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Former African leaders' mediation efforts under scrutiny

December 19, 2022

Former African heads of state play a significant role in mediating conflicts across Africa. However, some lack an understanding of the complexities and don't have language skills, which dents their mediation efforts.

Former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Former Deputy President of South Africa Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
It is vital that mediators build trust between warring parties in order to cease hostilities that cost lives

For more than three decades, African mediators have been involved in resolving civil conflicts in the continent's Great Lakes region: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda.

To meet the regional dimensions of the conflicts, the mediators — who have included presidents, foreign ministers, elder statesmen and special envoys — have intervened to help combatants rebuild the institutions of political order, social cohesion and economic stability.

Some of the former presidents who later became mediators — such as Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta — never had to deal with rebel movements during their respective terms in office. That being the case, how effectively could they expect to have resolved the crises which have beleaguered Africa's hot spots?


In an interview with DW, Gilbert Khadiagala, a professor of international relations at South Africa's Wits University, said former heads of state come with a lot of respect and are often accepted as mediators by both parties.

"That gives them the moral leverage to intervene in these conflicts. Because the problem in Africa is that often these conflicts need a very high-level mediator," said Khadiagala, who also authored a study about African actors gradually learning how to manage mediation roles.

"The Africa Union (AU) has been using the elder statesmen, the panel of the wise, but these don't rank as highly as former heads of state and government," he told DW.

For instance, Uhuru Kenyatta, facilitating and mediating talks in the DRC crisis, said foreign rebel groups operating in Congo "should get out" or face DRC and East African troops. But the rebels have ignored his calls, further casting doubts on Kenyatta's ability to strike a lasting peace deal between the government in Kinshasa and a dozen rebel groups operating in DRC.

Last week, despite peace efforts underway, M23 rebels cut major supply routes to Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in the eastern DRC.

That led to surging prices in the city and sparked fears that a future offensive would cripple its economy. The M23 first leaped to prominence when it captured Goma in 2012 before being driven out and going underground. It reemerged late last year, claiming the DRC had failed to honor a pledge to integrate its fighters into the army, among other grievances. 

Uhuru Kenyatta and DRCs Felix Tshisekedi
Uhuru Kenyatta (left), the mediator in the Congo conflict, urged M23 rebels to pull out of captured areas and embrace peace Image: Presidential presse office DRC

Uhuru Kenyatta's performance 

Meanwhile, Khadiagala thinks Kenyatta has to leverage his skills to mediate, despite an obvious language barrier.

"He doesn't speak French, and although it's not a big hindrance, you'll find out that, at some point, you cannot mediate if you are using interpreters," he said.

Besides mediating the conflict in eastern Congo, Kenyatta played the role of mediator at peace talks in South Africa between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

African leaders who are perceived as impartial — and are therefore trusted by all parties at the table — tend to have a greater degree of success with negotiating peace deals.

But Adolf Mbane, an analyst from Uganda's Makerere University, told DW that he thinks Uhuru has done a good job amid challenging circumstances because Africa's problems are deep and complex.

"I wonder whether he has the charisma needed to bring together warring factions that are as complicated as we see in places like the DRC," Mbaine mused. "What I'm sure of is that he can make contributions to the peace process between warring factions in DRC."

Marginalization of minority ethnic communities has dogged DRC for decades since its independence from Belgium in 1960, and successive governments have inherited misrule since its then President Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown in 1996.

"The problem with mediators is they need to delve deeper into the issues that brought about the conflict. And as long as these issues remain unresolved conflict will continue," Mbaine said.

 Congolese army soldiers march past a tank
Congolese troops have carried several attacks on M23 held territories a few kilometers from the provincial capital, GomaImage: Joseph Kay/AP Photo/picture alliance

Uhuru Kenyatta's weak scores 

"President Kenyatta has not met with M23 rebels, nor were they invited to the Nairobi talks when they invited 50 plus rebel groups out of the more than a hundred in Congo," said Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, an independent analyst specializing in the affairs of the Great Lakes region.

"The M23 is the group that everybody has been blaming for causing mayhem in Congo. It is the rebel group that all international media and western governments are focusing on."

Golooba-Mutebi believes that Kenyatta is presiding over "fake talks" because he invited groups guilty of violating human rights violations and all those that allied to the government in Kinshasa.

He also wonders why the M23 — which has laid out legitimate concerns and has the military capacity to defeat the Congolese army was not invited to the Nairobi talks.

"I think mediation in the DRC is failing because the people trying to lead it are not, in my estimation, well-informed. But, on the other hand, we have two leaders in this region who are very well informed about that crisis and who I think should be at the center of trying to resolve it, and that is [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame and [Ugandan President Yoweri] Museveni," Golooba-Mutebi concluded.

Despite such praise, Rwanda has been accused of supporting the M23 rebel group, a charge it has denied.

In addition, Uganda has been accused of looting Congo's minerals and lost a case brought about by Congolese authorities at the International Court of Justice.

And even though Kenyatta has been criticized for lacking charisma in the talks, Congolese authorities believe he can complete his mission.

In the last couple of years, there's been growing diplomacy between Kenya and DRC. In April 2022, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi visited Kenya, where he signed the East African Community (EAC) treaty. 

"That shows the high degree of trust that Congo has in Kenya. And that at least it allows Uhuru Kenyatta to play a constructive role," Phil Clark from SOAS, University of London, told DW.

