Complexities of international mediation at sub-regional levels in Africa: lessons from South Sudan

Ibrahim Sakawa Magara (Department of History, Politics and International Studies, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK)

Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

ISSN: 1759-6599

Article publication date: 11 April 2022

Issue publication date: 3 January 2023




The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has been mediating the South Sudan conflict since 2013. IGAD’s intervention in South Sudan is anchored on its founding norm of peaceful settlement of regional conflicts and in reference to the principle of subsidiarity, under the Africa Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). However, it is puzzling how violence continued unabated even as conflict parties negotiated and signed numerous agreements under the auspices of IGAD. The parties to conflict seem unwilling to implement the 2018 peace agreement, which is arguably un-implementable. Yet, it appears that IGAD mediators were privy to this situation all along. The question that then arises is why IGAD would continue engaging in a mediation process that neither ends violence nor offers a promise of a resolution? Drawing out on empirical data, this paper argues that IGAD’s organisational structures and functionality are key to understanding and explaining the South Sudan phenomenon within broader discourses on peace and security regionalism in Africa. This paper suggests the need to pay attention to the embeddedness of political power dynamics in the structures and functionality of Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs), such as IGAD, as one of the ways to (re)thinking and (re)orienting norms and practices of regional conflict management within the APSA and in pursuit of the “African solutions to African problems.”


Data for this paper was obtained through document reviews and 39 elite interviews. The interviews were conducted with representatives of IGAD member states, bureaucrats of IGAD and its organs mediation support teams, conflict parties, diplomats and other relevant experts purposively selected based on their role in the mediation. The physical interviews were conducted in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, with others conducted virtually. Analysis and presentation of findings are largely perspectival, highlighting coexistence of contending peacemaking ideas and practices. The discussions centre around inter-linked themes of IGAD’s conceptions of peace and approaches to peacemaking as informed by its structural and functional designs.


Findings illustrate the complexity of the peace process and the centrality of power politics in IGAD’s peace and security arrangements. In view of the findings, this paper echoes the need for enhanced and predictable collaborative framework between IGAD and the African Union (AU) as central to the operationalisation of the APSA and pursuit of the African solutions to the African problems. Hence, this paper suggests transforming IGAD’s political program into a robust political bureau with predictable interlinkages and structured engagements between IGAD’s heads of state and government and the APSA’s Panel of the Wise (PoW).


The study is based on empirical data obtained through the researcher's own framed questions, and its argument is based on the researcher's own interpretations innovatively framed within existing theoretical framework, particularly hybrid peace theory. Based on the findings, this paper makes bold and practical recommendations for possible workable collaborative framework between IGAD and the AU under the APSA framework



Magara, I.S. (2023), "Complexities of international mediation at sub-regional levels in Africa: lessons from South Sudan", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 51-65.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited

1. Introduction

Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are playing an increasingly important role in the continent’s peace and security agenda. They are meant to function under the ambitious Africa Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) in pursuit of “African solutions to African problems.” Central to the collaboration between Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Africa APSA is the principle of subsidiarity (Asgedom, 2019, p. 84); however, IGAD is yet to deliver satisfactory results due to a myriad of challenges. With a focus on the IGAD-led peace process for South Sudan, this paper argues for the need to pay attention to the embeddedness of political power dynamics in IGAD’s structures and functionality as key to (re)imagining norms and practices of regional conflict management in Africa. Through the case of IGAD in South Sudan, this paper examines regional political power dynamics with a focus on context, complexity and multiplicity. The case reveals how key decisions and actions on the South Sudan peace process are largely driven by leaders of IGAD’s front-line member states of Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda.

This paper contends that RECs, like IGAD, are both outcomes of and responses to complex political arrangements. Multiplicity of actors, contending conceptions and approaches to peacemaking coupled with contentious relations among various actors based on competing interests (Vertin, 2018b) are hallmarks of this complexity. With a focus on IGAD’s structures and functionality, this paper exposes complexity by advancing an argument positioned within the broader political theory that views peace as “a troubling ideal” (Idris, 2019) and regional peacemaking as essentially agnostic.

Data for this paper was obtained through document reviews and 39 elite interviews. The interviews were conducted with representatives of IGAD member states, bureaucrats at IGAD and its organs, mediation support teams, conflict parties, diplomats and other relevant experts purposively selected based on their role in the mediation. The physical interviews were conducted in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, with others conducted virtually. Analysis and presentation of findings are largely perspectival, revealing coexistence of contending peacemaking norms and practices. The discussions centre around inter-linked themes of IGAD’s conceptions of peace and approaches to peacemaking as informed by its structural and functional designs.

