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Meddling to promote peace in Africa

January 23, 2011

The “International Community” is a fuzzy concept covering a multitude of sins and virtues. Put simply, it’s when states operate together to promote international public good outcomes which transcend the narrow national interest of each. The Responsibility to Protect principle, adopted by the UN general Assembly in 2005 adds the powerful idea that the international community must intervene to protect and promote the rights of citizens in countries where the state is unable or unwilling to do so. In other words, meddling. This is a big ask, and one which we still lack the tools and political will to put into practice.

You have to feel sorry for the International Community in its attempts to meddle in parts of Africa. At times every step forward seems to be followed by a step backward of equal length or longer. The unrest in Côte d’Ivoire after recent elections there is just one more glaring example of how difficult it is for outsiders to foster a judicious mixture of stability and development progress in places where both are undermined by conflict and which lack the institutions to manage these conflicts without violence. (And by “outsiders”, I don’t just mean non-Africans: surely Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga is as much an outsider in Côte d’Ivoire as French President Nicolas Sarkozy would be.) In Sudan, after the referendum in the south, which will certainly result in a vote for independence, commentators are predicting turbulent times ahead for what will presumably become the newest African state later this year. Southern Sudan’s unresolved internal conflicts, its over-reliance on oil, its deep poverty and still-nascent governance institutions – along with the potential for interstate war with Khartoum and/or conflicts between people living on either side of the new border – are seen by many as a recipe for disaster. Doomsayers are even calling it a “pre-failed state”.

Many other situations in Africa are resisting the attempts of meddling outsiders with good intentions. The International Criminal Court’s intervention in Kenya is being resisted by the political elite’s apparent decision to close ranks and protect those of its members that the ICC wants to indict for their alleged role in inciting violence after the 2007 elections. Zimbabwe resists outside attempts to help it emerge from political and humanitarian disaster with long-practised ease. Peace in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) still seems a distant prospect. The deadly combination there of lucrative mining opportunities, well-armed military and paramilitary groups changing allegiance according to opportunity and need, patronage-based governance linked to impunity, the meddling of neighbouring states, and the sheer geographic scale and remoteness, represent a range of forces far too powerful for the puny UN to defeat. The list of violence-prone countries goes on and on.

But this is not to say the international community should not keep trying. The problems in the Republic of Guinea are far from over, but carefully targeted international assistance has been critical in helping Guineans meet difficult challenges since the death of President Conté two years ago: military coups, election violence, a political rhetoric highly charged with ethnic rivalry and tension, and all against a backdrop of growing public dissatisfaction and poverty, in a region where young men have shown they are all-too-ready to answer the call to arms over the past two decades. Some of the international help for Guinea has so far been provided in a usefully ad hoc way: a combination of well-placed individuals, and of international organisations, intervening in a joined-up way, with minimal publicity. The good offices of the AU, ECOWAS, Burkina Faso and the USA among others combined in a coherent and coordinated way to help negotiate a practical way forward on several occasions. But we should be honest: so far this has been crisis management, which while difficult is far easier than the more complex challenge of building peaceful, developmental and citizen-responsive polities and states.

Côte d’Ivoire is clearly a country in crisis, and it will surprise no-one if Southern Sudan runs into crises once the honeymoon of independence is over: the history books tell us that state formation and violent conflict often go hand in hand. It’s really important as the international community in all its permutations tries to help countries like these emerge peaceful and prosperous from their current travails, that they look beyond crisis management.

When countries and international organisations get together to help places in difficulty, they need to step back from crisis management and play the longer game. The international approach to ending the civil war between southern Sudan and Khartoum was successful in getting both parties to agree to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement  – CPA. This was no small achievement. But it’s well documented that the international focus on north-south peace meant that Darfur was ignored at a crucial time. Arguably, the very success of the process that led to the CPA also stimulated an increase in violence in Darfur. The CPA carried within it the seeds of a genuine comprehensive agreement applicable to the entire country. But the opportunity to leverage its content to build a sustainable peace throughout Sudan was lost. Crisis management is the default setting for the international community: it responds to urgent humanitarian needs as expressed by NGO lobbyists, and it fits the skillset of international statesmen-turned-peacemakers. But it is not enough, which is why so many peace settlements brokered by outsiders don’t last.

