Africa often evokes images of political turbulence, economic crises, impoverishment, and conflict. In contrast to the continent’s high expectations post-independence, there is currently a culture of rising domestic and international frustrations. In the words of former Nigerian President Olusegun Obsanjo, these frustrations result from Africa being the “theatre for more endemic deadly conflicts than any other region in the world,” with “no sub-region in Africa that is immune from conflicts and large-scale violence.”
Peace and stability in Africa were elusive during the precolonial and colonial periods, due in large part to the slave trade, inter-tribal warfare, and active prevention of peace by colonial powers. In the absence of these factors, one might expect relative peace in the emancipated and independent countries of Africa. However, the continent has witnessed more conflicts and conflicts of greater magnitude than ever before.
Africa’s wars are not only numerous, but are known for their severity, ability to consume populations, cause mass displacement, and destabilize states and entire regions. Many African conflicts are intra-state in nature, however, the fragility and arbitrary drawing of state boundaries have led to a number of these conflicts affecting neighbouring countries. One prominent case was Rwanda in the 1990s. While the primary active conflict occurred between the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the Rwandan Government, the war directly affected Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Uganda. More recent cases include the Boko Haram insurgency, which spilled over from the Borno State in Nigeria into Chad, Niger and Cameroon; Al-Shabaab’s efforts to destabilize northern Kenya and its spillover into Somalia; or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS), which spans Niger, Mali, and Burkino Faso, among others in the Sahel region.
In response to the changing nature of these conflicts, there has been a noticeable shift in the nature, understanding, and implementation of peacekeeping since the 1990s. United Nations former Secretary-General (1992-1996) Boutros Ghali’s agenda for an “international order” called on leaders to “find a balance between good governance and the requirements of an even more independent world.”
From this shift, three important consequences arose. Firstly, the number and range of peace builders, and the range of activities included under the guise of international peacekeeping has expanded dramatically. The increase in the number of relief organizations reflects both greater media representation of humanitarian disasters but also reflects more fundamental transformations in international governance and global economic restructuring under neoliberalism. Secondly, many African states developed democratic institutions and established free and transparent elections as a result. Lastly, and most importantly, the proliferation of actors and approaches to peacebuilding initiatives in Africa resulted in more complex peacebuilding. External actions and actors became intertwined with the politics of African states.
It is not always clear whether liberal peace in the form of democracy and good governance is the best form of conflict prevention. It is also unclear if the ideologically liberal state represents values that all states can pursue in all circumstances of peace building. Liberal ideals are grounded in traditional European assumptions and have little relevance to local circumstances, particularly in the African context, to which international peace builders are unable to relate. How can peacekeepers from Europe, for example, truly understand the complexities of ethnic tensions and the intricate webs of political patronage in Somalia? Inadequate understanding of conflict will inevitably exist, especially when the framework of liberal peacebuilding is unwilling or unable to quickly evolve.
Liberal peacebuilding tends to be open to attack for a variety of reasons. The agents involved are accountable, unlike many of the conflict’s protagonists. It’s aimed directly contradict the goals of self-interested domestic and international actors. Finally, any form of peace building in a post-conflict zone is an extremely vulnerable and complex process. Peacekeeping efforts can have perverse effects, not least represented by the appalling assaults by several United Nations and French peacekeepers on women and children in the Central African Republic. However, there is an important ethical consideration to maintain balance in peacekeeping. It has positive and negative effects, and should be considered in its entirety, and not just in small fragments when asking whether it continues to be a worthwhile enterprise. One should, therefore, assess the alternatives to, and consequences of inaction. Most importantly, to minimize the negative effects from peacekeeping, actors must understand the local politics, have credible sources on the ground, and understand that all action and non-action has consequences on the local population.
The African Union: The Future For African peacekeeping?
Many international observers take the view that the African Union (AU) does not receive the level of international recognition that it might deserve. 53 of the 195 sovereign states recognized by the UN are African, and the continent has a population in excess of one billion people. Even taking into account the economic disparity of the two blocs, the European Union bloc might be thought to have far greater international status, despite its smaller population. With more than half of the global population growth between 2013 and 2050 expected to occur in Africa, coupled with an economy that is growing faster than any other continent, the AU will likely play a pivotal role in African peacekeeping.
The involvement of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the recent crisis involving the Gambian election highlights the importance of regional efforts to peacekeeping. After acknowledging an initial defeat in the December 2016 elections, Gambia’s former President, Yahya Jammeh, then refuted and refused to step down to Adama Barrow. Barrow’s victory was credited by international and regional observers. It was also supported by the regional community, not least by Nigeria and Senegal which were prepared to intervene and install the rightful Barrow. While the Gambian intervention was unnecessary (Jammeh eventually stepped down after losing military and political support), this example does show the importance of regional actors being prepared to prevent conflict and humanitarian crises.
The regional humanitarian intervention will always be more effective than global intervention because the actors understand the conflict on a more nuanced level than any international mediator from the UN. What is more, regional leaders are better able to communicate and relate with their neighbours. In the Gambia, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was able to meet Jammeh and tried to mediate the situation. With tools such as the African Standby Force and the infrastructure of the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities, each region contains a force of peacekeepers, police, and observers. With these tools, the AU should be able to react to conflict prevention quickly and decisively.
The AU is, however, an imperfect system restricted in its ability to act by self-interested politics on the one hand, and inadequate resources on the other. Their inadequate mandates and the scarcity of resources available to them cause problems at the institutional level. Looking forward, a modern and seemingly flexible institution like the AU should learn from its shortfalls for future peacebuilding initiatives. Working within the framework of local politics, dealing with all the necessary stakeholders and implementing an appropriate mandate are essential to improving peacebuilding operations. Such progression would likely motivate member states and the international community to increase support for the institution and reduce the problem of inadequate resources.
What is important for the global community is to support the AU in all its efforts to mediate and prevent future conflict on the African continent. The efforts of regional actors in preventing conflict in Gambia should be praised and given more attention. Individuals, civil society organizations, and non-governmental organizations should encourage the AU to improve its efforts, offer their support, and pressure international media to monitor their peacekeeping. Inaugurated in 2002, the AU is an imperfect institution and given the enormous peacekeeping task it has, needs all the support it can get.
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