For tiny Burundi, big returns in sending peacekeepers to Somalia
For poorer countries like Burundi, sending soldiers to join a UN or African Union peacekeeping mission offers financial and political benefits, as well as better arms and training.
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It’s not just geopolitics that can make peacekeeping look attractive. Sending troops overseas can, at times, be a way to relieve internal tensions within a military, or reward certain factions. When rebels were first integrated into the army in Burundi, for example, conflict was rife. The peacekeeping mission offered a way to remove certain elements for a time, to stop or even prevent trouble from brewing. “It is, if you will, a release valve,” explained the Western diplomat in Bujumbura. “They have a bloated military because they’ve been obliged to take in all the former rebels, and it offers an opportunity to sort that out.”Skip to next paragraph
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This is not to belittle the costs – which are great, and by many analysts reading, downright unfair to the countries that send their troops into danger. “When I saw that a country like Burundi was in such a difficult place as Somalia, I thought: there is something wrong in peace operations,” said Guéhenno. “We have ended up with a system where the weakest groups go to the hardest places. I think to send troops from a very fragile country [like Burundi] into such a difficult environment as Mogadishu – that is a recipe for significant losses.”
Several hundred blue helmets for AMISOM have died in the fighting in Somalia so far. And equally troubling are the conditions under which the soldiers often operate. AMISOM lacks even a single helicopter and during a recent incident in November, in which 70 peacekeepers were killed, force commanders told The New York Times that many of its soldiers had bled to death because they couldn’t be airlifted out.
American funding contributes $400 million a year to the mission. AMISOM officials estimate that the costs of a helicopter, for example, would add $15 million more a year. Even the equipment that troops bring from home hasn’t been reimbursed, AMISOM says. By March 2012, the UN will owe $9.4 million in arrears.
Concerns about a lack of solid equipment and reliable funding from donors erupted into a full-fledged debate in the UN Security Council earlier this year when some of the main troop contributing countries, under the umbrella of the Non-Aligned Movement, called for significant increases in the rates that the UN reimburses them, both for troops and equipment. Guéhenno says that a UN panel has been set up to look for answers on the issues of funding.
Even as losses mount, the army’s operations remain incredibly popular back in Burundi. The country’s participation in UN peacekeeping has become a sort of national rebirth. When the country joined the ranks of the blue helmets, it signaled that it had transformed from a menace to a peace broker in the region.
Still, what’s most striking about Burundi’s work in Somalia is just how much good it may do at home. Perhaps catching on to the backhanded benefits, Kenya last week offered to integrate its own forces operating in Somalia into Amisom. A local headline in Nairobi’s Business Daily put it bluntly: “Country Shifts Cost of Somalia War to the United Nations.”