Study on African mediation highlights the significance of the mandate

Laurie Nathan |University of Pretoria

Every mediation to resolve a major conflict in Africa is based on a mandate that shapes the process and outcome of peacemaking. This is true of mediations in Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Namibia, Sudan, Zimbabwe and many other countries.

The mediation mandate – which authorises to resolve a conflict – has been largely ignored in academic studies. This is unfortunate because mandates are a vital component of peacemaking. In fact, new research confirms that mandates are treated very seriously by mediating organisations and mediators.

In the African context mediation mandates are typically contained in resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council, the African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council or sub-regional bodies that attempt to resolve specific conflicts.

Mandates serve several functions. They:

  • Confer legitimacy on a mediation;
  • Endow the mediator with authority and leverage;
  • Provide the mediator with instructions; and
  • Set the parameters of the peacemaking process and outcome.

To illustrate these functions, let’s take as an example the mediation to end South Africa’s occupation of Namibia. This process highlighted the importance of mandate legitimacy.

The process was initiated in the 1970s by a group of Western countries that brokered a plan for independence and then sought endorsement from the UN Security Council. The Council responded by issuing Resolution 435 of 1978.

A UN mandate was essential because African countries did not regard the Western plan for Namibian independence as sufficiently legitimate.

Another example is the Zimbabwe mediation. In 2009 South African President Jacob Zuma took over from President Thabo Mbeki as the mediator tasked with resolving the political crisis in Zimbabwe. He frequently asked the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Summit to ratify his proposals and the interim agreements.

The result was that the proposals and agreements then formed a part of the SADC mandate, reinforcing Zuma’s authority and putting pressure on the parties to honour their commitments.

The impact of mandates

Mandates often contain demands that have a strong influence on the duration of a conflict and the difficulty of peacemaking. This was the case with the SADC mediation for Madagascar after the coup in 2009.

The SADC Summit demanded that ousted president Marc Ravalomanana be allowed to return to Madagascar from exile in South Africa. Over the next three years the coup regime’s rejection of this demand was the main obstacle to ending the crisis.

The Summit eventually agreed that Ravalomanana could not return before a presidential election was held. However, it modified the mandate so that neither he nor coup leader Andre Rajoelina could contest the poll. The revised mandate broke the deadlock and paved the way for elections in 2013.

A mandate can also determine whether the mediation process is inclusive. In 2007 for example, SADC mandated Mbeki to facilitate dialogue in Zimbabwe “between the opposition and the government”. The process was thus confined to these actors, controversially excluding civil society.

By contrast, during the 2013-2015 mediation for South Sudan the Intergovernmental Authority for Development insisted on the inclusion of civil society actors. This mandate ensured that the conflict resolution process was more inclusive than in Zimbabwe.

A mandate is an instruction to the mediator. Mediators who deviate from their mandate risk being replaced. In the Madagascar case, SADC sidelined its mediator, former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano, when he ignored the mandate by accepting that Ravalomanana could not return to Madagascar.

During the 2008 Mauritania coup, the AU dismissed its mediator, President Muammar Gaddafi, after he publicly rejected its call for the reinstatement of Mauritania’s deposed president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

The mandate paradox

Mandates have paradoxical effects. They limit a mediator’s flexibility and can greatly complicate the mediation. But they also give the mediator authority and leverage when trying to encourage cooperation between intransigent parties.

There is a big difference between defying an individual mediator and defying a multilateral organisation that has the capacity to take coercive action.

In addition to the mandate issued by the mediating organisation, the mediator must also seek a mandate from the conflict parties. This is essential because mediation is a cooperative effort that cannot take place meaningfully without the consent of the parties.

The parties can withhold consent in different ways. They can:

  • Reject mediation emphatically, as the Libyan rebels did in 2011.
  • Reject the mediating organisation, as when the Malagasy coup regime ignored SADC in 2010 on the grounds that it was biased.
  • Call for the mediator to be replaced, as the Movement for Democratic Change did during Mbeki’s mediation for Zimbabwe.

Failure to obtain a strong mandate from the parties can weaken the mediator’s authority and credibility. It can also cause domestic and international stakeholders to lose confidence in the mediation, and give rise to rival peacemaking bids.

The parties’ mandate is essential but it can weaken the mediator’s hand because it gives the parties leverage over the mediator. They can withdraw or threaten to withdraw from the mediation if the mediator does not support their positions.

To complicate matters further, the UN, the AU and sub-regional bodies sometimes issue inconsistent mediation mandates  for the same conflict. Another problem is where member states fail to reach consensus on the mandate. This occurred with the AU in the Libya crisis. It is usually the case that a mediating organisation’s mandate is at odds with the mandate of one or more of the conflict parties.

All of this reinforces the notion that international mediation is essentially an exercise in managing the complexity of opposing parties, interests, values and mandates.

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