Skip to content

The UN — Out of Africa and Into Asia?

Article by Richard Gowan

November 22, 2006

September 2006 will enter the annals of media history as a month kind to the United Nations press corps. In a remarkable departure from the usual pattern, there were moments of bewildering entertainment mixed in with news demonstrating decisiveness.

First, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez enlivened the world body’s annual September summit with the claim that “the devil” George W. Bush had left its
General Assembly chamber smelling sulphurous. Next, officials had no time to give the building an airing before the UN Security Council reached an unexpectedly early consensus on South Korea’s Ban Ki Moon to succeed Kofi Annan as Secretary General.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, all the big stories coming out of New York may have obscured a deeper trend in the UN’s affairs playing out in Africa and Lebanon. At the end of September, Jan Pronk, Mr. Annan’s Special Representative in Sudan, declared that the international community should drop efforts to deploy a UN force in Darfur. This looked like a retreat in the face of Sudanese threats of a “jihad” against such a force.

But at the same time Pronk voiced his concerns, the UN’s troops in Lebanon were overseeing the conclusion of the Israeli Defence Forces’ withdrawal from the south of the country. Within the space of two months, the number of blue helmets there had more than doubled to over 5,000.

The contrast between this rapid deployment to Lebanon and the UN’s continued absence from Darfur has raised questions over whether the organisation is about to shift its focus. During Kofi Annan’s ten years as Secretary General, the UN — for good reasons — was immersed in African conflicts. The number of peacekeepers deployed there has grown by more than 1,000%.

Before the Lebanese crisis, four-fifths of its 60,000 peacekeepers were deployed on the continent. Conversely, Mr. Annan’s UN had gradually ceded its Balkan responsibilities to the EU, and shrunk the size of its military presence in the Middle East, including in Lebanon.

This focus on Africa appeared to enjoy both Western and African support. In late 2005, four of the top ten contributors of troops to UN peacekeeping operations were African countries — Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa.

The United States and Europe have offered few troops, but have provided considerable funding for the African missions. The UN’s largest — and most expensive — peacekeeping mission, the nearly 18,000 personnel deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, cost about $1 billion last year.

In 2006, calls for the UN to enter Darfur have been led by George W. Bush. But even as he has done so, the UN has encountered mounting resistance around Africa. The Sudanese government’s refusal to countenance UN troops in Darfur has been the highest profile case, but it is far from the only one.

At the start of the year, the government of Burundi — which came to power in 2005 elections overseen by a UN mission promoting national reconciliation under the Arusha Agreement — demanded that troops be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, there have been serious protests against the UN’s mission in Côte d’Ivoire (its fourth-largest mission) — even forcing an evacuation of one of its bases. Eritrea has barred the UN from using helicopters and limited its ground patrols in the buffer zone created after its war with Ethiopia. The Security Council condemned but accepted these restrictions.

Thankfully, such efforts to roll back the UN’s influence have been opposed by many other African leaders. The African Union — which has over 7,000 peacekeepers under pressure in Darfur — has repeatedly asked the UN to relieve them.

In 2005, African and European governments combined to advocate the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission in the UN system. The main goal was to ensure that the international community would commit to the long-term recovery of some of the continent’s weakest states emerging from war.

Some of those states, such as Liberia, maintain good relations with UN forces. Burundi’s government, too, has found a modus vivendi and has now agreed to work with the Peacebuilding Commission. But to some governments, including Khartoum, international engagement still looks like a threat. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir did not offer the UN summit any sulphur jokes, but claimed that Jewish groups wanted a “pretext through the Darfur issue to control us and to recolonise Sudan.”

For some observers, verbal attacks like these are fuelled by the fact that the United States and European powers have proved so keen on UN missions to Africa. Lakhdar Brahimi, until recently a special adviser to Kofi Annan, has warned that the UN’s global credibility is suffering because it is seen to be “heavily influenced” by Washington, and as “almost always biased in favour of the interests of Western countries — to the detriment of the developing world.”

It is thus ironic that, as fighting between Israel and Hezbollah escalated this summer, the Lebanese government insisted that any peacekeepers sent to help end the conflict should be under UN command, precisely to avoid the impression they are American stooges.

So while the UN may be accused of neo-colonialism in Africa, it is now being cast as an impartial force in the Middle East. The combination of the need to supply troops to Lebanon and frustration with Sudan has the potential to make the UN’s members question the scale of its presence in Africa.

The UN has pulled back from the continent before. Its major failures in Rwanda and Somalia caused it to retreat in the mid- 1990s. And with Kofi Annan leaving his post in December, UN watchers wonder whether African issues will receive less attention from a non-African Secretary General.

Western efforts to keep African conflicts on the agenda might only create further resistance. With tensions mounting in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula, it may get harder to focus on Africa.

Such a shift in attention could have disastrous consequences for the continent. If the UN is too hasty to desert Annan’s African legacy, old conflicts in West Africa and the Great Lakes region are all too liable to rekindle.

That could mean a new round of state failures and mass slaughters. If the international community’s response to encountering resistance in Africa is to go elsewhere, it will find that it dragged back in soon enough.

October 2006

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre