Conflict Management in Africa: The Role of the OAU and Sub-regional Organisations

Funmi Olonisakin
African Security Unit, Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London

Published in Monograph 46, Building stability in Africa: Challenges for the new millennium, February 2000


Indigenous members of any group or society have certain core values that they seek to protect, which outsiders to their system may not always share, and specific privileges that those regarded as ‘foreigners’ in their midst cannot take for granted. Yet, sometimes, the very fact that some are outsiders to such a system may grant them immunity from certain practices that the natives cannot easily escape, or may make outsiders better suited to perform certain roles. For example, people from outside an environment may be judged to be better mediators or interlocutors simply because they are not perceived to be stakeholders in the society. These contradictory tendencies are at the core of the challenges faced by regional and subregional actors, whether single states, a group of states or organisations, seeking to manage conflict in their region or natural backyard.

Regional and subregional organisations tend to have specific advantages over actors from outside these regions. They often have a greater interest (than external actors) in the affairs of their neighbourhoods, and a desire to manage conflict in their regions. It is unlikely, for example, that member states of the Organisation of the American States (OAS) would have a deeper interest in the resolution of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia or in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), than the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) or other African subregional organisations. This is particularly the case in a post-Cold War era, where many states no longer have strategic importance for other countries or regional alliances. Thus, it is arguable that political will would be easier to muster among regional actors if and when the need arises for local conflict management. A second crucial advantage that regional and subregional actors possess, is that they often have a superior knowledge of their regions, the prevailing cultures, the peoples, and their idiosyncrasies. This factor becomes all the more important in conflict situations where an interlocutor’s understanding of the people, as well as the issues contained in the conflict will often go a long way to determine the success of their action.

However, within these strengths lie the inherent weaknesses of regional actors. They will not always be objective, neutral and impartial, given that they may have vested interests in the resolution or course of a conflict in their neighbourhood. This is almost always true of individual or group actors, whether they are acting alone or under the umbrella of an organisation. As a result, their credibility may be in question, when they respond to conflict or crises in their backyard.

One factor that may not be common to all regional actors or organisations, is that they sometimes do not have sufficient clout to make so-called ‘side payments’ to conflict actors. It is likely that the bigger or richer an organisation or its leadership, the greater will be its chances to overcome this problem. The OAS, for example, could easily overcome this problem in cases where the lead nation, the United States, has an interest in the outcome of a conflict in its backyard, thus underwriting much of the costs of the settlement. The US was the only nation able to do this with a measure of success, when attempts at reviving the peace process in the Middle-East began in earnest in the early 1990s. This is one of the few post-Cold War situations where the conflict in a region holds enormous interest for states outside of the region. In this case, the US was seen as a credible mediator and it was able to offer side payments to the conflicting parties in the form of promises to underwrite some of the costs that will naturally result from implementing a settlement.

Lastly, there is some legal restriction on the type of conflict resolution activity that regional and subregional organisations can embark on. In efforts to manage or control conflicts or prevent their escalation to more dangerous and violent levels, it may become necessary to use or threatens to use force. In such a case, the UN Charter places a limit on the role of regional actors. Except in cases of self-defence, regional actors must seek the approval of the UN Security Council before embarking on the use of force.

This article discusses the experience of African regional and subregional organisations in the management of conflict on the continent. In particular, it assesses the kinds of challenges that these organisations are required to deal with in the current international political climate and the factors that influence their ability to respond effectively to these challenges. In doing so, it relies on the experience of organisations whose recent activities reflect some of the challenges highlighted. The idea is not to go over the roles of different regional organisations with a fine-tooth comb. Rather, the themes or issues that have emanated from the different efforts to resolve or manage conflict on the continent will be the focus of attention. In the bid to tease out many of these issues, the experiences of some organisations are likely to receive greater prominence than others.


The extent of the conflict and security issues that African regional organisations would have to deal with has become more apparent over the past decade. The ‘peaceful new world order that was predicted after the fall of the Berlin Wall did not evolve so peacefully in Africa. In an atmosphere of old authoritarian regimes, which had survived through coercive extraction of resources and the oppression of their people with the firm backing of either bloc of a bipolar world, the withdrawal of this support meant that opposition to these regimes could now thrive.

