Analyzing the Role of UN Peacekeeping Operations in West Africa

Ever since its creation, the United Nations has performed several duties regarding the prevention, containment and de-escalation of disputes and conflicts within nation-states by undertaking numerous peacekeeping operations worldwide, with many of them being focused on the West Africa region. This is mainly due to the region being plagued by a plethora of ethnic conflicts, civil wars, colonial legacies and issues of identities. With West Africa now plagued by incessant military coups, it is crucial to understand why decades of UN peacekeeping operations failed to bring any pertinent resolutions to the region’s long-standing conflicts.   

The concept of peacekeeping has a plethora of definitions. Simply put, “peacekeeping refers to a direct deployment of a UN presence in the field.” The United Nations describes peacekeeping as “an operation involving military personnel but without enforcement powers established by the UN to help maintain or restore peace in areas of conflict.” A. J. R Groom describes peacekeeping as an operation of potential military nature that is undertaken by any international organization or body during a potential or actual conflict, and where such an intervention is solely based on the consent of all parties involved. 

The origins of peacekeeping can be traced back to the late 1940s, towards the beginning of the Cold War, when the UN started developing the concept of peacekeeping due to increasing mistrust between the US and USSR, which made the Collective Security system unworkable. Thus, peacekeeping operation was designed as a ‘practical mechanism’ to contain armed conflict emerging in different regions of the world, mainly during the process of decolonization that exposed and amplified deep-rooted ethnic and identity conflicts in the Global South. Cold war era peacekeeping, also known as Traditional peacekeeping (1948-1989), generally involved three chief principles- firstly, the ‘consent of parties’ who are part of the conflict; secondly, ‘impartiality’ wherein the peacekeepers are forbidden to intervene in the domestic affairs of the state or favor one party over the other; and lastly, ‘non-use of force’ except in cases of self-defense. Peacekeeping during this period had three major objectives pertaining to supervising truce, cease-fires, troop withdrawals and creating buffer zones.

However, from the 1990s onwards, it became challenging for the UN to undertake peacekeeping expeditions that would adhere to traditional peacekeeping’s Cold War period principles. This mainly happened due to the emergence of the problem of ‘failed states’ in several parts of Africa such as Somalia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Darfur etc. In conditions of failed states, it becomes challenging to procure either consent or impartiality in the absence of a legitimate and functioning central government apparatus and the presence of a vast number of factions involved in civil wars. As a result, the walls of traditional sovereignty have to be eroded to enforce peace and provide humanitarian assistance. As a consequence, the idea of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) came into existence which has been upheld by the UN since 2005. It allows UN peacekeeping forces to intervene militarily (known as forceful humanitarian intervention) to rescue civilians amidst armed conflicts in failed states. This is known as Modern peacekeeping. 

However, since this new practice requires increasing forceful military intervention by states into the sovereignty of another nation, there has been considerable backlash against it. It is suspected that such an intervention could be used to disguise any state’s aggressive military intervention against another, especially when, in the guise of modern peacekeeping, several aberrations have been witnessed, such as airstrikes against reluctant parties, man-hunts for factional leaders, naval bombardments of the host country etc., Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR) are astute examples of such interventions.  

Scholars of constructivism have criticized modern peacekeeping operations in Africa by stating that international organizations or anyone working for them share the same world-polity culture that rely on Western liberal ideas, resulting in international institutions configuring all their strategies and agendas according to those values, thereby taking a top-down approach. As a result of these so-called Western liberal norms, international interventions are usually oriented towards upholding ideas such as organizing elections, creating a capitalist, free-market economy, promoting human rights and the rule of law, etc. However, constructivists believe such ideas are hegemonic and unsuited to post-conflict realities of complex societies such as West African states. This is because policy-makers and interveners consider conflict and post-conflict management as a “technical process” and, using a checklist approach, view conflicting and post-conflicting situations as requiring a pre-existing toolkit, while in reality, using the same Western checklist approach for peace interventions in ethnically diverse regions of the world, especially in Africa, cannot bring about either functioning democracies or long-lasting peace.

So, how have UN peacekeeping operations fared in West Africa? The United Nations, through its peacekeeping operations, perceives to have played a significant role in addressing the issues plaguing the region, especially in countries where the escalation of conflicts has posed a significant threat to peace and stability, such as in Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali. Peacekeepers have helped these countries negotiate agreements for peace, helped strengthen defense forces, democratic establishments and overall national security while also bolstering the disarmament-demobilization-reintegration programme for former combatants, extensively promoted human rights and social harmony and reunified divergent groups at local and national levels. In essence, the UN has completed the existing ‘checklist’ of all the required Western values and ideas shared by international institutions and critiqued so often by constructivists. 

However, there are quite a few challenges that the UN had to face when trying to bring stability to conflict-ridden polities of West Africa. Firstly, most of these challenges emerge from the lack of Western understanding of how these divergent African polities generally tend to function, their internal issues, deep-rooted schisms and ineffective policymakers. According to Malan, for decades, West African conflicts have been characterized by “a combination of internal and international conflicts with serious human rights violations, resulting in increasing refugees and displaced persons, and an abundance of deep-rooted causes, such as lack of coincidence between nation and state, ethnic tensions and suppression of minorities, corrupt and dictatorial regimes, support of such regimes by international arms traders, chronic poverty and underdevelopment and a grinding debt burden.” The distinctiveness of the region of West Africa is reflected in its political history riddled with European colonialism and its legacies of diverse political and administrative orientations, which often resulted in political contention and rivalry amongst states. A significant reason for growing political instability in the region originates from experimentation with various forms of governance systems ranging from multi-party democratic polities to single-party authoritarian governments to military dictatorships which have together resulted in collapsing of the state and consequent civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire. 

However, because of the UN’s checklist syndrome, the resources and efforts of the international community, primarily through peacekeeping, are concentrated on the symptoms rather than the cause of the conflicts. External interventions in West Africa, particularly those of the UN and the ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), have been criticized over the years mainly because they are often short-term and tend to be quick-fix and exit strategy-oriented. According to D.J. Francis, such operations usually fail to understand the fundamental root causes of the conflicts and devise long-term strategies for peace and sustainable development, thereby strengthening the position of constructivists who portray UN interventions as a top-down liberal approach that rarely considers local societal circumstances. 

And secondly, the presence of too many players in peacekeeping (the UN, ECOWAS, and African Union) with vested interests can lead to unclear mandates, command and control issues, clashes of interests amongst the various stakeholders, and humanitarian reasons becoming secondary to political interests. For instance, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once remarked that while parallel peacekeeping operations by ECOWAS and the UN in Liberia did lead to achievements, the entire operation was equally challenging as each player involved in the mission had their agendas and principles. 

Therefore, it is observed that while UN peacekeeping operations are significant for upholding peace and humanitarian values, the failure of the UN to understand the complex dynamics of conflicts in several West African states, the urgency to impose the existing Western checklist toolkit on all the conflicting states without actually undertaking fundamental structural changes, and discord with regional multilateral allies like ECOWAS and AU has rendered peacekeeping in West Africa hugely unsuccessful, with probably only Sierra Leone being considered as a relative success story comparatively.

[Photo by Sqr.Ld Zaman, via Wikimedia Commons]

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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