Continental institutions are being sidelined in a new 'scramble for Africa', write Mark Paterson and Chris Saunders
When he took office as Africa's first United Nations (UN) Secretary General in 1992, Egyptian scholar-diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali complained that the Western powers, who dominate proceedings at the world body's Security Council, were interested only in tackling "rich men's wars" in the Balkans to the detriment of Africa's "poor men's wars".
Two years later, genocide in Rwanda claimed the lives of 800,000, giving awful substance to Boutros-Ghali's fears. The mass murder came only six months after American blood was spilled in a peacekeeping mission in Somalia — when eighteen US soldiers (as well as about 1,000 Somalis) were killed in October 1993.
While tens of thousands of Africans were being killed in Rwanda and as the UN mission there failed to take action, the administration of American president Bill Clinton, having burnt its fingers in Somalia, issued a directive seeking to curtail US involvement in such peacekeeping operations in Africa due to their cost and danger.
The Rwandan genocide proved a watershed, confirming the need for the international community to protect civilian populations threatened by warring parties that can include their own governments.
However, an "aristocracy of death" has subsequently characterised the military personnel placed in harm's way on such missions, according to Adekeye Adebajo, the author of a new book on the subject, UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts.
At present, more than 70 per cent of all UN peacekeeping personnel have been deployed in various African missions — with 19,000 uniformed UN personnel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) alone. The peacekeepers in the firing line are generally African, Asian and from poorer countries rather than from the wealthy West, Adebajo told a recent meeting on the book held by the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town.
The rationale as well as the modus operandi of UN peacekeeping in Africa has often served the interests of the "great powers" — the winners of the Second World War in 1945 (the US, China, Russia, France, and Britain) who occupy the permanent five seats on the UN Security Council and enjoy veto power.
Chairing the recent book launch, Aziz Pahad, the former South African Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, argued that UN instruments are increasingly being co-opted in a new "Scramble for Africa" that seeks to recolonise its resources. In the wake of recent UN-backed interventions in Africa — in Côte d'Ivoire and Libya — that enabled changes of regime, Pahad talked of how the Security Council was now viewed by some critics as an active threat to the very security it seeks to provide.
To counter what Adebajo calls "the games that great powers play", the meeting stressed the importance of more effective African representation on the Security Council, and stronger coordination and promotion of continental interests through the 15-member Peace and Security Council of the AU.
Indeed, the launch of peacekeeping missions depends on a convergence of international, regional, and national demands: the interests of key Security Council members; the willingness of local warring parties to cooperate; and the support of neighbouring powers — particularly hegemons such as South Africa and Nigeria and South Africa — who must be prepared to isolate spoilers unwilling to resolve conflicts.
Given Africa's lack of resources and capacity, Adebajo's book stresses the vital role that UN peacekeeping can play — but as a force for "freezing" conflicts, for preventing their deterioration, rather than for solving their causes, which is a process properly led by African, rather than external, actors.
The importance of a more effective division of labour between the UN, the AU and regional organisations such as the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States was discussed at the meeting.
Although the UN Charter gives the world body the primary responsibility for keeping the peace, the UN has no dedicated force of its own and has to draw upon those of its member states. This has often caused problems, the South African Special Representative to the Great Lakes Region, Welile Nhlapo, told the meeting. UN peacekeepers may hail from countries which participate mainly for the revenue that is offered for joining the mission.
Lack of concern for the local population can segue into criminality: in the eastern Congo especially, peacekeepers have reportedly looted, raped and, in rare cases, murdered local people.
In addition, UN "blue helmets" by their very presence can exacerbate the conflicts that they were sent to resolve. Nhlapo described how such external interventions can embarrass the governments which have sought such help, exacerbating the fragility of already fragile states.
The alien and very visible UN peacekeepers in their distinct uniforms and white vans can heighten insecurity, underlining the state of war to the population.
Other "unintended consequences" highlighted by Nhlapo included the threat of inflation, sparked by the spending power of relatively well-paid foreign peacekeepers.
On the other hand, UN peacekeepers have scored some significant successes in Africa — and the form of intervention has a long history on the continent, going back to the Suez crisis of 1956, the UN's first ever armed mission.
Africa also hosted the world body's first attempt to enforce peace, when the UN intervened in the Congo between 1960 and 1964 and kept the country together. A long period followed, during the Cold War, when no further UN peacekeeping missions were sent to Africa. But from 1989, when the world body engaged in Namibia and deployed its first ever multidimensional mission (involving peacekeepers, civilians and police and overseeing military and political transition including elections), there have been many.
Integrated UN peacekeeping mission now often do much more than merely keep the peace: in the DRC, for example, they are about to help supervise the holding of a second election.
In time, Africa may have a standby force that can take the place of UN troops, but that is still a way off. Only in Southern and West Africa is it likely for one to be operational in the near future.
In the meantime, African continental, regional and national bodies continue to wrestle with the issues of power and powerlessness created in the UN Security Council in New York. Most recently, a UN resolution authorising all necessary means to protect civilians in Libya was interpreted by powerful Western countries that supported it as meaning that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation could undertake "regime change".
African frustration at the apparent disregard for African sovereignty and sidelining of African institutions has exacerbated tensions in the continent's continuing fraught relationship with the body that is supposed to secure world peace.
Mark Paterson and Chris Saunders are at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town
UN Peacekeeping in Africa considers the successes and failures of UN peacekeeping in Africa.