In the first years after its launch in November 2007, the African Union's Panel of the Wise was an important pillar of the African Peace and Security Architecture. The other pillars are the Peace and Security Council, the Continental Early Warning System, the African Standby Force and the Peace Fund.
The panel is an interesting but small institution. Its neither a mediation organ nor a think tank, but something in between and, in principle, has lots of leeway. In the past, the panel has brought many important and complex conflict-related topics to the agenda of the African Union. These include proposing measures to prevent political violence and fight impunity.
The terms of office of the five members of the panel expired in mid-2020. It was inactive until February 2022 when a fifth panel was appointed during the 35th African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government.
This relaunch, with an inaugural meeting on 29 March 2022, raised expectations that the panel could again become a proactive force of the African Peace and Security Architecture.
Having worked, between 2006 and 2019, as an advisor to the union's peace and security department on early warning, conflict prevention and preventative diplomacy, I consider reinvigorating the panel an important indicator for the African Union's future in meeting the challenge of silencing the guns in Africa by 2030. This is a key union initiative that aims to end all wars, conflicts and gender-based violence, and prevent genocide for a peaceful continent.
Read more: Why the African Union has failed to 'silence the guns'. And some solutions
The question is whether the union has the strategic vision and political will to revive an important institution and make best use of it.
Efforts to promote peace across the continent go back to the earliest days of the African Union's predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity. In 1964, the organisation installed a Commission of Mediation, Conciliation and Arbitration.
However, it was never institutionalised. Rather, a variety of informal ad hoc peacemaking practices were developed to be executed by African heads of state and government. These were never operationalised.
In 1991, in rethinking how it addresses violent conflict, the organisation suggested creating an Africa's Elders Council for Peace. This was based on traditional conflict resolution practices in many African societies - or at least their idealisation.
Regional economic communities, for instance the Economic Community of West African States, followed suit. It made the Council of Elders part of its peace and security architecture.
Read more: The African Union at 20: a lot has been achieved despite many flaws
When the African Union came into being in 2002, those designing the revamped continental body had these experiences in mind. However, the panel was only installed in November 2007.
The panel's role is to
It is also required to advise the council and the chairperson of the African Union Commission "on all issues pertaining to the promotion and maintenance of peace, security and stability in Africa".
The panel can act at the request of the council, chairperson or "at its own initiative". It can pronounce itself on any issue "relating to the promotion and maintenance of peace, security and stability in Africa".
It reports to the African Union Assembly through the Peace and Security Council.
Members of the panel are:
They are nominated by the five African regions - West, North, East, Central and Southern Africa - and appointed by the assembly to serve for a period of three years, renewable once.
Members receive an allowance when meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, or when travelling. They don't get a salary.
What the panel has achieved
In my view, the panel has had three major achievements.
The first is agenda setting. The first two panels (2007-2010 and 2010-2013) framed important themes for the African Union. This included election-related disputes and political violence (2010), women and children in violent conflict (2011), strengthening political governance in view of the 2011 popular uprisings in North Africa and beyond (2011), and addressing the nexus between transitional justice and peace (2013).
The second achievement has been in institutionalisation and networking. An example is the Network of African Women in Conflict Prevention and Mediation, or FemWise-Africa, which was set up in July 2017.
Read more: Next steps to getting Africa's protocol on women's rights implemented
The network has attracted funding from the donor community, but the COVID-19 pandemic set back its progress. It has, however, resumed trainings to bolster women's participation in diplomacy and mediation efforts. There are 500 members waiting to be deployed in mediation efforts.
The third achievement has been in enhancing the union's mediation capacities, even though it isn't the mediation arm of the continental body. Members of the panel have been involved behind the scenes in various situations, and supported official mediation teams.
This has mainly been done through "fact-finding, conciliation and the facilitation of communication", as noted in one of the few reports done on the panel.
The Panel of the Wise faces three major challenges.
The first relates to its positioning within the African Union and the way its financing works. The panel's secretariat is housed in the Political Affairs, Peace and Security Department (previously called Peace and Security). This has affected its independent status. Members of the panel depend on the goodwill of the Peace and Security Commissioner to do their work.
Addiitonally, the panel doesn't have a budget, which means it has to ask for assistance each time it wants to engage with a situation on its own terms. In the past, funding for specific missions was sometimes simply denied. As a result, the third and fourth panels (2014-2017 and 2017-2020) were more or less sidelined and achieved very little.
Read more: The African Union's conflict early warning system is no more. What now?
Two, some appointees dropped out as active members of the panel because they considered the position more of an honorary one.
Three, the emphasis on "respected African personalities" has led to a situation where appointees tend to be quite old when they join the panel. The average age of the current four members of the panel (a member for the Southern Africa region still has to be nominated) at the time of appointment was nearly 76 years.
The panel's future
Turning the Panel of the Wise into a proactive pillar of the African Union's peace and security architecture requires at least three steps.
Read more: The AU's peace and security architecture: filling the gaps
First, provide it with independent funding.
Second, beef up the secretariat's human resources so that it can provide services beyond simple travel logistics.
Third, the panel needs to develop a strategic agenda with a focus on framing important challenges and possible policy responses to Africa's peace and security landscape. It must not get lost in ad hoc activities without visibility or strategic aim. The panel's inaugural meeting bodes well in this respect.
Author: Ulf Engel - Professor, Institute of African Studies, University of Leipzig