In all but five sub-Saharan African countries, civilian authoritarian regimes, military rule or other forms of oppressive systems prevailed and, as a result of this, legitimate demands by several groups within these states were ignored, giving rise to unresolved conflicts. In the period immediately following the end of the Cold War, those leaders who were vigilant and forward-looking had accurately predicted the consequences of the changes in the international political climate. They quickly sought to put more representative forms of government in place. This was the case, for example, in the Republic of Benin, where Kerekou subjected himself to multiparty elections. In Mali, Musa Traore, after 23 years in power, was ejected by the military that, in turn, staged multiparty elections. In South Africa, a change in the stance of the old guard led to majority rule in 1994. In those states where leaders did not heed the warnings, violent conflicts erupted that, in some cases, brought the state to the verge of collapse resulting in humanitarian crises of mammoth proportions.

Almost all of the conflicts that occurred in Africa at different stages, required early warning and early action in terms of the use of mediation, conciliation and good offices. In some cases, preventive deployment would have been required in support of diplomatic efforts. Because Africa no longer had a strategic relevance to the great powers, many of the African conflicts that found free expression in a post-Cold War dispensation did not enjoy extra-African responses, and escalated freely in the absence of superpower rivalry. The great powers were no longer prepared to intervene in African conflicts. If any intervention or resolution attempts would occur, they had to come from within the continent.

A distinction must be made between those conflicts that became apparent as a result of post-Cold War changes, and those that had existed prior to these changes and, in some cases, had been fuelled by the Cold War. In cases of pre-existing conflicts in South Africa — Namibia, Mozambique and Angola (initially) — the withdrawal of superpower rivalry from these areas created an atmosphere conducive to resolution efforts. The UN (in Mozambique and Angola), and the Commonwealth (in the case of Namibia where peace efforts had slowly begun before the fall of the Berlin Wall), played active roles in the resolution of these conflicts. Angola would later suffer a reversal as the election results were rejected by one of the warring parties. Many of these conflicts were easily amenable to traditional forms of conflict resolution — diplomacy supported by traditional peacekeeping operations, where necessary. In terms of emerging conflicts (e.g. in Liberia), which escalated rapidly, exhibited vicious characteristics and were resistant to traditional conflict resolution strategies, the UN and other extra-African actors did not wish to play any role. This was especially the case after the intervention in Somalia led by the US. The onus would have to be on Africans to provide an effective method of managing or resolving these vicious conflicts.

Once these conflicts escalated, they required a corresponding escalation in response strategies. For example, a strong force (in terms of manpower and equipment) would have been required to halt the atrocities committed against innocent civilians in Liberia and Somalia, and the genocide in Rwanda/Burundi. In Somalia, where a strong force was deployed, the strategies employed were ineffective until the real nature of the conflicting parties became apparent — and the US-led force was severely punished for this. Thereafter, the world outside Africa looked on and crises escalated. Countries in far regions became unwilling to commit manpower and materiel to conflicts in Africa that had no bearing on their national interest.

The reality confronting Africa was that, unless the conflicts that had pervaded different subregions of the continent were resolved, there would be no hope for the lofty goals of economic integration, development and prosperity. It was impossible to achieve such growth in an atmosphere of instability. In each subregion, countries that are not experiencing civil war are dealing with the consequences of wars in neighbouring states in different ways. One manifestation of this is the influx of refugees. In extreme cases, the neighbour’s state is destabilised through border incursions (for example, resulting in civil war in the case of Sierra Leone). This experience is true for West, Central and Southern Africa.

Thus, conflict situations and security threats confronting African countries and requiring the active efforts of African regional and subregional organisations show three main dimensions. Firstly, brewing internal conflicts that have not experienced violent manifestations, are usually the result of long-term authoritarian rule, a denial of citizens’ human rights, and a lack of popular participation in politics and governance, among others. Secondly, internal conflicts have been waged that have rapidly escalated into crises, humanitarian disasters and state collapse in some cases, as witnessed in Liberia, Rwanda Sierra Leone and Somalia. Thirdly, lingering border disputes between states have arisen, as is the case between Cameroon and Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia, and Botswana and Namibia.

