The contest over peace and security in Africa

The dominant interventionist approach to peace and security in Africa by-passes the hard work of creating domestic political consensus and instead imposes models of government favoured by western powers. The emergent African methodology offers a chance to develop locally-rooted solutions too often sidelined.

The common modus operandi for resolving an African civil war is no longer for the warring parties to sit together to hammer out their differences. Instead they compete for the favours of the USA, France and Britain—the so-called “P-3” of the United Nations Security Council—which do their best to determine the outcome of any crisis, ostensibly in accord with principles such as democracy and the protection of civilians, but more consistently with regard to their own political interests. Some African leaders are promoting the idea that a country should determine its own political settlement, based on an inclusive negotiating forum. But this is an uphill struggle, not least because, well aware of where power lies and aid money comes from, African publics often go along with western preferences.

The last twelve months have seen African-led efforts to resolve the conflicts in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya brushed aside by France and NATO respectively, which used military force to achieve their political objectives. African Union proposals for resolving the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, by inclusive political dialogue have been ignored by the P3 in favour of an approach that relegates discussions among Sudanese to an adjunct to bargaining between the Government of Sudan and the western powerbrokers. In Somalia, Africa and western powers have agreed on a security-led response that leaves a political settlement in a distant second place.

Demotix/Stefan Meisel. African Union mediators arrive
in Abidjan. All rights reserved.

Philanthropic imperialists in Paris, Brussels, New York and Washington DC are in upbeat mood. Citing Libya and Cote d’Ivoire as triumphs for the doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P), the architect of R2P, the former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans crowed in Foreign Policy last month: “End of the argument: how we won the debate over stopping genocide.” NATO warplanes and French special forces certainly won their respective arguments in Sirte and Abidjan. They probably prevented some atrocities too. But these interventions were chiefly about power, not human rights. Remarkably little appears to have changed since Tom Lehrer’s 1965 satirical song, “Send the Marines”, which contains the lines: “They’ve got to be protected/All their rights respected/Until somebody we like can be elected.” As David Rieff commented, “instead of strengthening R2P as a new global norm, the NATO intervention in Libya may well serve as its high water mark.”

Permission to fly refused

Across Africa, few tears are shed for the “Brother Leader” Muammar Gaddafi, but the manner of his passing divided and demoralized the continental organization. For NATO the goal was simple: regime change. Once Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron had a UN Security Council resolution authorizing them to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians, they were constrained only by how the course of the campaign affected their domestic political standing. Meanwhile, Gaddafi had alienated almost every member of the Arab League and the organization took the purely political decision to support his ouster.

The African Union, by contrast, held vigorous debates of principle and politics. The Constitutive Act of the African Union, adopted in 2002, includes clause 4(p): “condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of governments.” These words had been drawn up without considering democratic uprisings, and as soon as these occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, the organization debated its response, quickly resolving that non-violent popular protests of this kind should be considered a legitimate advancement of democracy. 

In the case of Libya, the AU leaned in a different direction. Officials argued that while the Libyan conflict began with an uprising, it degenerated quickly into a civil war, followed by NATO intervention under resolution 1973. The three African members of the UN Security Council—Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa—voted for the resolution because it included a strong positive reference to Africa’s search for a political resolution, and that the intent was the protection of civilians. (Article 4(h) of the AU’s Constitutive Act specifies “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State … in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.”) The AU put together a panel of presidents, with the objectives of facilitating a transition to an inclusive government and lessening any negative impact on regional security. While Europe and the Arab world tended to see Libya as a problematic version of Tunisia, Africa instead feared that Libya would turn out more like Chad—mercenarised tribalism spilling across frontiers. Libya’s southern neighbours, Niger and Chad, were especially fearful that rebel groups, armed from the massive weapons depots in the Libyan Sahara, would flood back into their countries and create havoc. Sudan threw its lot in quietly with NATO and Qatar and sent troops to secure south-eastern Libya for the Transitional National Council, also fighting the Darfur rebels that were based there.

