Last month, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Tshisekedi demanded that the United Nations begin withdrawing its 17,000 peacekeepers from his country by December. In June, Colonel Assimi Goïta’s military regime in Mali made the same demand; the UN will complete the withdrawal of its 12,000 peacekeepers from that country by January. Meanwhile, the African Union is removing its peacekeepers – numbering more than 15,000 – from Somalia, owing to Western governments’ reluctance to continue funding the mission.
These untimely departures will exacerbate instability in Africa’s most volatile regions: the Sahel, the Great Lakes, and the Horn of Africa. For that reason, they highlight the escalating crisis of peacekeeping in Africa.
At the root of this crisis is a paradox. UN peacekeepers – 84% of whom are deployed in Africa – tend to be well-resourced, but they often refuse to undertake dangerous enforcement missions to protect at-risk populations. African peacekeepers, by contrast, are more willing to do what is needed to enforce peace, but rarely receive the logistical and financial resources they need.
UN peacekeepers have a longstanding credibility problem in Africa. In 1961, the popular Congolese prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was executed under the noses of a Western-dominated UN peacekeeping mission. After that, many African governments opposed the deployment of UN peacekeepers on their territory, and Burundi, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, and Sudan expelled UN troops.
In doing so, these countries may have thrown the baby out with the bath water: the UN played an integral role in restoring peace and democratic rule to Namibia, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone. But African governments doubt not only the effectiveness of external peacekeeping forces, but also their intentions.
Their suspicion is hardly unfounded. The deployment of troops by external actors like France and the United States to African countries such as Chad, Djibouti, Niger, and Senegal have often amounted more to self-interested meddling than genuine efforts to strengthen Africa’s security.
France, in particular, is viewed by many Africans as using UN peacekeeping troops largely to advance its own interests. During its 27 years leading the UN Department of Peace Operations, it has been accused of deploying self-interested missions to its former colonies, including the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali. It does not help that France’s decade-long counterterrorism operation in the Sahel utterly failed to stop the Islamic State and al-Qaeda from establishing a strong presence. French troops have now been expelled from bases in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.
More broadly, UN peacekeepers are often viewed by local populations – such as in South Sudan and the CAR – as observers of slaughter and displacement rather than as bulwarks against them. Like Western countries, major non-Western contributors to UN peacekeeping forces – such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan – tend to refuse to deploy their troops for dangerous enforcement missions in Africa.
African populations also resent that so much of the $1 billion budgeted annually for large UN missions typically goes toward meeting the sometimes-lavish needs of the peacekeepers themselves, rather than rebuilding war-torn countries. As if that were not bad enough, there have been numerous allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers.
And this is to say nothing of external forces like Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries. Wagner is a particularly malign actor, yet it now exerts considerable influence in Mali and largely calls the shots in the CAR.
But the African peacekeeping crisis also has local roots – beginning with institutional weaknesses on the continent. Africa has many weak states, beset by poor governance, stalled socioeconomic development, and external actors’ failure to strengthen state institutions in sustainable ways – a prerequisite to long-term peace. As a result, countries have often relapsed into conflict.
Even regional powers like Nigeria and South Africa – which have led missions in Burundi, Darfur, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – grapple with internal fragilities. Likewise, fledgling African regional organizations like the AU, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community, and the East African Community have significant weaknesses.
It is worth noting, however, that these organizations have made enormous sacrifices for the cause of peace: ECOWAS lost over 2,000 peacekeepers in ultimately successful efforts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, while a mostly East African peacekeeping force has lost over 3,500 troops in Somalia since its arrival in 2007.
To overcome the crisis, African governments must address the root causes of conflicts, with the international donor community generously supporting genuine democratic reformers in such efforts. Moreover, the UN must provide assessed contributions to support African regional organizations that continue to show a willingness to enforce peace on the continent. Care should be taken, however, to prevent the emergence of a kind of global security apartheid, with Africans sacrificing their lives in what should remain UN-led peace operations.
Countries deploying troops for UN missions must ensure that the goal of peacekeeping in Africa and elsewhere is to achieve peace, not profit, and they must be willing to allow their peacekeepers to participate in risky operations in pursuit of that goal. This will require leaders to shape domestic public opinion, rather than kowtow to it.
Finally, change within the UN is vital. The UN Security Council must broaden its permanent membership, particularly to Africa and Latin America. And, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently proposed, regional peace enforcers need UN-assessed support and a better-resourced UN Peacebuilding Commission that can work closely with the Security Council.
Guterres’s proposals build on former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 An Agenda for Peace, which set out a framework for post-Cold War peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. More than three decades later, implementing these solutions is still the best way to advance peace effectively on the world’s most conflict-ridden continent.
Adekeye Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa