African-led Peacekeeping Operations: Enhancing Effectiveness

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Last year, the East African Community and the Accra Initiative became the 14th and 15th African regional organisations to authorise peacekeeping operations, respectively (see Table below). Both missions are certain to encounter resistance among non-state armed groups active in their proposed areas of operation. Indeed, rebels from Congo’s March 23 Movement have already attacked Burundian troops serving in the East African Community Regional Force. Such groups secure considerable quantities of lethal materiel from uniformed personnel – both peacekeepers as well as national security forces serving within or near these missions’ areas of operation. Much can be done to reduce such diversion.

Enhancing the effectiveness of African-led peacekeeping operations is especially important and worthy of support, as these organisations will remain significant actors in promoting peace and security for the foreseeable future. Without minimising the shortcomings and challenges many such missions have faced, numerous deployments have helped promote human security and ushered in beneficial political change. These objectives have been achieved often at considerable cost and sacrifice for the troop-contributing countries. Moreover, regardless of their track record, the UN Security Council is not likely to ‘re-hat’ these missions as readily as it has in the past.

The security threats facing these missions, however, are quite grave. The African Union (AU)-led peacekeeping operations in Somalia, for example, have come under repeated attack from al-Shabaab, losing men and women in uniform as well as considerable lethal materiel as a result. Between June 2015 and January 2016, the armed group overran three forward operating bases (military camps that house formed units of more than 100 uniformed personnel, together with associated lethal equipment to allow them to be self-sufficient, often for extended periods of time) of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). In May 2022, al-Shabaab again overran such a base belonging to the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), which had succeeded AMISOM the previous month. AU missions in Somalia have likely lost millions of rounds of ammunition, thousands of firearms and many hundreds of crew-served light weapons (such as heavy machine guns and mortars) to their adversary.

Material that armed groups have secured from African-led peacekeeping operations also includes heavy weapons systems. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province and the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims have looted the headquarters of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), as well as that of the Joint Force of the Group of Five Sahel (FC-G5S). Items seized include main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers and self-propelled as well as towed multiple-launch rocket systems and artillery.

The UN, which has undertaken peacekeeping operations for over 70 years, has also experienced challenges in securing lethal materiel during its missions. Eight months after the Justice and Equality Movement attacked and overran an AU Mission in Sudan base, the successor UN–AU Hybrid Operation in Darfur lost 600,000 rounds of ammunition when a convoy transporting contingent-owned equipment was seized.

That said, the UN has numerous well-established checks and balances in place to keep tabs on arms and ammunition deployed in its missions. For example, it has quarterly on-site checks of materiel, well-resourced investigations into incidents when diversion has occurred, and reimbursement mechanisms to encourage transparency and accountability. African regional organisations lack equivalent administrative practices and procedures.

Where such checks and balances do exist to manage lethal materiel in African-led peacekeeping operations, they are not fully utilised. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is a case in point. It has a convention that entered into force more than 10 years ago, which calls on its 15 member states to record and report materiel that is taken into a peacekeeping operation, resupplied, destroyed or taken back when the operation withdraws. This is to be done whether the mission is undertaken by ECOWAS, the UN or some other entity. These stipulations – on paper – represent a global best practice. Were they to be followed, ECOWAS could quickly determine what materiel was used or lost after deployment and make appropriate enquiries. Details concerning implementation are not made public, but it is understood that member states’ adherence to their commitments is limited, despite their being legally binding.

This disconnect between expectation and reality is especially important to address because so many ECOWAS member states participate in peacekeeping operations. ECOWAS currently fields two missions: one in the Gambia and another in Guinea-Bissau. Both of these are relatively small and also relatively peaceful (although in January 2022 the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance attacked Senegalese troops serving in the ECOWAS Mission in the Gambia and disarmed them). More important for oversight purposes are the FC-G5S, the MNJTF and the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, which operate in much less permissive environments in which peacekeepers routinely come under attack.

Also of note is a recent policy the AU has adopted to promote management of recovered lethal materiel in peacekeeping operations it authorises or mandates. When organisations undertake formal disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes, these initiatives usually include funding for storehouses and procedures for recordkeeping. But many such undertakings recover materiel outside of DDR through cordon-and-search activities or clashes with negative forces. Oversight and resources have been lacking, and the new policies are meant to improve on previous practice. This would include ATMIS, the FC-G5S, the MNJTF and the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique. Progress is slow-going.

A challenge African-led operations have is that the secretariats overseeing their implementation are not adequately staffed. This is not a criticism of officials’ work ethic or expertise, but rather a comment on the mismatch between mandates and resources. There are too few staff in relation to the work needed. The longstanding recruitment freeze at ECOWAS has recently been lifted, which ought to bring some relief. The AU remains woefully understaffed, however, which is not likely to change in the short term.

Recognising these challenges and opportunities is an important first step. More appropriate staffing alone is not going to solve the problem, and yet it is essential to ensuring that existing checks and balances are promoted and used. Member states and external donors must be made aware of the frameworks and policies available and incorporate them in their discourse and priorities. And the counterterrorism, development and security sector governance communities, among others, must acknowledge their important role in enhancing weapons and ammunition management in peacekeeping operations, and in helping to generate appropriate resources and set the agenda. The deployment of peacekeepers must not add fuel to the fires they are trying to extinguish.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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