African troop contributors to peace operations


The political challenges faced by African troop contributing countries in peace operations

By David Ambrosetti (CFEE)

Account of a lecture given on January 5th 2015, Mekelle University (Addi Haqi Campus), Moot Court, School of Law.

(In English)

Ethiopian soldiers, Ethiopian Battalion, 7th Infantry Division, Korea, 1953 (Source: United States Army Heritage and Education Center)

Ethiopian soldiers, Ethiopian Battalion, 7th Infantry Division, Korea, 1953 (Source: United States Army Heritage and Education Center)

The political challenges faced by African troop contributing countries in peace operations

In a short period of time, Ethiopia has become a major contributor of troops for military operations under international mandates. In 2010, it was ranked 11 out of the 130 states contributing to the United Nations peace operations, with 2 400 troops. It has now reached the 4th position, with 7 800 troops, deployed mainly in Darfur (Sudan), Abyei (Sudan / South Sudan border) and South Sudan. Ethiopia lies just behind the traditional Southern Asia top 3: Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. And these figures concern the sole UN-led operations. Since January 2014, other 4000 Ethiopian troops have officially joined the African mission in Somalia (AMISOM) under the command of the African Union. With this operation, which is logistically and financially supported by the UN and the European Union, Ethiopia is today no less than the world major troop contributor for internationally-mandated operations. The practitioners of international peace and security thus observe a spectacular Ethiopian comeback to a form of international activism that the imperial authorities in Addis Ababa themselves had rapidly supported at the early times of the UN. Ethiopian troops were part of the US-led coalition in Korea (1950-1954, with no less than 6 000 troops), as well as the first UN peace operation in Sub-Sahara Africa, the Operation des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC, 1960-1964), an operation fashioned in a clear anti-colonialist mood, and whose third Force Commander was the Ethiopian general Kebbede Guebre.

Such remarkable military commitment calls for a deeper understanding of the various political challenges troop contributing countries are facing. These challenges deserve more systematic investigation, at least in the following three main directions.

What sorts of domestic political arrangements are supporting such military activism?

Contributing countries do not always follow a clear strategic goal when they join a peace operation. The initial principles of peacekeeping at the UN did favour total political disinterest from part of the troop contributors. Yet, such disinterest is fraught with dangers. Many instances of military weakness were experienced in various peace operations led by the United Nations (Somalia, Rwanda, ex Yugoslavia, Angola) or the African Union (Darfur) in the 1990s and 2000s. One of their common causes was precisely the absence of a clear strategic objective, a clear assessment of the possible costs of the intervention, and an exit option in case of failure.

Peacekeeping is loaded with risks, on soldiers’ lives first of all, more rarely on the national budget (when external financial partners become rare), and very frequently on national prestige when peacekeepers find themselves directly engaged in combats farer that they expected and are eventually forced to a shameful retreat. Recent offensive operations against well-identified armed groups (which is not the usual design for peacekeeping operations) have also exposed the contributing countries to threats of direct bomb attacks against civilians on their soil, as the AMISOM case has shown. As in any other military matters, public communication plays here a large role. Belligerent learn rapidly how to use media coverage as to fuel domestic political tensions within the contributing country, to disseminate doubt, fear or discredit on the operation. One can assume that liberal political societies with well-institutionalized press freedom and active civil society groups constitute first-choice targets for such tactics. Yet, political debates on the opportunity to launch or maintain military contributions occur more broadly.

Faced with these risks, the political leadership in the contributing country must show consistent political interests domestically in support of the deployment. These interests can lie on different sorts of arrangements. Let me mention but two.

1/ As Nigeria, Ethiopia or Chad have shown respectively in Liberia / Sierra Leone, Somalia and Central African Republic, when the political and/or military leadership perceives a threat or geopolitical rivalry in its own vicinity or zone of influence, this may considerably enhance the likelihood of a firm military action. Moreover, this tends to give assurance that the contributing country shares enough knowledge about the local political situation as to act efficiently, which is another way to prevent from politically-costly, adventurous operations. In this regards, a realistic conception on peacekeeping brings to primarily lean on the political actors that have proven their military grip on regional security / insecurity issues.

