Eric Feferberg/AFP

Should the old Continental Early Warning System be restored?

Given the poor information flow of the restructured early warning system, restoring its predecessor seems an attractive option.

To enhance the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) with decision-making and implementation capacity, Article 12 of the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) provided for the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS). Its sole objective is to ‘provide timely information on evolving violent conflicts based on specifically developed indicators’ to help ‘anticipate and prevent conflicts on the continent’.

Given the importance of information flow to effective decision-making, the centrality of CEWS to Africa’s pursuit of peace and security in the last two decades cannot be over-emphasised. Nevertheless, the merger of the peace and security and political affairs departments into the Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS) department has significantly affected this APSA pillar.

In April 2024, the PSC is scheduled to discuss unblocking obstacles to an effective early warning system. This is an opportune time to assess the reform's impact on CEWS and whether the AU should consider restoring its earlier form.

Mainstreaming CEWS

In APSA, CEWS was structured to comprise a ‘situation room’ linked to the observation and monitoring units of regional economic communities. As a unit located at the Conflict Prevention and Early Warning Division of the AU Commission’s Peace and Security Department, its implementation offered two major advantages.

The contribution of CEWS to Africa’s peace and security efforts cannot be over-emphasised

First, conceptually, it offered ease and clarity of upward and downward information flow between existing regional structures and continental decision-making arrangements, particularly from the system to other APSA components. Secondly, the head of the unit was responsible for making sure that the information emerging from the situation room reached the right AU policy people.

It generated numerous timely warning reports that informed PSC and AU interventions in crises, including Mali (2012) and Burkina Faso (2015). Apart from providing prompt and reliable information, the unit coordinated and facilitated information sharing and dissemination among AU structures involved in conflict prevention, management and resolution.

Under the AU's reformed structure, early warning and governance monitoring have become the responsibility of regional desks within the PAPS Conflict Management Directorate. Without being a standalone division with a head, the disparate regional desk officers report directly to the director. Unlike in the previous structure, this makes the director responsible for championing information flow in addition to managing the many divisions and programmes under him.

As the warning unit also has to monitor governance, placing the entire structure under conflict management raises questions. This is because information flow from the situation room is also expected to link to the Governance and Conflict Prevention Directorate. This involves activating reporting lines from the regional desks to the head of the Governance and Conflict Prevention Directorate, which will currently face challenges that can hinder the flow of information. The placement also casts doubt on whether enhancing governance and conflict prevention was central to reform goals.

The structure of early warning at the AU makes it difficult to access information

According to a senior PAPS staff member, AU early warning efforts rely on all structures to contribute. By limiting the function to a single directorate, the reform does not advance this goal. Instead of contributing to information generation and dissemination across the whole institution, the format makes it difficult to access information and use CEWS as a coordination platform.

The structure's lack of clarity on its functioning and staffing delays are impeding regional and continental interconnectedness and disrupting information flow from regions to the AU. In 2023, an Economic Community of West African States Early Warning and Response Network (ECOWARN) delegation visited the AU Commission to explore and discuss information flow from the regional mechanisms and the revised format. Although the delegation’s engagements with PAPS officials did not change much, restoring the former CEWS structure was discussed.

The case for restoring CEWS

Restoration of the old structure has been discussed in some policy circles, and the appeal rests on two major considerations. First is the functional disruption to continental early warning resulting from the new structure and its implementation challenges. Reviving the old structure will allow regional systems to plug into familiar information flow mechanisms. It will also ease the flow of information from analysis structures to decision-makers.

Advancing early warning and response relies on a robust structure with adequate information flow to decision-makers

Amid the AU’s commitment to enhancing conflict anticipation and prevention, limited information flow originating from implementation problems or long-term structural factors seriously affects early response capacity. Reactions to crises can be tailored and rolled out only through timely access to reliable information. Moreover, the functional shortfalls of the new structure have severely stunted information flow to the PAPS senior leadership responsible for early response and continental conflict prevention.

The second argument for restoration of the old structure is to be found in the nature of the process that birthed the current one. Reformers seem to have made the change while completely disregarding legal provisions. As one of five APSA pillars, CEWS syncs with other functions to collectively and indistinctly define the continental institutions responsible for addressing peace and security issues.

Therefore, restructuring CEWS automatically restructures the way APSA operates. Given that frameworks precede structures in the AU’s approach to institution-building, the lack of revision of the PSC protocol before the process also raises questions. Reinstating the CEWS conceptualised and implemented pre-reform will do justice to AU norms since the change seems to have contravened Article 22.6 of the PSC protocol.

Options for the PSC

The AU must advance early warning and response amid the current coup wave and insecurity across the continent. However, this is achievable only with a robust structure that ensures adequate information flow between actors and national, regional, and continental organs.

Connections and communication from national, regional and continental players appear to have been more robust under the former CEWS, despite the periodic inputs from the Committee of Intelligence and Security Service of Africa, the AU Mechanism for Police Cooperation and regional desk officers.

The PSC needs to task the AU Commission to conduct a comparative assessment of the flow and input of information between the two CEWS structures and table it for consideration. This assessment will stimulate debate about whether the PSC should be out with the new early warning structure and in with the old.

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