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The Problems with “African Solutions”
The Problems with “African Solutions”
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Commentary / Africa

The Problems with “African Solutions”

This week Paris will host the annual France-Africa summit. In a year in which Africa and the West clashed over the International Criminal Court – and amid growing doubts over the UN Security Council’s legitimacy, in part because of its unrepresentativeness – there will be no shortage of issues that Africa’s leaders will seek to address.

President François Hollande has chosen to focus the agenda on peace and security. Following the deployment of French troops to end crises in Mali and the Central African Republic (an additional 800 troops are expected to arrive soon in Bangui, bringing the total to 1200), he does not want to be dragged into another intervention and would like African states to assume greater responsibility, particularly financial, in resolving the continent’s conflicts. France and the AU both want much greater African financial contributions for peace operations, in part to make them more sustainable. Since becoming AU Commission chairperson in 2012, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has pushed for a more self-sufficient AU to end its perpetual and disruptive dependence on external funding.

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Other Western countries also do not want their troops fighting in Africa’s wars, and would rather not pay for Africans to fight them either; they are perhaps all too ready to endorse “African solutions for African problems”, a policy embraced by the African Union and many of its members to prevent external interference. But this overlooks some fundamental facts. “African solutions” are often as problematic and riddled with hidden agendas as traditional interventions; they are not necessarily the preferred option of all parties, and usually still require significant international assistance. Finally, some conflicts are such an international threat they require an international response.

The pressing need is not for African solutions as such. It is for improving cooperation by defining a clearer division of labour based on a hard-nosed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of all relevant actors–national, sub-regional, continental and international. As Africa’s many conflicts have demonstrated, usually peace can only be imposed through the rapid, pragmatic and effective coordination of most, if not all, the actors in a conflict.

A convergence of interests

President Hollande and AUC chairperson Dlamini-Zuma share another common interest: they are worried about the viability of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), particularly the African Standby Force (ASF). The ASF was supposed to be a collection of brigade-level, mobile, joint forces, regionally based, that could respond quickly to threats to peace and stability. More than a decade after its conceptualisation, the ASF remains a distant goal.

Frustrated with the continent’s inability to field a credible intervention force in Mali earlier this year, and embarrassed by the decisive French intervention, the AU proposed, as a temporary mechanism, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), capable of acting swiftly, and – crucially – independent of Western support. It is to be based on a coalition of willing states and would be financed by AU member states solely on a voluntary basis. Chad, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda have pledged troops, while Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger and Sudan have signalled their willingness to participate in future coalitions.

But the ACIRC may face the same problems that confront the ASF: unwillingness of African states to finance such initiatives; gaps in military capability; and lack of the sustained political leadership necessary for effective peace enforcement. The ACIRC will also not resolve other political challenges that undermine the AU’s efforts to promote peace and security, most importantly tensions among regional bodies and the UN over the leadership of, and division of responsibility in, peace operations.

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The problem with some African solutions

Much is made of looking for African solutions, but the AU (and its member states) have no shortage of ideas, whether appropriate or not, on how to resolve the continent’s peace and security challenges. In the last decades, African states, and African statesmen, have played frontline roles in brokering peace agreements and have sought ways, ostensibly African, to end crises. AU member states have deployed ever more troops to peace operations in Africa, including in Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan and, more recently, the Central African Republic (CAR). The AU is more robust and more mature than its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, with meaningful institutions to tackle the continent’s array of peace and security challenges. In 2011, it established a regional cooperation initiative to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army and the U.S. provided 100 army personnel to support Uganda in this military campaign (although, two years on, Joseph Kony remains elusive).

But even with increased engagement in peace operations, questions remain about the quality and capability of African troops. Many African armies have pretty dismal track records in their own countries and are often poorly equipped and trained to deal with complex peace operations. Even Africa’s strongest armies have been found lacking. The decision by Pretoria to unilaterally intervene in the CAR, which resulted in the death of thirteen South African soldiers, led to an embarrassing political and military retreat by one of the continent’s stronger powers.

And while “African solutions” sound more legitimate, interventions by African states are often no less controversial than more international ones. For example, Ethiopia’s and Kenya’s interventions in Somalia in 2006 and 2011, respectively, were deeply problematicand had less to do with stabilising that country and more to do with their own national concerns. The sound principle that neighbouring countries with interests in Somalia should not be part of the African Union mission there was abandoned when the AU and UN agreed to re-hat (as part of AMISOM) Kenyan troops already in the country; Ethiopia is now seeking to do the same. One possible upside is that integration of both countries in AMISOM might force them to accept a more coordinated international role in helping to stabilise Somalia.

Similarly, there is great anxiety that Chad might use MISCA, the new AU-led mission in the CAR, to further its own regional ambitions following concerns that it may have been linked to the downfall earlier this year of CAR President François Bozizé. Neither Chad nor its neighbours weighed up the consequences of their African solution of essentially turning a blind eye to the Seleka rebel movement’s March 2013 coup. Today, Bangui and the entire country face a worsening security and humanitarian crisis.

