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Africa: UN peacekeepers increasingly unwelcome

June 29, 2023

UN peacekeeping missions in Africa are struggling to restore peace and stability to the nations in which they operate. Some African states want them out.

MONUSCO peacekeepers patrol in North Kivu in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo
The UN has repeatedly complained that restrictions on troop and aircraft movements had stopped it from fulfilling its mandate Image: Djaffar Sabiti/REUTERS

United Nations' peacekeeping missions in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South SudanMali, and the Central African Republic (CAR) are struggling to succeed.

The forces, who operate under strict guidelines, are unable to ensure general security, stabilize volatile situations or even protect civilians.

Some analysts say that such a scenario is far from successful.

Blue helmets 'overwhelmed by violence'

"They have failed consistently to deal with the cycle of violence in those countries and the very reason for which they were brought in in the first place," Adib Saani, executive director for the Jatikay Center for Human Security and Peace Building, told DW.

Some missions seem overwhelmed by worsening violence, according to Saani.

"A clear case in point is Mali, [the security situation] has not been resolved because day by day the violence seems to be worsening, and it looks almost like the mission is helpless," Saani added.

Other experts blame the lack of success on the operational mandates of the missions in Africa, which restricts forces' activities.

For example, UN peacekeeping operations are not considered tools of enforcement: The "blue helmets" are not allowed to use lethal force except in self-defense or defense of the mandate.

"I wouldn't say that the UN missions in Africa are all failing, but rather it is the nature of their mandate that limits their efficacy or effectiveness in the areas they are meant to operate," Fidel Amakye Owusu, an analyst with the Conflict Research Consortium for Africa, told DW.

Complex political and cultural dynamics

Conflict situations in Africa are very fluid and very unpredictable and, according to Owusu, that makes the nature of UN mandates very difficult to execute in volatile situations.

"So mostly it appears as if they are not doing their best," he said. "However, it has to do with the limits of their mandate rather than how effective forces involved or the mission itself is."

Political instability further complicates matters, according to Saani, who explained that nothing new would be achieved as long as there is a lack of effective democratic systems.

"One of the reasons is political instability: You would only succeed when there is solid commitment politically. If there is no such commitment, it becomes very difficult for them," Saani added.

The problem rather than the solution?

In Mali, the citizens have turned against the UN peacekeeping mission, accusing forces of escalating tensions.

Relations have deteriorated to the extent that Mali's foreign minister last week officially called on the UN to withdraw its forces immediately.

Germany to withdraw troops from Mali

Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told the UN Security Council that the mission, MINUSMA, is rather becoming "a part of the problem in fuelling intercommunal tensions."

Owusu said the governments such as the one in Mali are also to blame for jeopardizing operation of missions.

"In the case of Mali, you would realize that in recent times, because of the coming in of Wagner, the UN mission in general was limited as to what it could do," he said.

The Wagner Group, a private military group often described as Russian mercenaries, are preferred by Mali's military rulers to help them deal with the jihadist threats there.

Mistrust for missions' work

The UN's mission in Mali is due to end on June 29. A UN vote following France's proposed draft resolution to end its peacekeeping mission in Mali has now been scheduled for Friday.

Should the vote confirm the withdrawal, Mali would have to deal with replacing the large contingent of peacekeepers.

Peacekeepers have also been accused of sexual exploitation and abuses. Just this month, the UN said it was sending home a unit of 60 Tanzanian forces over allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Central African Republic.

UN peacekeepers patrol along the road from Bentiu to Nhialdu in South Sudan
UN peacekeeping forces have faced hostility from host countries in recent times as they are accused of rather fueling tensionsImage: Sam Mednick/AP Photo/picture alliance

Saani said that when such allegations of abuses aren't investigated and perpetrators punished quickly, it complicates the work of the missions.

"A lot of it has to do with the lack of trust in the process. For example, in the Darfur region, there were some allegations of exploitation, by peacekeepers, which I must say really dragged the the peacekeeping mission in that area into disrepute," he said.

"So, the trust is, I must say, a problem. And there's another angle to it. Some feel that it is a ploy by Western powers to reassert, so to speak, their authority and control over the countries in which these peacekeepers operate, for example."

Peace missions are inevitable

Despite these complications, the missions still have critical roles to play, said Mohamed Amara, at the University of Letters and Human Sciences of Bamako.

He told DW he is worried, for example, that once missions fail and exit, it could create bigger issues in host countries.

In the case of Mali, Amara fears that the government would struggle to fill the void left behind.

"It is important to emphasize that MINUSMA, somewhere, acts as a buffer between the Malian authorities and the rest of the territory. If MINUSMA leaves, it will therefore be necessary to replace all these security posts occupied by MINUSMA," he said.

Owusu has also warned against making UN missions unwanted and demanding their exit, saying it could become counterproductive.

In the case of Mali and the Sahel region, "we still find increased incidence of terrorism," Owusu said. "We find ISIS affiliates still on the move and quite emboldened and capturing territories every day, every week."

DR Congo: Anger in Goma over incessant militant attacks

Reforms and restructuring

In a statement, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said there is still a significant number of UN forces "who exercise integrity in saving and improving lives, often at risk of their own, in conditions difficult and dangerous, to protect civilians and help secure lasting peace."

Saani — who agreed — said the work of the missions are still relevant in Africa. "I can't deny the fact that Africa cannot do it alone. We are not self-reliant, however: What I think should happen is for the UN to restructure," he said.

Involving local actors more in the missions' operations, according to Saani, would bring back some level of trust and success.

For Owusu, there is very little the UN missions can achieve if their operations aren't reformed.

"Maybe UN missions going forward must be redefined, maybe to expand their mandate or to make them more fluid to support," Owusu said. "But in terms of credibility, I don't think that the UN mission has lost some credibility. No, it has to do with other actors other than the UN.”

Eric Topona contributed to this article.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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