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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
The UN's all-pervasive role in Africa
By Martin Plaut
BBC Africa analyst

Is the United Nations re-colonising Africa?

UN peacekeepers in Liberia
UN peacekeepers have helped rebuild Liberia

Founded at the end of World War II, one of the UN's aim's was to end colonialism, but its presence in the African continent is today so all-pervasive that it is increasingly difficult to resist the suggestion that the process has gone into reverse.

The UN has nearly 50,000 troops attempting to keep the peace in seven African states.

From the 28 soldiers patrolling the lonely sands of the Western Sahara to the 16,593 troops, 728 military observers and 1,036 police in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations now has vast responsibilities across the continent.

Some, like the operations in Liberia or Sierra Leone are managing the consequences of previous disputes.

Others, like the UN troops on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, are attempting to prevent a resumption of war.


And there are plans for further operations.

Somalia could have a UN force despatched to it. So could the Central African Republic.

And the UN peacekeepers in South Sudan could be joined by a 20,000-strong hybrid UN - African Union force in Darfur.

While the African Union would like to play a major role in resolving all these conflicts it has too few resources to meet such different and pressing needs.

This leaves the international community to pick up the pieces, while African leaders attempt to find political answers to the continent's intractable disputes.

The UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations runs these operations, as well as six of what are termed "political and peacebuilding" missions in Africa.

Some are tiny and obscure. How many people have ever heard of the work of UNOGBIS, the 23-strong mission to Guinea-Bissau, which has been in operation since March 1999?

But the UN is doing far more in Africa than just keep the peace.

Other jobs

Its refugee agency, the UNHCR, looks after nearly 2.5 million Africans.

Some refugee camps have been in existence for years, like those housing nearly half a million people in Tanzania, who are only now gradually returning to DR Congo and Burundi.

Sudanese refugees
The UN steps in when governments fail

Others, like those in the deserts of eastern Chad housing the women and children of Darfur, are in the news quite regularly.

Food is brought for them by the UN's World Food Programme via the port in Cameroon and then from Niamey all the way across Chad to arrive at the camps along the Sudanese border in the east.

During the rainy season trucks make their way across the Sahara from Libya.

It is an extraordinary logistical operation, at times running the risk of attacks from bandits and rebels and sometimes supplemented by airdrops.

And it is not just Africa's refugees who rely on the UN.

Its children are vaccinated by the World Health Organization. Its crops are assessed and improved by the Food and Agricultural Organisation. Its cities are planned and maintained with the help of UN Habitat.

The list is endless.

Driving round many African cities one is constantly struck by the blue and white of the UN flags and logos. Its white 4 x 4 vehicles are to be found in the most remote corners of the rural areas.

Frequently one is left with the impression that UN officials know at least as much, if not more, about countries than government ministers, many of whom spend more time nursing their political careers than their constituents.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that if Africa is not being re-colonised by the UN, then it is certainly being run at least as much from New York as it is from most of the continent's capitals.

Is the UN taking over Africa? Are they doing more for your country than the government? Or is the UN a waste of money?

Your comments:

With the negative connotations that are associated with colonialism, I think this peice asks the wrong question. I don't think the UN is siphoning natural resources and claiming territory from the African states, like colonialists of the past. If anything, they're stablizing failed states and practically governing them because no one else will.
Matt N, Washington, DC

UN is doing an enormous role in settling disputes in most African contries though notorious leaders are always contradicting with the views of UN. Take for instance country like Sudan that UN has did incredible things but because of some leaders like Omar El Bashir who want to perished most of the citizens in Darfur always make UN's work more complex by refusing them to go to Sudan and keep the stability. I hereby encourage UN not to give up in Africa. I also urge UN to uproot the leaders who are causing genocide.
Ayuen Peter Alith, Melbourne, Australia

If the UN is going to be criticized for its presence in Africa, it should be for the lack thereof. Look at Darfur. The idea of "re-colonization" is not only ridiculous, but seems to me like a harmful or negligent excuse to allow gross human rights abuses in Africa without foreign intervention. The right to national sovereignty does not mean the right to brutalize your own people.
Sydney, Wayne, PA, USA

Mr Plaut's theme is itself Africa's misfortune. "Let's blame the old colonialists, let's blame the neo-colonialists, now let's blame the UN!" Africa will remain benighted until a large majority of Africans accept that Africans themselves are at least as responsible, if not more so, as anyone else for the continent's current problems.
Andrew Campbell, Wiltshire, England

Yes, in remotest part of Kenya no Gov vevicle can be traced the only presence are the UN branded ones. But this doesn't apply to Africa only go to Far East countries and the UN presence is much more than Africa.
Kanoru P Karanja, Nairobi, Kenya

