New Panel of the Wise has a lot on its plate

The new members of the AU’s Panel of the Wise are a distinguished group of individuals who could play an important role in peacemaking and mediation. However, the fact that the panel is not a standing body, that it is made up of mostly retired luminaries and that it only meets twice a year seriously hampers its potential contribution.

Will the African Union (AU) be able to benefit from the considerable experience and expertise of the new members of its Panel of the Wise? This question is being asked as distinguished diplomats such as Algeria’s highly acclaimed former foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi take up their positions on the panel. Brahimi served as the United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy for Syria from 2012 until his resignation in May this year.

The group held its inaugural meeting at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on 16 & 17 September. The five-member panel, led by Mozambique’s former prime minister Luisa Diogo, is a prestigious grouping of African personalities set up to advise the Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the AU Commission on how to deal with conflicts on the continent. The members are elected for a period of three years. The previous panel was led by former Organisation for African Unity (OAU) Secretary General Salim Ahmed Salim.

The panel has a huge role to play as custodians of the ancient African tradition of mediating by the elders

At the first meeting of the new panel on 16 September, Ambassador Smaïl Chergui, AU Commissioner of Peace and Security, said the panel had a huge role to play as custodians of the ancient African tradition of mediating by the elders. According to an AU statement, Chergui said the Panel of the Wise had ‘captured African and international curiosity and imagination because the AU created, at the heart of its decision-making on conflict prevention, management and resolution, an institution inspired by the centuries’ old practice of African elders’ centrality in dispute and conflict resolution’. He said that by creating the Panel of the Wise ‘the AU has in many ways recognised the importance of customary, traditional conflict resolution mechanisms and roles and the continuing relevance of these mechanisms in contemporary Africa’.

The other members of the panel are no less experienced than Brahimi and Diogo. Another former OAU secretary general, former Togolese prime minister Edem Kodjo, also joins the group. He will be representing West Africa, while Brahimi represents North Africa and Diogo the Southern African region. Dr Specioza Wandira Kazibwe, a former Ugandan vice-president, represents East Africa, while Dr Albina Faria de Assis Pereira Africano of Angola, special advisor to President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and a former oil minister, will represent Central Africa, according to the AU’s statement.

Expectations are that individuals like Brahimi could boost the visibility of the group, which has the potential of playing an important role in mediating crises in Africa. This is evident from the chairperson of the AU Commission’s statement that the new members of the panel will give additional momentum to the AU’s efforts in conflict prevention and mediation.

Institutionally, despite its distinguished place as a key component of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), the panel has largely remained isolated. It has had little interaction with the PSC and other parts of the APSA. In terms of its work, the panel’s role has been limited and has received little attention. It undertook various solidarity visits (for example, to Egypt and Tunisia in the context of the North African uprisings) and confidence-building visits to countries conducting elections (such as to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya).

Individuals like Brahimi could boost the visibility of the group

Since its establishment in 2007, thematic reflection on issues relating to conflict prevention and peacebuilding is the one area of work on which the panel has delivered the most. Thus far, it has had in-depth reflection on four thematic areas.

Following the post-election violence in Kenya, the panel’s first thematic reflection resulted in its report on election-related disputes and violence in Africa, which was adopted in July 2009. In its second thematic reflection, the panel worked on a report on fighting impunity, presented to the PSC in November 2008, and is drawing up recommendations on how to help women and children caught up in armed conflict. It is expected to deliver its report on this issue at the next AU Assembly of Heads of State in Addis Ababa in January 2015.

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings it has been engaged in a review of democratisation and governance for conflict prevention, at the request of the PSC. It has held two high-level meetings in December 2011 and April 2012 as the basis for developing a report with recommendations on how to address major issues of democratisation and governance in Africa.

Almost invariably, most of the themes were chosen in response to crises, rather than to pre-empt the eruption of imminent or future crises by looking at emerging issues.

When it comes to mediation and peacemaking, the panel has played almost no major role. The AU has thus far depended on special envoys, special representatives, ad hoc committees and high-level panels for its mediation and peacemaking activities. Although these are roles many believe the panel is best suited to undertake, several factors militate against the use of the panel for such intensive undertakings.

The panel is not a standing body and as such is not readily available to mediate when conflicts break out

The first is the design of the panel. The panel is not a standing body and as such is not readily available to mediate or undertake peacemaking missions when conflicts break out. The second factor is the composition of the panel. Its members, while respected, have been either frail due to age or busy with other responsibilities, and thus could not engage in intensive mediation or peacemaking work.

Another factor is the panel’s pre-determined schedule. For the past seven years, the panel has met only twice a year. This modus operandi makes it ill suited to the demands of mediation and peacemaking.

If the potential of the panel is to be harnessed and the AU’s expectation for the panel to play a more active role in conflict prevention and mediation is to be realised, these issues need to be addressed. It is equally critical that the panel is institutionally tied and operationally integrated into the various components of the APSA, the PSC, the Continental Early Warning System and the AU Commission.

In light of the number of current conflicts and the vulnerability of various parts of the continent to similar crises, there certainly is a need for the panel to play a more active role. Time will tell whether the latest panel will emerge to play such a role in the next three years.

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