Findings illustrate the complexity of the peace process and the centrality of power politics in IGADs’ peace and security arrangements. In view of the findings, this paper echoes the need for enhanced and predictable collaborative framework between IGAD and the AU as central to the operationalisation of the APSA and pursuit of the “African solutions to the African problems.” Hence, this paper suggests transforming IGAD’s political program into a robust political bureau with predictable interlinkages and structured engagements between IGAD’s heads of state and government and the APSA’s Panel of the Wise (POW).

2. Overview of the conflict

2.1 Historical overview of the conflict

South Sudan descended into a civil war within two years of its independence that followed over two decades of armed struggle. South Sudan’s political dynamics are intertwined with IGAD’s frontline states characterised by elite networks of power and money (De Waal, 2015). For example, De Waal (2014) contends that the conflict in South Sudan is rooted in a system of violence and dollarized transactional politics. The ruling party, South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) is equally characterised by violence and patronage politics resulting in a state that is inherently predatory (Vertin, 2018a; Johnson, 2016).

On their part, Radon and Logan (2014) argue that South Sudan is a good example of how arrangements of governance can either cause war or bring peace. However, they appear less critical of the ethnic disruptions that have happened for over the three decades that Sudan and South Sudan have been in armed conflict and their implications on ethnic diffusion. Indeed, as Johnson (2016) rightly observes, the conflict is an outcome of deeper historical factors than current liberalisation. For example, he argues that the dual colonialism of the 20th century Anglo-Egyptian condominium, where Sudan remained an Egyptian colony governed by Britain, left a contradictory legacy of contested nationalisms either for or against “pan-Arabinism” among others (Johnson, 2016). Furthermore, as Kuol (2020), contends, the conflict in South Sudan reveals a country that lacked a shared and coherent vision that would inform nation-building from the onset.

In his “New Sudan” vision, Garang, envisaged a reformed and restructured Sudan with the independence of the South only as an alternative should reform fail, as was later reflected in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 (Johnson, 2016, pp. 6–7). Garang’s death arguably left a power vacuum that has proved difficult to fill. The eclipse of Garang’s strongest supporters within the SPLM and their replacement by President Kirr’s confidants[…]others with suspiciously close ties to Sudan’s National Congress Party arguably contributed to the disappearance of the party’s vision. SPLM was to degenerate resulting in a perceived catastrophic failure of leadership in South Sudan (Nyaba, 2019, 2011), which is at the heart of the civil war that IGAD has been mediating since 2013 (Deng, 2018, December pp.10–11) culminating in the signing of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) in 2018.

2.2 Militarisation in South Sudan

John Garang, a charismatic trade unionist and Salva Kirr, a career soldier, may have been comrades at arms but did not share a political vision. Following the former’s death, Kirr is argued to have established a regime that focused on indulging the appetite of soldiers (The Sentry, 2016 September) to the detriment of strong foundations for a new state and nation-building (Kuol, 2020). As Pinaud (2014, p.193) contends, the new state was to quickly become a “military aristocracy” whose survival was pegged on manipulation of the national economy, control of resources, state capture and external client networks (De Waal et al., October 2017, p. 11).

Prior to its 2011 independence, South Sudan saw a rise in armed groups (Saferworld, 2017 February) that were offered amnesty and incorporated into the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) with inflated ranks causing the military to grow from approximately 40,000 troops in 2005 to 240,000 and an additional 90,000 organised forces in 2011 (De Waal, 2017). Prior to the civil war, the SPLA had 745 Generals – 40 more than the USA and second only to Russia – and the security sector accounted for 60% of the budget (World Bank, 2017, 7 November).

Beyond the post-independence situation, it is noteworthy that militarisation in South Sudan is historical, colonial (Mohammed, 1980) and at the centre of the governance crisis (Vertin, 2018b). The country’s political leaders have perfected the art of advancing their political agendas and settling political differences militarily (Madut, 2020, p. 64). The civil war is therefore, in part, a result of and perpetuation of militarisation, equally used as a bargaining strategy during IGAD’s mediation.

2.3 South Sudan civil war

On the 16th of December 2013, President Kirr appeared on state television in military uniform to announce that he had crashed a coup attempt allegedly led by former Vice-President Riek Machar and several ex-cabinet ministers and officials of the ruling SPLM. Eleven alleged coup plotters were arrested but Machar escaped. Later the commanders of the 8th and 4th army divisions of the SPLA in Jonglei and Unity states announced their defection to Machar and seized control of the state capitals of Bor and Bentiu (Deng, December 2018, p. 3). While Machar denied involvement in a coup attempt, he urged the army to overthrow Kiir (Johnson, 2014, p. 300), marking the start of a protracted civil war (Deng, December 2018, p.3). While some of the actors may have changed and the battle zones shifted, the underlying issues remain largely the same. For example, in its report, the AU found that “longstanding and politicised divisions in the security sector contributed to the outbreak of the conflict in 2013” (AU, 2015 October).