It never ceases to amaze me how we human beings all see things differently! As a South African, I wish the UN would do more and not less, in Africa. Unfortunately Africa is still very much in a precarious situation created not only by colonialism but also by the Cold War. Remember, the wars that were fought in Mozambique and Angola were mostly by pro-socialist and supposedly pro-capitalist. The Cold War was to a large degree fought in Africa and yes, Africa as a whole is still trying to recover. We need all the assistance we can get. Not handouts, maybe even not money - Africa is rich in natural resources - but just plain help to get us going in the right direction again. The UN can help us there. Thank you.
G, Kempton Park, South Africa

Ridiculous article. First of all, look up your history and read up on the actions of colonial powers in most of Africa before comparing it to the UN. Second, please quit with the irritating habit of lumping all African countries together. Third, if you are going to subject readers to your analysis, get some first hand information rather than cobbling statistics from the UN site.
Ada, Paris, France

Working with the UN everyday, I very much doubt they could colonize their own backyard. All the faith put into the UN by those who have never worked with them is desperatly misplaced. I had my idealism shattered when I first started working with them. They are more part of the problem, however defined, than they are ever part of the solution.
Henry, Nairobi, Kenya

What the writer seems to forget is that the UN is comprised of African nations AS WELL! As a matter of fact, at its inception, the countries termed Third World (of which Africa makes up a substantial part) were actively working to strengthen the UN as a platform from which countries of less influence could have a voice. Yes, the UN is bureaucratic and many a times incompetent, but to compare it to colonialism is understating the brutal character and impact of the latter.
Ikilezi, USA

The writer of this article should have done more work. Who is expanding in Africa, the UN or bilaterals (especially Western governments)? What fraction of Africa does the UN have real influence over? Which governments are behind decision-making in several African countries.
Nii Kwei, CT, USA

To all those saying this is ridiculous, you may be right that UN has limited presence, but don't forget the myriad other NGOs and missions that riddle the continent. Of course it is a new form of colonialism. Examine how the NGO workers live, salaries they receive, vehicles they drive compared to those of the nationals they 'serve'. No doubt they do good, but the cost is huge. They do live as an 'overclass' benevolently dealing with the masses.
Mark, Minneapolis, MN

The UN,is infiltrated with people with greedy and destructive minds. On top of that, it is controlled by individual superpower countries in dictatorship paranoia.
M Chombwe, Harare, Zimbabwe

The article misses the definition of colonialism. UN peacekeepers, refugee officials and humanitarian workers are not in Africa to extract wealth, therefore, they cannot be colonists.
Joe De Maria, Rockville, Maryland, USA

Your question is ill-posed! From the chart you present, giving the size of Africa, is your question warranted? Besides what is the importance of the question? The last sentence in the piece is particularly absurd; there are 53 countries in Africa, UN peace missions can found in only seven out of these 53 countries. Martin, do the maths, that is 13%. How can you make such a generalisation based on less than 25% of the sample size?
Yaw D Manful, Achimota, Ghana

I saw UN incompetence first hand while in Africa. I can assure you that while most UN officials may in fact be better at running NGO projects or the government in general, which is due to past colonialism. There is just too much bureaucracy within the UN itself for that notion to have any legitimacy.
Glen Bentley, Charleston USA

The notion that UN assistance sent by a body representing the vast majoriy of nations on earth, and often at the behest of African nations is in any way similar to the uninvited and often brutal colonial regimes of the 19th Century is simply absurd.
Rene, Egham, England

Perhaps it is, but it is no worse than the involvement of China, India and the West. China might have more of an impact by financially and politically supporting dictatorships such as Angola and Zimbabwe, in their search for new resources, particularly oil.
Marné , Johannesburg, South Africa

This is a ridiculous slur, given that the UN helped countries such as Mozambique back to what can finally be called some political stability. One is led to assume the author would prefer endless slaughter.
Oliver, Hamburg, Germany

If the UN has a political role in today's world it is, in fact, the (re)colonization of failed countries - I can't think of a better solution. Now, when are they going to take over Zimbabwe?
Mark M Newdick, Danbury, CT, USA

BBC map

United Nations missions

1 Middle East (Untso, Jerusalem)
2 Kashmir (Unmogip)
3 Cyprus (Unficyp)
4 Golan Heights (Undof)
5 Lebanon (Unifil)
6 Western Sahara (Minurso)
7 DR Congo (Monuc)
8 Ethiopia/Eritrea (Unmee)
9 Liberia (Unmil)
10 Ivory Coast (Unoci)
11 Haiti (Minustah)
12 Sudan (Unmis)
13 Sierra Leone (Uniosil)
14 Burundi (Binub)

15 Afghanistan (Unama and Nato-led Isaf)
16 Kosovo (Unmik and Nato-led K-For)
17 East Timor (Unmit and Australian-led force)
18 Georgia (Unomig and Russian-led CIS force)

19 Darfur (African Union force)
20 Somalia (African Union force)
21 Sinai Peninsula (mainly US force)
22 Bosnia (EU - Eufor)
23 Tajikistan (Russian-led CIS border force)
24 Trans-Dniester (Russian force)

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