Denialism plagues Africa's early warning system

South Africa last month again placed the tricky issues around early warning on the agenda of the PSC.

Why does the Peace and Security Council (PSC) never discuss certain conflicts in Africa, despite alerts by its own early warning system? For example, Zimbabwe has never been on the agenda of the PSC despite the ongoing political instability in the country. During the PSC meeting on early warning and the state of peace and security in Africa on 21 March, it was clear that the continent’s tools to prevent conflict are not being used adequately.

As the costs of peace support operations such as those in Somalia soar, most international actors are putting greater emphasis on conflict prevention. The old adage, prevention is better than cure, has acquired critical significance in a context of budgetary constraints and looming cuts in the United States’ contributions to the United Nations budget for peacekeeping operations. A critical element of any conflict prevention remains early warning, which is supposed to prompt timely actions to prevent emerging crises from deteriorating.

The old adage, prevention is better than cure, has acquired critical significance
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Concerns regarding the denial of emerging crises

At the African Union (AU) level, the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) was created by the PSC protocol in 2004 ‘in order to facilitate the anticipation or prevention of conflicts’.  The CEWS is located in the Peace and Security Department and works on open sources such as newspapers and academic papers, among others, to detect signs of instability on the continent. It then produces situation reports that include recommendations.

Ten years after its operationalisation, the CEWS still faces many challenges identified by the PSC. These were first raised in July 2015, when an open session was held on the same question. The 2015 open session took place during the chairpersonship of South Africa, which again assumed this position last month. The staffing shortage, identified in 2015, for example, still remains an issue.

However, the main challenge is the negative reaction by some member states when situations in their countries are the subject of early warning. The PSC, following its meeting on 21 March 2017, expressed ‘concern over the continued denials of objective/credible early warning signals of looming crisis, thereby undermining the conflict prevention capacity of the council’. This concern was also raised during the open session held in 2015. It is also addressed in the recent AU Master Roadmap Practical Steps to Silence the Guns in Africa by 2020, which vows to ‘expose those who deny brewing crises’.

The main challenge is the negative reaction when countries are the subject of early warning
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Lack of political will

The issue of denialism is strongly linked to the lack of political will – sometimes within the PSC – to address crises. In this regard, the master roadmap calls for ‘the establishment of clear channels of communications on early warning reports to the PSC’.

Indeed, the drafting of an early warning report does not necessarily result in a PSC meeting. Looking at the past PSC meetings dedicated to horizon scanning, specific country situations are rarely addressed.

So far, the end users of CEWS outputs have mostly been the AU Commission (AUC) rather than the PSC. A channel of communication between the CEWS and member states is yet to be found. While the PSC protocol outlines the functions of various pillars of the African Peace and Security Architecture, it lacks a policy process regarding their coordination.

Often the CEWS cannot present situation analyses if the states in question do not approve.

In the recent past, some member states have even lobbied their allies within the PSC to avoid being placed on the agenda, despite alerts by the CEWS.

Some member states have lobbied their allies within the PSC to avoid being placed on the agenda
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From this perspective, the call by the PSC for ‘the promotion of synergies between the AU Commission and other African institutions, including think tanks and research institutions, whose activities focus on conflict prevention’ is an indirect acknowledgement of this situation. The involvement of think thanks could be an alternative way to resolve the problem of meddling by individual member states.

Root causes of instability

The PSC has also explicitly called for sustained action to address the root causes of violent conflicts.

The current mandate of the early warning unit, however, is a focus on the direct prevention of conflict. It looks at triggers of conflicts rather than structural causes. Therefore, some responses advocated by early warning are short term and could ultimately prove to be ineffective.

This tendency to look at short term triggers is again fuelled by the reluctance of member states to see their structural problems addressed by an external actor, including the AU.

Looking at root causes also requires better cooperation between the CEWS and other departments and organs of the AU that look at structural conflict prevention.

Uneven coordination with RECs

A critical issue is the relation between the CEWS and the regional early warning systems, since the AUC rarely sends its staff on the ground to collect information. It differs in this regard from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which have analysts in every country of their respective regions. An effective early warning architecture requires close coordination between the desk research done by the CEWS and the field approach of the regional economic communities (RECs). However, since regional systems differ, the degree of collaboration with the CEWS is uneven. For example, the Southern African Development Community is a closed system, so it cannot cooperate with an open system such as the CEWS.

Structural prevention an opportunity for improvement

The future operationalisation of the structural conflict prevention framework adopted by the AU in 2015 could provide a framework for improving the effectiveness of early warning.

It could lead to closer collaboration between the CEWS, the relevant units in the Department of Political Affairs and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). Indeed, the APRM’s review of governance structures in African countries can provide a picture of the structural vulnerabilities faced by these states.

The APRM’s review of governance structures can provide a picture of vulnerabilities faced
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There is currently a good working relationship between the early warning and electoral units. Long-term observation missions deployed by the Department of Political Affairs, for example, usually include staff from the early warning unit. The remaining challenge is to expand this cooperation to address structural issues.

The conflict prevention framework creates two instruments: the Country Structural Vulnerability Assessment(CSVA) and the Conflict Structural Vulnerability Mitigation Strategy (CSVM). It should allow the CEWS to get a comprehensive view of the emerging instability, in which case it can argue in favour of adequate responses in the short, medium and long term. However, these tools can only be deployed with the consent of member states, and it is unlikely that member states facing looming crises will allow such initiatives.

It is necessary for the AUC to consider other options if AU member states are reluctant to have an assessment of their vulnerabilities. The CSVA could be used as an internal template document within the CEWS, as well as the framework for collaboration between other departments, RECs and the APRM. In this way the AUC can build up a coherent and comprehensive body of knowledge about triggers and root causes of instability in Africa.  The AUC will then be able to propose to the PSC more adequate responses to prevent the eruption of conflicts on the continent.

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