Another consideration was, in the words of one AU official, that “Gaddafi was bad for Libya but good for Africa.” Alone among African leaders he had both the temperament and the capability to thumb his nose at western countries, and he provided a reliable centre of gravity at a polar opposite to the US, France and Britain. Gaddafi rented a number of Africa’s less salubrious leaders and sponsored unpleasant insurgencies. However, the fact that he enjoyed real respect should be seen as a barometer of Africans’ distrust of the intentions of the former colonial powers and the Americans. 

The AU Panel was due to arrive in Tripoli to begin its mediation on 20 March, the day after NATO imposed the no-fly zone. Permission to fly was refused, and soon NATO stretched its R2P mandate to regime change. NATO got away with it this time, and the outcome might indeed turn out better than taking the negotiations route, but African countries will be far more wary of voting for such Security Council mandates in the future: the price to pay for invoking R2P to pursue overtly political ends. In June, the Sudanese and Ethiopian governments insisted that the mandate for peacekeepers in the disputed territory of Abyei be determined by the host country and the troop contributor (Ethiopia), rather than the Security Council. In October, Russia and China vetoed a package of UN sanctions against Syria.

A unique mandate

The Cote d’Ivoire case raises similar concerns. There is much goodwill across Africa for the new Ivorian President, Alassane Ouattara, and hope that he can reconcile his people and rebuild his country. But the same pattern occurred: a UN mandate stretched to support a military intervention and the sidelining of an African initiative.

Uniquely, the mandate of the UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) included certifying the outcome of the presidential election. Pre-empting the Ivorian legal mechanisms for adjudicating the numerous complaints over the election, which depending on how they were decided could have swung the result either in favour of the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo or his challenger Alassane Ouattara, the Special Representative of the Secretary General Y.J. Choi declared for Ouattara the day after the electoral commission (headed by a Ouattara supporter) announced a pro-Ouattara result. Choi stuck to his guns when challenged, asserting a few days later that “I remain absolutely certain that I have found the truth concerning the will of the Ivorian people as expressed on 28 November.”

An African mission led by the former South African president Thabo Mbeki, observed that the two candidates split the vote approximately evenly, and that neither could rule without the consent of the other, or his supporters. He proposed that the rivals negotiate a power sharing formula. Mbeki’s report to the AU Chairperson was never made public. There’s little doubt that France brought pressure to bear on its friends in Africa to close off that avenue.

France’s strategy in Cote d’Ivoire involves a cosy relationship with the assassin-putchist Blaise Compaore, leader of neighbouring Burkina Faso, whose mercenaries have destabilized a large swathe of west Africa for more than twenty years. For Sarkozy, Compaore is thief turned gendarme. At every stage of the Ivorian drama, France called the shots, helped by Gbagbo’s poor decisions, and in the end the outcome was decided by the French army. France’s Africa policy may have shifted in the last decade but old fashioned realpolitik remains a constant.

Intervention is justified by success, and so there is a case for cutting deals with thugs and cutting legal corners. But, after UNOCI, there is little chance that any nation hosting UN peacekeepers will agree to have that mission take primacy over national institutions and decide who becomes president.

On the other side of the continent, with the support of the UN and the P-3, the African Union is in the lead on addressing the Somali conflict. After the Mogadishu debacle of 1993, the UN will not contemplate sending its own peacekeepers to the country. As a result, there is no competition for military or political leadership on the Somali issue, and the African-international coalition is not likely to crack.

For a decade, what passes for African and international policy on Somalia has been security first, politics second. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the armies of Ethiopia and Kenya are on combat missions in the country, while US and European drones and warships pursue similar objectives from the skies and the seas. This is intervention fully fledged, its political agenda undisguised. AMISOM’s war against the Islamists involves dying as well as killing, with no guarantee of victory. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was set up under coalition tutelage and would collapse without this foreign support.

