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Securing lasting peace in Africa

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Securing lasting peace in Africa

Modest progress in overcoming conflicts, but challenges persist
From Africa Renewal: 
Panos / Sven Torfinn
Painters decorating a wall in Juba, South SudanPainters decorating a wall in Juba, South Sudan, as they speak with a man who lost his leg during the civil war: Although most of Africa's protracted wars have ended over the past decade, some countries still are mired in conflict and peace remains fragile in many others.
Panos / Sven Torfinn

Thanks to Africa's own efforts and to enhanced international support, the continent is more peaceful today than it was a dozen years ago, says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In 1998, when the UN issued its first major report on the "causes of conflict" in Africa, there were 14 countries in the midst of war. Now there are four.

Yet in addition to those nations still afflicted by armed conflict, others remain politically fragile, notes Mr. Ban. They have weak institutions, vulnerable economies and growing numbers of jobless youths. They face a host of new challenges ranging from transnational crime to climate change. If left unaddressed, such problems may lead to the resumption of old conflicts or the outbreak of new ones. To avoid a resurgence of war, the Secretary-General argues in a new report,* African countries and their outside partners need to "provide the minimum conditions for human sustenance" and forge a security policy "that has people, development and social issues at its core."

African leaders share those priorities. Last year a summit of the African Union (AU) designated 2010 the "Year of Peace and Security." That emphasis, says Jean Ping, chairperson of the AU Commission, reflects a determination "to deal once and for all with the scourge of conflicts and violence on the continent." Today's leaders, Mr. Ping adds, "simply cannot bequeath the burden of conflicts to the next generation of Africans."

African solutions

Mr. Ban's report, which was submitted to the UN General Assembly on 14 October, is a comprehensive review of developments since the first such report of his predecessor, Kofi Annan. Beyond assessing the achievements and shortcomings of the past 12 years, it takes up the new challenges facing the continent. The findings and recommendations are based on extensive consultations with African and other UN member states, as well as with the AU, other African regional institutions, civil society and academic groups, and various UN departments and agencies. The central message of the 1998 report remains true today, Mr. Ban finds: "Only Africa can provide solutions to Africa's problems."

Africa can, in fact, claim much of the credit for the past decade's improvements. Foremost among the African initiatives was the creation of the AU in 2002, out of the weaker Organization of African Unity. The AU has set up a variety of new institutions and mechanisms for preventing and managing conflicts. These include a Peace and Security Council, a panel of senior dignitaries and several AU peacekeeping operations. There also are preparations to establish an African standby peacekeeping force, ready to deploy at short notice.

The UN has responded by revitalizing its engagement with the AU. Four years ago it launched a 10-year programme to help build AU capacities, and in July established in Addis Ababa a UN Office to the AU headed by Assistant Secretary-General Zachary Muburi-Muita. In August the UN and AU held the first meeting of a joint task force on long-term strategy for peace and security.

The UN currently provides logistical support to the 6,200 AU troops in Somalia and works side by side with the organization in a joint operation in the western Sudanese region of Darfur (see Darfur: an experiment in African peacekeeping). At various times regional African organizations in West, East and Southern Africa have also undertaken peacekeeping or mediation efforts, with UN support.

UN peacekeeper with villagers in the Democratic Republic of the CongoUN peacekeeper with villagers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Today, peacekeepers' responsibilities go well beyond military operations and embrace a wide range of activities to support civilian populations.
UN Photo / Marie Frechon

Doing it better

The UN's emphasis on partnership with regional organizations reflects a general evolution in thinking about the world body's peacekeeping efforts. As Mr. Ban noted during a General Assembly debate on peacekeeping in June, successful operations are often "a shared responsibility." Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, argued in the same debate that "the UN cannot go everywhere and do everything." The organization should undertake commitments only when it has sufficient resources and political support to do a good job, said Mr. Brahimi, who in 2000 led a special UN panel on peacekeeping reform.

Realism about the UN's abilities does not mean that the organization has pulled back from direct engagement. In 2010 Africa accounted for seven of the UN's 16 peacekeeping missions (see map). Their combined strength of 63,300 troops was three-quarters of the worldwide total.

