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African Peacekeeping Operations

Author: Esther Pan
December 2, 2005


Some of the most challenging conflicts in the world at the moment are in Africa: the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan and less-than-transparent governments and ongoing uncertainty in Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are just some examples. In many cases, the developed world watches these conflicts develop; in the worst cases, as in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it does nothing to intervene. When it does intervene—most often in the form of a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission—the results have been mixed, experts say. Below is a look at peacekeeping missions in Africa.


How successful have peacekeeping operations been in Africa?

Some projects have succeeded, while many have failed to quell violence or restore order in the countries to which they were deployed. By the start of 2005, the UN had led seven peace operations in Africa: in Burundi, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia/Eritrea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Western Sahara, with an eighth operation planned for Sudan. Experts say peacekeeping operations can be indispensable. "I think they're essential," says Princeton Lyman, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "In West Africa especially, peacekeeping missions have been critical to bringing countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia out of civil war."

How many UN missions have there been in Africa?

There have been fifty-four UN Peacekeeping Missions in Africa since 1948. African troops have been involved in all but ten of these. At the start of 2005, peacekeepers in Africa made up nearly 50,000 of the 65,000 UN peacekeepers deployed worldwide, according to a report from the Henry L. Stimson Center, African Capacity-Building for Peace Operations: UN Collaboration with the African Union and ECOWAS.

Are African organizations starting to play a bigger role in peacekeeping operations on the continent?

Yes. Recently, regional groups like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) are focusing on building their own capacity to carry out peacekeeping operations in Africa. These missions are conducted with support from the UN and western nations, which are happy to have African soldiers patrolling African conflicts. Recent examples include:

  • Liberia, 2003. Violence between supporters of then-President Charles Taylor and rebels opposed to his rule escalated until ECOWAS deployed a Nigerian-led force, with U.S. support, in August. Nigerian President Olusegun Obansanjo also led extensive AU diplomatic efforts, which ended with Taylor agreeing to step down and enter into exile in Nigeria. The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) took over the mission in September 2003. In November 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president in what international observers called a free and fair election.
  • Burundi, 2003. Violent conflict between Hutu and Tutsi factions led to intervention by an AU force with troops from South Africa, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. The UN Operation in Burundi (ONUB) took over in June 2004.
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 2003. Ethnic conflict between rival militias in the northeastern Ituri district led to a French-led intervention in June. The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), created in 1999 after the country's civil war, took over the mission in fall 2003.
  • Sudan, 2004. Ongoing attacks by armed, government-backed militias against the African residents of Sudan's western Darfur province inspired the deployment of an AU observer mission in June 2004, giving the UN time to plan a broader peace operation in the country's south. The UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), established in March 2005, has committed to "closely and continuously liaise and coordinate at all levels" with the AU mission.
Why are so many peacekeeping missions needed?

Many factors contribute to the need for peacekeeping missions in Africa, not least the continent's history of colonialism and conflict. The end of the Cold War coincided with the collapse of state institutions in countries like Liberia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, and the Congo (DRC). Disputes over natural resources—diamonds in Sierra Leone, gold and cobalt in the DRC—led to armed conflict that evolved into guerilla warfare involving mercenaries, warlords, militias, and child soldiers. A massive influx of weapons and small arms from Eastern Europe in the 1990s fed the conflict. The unrest and armed violence in many African countries with no central governing authority caused instability that often spilled over borders. This was particularly true in West Africa, where longstanding cultural and trade ties cross national lines. The international community often responds to such chaos by sending in peacekeeping troops.

Which African political institutions carry out peacekeeping operations?

The Organization of African Unity, Africa's most prominent cross-border political body, evolved into the African Union in July 2002. The AU is modeled on the European Union and aims to promote democracy, human rights, and economic development across Africa. Experts say the AU, although more assertive on security issues than its predecessor, still has a ways to go to become truly effective. "The AU is only three years old, and it's still trying get its act together," Collins says. "It's a cumbersome organization. There are so many states and such a disparity in the size and resources of the states" that it takes time to get anything done, he says. The AU relies on regional bodies like ECOWAS and the South African Development Community (SADC) to provide forces and support for peacekeeping operations.

Which peacekeeping missions are considered successes?

The UN Missions in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL, 1999) and the Congo (MONUC, 1999) are among the missions considered qualified successes by experts. In Sierra Leone, a civil war between the government and the Liberia-backed Revolutionary United Front that began in 1991 crippled the country until the signing of the Lomé Peace Agreement in July 1999. UNAMSIL was established in October to help implement the Lomé Agreement. Democratic elections took place in May 2002, but experts say low-level fighting still continues.