Managing these conflicts requires responses at several points on a continuum, with diplomacy, mediation and the preventive deployment of troops on one end, and variations of peacekeeping, peace support and the outright use of force on the other end. Restricting responses to the one end of this spectrum would often require the effective use of early warning mechanisms. Thus, it would perhaps be possible to deal with many conflict situations proactively and timely before they escalate to violent levels, which create greater difficulty for third-party actors. However, much will depend not just on the willingness of regional and subregional organisations to manage or resolve these conflicts, but also on their ability to do so effectively.


Africa was not prepared in the early 1990s for the responsibility that was thrust upon it. The principles upon which many organisations in the region were founded, were no longer relevant, nor were they sufficient to meet the post-Cold War security needs of the continent. The OAU, for example, was founded on the principles of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘pan-Africanism’ that, at the time of its inception, appeared to be the logical reaction to Africa’s colonial past. If states were to retain their independence and maintain stability successfully, these principles appeared to be crucial. However, the natural tension between sovereignty, which stipulated non-interference in the affairs of member states, and pan-Africanism, which implied the submission of some sovereignty to a supranational authority, appeared to have been resolved in favour of the former. The aftermath was the proliferation of autocratic leaders, who substituted state security and interest for regime security and self-interest. The OAU’s preference for sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states rendered it powerless to address situations of poor governance and the abuse of human rights within many member states that threatened to erupt into violent conflict in some cases.
At the subregional level, there are several organisations whose main purpose at formation did not centre around conflict resolution and management. Among the most prominent of the subregional organisations are the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), and L’accord de non-aggression et d’assistance en matière de défence (L’ANAD).1 Apart from L’ANAD, which was created especially for purposes of security management, others have evolved (albeit at different paces) into security and conflict management institutions. In the case of ECOWAS, the organisation was founded primarily for purposes of economic integration, while SADC evolved from a political alliance against apartheid, to an organisation later aspiring to economic co-operation. The Maghreb Union was founded to promote Arab unity, while IGAD’s focus was on development in north-east Africa, where it has gradually taken on the role of promoting peace and security, particularly in Sudan and Somalia.2 Having eventually come to the realisation that the great powers were no longer strategically interested in Africa and as a result would not come to Africa’s rescue, African organisations gradually began to take responsibility for the resolution of their conflicts, albeit at various levels.


In the immediate post-Cold War period, the OAU was still firmly rooted in its ideal to protect state sovereignty and its unwillingness to intervene in the internal conflicts of member states. Yet, many of the conflicts that Africans were trying to deal with were internal and deadly. They also threatened to destabilise neighbouring states. Its stance on sovereignty was perhaps the main weakness of the OAU when it came to conflict management, and one that threatened to render the organisation irrelevant in the new international environment. Indeed, the organisation’s earlier stance in countries like Mozambique, meant that it had little relevance to the resolution of the conflict in the country. The OAU would soon realise that its political stance did not suit the post-Cold War climate. It thus slackened its approach, admitting that sovereignty could no longer be seen as absolute.

The OAU has now assumed greater responsibility for conflict management on the continent. At the 1993 OAU Summit in Cairo, the OAU Central Organ and the OAU Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution were established (further referred to as the Mechanism). Although the OAU principle of non-interference in internal affairs was restated, the Mechanism was also charged with the task of dealing with internal conflicts in the region. Prior to the establishment of the Mechanism, the OAU had created a Division of Conflict Management in 1992, with its own budget within the Secretariat. Overall, there has been optimism that the Mechanism will fare much better than the OAU Commission on Mediation, Reconciliation and Arbitration, which was established in the 1960s and was expected to be the organisation’s main instrument for conflict management. However, the Commission appeared to have been doomed from the start, as it did not address the practical realities of the region.3 Additionally, its lengthy and costly judicial process made the Commission unattractive to many member states. The Commission was dissolved in 1977, with the OAU opting for other methods of conflict management, such as the use of good offices.

