Latest Africa violence highlights limits of peacekeeping missions

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Things fall apart in different ways.

In a reminder of the horrific violence that has marred Africa's past, armed men in two neighboring countries have been going house to house in recent weeks, killing people because of their tribe or religion.


One of them, the Central African Republic, has been largely ignored by the world community for decades. The other, South Sudan, has attracted concerted interest from the U.S., other Western countries and the United Nations, which are intent on making the world's newest country a success after it gained independence two years ago.

Despite their different histories, the two illustrate how difficult it is to overcome the instability and poor governance that have plagued Africa. Peacekeeping missions and other military interventions — whether by fellow African nations, the U.N. or a former colonial power — are expensive and require long-term commitment. Nation-building often falls victim to corruption and pent-up animosities.

"Once communities start fighting each other ... they come with these long memories of atrocities that have been committed against them," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. "It becomes very difficult to contain."

Few doubt what is at stake in one of Africa's most volatile regions. The Central Africa Republic, or CAR, could become a haven for Islamist extremists. A civil war in South Sudan could take years, if not decades, to resolve. It would be catastrophic for civilians emerging from decades of war with Sudan and ruinous for the country's oil sector. The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday authorized an urgent increase in peacekeepers for South Sudan.

Sectarian violence of a kind not seen before is sweeping the Central African Republic, whose population is 80% Christian, since a rebel group that is mainly Muslim took power in March. In South Sudan, ethnic tension has exploded between the Dinka tribe of President Salva Kiir and the Lou Nuer tribe of his former deputy, Riek Machar, who was fired in July.

In both countries, people have fled into the bush to escape the killing. The U.N. says about 600,000 people, more than 10% of the population of the Central African Republic, have left their homes. In South Sudan, the government is fighting to reclaim control of major oil-producing regions.

After years of long, costly foreign interventions in the continent's conflicts, the mantra in the last decade has become "African solutions for African problems." In addition to the desire to find solutions closer to the conflict, African peacekeepers cost a lot less than a U.N. mission.

But the strife in the Central African Republic — and, before that, in Mali — has illustrated the limitations of African peacekeeping forces.

In Mali, a planned African force couldn't deploy fast enough, and Al Qaeda-linked militias grabbed half the country. In the Central African Republic, they weren't able to prevent horrendous violence and killing. Soldiers from neighboring Chad, a contributor to the force deployed by the African Union, face protests from locals who say they let Muslim rebels seize power in March.

In both cases, France, the former colonial power, intervened. It took the lead in an effort to push militias far back into the Sahara desert in Mali. It also deployed 1,600 soldiers to try to turn things around in the Central African Republic — and faces protests from the Muslim community.

The 3,000-member African force in the Central African Republic is to double by the end of January. But because the force has been so ineffective, many support U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's call for a U.N. force of up to 9,000 troops — a costly idea that's opposed by the U.S., which would foot most of the bill.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, flew to the Central African Republic last week to highlight the dangers of the conflict. She said the violence there "begs the world's attention."

"Terrible atrocities are occurring.... One of the worries that we came away from the Central African Republic with was that those who were not seeing justice being done are increasingly tempted to take matters into their own hands, and then you're seeing a cycle of retribution and violence that is very, very alarming," she said Monday.

"I think the U.S. is really grappling with what to do in CAR," said Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch. "It has no economic or political interests in the country, but the Obama administration doesn't want to see a Rwanda-like event happen on its beat."


Critics cite U.S. reluctance to support a larger U.N. mission instead of the African-led force.

"When are we going to learn that this kind of peacekeeping operation simply doesn't work?" said analyst David Smith of Johannesburg-based Okapi Consulting, which focuses on African conflict zones. "African Union peacekeeping missions tend to be poorly organized, poorly equipped, poorly trained, and they tend to have poor logistics. A lot of soldiers get sent home in body bags."

Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, said in a post on his organization's website that the African Union warned months ago of the danger of sectarian violence in the Central African Republic, and that the country's neighbors should not have waited for France to step in. But many of Africa's stronger nations are already stretched thin and dealing with crises at home.

U.N. missions often fare just as poorly. Efforts in Ivory Coast, South Sudan and, until recently, the Democratic Republic of Congo have been unable to protect people from rampaging militias. The recent deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force with a combat mandate in eastern Congo led to the defeat of the M23 rebel group.

For Washington, the collapse of South Sudan would be a shocking unraveling of a key plank of U.S. foreign policy in Africa.

De Waal, an advisor to the African Union mediation team on conflict over oil revenues between Sudan and South Sudan, told Foreign Policy magazine that the failure by the U.S. and other Western countries to demand accountability from South Sudanese officials for corruption and other missteps makes the officials "reckless. They think the rules don't apply to them."

Obama has sent envoys to South Sudan to try to stem the violence and has threatened to suspend U.S. aid, with analysts suggesting that the only solution is to get the political rivals to agree to a cease-fire and internationally mediated peace talks.

It needs to happen quickly. Aside from the fighting between rival army factions, ethnic militias are reported to be mobilizing in some parts of the country.

Though both sides claim to be ready to talk, the violence suggests they are determined to gain as much territory and as many oil fields as possible to maximize their advantage during negotiations — a strategy that could push the country deeper into war.