Wanted: a Sound Peacekeeping Structure for Africa

Twenty or more civil wars convulse Africa each year. The potential for massacres and genocide is always present, as in contemporary Burundi and in the new and the old Congo. Surely the nations of Africa and the UN can devise mechanisms to prevent such constant, horrific conflict in the world's least-developed continent.

Then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher told Africans how they might do just that. In 1994 he proposed an African Crisis Response Force composed of battalions from several African nations that would have been trained, funded, and supplied by the US and perhaps by cooperative European nations. The force would have intervened to prevent crises from becoming conflicts and massacres. Excellent idea though it was, the response force was dead on arrival. Africans hadn't been consulted beforehand, and the initiative was viewed as "too American."

No African initiative has been developed on the grand scale envisaged by Mr. Christopher. Africans have, however, heavily involved themselves in peacekeeping (as distinct from peace enforcement) activities throughout the troubled zones of their continent. Troops from Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana have been trying for more than a year to maintain the cease-fire in Angola, but they are giving up at the end of 1997. Troops from Malawi, Botswana, and other countries have served in Somalia, and soldiers from Mali have been reducing hostilities in the Central African Republic. Other African countries have assisted peacekeeping operations elsewhere in Africa and even in Haiti.

Peacekeeping follows a negotiated cease-fire. Peace enforcement, however, precedes a cease-fire and could bring it about. Active intervention of that kind was needed in Rwanda, to prevent genocide, and in Congo (formerly Zaire), to have forestalled carnage after the humanitarian operations had concluded.

Existing mechanisms

The Southern African Development Community (SADC), which now has been extended to include Congo, has an organ for coordinating defense forces that could, in theory, sponsor subregional or regional peace enforcement activities. Some of its members, however, are wary of South Africa's dominance. They also assert, justly, that they lack the funds and, especially, the logistical capability to move quickly. In West Africa, Nigerian-led joint forces have been active in Liberia and Sierra Leone, with mixed results. Those operations also suffered from confusing leadership and command and control. Logistical difficulties were many.

The US, the Scandinavian countries, Britain, and France all have offered to assist African initiatives. Indeed, there are American and European schemes to pre-position equipment for an African-led force. There are talks about funding such a force from the resources of the West. Moreover, the US has an active training program in Africa that already has engaged in serious cooperative military exercises with host countries, like Uganda, and has several more planned. The US African Crisis Response Initiative received funds in fiscal year 1997 and is seeking similar funds from Congress for fiscal 1998.

All of this welcome activity has not yet led to anything that could approximate Christopher's common-sense dream. There is still no consensus on critical issues:

What defines a crisis before it becomes a massacre or a genocide? How do observers in Africa or elsewhere know what is very serious and threatens to spread, like Burundi, and what is troublesome but containable, like the battles in the Republic of Congo (next door to former Zaire)?

If criteria can be developed to distinguish between purely local incidents and cataclysmic threats to regional peace, who decides? Who orders the crisis response force to intervene? At present, the UN Security Council makes those decisions. But it is often too slow, and hampered by big-power political considerations. It dithered over Rwanda and saw up to 1 million lives lost as a result.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) could, in theory, decide to intervene. But it has performed poorly in crises because it is a consensual body, and one or more countries may always object. Indeed, an existing government in normal control may refuse to request help or welcome an intervention. Then what? The OAU also has no mechanism for military intervention. The OAU is decidedly underfinanced.

Any African-organized intervention initiative would need a trigger and someone or some group to decide when to pull it. Then the contributions to the force would have to agree on the mandate - no easy task.

Is the intervention force's job just to impose a cease-fire? Or is it to rebuild civil authority and civil society (what Somalia still lacks)? And who decides when the intervention is over and the troops should leave? In peacekeeping endeavors the Security Council decides, usually on the recommendation of the secretary-general. But the contemplated interventions in Africa's zones of trouble may proceed without official UN backing.

Tough questions

African governments and military officials agree that they, not the West or the UN, should prevent future intrastate crises from escalating into massive threats to local and regional peace.

No one has yet answered all of the tough questions - not even a conclave of government officials, diplomats, soldiers, and academics from North America, Europe, and Africa who debated these issues at Harvard earlier this month. Each potential solution begged a series of even harder questions.

Peace in Africa clearly will come only when Africans invent a series of diplomatic and military methods of keeping it. South African President Nelson Mandela's leadership may prove to be critical. So far, no one else of stature has assembled heads of state to overcome the many structural and practical obstacles. The role of Washington, London, Paris, and Oslo must be secondary, but supportive and responsive.

* Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

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