South Sudan’s civil war caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history (ACSS, 2019, 18 December; IRIN, 2018 January) with the levels of violence remaining high over the years (Nyadera, 2018, p. 64). The conflict has caused over 300,000 deaths, 1.7 million internally displaced persons and 2.5 million refugees (OCHA, 2018 16 July), pushed millions into extreme hunger (Buchanan, 2018, p. 5) and some 2.4 million children out of school (UNESCO, 2018 July). The conflict has, in effect, made South Sudan one of the world’s most un-peaceful countries (Institute of Economics and Peace, 2020).

3. Intergovernmental Authority on Development-led peace process for South Sudan

IGAD commenced a mediation within weeks of the start of the civil war in South Sudan. IGAD’s involvement in South Sudan is anchored on its founding principle of peaceful settlement of regional conflicts (Apuuli, 2015, p. 125) and the principle of subsidiarity (Asgedom, 2019, p. 84). Historically, the two most important peace projects IGAD has contributed to are the African Union Mission in Somalia and mediation in Sudan and South Sudan (Bereketeab, 2019, p. 140). IGAD’s peace and security engagements are within the AU’s peace and security agenda, (Herpolsheimer, 2021) outlined in the APSA although modalities of collaboration between the two remain to be seen (Coe & Nash, 2020). IGAD is equally reputed for its inclination to non-military solutions to regional conflicts (Back, 2020, pp. 96–112; Healy, 2009, September p. 119).

The political mandate of the IGAD mediation is pronounced by the Communiqué of the first extraordinary IGAD summit that was held on 27 December 2013 (IGAD, 2019 August, p. 12). The government of South Sudan consented through the Communiqué of 27 December 2013 IGAD summit while the Sudan People’s Iiberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) consented during the first round of the talks in January 2014. IGAD’s mandate and the parties’ consents were “renewed and made explicit in the agreement of 9 May 2014, in which the parties “resolve to engage in substantive discussions, via the IGAD-led peace process” (IGAD, August 2019, p.13).

IGAD’s mediation entailed a hybrid of different approaches and strategies, including “shuttle diplomacy, summit diplomacy, facilitation, single-text negotiation, power mediation, and, occasionally, coercion and imposition” (Verjee, 2020, p. 282). Most of these approaches derived from decisions and actions by leaders of IGAD member states rendering the process more of power-political than facilitative (Jones, 2000, p.647).

Theoretically, IGAD’s mediation in South Sudan partly fits in the Galtungian concept of negative peace (Galtung et al., 2013) expressly stating that its focus was to bring an end to violence, through a ceasefire, cessation of hostilities or other form of truce (IGAD, 2013a, 2013b, 21 December). Cessation of hostilities seems like a logical basis for talks on factors underlying the conflict, yet as Verjee (2020, p. 289) contends “the IGAD-led mediation for South Sudan repeatedly got stuck in returning to ending of violence.” There have been numerous violations of the ceasefire agreements, some of them happening within hours of their signing (The Economist, 2018, 10 July) as parties to the conflict were talking and fighting at the same time (Dawkins, 2020).

IGAD’s communication on the objectives of engaging in the South Sudan peace process arguably pays no attention to concerns such as that “peace processes support many non-peace objectives” (Dawkins, 2020, p. 258) or that “peacebuilding is not always a force for good” (Curtis, 2013, 11 July). Instead, the discourse strikingly assumes a tone of obviousness as seen in the initial Communiqué where the IGAD foreign ministers proposed a dialogue in ten days with:

The immediate aim of ending violence and threats of violence and ensuring the protection of civilians and the safe delivery of humanitarian supplies, and the longer-term goal of ensuring that the issues of political agreement, societal reconciliation, constitution making, and inclusive and holistic national dialogue, are all addressed in such a way that the nation of South Sudan can achieve peace, stability, democracy and development (IGAD, 2013a, 2013b 21 December).

The text and the tone of this statement issued only six days into South Sudan’s civil war not only appears to diagnose the problem but also prescribe the solution. This may have led to the perceived imposition of an agreement on the parties as contained in IGAD’s own international assessment report (IGAD, 2019 August). The slow implementation of the R-ARCSS (ICG, 2021 10 February), in part, reveals that the parties neither believe in nor have the appetite to implement the agreement. Yet, signs of the parties’ disapproval of the mediation and its outcomes were present throughout the process. For example, during the signing ceremony of the 2015 Agreement on Resolution on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) (IGAD, 2015) that collapsed within a year, President Kirr opined that “the current peace we are signing today has so many things we have to reject” (Radio Tamazuj, 2015, 26 August).

