The AU's Mediation Support Unit is slowly taking shape

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The African Union (AU) has started setting up a Mediation Support Unit (MSU) at its headquarters in Addis Ababa. This is to support the various efforts across Africa to make peace. Technical obstacles, such as where the unit should be based, as well as problematic coordination between the various AU departments, are, however, slowing down its implementation.

The AU has been involved in mediation for many years, mostly through high-ranking diplomats or former heads of state, yet it only started establishing an MSU in late 2016. This is a recognition by the AU that mediation is not only a political – depending on a heavyweight personality to sway belligerents – but also a technical exercise.

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) earlier this month discussed the nascent MSU, which is tasked with providing technical support to the various categories of mediators.

Some of the issues now under discussion are in which department of the AU Commission (AUC) this unit should be based and what kind of structure it should have. The MSU’s location within the AUC is more than an organisational or structural challenge, as it will determine its work orientation, focus and efficiency.

Observers agree that the crisis situations in many AU member states require that the MSU be made fully operational and be appropriately resourced as soon as possible.

The MSU will be more efficient with the right mediators

Much criticism has been levelled at the AU’s practice of choosing former heads of state or prominent African political figures as mediators in conflicts.

Success, whatever the context, is never guaranteed. Even the United Nations (UN), with its considerable resources and its professionally trained and experienced diplomats, often encounters serious challenges.

For example, in the Libyan quagmire, Bernardino León, Martin Kobler and Ghassan Salamésucceeded each other as UN mediators, with little success. In Syria, the late Kofi Annan threw in the towel and was replaced by career diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who then gave way to Staffan de Mistura.

Some former African heads of state have achieved a measure of success. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, for example, was instrumental in striking a peace deal between rivals in the conflict that followed the ousting of former strongman Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and in securing the Burundian transition. He was less fortunate in his efforts in Côte d’Ivoire in the early 2000s and again at the end of 2010. His track record in Zimbabwe is also highly contested, even if he managed to get both parties to the conflict to agree to a government of national unity in 2008.

One suggestion on the table is establishing a list/roster of individuals of the required calibre who are willing to conduct such work. Edem Kodjo, the AU mediator in the DRC in 2016, declared that he had unexpectedly been asked to take up the job.

The next step is to carefully select, according to a set of predefined criteria (including impartiality in the eyes of the protagonists), the appropriate mediator to be deployed to a particular country.

The AU must then ensure that the individuals it chooses receive the necessary training and support to carry out their duties. The MSU could be mobilised in this regard. It could be used to establish a roster of mediators, to provide training to these mediators and to help decide which mediator is suitable for what conflict. That is, in addition to providing ongoing technical support during the mediation.

A unit at the service of the entire AU

Discussions on finding a home for the MSU within the AUC have been contentious. Mediation is not a once-off intervention, but must be mobilised before and after the outbreak of crises. With that understanding, the MSU must work closely across Peace and Security Department (PSD) divisions – particularly the Crisis Management and Post Conflict Reconstruction Division and the Conflict Prevention and Early Warning Division – to ensure that its work fully contributes to a peaceful and stable continent. It should also work closely with the PSC.

Although there seems to be an agreement that the MSU should be located within the PSD, its relationship with the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) should also be clarified. In fact, this raises the question of a merger between or rationalisation of the DPA and the PSD; one of the issues on the agenda of the AU institutional reforms.

Overall, the debate about where the MSU should be located within the AUC highlights the challenge of collaboration in the commission. Departments that should work closely together tend to operate in silos, if not compete outright.

A responsive structure

Because conflicts are multiform (e.g. low and high intensity), and often unpredictable and intractable, AUC structures must be responsive. This is another reason why resolving the question of placing the MSU within the AUC must at the same time address the problem of collaboration between departments.

Current AU reforms also intend to review the relationship between the AU and regional economic communities (RECs), notably the division of labour between them. Mediation work is one key aspect to rethink. In particular, the AU must be able to identify the cases in which it can and must take the lead and those where it simply needs to support RECs.

As such, some RECs such as the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) are still building their internal mediation capacity, whereas the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are much further along in that process.

In 2017, for example, ECOWAS leaders were able to end the deadlock in The Gambia. ECOWAS put tremendous pressure on former president Yahya Jammeh to step down, issuing an ultimatum before military intervention.

The ECOWAS mediation facilitation division was active throughout the pre-electoral, electoral and post-electoral processes in The Gambia, and provided support to the ad hoc mediation committee led by Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and Ghana’s John Dramani Mahama.

Comparative advantage and complementarity must guide the choice of who takes the lead on mediation, the AU or the RECs. Therein too lies the complexity of finding the right balance between institutionalisation and flexibility.

Approaching mediation

Mediation requires a healthy dose of institutionalisation, flexibility and creativity. It should favour local, indigenous, African mediation approaches, and should rely on national and local resources.

The AU should define its own vision and approaches to mediation and governance. Ultimately, it is a question of ethos rather than structures and procedures, which can be imbued with a renewed and properly grounded philosophy. This will require challenging inadequate but now internalised practices, and constituting and managing new knowledge on the subject of African mediation.