Indeed, the establishment of the Mechanism is an attempt by the OAU to shift from an ad hoc to a ‘systematic’ approach to conflict resolution.4 At the core of the Mechanism is the understanding that, while early warning and conflict prevention lie at the heart of the OAU’s conflict management objectives, there may be a need for peacekeeping and peacebuilding in situations where conflicts are already present. This is a clear indication of the organisation’s attempts to make itself relevant to the post-Cold War realities on the African continent. Evidence of this have been found in its response to the events in Rwanda and Burundi, among several other gestures.

In Rwanda, the OAU played a prominent role in efforts to reach a settlement between the government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). This was initially done through mediation efforts between 1990 and 1992, of which the end result was the establishment of an OAU observer force to monitor the cease-fire. The OAU was also active in the Arusha peace process in 1993. The OAU force was reluctantly evacuated in 1994, when the much larger UN force left the scene — revealing one of the main weaknesses of the organisation: that even when it is willing, it may not have the capacity to act. In Burundi, the OAU also deployed an observer mission in 1994 and appointed a special envoy to the country. The mission was terminated, following the coup of July 1996.5 The subsequent institution of sanctions against Buyoya’s military regime was a clear indication that the OAU had turned a corner in its approach to conflict management on the continent.

The OAU, however, is still plagued by old problems, some of which relate to the interests of its leaders, and others which are the natural consequences of managing an organisation of this magnitude. Although the idea that the organisation is a club of corrupt and autocratic leaders is gradually dissipating — given the emergence of more democratically inclined states — it is still possible for the personal interests of some leaders to affect their response to certain conflict situations. It was often thought that non-democratic leaders would find it difficult to oppose the internal conduct of another state whose rulers violate the human rights of the citizens. Additionally, even if all countries were to imbibe democratic practices, it is difficult to achieve consensus in an organisation consisting of 53 member states, where each country has its own interests and its security priorities might be different from the next — and this is bound to affect the way it responds to conflict or crisis in another member state. The best that can be achieved under the circumstances is that security regimes will emerge in each subregion — it is likely that groups of states that share borders and the same security concerns will evolve somewhat similar methods of addressing their security needs, including their responses to conflict or impending or actual crises in the subregion.

Although the OAU is reviewing its overall approach to regional conflicts and security, its previous (Cold War) and more recent experiences still provide some pointers on how the organisation can approach conflict resolution. The OAU is best equipped to respond to a conflict before it escalates to violent or crisis levels. Its experience in Chad gives an indication of the kind of problems it could encounter in big operations. However, its response in Rwanda and later in Burundi is an indication of some of the strengths of the OAU. These are found in early warning, mediation, good offices, collective political sanction and preventive deployment — for most of these the organisation can get consensus and can perhaps manage them financially. The OAU is keenly aware, however, of its own limitations and, as a result, readily gives its blessing to subregional organisations that are willing and able to provide higher levels of response to conflicts that have escalated beyond the capacity of the OAU, including humanitarian disasters.


Some subregions could not enjoy the ‘luxury’ of gradually evolving their conflict management systems. They were compelled to develop their systems to deal with events that were thrust upon them. This was the case with ECOWAS when it was confronted by the crisis in Liberia in 1990, a few months after the conflict began and had rapidly escalated. The ECOWAS response to Liberia was initiated by Nigeria (at an ECOWAS Summit in May 1990) through the creation of the Standing Mediation Committee (SMC), for reasons that many observers argue, were far from altruistic on the part of President Babangida. With hindsight, however, it is doubtful that the organisation could have stood by and watched Liberia degenerate to the kind of situation later seen in Rwanda. Nonetheless, ECOWAS dispatched a peace force to Liberia in August 1990 to intervene in the country’s crisis. The organisation also put forward a peace plan. After seven years of mixed results and alternating between peacekeeping and peace enforcement, the second Abuja accord led to the staging of elections in Liberia, in which the leader of the main warring faction (Charles Taylor) emerged victorious. The remaining troops from the ECOMOG force (who were guarding the weapons collected from the disarmament phase) left Liberia in October 1999 — nearly a decade after the outbreak of war, and after more than nine years of ECOMOG operations in the country.