This means getting the purpose right. In seeking to help the people of Côte d’Ivoire, the international community has got to look beyond simplistic aims such as “remove Gbagbo from power and install Ouattara as the rightful winner of the election”. It has to work on the understanding that whatever the election numbers say, and whatever international definitions of “electoral legitimacy” might imply, for a very large number of Ivorians, with limited experience of democratic elections and no experience of living in a mature democracy, Outtara has no legitimacy at all as president. Indeed, anyone who sees Côte d’Ivoire’s future as democratic and peaceful might reasonably question whether a new president indelibly associated with the dictatorship of Houphouet-Boigny and a prime minister who led an armed rebel movement with an ethno-geographic constituency are best placed to lead the way forward.  Thus while figuring out what to do next, it’s incumbent on internationals to consider what outcome they think is desirable and feasible fifteen or twenty years from now, and work back from that to figure out what they should do next. In the end, the people of Côte d’Ivoire will decide their future, as the cliché goes, and like everyone else they will do so by muddling through rather than following a clear and predictable pathway. But outsiders do have an influence: after all, the election itself was very much outsider-enabled. If people are proposing and threatening a military intervention to remove Gbagbo from power without a clear, realistic and resourced multi-year plan fostering the emergence of better governance, smacks a little of Iraq.

Once the purpose is more or less clear, the tools and architecture have to be adapted to it. So often, the international community’s starting point is “what can we do with these tools?” rather than “what should we do, and whayt tools do we need?”  While pragmatic, the former approach is self-limiting. The UN Security Council’s interventions in the DRC have made a difference there. Fighting is much reduced (though not yet enough), protection has been improved (though not yet enough), elections held, etc. But faced with the issues which undermine peace and development in the DRC, it is not at all clear that the UN’s state-focused approach is always the best one. The state is, after all, a major part of the problem there, given the involvement of members of the government and government forces in armed violence and associated economic activities such as mining.

Indeed, to speak of the “Congolese state” at all verges on tautology at times. I doubt Max Weber would recognise his concept of the state in the way government behaves in the DRC. He would recognise the labels – parliament, ministry, presidency, elections, etc. – but would find it hard to reconcile how they behave with his normative concept of the state exercising the monopoly of violence in the public good. The last UN Group of Experts report on DRC illustrates the problem well. It gave chapter and verse on how and why the situation in eastern DRC was not improving, citing the role of armed groups, government officials, politicians, companies and neighbouring governments in preventing peace. It explicitly showed how the UN had failed to overcome these factors. But its recommendations to the Security Council can be summarised as “can do better”, rather than recommending a change of approach.

There are times when the UN should be able to disentangle itself from the tortured logic that it is intervening in a particular country on behalf of that country’s government (a “UN Member State”), and instead base its intervention on the Responsibility to Protect. In the DRC this would for example require it to treat the depradations of all armed actors as illegitimate, whether committed by government forces or non-government forces; and have a mandate allowing it to intervene on behalf of those whose lives are threatened and whose rights are undermined by any armed group, in whatever uniform. The so-called brassage programme for merging government and other armed forces in the DRC – which has provided the cover for ex-rebel warlords to behave as before, but in government uniform – needs to be completely rethought. But it needs to be rethought by the UN and the AU in their roles first and foremost as outside entities determined to improve the prospects for peace in the DRC; not by the UN and the AU first and foremost as partners to a failing government.

Getting the intenational architecture right in Sudan post-referendum will be critical. There is a danger that the international community will breathe a huge sigh of relief when southern Sudan becomes independent, and focus most of its effort on helping southerners create a viable new nation. Meanwhile it will pay far less attention to the rest of Sudan. The international architecture will no doubt include some kind of UN or AU entity to keep an eye on north-south border issues, but it will probably lose sight pretty quickly of the need to focus, for at least the next decade, on a whole-Sudan approach – i.e. on both north and south of what is now one country, Sudan. 

This is a pity, as the resolution of many of the obstacles to peace within and between Khartoum and Juba will require an analytical and operational capacity to regard the two entities as part of a larger, sub-regional peacebuilding challenge. By focusing its efforts separately on Juba and Khartoum, the international community may well reinforce the natural tendency in both to convert separation into conflict; instead of building on and reinforcing the factors which could enable a peaceful co-existence and partnership between the two states and their peoples.

So, instead of feeling sorry for the international community, we should probably advise it to become more effective by taking a longer term approach instead of crisis management, by turning this into a clearly expressed long-term vision and goals relevant to each context, and by ensuring it makes its institutions and organisations more fit for purpose.

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