The DRC is another example. Covering an area the size of Western Europe and rich in resources including diamonds, cobalt, and gold, the Congo suffered armed intervention by five other African countries (Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Uganda), which all had troops involved in an ongoing civil war. After increasing unrest and the French-led intervention in June 1999, all the parties signed the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement one month later. MONUC deployed that fall. After Congolese President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated in January 2001, his son Joseph Kabila assumed power and took steps toward peace and reconciliation. By fall 2002, the other African nations withdrew their troops from the DRC and committed to an agreement on political transition.

Which ones are considered failures?

The botched intervention by the UN Mission in Somalia (UNISOM) from 1992-93 is generally considered a failed peacekeeping mission. U.S. forces in the mission, authorized only to protect humanitarian aid deliveries, ended up trapped in a 24-hour firefight with armed warlords in Mogadishu in October 1993 that resulted in the deaths of eighteen U.S. soldiers. The incident, one of the most humiliating U.S. military defeats in modern times, soured the U.S. mood for peacekeeping operations, particularly in Africa. The current AU/UN mission in Sudan is also considered a failure by some experts.

Why has the Darfur mission failed?

Like many of the peacekeeping operations that came before it, the Darfur mission has failed because the force is not big enough and the mandate is too limited, experts say. There are currently only about 8,000 AU troops in Darfur, Lyman says, charged with patrolling a desolate, isolated area the size of France. The mission is meant only to monitor the situation and report ceasefire violations, but is not authorized to protect civilians from attacks by janjaweed, government-backed Arab militias, severely limiting its effectiveness. The force is expected to be ramped up to 13,000 by March 2006, but that goal may be hard to reach, since the force "is having a hard time meeting its commitments now," Lyman says. This is partly an issue of resources. "We and others underestimate the expense [of such operations at the beginning], and later on have to undertake stronger efforts," Lyman says. Some experts are pessimistic about the mission's future. "At this stage of the game, I don't see any effective intervention force in Darfur," says Robert Collins, an Africa specialist and professor emeritus of history at the University of California, San Diego. "The magnitude of the task is so great, no western nation wants to touch it."

What does a mission need to be successful?

Three things, Collins says: a well-defined mission and clear plan for reaching peace; a secured source of funding and manpower for the length of the mission; and a commitment to seeing the mission through. "Many missions failed because they had no well-defined objectives and no sense of follow-through," Collins says. "The AU mission in Darfur has never really been told what it's there to do." The Stimson Center report says AU and ECOWAS forces, especially, need clearer mandates and operational goals, better leadership, requirements for civilian police and other personnel, and external logistical support and financing, in order to succeed.

What are the plans for a permanent AU armed force?

The AU's Peace and Security Council is overseeing the establishment of a permanent African security force, known as the AU Standby Force. By 2010, the AU plans to have five or six brigades of 3,000-5,000 troops each stationed around Africa and able to respond quickly to any unrest. The brigades will likely be multinational but monolingual, Collins says, speaking entirely English or French within their ranks.

At the moment, only ECOWAS has the resources to mobilize 3,000 troops or more, some experts say. The Standby Force will be supported by the international community, including the Group of Eight (G8) countries, which established an Africa Action Plan in 2002 to pledge funding and logistical support for African-led peacekeeping operations. The United Kingdom renewed that commitment under its leadership of the 2005 G8 summit. In addition, the AU has received financial support from the UN and bilateral commitments from a range of countries. Some experts are hopeful. "The AU Standby Force could be extremely effective if it had adequate resources, good leadership, and discipline," Collins says.

Which countries have aided or trained African peacekeepers?

The United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Japan, Norway, Germany, and Belgium have all trained African troops and carried out capacity-building exercises in Africa. U.S. programs to help African nations respond to humanitarian crises and peacekeeping missions include the African Contingency Operations and Training Assistance (ACOTA) program; the Bush administration has significantly increased ACOTA’s budget and the program is doing a very effective job training African soldiers, says Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), a nonprofit trade organization that represents military suppliers and contractors.

What are the prospects that Africans will someday be able to conduct peacekeeping operations on their own continent?

Fair, experts say. "Africans are certainly willing to take on greater peacekeeping duties in Africa, in large part to prevent non-Africans from interfering on the continent," Collins says. Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and South Africa, among other countries, have well-trained divisions in their armies, experts say. But resources are a problem. Few African nations can afford to send soldiers abroad or provide the logistics for extended missions. Experts say the key to successful future African-led peacekeeping missions on the continent will be the continued support—in funds, training, and logistics—of the international community.

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