Notably, the R-ARCSS is not a departure from the ARCSS. As signified by the usage of the term “revitalisation,” the R-ARCSS was largely a revival of the ARCSS, (Vhumbunu, 2018) that was spearheaded by IGAD’s High-Level Revitalisation Forum (HLRF) established during an extra-ordinary summit of heads of state and government on 12 June, 2017 (IGAD, 2017, 12 June). IGAD’s perceived imposition of the agreement and reluctance to shift from its original positions arguably relate to the ideas of the leaders of its member states on their perceived solutions to the conflict. Interestingly, most of these aspects such as constitution-making, stability, democracy and development are part of the liberal peace paradigm that some regional leaders, like Uganda’s Museveni, often speak against (State House Uganda, 2017, 11 May). While this is not the focus of this paper, the fact that the same aspects that regional leaders often describe as imposition of Western norms found their way to a supposedly regional solution to the conflict in South Sudan, is quite telling of the politics of convenience and rhetorical dimensions to regional conflict management in Africa.

Discourses on the South Sudan peace process reveal the obviousness with which various actors within IGAD reproduce certain conceptions of peace and approaches to peacemaking. For example, perceptions on what seemed to work during the 2005 CPA appear to have remained the same in the eyes of IGAD meditators, especially Kenya’s Lazaro Sumbeiywo, who together with Ethiopia’s Mesfin Seyoum and Sudan’s Mohamed ali-Dabi, served as IGAD’s lead mediators (Verjee, 2020, pp. 278, 285–286). Some of the questions that arise are: why do IGAD actors appear to be so sure about the process and its outcomes even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Why do representatives of IGAD member states appear to continually reproduce the same ideas and narratives of peace in South Sudan and the region? Challenges notwithstanding, IGAD’s mediation culminated in the signing of the R-ARCSS (IGAD, 2018 September) whose implementation is dragging on (Onapa, 2019) with the feeling of a failing peace setting in (Awolich, 2020, 07 June, p. 2; Mamdani, 2018, September).

This paper contends that part of the explanation to the phenomenon of South Sudan could be found in the motives behind IGAD’s involvement in the mediation process. Some of those motives, as illustrated by Dawkins (2020), may not necessarily have peace as the end but political, security and economic interests of the involved member states and even of individual regional leaders. It is therefore, important to pay attention to the motivations of leaders of IGAD’s frontline member states in the South Sudan peace process. Thus, the paper argues that IGAD’s structure and functionality are a window to assessing regional politics and power dynamics at the heart of its mediation role in South Sudan.

3.1 Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s structures

To understand IGAD’s conduct during the mediation process, it is important to pay attention to its structures. At the apex of IGAD is the assembly of heads of state and government; the second tier is the council of ministers, with the third tier comprising of the committee of ambassadors; and finally, the fought being the Secretariat (De Klerk, 2007). Other than the Secretariat, the other three are political organs that give political leaders pre-eminence over institutions, making IGAD dependent on personal relationships between leaders of its member states (Bereketeab, 2019, p. 141). As Bereketeab (2019, p. 144) further contends, “IGAD is only as strong as the leaders of the states allow it to be and can engage in peace mediation only where the member-states are willing,” hence revealing why, for example, it intervened in South Sudan but did not in Ethiopia.

In reference to IGAD’s action in South Sudan, one of those who were reached for interviews observed that “this entire process is largely about managing the heads of state[…]if they agree on something, they take action, if they so wish to follow through, they will surely do[…]if they don’t, there is nothing you can do” (Interview, 26 February, 2020). Similar sentiments were echoed by an interlocutor from the Revitalised-Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (R-JMEC), who argued that “we actually came to learn that what really matters here is how to engage the heads of state” (Interview, 28 October, 2020).

IGAD’s leaders failed to reach consensus on how to handle the mediation process (Bereketeab, 2019, p. 140) with the mediators openly disagreeing and competing (Verjee, 2020, p.280). Commenting on this matter, one of the European diplomats in South Sudan argued that: “increasingly we realised and had to take the role of ‘mediating the mediators’” (Interview, 19 June, 2020). Foreign diplomats, especially under the leadership of the Troika (Norway, the UK and the USA) and the IGAD Partners Forum (Back, 2020, pp. 40–41), have been working behind the scenes to try and build consensus among IGAD leaders. One of the diplomats involved in this process decries that “this turned out to be a huge task[…]these guys don’t agree on almost anything” (Interview, 19 June, 2020). Nevertheless, they pushed on as it became increasingly more apparent that progress was pegged on decisions and actions of IGAD’s frontline member states.

