Africa’s compound challenges need a collective response

We live in a peculiar moment in history in which prevailing threats to peace and stability have collided with a pandemic that occurs once in a century. For the African continent, it is rather a precarious moment in which our realities and limitations have come to the fore, more than in previous decades.
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Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images
Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images

The outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic has not only exposed the weak health infrastructure on the continent, and exacerbated socio-economic hardship across the board, it has also exposed the fragility of states, especially those with economies that are dependent upon single commodities. The provision of basic needs for the citizenry such as jobs, medical care, security and protection of the vulnerable has therefore become extremely difficult for governments. What is more, the vehicles of peace interventions and efforts to foretell, manage and resolve violent conflicts by international and domestic actors have been stretched to the full with their limitations exposed. Paradoxically, the purveyors of conflict and destruction have not taken a break from unleashing terror and violence such as that witnessed in conflict zones and countries across the continent and in our cities and local communities in spite of the ravaging pandemic.

A dearth of Pan Africanist orientation and lack of sufficient champions for collective security and normative regional and sub-regional frameworks for governance and democracy have weakened coordinated and collaborative responses to our problems over time.

What has also become quite evident is the failure of leadership across the board and the limitations of existing governance and security frameworks in several African countries. While there are existing normative frameworks and instruments that international actors can utilize to prevent and respond to conflict, the critical role of state actors in affirming the rights of international and regional bodies to intervene on their behalf has been undermined and is becoming more difficult to achieve. The principle of supranationality, in which states belonging to multilateral organisations tasked with maintaining collective security or developmental objectives, cede some of their sovereignty to regional and sub-regional bodies, has been under-utilised over time on our continent. Extreme nationalism, a reductionist understanding and interpretation of a collective approach to regional security, increased authoritarian tendencies have resurfaced and are on the rise. A dearth of Pan Africanist orientation and lack of sufficient champions for collective security and normative regional and sub-regional frameworks for governance and democracy on the continent have weakened coordinated and collaborative responses to our problems over time. This is evident in the way that we have responded (or failed to respond) to some of the prevailing conflicts such as the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the worrisome dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the River Nile/Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the Sudan-Ethiopia border dispute, as well as the now simmering Western Sahara and Chad problems.

We have not invested enough in collective responses to cross-border criminality manifesting through drugs and arms trafficking, piracy, the ever-devastating problem of violent extremism, which more than before, cuts across borders in the Sahel, particularly in the Central Sahel area of Mali-Burkina-Faso-Niger, and in the Boko Haram affected countries of the Lake Chad basin, namely Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated all the prevailing threats to peace and stability in these areas.

What further complicates matters for us all is the spike in violence across the continent due to increased criminal activities of violent extremists and terrorist groups such as Ansar Dine, Azawad National Movement (MNA), Al-Shabaab, the Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamaa (ASWJ), Boko Haram, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Islamic State West Africa Province. These groups are affiliated to international terrorist networks and increasingly rely upon financial proceeds from criminality and extortion of vulnerable local communities to fund their activities.

@_AfricanUnion, RECs, and special multinational security arrangements and frameworks are only as strong as the Member States want them to be.

In addition, because of the inability of states to cater to the needs of the citizenry or to manage social tensions or diversity, there has been increased popularity of and agitation by separatist movements across the continent. In countries such as Nigeria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Cameroon, to mention only a few, separatist movements are becoming increasingly popular and are comparing notes across borders to destabilize existing state structures. Curiously, while these separatist movements are perfecting experience-sharing and the construction of networks across borders, just as terrorist networks have done over the years, legitimate state structures are not maximizing existing sub-regional and regional frameworks which they established to respond to threats which are cross-border in nature!

We must of course acknowledge that our current leaders across the continent grapple with more complex conflicts which are not only multiple in their manifestations, but which are also sometimes unprecedented in terms of scope and impact. Such problems warrant collective responses and the re-examining of existing structures and mechanisms and frameworks within countries and at the level of our international and regional organisations. More than ever before, we need to undertake some self-introspection to determine whether we have effectively utilized existing national and (sub) regional frameworks and arrangements, in our countries, as well as in our continental and sub-regional organisations, in our efforts to respond to today’s threats. We must also constantly bear in mind that our continental body, the African Union, as well as the various Regional Economic Communities (RECs), and special multinational security arrangements and frameworks are only as strong as the Member States want them to be!

In the course of my career in diplomacy and peacemaking, I have found that there must be a fine balance between accommodating the interests of states alongside collective security interests. In fact, increasingly, neither is actually mutually exclusive, as the nature of today’s threats to our collective existence cuts across borders, creed, race and religion. This then implies that we should invest the required resources in strengthening our continental and sub-regional institutions by granting them the supranational powers they will require in responding on our behalf. We must also look inwardly to ensure that existing state peace architectures possess the capabilities essential to understand the complex and peculiar nature of threats to peace and stability, and have the mechanisms required to prevent, mitigate and resolve conflicts. In this regard, continental, sub regional, national and local peace architecture should adequately harness the full potential of women and youth in conflict mediation and resolution. Women and youth form the majority of the population. They are often actors and victims of conflicts. The near total exclusion of women in mediation is a major weakness of peace processes and needs to be addressed with conviction and concrete action by their inclusion going forward.

The near total exclusion of women in mediation is a major weakness of peace processes and needs to be addressed with conviction and concrete action.

Our governments must also realise that state structures are insufficient to respond to today’s threats, and they must therefore work closely with Civil Society to initiate community-level/Track II engagements that will nip some of these conflict issues in the bud before they escalate. Across Africa, we have a rich reservoir of traditional and religious mechanisms that are almost tailor-made for conflict prevention and building social cohesion, and which we must utilize for peace and stability. In addition, we must harness the role of religion in moderating extreme tendencies, in building a culture of peace, as well as a tool for mediating conflicts and other complex societal problems.

Finally, I would like to reiterate the fact that today’s threats to peace and stability, which in previous years were perceived to be collective and which required and often elicited collective responses, must be seen as shared challenges. Our sense of shared humanity, which necessitates shared responses and collective approaches to the threats to the African people, must therefore come to the fore, once again.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas is the Former Head of UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS).

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

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