In Other Words

Africa Keeps Its Peace

Conflict Trends, No. 2, June 2004, KwaZulu-Natal Peacekeeping in Africa is something of a moving target. Establishing even temporary peace and security in one country seems to impel conflict in others. Not surprisingly, the West has had little enthusiasm for complex African peace operations, reflected in their pitiful contribution of "blue helmets" to such missions. ...

Conflict Trends,
No. 2, June 2004, KwaZulu-Natal

Peacekeeping in Africa is something of a moving target. Establishing even temporary peace and security in one country seems to impel conflict in others. Not surprisingly, the West has had little enthusiasm for complex African peace operations, reflected in their pitiful contribution of "blue helmets" to such missions. Instead of well-equipped and trained European or American troops, the job too frequently falls to ragtag African militaries to step in and keep the peace as best they can.

This reality is examined in a series of essays in the latest edition of Conflict Trends, a quarterly magazine published by the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (accord). Its authors wrestle with the sorry state of African peacekeeping and ask what Africa’s capacity is to resolve its own conflicts. They also analyze how the international community might help non-Western peace operations fare better in the field.

In his keynote article, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Ramesh Thakur sharply criticizes the United States’ role in global peacekeeping, which generally takes place in locations that "can neither be pronounced nor remembered by U.S. voters or members of Congress, and sometimes even by presidents." Thakur does not mask his frustration. In decidedly undiplomatic language, the diplomat suggests that U.N. bashing by American politicians sometimes serves to "deflect criticisms from the failures of the administration," adding that the United States bears "significant responsibility" for U.N. peacekeeping failures such as in Somalia, where "U.S. troops went on a hunt for General [Mohammed Farah] Aideed like cowboys." But, whether he likes it or not, Thakur knows the United States and the United Nations need each other. The United Nations cannot function without America’s military, diplomatic, and financial support. The U.S. military cannot achieve long-term peace and stability in many troubled parts of the world without U.N. expertise and international legitimacy.

Although Thakur’s criticisms are aimed at the United States, many of his arguments could apply to any Western state with a reasonably competent military, none of which are showing much peacekeeping leadership in Africa. Regardless of how one feels about U.S. policies or performance, the reality is that the U.S. military is — and, for the foreseeable future, likely to remain — overstretched and unable to support U.N. peacekeeping operations alone.

That reality is bad news, in the view of ACCORD advisor Cedric de Coning and security studies scholar Eric Berman. Both argue that Africa cannot manage peace operations on its own, and that the continent needs the robust support of the United Nations and Western governments. Each author cites a familiar litany of handicaps for regional peacekeeping: scarce resources, lack of long-term logistics capabilities, and heavy reliance on outside expertise and funding. Peacekeeping missions need a sustained commitment if they are to have a chance at success. Given their limited resources, how will African forces have the stamina to complete the job? Oddly, neither author mentions the role of the private sector, which is increasingly stepping in to provide the sort of logistics and training that African peacekeeping missions so desperately need.

The African record does have its share of success stories. Festus Aboagye, a retired colonel in the Ghanaian army, has served on several peacekeeping missions. Now with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, he takes a nuts-and-bolts look at the first African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission, which deployed in Burundi in 2003. The mission had many of the characteristics of African peacekeeping operations to date: inadequate funding, problematic logistics, language barriers, and a vague mandate for which the proffered force was inadequate. Still, the AU did manage to stabilize 95 percent of the countryside — a surprising achievement that yielded huge humanitarian benefits, such as resettling refugees and allowing relief organizations to travel and work in relative safety. In other words, the AU’s Burundi mission was arguably more effective, and certainly less expensive, than the typical U.N. mission.

Although these essays as a collection highlight the chronic problems of African peacekeeping, they are overly pessimistic. Time and again, African militaries have taken on tasks that most Western observers considered beyond their capabilities and fared better than anyone expected. Perhaps the West simply needs to recognize that there are shades of success which, while incomplete, are still infinitely better than doing nothing at all.

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