Conflict Trends | 2007/3

Getting In: Mediator’s Entry into the Settlement of African Conflicts

Book Review

Reviewed By  12 Nov 2009

This clearly-written and well-organised book sheds light on the previously unexplored area of mediation initiation and entry in violent and protracted African conflicts. By addressing the critical entry stage of mediation (including decisions to invite, initiate and accept such intervention), the authors have filled a significant gap in the existing mediation scholarship, which has largely focused on the mediation process and settlement outcomes.

Getting In provides a systematic inquiry and comparative study of mediation entry in six African conflict cases: Rwanda, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Liberia, Sudan and the Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict. The book is divided into eight chapters: the first chapter introduces the problem and establishes the context for the study; the last chapter provides conclusions on mediators’ entry into African conflicts. The remaining six chapters are each dedicated to detailed analyses of the particular conflict cases, from which the final conclusions are derived.

The initial chapter is particularly strong in its clear articulation and introduction to various defining and foundational conflict resolution concepts and terminology. The conflict cases are classified as largely internal conflicts, but the authors also distinguish between examples of ‘regionalist conflicts’ (which aim at self-determination through secession or regional autonomy) and ‘centralist conflicts’ (where disputes tend to be over the central authority or government). The study of mediators’ entry is then located within these classification parameters. Mediators’ entry is also classified as either “mediator-initiated” (entry by proposition) or “parties-initiated” (entry by invitation). Examples of both types of entry are illustrated in the various conflicts.

The study is based on a realist, rational-choice framework and is rooted firmly in Zartman’s (one of the authors) negotiation theory. The conclusion that conflict ‘ripeness’ and ‘mutually-hurting stalemates’ – when the parties experience enough pain and loss they are ready for compromise and the conflict is deemed ripe for intervention – are also key factors in determining the successful entry of mediators in conflicts, is not surprising and unfortunately not very illuminating in terms of new knowledge generated. However, the book does generate a number of other significant observations and conclusions on mediators’ entry in the settlement of African conflicts. These include: that mediators are motivated by their own self-interests in initiating entry or accepting a mediation invitation; that parties to a conflict are equally motivated by self-interests in accepting mediation and a particular mediator; that conflict perceptions and definitions change and affect mediators’ entry and eventual success; that an impartial mediator is not central to the parties’ acceptance of a mediator (that is, a biased mediator can be both acceptable and effective); that mediators do not have to change the zero-sum thinking of the parties to gain entry and be effective; and that the collective entry of multiple mediators is common. These significant findings definitely have a role to play in informing not only mediation practice, and specifically the entry of outside parties to African conflicts, but in conflict resolution interventions in general.

Getting In provides insightful and useful information that has application beyond the initial stages of mediators’ entry into conflict. Through detailed analyses of conflict cases, the authors show how incorrect and poor perception of what is going on in the conflict can affect mediation entry and process negatively, and could result in the eventual collapse of agreements and settlements. Inclusivity – the engagement of all parties operating in the conflict – is deemed a key factor for successful intervention progress, and the challenges of undertaking inclusivity in the context of multi-layered, protracted conflicts in Africa are also addressed. The authors deserve praise for their in-depth analyses of the conflict cases, particularly the emphasis placed on understanding the various internal and external parties operating in the conflicts, their motivations and perceptions, and their roles in sustaining or resolving the particular conflict.

A noticeable oversight in the analyses is that the particularities of the African context and how it influences conflicts, interventions and mediators’ entry is not adequately addressed. While the authors indicate that generalisability of the ideas beyond the African continent is possible, the unique cultural aspects and influences on external mediators working in African conflicts are not discussed. One notable exception is the authors’ recognition that the Tanzanian government’s replacement of Mobutu as the mediator in Rwanda was done in a manner that continued to include Mobutu peripherally in the process, to allow cultural face-saving and to acknowledge respect and appreciation for his previous role. Although there are other such moments and anecdotes that provide rich insights into how culture is a significant influencing factor in mediation entry, acceptance and processes, these cultural issues are largely ignored in the conclusions and lessons provided in the book’s final chapter. While the authors would do well to address this oversight in forthcoming work, it does not detract from the significant contribution Getting In makes in understanding this largely neglected dimension of mediation: the dynamics of – and lessons for – successful mediation entry in protracted conflicts.

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