2/ Another important element lies in the military institution itself, and its role in the political society as a whole. One would assume that success occurs when the military shows efficient material resources and training (provided by the political authorities), reliable chain of command, and faithful allegiance to the political decision-makers. Yet, this does not make a political interest to intervene consistently; it just gives some assurance that, if the political will exists, chances for operational success are in sight. There are, however, situations where state leaders share a strong interest to contribute precisely because they lack such stable and comfortable relation with their military and they expect to find in peace operations a way to mitigate political tensions within the army and improve its efficiency and its loyalty towards them. Recent research data on the now important contribution of Burundi in peace operations show that the Burundian deployment in the AMISOM played this very role. It occurred in a critical moment for the success of the “post-conflict” agenda in Burundi itself. It particularly helped contain a nascent crisis between the former enemies, the new government composed by the main ex-rebel group on the one hand and the ex-Forces armées burundaises on this other, when the new Force de défense nationale (FDN) has been created and engaged in structural reforms and massive demobilisation. Finally, the FDN is getting increasingly specialized in this international “niche”.

In order to reach these kinds of conclusions, one needs to consider the relation between the ruling party and the army, but also the larger role played by the military institution (with its different segments) in the society as a whole, in a sociological and historical perspective.

Which role are troop contributing countries playing in the international headquarters?

One could consider troop contributing countries as “simple” subcontractors of mandating international organisations (IOs), with clear protocols and rules designing the appropriate actions according to standard situations. Despite some useful attempts to reach such codification within the UN bureaucracy in the 2000s, politically-grounded “ad-hoc-ism” still rules peacekeeping activity.

Threats on international peace and security have never been codified once and for all, no mention here of the required responses to these threats. It remains a matter of collective interpretations and political opportunity in the eyes of the diplomatic delegations serving to the international executive instances. There is probably no better statement on this simple truth than the one provided by Andrew Boyd, almost half a century ago, concerning the attempt to reach a consensual definition of the crime of aggression as a threat to international peace and security:

“What is aggression? Jesting Pilate might stay for an answer to this one; but he would still be waiting. In 1952 the UN Assembly set up a committee to define aggression. In 1954 it set up a second committee. In 1957, already in a defeatist mood, it set up a third committee – to determine when the Assembly should come back to the attempt to define aggression. In 1967 it set up a fourth committee ‘to consider all aspects of the question’. In December 1969 the Assembly (voting 83 to 1) told this latest committee to keep going. Hope springs eternal. In the eighteenth year of all this pertinacious labour the representative of Ecuador rallied the ranks by pointing out that they had still not concluded that it was impossible to define aggression; and that the mere fact that no definition had yet been agreed did not mean that one could not be found in the future. But, very fortunately, the ‘teeth’ job that Chapter Seven gives the Security Council does not require it to plunge into the philosophical and semantic niceties that have baffled the committee men. Here, the Council’s assigned task is to decide what should be done to ‘maintain or restore international peace and security’; in fact, to stop wars, preferably before they start. And it does not have to consult texts, or lawyers, or entrails, before deciding that peace-and-security is being broken or threatened. This question was settled at San Francisco. As far as the UN is concerned, there is a Threat (or a Breach) when the Council decides that there is one.”  (Andrew Boyd, Fifteen Men on a Powder Keg: A History of the U.N. Security Council, 1971).