"Now, it remains to be seen whether he can pull off some peace deal here. But what he's been able to do in the last few weeks at least lays the building blocks for sustainable peace between Rwanda and the DRC," Clark emphasized.

Kagame-Uhuru friendship

Kenyatta's ability to complete his mission as a mediator has come under scrutiny because of his closeness to Rwandan President Paul Kagame. 

Professor Khadiagala contends that Uhuru is already compromised by his association with one of the parties to the conflict, and it may be difficult for him to pull off the mediation.

"Uhuru is very close to Kagame, and the two have worked very closely in the past. And, you know, Kagame is not very clear about his intentions for the DRC," Khadiagala told DW.

For Khadiagala, the mediation starts from a very difficult base because you have a player like Kagame whose government has been accused of supporting the M23 rebels yet wants to be portrayed as a neutral party.

However, Golooba-Mutebi doesn't see it that way. He thinks the conflict in Congo can be resolved regardless of the personal relationship of the individuals involved.

"Everyone knows that there is ethnic cleansing or attempts at ethnic cleansing in the DRC and that the government of Kinshasa is working with FDLR [the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda rebel group], which committed genocide in Rwanda," Golooba-Mutebi said.

To justify his point, Golooba-Mutebi told DW that at a recent press conference, the M23 paraded captured FDLR combatants who admitted to fighting alongside Congolese government troops (FARDC).

"Whether Kagame and Kenyatta are friends or not, if those problems are addressed squarely, that issue should be resolved without mediators. Golooba-Mutebi is against international organizations' role in resolving Africa's conflicts, like in the DRC. However, he thinks there's a hidden agenda behind the goodwill of those organizations.

"We keep going to the UN, the United States, Belgium, dragging in the same international forces whose interests are not aligned with the interests of the regional powers or the interests of Congolese or Rwandans. That's where the problem is."

Ethiopia-Tigray conflict

Other than Uhuru Kenyatta, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo also mediated between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF. Initially, Kenyatta had turned down the invitation to facilitate the talks, saying he had a busy schedule.

"The Tigrayans have been very intense in fighting it out with the Ethiopian government. They wanted their demands to be accepted. And I think that until the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayans are exhausted, all sit down and accept that the best way to resolve their differences is through talks," Golooba-Mutebi said.

"I think that where mediators succeed is where the protagonists are determined to resolve, and the mediator, therefore, becomes the facilitator. But the mediator cannot impose a solution."

Golooba-Mutebi insists that mediators cannot create a solution where protagonists do not intend to talk to each other and resolve their conflict peacefully.

Fighting in eastern DRC intensifies

Can mediators be biased?

Building trust between mediators and warring parties is vital to cease hostilities that cost lives. For instance, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) perceived former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo as being closely aligned with the Ethiopian government and its Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during talks to end the fighting in the Tigray region.

The African Union had tasked Obasanjo to mediate between the government and the TPLF. But, according to Phil Clark from SOAS, Obasanjo has yet to be able to frame himself as an impartial actor.

"He hasn't convinced the Tigrayans that he can play this neutral mediation role. And I think that shows that just because you're a former president doesn't instantly give you the legitimacy you're looking for," Clark emphasized.

"You still must go through a process of building trust, which can mean some initial meetings to get the various parties onside. And Obasanjo has struggled with that in the Ethiopian case over the last few months."

According to Clark, many war protagonists often question whether mediators had to deal with rebel movements in their respective governments. 

"One thing that parties will always look to is what these African leaders did in their own states. What is their legitimacy? Did they have problems with armed groups and rebels, and could they mediate that constructively?"

Tigrayans were concerned that Obasanjo didn't understand well enough the terrain and all the complexities and nuances; hence he struggled with mediating between the two sides.

"You must listen to the parties and understand their interests and objectives. This ultimately allows the parties to negotiate a deal that makes sense to each of them rather than simply doing something that the mediator is imposing," Clark said, "and that is why it is crucial to have leaders from the broader region."

Uhuru Kenyatta and Olusegun Obasanjo and delegates representing Addis Ababa and TPLF
Kenyatta and Obasanjo were instrumental in striking a deal between Ethiopia and Tirgrayan fighters.Image: PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP

Are mediators not necessary?

Some analysts believe that mediators are not necessary when warring parties are willing to talk to each other. And besides, the conflicts may be too complex for the mediators to understand.

"I wonder if we have a good example of a conflict that mediators have resolved. But on the other hand, we have conflicts that have been resolved by the parties involved agreeing to talk to themselves," Golooba-Mutebi told DW in an interview.

Golooba-Mutebi further illustrated Uganda's mediation efforts between Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's government and LRA rebels and the West Nile Bank Front (WNBF) rebel groups that wanted to overthrow his government shortly after he captured power in 1986.

"When Museveni took over power, his government managed most of the internal crises by talking to groups trying to fight them. I think where there is a will among the protagonists in any conflict, external mediators are not required," Golooba-Mutebi said.

"One thing we know about conflicts in Africa is that mediators who normally come from beyond the continent, like special envoys, tend to freeze conflicts in place — because, first of all, they never fully grasp the cause of the conflict."

Golooba-Mutebi concluded that these special envoys make up their minds very quickly about who is in the wrong. "They try to draw certain equivalences between the protagonists, making it very difficult to apportion blame."

Edited by: Keith Walker