Hopes guarded as another envoy heads to the Horn

Former president of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo’s recent appointment to high representative for the Horn of Africa carries an ambitious agenda to ‘promote peace, security, stability and political dialogue’ across the region. African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat announced the appointment in August 2021, tasking Obasanjo with intensifying engagements among political actors and stakeholders to entrench ‘durable peace and stability’.

Amid the Horn’s worsening security situation, this prioritisation of the region’s stability is timely. In Somalia, a political crisis has been unfolding since the country missed two election deadlines. Al-Shabaab attacks continue. In Ethiopia, the political transition that started in 2018 has resulted in civil conflict. Sudan faces an uncertain political transition characterised by competition between military and civilian political actors following the coup that toppled former president Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

Instability within South Sudan’s unity government, exacerbated by recent infighting in Vice-President Riek Machar’s party and sporadic violence, threatens to destroy the country’s fragile peace deal. Border disputes remain unresolved between Eritrea and Djibouti, Ethiopia and Sudan, Sudan and South Sudan, and Somalia and Kenya.

Obasanjo is tasked with ‘promoting peace, security, stability and political dialogue’ across the Horn

The appointment of Obasanjo has, however, raised several questions. First is the absence of a clear mandate detailing the scope of his responsibilities. The second queries why the AU appointed him rather than revitalise the AU High-level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan (AUHIP) which had a mandate for the Horn of Africa. Third, some doubt it is possible to resolve disputes and political crises in the region through negotiation and mediation led by high representatives.

Competing mandates, rival representatives?

Obasanjo’s appointment has raised concern over the number of envoys for the region. This relates primarily to the mandate of AUHIP. In 2013, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) meeting of heads of state and government expanded the AUHIP mandate to include the Horn. This was in line with the AU Assembly call for a regional, holistic approach to stabilising the region and support the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.

In what some within the AU see as an attempt to pre-empt Obasanjo’s appointment and regain relevance for AUHIP, its chairperson, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, wrote a letter to Cameroon’s ambassador to the AU, who chaired the PSC in August.

The 20 August letter reiterated AUHIP’s mandate for the Horn but focused exclusively on Ethiopia, making a case for the panel’s role in resolving the conflict in the country. Engagement in Ethiopia would help revitalise AUHIP, whose mission was formally renewed only until the end of 2018.

The panel had been marginally involved in mediation and peacebuilding efforts in Sudan and South Sudan, the two countries of its primary mandate. However, its lack of recent substantive engagement in these countries does not make it an obvious choice to mediate in the Horn. This is despite the PSC reiterating its support for the body in 2020.

It’s likely no coincidence that Obasanjo’s appointment was announced the day the UNSC last discussed Tigray

In addition to AUHIP, Moussa Faki appointed special representatives to head liaison offices in Sudan and South Sudan, and lead the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). These individuals oversee the implementation of the AU’s key decisions rather than spearhead high-level negotiations for dispute resolution. This was evident in the appointment of a special envoy, Mohamed El Hacen Lebatt, to mediate between civilian actors and the military following the 2019 coup d’état in Sudan.

The AU also tried to appoint former Ghanaian president John Mahama as high representative to Somalia in May 2021. Although the Somali government rejected Mahama, he was assigned to mediate in the election-related political crisis. This reflects the AU’s propensity for appointing representatives and envoys for the Horn of Africa to engage at various levels, with differing timeframes and mandates.  

Does the Horn need another envoy?

With an expected drawdown of AMISOM, the AU wants to establish a political mandate for its engagement in Somalia. Thus, it will move to replace the Mahama with another high-level representative.

International pressure is mounting for the AU to engage in Ethiopia. Various envoys have visited the country and the region, and the agenda of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has featured the Tigray situation eight times in the past year. Finding a suitable mediator for the conflict has been a priority during these meetings.

AUHIP, which is mandated by the PSC, will find it difficult to resolve a conflict that the PSC is not actively working on. While Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed briefed the PSC on the ongoing conflict in his country during its heads of state meeting in March, the council has never placed Ethiopia on its agenda.

As a result, analysts believe it’s no coincidence that Obasanjo’s appointment was announced on 26 August, the day the UNSC last discussed Tigray. UNSC members, including Kenya, Niger and Tunisia, urged all regional leaders and the international community to lend Obasanjo ‘every assistance, particularly as he supports a peace process in Ethiopia’.

These circumstances reinforce speculation that Obasanjo was appointed to focus primarily on Ethiopia. His Horn mandate could help African states that disagree on intervening in Ethiopia find a middle ground without placing the country formally on the PSC’s agenda. With clear international support, especially for his engagement in Ethiopia, expectations on Obasanjo are high.

Will Obasanjo secure buy-in?

Obasanjo is a seasoned politician who has made a positive impact as a peacemaker in various conflict situations and political crises across Africa. These include Liberia, Sao Tome and Príncipe, Angola, Burundi, Mozambique, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d'Ivoire.

Notwithstanding this, he failed to mediate a political settlement between conflicting parties in Ethiopia in November 2020. This was attributed to the lack of clarity around the mission. It was reported that neither parties nor the AU was informed of his initiative in advance.

Role-players must be convinced that the Tigray mediation is a genuine African initiative to achieve peace

Furthermore, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the AU Chairperson in 2020, had appointed three former heads of state to mediate the conflict. The Ethiopian government rejected the intervention on the grounds that its operation in Tigray was that of law enforcer under its sovereign jurisdiction.

Obasanjo, however, has gained the backing not only of the AU, but the UNSC and its permanent members to engage particularly in Ethiopia. In addition to creating a single, consolidated conflict resolution mechanism for the conflict, international backing gives his mandate more weight. Despite this, his success will depend on whether the parties accept his mediation.

As head of the AU’s observer mission during Ethiopia’s June 2020 election, he gained acceptance among government supporters, who approved the mission’s declaration of the election as ‘orderly, peaceful and credible.’ Suspicions linger however in some Ethiopian circles that his new role is an attempt to give an African face to what is essentially a Western intervention in Ethiopia.

Given growing anti-Western rhetoric in Ethiopia, especially against the United States, Obasanjo’s first official meeting with Samantha Power, US Agency for International Development administrator, was perceived negatively by many.

Ethiopian opposition armed groups have questioned the impartiality of Obasanjo and the AU. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has accused the AU, particularly Moussa Faki, of supporting the Ethiopian government’s position and challenged the AU’s continued silence on the Tigray conflict. Nevertheless, recent briefings by the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office and representatives of the TPLF indicate some openness to mediation.

This will be contingent on a guarantee of impartiality and reassurance that the mediation process is a genuine African initiative to achieve peace. Obasanjo will not only need high level political buy-in, but will have to convince the constituencies that a negotiated political settlement is possible, and that it is the best route.  

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