Eager to quell its own conflicts, African Union feels overstretched

Uganda takes the lead, pledging troops for Darfur and announcing last week that it would send more peacekeepers to Somalia.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to peacekeeping, Uganda has become something of an overachiever.

It's the only African Union country that has contributed to an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Somalia, authorized by the United Nations in February and extended on Monday for six months.

Now, it's sending more. With 1,500 troops already on the ground in Somalia, Uganda last week announced that it will send an additional 250 to the capital, Mogadishu. The AU mission called for 8,000 peacekeepers in total.

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For Western powers, Uganda's commitment of troops to Somalia, and last week's announcement by Senegal that it will triple its commitment to the AU mission in Darfur, come at a good time. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and Kosovo, and commitments around the globe have raised expectations that African leaders will sort out African problems with their own troops.

"If Africans have a problem, Africans must solve it," says Maj. Felix Kulayigye, a Ugandan Army spokesman.

There are certainly signs of new vitality or commitment to the notion of African peacekeeping for African conflicts. Pledges received from Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Malawi, and Senegal amount to 12,800 troops, and AU chief Alpha Konare announced last week that the expanded 26,000-man peacekeeping mission in Sudan's Darfur region, approved by the United Nations, could be met entirely by African nations. But a growing chorus of dissent, both among ordinary Ugandans and among political analysts across the continent, suggests that African peacekeeping may be stretched to its limits.

"I don't think this signals that Africa is ready to take on more commitments," says Festus Aboagye, head of training for the peace program at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tshwane (formerly Pretoria). "This is a dereliction of duty on the part of the international community. You hear this said, that the West will provide funding and other logistical resources, and the African must provide the blood, or if you prefer, the human beings.

"That's not quite the winning combination. What makes peacekeeping work is if you have a mandate from the UN Security Council and a large number of member nations are willing to contribute troops, even when things are not going good. And that's not what we have."

Overall, African nations have contributed some 29,000 troops and civilians for peacekeeping missions, 20,000 of them for UN missions, 7,000 for Darfur, and around 1,500 troops for Somalia. These commitments have stretched many of Africa's strongest militaries to their limits. South Africa, with troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Darfur, announced early this year that it would not contribute troops to an African Union mission in Somalia. The same is true for Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria. Ethiopia, while it has a large military, is also hampered from peacekeeping, as it continues to have an undisclosed number of troops in Somalia, which it invaded in late December 2006, and now faces a growing rebellion in its Somali-populated Ogaden region.

"This idea of African solutions for African problems tends to get abused by both sides," says David Monyae, professor of international relations at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg. "Whenever the West doesn't want to get involved, it's an African solution that is needed."

That doesn't mean African peacekeeping doesn't work, Professor Monyae adds. African-led peacekeeping missions in the Ivory Coast and Burundi have shown the promise of what African countries can do, with all the sensitivities of what works in resolving conflicts in an African political context.

"Africans on their own, they can do their level best," says Monyae, "but we need a little help."

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has said that Africans understand their conflicts better than outside forces, but in Kampala there's a growing gap between the government's statements and public opinion on peacekeeping.

"Why should we expect other people to clean up our own messes on the continent?" Major Kulayigye asks. The spokesman admits that the "only problem" of an all-African force in Darfur is a lack of funding, but says that shortfall should be overcome by the UN.

Tamale Mirundi, Mr. Museveni's press secretary, acknowledges that Ugandan opposition politicians suggest that Museveni is trying to extend his influence in the Horn of Africa through these peacekeeping missions.

But he stresses that the president consulted not only parliament and cabinet members, but community leaders in his party as well about sending troops to Somalia.

"It's not a one-man decision ... the president did not wake up one morning and decide Uganda should go to Somalia," says Mr. Mirundi.

Yet Ugandans are growing wary of the government's foreign interventions and the rising death toll from such missions. So far, four Ugandan peacekeepers have been killed in the Somali insurgency.

"Many Ugandans have been complaining – we are not happy that our boys are dying for a war that does not reach into our borders," says Dickson Andabati, a security guard in Kampala.

"Uganda is now enthusiastic about sending peacekeeping troops without serious consideration," says Paul Omach, a political analyst at Uganda's Makarere University. Mr. Omach says that conflicting regional interests and security concerns are being ignored in the government's decisionmaking.

Uganda's government has a false perception of itself as a serious military power, according to Omach, and it is bowing to US interests by first entering Somalia, where it's still the only AU country with troops on the ground, and now jumping on the Darfur "bandwagon." "We need a cautious approach ... there is the possibility of us ending up a sitting duck again, like we are in Somalia," says Omach.

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