Mohamed El Hacen Lebatt: a new doctrine for African-led mediation

The African Union (AU) played a critical role in ensuring a peaceful political transition in Sudan following the military ouster of Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled the country for 30 years.

The AU-led mediation secured a power-sharing agreement in July 2019, following months of altercations between the military and the civilians leading the weeks-long mass protests against the government. The agreement helped to end the political deadlock, averted a potential state collapse and paved the way for a peaceful political transition.

The role played by the AU in Sudan’s political transition underscores the importance of its mandate to resolve conflicts in Africa

The role played by the AU in Sudan’s political transition underscores the importance of its political and institutional mandate to resolve conflicts in Africa.  This is underlined by the AU’s mediation role, which has helped a number of member states to defuse potential crises and ensure a peaceful political transition through the years.

The PSC Report spoke to Prof. Mohamed El Hacen Lebatt, the AUC chairperson’s principal strategic adviser and special envoy to Sudan. He recently authored a book entitled Soudan: chemin de paix (Sudan: a path to peace), highlighting the AU’s mediation role in Sudan and the lessons that can be drawn from it.

What compelled you to write a book on the mediation process in Sudan soon after its conclusion?  

First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to the Institute for Security Studies for providing me with this opportunity to contribute to better our collective understanding of African-led mediation processes.

There are three reasons I wrote the book on Sudan’s mediation process. First, I saw the book as an extension of my mission. I wanted to document for the Sudanese and the rest of the world the challenges Sudanese have overcome in reaching a power-sharing agreement for a peaceful political transition, and why all stakeholders should do their best to maintain the momentum and safeguard this achievement.

The second reason is to highlight the lessons learned from a very successful African-led mediation process. I want to share this experience with African politicians, researchers, experts, academics and students, as a reference for future mediation processes and academic research into African-led mediation. I offer this book in French, Arabic and English so that it is available for all across the continent.

The third and last reason is that, though it is not an academic book, I have tried to offer a new African paradigm on mediation, fit for the African context. I discuss in the book the processes of contextualisation, ripening of the mediation process, sequencing and operationalisation of mediation, and ways of overcoming challenges in the future.

My proposed paradigm is a result of my years of experience in African-led mediation processes, including the lessons I have learned working with African giants such as Mwalimu Nyerere and Nelson Mandela in Burundi and Ketumile Masire in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I firmly believe African culture dictates how we carry out mediation. We might meet in the market, under a tree, in a mosque or church, during a wedding ceremony, or at cultural festivities. We may also use religious language and we raise customary practices depending on the situation. Each African-led mediation is unique and original. It is impossible to copy and paste a European mediation format in Africa.

We have to develop a mediation doctrine that will respect our originality and cultural context

Mediation is not a science for me, but an art. As such, mediators should be free to use their experience to innovate and create a unique process that fits the context. This is what makes a successful mediation process and a successful mediator. We have to develop a mediation doctrine that will respect our originality and cultural context.

I hope the book will meet these aspirations. 

You have led a very successful mediation process in Sudan. From your experience in mediation processes across Africa, what would you say are key conditions that lead to the success of mediations? 

First of all, Ambassador Mahmoud Dirir, special envoy of the Ethiopian prime minister, and I worked together in Sudan. The success registered in Sudan was therefore a result of our collaborative effort.

There are four fundamental lessons that can be drawn from different mediation processes in Africa. They were outlined by the African mediation in Sudan. First, mediation processes should avoid external interference, which might lead to a multiplicity of approaches that inevitably results in failure.

This is not always easy, as there are many African and international actors that have an interest in a country, and they want to play an active role in any mediation process. Libya is a good example, where the multiplication of mediation processes led by actors that have a direct interest in the outcome has made it impossible to resolve the conflict.

It is therefore important to discuss with external actors, and reach an understanding that the AU will lead the process. For them to respect African-led mediation, it is important to guarantee that they will be informed and consulted at different stages of the mediation process. However, external actors should not be allowed to impose their approaches and interests.

The second important element in any mediation is to identify the mediation approach. It is especially important to align the approach when there are multiple mediators, as in the case of Sudan. Failure in this aspect creates rivalry and contradictions.

It took 10 days for Mahmoud Dirir and me to reach an agreement on the mediation approach for Sudan. This allowed us to work in synergy and add value to each other’s efforts. This was tremendously helped by the friendship and goodwill between [Ethiopia’s Prime Minister] Abiy Ahmed and [AU Commission Chairperson] Moussa Faki Mahamat, who led us towards unity rather than division.

The third important element is to earn the trust of the negotiating parties. A mediator, whether appointed by the UN [United Nations], AU or RECs [regional economic communities] cannot impose him/herself on negotiating parties. While these institutions may appoint a person, it is the negotiating parties that should endorse the nomination.

When I was appointed as an AU envoy to Sudan, I never called myself the mediator or facilitator during the 45 days I engaged the negotiating parties.

When it came to resolving the divergence between the parties over the Sovereign Council, I approached each actor and asked for their authorisation to table my proposal for the creation of the Sovereign Council. Only when they gave me permission to go ahead did I start to mediate between them and presenting them with options.

The success of any mediation will depend on the extent of consultation with the parties and their consent to the mediation

Therefore, the success of any mediation will depend on the extent of consultation with the parties and their consent to the mediation.

In this regard, we were also supported by the goodwill of local mediators. I encouraged the emergence of national mediators and we supported them. I learned the importance of working with local mediators from Ketumile Masire [former president of Botswana] during the inter-Congolese dialogue of 2001–2002.

