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Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
Africa's peacekeeping problem

The UN's peacekeeping credibility again lies in tatters
By Jonathan Eyal

The consequence of the latest violence in Sierra Leone will reverberate for years to come. Yet again, a United Nations operation lies in ruins.

Better equipped Western countries calculated that the Africans would be able to look after their own problems

And, for the third time in less than a decade, the hope that Africans would be able to police conflicts in their own continent has been dispelled.

The idea that it is up to Africans to manage their own regional crises was born out of necessity: the eruption in quick succession of crises in states as geographically disparate as Liberia, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia or Congo.

Despite this diversity, most of these wars shared common features. They were a by-product of historic disputes which were kept frozen during the Cold War but which, with the end of the global ideological confrontation, could be fought at leisure.

They were also conflicts which were not amenable to any solution, apart from the appalling options of mass murder, wholesale expulsion and territorial changes.

Angola's civil war has been dragging on for years, despite the 1994 peace accord that the UN was unable to monitor
And, finally, they were not conflicts in which Western countries wished to be involved: quite apart from the obvious reluctance of old colonial powers to be drawn into what they saw as new African adventures, for most of the last decade the West was preoccupied with handling a serious of wars in the former Yugoslavia.

"Africa for the Africans" was the rallying cry for generations of the continent's leaders; during the last decade, it was the turn of Western governments to seize on this concept with alacrity.

For a while, there were sound reasons for optimism. Democracy and market-economy reforms were fashionable concepts in Africa and the apartheid regime of South Africa was peacefully dismantled.

The end of the Cold War may have created new troubles, but it also appeared to put an end to vicious wars in Mozambique and Angola.

Better equipped Western countries calculated that, with a bit of assistance, the Africans would not only be willing but also able to look after their own problems.

Western training

France and Britain took the lead in training the African military for peacekeeping operations.

One peacekeeping exercise was held by France in Senegal in 1998 with the participation of 3000 West African troops, together with forces from Britain and the US.

US soldiers withdrew from Somalia in 1993 after their peacekeeping operation ended in disaster
This was followed by a more recent exercise in January this year with no less than 16 central African and western countries.

The United Kingdom has a similar programme of military assistance, and held exercises in Southern Africa in 1997 and 1998.

In addition, Britain now has three Military Assistance and Training Teams in Africa, teaching the experience of peacekeeping operations at local staff colleges and providing specialised training for African military units.

The complementary nature of Anglo-French interests was acknowledged some years ago: a joint Peacekeeping Commission was established in 1996 between these two European countries.

The United States, with fingers burned in Somalia, has since 1997 been applying more resources through its African Crisis Response Initiative to individual unit training in Africa.

Only a month ago the leaders of all African and European states met in Cairo in order to coordinate both peacekeeping and economic assistance.

All in all, therefore, the story of African peacekeeping is one of close European involvement, a large amount of goodwill and some achievement. So, why has the Sierra Leone operation turned sour?

Bungled African peacekeeping

The first answer clearly lies inside Africa. Western governments placed a great deal of faith in the continent's two major powers, Nigeria and South Africa.

Far from rushing to douse the flames of regional civil wars, some African countries actually became parties to local wars.

The South African government, however, proved to be a reluctant participant in peacekeeping operations, partly because of Pretoria's sensitivities about appearing to be throwing its weight around.

The Nigerians had no such qualms. But their military involvement was frequently bungled: over 1,000 Nigerian soldiers were killed in Sierra Leone alone, and Nigeria was always resented by neighbouring states.

Finally, far from rushing to douse the flames of regional civil wars, some African countries actually became parties to local wars, as is the case with Zimbabwe's military involvement in the Congo.

With its own problems at home, Nigeria felt the need to withdraw from its long involvement in Sierra Leone
The result was that the Sierra Leone operation was left to relatively small contingents from too many states, with incompatible command structures, poor training and discipline and almost no knowledge of what a UN operation should be all about.

And it also proved to be much more expensive than originally assumed.

Nigeria's decision to withdraw its forces from Sierra Leone was one of the reasons for the collapse of the operation; the Nigerians are now conditioning their return on the availability of funds from other sources.

Western apathy

However, the United Nations and Western governments also bear a heavy responsibility for this debacle.

The Africans were left to repeat all the mistakes which Western governments themselves committed in previous peacekeeping operations.

It should have been clear from the start that the task in Sierra Leone was not one of keeping a peace which did not exist, but actually enforcing peace on reluctant parties.

No less than 45,000 paramilitaries had to be disarmed in a complex operation which demanded tact and firmness in equal measures.

The answer should have been a large force, heavily armed and ready for fighting as well as peacekeeping; that lesson was clear from previous bungled UN efforts in Somalia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, to name but a few examples.

But the UN plodded in its old, discredited way: it initially authorised a small corps of observers, to be followed by a few units and only recently by a much larger commitment.

And, just as predictably, the calculation made in New York did not tally with that on the ground: the UN authorised 11,000 soldiers, but has only 8,000 deployed at the moment.

The outcome was the worst possible: a large but flabby operation which constantly changed its strategy but never managed to deter the fighting parties.

The Sierra Leone rebels knew that they could seize UN troops with impunity; since most of the contributing nations were small and poor, they had no means to retaliate against such tactics.

Thus, the bigger the international presence became the less the UN could do, a curious law of diminishing returns.

And, as the Sierra Leone operation continued to drift, Western governments did nothing.

The UN Secretary General compiled reports, all of which expressed alarm at the situation on the ground. But, apart from a few British military advisers hastily dispatched to the region in the last two weeks, the West swung into action only when the lives of its citizens were directly threatened.

UN soldier and helicopter
The UN soldiers were ill-prepared for actual fighting
There was no serious attempt to evaluate the future of the operation immediately after Nigeria announced the withdrawal of its forces from the mission, and no effort to help with the costs of the operation.

Nor was there any thought given to an accelerated programme of training for the troops dispatched to Sierra Leone.

In essence, the Africans were left to repeat all the mistakes which Western governments themselves committed in previous peacekeeping operations.

Lessons for the future

However, not everything is lost. The British paratroopers currently on the ground occupy some key strategic positions, including the airport.

African states should continue to police their own continent, but they cannot be expected to do so without some Western assistance.

They will remain in place after the evacuation of Western citizens in order to ensure this vital entry point for reinforcements.

No Western country wishes to see another failed UN operation; governments may now be more willing to contribute both funds and expertise.

}The full disarmament of paramilitary forces as decreed by the UN resolutions will remain an elusive objective.

But it should be possible to ensure that the capital of Freetown does not fall into rebel hands and that the rebels' offensive is stopped in its tracks.

HMS Ocean
The UK has sent troops and aircraft carriers, which could help to stabilise the situation
None of these measures are entirely satisfactory. Nevertheless, they could still make the difference between a botched and a completely failed UN mission.

In the longer term, however, the lessons of Sierra Leone must be learnt.

For today's Africa the distinction between keeping a peace and enforcing a peace does not exist; traditional peacekeeping operations are doomed to failure unless the UN troops are prepared to fight.

African states should continue to police their own continent, but they cannot be expected to do so without some Western assistance.

And, finally, even the mounting of a purely African operation does not absolve the West from paying constant attention to these conflicts.

Sierra Leone was an utterly predictable but ultimately unpredicted disaster. It should be the last such disaster, not only for the good of Africa, but for the credibility of the United Nations as well.

Dr Jonathan Eyal is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London
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09 May 00 | Africa
Can the UN force restore peace?
09 May 00 | Africa
Fear and anger in Freetown
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