In a geopolitical context in turmoil and faced with the failure of international interventions, there is an urgent need to change the approach to try to resolve the conflicts of today.
Since the 1990s, international interventions seeking to resolve conflicts have always been based on the same model: negotiation of a peace agreement, deployment of a peacekeeping force by the UN and elections under international supervision. Yet while certain interventions have indeed resulted in peace and stable regimes in Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire), there is a persistence of unstable regimes and low-intensity conflicts in several countries: Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, Somalia, etc. After losing steam, the peace template simply does not work any more.
There are three main reasons for this ineffectiveness: the transformation of peacekeeping into a military status quo tool, the failure of elections to renew the political class and the absence of international leadership.
International interventions: the fatal maintenance of the military status quo
Far from implementing their “multidimensional” and “robust” mandate (according to UN terminology), the UN’s peacekeeping missions simply maintain a military status quo between rebels and governments and ensure that the demarcation lines between them are more or less respected.
In DRC, the 15,000 MONUSCO peacekeepers (created in 1999) are concentrated in the east of the country where the conflict broke out and where over a hundred armed groups are still operating in an environment of almost complete impunity. For eight years, the objective of the only real military reactions of MONUSCO has been to maintain the status quo in the Kivus, following attempts by armed groups to take over cities: during the capture of Goma in 2012 by the armed group M23 and the attempted takeover of Uvira in 2017 by another armed group, the Mayi-Mayi Yakutumba.
In the Central African Republic and Mali, the peacekeepers mainly serve to secure capitals and some large cities. In reality, the peacekeepers are unable to prevent the advance of armed groups and the abuse against civilians committed by both the rebels and government forces and act as guardians for the regime in place.
Most of the contingents limit the “robust mandate” entrusted to them by the Security Council to a passive interposition. It is a life insurance for the government faced with the rebels – as shown with the recent attack of a coalition of rebels in the Central African Republic which the peacekeepers contributed to hold back. This is not the case when the danger comes from inside, as with the coup against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali in August 2020.
Failure of smokescreen elections
While these conflicts highlight a need for a political break and democratic governance, hastily organized elections by the international community without a concern for transparency fail to bring about a political alternative. These elections very often return to power an ageing political class resistant to the democratic rule of law. Through a manipulation of the legal framework, corruption and the use of the financial and coercive means of the State, the political elite manages to counter popular demand for change, even if it means “reinventing” themselves by developing chameleon-like political strategies and co-opting opponents. The list of candidates for the elections in Côte d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, etc. can consequently be read as the Who’s Who of the previous regimes.
The closure of the political market and acceptance by donors of a fundamentally unbalanced electoral competition and opaque vote count clearly make a change of power through the ballot box impossible. With the reelection of political staff whose ethos is dominated by corruption and authoritarianism, post-conflict democratization ends up with an electoral farce. It amounts to attempting to create democracies without democrats.
We should therefore not be surprised by its systematic failure (DRC, Central African Republic, South Sudan). Sometimes, following a legal electoral hold-up, popular frustration explodes, as we have seen in Mali with the June 5 Movement which, in 2020, brought down Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who had been reelected for a mandate too many two years before.
Too much international goodwill kills goodwill
Finally, conflicts attract too much “goodwill”. Large numbers of actors rush to support peace processes: multilateral organizations, churches, NGOs specialized in mediation, transitional justice, conflict management, etc. On the ground, the influx of external actors, with a duplication of roles and different interests, creates political confusion. It allows local stakeholders to pit them against each other for salaries, financing, trips and other benefits.
This influx transforms the peace process into disorder whereby everyone tries to show themselves in the best light, even if it means creating several competitive processes: in 2018, in the Central African Republic, the African Union and Russia each had their own negotiation initiative between the government and armed groups, at the same time as religious and community-based processes. This excessive goodwill, which is not always impartial, would not be counterproductive if the aid market was regulated and coordinated. Yet the excessive number of actors goes hand in hand with extremely weak coordination.
In the “UN family”, the coordination is embodied through the idea of “one mission”, which places all the UN agencies intervening in the country under a single management – the “resident coordinator” and their team. Yet in spite of a flood of coordination meetings, each agency continues to conduct its policy and jealously guard its prerogatives.
In the Sahel region, the major donors have decided to work together to provide a coherent development response to the political-security crisis, under the banner of the “Sahel Alliance”, “an international cooperation platform to do more and better in the Sahel region”. In other words, it involves coordinating the actions of 14 donors according to the priorities defined by Sahel countries.