The fourth element is to take time to ripen the negotiation process for mediation. In Sudan we dedicated 45 days to preparing the ground for mediation. I have been criticised for ‘losing time’ in this process, which involved a lot of shuttle diplomacy to gauge different positions, interests and the acceptable level of compromise by each party.

If a mediator proposes options before the parties to the negotiation are ready to receive these, the whole mediation process will fail.

These four factors are the minimum to succeed. Of course, mediators should also have extensive knowledge of the history, culture, languages and aspirations of the society in which they are to mediate. It also helps that a mediator has experience, especially under the mentorship of other mediators, and has a good track record in other mediation processes. These greatly enhance trust in the mediator’s ability to lead a process to full fruition.

What are common challenges you have had to overcome during mediation processes?

Every mediation process faces formal and fundamental challenges. The first challenge relates to getting a correct understanding of all the actors and their priorities. Excluding some actors who may not be readily visible at the start of a mediation process is a major recipe for failure. These actors will never accept the mediator going forward.

The first challenge is therefore not to neglect relevant actors and their priorities from the start.

The second challenge is softening the positions and reining in the ambitions of the negotiating parties so as to leave room for negotiation. In most cases, negotiating parties will have extreme positions that leave no possibility for compromise. The first instinct of parties is to exclude others.  

The role of the mediator in this instance is to defuse the tension and hatred among parties. In Sudan, I tried to show the civilians that they are negotiating with Sudan’s defence and security system, which is critical to the stability of the country. I argued that if there is a dispute among the armed forces, Sudan’s outlook will be that of Libya and the Central African Republic.

Similarly, I argued with the military that the civilians are visionaries who yearn to see freedom, justice and peace prevail in the country. I appealed to both parties that the only way to preserve a stable nation is to put hand in hand and work together.

During negotiation processes I always repeat what Mandela told us. He said, ‘The one who cannot master self‐transcendence and vanquish the thirst for revenge and selfish gains does not deserve to lead a nation.’

The third challenge is overcoming the diversity and multiplicity of external interference that I have already mentioned. This is a challenge we have to overcome during every mediation process.

In your view, which African-led mediation processes offer the best practices and lessons to draw from? 

According to my experience, the best experience in African-led mediation to learn from is the inter-Congolese dialogue led by Masire from 2001–2002.

I say this because the DRC is a country of more than 80 million people. It is almost a subcontinent, so vast that the country has different time zones in the eastern and western parts. At the time, the government controlled parts of the country while a number of armed groups controlled the rest.

External actors, including different African countries – Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia – supported various armed groups in the DRC. On top of that, there were hundreds political parties and thousands of civil society organisations involved in the political process. The country was therefore divided politically and militarily. 

The multiplicity of political, social and military actors was unprecedented, and the history of lasting crisis and division in the DRC was completely different from any mediation I had been involved in before or since. I spent two years in the DRC supporting Masire. I led a mission in 19 cities and villages.  

We had to overcome tremendous challenges in the process. The government rejected Masire when the Organization of African Unity  first appointed him. That is why I stress the need for the parties to negotiations to accept the mediator.

In the end we did succeed and reached an agreement at Sun City in South Africa, where we gathered 366 delegates from all regions and provinces of the DRC. To my knowledge, it is the most complicated, longest and most impactful mediation process in Africa.

How can the mechanisms and structures at the AU and RECs be strengthened to better support African-led mediations? 

First and foremost, any AU-led mediation should have political support from member states. AU member states should try to avoid creating parallel initiatives that compete with or undermine AU-led mediation efforts. The implementation of political agreements that result from an AU-led mediation should also be fully owned and supported by all AU member states.

Second, when the AU decides to deploy a mediation mission, all required capacity should be made readily available for the mediation process. The necessary resources and support mechanisms needed to accompany the process should also be organised.

All structures of the organisation, including the RECs, specialised organs and departments, should be geared towards supporting an AU-led mediation effort. This especially entails coordination among different relevant departments under the mediation support unit.

A mediation process is very complex. The AU should be ready to deploy all the necessary support to ensure it has a chance at success.

In addition to political and administrative support, there is a need to enhance awareness about mediation processes. The AU should elaborate on and popularise its own doctrine on mediation to support African-led mediations.

How can the AU safeguard the successes registered as a result of the mediation in Sudan?

There are three fundamental things we should ensure. First, we should never encourage Sudanese actors to be divided. As long as the military and civilian actors continue to work together, in the same governmental and political structure, they are on the right track to a peaceful transition.

External actors should avoid any actions or rhetoric that diminish any actors in Sudan’s transition. The Sudanese themselves should also defend the agreement they have reached, and I strongly advise them to consistently safeguard the unity of the transitional authorities.

Second, the success of Sudan’s transition will depend on the progress made towards a democratic election. A truly legitimate government can only come to power through free and fair elections.  

The success of Sudan’s transition will depend on the progress made towards a democratic election

Third, Africa should not accept any interference in the internal affairs of Sudan. Any form of interference will not lead to a positive outcome, no matter the declared intention behind the interference.

While external actors may support the political process, economic growth of the country, and the governance system, this should be done in total respect for the independence and sovereignty of Sudan. Sudan should have the freedom to deal with its own faith by its own children.

Photo: African Union mediator Mohamed El Hacen Lebatt signs a constitutional declaration between Deputy Head of Sudanese Transitional Military Council, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and Sudan's opposition alliance coalition's leader Ahmad al-Rabiah in Khartoum, Sudan August 4, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

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