Competing peacekeepers and peacemakers

Differences and competition among AU member states, between the continental and sub-regional bodies, and with multilateral actors have kept progress slow. The AU sees itself as Africa’s key interlocutor on peace and security, but it increasingly faces challenges to its authority, with member states seeking more immediate solutions and sub-regional bodies wanting to manage conflicts in their backyards. The Economic Community of African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), for example, want greater political and financial control over responses to conflicts in their region. While some felt humiliated by France’s decisive intervention in Mali, a core problem is that African states failed to act decisively because of disagreement among themselves: the AU and ECOWAS, still suffering a degree of distrust and mutual suspicion over their differences in handling the post-elections crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, competed over who was in charge; ECOWAS leaders were unclear about whether a military response was appropriate to address the twin problems of domestic crisis in Mali and transnational terrorism in the Sahel; Mali’s political leaders and the military junta were wary of an ECOWAS intervention; and neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania were not members of ECOWAS and did not share its views on military intervention. In Libya, the AU’s preference for an inclusive dialogue with Muammar Qadhafi and his opponents, as opposed to troop deployment, was stymied in arguably questionable circumstances when NATO chose to anoint the Arab League as its partner of choice in dealing with the Libyan uprising.

In its tenth anniversary year, the AU has become more assertive and wants to be the principle voice for Africa, but it has to balance this with its limitations and recognise there are other important, and equally strong-willed, actors. The AU wants to be treated as an equal partner by the UN Security Council, but, for a number of reasons, the permanent five council members want greater oversight and will not sacrifice their soldiers in African wars. Africanisation of peacekeeping has gradually increased since 2000 and took an innovative turn with UNAMID, the first hybrid (joint) AU-UN mission, in Darfur. The problems with the joint model have been widely acknowledged, even by the AU. Nevertheless, the UNSC, as well as the Department for Peacekeeping Operations, must realise that the international peacekeeping architecture has also failed to provide meaningful solutions to several crises and alternative thinking is required. In the DRC, the push by regional countries for an international intervention brigade to fight the rebel “March 23” (M23) movement was in part a response to fifteen years of failed UN peacekeeping (by MONUSCO) in eastern Congo, as well as frustration with Rwanda’s continued interference and President Kabila’s inability to govern his country. (Ironically, some African states, as well as the EU, U.S. and others, had turned a blind eye to his flawed electoral victory in 2011.) In the end, a combination of regional troops (mainly South African and Tanzanian), supported by MONUSCO and fighting alongside the Congolese army, defeated the M23 rebellion.

A new global division of labour

No single institution (or country) can address the numerous peace and security challenges on the continent; today a number of partnerships are required. Indeed, since the early 2000s, various divisions of labour, starting with the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), have evolved among the AU, sub-regional organisations and the UN.

Probably the most intense partnership is AMISOM. African troops do most of the fighting and have suffered hundreds of casualties. Before the establishment of the United Nations Support for Somalia (UNSOA) in 2009, troops suffered from serious logistical deficits and were in no condition to challenge the extremist Islamist movement Al-Shabaab. Discussions about a potential UN peacekeeping operation seem to be off the table in part because the UN is not willing to do peace enforcement, which is essentially what AMISOM is undertaking, while the AU is willing to risk more casualties. The AU considers AMISOM an important step in building its own peacekeeping credentials, but sometimes it conveniently ignores the crucial role that UNSOA continues to play in sustaining its forces. UNSOA serves as a critical link between the AU and UN, which otherwise would pass each other by.

After fifteen plus years of varied bilateral and multilateral initiatives focused on strengthening Africa’s capacity to manage its own crises, there should be a clear-eyed review of what has been achieved and what can be made to work better. UN and AU relations have improved, at least in peacekeeping, though the UNSC’s failure to reform its membership structure and tensions over the ICC militate against this. Nonetheless, the UN’s decision to bolster its office to the AU (UNOAU) with an Under-Secretary General at its head is a significant step.

Today, complex conflicts — involving extremism, transnational crime, and asymmetrical tactics — require the AU, sub-regional bodies and the UN, together with partners such as the EU, to field robust, agile and decisive operations based on an integrated system of response among multiple actors. They should also invest greater effort in prevention, as the best means of effective conflict management is for conflicts not to break out. Indeed, Africa and its international partners need to ask themselves how they allowed the CAR, which displayed sufficient signs of fragility, to once again slide into chaos. Deploying troops may sometimes be important to avert a crisis, but this can only be a temporary measure and cannot replace the essential need to focus more on governance, development, institution-building and appropriate management of natural resources to enable sustained peace

The December summit cannot address all these concerns, and is not necessarily the forum to navigate complex relations between the AU and its partners. But beyond the usual diplomatic photo opportunity, the gathering at the ÉlyséePalace should provide an opportunity to talk seriously about the future of Africa’s peace and security architecture. The goal should not be finding African solutions but achieving better coordinated responses to specific conflicts, and ensuring the better practice of conflict prevention.

