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.

Stuart Price/AU-UN IST/AP
In this photo released on Nov. 19, troops from Burundi serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are seen manning frontline positions in territory recently captured from insurgents in Deynile District along the northern fringes of the capital Mogadishu, Somalia, in November.

When the Somali Islamist insurgent group Al Shabab slaughtered roughly 70 peacekeepers from Burundi earlier this month, it would easy to wonder why this tiny mountainous country in Central Africa sent 4,000 of its young men to fight in Mogadishu. Burundi is one of just three countries supplying soldiers to a joint African Union and United Nations peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known by its acronym, AMISOM. Burundi doesn’t border Somalia, and it has no visible national interest in the conflict there. What’s more, Burundi itself is still reeling from civil war. Just a year before it joined Amisom, blue helmets were patrolling Burundi’s own ceasefire.

Yet over the last five years – and through a string of casualties – Burundi hasn’t just agreed to go to Somalia; it has leapt at the chance. The reasons offer a glance into why countless troubled or impoverished countries, not just Burundi, end up staffing UN peacekeeping missions. Today, there are nearly 100,000 UN peacekeeping troops deployed worldwide, and nearly all of them come from non-OECD nations.

For the poorest countries such as Burundi, the reason is straightforward: The UN Security Council members that craft these deployments need manpower. But that’s not something they are prepared or willing to provide – so donors like the United States and European Union offer money, training, and diplomatic support in exchange for soldiers.

In 2010, those incentives drew the support of dozens of African troop contributors, including Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda, Benin, Malawi, and Burkina Faso. “For all these countries, bilateral relations with major powers matter a lot because they expect some development aid and other various forms of support [in return for their deployment,]” explains Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who served as UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008.

Rewarded for risks

How Burundi ended up in Somalia is just one example. Bujumbura sends its young men to battle because doing so has allowed the country to build, equip, and train a stronger army – and to do it on someone else’s tab. The United States is training the country’s army; the African Union (with European support) pays soldiers’ salaries while they are in theater. Those savings, plus compensation for troops and equipment, mean that Burundi earns about $45 million annually from its participation – and to boot, the country’s fractured military is finally faced with the most uniting force of all: a common enemy, one that isn’t at home in Burundi.

“[Participating in AMISOM] has helped us to create a strong national force – and a professional one,” explains Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, a former head of state and now a senator in Burundi who advocated for sending troops to Somalia.

Financial incentives are among the most alluring and hotly contested aspects of UN peacekeeping missions. As standard UN procedure, countries are reimbursed $1,028 per soldier per month of operations. Equipment is also paid for, meaning that any guns, ammunition, tanks, or other logistics that a country carries in will be reimbursed by the international community.

“What motivates potential troop contributing countries is the availability of logistics … assurances about compensation for personnel and equipment [as well as] deaths [suffered in theater,]” said Capt. Paddy Ankunda, AMISOM force spokesman in Mogadishu. “Obviously, contributions by the United States and a couple of other countries, the EU [countries], France, have been very key.”

In a country like Burundi, finances can easily tip the scales toward sending troops overseas. Around the time AMISOM was first pieced together in 2007, Burundi’s army was bloated and struggling to stick together. The peace accords that ended the country’s strife in 2000 mandated that rebel forces be integrated into the national army. The cost of maintaining this larger force – $191 million in 2007 – was a stretch for a government with a strapped budget, half of which was already funded through international aid. (In 2010, the government had $802 billion to disperse, an amount equal to approximately how much Americans spend buying Christmas trees every year.)

The African Union force was offering to pay troops $750 each per month, through funding from the European Union – significantly more than the soldiers would make at home. “When you ask [the soldiers] to go, almost all of them are ready to go, because it’s a financial windfall,” said Ntibantunganya. Of that $750, the government would tax $100 – and deposit the rest directly into the soldiers’ bank accounts, according to a January 2010 diplomatic cable released on WikiLeaks.

Burundi’s government came out well too. Cash from the salary taxes and the relief from paying the human resources of thousands of soldiers a month were enough to inject 6 billion Burundian francs (about $45 million dollars) into the annual budget, according to the senator.

Better training

On top of the financial incentives, the United States in particular often offers something else that African militaries need: top notch training. When the Nigerian military was considering sending troops to an AU-UN mission in Darfur late last decade, for example, “There was concern for the development of capacity,” recalls former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell.  Part of that meant Nigeria’s participation in a US State Department program called Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA), which offers boot camp-like courses for peacekeeping forces, from rank-and-file prep to officer training. Washington spent $11 million training Nigerian troops in 2009.

In Burundi, this same program contracted Northrop Grumman to train the Burundian military battalion by battalion, 10 weeks at a time. The sixteenth such battalion will conclude the course in January, according to a Western diplomat who was not authorized to speak on behalf of their capital on the matter.

Burundi’s government asked the United States to train the entire military, rather than just those troops destined to join Amisom, a request the US agreed to. The ACOTA contract is expected to run until 2013.

In theater, too, the soldiers gain vital experience, argues Ankunda. Uganda, another country that provides the mission with troops, “had the opportunity to undertake some marine training for its soldiers,” Ankunda said by phone. “[This could prove] very helpful in the future, as marines are patrolling the waters and insuring that the potential oil in the [offshore] area can be without threats.”

Political benefits

Less tangibly, peacekeeping undoubtedly yields political benefits, both at home and abroad, for the countries that participate. For Nigeria, the fourth-largest troop contributing country in 2010, this was certainly the case.

“Nigeria sees peacekeeping as part of its vocation as an African leader,” says Campbell. “Nigeria’s active participation in peacekeeping is one of the things that makes Nigeria’s claim [to try and win] a permanent African seat on the Security Council credible.”

The relationship with the United States can also be a deciding factor, according to Campbell. “I think there is no question that Nigeria’s active participation in peacekeeping is an important dimension in the bilateral relationship with countries like the United States,” he says.

Indeed, Nigeria has used this relationship to its advantage in the past, threatening to examine its peacekeeping commitment if the country was not removed from a US list of countries with unsafe air space in February 2010.

Uganda offers another example of the importance of the relationship with Washington. In November, the International Crisis Group worried out loud that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was using his troop commitment to AMISOM “to deflect international criticism of his brutal crackdown on a series of opposition protests at home, receive more military aid from Washington and gain political influence in the region.”

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.”

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.”

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