Meddlers or Mediators? African Interveners in Civil Conflicts in Eastern Africa

Gilbert M. Khadiagala’s well-researched book sheds light on the vagary of conflict mediation through citizen-led (elder statesmen), state-centric and regionally-driven initiatives. Meddlers or Mediators focuses on five civil war case studies within the eastern region of Africa but, beyond this, is also a profile of those involved or who intend to be involved in the complex and cumbersome search for peace in conflict-prone Africa. After identifying three categories of mediators (state, elder statesmen and regional institutions), Khadiagala provides a cross-cutting description of any mediator in chapter one: “having muscle, clout and leverage”, “having both power and stature to reward or to punish the disputants for cooperative or uncooperative behaviour” and “having deeper knowledge of the conflict and proximity to the disputants”.

The Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat (SWOT) analysis is appropriate for summarising the major concerns raised in this book. Mediators derive their strength from invitation by the conflicting parties to intervene. This invitation is based on the mediator’s organizational capacity, for with “limited tangible and material resources, African interveners have contributed to the widespread perception of being meddlers rather than mediators. They intervene out of necessity but without the means to be effective” (p. 6). Devoid of tangible and organizational power, meddlers are “prone to squander the opportunities of invitation and entry” (p. 10). This organisational power tool is depicted in the difference between the book’s first case study (‘Moi Mediates Uganda’s Civil War, 1985’) and the fourth case study (‘Mandela Mediates Burundi’s Civil War, 1995-1999′). While Daniel arap Moi surrendered his organisational power by failing to assume control in the conflict and wield his mediation power constructively (p. 47), Nelson Mandela’s moral authority, expertise in persuasive debate, authoritative stature and international connections allowed him to place his own distinct mark on the negotiations.

Mediators’ prescriptive power – that is, being interested in both process and outcome – is another strength. The book’s second case study (‘Tanzania Mediates Rwanda’s Civil War, 1992-1993’) reveals a series of multitrack diplomatic negotiations with a multilateral character (raising the problem of crowdedness in interventions) by President Mobutu and President Mwinyi, as well as the Egypt-Libya and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) involvement, described in chapters six and seven. While Mwinyi’s policy provided the belligerents with a detailed blueprint for the resolution of the underlying causes of the Rwandan conflict (p. 95), Mobutu’s aloofness designated him as a nominal mediator (p. 68).

Another significant strength is evident in what can be referred to as ‘innate personal qualities’, such as a track record of successes, creativity, imagination and vision, innovation and power devolution. Most of these sterling qualities have been germane to the relative success in the Rwandan and Burundi peace deals, as illustrated in chapters three, four and five.

The weaknesses or shortcomings of all the mediators (citizen, state or regional bloc) mentioned in the book are common, with a difference only in details and specificity. These range from the lack of a clear agenda, lack of independent initiative, lack of fall-back positions and lack of understanding of the positions of the conflicting parties (as exemplified by Moi’s handling of the Ugandan civil war in chapter two) through the real or perceived partiality, procedural battles, overbearing role, limits of institutional leverage and over-dependence on external resources (as seen in Nyerere’s Mwanza Peace Process in chapter four), to the nominal role, error in judgment and futile diplomatic initiatives that Mobutu manifested in Tanzania’s mediation process (pp. 58-68).

Even with mediation by regional bodies – such as IGAD’s mediation role in Sudan’s civil war, which is examined in chapters six and seven – the regional mediator’s neutrality, moral exhortation, international leverage, knowledge, proximity and collective pressure are undermined by membership rivalry (Moi and Mobutu, p. 197), competitive and parallel mediation initiatives (Egypt, Libya, IGAD, p. 204), and conflicting strategies of incentives and punishments (pp. 193, 201, 203 and 208). Paradoxically, some of the weaknesses or shortcomings of the mediators are compounded by threats related to the disputants (incremental demands, shifting interests, lack of trust, boycotting of meetings, formation of splinter groups, diametrically opposed agendas, overbearing or dictatorial attitudes, renewed hostilities and lack of willingness and commitment). These weaknesses are compensated for by the opportunities that the mediation process provides (frequent consultations, respect for fractioned engagements, concession-making, external pressure, de-escalation of crises due to war weariness, and the consensual choice of new mediators).

As part of the ‘professionalising’ package that the author prescribes in chapters seven and eight, it is relevant to add that institutions (like IGAD) and other regional bodies, especially the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, need to be exposed to mediation skills and institutional capacity-building techniques to intervene effectively in complex conflicts. These institutions need only to surmount the organisational inadequacies that an early and less professionalised IGAD exhibited in chapter six (time-consuming operations, vested interest, lack of visible authority, cautious or passive observer, and so on), and focus on a later and more professionalised IGAD (chapter seven) that learnt to combine “the punitive and benign hat, and viable and tactical autonomy”.

With three of the five civil war case studies mentioned in the book (Uganda, Burundi and Sudan) still active, and a significant number of countries (Zimbabwe, Somalia, Chad, Kenya, Sudan-Darfur, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia) still unstable, the need to restructure or professionalise all mediation stakeholders (individual or institutional) in Africa has become very urgent. Africa needs to combine both an early warning network (during elections and constitutional engineering), especially as “African civil wars are rooted in disputes over power, identities and resources” (p. 254), and an interventions mechanism (when conflict breaks out) to minimise and manage damage. The amount of money that donors spend on settling disputes (more than one million dollars a day on humanitarian assistance in southern Sudan, p. 230) can effectively be employed in the conflict prevention phases.

Overall, this book is about the trials and triumphs of local mediations and home-grown mediators. The failures are indicators of how complex conflict management can be, and the successes highlight how relevant the ‘language of ownership’ and ‘endogenous power’ are to the resolution of African disputes. Far from celebrating Africa’s successes in mediation only, Khadiagala is consistently frank and modestly pedagogic about the various cases that continue to emphasise the problems in Africa. However, the book does emphasise that, with diplomatic activism and the moral mettle of elder statesmen and other leaders, as well as the organizational capacities of institutions like the IGAD Secretariat, Africa’s dispute resolution industry does not need to venture too far to find its own Oscar Ariases and Jimmy Carters – they are right in Africa’s backyard, provided that Africans learn to winnow the powerful meddlers from the professional mediators. Meddlers and Mediators is not only recommended for scholars of peace, history, politics and African studies, but should also be a must-read for Africa’s present and future leaders.

No items found