Since the 1990s the focus of UN operations has widened well beyond traditional military activities such as enforcing peace accords, protecting relief workers and disarming and demobilizing former combatants. The seven UN peacekeeping missions in Africa also have 9,320 police officers and just over 15,000 international and local civilian personnel. Together with the troops, they help refugees and displaced people return to their homes, monitor human rights, support the reform of local police and court systems, strengthen the media (see Can ‘peace radio’ survive in peacetime?), help communities rebuild damaged schools and health clinics and lay some of the groundwork for economic and social recovery.

Resource 'mismatch'

In their Security Council speeches and on other occasions, the world's wealthy donor countries repeatedly emphasize the importance of achieving security in Africa. But as Mr. Ban notes time and again in his report, there is frequently a "mismatch" between the rhetoric and the resources provided. That gap is reflected in the constant shortfalls in responses to the UN's appeals for humanitarian aid, and in the difficulties in finding donors to fund key peacebuilding projects. Grandiose pledges to double aid to Africa have yielded only modest increases.

Peacekeeping operations themselves have not been immune to problems of funding. To some extent UN missions have access to sizable budgets because they are funded by "assessed" dues, the mandatory payments that the UN levies on member states, with the wealthier ones paying the largest share. But the large numbers of UN peacekeepers on the ground in Africa and elsewhere often create severe budgetary strains and sometimes limit the size and duration of missions.

For African-led peacekeeping operations the problem is more acute. African countries that provide troops are generally poor, have limited military or logistical equipment and must depend on the uncertain contributions of external powers, chiefly North American or European.

The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States have demonstrated their commitment by mounting several peacekeeping operations over the years, often at very short notice in especially critical periods, Nigerian Foreign Minister Henry Odein Ajumogobia noted at a 22 October Security Council debate on African peacekeeping. Too frequently, he added, they "then have a lack of equipment and logistical support let them down," resulting in the failure of some missions.

Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa, concludes from this that the AU should not be so eager to field peacekeeping missions. The AU, he argued in a lecture in New York in late October, should "stop acting like an international guinea pig."

Several participants in the Security Council debate cited one possible solution: that AU peacekeeping operations authorized by the UN receive funding out of the UN's assessed dues, a proposal originally raised two years ago by an AU-UN panel.

Former combatants in Liberia at an agricultural training programmeFormer combatants in Liberia at an agricultural training programme: As more African countries end their armed conflicts, peace missions are concentrating more on post-war recovery and reconstruction.
Africa Renewal / Ernest Harsch

Post-war rebuilding

Since the 1990s era of multiple protracted conflicts has now given way to a series of peace agreements, more attention has shifted to the complex tasks of post-war recovery and rehabilitation.

One key recommendation of the 1998 report was that a "peacebuilding" structure be established to assist such efforts. The UN Peacebuilding Commission was set up in 2005, and has subsequently helped mobilize international support for recovery efforts in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone. Mr. Ban has declared eight other African countries eligible for such support (Comoros, Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan).

Whether carried out by the Peacebuilding Commission, UN Development Programme, Department of Political Affairs or other UN organizations, peacebuilding projects span a wide range of activities. These include electoral assistance, judicial reform, measures to strengthen health and education, revival of domestic markets, support for agriculture, and job creation, especially for young people.

To be successful and lasting, such efforts cannot be imposed from outside. "They must be owned and led by affected communities," says Mr. Ban, "with the full participation of local institutions and community organizations, especially the private sector, civil society, women, youth and children."

Better leadership

More broadly, the Secretary-General notes, "ownership" has become increasingly prevalent across Africa. The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), a plan adopted by African leaders in 2001, sets out the continent's main security, political, economic and social priorities and allows "for greater ownership and leadership of Africa's own economic and social policies." In 2010, the NEPAD Secretariat was transformed into the NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency; it is linked more directly to the AU's central structures, which should facilitate better coordination between the continent's development and security efforts.

To avert a return to conflict in countries emerging from war — and to prevent new outbreaks elsewhere — government conduct and capacities must improve across the continent, the Secretary-General says. Even though the past decade has seen an increased number of peaceful transfers of power through democratic elections, many governance problems remain.

Well-governed and democratic states are vital if Africa is to tackle the many problems that breed conflict, such as widespread corruption, stark economic inequalities and the exclusion of certain ethnic and social groups, the Secretary-General states. "Opportunities for peace and development in Africa," he concludes, "will depend on the strength of African states to perform their roles effectively." 

* Implementation of the recommendations contained in the report of the Secretary-General on the causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa: Report of the Secretary-General, A/65/152, 20 July 2010.