What conflict resolution assets did ECOWAS have prior to the 1990 intervention in Liberia?

There was no peacekeeping precedent in the West African subregion, apart from the brief interpositional experience of L’ANAD in 1985. In terms of responding to a complex, political and humanitarian emergency, West Africa could not draw on prior experience. Even the OAU experience in Chad still fell short of this. Nonetheless, several West African countries had contributed troops to UN operations and had mostly experienced traditional peacekeeping. However, within ECOWAS there had been, for some time, a recognition that there could not be economic integration and prosperity without stability. It was this thinking that led to the protocols on non-aggression (1978) and mutual assistance in defence, 1981.

Even so, the security threat facing the subregion was perceived to be largely external. Much thought was not given to the need to prevent internal security threats or the escalation of internal conflicts, through a change in the system of governance and the use of accountability, rule of law and respect for citizens’ human rights as conflict prevention strategies. It is not surprising that West African leaders did not (officially) give much thought to this, as more than two-thirds of the sixteen member states of ECOWAS were under dictatorial or authoritarian regimes. They therefore missed the opportunities for early warning, conflict prevention or avoidance, or indeed early mediation. Thus, when Liberia was flung upon ECOWAS, it had to improvise in many respects. Indeed, its experience in Liberia, over time illustrated many of the problems that confront subregional organisations in conflict resolution.



Subregional economic organisations, founded for economic and development purposes, are now required to play significant conflict management roles. The countries in the region can ill-afford the costs of erecting other organisations for the sole purpose of conflict resolution. Thus, the existing organisations, albeit with original purposes other than conflict management and resolution, have had to respond to the conflict situations around them. They have done this at different levels and with varying degrees of success. One of the issues that have become apparent is that the structures of many of these organisations are unsuited for the conflict management roles they have assumed. As an organisation’s level of response develops along the continuum discussed above, the structural problems become more difficult to manage. For example, when the response to a conflict situation is at the level of mediation and other diplomatic activities, such structural problems are less noticeable than when a major peacekeeping or enforcement operation has been initiated.

ECOWAS, for example, was without a section such as the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UNDPKO), and this invariably affected its ability to co-ordinate the ECOMOG operations effectively. The problem was recognised by the organisation and in its new treaty, and through its new Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, such structural flaws have been given greater attention. SADC has had more time to put a structure in place. On paper, it seems to have the structural tools to manage regional operations. However, its Organ on Politics, Defence and Security was, until recently, the subject of disagreement between Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Political divisions and partiality

One of the main issues that have emerged — particularly in a post-Cold War situation where countries within a region or subregion only are willing to resolve crises in their own neighbourhoods — is that it is difficult to find neutral and impartial actors. This has been apparent in Liberia and the DRC. In Liberia in 1990, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso were seen to be supporting different sides in the conflict. This invariably impacted on the ECOMOG operation, when one of the conflicting parties perceived Nigeria as a partial actor. The other two did not participate in the peace operation at the time. This issue also created political divisions within ECOWAS and served to emphasise old Anglophone and Francophone rivalries.

Human and financial resources

Perhaps the most serious problem that regional and subregional organisations face, is the dire lack of resources to meet the challenges presented by escalating regional conflicts. Many organisations cannot mount a straightforward and predictable traditional peacekeeping operation, let alone the more complex peace support operations that are required to bring stability to the present conflict areas. Thus, regional or subregional organisations are more likely to respond to conflicts when there is a lead nation — a country with the human and material resources to take the lead in the initiation of such operations. For example, even where smaller, less endowed states are willing, they may not have the human resources to conduct the kind of operations that would normally be required to manage difficult conflicts. In 1990, prior to ECOMOG’s deployment in Liberia, some countries did not have enough senior ranking soldiers to contribute to the force. The need for bigger and richer states to contribute to peace support interventions may create another problem — what is sometimes seen as the problem of regional hegemony, which is discussed below.

