Africa isn’t ready for a withdrawal of peacekeepers

2023-10-10

Peacekeeping operations have played a crucial role in stabilising fragile situations across Africa for over 60 years. More than 13 United Nations (UN)-led missions in Africa and about 27 African-led peace support operations since 2000 have incurred billions of dollars annually and cost thousands of peacekeepers’ lives.

While these missions haven’t met all their host countries’ expectations, they have helped prevent state collapse, notably in Somalia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

But are peacekeeping missions fulfilling their mandates? In Mali, persistent insecurity and the demands of the 2020 coup leaders led to the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers. Continuing violence in eastern DRC, despite the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) being in the country for over 20 years, fuelled similar calls. Funding challenges and a political standoff informed the push to end the African Union (AU) Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS).

In all three countries, calls for withdrawals have been driven by local and international political pressures, unmet domestic expectations for improved security and donor funding fatigue. This raises questions not only about peacekeeping in Africa, but the effectiveness of the global peacekeeping architecture and how public perceptions regarding its role are managed.

The withdrawal of peacekeepers raises vital questions about the future of Africa’s security management

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s recent report on the overall performance of UN peacekeeping operations acknowledged these questions. It asked whether the missions were fit for purpose and why there was a gap between their mandates and what they deliver.

The implications of withdrawing peacekeepers raise vital questions about the future of security management in Africa. Does the continent have the capacity to fill the inevitable security vacuum? Current developments particularly in Somalia, Mali and the DRC suggest that removing peacekeepers would create a significant security gap, leading to more violence and worsening humanitarian conditions.

Since the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) withdrawal began last July, insecurity has surged. Conflict between militants and the national army has reignited, and militant attacks have increased. Mali’s fragile security situation could regress to 2012 levels when jihadists tried to seize several key towns, including Timbuktu.

Violent clashes are also rising in eastern DRC. Over 600 people died in attacks by armed groups between April and June 2023. In addition to MONUSCO and the SADC Force Intervention Brigade, the East African Community military deployment in 2022 hasn’t resolved the situation. 

National and regional efforts haven’t matched the severity of threats following peacekeepers’ withdrawal

In Somalia, al-Shabaab has intensified its terror campaign against civilians, government and peacekeepers since ATMIS began its drawdown in June 2023. Recent incidents include a devastating truck bomb in Beledweyne, resulting in 18 deaths; suicide bomb attacks in Mogadishu that killed at least seven civilians; and an ambush on Ethiopian troops.

The AU Peace and Security Council recently raised concerns about al-Shabaab’s potential to exploit security gaps following ATMIS’ withdrawal. It was also worried about the premature downsizing and shutdown of AU peace support operations, due to financial constraints, and the closure of several UN peacekeeping operations.

AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat recently underscored this point, referring to the twin attacks on a military base and a passenger boat in Mali while MINUSMA was leaving the country. He said the situation highlighted the need for comprehensive, sustainable solutions to prevent violence in the Sahel from merging with Lake Chad region clashes or expanding further into West Africa. 

Worsening insecurity after peacekeepers depart shows the need for circumspection in demands for troops to leave. There is also an urgent need to develop robust alternatives to fill the resulting security vacuum. Thus far, national and regional efforts have not matched the severity of the threats following the peacekeepers’ withdrawal.

Political rather than security considerations have influenced calls for the withdrawal of peace missions

The current surge in domestic military operations in Somalia, deployment of regional forces like the East African Community in DRC, and use of entities like Wagner in Mali have been inadequate. And despite nearly two decades of investments, the AU still hasn’t used the African Standby Force for various reasons, including the lack of political will to deploy. And even if troops were mobilised, funding issues would hinder their swift deployment and sustainability.

The inability to manage consequences shows that political – rather than security – considerations influenced calls for peace missions to be withdrawn. The timing of these departures highlights a new security reality in which non-state actors continue their attacks while responses remain insufficient.

Sober reflections are needed. First, the UN–AU dialogue on peacekeeping should acknowledge that Africa requires more capacity to fill the security gap following drawdowns. Calls by some African leaders and communities for peacekeepers to leave shouldn’t lead to international disengagement from those situations or abandoning Africa to fend for itself.

Innovative continental and regional approaches must be considered. A UN Security Council framework resolution to guide the UN’s funding of AU peace support operations through UN-assessed contributions is also urgent.

Second, now is the time for frank and open discussions between the UN and AU, as called for by the New Agenda for Peace and Guterres’s recent UN peacekeeping report. The AU must urgently review and enhance its African Peace and Security Architecture framework to prepare the African Standby Force to fill the security gap. And the UN–AU dialogue should go beyond financing peace missions to include revisiting the military-heavy approach to peacekeeping.

Dawit Yohannes, Project Manager and Senior Researcher and Meressa Kahsu, Senior Researcher and Training Coordinator, Training for Peace, and Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Head, Africa Peace and Security Governance, ISS Addis Ababa

 Image: © JOHN WESSELS / AFP

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