UN signals new era of partnership with Africa

August - November 2019

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UN signals new era of partnership with Africa

Increased attention may prevent conflict on the continent
From Africa Renewal: 
UN Secretary-General António Guterres (seated, third from left) in a camp for internally displaced persons in Bangassou, Central African Republic. Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
UN Secretary-General António Guterres (seated, third from left) in a camp for internally displaced persons in Bangassou, Central African Republic. Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

With United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres as a guest at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in his first month in office in January 2017, and then again this January past, the UN is signaling a new era of partnership with the regional body and with the continent. 

“I stand here on behalf of the United Nations system and reaffirm our strong commitment to the member states and the people of Africa,” Mr. Guterres told the 30th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU), in January. He added prophetically, “I strongly believe Africa is one of the greatest forces for good in our world.”

Flanked by the executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Vera Songwe, and his new special adviser on Africa, Bience Gawanas, the Secretary-General announced a “platform of cooperation” to align the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with the agenda of the African Union for 2063.

Mr. Guterres described how the AU-UN partnership could be strengthened in five key areas: anti-corruption measures, cooperation in peace and security, inclusive and sustainable development, climate change action and international migration.

Combatting the “far-reaching and devastating” impact of corruption, tax evasion and illicit financial flows—a main theme of this year’s AU Summit—requires an unimpeachable commitment to transparency and accountability,” he said, offering the UN’s full support. He also welcomed the designation of 2018 as African Anti-Corruption Year.

Mr. Guterres—a former Portuguese politician and UN high commissioner for refugees—has demonstrated interest in African affairs. He has already visited the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda.

By picking Amina J. Mohammed, Nigeria’s former environment minister, as his deputy, Mr. Guterres sent an important signal with respect to diversity and sustainable development in Africa.

UN peacekeepers

In Addis Ababa in 2017, Mr. Guterres touched on the “need to change the narrative about Africa” from a conversation “based on all the current crises in African countries,” which he termed “a partial view” to “a narrative that recognizes Africa as a continent with enormous potential…[and with] extraordinary success stories from the point of view of economic development and governance.”

In prior years, UN officials of various institutions delivered similar sentiments, but more as exhortations than in recognition.

The UN headquarters in New York has hosted a number of Africa-themed events recently, mainly on development issues.

Outside of New York, deputy secretary-general Mohammed last year led to Africa a high-level team including UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, and the African Union special envoy on women, peace and security, Bineta Diop. Their mission was to promote women’s active participation in peacemaking, peacebuilding, security and development.

In the past, foreign leaders’ near indifference to African issues represented their countries’ failure to live up to the concept of partnership with the continent. The apparent shift from a concentration on crises to a discussion of economic, political and security matters is attractive but may be too optimistic, some analysts say.

Focus on development

Several African commentators believe that the frequent trips by Mr. Guterres serve to remind Africans that even during an era of concerns—that the new US administration may be less interested in Africa than previous ones, for example—the international community will not neglect African issues. The new focus may also be helpful in preventing conflict in some countries.

In Addis Ababa, Mr. Guterres said that development “must be at the centre of [UN-AU] cooperation. The best prevention of conflict is sustainable and inclusive development.”

Africa hosts most of the UN’s peacekeepers, and African security issues are often discussed in the Security Council.

As of April 2018, there were seven UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. The largest missions are in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Darfur in Sudan (where the mission is jointly administered with the AU), South Sudan, and Mali.

The UN established its first peace operation in Africa, the UN Operation in the Congo, in 1960. It was the UN’s first large-scale mission, with nearly 20,000 military personnel at its peak.

From 1989 to date, the Security Council has authorized about 27 peace operations for Africa, four of them in West Africa—a subregion whose countries had previously experienced UN peace operations only as troop contributors. Peace operations help countries in conflict create the necessary conditions for peace.

While actions toward Africa have evolved, some commentators call for more concerted efforts to maintain stability in conflict-prone countries, especially around election time.

A proactive UN engagement with Africa may prevent disputes during the electoral process from developing into conflicts.

Dealing with new threats

For 15 years the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia played a key role in “midwifing” the country’s peace process and helping to strengthen key institutions. The mission wound up in March, with hopes that these institutions will be able to support the country’s democratic growth and socioeconomic development.

Conflict analysts say that the advantage of such an approach is that the UN would be effective in preventing conflict and, where it intervenes in an actual conflict situation, well prepared and informed about when exactly withdrawal is most appropriate.

This might further strengthen the UN’s relationship with Africa.   

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