“How can a beret colored blue … vaccinate against the racism and paternalism of people whose only vision of Africa is lion hunting, slave markets and colonial conquest; people for whom the history of civilization is built on the possession of colonies?”
The question was asked by Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese premier, who was worried about the attitudes of the 20,000 blue-hatted United Nations peacekeepers about to pour into his newly independent country in 1960 to help hold it together after its hard-won independence from Belgium.
Lumumba had cause for concern. Although the world thought the peacekeepers aimed to put the Congolese leader under their protection, the Central Intelligence Agency, an organ of one of the UN Security Council’s permanent members, was soon plotting his assassination, fearing he had a Soviet bent. Within months, under the peacekeepers’ noses, secessionist Congolese police officers whisked him to a secret location, where a firing squad killed him as soldiers from Belgium, the former colonial power, looked on.
Is UN peacekeeping inherently racist? Does the world body consider some countries — and some lives — more worth saving than others? These are some of the questions at the core of a new book, “UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts” (Lynne Reinner Publishers, a project of the International Peace Institute), by Adekeye Adebajo, an African, distinguished student of international affairs and veteran of several UN missions.
Adebajo was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and studied at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy before becoming executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa, where he wrote this book.
Right from the start, Adebajo tells us that the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, left to proceed unimpeded after the UN withdrew its peacekeepers rather than try to stop the slaughter, “shaped my thinking about the global apartheid that lies at the heart of the world body.”
“The concept underlines the political and socioeconomic inequities within the UN and suggests that some lives often appear to be worth more than others in a grisly aristocracy of death,” he writes.
While Rwanda imploded
The abandonment of Rwanda to unspeakably malevolent forces, roughly coinciding with a similar UN withdrawal from chaotic Somalia, inspired a widespread belief that the Security Council was turning its back on Africa’s problems. Western nations explained that they were trying to turn to African — rather than international — solutions to African problems.
“The safety of UN personnel and Western civilians in Kigali seemed to matter more to many in New York than the slaughter of 800,000 innocent civilians in Africa,” Adebajo writes, referring to UN headquarters. “The international community had fiddled while Rwanda burned.”
Taking a wider view, the two untimely withdrawals can easily be viewed as only the latest wrinkle in a pattern set in motion by Lumumba’s 1961 assassination. The outspoken Congolese leader’s murder, occurring under UN protection, impressed on African leaders much earlier the enormous risks they ran in calling on UN troops. For nearly three decades after the Congolese fiasco, no major UN peacekeeping missions were deployed on the continent as it sought out African solutions to its own conflicts, the author says.
Adebajo explains that he wrote this book to pinpoint just what makes some peacekeeping missions succeed while others fail. Above all, he accuses the UN of failing to live up to its responsibilities in Africa, by coming up short on financial and logistical support as well as arms and soldiers for its African missions. He also criticizes the world body and the international community for doing too little to expand the role of African regional organizations like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States.
Over the first four and a half decades of the UN’s existence, Adebajo notes, there were just two peacekeeping missions in Africa: the UN Emergency Force sent into Egypt in 1956 to end the Suez crisis and the ill-fated Congo intervention begun in 1960.
Yet during the 1990s, he acknowledges, the UN launched 17 peacekeeping missions in Africa. By 2009, nearly 90 percent of the annual peacekeeping budget, money that comes overwhelmingly from the world’s wealthiest — Western — nations, went to African missions. African armies also did their share, taking part in 53 of 63 peace missions from 1948 to 2008, he says.
Who’s to blame?
But the reader is left with a sense that, in the author’s opinion, peacekeeping failures are nonetheless mostly the fault of the five powerful veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — if not the West alone. These countries are also the villains behind the continued weakness of the main African regional organizations, which he says they undercut and underfinance because they want to remain in control, even if they are unwilling to shell out the necessary soldiers and resources to do the job themselves.
The book is an eloquent argument for Security Council reform in which, under most of the proposals put forward to date, more developing nations would be given two-year seats and several African nations — South Africa? Nigeria? Egypt? — would be given permanent seats and veto power.
But reform alone is not enough. The council is above all too timid, a problem the author glosses over. Would a larger council end up more decisive or perhaps ever-more paralyzed? Would additional permanent members be willing and able to come up with the money and resources that would be required for a much larger UN role in Africa?
The answers to these questions are not simple. Nonetheless, future peacekeeping planners could definitely benefit from taking to heart the lessons Adebajo draws from his extensive mission-by-mission analysis.
For a peacekeeping intervention to succeed, he concludes, the interests of key Security Council members must line up with efforts to resolve the conflict; the parties to the conflict must be willing to cooperate with UN efforts to resolve it and regional players must cooperate with the peacekeeping effort and provide military and diplomatic support for the solution.
Solutions fare even better, he adds, if there are no big economic resources in the war zone stoking the conflict, outside parties are not financing or lending military support to the fight and the mission leadership is competent.
Adebajo has little to say about how some African governments have dug themselves in to conflicts through corruption, gross mismanagement or an audacious lack of political accountability.
Shouldn’t they share some of the blame for UN peacekeeping failures, along with the Security Council? What about Sudan, where the Khartoum government (with African Union support!) worked tirelessly for years to keep UN peacekeepers out of Darfur, ensuring that only poorly equipped, underfinanced African forces were in a position to try to prevent the slaughter of innocent civilians?
Look at the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been the scene of serial peacekeeping interventions since that first mission in 1960. While the UN presence in Congo is tainted by many grave mistakes, the UN has enjoyed occasional successes there and has spent billions trying. Yet President Joseph Kabila in 2009 essentially blamed UN peacekeeping for 50 years of failed statehood, insisting on its withdrawal even as his inept, secretive and deeply corrupt government failed miserably to harness its extensive natural resources to provide his people with basic services, a measure of security, a functioning justice system and a favorable climate for economic growth and jobs.
What about Ivory Coast’s president, Laurent Gbagbo, who cheated his country for years, while keeping the Security Council at bay by accusing it of neocolonialist urges? And what about the UN effort to bring peace to the Horn of Africa neighbors Ethiopia and Eritrea after their deadly three-year border war? Rather than lower tensions, Ethiopia unilaterally rejected a crucial provision of the peace deal, and Eritrea then turned on the peacekeepers and demanded their withdrawal.
Adebajo bristles at the idea, sometimes expressed in the West that some dysfunctional African nations could benefit from UN trusteeships, like the ones imposed after World War II on the colonies of the losing parties (Libya, for example). The trusteeships were intended to prepare the colonies for self-government, and virtually all of them have since won independence.
But Africans with knee-jerk criticism of the UN and the West also must “make up their minds about Western intervention,” he insists.
“When the West did not intervene in Rwanda in 1994, they charge racism; when Western actors try to push for intervention in Darfur, they charge ‘imperialism,’ ” he argues. “In both cases, there are millions of victims who suffer, even as scholars in ivory towers conduct esoteric academic debates totally divorced from the realities of widespread suffering on the ground.”
But by focusing his book on the selfish machinations of the permanent Security Council members and the “global apartheid that lies at the heart of the world body,” isn’t Adebajo embracing these critics’ cries of both racism and imperialism?
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.
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