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S.O.S. Africa


August 6, 2003

ADDIS ABABA — Multilateralism is back — in an ad hoc, pragmatic form. And it promises to snatch remedies for some of Africa’s nastiest conflicts. But sustaining this new formula for diplomatic and military intervention needs clarity and resolve from the Bush administration.

Over the last decade, interventions in Africa’s crises have swung between the two poles of sending Marine brigades to impose order (as in Somalia) and keeping well away in the hope that African countries can resolve their own problems. One manifestation of this was simple neglect, as in Rwanda, seen then and now as morally unsupportable. Another approach was developed through the United Nations’ Brahimi report, of placing first responsibility on regional structures, such as the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) that first sent troops to Liberia in 1990, when order in that country first collapsed.

Now, we are seeing the maturing of an intermediate option: a kind of variable geometry of intervention that involves the United States, European powers, the United Nations and African peacekeepers, each playing different but complementary roles. The model has been pioneered in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast: in both countries there is a core of Western special forces (British and French respectively) providing command and control expertise, logistics and training, while African peacekeepers provide the bulk of forces. Small in number, the core of Western troops stays for the duration — quick fixes are out. Ad hoc multilateralism is working, and is Africa’s best chance for peace.

Two cases will test this in the coming weeks. One is Liberia. The now-familiar formula calls for a quick military intervention by West African troops, backed by offshore U.S. forces, to be followed by a U.N.-mandated force later. With Nigerian troops landing at the airport in Monrovia, the first stage is now taking place.

Many things could go wrong. Either or both President Charles Taylor or the opposition could refuse to abide by the agreement. In particular, Taylor may still find excuses for hanging on to power: He wants American troops on the ground before he leaves, and the U.S. army is justifiably anxious that he may take any chance he has to attack them. At this moment, with the credibility of the intervention plan in the balance, Washington’s key task is to clarify what it intends to do.

Hopefully, when Taylor goes, the main obstacle to a respectable government will have vanished, and the Liberians and U.N. can knuckle down to the task of reconstructing the physical and social fabric of the country. But, with so many decades of misrule, and each of the surrounding countries still a long way from political stability, this will be neither an easy nor a quick task. Again, the U.S. must make it clear that it will stay the course.

The second case is Sudan , and the intervention thus far is purely diplomatic. The forthcoming round of peace talks in Kenya between the government of President Omer al Bashir and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army led by Col. John Garang promise to bring an end to a 20-year civil war. If a deal is signed, it will be a remarkable achievement, not just for ending one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, but also because of the complex structure of the mediation.

The negotiating team is led by a retired Kenyan general on behalf of the north-east African regional grouping, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. That is in turn supported by a number of "friends," notably an informal troika of the U.S., Britain and Norway (which have divided the diplomatic tasks between them). The Egyptian government is engaged and has been brought in at critical moments. The Swiss took the lead in negotiating a ceasefire in one specific area of the country, the Nuba Mountains, a ceasefire that is now monitored by an international team headed by a Norwegian. A parallel ceasefire in the South is monitored by an American team. The World Bank and IMF have been called upon to advise the economic aspects of the draft agreement. Should the peace agreement be signed, the U.N. will play a key role in monitoring various aspects of it.

In getting the Sudan peace deal in motion, marshaling the international players and ensuring that they all read from the same script and complemented one anothers’ efforts was almost as difficult a task as getting the belligerent parties to agree. It has taken several years so far, and signing the deal is only the half-way mark. Washington has played a central role, and its leverage will be essential if a deal is to be signed.

Will it work? Up to now, the mediation process has been akin to arbitration, with the mediators presenting compromise proposals and getting the parties’ acceptance. Implementing the complex deal — which involves power sharing, an autonomous administration for Southern Sudan for a six-year period leading to a referendum on self-determination, democratic elections, and a host of other provisions — will require the same sustained and coordinated international input as has the negotiation process itself. And this in turn required parceling out many tasks to others.

The U.S. has learned once again that it cannot ignore the crises posed by long-running civil wars and collapsing states. It is groping toward a new, pragmatic approach to diplomatic and military intervention, which holds out hope for snatching remedies. These remedies will not be quick or cost free. But the U.S. can maximize its chances of success by investing in the much-derided capacities of multilateral organizations, including the United Nations and African Union.

The U.N., like a faithful hound that endures any punishment but still comes running when called for, is on hand to contribute its expertise. African nations are in the process of setting up an African Stand-by Force that could intervene rapidly and effectively in crises such as Liberia, while also being on hand for supervising ceasefire agreements such as in Sudan . Its parent, the African Union, is meanwhile drawing up a Common Defence and Security Policy that can govern its activities.

History shows that for conflict-prone regions — such as Europe and East Asia half a century ago — the security umbrella extended by U.S. leadership can provide the space for fragile countries to focus on rebuilding infrastructure and establishing democratic governance. Africa, facing no external threats, is asking for less: just the minimum security guarantees so that a modicum of stability can return. The U.S., working with Europe, the U.N., and Africa’s own nascent regional organisations, can surely provide this.

Multilateralism may currently be a dirty word in Washington, but faced with the intractable realities of conflicts in Africa, the administration is reintroducing it through the back door. This formula promises much: but it crucially depends upon the clarity of purpose in the U.S. administration, and its readiness to stay the course.

Mr. de Waal is a director of Justice Africa, in London, and the InterAfrica Group, in Ethiopia.