An early warning on Africa's early warning system

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) held an open session on early warning at the end of last month to discuss ways to ‘turn early warning into early response’. The African Union (AU) has made important strides in this regard, but still lacks the capacity to analyse raw data about potential conflict situations. It also does not always act on warnings about imminent crises.

The idea behind the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) – one of the five pillars of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) – is simple. If we do not know about trouble that is brewing, we can do nothing to prevent it.

It is a good idea – a vital idea – and the AU has come a long way in operationalising its early warning capabilities, according to Vasu Gounden, Executive Director of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). Gounden was speaking to the PSC at an open session on 29 July 2015, but it is not the first time he has addressed the continental body on this subject. He remembers a similar session at the Organization of African Unity in 1995, and notes that things have changed dramatically since then.

Having early warning does not necessarily mean we have effective responses
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‘20 years later, I think we have made huge progress … However, conflicts have become more complicated since then. And having early warning does not necessarily mean we have effective responses,’ he told the assembled PSC representatives, diplomats and civil society representatives.

AU data collection is far advanced

At its most basic, there are three stages to any good early warning system. The first is information gathering. Without the raw data, without the facts on the ground, it is impossible to know where action needs to be taken. It is in this area that Gounden believes the AU has made the most progress, with a comprehensive data collection operation that is managed by the Situation Room located in the AU. It is not perfect, of course, but it is a good start – and has positioned Africa ahead of its regional peers. ‘This is a project in progress. We are far advanced compared to other regions of the world, and we have made huge strides as a continent,’ he said.

The second stage is the analysis of that information. Unless someone can make sense of it, no amount of raw data is going to help. ‘The quality of our response depends on the quality of our analysis,’ said Gounden. Currently, this is a weak point for the CEWS, which does not have the necessary army of highly-trained analysts with lots of experience and a track record of getting things right. Moreover, it does not have the necessary geographic representation within the Situation Room that might help when it comes to grasping regional and local nuances.

Pro-active response needed from the AU

Finally, that analysis needs to be acted on – which is where the PSC comes in. A major part of the CEWS’s mandate is to ‘advise the PSC, on potential conflicts and threats to peace and security in Africa’, according to the AU website. But there are two difficulties here: first, the quality of communication between the CEWS and the PSC is poor, meaning that the PSC does not always get the timely warnings it needs to make the necessary decisions; and second, the PSC does not always act on the information it is given. This latter point was acknowledged by the PSC chairperson for June, Ambassador Ndumiso Ntshinga of South Africa, who said: ‘The gap is on consumption. How do we make the information get us to act in time?’

Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies, concurs. ‘Response to early warning systems is the most important part of the CEWS. The AU needs to become more pro-active in ensuring that it is good in not only identifying warning signs, but that it is also effectively equipped to respond to them. It is important that the CEWS and other pillars of APSA become better integrated, and the PSC can have a critical role in that integration,’ he said.

We are far advanced compared to other regions and we have made huge strides as a continent
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None of these issues is new to the PSC. In a May 2014 statement, Peace and Security Commissioner Smaïl Chergui observed: ‘At present, four challenges remain in the integration of [the] CEWS, namely: (1) full integration of the data collection and monitoring functions on the one hand and the conflict and cooperation analysis functions on the other, (2) horizontal integration of early warning and conflict prevention between the different pillars of APSA and within the AU Commission, (3) vertical mainstreaming of early warning and conflict prevention between the AU and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs)/Regional Mechanisms (RMs), and (4) finally, harmonisation and collaboration of early warning activities and standards of the different RECs/RMs. The AU Commission is optimistic that most of these challenges will be dealt with successfully by 2015.’

Lasting solutions depend on the political will to implement them

2015 is here, however, and the PSC still has some way to go in dealing with these challenges. Fortunately, Gounden had some practical recommendations, which were largely met with approval by PSC members in comments made after his address.

These recommendations included:

  • Updates from the CEWS as a standing PSC agenda item
  • The secondment of focal points from the AU Situation Room to RECs, and vice versa
  • Combined CEWS–PSC retreats
  • Increased human capacity, specifically the recruitment of more qualified analysts

‘These recommendations are critical in ensuring the CEWS is a functioning and pro-active mechanism within the AU system, that allows it not only to identify the sources of problems but links these to an executive organ that can take meaningful action,’ said De Carvalho.

Ultimately, however – and as with so many other issues faced by the AU – any lasting solution depends on finding the necessary political will to implement it. ‘Over the last 20-odd years, we have a very deep understanding of what’s possible … but what we need at the end is the political will to turn that early warning into early response,’ concluded Gounden.

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