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Jan. 11: The politics of peacekeeping in Africa: the end of indifference?

As fragile and uncertain as the developments in Côte d’Ivoire and Sudan at the start of 2011 appear, each contains encouraging evidence of something new happening in Africa. In the past few decades, neighbouring countries and the international community have sometimes appeared content to turn their backs on troubled African countries and let dictatorship, injustice and political violence continue, offering little more than condemnation.

While some peace operations have made important contributions to ending conflicts and promoting stability on the continent, the international community’s engagement has been inconsistent and has frequently appeared to be linked to narrow interests. There have been clear limits to how far political change could advance. Some observers have gone so far as to argue that the external response to African problems has been characterized by a politics of indifference.

In the past decade, however, with the emergence of global norms such as the responsibility to protect, external actors have more actively responded to internal security and governance issues in African countries. The ways that external actors have addressed the challenges in Côte d’Ivoire and Sudan suggest a new commitment to support genuine and far-reaching political reform in Africa. Precedents have been set—but will they be followed?

National election—international response
At the time of writing, Alassane Ouattara’s government-in-waiting remains barricaded in a hotel in the Ivorian capital, Abidjan. Clashes between its supporters and those of Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to acknowledge electoral defeat and step down as president, are reported across the country. Disputed elections accompanied by violence are hardly novel in Africa, particularly in post-conflict settings. What is new in Cote d’Ivoire is the strength and unity of regional and international cooperation to ensure that the election’s outcome is implemented.

Both the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have clearly and unequivocally declared Ouattara the rightful president and condemned Gbagbo’s actions. ECOWAS has even threatened a military intervention to enforce the election result. After this, it will be almost impossible for them to accept Gbagbo’s continuation in power without, at the very least, a genuine power-sharing agreement. This is in contrast to the AU’s relatively weak response to the 2007–2008 election crisis in Kenya.

The United Nation’s role in the Côte d’Ivoire crisis has been equally remarkable. Choi Young-Jin, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, certified the election result declared by the Independent Electoral Commission, over Gbagbo’s objections. The UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI), which Choi heads, chose to ignore Gbagbo’s orders to leave the country. UNOCI, which oversees the 2005 Pretoria Agreement that formally ended three years of conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, is now deployed around the Golf Hotel, protecting Ouattara’s government from Gbagbo’s supporters.

All of UNOCI’s actions have been backed by the UN Security Council. Even though UNOCI peacekeepers are increasingly under attack, on 19 January the Security Council also voted to reinforce UNOCI with by 2000 troops, for a total force size of 11 000. Even China and Russia, champions of non-intervention in domestic problems, have–albeit hesitantly–put their votes behind UNOCI’s new role.

Redrawing borders
China’s and Russia’s voting on the Sudanese referendum is perhaps even more striking. Both are highly sensitive to secession issues, yet they have supported a process that will almost certainly result in the South of Sudan deciding to separate from the North. Indeed, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s apparent acquiescence is probably in part owing to pressure from Sudan’s strategic partner, China.

A vote for secession will also mean the redrawing of colonial borders. African countries have presented respecting existing borders as a guarantor of regional peace (it is even stipulated in the charter of the AU) and have only rarely and reluctantly allowed them to change. That the international community persuaded the North to accept the referendum as a term of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement is impressive enough; that the referendum has gone ahead with the support of Sudan’s African neighbours is even more so.

A lasting change?
It is possible to see both situations as the latest and clearest manifestations of an ongoing trend towards more committed and robust attempts to establish and protect good governance and to finally resolve long-standing, destabilizing situations in Africa. But how real, and how durable, is this trend? In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, declaring the election result involved a controversial interpretation of the peacekeeping mandate. While overseeing or organizing free, fair and non-violent elections are not new tasks for peace operations, none has yet been explicitly mandated to declare and then uphold the election result. Whether they will be after Côte d’Ivoire remains to be seen, but there are good reasons for caution. The legitimacy of peacekeeping is underpinned by the principle of impartiality. If peace operations are to become the arbiters of elections in post-conflict settings, impartiality will become harder to maintain—and it would have far-reaching implications for the future of peacekeeping.

Also, it is unclear how much African countries or the wider international community will want to continue getting involved in redrawing Africa’s borders. Furthermore, even if territorial disputes can be settled peacefully, experiences such as Timor-Leste show that newly independent territories require massive, costly and open-ended outside help: with state building and with maintaining law, order and stability in the interim. It is notable that the Sudanese referendum has gone ahead with several potentially explosive questions still open: the final status of Abyei, border demarcation and the division of oil revenues. With so much of the world’s overstretched peacekeeping resources already deployed in Africa, other secessionist movements—especially if they offer little strategic benefit for major international players—might not receive such enthusiastic support.

An African referendum-in-waiting
Finally, in the throes of euphoria about the Sudanese referendum and the response to the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, it is worth remembering the case of Western Sahara. In 1991 the UN mandated a peace operation to organize and ensure a free and fair referendum to determine whether Western Sahara should become an independent sovereign state or be absorbed into Morocco—and to ‘proclaim the results’ of that referendum. Two decades later, the referendum has yet to take place. When the dust settles in Côte d’Ivoire and Sudan, the international community should turn its attention once again to Western Sahara. It should give impetus to the ongoing informal negotiations between the two parties so that a referendum on the status of Western Sahara may finally take place and the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) can fulfill its all-important mandate of certifying the results.

About the author
Sharon Wiharta leads SIPRI’s research on peacekeeping and peacebuilding issues. Her area of interest is efforts to promote justice and establish the rule of law in post-conflict situations through reform of the justice and security sectors, with special emphasis on ensuring local ownership. She has published widely on peacekeeping and peacebuilding issues.


Sharon Wiharta is a researcher with the SIPRI Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Project at SIPRI.