Peace talks that seek to end armed conflicts are underway in several African countries. Because very few conflicts are resolved on the battlefield, negotiations are fundamental. But they often fail. And even when an agreement is concluded, it doesn’t always last.
So what are the factors that lead to successful peace talks?
To start, negotiating peace is complex. If it wasn’t, conflicts would be resolved more quickly and peace would last longer. Recognising this complexity is essential.
Significant expertise has been developed in the field of peace mediation over the past decades. The African Union and the United Nations have set up mediation teams. Several specialised non-governmental organisations have been created, like the South Africa-based organisation Accord and the Switzerland-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
These actors, along with regional powers and other states, often roll out several peace initiatives simultaneously. This can be helpful to deal with the complexity of armed conflicts.
As an international law and peace scholar, I have analysed many different peace negotiations and agreements. There have been some great successes in Africa, such as the 1992 peace agreement that ended the 16-year long civil war in Mozambique.
But there have also been spectacular failures, like in Sierra Leone, where fighting flared up just after the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement in 1999. And there are several ongoing conflicts that urgently require a peaceful resolution, for example in Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Based on my research, I would argue that there are four key factors that make (or break) mediation efforts. These include a sustained commitment from several actors to building peace; serious efforts to develop trust and listen to grievances; an attunement to timing; and an acceptance of peace as a process.
First, peace has a better chance when war is attacked from several sides. Multiple mediation processes can facilitate the inclusion of different stakeholders, such as civil society actors. This is crucial, precisely because more inclusive processes increase the chances of durable peace.
At the same time, however, it can be problematic when too many actors are involved. In Sudan’s ongoing conflict, this has led to a piecemeal approach and to unhelpful competition between different regional and international actors who often pursue their own interests.
Second, the organisation or the specific mediator in question must be trusted by the parties. A good example of this is the Catholic Community of Sant-Egidio, which facilitated the conclusion of the peace agreement in Mozambique.
Building trust and listening to grievances is important. This helps find creative solutions that give guarantees to all the parties and allow them to imagine a common future.
But contrary to ordinary understandings of mediation, peace mediators don’t have to be perfectly neutral and unbiased. Blaise Compaoré, the former president of Burkina Faso, mediated the 2007 negotiations between the government of Côte d’Ivoire and the rebellious Forces Nouvelles, which Compaoré had overtly supported. In the agreement that followed, the parties made Compaoré an arbitrator in the implementation phase. In other words, a mediator can be an insider who has close relationships with one of the parties.
A third factor for successful peace talks is timing. Since negotiations typically take place in the shadow of military gains and losses, it’s often assumed that it only makes sense to start negotiations when both sides believe that they can gain more from negotiating than from fighting.
But waiting for the “ripe moment” to start high-level negotiations is problematic. It can prolong a conflict unnecessarily and lead to extreme suffering. In Sudan – where the national army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces have been fighting each other since mid-April 2023 – more than one million people have already been displaced. And in the Ethiopian region of Tigray, a ceasefire agreement was concluded in November 2022, but only after hundreds of thousands of people had been killed over two years of conflict.
Therefore, peace actors should constantly search for entry points to create opportunities for building peace instead of waiting for the perfect conditions. They can convince the conflict parties that negotiations are not zero-sum games and don’t automatically lead to painful compromises.
Fourth, how “peace” is understood plays a major role. It’s often thought that no fighting means peace, and that an agreement will end violence and suffering almost instantly. This is rarely true. An agreement is only one small step in an often long process.
Moreover, while a ceasefire is always desirable because it means less violence and less suffering, it’s not absolutely necessary to negotiate substantive issues. Many negotiations, from Bosnia to Colombia, have been held while fighting continued, and yet a substantive peace agreement was eventually concluded.
And it can be alright to agree to disagree: not everything can or needs to be resolved in the same deal. Some root causes of conflict, like the historical marginalisation of minority groups or of certain regions, can be difficult to tackle. But it’s possible to put in place measures and mechanisms to envisage improvements.
Partial agreements can be a good option, even if this approach obviously takes time. In Senegal, for example, it’s only earlier this year, after decades of conflict and many years of mediation, that one of the factions of the rebellious Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance agreed to lay down its weapons.
It’s vital to do more to prevent armed conflicts in the first place. Continuously rising military expenditures and few restrictions on weapons sales mean that weapons are easily available in many places. The international community should, therefore, urgently make more efforts to halt the massive production and circulation of weapons.
And although every conflict has its own dynamics, poverty, global inequalities and exploitation are always significant factors. Tackling these issues isn’t straightforward, but it would help prevent and resolve armed conflicts, and would pay off in the long run.
Peace is a process, and it requires significant commitment.
Philipp Kastner, Senior Lecturer in International Law, The University of Western Australia