Arguably, (re)focussing more on lobbying heads of state inevitably entrenches IGAD as a “club of heads of state,” which is problematic (Apuuli, 2015; Mengisteab, 2014; Mengisteab and Bereketeab, 2012). Yet, the structures of IGAD already vests power on the same leaders who in turn appear reluctant to alter the status quo, perhaps because they want IGAD to remain acquiescent to their manipulative regional political manoeuvres (Interview, 09 March, 2020; Interview, 23 January, 2020) or an entity that only serves as diplomatic forum as opposed to a rule-based institution.

This paper contends that IGAD’s model of centralised and personalised power may equally be advantageous in some ways. For example, it enables IGAD to engage with other global actors and take crucial decisions more expeditiously (Bereketeab, 2019, p. 141). Furthermore, conflict will always happen within a member state whose leader is, a de facto, member of the IGAD assembly of heads of state and government. In this regard, the other leaders are peers and may engage at that level to cause desired change. For instance, President Kirr is a member of IGAD’s assembly of heads of state. He is therefore, both a primary party to the conflict and a member of IGAD’s highest and most significant organ as regards regional peace and security. President Kirr’s rather unique position is not entirely negative because the other heads of state may use IGAD’s heads of state assembly as a forum to prevail upon Kirr to provide a conducive environment for peacemaking at home including through concessions.

The case of South Sudan equally reveals many other layers in IGAD’s structural designs with significant implications on its role in South Sudan. The head of the IGAD’s South Sudan Office (IGAD-SSO) technically neither reports to nor receives instructions from the Secretariat’s Executive Secretary. The IGAD-SSO has its headquarters in Addis Ababa, which as headquarters of the AU is the centre of Africa’s diplomatic interlocution. In effect, this makes the head of the IGAD-SSO more diplomatically accessible, visible and influential compared to the Secretariat that is based in peripheral Djibouti. IGAD’s front-line member states appear to compete over the control the IGAD-SSO, perhaps not necessarily due to the need to resolve the South Sudan conflict but the office’s strategic position (Interview, 23 January, 2020).

Furthermore, IGAD’s structures seem to have been reproduced in the institutions created under the R-ARCSS. For example, R-JMEC is a powerful organ rendering its chair an influential figure. R-JMEC was previously headed by Festus Mogae, former President of Botswana. Some of the IGAD insiders and regional watchers argue that Mogae had greater leverage given his stature as former head of state. For example, one of the interlocutors opined that “Mogae had access to his peers and would engage at the presidential level which was good [because he would push through certain agendas] but also caused unease among regional leaders” (Interview, 28 October, 2020). IGAD’s frontline states are arguably competing over the control of R-JMEC, which is currently under the interim leadership of Kenya’s Charles Gituai.

The South Sudan mediation has further revealed how IGAD’s structures and the institutions established under the R-ARCSS vest absolute powers on leaders of its front-line member states. This calls for the need to pay attention to the power that IGAD’s structures confer on leaders of its members as key to understanding its functionality as far as its role in regional peacemaking is concerned. Furthermore, from the continental point of view, IGAD’s structures have implications on the operationalisation of the APSA and the pursuit of “African solutions to African problems.”

3.2 Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s functionality

Soon after the council of ministers’ meeting that had resolved to commence mediation in ten days, (IGAD, 21 December 2013), IGAD convened an extra-ordinary heads of state and government summit in Nairobi where it called for “face-to-face talks” between South Sudanese belligerents by the end of December 2013 (IGAD, 27 December, 2013). The summit also appointed the late Seyoum Mesfin, the former foreign minister of Ethiopia; Kenya’s Lazaro Sumbeiywo, a retired general and the former mediator of the 2005 CPA, and Mohamed Ahmed al-Dabi, a retired Sudanese general, to lead the process (Verjee, 2020, p.278). Ethiopia’s Mesfin who was then serving as his country’s ambassador to China was to lead (Apuuli, 2015; ICG, 2015 July).

There are debates on the number and selection of the mediators, particularly under the leadership of Mesfin. Why would a mediation in South Sudan be headed by Ethiopia’s ambassador to China who was then domiciled in Beijing, for instance? Part of the explanation to this is to be found in historical dominance of IGAD by Ethiopia, (Bereketeab, 2019, pp. 145–147) and the fact that the USA had been working with Ethiopia to convene and lead the talks (Verjee, 2020, p.278). IGAD is equally about jostling for positions and resources by its front-line member states hence why, for instance, it ended up with three as opposed to a single mediator. One of the diplomats summed this up when he argued that:

For Ethiopia and Mesfin, particularly, this was an opportunity to get back closer home and use this position for his and Ethiopia’s advantage. But as you know, regional heads of state especially ‘the big others’ [Kenya, Sudan and Uganda] had to get something too. That is the reason Kenya and Sudan had to come to the picture because Uganda had already taken sides (Interview, 18 December, 2019).