How will a workable political settlement for Somalia come about? The African-international coalition envisages a military victory over the Islamists, creating the condition for a national political bargain, which would reconstitute a central government, devolve power to the provinces (where governance arrangements have been shown to work) and bring in the moderate Islamists. But for this to work, the members of the coalition need first to agree on what constitutes victory: the Ethiopians have zero tolerance for any Eritrean involvement in Somalia, and the US is unlikely to end its attacks on suspected al Qaida affiliates. Then the TFG needs to reform its proclivity for centralized control over sovereign rents—in other words to become less corrupt. Another scenario is that the coalition tires of the contest and decides to negotiate its way out. A third—the most probable and the most hopeful—is that a plethora of local agreements made by local people, with little input from any outsiders, creates conditions in which the coalition can claim success and endorse what is actually working. This depends on African, and especially Ethiopian, leadership, in correctly analyzing Somali politics, and judging that sufficient security has been achieved.

Inclusive sovereignty

In its approach to Darfur, Sudan, the African Union developed a distinctively African method for addressing a complex conflict. In 2009, the AU High-Level Panel on Darfur (AUPD), led by President Mbeki, took on the mandate of recommending how best to address the challenges of peace, justice, reconciliation and Darfur’s political and economic future within Sudan. The AUPD convened an unprecedented series of town-hall type meetings across Darfur, and for forty days listened and discussed the issues with a broad range of Darfurians—government, rebels, civil society, tribal leaders and others. The AUPD recommended inclusive negotiations in which all the stakeholders could represent themselves, addressing all the issues in a holistic manner. The basic principle was that, if the Darfurians could achieve a consensus on the key political issues among themselves, all the most contentious questions—such as whether to cooperate with the International Criminal Court, which had issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al Bashir—would be subject to that consensus.

Such negotiations would represent the assertion of a democratic, or at least an inclusive, sovereignty. This is the core of an emergent African method: focus on a political agreement that includes everyone. It is not that the AU favours peace over justice, but rather that it makes both subordinate to an inclusive political contract. This may require accommodating individuals and political forces with deplorable human rights records. However, the recent record shows that R2P-justified interventions deal with such people, they just prefer not to admit it.

The AUPD recommendations for Darfur were not adopted. The approach followed by the mediator for the Darfur conflict, a former minister from Burkina Faso, Djibril Bassole, was wholly different:  a top down process of drafting an expert document, with the backing of the Qataris (who hosted the peace talks), the UN, and the P-3, and then making this into the blueprint for resolving the crisis. The Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), signed in July 2010, is a roadmap rather than a peace agreement. The DDPD commits the Government of Sudan to a series of steps, to which it can in principle be held accountable. The internationals corralled and encouraged a number of Darfurians into a new rebel grouping, the Liberation and Justice Movement, which was constituted around the peace forum rather than the battlefield, and which has signed the Doha document. None of the historic leaders of the Darfur rebellion have joined this process, and while there have been civil society fora to canvass views, this is a far cry from the inclusive negotiations envisaged by the AUPD. Nonetheless, many Darfurians are enthusiastic about Doha, mainly because it is seen as having the backing (and funds) of Qatar and western countries, and because they long for peace and normality.

What the Libyan, Ivorian, Somali and Darfurian cases have in common is that the de facto negotiations for a political outcome have not been among the warring parties in the country, but between western powerbrokers and some local or national political leaders. This is not negotiation between equals: it is bargaining over the terms of international recognition and funding. Some African leaders are preferred, others are ruled out entirely or ostracized. Africans understand well that any purely domestic political settlement must be acceptable to the P3, and so, unsurprisingly, they devalue their own domestic politics, sideline African mediations and instead go straight to petition western diplomats.

Western interventions are attractive partly for their firepower and partly because they come kitted out with democratic and human rights principles. For very good reasons, African citizens long for these principles to become real. But the danger is that democracy and good governance are packaged as an import, rather than something manufactured at home. The hard work of forging a lasting domestic consensus may be passed over in favour of a political beauty parade to impress the P-3. Africa’s emergent methods for promoting peace and security deserve space to succeed.

About the author

Alex de Waal is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.