; debates around issues of succession and term limits; as well as prevailing security situations have been some of the issues that have led to heightened tensions and violence in some member states. But if you look at the majority of elections on the continent, they are peaceful and credible.

As far as conflict prevention is concerned, we work with our colleagues from the DPA who have the lead on elections. The Panel of the Wise, which is in our division, has on numerous occasions participated in pre-electoral political missions, etc.

But we also see it is a moment of vulnerability for our member states that have structural issues that have not been addressed. That is one of the reasons why we have developed the CSPF – to help member states identify and address their vulnerabilities.

PSC: There was a PSC open session on climate change and peace and security; do you see climate change as a cause of conflict and instability on the continent?

FNG: The continent is facing some consequences related to climate change, such as environmental degradation, desertification, floods, drought and famine. The climate change caused by El Niño in Eastern and Southern Africa poses the worst humanitarian crisis in more than two decades and could escalate into complex humanitarian emergencies in situations of armed conflict. The prevailing drought has already impacted on hydroelectric power generation and the resultant energy crisis in Southern Africa. The AU on numerous occasions has underlined that stresses induced by climate change may increase the risk of violent conflict and unrest on the continent. So the link between climate change and security is real.

PSC: How do you address it in the Early Warning division?

FNG: One of the priorities is to work with departments that deal with issues related to climate change, for example the Department of Agriculture and Rural Economy’ with RECs, to identify early potential trigger of conflicts. Whether it is water scarcity or the displacement of population caused by climate change.

PSC: In the efforts to launch a conflict prevention policy within the AU, what are the interdepartmental efforts?

FNG: Conflict prevention is multidimensional. Therefore, you need to work with other departments that deal with governance issues, economics issues, social issues. Because we understand that, we have created an Interdepartmental Task Force on Conflict Prevention in order to have a holistic approach to deal with the root causes of instability. 

PSC: How does this interdepartmental task force work?

FNG: The task force is co-chaired by the Department of Political Affairs and the Department of Peace and Security. We hold several meetings. It is working well; we have identified priorities and areas of intervention.

PSC: What are the main threats to stability for the year 2016?

FNG: The list is not exhaustive but let me touch on a few. First, disputed elections. As I said earlier, elections are an opportunity to consolidate democracy and renew ideas, but it is also a moment of vulnerability. We have many elections this year; we must work to ensure credible, transparent electoral processes. The second one is current crises, which risk an escalation especially as you approach key milestones like peace agreements or the implementation of different accords. We are also observing a trend where countries in post-conflict situations are now facing the risk of relapse.

Then we have the threat of terrorism, where you have various groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State competing in the race to the bottom by stepping up attacks in different parts of the continent. This was demonstrated by the recent attacks in Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Somalia, Kenya, etc. There are also new threats known as ‘hybrid threats’, such as cyber security. Then there is also concern over bio-terrorist threats, with two dozen conventional biological agents, including anthrax, and an unknown number of genetically engineered organisms that terrorists or other criminals could acquire and unleash on an unsuspecting public.

The other issue that may affect peace and security is the bleak economic outlook. International financial institutions have issued forecasts on the impact of global volatility on Africa’s economic growth in 2016, pointing to an increasingly challenging macro-economic environment in the short term and a negative impact on investment, commodities, agricultural production, employment and economic growth.

Lastly, we have climate change, which can lead to the displacement of people and trigger tensions at the national and regional scales. All of these challenges require us to work together at the sub-regional, continental and global level.

This article was originally published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on 4 April 2016.