But here again, the objective is far from being met. Instead of resulting in a prioritization and coordination of interventions, the Sahel Alliance amounts to an exercise of compiling a list of some 800 projects classified in 6 priority sectors. The Sahel Alliance is far from setting an example of international aid focused on specific problems and areas. It reflects its dispersed rough draft.
Oligarchic multilateralism program outdated
If the international conflict resolution program appears to be broken, it is because the political conditions for its success simply no longer exist. It was devised at the time of the Pax Americana and American superpower of the 1990s and is now outdated. This program was based on the oligarchic multilateralism that existed when it was designed, when the club of the five permanent members of the Security Council were de facto reduced to three. Yet the last ten years have clearly shown that there is a contestation of the regulations of international order, the return of belligerent nationalism and the advent of conflict-generating world disorder.
The emerging powers openly challenge the multilateralism rules established at the end of the 20th century, including the idea of democracy and human rights as international standards and the legitimacy of an International Criminal Court. They strive to consolidate their position by all means and strategies, including by acting as a pyromaniac fireman in certain conflicts (Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Central African Republic, etc.).
Without a minimum of international consensus and a convergence of foreign policies, all the peace template tools are inoperative: UN sanctions are voted by countries that violate them or allow them to be violated with impunity; the peacekeeping reform is impossible; there is no longer agreement on a lead nation to conduct and coordinate international interventions and aid. Nowadays, arms embargos voted by the Security Council are blatantly violated by private and public actors without the slightest consequence (in Libya, Sudan, etc.). The peacekeeping reform, which was once on the Security Council’s agenda, has been completely abandoned.
Peacekeeping reform cast aside
For 15 years, solutions to improve peacekeeping by the United Nations have been set out in a myriad of reports piled up on the desk of the Secretary-Generals. But the political consensus required to make the qualitative leap to maintain peace enforcement is lacking. Two permanent members of the Security Council (China and Russia) refuse it, as well as most of the countries that contribute to the troops. The Security Council therefore votes “robust mandates” while knowing full well that they will not be applied.
In New York, the peacekeeping reform has not only been cast aside, international animosities are even making appointments of UN heads of mission increasingly difficult, as we have recently seen with the case of Libya. Eight months after the resignation of Ghassan Salamé as UN special envoy for Libya, the Security Council has still not managed to agree on a successor.
Similarly, the Security Council crisis makes the very idea of a lead nation appointed to coordinate peacekeeping interventions null and void. This role is taken on by the USA in Liberia, the UK in Sierra Leone and France in Côte d’Ivoire. Instead of lead nations, there are now ad hoc clubs formed by parties to the conflict concerned (the G5 for the Central African Republic, the ICG-G for Libya, etc.). Unfortunately, the cohesion and goodwill of these contact groups are more artificial than real and their good offices are rarely without self-interest.
International divisions exploited by predatory regimes
The regimes in place, whose predatory policies cause conflicts, exploit international divisions to create margins for maneuver. On the international scene where economic and strategic competition is exacerbated and where wars of influence are raging, these regimes are not lacking in alternative support to the major powers: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Sudan; Russia in the Central African Republic; Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in Somalia, etc. These new alliances of convenience allow weak regimes to resist the order for democratization of Westerners and obtain economic and security resources without which they would be unable to survive.
In the current world disorder, it is therefore no longer a question of aligning with a camp or another to benefit from its generosity, as was the case during the Cold War: these regimes exploit the regional and international games of rivalries and use a competitive clientelism in the form of multifaceted economic and security partnerships. The export of the Qatar-Saudi Arabia rivalry to Africa is certainly the best example of opportunistic clientelism and its adverse effects.
Devising a new conflict resolution model
Peacekeeping interventions are part of the collateral damage of the deep multilateralism crisis with two consequences:
- Firstly, the peacekeeping missions are doomed to get bogged down. They are systematically renewed by a Security Council in crisis, too divided to promote a real initiative, and their lifespan and cost are extended. Their stagnation turns them into a rent for several actors: the governments in place, the local elite which finds a source of employment, the countries contributing to troops that no longer have to bear the financial cost of their peacekeepers, etc. The unnecessary cost of certain missions is so high that the Security Council has recently ended up by announcing their gradual disengagement in Darfur (Sudan) and DRC.
- Secondly, conflict resolution is complicated and even, in certain cases, blocked by the increased close and far foreign interference. While former conflicts were regional, they are now naturally international, which makes it increasingly unlikely to settle them.
Faced with these repeated failures in conflict resolution, it is up to responsible international actors to devise a new peace template in unison with this day and age, meaning based on a renewed multilateralism and not on some outdated ideas from the end of the 20th century.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.