Op-Ed / Global

Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking

Originally published in World Politics Review

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, died this week.  In this piece, originally published in World Politics Review in February, our UN Director assesses his legacy.

When Javier Pérez de Cuéllar turned 100 in January, his current successor as Secretary-General, António Guterres, sent a congratulatory message stating that “I have often reflected on your example and experience for inspiration and guidance.” This sounds like a standard diplomatic pleasantry, but there may have been a more to it than that.

As UN chief from 1982 to 1991, Pérez de Cuéllar, a former Peruvian diplomat, was intimately involved in ending Cold War conflicts from Afghanistan to Central America. Guterres, since his appointment in 2017, has warned that the U.S., China and Russia risk starting a “new Cold War” if they do not rein in their current tensions. Senior UN officials, who have spent recent decades focusing on ending violence in the developing world, wonder if and how the international organization can work in a new era of great-power competition.

This February, Guterres warned that a “wind of madness is sweeping the globe” as governments fuel conflict and ignore climate change. “Security Council resolutions,” he added, “are being disrespected even before the ink is dry.” Perhaps unintentionally, he echoed Pérez de Cuéllar, who told the UN General Assembly in 1982—when the Cold War was still very much a reality—that “we are perilously near to a new international anarchy” in which Security Council resolutions were “increasingly defied or ignored by those who feel strong enough to do so.”

Most secretaries-general have lamented the state of the world in similar terms at one time or another. But Pérez de Cuéllar remains an interesting case study in UN leadership because, rather than simply complain about the state of the world, he made a real contribution to resolving crises involving its biggest powers, earning their respect along the way. His efforts included backchannel diplomacy with Russia and China over Afghanistan and Cambodia, and a drawn-out but ultimately successful effort to persuade the five permanent members of the Security Council to find common ground on ending the Iran-Iraq War. His tenure culminated with successful UN mediation in the Cold War proxy conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Pérez de Cuéllar was even able to engage directly in mediating disputes involving the permanent Security Council members, something that had stymied his immediate predecessors, U Thant and Kurt Waldheim. Thant had, for example, alienated Washington by trying to play a diplomatic role in Vietnam. In his first year in office, Pérez de Cuéllar attempted to broker a deal between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, after Buenos Aires captured the disputed archipelago. While that outreach failed, Christopher Mallaby, a British diplomat involved in the talks, recalls that the British government was impressed by the “able and impressive” secretary-general.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises.

In 1986, he arbitrated talks between France and New Zealand after French intelligence operatives sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been monitoring a French nuclear test in the Pacific, while it was moored in Auckland. The French government ultimately agreed to pay New Zealand $7 million in reparations. It is hard to imagine any of the permanent Security Council members acceding to such arbitration now.

Why was Pérez de Cuéllar able to pull off such diplomatic feats? In part, he was lucky. Contrary to his bleak assessment in 1982, rapprochement between the Western and Soviet blocs created more space for the UN to help resolve conflicts that all sides wanted to end.

But as Alvaro de Soto, a close adviser to Pérez de Cuéllar, noted in a recent chapter on his former boss in a history of successive secretaries-general and the Security Council, he also brought important character traits to Turtle Bay. De Soto highlights Pérez de Cuéllar’s absolute commitment to impartiality in dealing with the U.S., Soviet Union and other powers, and his extreme discretion in quietly handling problems like Afghanistan. He also knew when to pick his battles. Rather than throw himself into addressing every conflict at once, he tended to step in only after other diplomatic actors had exhausted themselves. In the case of Central America, for example, he waited for regional diplomacy to lose steam before pushing UN mediation.

Overall, de Soto notes, Pérez de Cuéllar handled Cold War crises “piecemeal” instead of trying to resolve the core differences between Washington and Moscow, “relying on the judicious choice of individual conflicts that might lend themselves to practical solutions… in the expectation that they would lead in the long term to the return of some degree of largely absent cooperation.”

What guidance and inspiration might Guterres and his team take from these lessons today? It is important, of course, not to overstate current similarities or parallels to the late Cold War. Pérez de Cuéllar worked in the shadow of a nuclear standoff, but had the good fortune to cooperate with global powers that were in the process of building bridges and wanted to settle their differences—although, as de Soto notes, the trajectory of this process was hardly clear at the time. Guterres, by contrast, finds himself navigating a very fluid environment in which the major players at the UN are increasingly unwilling to compromise, creating fewer opportunities for peacemaking, even though the specter of major conflict among them remains relatively remote.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises like the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. But the UN may still have openings to address other challenges, such as cementing peace in Colombia, where the landmark peace deal with FARC rebels has yet to deliver on all of its promises, or supporting the current transition to civilian rule in Sudan, where the interests of the U.S., Russia and China may diverge but are not irreconcilably far apart.

The UN cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can fix some of them as opportunities arise. That is a realistic but nonetheless important lesson to learn from Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s stewardship of the organisation in a new era of global tensions.