Regional hegemons

These powerful actors are considered to be a ‘necessary evil’ in many regions. On the one hand, smaller states are reluctant to accept the leadership of bigger and better endowed states for fear that they will always seek hegemony in their neighbourhood. On the other hand, these big states are relied upon in times of conflict to provide the resources that produce the vital lifeline of peace operations. Thus, countries like Nigeria in ECOWAS and South African in SADC may find themselves challenged to take a leading role in their regions in times of crisis. Both countries, thus far, appear to have responded differently to the challenges confronting them. While Nigeria has whole-heartedly accepted the leading role in the West African subregion, the opposite has tended to be the case with South Africa, which is reluctant to play the role of ‘superpower’ in Southern Africa. Where hegemons are willing and able to initiate and participate in regional conflict resolution efforts, these may mean the difference between arrested collapse and complete destruction, human suffering and anarchy. Subregions without such lead nations are the ones likely to suffer more in times of crisis, especially where no power outside the neighbourhood is willing and able to intervene. The harm that might have been prevented in Rwanda, had there been an actor willing and able to act ‘quickly’ in response to the situation on the ground can only be left to the imagination.

Despite their advantages, however, regional hegemons may themselves become stumbling blocks in a conflict resolution process if they are seen as being partial, as having too much vested interest in the conflict, or indeed, if they are not inclusive in their approach. Nigeria faced deep suspicions from a combination of some ECOWAS member states and one of the conflicting parties in Liberia, for various reasons. Most of all, however, the greatest challenge that Nigeria faced, was the perception of partiality.

Legitimacy and legal relationship with the UN

Regional organisations face a problem of legitimacy if they are perceived to be acting without the approval of the UN, particularly where the action entails the use of force. The ECOMOG operation initially suffered when its legitimacy was challenged on a number of levels. The operation only received the blessing of the UN retroactively. However, there has been a shift in thinking in recent years. In difficult humanitarian emergencies, action has been taking unilaterally or collectively by a group of states that then receive approval retroactively from the UN. Thus, some analysts are already raising questions whether this reflects emerging customary international law.

Operational problems

In responding to deadly conflict in subregions, local peacemakers have encountered specific operational problems. African organisations and their representatives are often required to bring about peace in environments where the conflicting parties are barely identifiable and numerous, and where the control of territories occupied by them is constantly changing hands. The force that is mandated to create stability in such an environment has to struggle with the differences in orientation among the different contingents in the multinational force. Such differences range from training and doctrine, to the provision of logistic support and language. Thus, ECOMOG commanders had to contend with language barriers, the effects of differences in training and doctrine between Francophone and Anglophone, and even among the Anglophone continents, and the irregular provision of logistics, including variations in the amounts of operational allowance.


There can be no doubt that many challenges must be met if regional and subregional conflict management mechanisms in Africa are to function well. Firstly, there is a need for improved co-ordination between the OAU and subregional organisations so that peace efforts could be given timely and effective support at both levels. This must include a common conception of the responses to different types of conflict situations and the commitment to the implementation of peace plans. Any organisation, whether regional or subregional, requires a high level of cohesion and such cohesion, in turn, must exist in any joint effort between the OAU and the subregions.

Secondly, greater effort must be made to increase the channels of communication between the OAU and African civil society, and between subregional organisations and civil society in their own neighbourhoods. This will form the key in evolving an early warning and prevention system. African organisations have already embarked on a process of dealing with their conflict management and security problems. Their various experiences at meeting the different challenges can only take them on the road to improvement.


  1. Agreement on non-aggression and assistance in defence.

  2. Indeed, IGAD began as an attempt to fight the consequences of drought and desertification in East Africa.

  3. On the conflict management experience of the OAU during the Cold War, see for example, A Sesay, ‘Regional and sub-regional conflict management efforts’, in S Akinrinade & A Sesay (eds), Africa in the post-Cold War international system, Pinter, London, 1998.

  4. See the Report of the Cairo Consultation on the OAU Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution, Cairo, Egypt, May 1994, p 19.

  5. For more on these OAU peacemaking efforts, see Report of the Joint OAU/IPA Task Force on Peacemaking and Peacekeeping in Africa, March 1998.