Bujumbura, September 2006. Burundi peacekeepers prepare for next rotation to Somalia. Photo: Rick Scavetta, US Army Africa, Creative Commons License 2.0

Peace in the riflescope


On 16 July last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon received a report from the Ramos-Horta panel outlining a revision of the peace and security work of the UN and its partners. The report unmistakeably patted the African Union on the back for its peace operations. Researcher Linnéa Gelot has been following African peacekeeping forces on their march to this point of recognition, a march that has been anything but straightforward.

Not counting the operations in Burundi in 2003, the African Union Peace and Security Council’s first major trial came within a couple of years of its foundation. The year was 2004 and the challenge to be addressed was the Darfur conflict. The Sudanese government, fighting rebel groups in Darfur, refused to allow the UN to send peacekeeping forces into what it considered an internal African dispute. Instead, the AU was given the assignment to deploy troops. These soldiers were drawn from Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Rwanda.

“The most important lesson learnt in Darfur was that the UN, AU and EU recognised that they needed to cooperate more closely”, says Linnéa Gelot, researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. 

Hybridity becomes the rule
The UN, with greatest experience of leading peace operations, wasn’t even allowed to set foot in the conflict zone. The AU, with little previous experience of such operations, was immediately thrown into a very challenging situation.

“It was clear that the government-supported Janjaweed militia would not back away from armed conflict if the AU troops got in their way,” Gelot remarks. The EU provided money, education and strategic advice.

“Multi-actor peace operations, or hybridity as they are also called, were not new in Africa, but after Darfur they became the rule rather than the exception,” she adds.

Green light for offensive strikes
The next big trial was Somalia. In 2007, the AU Peace and Security Council instituted AMISOM, the African Union Mission to Somalia, with the objective of re-establishing peace in that war-torn country. Armed AU forces were deployed to undertake so-called counter-insurgency campaigns, a new tactic.

“These involved short-term, offensive military strikes, for which both the UN and AU have given approval. This was the beginning of African involvement in the war on terrorism,” says Gelot, whose research includes an examination of AU peacekeeping forces in the field in Somalia as well as Ethiopia.

Mali dead-end exposes deficiencies
The next big trial came in 2012 in Mali, where the interim government found itself losing control to insurgent Tuareg rebels in the north. This episode exposed a crack in the AU’s peace and security structure.

The Mali government tried to gain the support of ECOWAS, the AU’s regional partner organisation in West Africa. Like the AU, ECOWAS can call on multinational brigades for peace operations. “But the call for help got ensnared in diplomatic lobbying, partly because the AU’s central management and ECOWAS were unable to agree on how to share responsibility for such an intervention,” Gelot explains.

Embarrassment for the AU
As the situation continued to deteriorate, Mali’s interim government instead turned to France for military support. With UN Security Council approval, France launched Opération Serval.

It was an embarrassment for the AU to cede the initiative to an ex-colonial power. However, the shortcomings exposed sparked a reform process that is likely to strengthen the AU’s peace and security architecture in many ways. “AU executives realised that greater flexibility was key to addressing situations like that in Mali,” says Gelot, who has been at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa following the internal evaluation of AU policy towards Mali.

Upgraded role for the AU
Flexibility and regional niche capacity have become watchwords in the AU Peace and Security Council’s efforts to capitalise on comparative advantage and to best complement the UN and other actors in African peacekeeping.

The conclusion is that ECOWAS and other regional partners within the AU must be allowed a freer had to find suitable cooperation partners, whether they be multinational coalitions or individual states. “The union’s peace and security work must be more customisable and innovative,” says Gelot.

It wasn’t long before the new doctrine underwent its first trial. After the collapse of the peace process in the Central African Republic and the overthrow of the government by a rebel coalition in the spring of 2013, a low-intensity civil war with ethnic overtones ensued. ECCAS, ECOWAS’s counterpart in Central Africa, intervened with a peace operation, which was later handed over to a coalition comprising the UN, AU, EU and France.

“It doesn’t seem right to call these operations successful, since they’ve been plagued by scandal, including sexual violence and child abuse. But the intervention itself can be considered one of the foremost examples of hybridity and flexibility up to the present day,”  Gelot argues. “It is precisely this that the Ramos-Horta report praises and has led to the AU being able to position itself as an upgraded strategic partner of the UN,” she adds. 

Gelot will within coming weeks visit three continents to launch The Future of African Peace Operations, a new book in which she presents her previously unpublished research results and policy conclusions.

FACTS | About the book

  • The Future of African Peace Operations is part of the Africa Now Book Series, published by the Nordic Africa Institute in collaboration with London-based publisher Zed Books.
  • The 11 contributing authors are mainly Africans working in African countries.
  • They are both researchers and civil servants in national and supranational institutions and unions. They have been handpicked for their valuable experience in policy-relevant analysis.
  • Apart from Linnéa Gelot of the Nordic Africa Institute, the other co-editors are Cedric de Coning and John Karlsrud, researchers with Nupi, the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
  • The book will be launched on 7 April at a seminar in Addis Ababa. Invitees include some 50 diplomats, politicians, military officers and civil servants from the AU, EU and individual countries involved in African peace operations.
  • In addition, Gelot and her research colleagues are currently on a pre-launch tour involving seminars at the National Defense University in Washington DC on 21 March and at the International Peace Institute in New York on 23 March.
  • Gelot will also present her research findings to a seminar at the Stockholm Forum on Security and Development on 5 April.

The book can be ordered from the publisher – Zed Books.

Linnéa Gelot at the seminar at Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense Universty, Washington DC, on 21 March.

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