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Rethinking the AU’s role in supporting national dialogues
16 Feb 2021
Thinkpeace
ISS
By: Dawit Yohannes and Meressa Kahsu Dessu
Recurring peace and security challenges surrounding complex political transitions amplify calls for the AU to revisit its role in supporting national dialogues.

Managing complex political transitions and sustainable peace remains a priority for regional and international actors. However, whether the transition is from a repressive to democratic order, as in Libya, or restoring state presence, as in Somalia, hard security approaches and military interventions have generally dominated managing these transitions. As a result, global and regional actors have had to prioritise negotiated political settlements, which can reverse negative trends in conflict and help to navigate difficult political transitions to sustainable peace.

The African Union (AU) has key frameworks that recognise this imperative. Referring to the fourth aspiration of Agenda 2063, for example, the AU’s Silencing the Gun Roadmap highlights the need for dialogue-centred conflict prevention, management and resolution.

The AU Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development (PCRD) policy also affirms that consensus-building is a vital element in political transitions. Such consensus-building requires consultative processes which guarantee representative participation and leadership, allow for needs and priorities to be collectively determined, and which enhance ownership of the reconstruction and development process.

National dialogue could be instrumental in serving this critical objective. However, the AU’s role in supporting such processes remains largely imperceptible, and is in need of critical analysis.

The AU High-Level Implementation Panel in Sudan helped contesting parties to negotiate a separate political agreement, paving the way for a dialogue process at the national level. Click to Tweet

Recent examples of national dialogue playing this role can be seen in some Northern African countries like Tunisia, following the Arab Spring. Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Cameroon and Gabon also convened national dialogues to address a wide range of political and security issues.

Despite the resurgence of using national dialogue in these contexts, the AU – along with the rest of the international mediation and peacebuilding community – appears limited in its appraisal of the function, relevance and effectiveness of these forums in managing political transitions towards sustainable peace. This could constrain how actors engage in various national dialogues, and can also create challenges around capacity, the consistency of efforts, responsiveness and coherence in supporting national actors.

Defining the AU’s role in national dialogues remains a key challenge. This includes in previous national dialogues, which registered varying levels of success – whether in acclaimed cases such as Tunisia, or others such as Sudan, where dialogue processes were deemed as an attempt to ‘channel (or hijack) cries for reconciliation and progressing forward’.

National dialogues are, by their very definition, nationally owned and led. Yet they are exposed to the influence of external elements and conditions, which have both positive and negative repercussions. This highlights the need for greater scrutiny about the AU’s role in supporting such processes.

The AU’s Silencing the Gun Roadmap highlights the need for dialogue-centred conflict prevention, management and resolution. Click to Tweet

The National Dialogue Handbook of the Berghof Foundation identifies various roles for external political and development actors in supporting national dialogues. Depending on the context, these include roles such as enabling, funding, observing, providing technical and expert support, monitoring and verifying the outcomes of national dialogues.

The AU’s comparative advantage primarily lies in its political legitimacy, continental mandate and convening powers. By virtue of these advantages, at least six possible roles could be identified in its support of national dialogues in member states.

Kick-starting national dialogue is often delicate. Parties may resist the process and may choose, rather, to sustain the conflict or crisis. In such contexts, the AU could serve as an enabler and encourage parties to engage in national dialogues, using mechanisms such as public statements, smart sanctions and embargoes (including travel bans), or incentives.

The AU could also serve as an observer without necessarily playing a major active role. The presence of the AU as an external actor could help instil much-needed trust among negotiating parties. The AU could also play the role of guarantor, serving as a guardian to the process or lending political support to the implementation of dialogue outcomes.

Defining the AU’s role in national dialogues remains a key challenge – including in previous national dialogues, which registered varying levels of success Click to Tweet

Convening national dialogues requires technical expertise to design the process or provide assistance on substantive aspects of the negotiation – such as power or wealth sharing. Given its evolving roles in various mediation processes, the AU could also provide technical and expert support.

Facilitation is another role that the AU could pursue. Although national stakeholders primarily facilitate national dialogues, external actors could play a role as a third party for specific purposes. Using its convening power, the AU could bring together the national dialogue participants on an informal basis to explore alternative options in a way that would not be possible in the official negotiation framework.

Finally, the AU could serve as an implementer, monitor and verifier of national dialogue outcomes. Implementing outcomes is challenging, and often only some of the agreements reached are implemented. The AU, together with its development partners and local civil society organisations, could assist parties in implementing agreements reached, including in monitoring and verification.

To be fair, the AU has carried out some of these roles in the past. Following the contested election in 2007 and subsequent violence in Kenya, for example, the AU helped shape the establishment of the national dialogue platform, and supported the Kenyan National Dialogue and Reconciliation (KNDR) process by appointing a Panel of Eminent African Personalities. The Panel was led by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General.

Among other key roles, the AU could serve as an enabler and encourage parties to engage in national dialogues Click to Tweet

The KNDR helped to negotiate an end to the violence through power-sharing. It also began to address some of the long-term, underlying issues by establishing specialised institutions. The Panel was also involved in implementing the agreements by establishing a Panel Secretariat and a Coordination and Liaison Office in Nairobi.

Likewise, the AU High-Level Implementation Panel in Sudan helped the contesting parties to negotiate a separate political agreement, paving the way for a dialogue process at the national level.

However, it is questionable whether these engagements constituted part of a larger and coherent strategy by the AU to support such locally owned political processes, and which ultimately aims to manage transitions and ease tension. Recurring peace and security challenges that stem from Africa’s complex political transitions – and associated calls for political solutions – continue to amplify calls for revisiting the AU’s role in supporting national dialogues.

To bring about fundamental change in how the AU supports such processes, at least three significant actions are essential.

The AU could bring together national dialogue participants on an informal basis to explore alternative options Click to Tweet

First, the AU should conduct a stocktaking exercise to better understand its previous engagements in such processes. Such analysis will help to identify the AU’s comparative advantages in such contexts. In addition to recognising internal limitations, deep stocktaking facilitates understanding of the external determinants that enable or constrain national dialogues across Africa.

Secondly, the AU’s engagement in national dialogues and similar processes needs to be driven by a coherent strategy, which emanates from a realistic understanding of both its capabilities and limitations.

Thirdly, recalibrating existing mechanisms is also essential to better support such processes. Institutional mechanisms within the Political Affairs, Peace and Security Commission such as the Continental Early Warning System, the AU’s Panel of the Wise and the Mediation Support Unit – as well as their sub-regional counterparts – could all work in tandem to help the AU carry out some of the roles identified above.

Making these and other systemic and institutional changes are critical if the AU is to adequately address recurrent crises that are precipitated by contested political transitions. In the absence of such concrete efforts, the AU’s ambition to build sustainable peace and security by silencing the guns remains an elusive endeavour.

Dawit Yohannes, Senior Researcher and Meressa Kahsu Dessu, Senior Researcher and Training Coordinator, ISS/TfP Addis Ababa Office

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