Having the three mediators and the fact that they did not seem to agree (Verjee, 2020, p. 280) complicated the process no less. Furthermore, the IGAD mediators seem not to have had leverage over the South Sudanese protagonists, which made the latter to disregard the process (Apuuli, 2015, p.125). Political intrigues surrounding the relations and the operations of IGAD’s three mediators form dominant part of the discourses on the IGAD-led peace process for South Sudan. For example, Verjee (2020, p. 280) argues that “the individual envoys jockeyed to advance their preferred understandings of peace, what mediation is and what the mediation ought to achieve, whether or not this was consistent with the actions of their counterparts.”

The disappointments and frustrations of those who worked with IGAD’s mediation team are palpable in their comments on the topic. For example, one of the interlocutors termed working with IGAD’s team of mediators “a complete headache” (Interview, 07 January, 2020). Although the popular discourse on IGAD’s team of mediators is an expression of frustrations by those who worked with them, and apparent dysfunction on the part of IGAD, it is important to pay attention to the fact that mediators were an outcome of a negotiated political arrangement. Thus, as Verjee (2020, p. 282) rightly observes “in practice, each envoy was briefing his own leader on his own interpretation of events and making his own requests for action.”

An analysis of IGAD’s functionality in relation to mediating the South Sudan conflict reveals a process largely driven by decisions and actions of leaders of IGAD’s frontline states. The process that led to the R-ACRSS, for example, is seen as a direct result of personal efforts of Sudan’s Omar al Bashir and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (Interview, 23 January 2020). Prior to that, Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed played a central role in the release of Riek Machar from the controversial “house arrest” in South Africa (Africa News, March 2018) and facilitating a meeting between Kirr and Machar in Addis Ababa that fed into the Bashir–Museveni initiative that culminated in the R-ARCSS (Interview, 09 March, 2020).

The case of South Sudan reveals that IGAD’s functionality on matters of regional peace and security is a prerogative of leaders of its front-line states. While the long term utility of this arrangement is debatable, it arguably reveals a situation that may not change anytime soon. As already argued, IGAD is as good as what leaders of its frontline member states decide. Furthermore, some of the regional watchers argue that leaders of IGAD’s frontline member states do not have any appetite to alter the status quo (Interview, 09 March, 2020; Interview, 23 January, 2020). This calls for the need to rethink the utility of IGAD’s obtaining functional design as a diplomatic forum even as a conversation and attempts of its transformation into a rule-based entity continue. This is especially important because of the fact that conflicts in the region will not wait for the latter to materialize.

Lastly, this paper contends that the manner in which IGAD functions is observable across other RECs in Africa. This raises questions on the efficacy and sustainability of the use of RECs as norm-implementers under the APSA and in the quest for “African solutions to African problems.” The following section briefly examines the APSA in view of lessons from IGAD’s structure and functionality as reflected in the case of South Sudan and what this means for regional conflict management in Africa.

3.3 Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the Africa peace and security architecture

Criticisms notwithstanding, IGAD insiders and representatives of its member states point at the South Sudan peace agreement as a success and quickly link it to the notion of “African solutions to African problems.” For example, an Ethiopian diplomat opined that “what we have achieved in South Sudan through IGAD shows what regional bodies can do in giving solutions to problems of Africa by Africans” (Interview, 23 February, 2020). His Ugandan counterpart held that “IGAD has proved now and again that as a region we are prepared and willing to solve our issues in line with the AU peace and security agenda” (Interview, 10 February, 2020). Related to this are assertions by an IGAD bureaucrat who argued that: “we are operating within a well-established framework within the AU that provides space for sub-regional bodies to take responsibility in responding to peace problems in their respective areas” (Interview, 28 February, 2020).

The foregoing avowals arguably situate IGAD’s peacemaking efforts in South Sudan within a Pan-African vision of peace and security as contained in the “African solutions to African problems” maxim and the APSA framework. This maxim is traceable to the Organisation of African Unity Charter with its “try Africa first” and is largely used as an emotive, politically-charged call (Lobakeng, 2017 October, pp. 1–2) evoking a sense of self-reliance, responsibility, pride and ownership amongst all Africans (Nathan, 2013 October, pp. 48–55). This thinking has since evolved into a Pan-African solidarity norm widespread among African leaders that the ethically-acceptable behaviour of African political elites is to demonstrate a feeling of oneness and support towards other Africans (Tieku, 2014, p. 15).

