Tough but Essential: Germany's Political Engagement with Crisis Prevention in Africa

22 September 2016   ·   Comfort Ero

In recent years, Germany has stepped up its engagement in Africa, notably in Mali. But there is room for improvement: In concert with the EU, UN and regional partners, Germany should lead the way to a more strategic political engagement with crisis prevention on the continent.

The German foreign minister’s stark comment that “international policy is now permanently in crisis mode” leaves little doubt we need to rethink what policies to use in the global prevention, resolution and management toolbox. Indeed, his ministry is leading the development of new guidelines for Germany's engagement in conflict prevention, stabilisation and peacebuilding, to be issued in March 2017. Germany is well positioned to promote a new style of crisis prevention, both as a relatively new lead player on the international stage, an actor unencumbered by recent foreign intervention failure and having a public willing to take the long view. Chancellor Angela Merkel is rightly concerned not to repeat the mistakes of some of her foreign allies, yet Berlin will have to find a way to balance its usually restrained instincts with the more ambitious expectations others have of a more prominent German international role.

Germany needs to take on tougher tasks

One line of thinking in Germany favours more focus on mediation support, reconciliation and transitional justice, as well as justice and security sector reform. Efforts in these areas are ostensibly easier to manage, implement and quantify than more difficult strategic political initiatives.

Yet, if Berlin is truly to assume more international responsibility, it will need to invest in the harder work of shaping political pathways to crisis prevention. It already acknowledges that greater effort and resources are needed to recognise crises early and, where possible, prevent escalation. This includes thinking through entry points for early action and strategies and tools that key actors could use to prevent, contain and resolve conflicts. But these also involve a complex mix of political, legal, financial and, in some cases, military policies, the latter an area where Germany remains largely cautious, as Manuel Lafont Rapnouil pointed out on this blog.

Working with regional partners to manage conflicts

Adding to the difficulty is that more and more conflicts are being handled not by the United Nations (UN) Security Council or great powers, but by regional organisations and neighbouring countries. The Council’s lack of consensus in handling major conflicts such as Syria has undermined its legitimacy, and other regional powers or organisations are ever more at the front of crisis management. Germany is well placed to work with regional partners, being less tainted by recent badly conceived military interventions. And despite criticism both at home and by some of her European counterparts over Germany’s migrant and refugee policy – the governing Christian Democratic Union's huge losses in Sunday’s Berlin state legislature election were linked to this –, Chancellor Merkel is widely respected as a global leader.

Germany’s increased activity in Africa is welcome but there is room for improvement

In his PeaceLab2016 contribution, Jean-Marie Guéhenno stressed the decisive role Germany can play in focusing the European Union (EU) on Africa. Germany in recent years has become more actively engaged even deploying troops in missions under EU flag in Somalia or UN lead in Liberia and South Sudan. Its lighter colonial baggage gives it some advantage over Britain and France. Its African partners, nervous about what the UK’s exit from the EU means for the continent, want Berlin to take on a more active role that would balance French interests.

Germany could play a more central role in ensuring even greater energy and resources are invested in better crisis-response partnerships between the EU and the African Union (AU). Already, GIZ (the German company specializing in international development) – respected for its strong transfer of knowledge ethos – has built headquarters for the AU’s peace and security department with a state-of-the-art situation room, hoping that it will contribute to making the AU quicker to respond to crisis.

It will be also important that German and EU migratory policies on the continent supplement and do not replace overall foreign and development policies. The current EU proposal to establish a mix of positive and negative incentives aimed at rewarding “third countries willing to cooperate effectively with the EU in controlling migratory flow” and “to ensure that there are consequences for those who do not” risks being politically counterproductive (not to mention morally dubious). It will seek to dole out financial favours, including to states whose systems of governance and human rights record arguably do not merit it, to control migration rather than address some of the factors driving mass migration: the absence of good governance, democracy and rule of law. Indeed, it would be counterproductive if in seeking to address today’s northward migration, Europe put in place policies which ensure that the phenomenon would not just remain unchecked, but grow in the future. Germany should urge a rethink of EU policy to focus on addressing the root causes of migration on the continent, while also ensuring policy is fully grounded in international law and equitable burden-sharing.

More difficult to quantify is what Germany’s push for greater action on conflict prevention means in practice, especially for more challenging crises like Mali or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In Mali: Germany should help recalibrate MINUSMA

Mali is the UN’s most dangerous mission and Berlin is now deploying almost 400 troops (mostly to Gao, in the north) focusing mainly on intelligence gathering. Germany is also part of the EU training missions to Malian armed (EUTM) and police (EUCAP Sahel) forces. These efforts are commendable, but also risky. The UN has lost 105 personnel since 2013. Force alone will not resolve the crisis. Jihadi groups remain a potent threat; violence has resumed in the north and extended to the centre. Peacekeepers can do little to change facts on the ground unless the peace process makes more substantial progress. Renewed political dynamism is needed to revive the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement, but international leverage is weak because of a lack of interest among the parties.

Germany is not part of the Mali mediation team, which limits its leverage, but its position in MINUSMA allows it to have some say on how the UN should help prevent further deterioration in the country, and in particular re-evaluate the mission’s current posture. It is time for Germany to use its influence to get the Security Council to rethink the mandate of its deadliest peacekeeping mission. Drawing on key recommendations in the June 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), Germany could solicit other troop contributing countries to reconsider the dangers of using peace operations for counter-terrorism, and re-purpose MINUSMA for more realistic and achievable goals including monitoring the ceasefire and facilitating the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process.

In the DRC: Germany should seek a political solution to the looming disaster

An equally thorny challenge is approaching in the DRC, arguably the most explosive issue facing Africa today, but one where Germany has few political entry points. Many diplomats foresee a crisis if President Joseph Kabila insists on staying in power after his constitutionally limited two-term mandate ends in December. MONUSCO, the big UN peacekeeping mission there, will likely struggle to effectively protect civilians caught in any confrontation with the government. Political dialogue in progress between the regime and opposition is fraught with uncertainty. The risk of violence escalating and drawing in the region is real, which would surely unravel a costly sixteen-year international peacekeeping and statebuilding effort. Germany, through the EU, should work with international partners to seek a comprehensive strategy that both pressures and encourages the Congolese parties to negotiate an exit to the looming disaster.

Crises are unavoidable. But more strategic political engagement in preventing this kind of conflict would be Germany’s best investment to help pull the world back from its permanent crisis mode.