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Resolving African Conflicts

Author: Stephanie Hanson
February 8, 2008


Since its disputed election in December, Kenya has descended—with frightening speed—into angry mayhem. Supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga are upset because they believe the election was stolen; ethnic groups are fighting one another over perceived economic injustices; some armed groups are little more than criminal gangs. As the population grows more polarized, efforts to resolve the political crisis look increasingly inadequate. Kenya’s impasse highlights the difficulty of conflict resolution on a continent that lacks regional leaders but whose complex crises tend to thwart international resolution efforts. The United States has increased pressure on Nairobi (NYT) to compromise, and while Kenya is not on the five-country itinerary of President Bush’s upcoming Africa visit, it’s sure to be on the agenda. 

Kenya is just one of several continental calamities. On February 2, rebels attacked N’Djamena and attempted to overthrow Chad’s president. Across the border, the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region that has displaced millions and left hundreds of thousand dead continues. In the same neighborhood are the conflict in Somalia, considered a failed state, and the border standoff between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which threatens to escalate into war.

African states that were once seen as continental leaders, such as Nigeria and South Africa, are preoccupied with domestic issues. “South Africa and Nigeria need time for internal reflection because previous presidents were very ambitious internationally,” says Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a British think tank. This leaves a leadership void on the continent, according to some experts, and bodes poorly for long-term security. Mid-sized states such as Ghana and Tanzania show promise, but due to their limited financial resources, it is unlikely they will wield significant influence beyond their subregions.

The African Union suffers from the same lack of strong leadership. While the mantra “African solutions for African problems” has become popular since the establishment of the African Union in 2002, in reality the young organization is ill-equipped to cope with continental crises. Experts say the body, which aims to protect the security of the continent, is already overstretched by peacekeeping in Somalia and Darfur. It has difficulty getting members to pay their dues.

The United Nations devotes significant resources to addressing conflicts in Africa. So far this year, nine of the UN Security Council’s sixteen meetings have been on African countries. The body’s calendar for February (PDF) is dominated by the continent—from Sudan to Somalia to the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

In Kenya and Chad, international efforts have produced scant results. Attempts by a group of mediators led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to eke out a power-sharing agreement between Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Odinga have made little progress. “The international bodies and countries that might have been expected to squeeze Mr. Kibaki into seeing sense have been incoherent,” writes the Economist. After rebels invaded Chad’s capital, the UN Security Council condemned the attack but did not offer concrete assistance.

The United Nations has provided critical peacekeeping forces in countries such as Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but such forces are only a piece of the conflict-resolution puzzle. And in the case of Darfur, where the UN Security Council has authorized a 26,000-strong joint UN/AU peacekeeping force, the Sudanese government has obstructed the force on so many fronts that the head of UN peacekeeping says it will take the rest of 2008 for deployment. A planned European Union peacekeeping contingent for Eastern Chad likely precipitated the rebel attack in Chad, says Africa expert Alex de Waal in a Podcast. Journalist Simon Roughneen agrees. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” he writes in a commentary for the Online Africa Policy Forum.

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