The evolution of the Pan-African norm received impetus with the emergence of the notion of “African Renaissance” in the 1990s integrated into a thinking of (re)positioning the continent in an emerging post-Cold War order. It resulted in the New Partnership for African Development in 2001, the (re)birth of the AU and the launching of the APSA in 2002. These mechanisms embody aspirations for African-led responses to the depredations of colonialism, imperialism and globalisation as well as forging for African solidarity, norms, institutions and mechanisms as solutions to challenges facing Africa (Adetula et al., 2021, p. 2). Thus, the maxim as crafted into the said structures apply to a wide range of issues, including the APSA, which encompasses the Peace and Security Council (PSC), the Continental Early Warning System, the African Standby Force, the PoW and the Peace Fund (Lobakeng, October 2017, p. 1). Charged with the responsibility of supporting “the efforts of the PSC and those of the Chairperson of the Commission, particularly in the area of conflict prevention”, the PoW is “a five-person panel of highly respected African personalities from various segments of society who have made outstanding contributions to the cause of peace, security and development on the continent” (AU, 2018, 24 April).

While representatives of IGAD and its members situate IGAD’s functionality within the APSA, collaboration between the two is weak and coordination is poor. For example, the IGAD-AU liaison officer acknowledges that “our biggest challenge has been coordination of our intervention” (Interview, 11 March, 2020). Similar sentiments were echoed by an IGAD bureaucrat who observed that “we are still struggling with how best to forge a strong collaboration between the AU and IGAD” (Interview, 28 February, 2020). The foregoing assertions echo earlier claims that “although an institutional framework towards regional integration exists in Africa, implementation of many of the protocols signed over the past five decades have often been hampered by ineffective coordination between the AU and Africa’s sub-regional bodies” (Daniel & Nagar, 2014, October).

Notably, various initiatives to address the challenges of AU-RECs collaboration and coordination are underway. For example, in July 2019, the AU-RECs inaugural meeting was held to address the issue of division of labour (AU, 2019 July) although modalities of their collaboration remain to be seen (Coe and Nash, 2020). Yet, while it is easier to call for coordination, the question of coordination is problematic in the sense that it tends to leave undecided the aspect of who actually takes responsibility for which decision and action. The real issue with coordination is: what is there to coordinate if and when visions and interests of member are divergent and priorities unlined? This question can be expected to permeate theory and policy debates for a long time.

The case of IGAD’s peace process for South Sudan reveals that regional peace and security processes largely entail management of the balance of power among and between the involved actors, particularly member states and their leaders. Owing to its structural and functional dynamics, IGAD’s decisions and actions are initiated and driven by leaders of its member states, particularly the frontline ones. The same applies to the AU’s peace and security agenda in which “African solutions to the African problems” seem to be pursued through engagements of and by eminent African personalities inspired by the Pan-African norm and their own visions. As one of the Nigerian diplomats at the AU noted, “African solutions are such as what we saw in Liberia in the case of Charles Taylor or what we recently saw in The Gambia regarding the case of Yahya Jammeh.” He proceeded to assert that “in essence, this whole process entails leaders of the African continent using their influence to bring an end to widespread violence by engaging their fellow leaders through incentives or even threats.” He concluded by observing that “this kind of approach has been tested and it shows that it can actually work[…]the problem is that there is so much external interference and intra-Africa divisions which make it difficult for African leaders to be consistent in pursuing these approaches” (Interview, 03 March, 2020). Although the “African solutions to African problems” arguably functions in the manner explained by the foregoing interlocutor, it does not always play out the same way. Sometimes, these aspects are conveniently appropriated by regional leaders in pursuit of calculated political, security and economic ends.

The case of IGAD in South Sudan reveals a tendency by regional leaders to deploy the APSA as mere tool of convenience. As one of my informants argued “the regional heads of state openly speak nicely about the AU architecture, privately they are hostile to the idea of AU’s involvement closer home. They like IGAD to intervene because they know they can manipulate it” (Interview, 09 March 2020). For the regional leaders, functional arrangements of IGAD that robustly positions it within APSA’s pursuit of a Pan-African agenda for peace and security may neither be a priority nor desirable. Arguably, what matters to regional leaders is how to use IGAD as a platform to draw out some gains and position themselves within regional spheres of influence (Interview, 23 January, 2020). As such, regional leaders may conveniently sustain a rhetoric that IGAD is functioning well and operating within the APSA while making no effort or even undermining any attempts to enhance the collaborative framework between the two levels. This calls for a rethinking of how best to (re)position IGAD to constructively, creatively and predictably engage on issues of regional peace and security, such as in South Sudan.