Having said that, is the contributing country just serving the interests of the members of the UN Security Council (or the AU Peace and Security Council), and more precisely the interests of the most influential of its members? Is it just providing “native” forces to imperial powers, as Mark Duffield has provocatively put it? It seems difficult to give a relevant answer grounded on precise empirical evidence in such a large debate. This shall at least not overlook recent empirically-asserted data that show how troop contributing countries have managed to find new leverage of action into the international diplomatic scene. Jonathan Fisher’s work on the Ugandan role in AMISOM is one remarkable example. It even shows that the troop contributing countries can count among the key instigators of military deployments blessed with an international mandate. Empirical investigation is thus indispensable to better understand the precise political positions troop contributing countries are being acknowledged by their peers within the IOs headquarters, in a case-by-case basis, and in the long run, according to each experience in this realm. The sorts of arrangements that bind together the troop contributors and the financial contributors in peace operations deserve here particular scrutiny.

What transformations does this military presence engender into the political society afflicted by war? With which consequences for the peacekeepers’ military performance on the ground, in this very conflict but also in other, future theatres of operations?

How peacekeepers are understanding the conflict into which they interfere is a crucial point. A classical concern in academics brings to define the deep objectives of the belligerents. Stephen Stedman would here raise the following threefold alternative: a war for the control of the central state in the capital, a war for secession and the creation of a new government, or a war waged in order to modify the balance of power. Paul Collier would insist on the supposedly predominant economic motives (greed) of the belligerents. Jeremy Weinstein would point out the configurations where violence against civilians is more likely. Many other theoretical essays have been crafted on the subject.

Yet, warring parties shall never be reduced to one essential, unique motive, once and for all. Things vary from one subgroup to another and from one moment to another, according to the specific timing of the conflict. In this sense, peacekeepers’ leadership needs some sociological and contextual understanding on what is going on in the field at a specific moment. Paul Richards offers a rich analytical prospect when he analyses war as an enterprise of social mobilization entrenched in a specific social environment:

“Someone has to resolve to embark on the high-risk strategy of seizing power through mobilisation and violence. The venture has to be planned. Fighters have to be trained, the weapons obtained. Tactics have to be devised and a campaign executed. This is the work of specific groups in society; understanding the character, the organisation, and beliefs of these groups, and their impact on other group supporting, resisting or victimised by their activities, is an essential task for the analyst. In short, war is inescapably sociological.” (Paul Richards, No Peace No War, 2004).

What is less frequently mentioned is how peacekeeping activities in one specific theatre today impact new military challenges in other places tomorrow. Peacekeepers currently deployed are condemned to induce unexpected consequences in the future. Political entrepreneurs eager to launch military actions and spark new armed conflicts are usually prudent enough as to keep observing how peacekeepers react here and there, and perceive any evolution in doctrine. They unavoidably draw some strategic and tactical conclusions before deciding whether they will act or not, and how they will act.

For international involvements do engender new resources and new constraints for the belligerents. The latter anticipate such opportunities and constraints, as to define how to reach their military objectives without experiencing a costly international reaction, or how to drive international actors on their side against their rivals. Many examples are offered by the academic literature where military entrepreneurs have worked hard to find new tactics designed to make them appear as indispensable local interlocutors for the international peacekeepers, for instance when minimizing their own violence on the ground to avoid media coverage, or on the contrary by maximizing it as to be considered seriously by international negotiators, etc.

If this is admitted, it becomes urgent to provide with an assessment of how peace operations impact the balance of power between different political and social forces on the ground. Such assessment shall not be reduced to the sole military positions of the belligerents. The pervasive imprint of external forces on the social and economic structure also deserves an in-depth exploration, as this may reveal unexpected channels through which new resources and constraints affect the domestic balance of power, and consequently the chances of success for the peacekeepers.

Citer ce billet
David Ambrosetti (2015, 5 janvier). African troop contributors to peace operations. UN ŒIL SUR LA CORNE / AN EYE ON THE HORN. Consulté le 21 juin 2024, à l’adresse

David Ambrosetti

David Ambrosetti est politiste, chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il a été directeur du CFEE de 2014 à 2018. Depuis 2018 il est membre du laboratoire Les Afriques dans le monde (CNRS / Sciences po Bordeaux).

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