4. Conclusion

The case of South Sudan has once again revealed that IGAD’s efforts and outcomes on regional peace and security are a mixed basket. Yet, as Back (2020, p. 124) observes “IGAD’s institutional experience accumulated over many years of active mediation in East Africa, marked by both successes and failures, will most likely continue to be required in this region.” Based on empirical evidence, this paper contends that IGAD’s inaction or action, failure or success, are largely determined by the prevailing regional politics and the role that regional heads of state and government, particularly of its front-line member states are able and willing to play. Regional leaders have equally demonstrated their preference of IGAD over the AU and the UN because of their perceived interest in keeping regional peace and security issues under their control. This is, partly, because regional leaders know that they have a level of leverage over IGAD which they may not have over the AU and other global actors, such as the UN, hence are more comfortable with the former and in its current state.

In view of the foregoing, and without prejudice to the reform agenda, this paper suggests revamping IGAD’s political program and transforming it into a robust political bureau. The bureau should be sufficiently resourced and empowered to engage in continuous assessment of the status of regional peace and security to inform action by lobbying heads of state and government of IGAD’s frontline member states. In view of IGAD’s collaboration with the AU under the APSA, in the continental body’s pursuit of “African solutions to African problems,” IGAD’s political bureau should be linked to the APSA’s PoW. This would ensure constant communication and collaboration at those two strategic levels. For example, a member of the PoW may be co-opted into the IGAD political bureau, hence ensuring free-flow of feedback between the two levels for timely and coherent decisions and actions. The strategic benefit of a pragmatic strategic collaboration between the AU and the RECs is that the former enjoys the legitimacy and is well-positioned within the international and local confluence hence can use the APSA to assume the role of norm-setting and coordination while the latter implements Africa’s peace and security agenda. The AU, therefore, can engage in setting of certain standards to which RECs, like IGAD, will be required to align with and measure up to, effectively improving prospects for “African solutions to African problems.”

The above recommendation is based on this paper’s empirically-supported argument on the need to (re)think and (re)orient regional conflict management in a manner that advances the reform agenda while pragmatically maximising the opportunities available in the obtaining situation. Arguably, the establishment and operationalization of a political bureau and a collaborative framework between IGAD’s assembly of heads of state and the APSA’s PoW may appear less threatening to the interests of regional leaders, hence embraced by them. In so doing, a less-controversial framework will be established, which may respond to conflicts in a timelier, constructive and predictable manner way before IGAD can ever evolve into a strong and rule-based institution.


Interview with a Representative of R-JMEC based in Juba held virtually on 28 October, 2020.

Interview with an Ambassador of European Country to South Sudan held in Nairobi on 19 June, 2020.

Interview with the IGAD-AU Liaison Officer held in Addis Ababa on 11 March, 2020.

Interview with a Sudanese Diplomat at the UN Office in Addis Ababa held in Addis Ababa on 09 March, 2020.

Interview with a Nigerian Diplomat at the AU held in Addis Ababa on 03 March, 2020.

Interview with IGAD Staffer held in Addis Ababa on 28 February, 2020.

Interview with a Regional Analyst in held in Addis Ababa on 26 February, 2020.

Interview with Ethiopian Diplomat in Addis Ababa on 23 February, 2020.

Interview with a Ugandan Diplomat at the Uganda Foreign Affairs Ministry held in Kampala on 10 February, 2020.

Interview with a Ugandan scholar held in Kampala on 23 January, 2020.

Interview with a Member of IGAD Mediation Advisory Team in Nairobi on 07 January. 2020.

Interview with a Sudanese Diplomat in Nairobi on 18. December 2019.


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Other than the generous grant from the International Peace Research Association Foundation (IPRAF) of US$5,000 for fieldwork, the author conducted this research while on a generous studentship from Loughborough University, which covered part of the costs as well as insurance. Ethical approval: This study was approved by Loughborough University’s ethical sub-committee on 08 July, 2019 as study R19-P116.

Corresponding author

Ibrahim Sakawa Magara can be contacted at:

About the author

Ibrahim Sakawa Magara is a PhD student at Loughborough University. Magara’s research interests is at the intersections of peace, power and politics in Africa, particularly as performed in and by Regional Economic Communities. Magara’s PhD project is on regional conflict management in Africa with a focus on the Intergovernmental Authority on Development-led peace process for South Sudan. Magara was a 2020–2021 Policy Leader Fellow at the School of Transnational Governance, the European University Institute. He is equally the founding Director of Peace Africa, a consultancy firm based in Nairobi, Kenya with a focus on peace research and peace policy advice. Magara has previously worked with various organisations in the non-profit sector with the most recent being Catholic Relief Services, where he headed the peace and justice program in Kenya and supported the agency’s continental-wide peacebuilding initiatives under the platform of Africa Justice and Peace Network.

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