Global Policy Forum

A Fragile Peace on a Bloodied Continent


By Jean-Marie Guéhenno *

International Herald Tribune
January 29, 2004

Can the peace hold in Africa? It depends on whether African states and their supporters continue to be innovative in their search for political solutions - and whether they build on what they have learned in recent years.

Seven million people may have died in Africa's three biggest wars, in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. That is horribly close to the eight million killed in World War I. But after so many years of destruction, something new is happening: at last. The killing has largely stopped.

The war is over in Angola, and reconstruction is underway. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the five foreign armies are gone, the military situation is mostly stable, and a transitional government has set about its work. In Sudan, final agreement on a mammoth six-year peace plan may be only weeks away. One point to note in all this: the peace processes are mostly home-grown. Angola's war, in which an estimated 1.5 million people died, was always fueled by outsiders: Cuba and apartheid South Africa on the ground, with the superpowers behind them. Left alone, the Angolan government put an end to Jonas Savimbi's three-decade rampage, and the government has since negotiated an accommodation with his Unita supporters. Unita, for its part, is transforming itself into a legitimate political opposition, ahead of national elections to be held in late 2004 or early 2005.

In Congo, both the internal settlement and the withdrawal of foreign forces were largely brokered by South Africa. South Africa also leads in the African effort to stabilize war-torn Burundi. In Sudan, it is Kenya which heads a regional consortium of powers trying to bring peace between north and south, supported by the United States, Britain and Norway. These settlements have been worked out largely on an inter-African basis. This is positive, first because inter-African rivalries sometimes fueled those wars, and, second, because the accommodation of African strategic interests will in large part determine how likely the peace agreements are to hold. Post-colonial African diplomacy has developed under some of the worst imaginable conditions, yet it has developed and continues to improve. Nigeria and South Africa, both until recently a part of the problem rather than the solution, are increasingly confident and positive players in the African peace process. Unfortunately, an already poor region hardly has the resources to build on the peace it has made. Apart from the immense problems of economic reconstruction, there remain pressing humanitarian and policing issues.

All three countries are devastated. Life expectancy in Angola and Congo is under 40, and it's not much higher in Sudan. UN humanitarian appeals for the three countries still run to $800 million this year just to meet basic needs such as food and shelter. Hundreds of thousands of fighters - men, women and children - have known nothing but war and must be disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated into communities that often barely know them, or know them only from the wrong end of a gun. A lapse back into conflict is very possible.

The outside world can help. Operation Artemis, the recent European Union peacekeeping effort in Bunia in eastern Congo, was an important advance. The French-led force was in Bunia for 90 days, stanched the violence, got the guns off the streets, saved thousands of civilians and prepared the way for the UN task force now deployed. The world's most capable militaries are heavily committed elsewhere and expensive to maintain. When they deploy in support of a UN peace operation, it might sometimes have to be as it was in Bunia: a short, sharp injection of force, followed by an early exit. If this approach can work in a very rough town in eastern Congo, we will have a good case for trying a similar approach elsewhere.

The UN Security Council is also acting in some innovative ways: targeting sanctions against those who fuel the wars; controlling the flow of "blood diamonds" from West Africa and elsewhere; tracking the plunder of natural resources in Congo; supporting new ways to finance the demobilization of fighters.

Finally, the United States has been engaging closely with the African peace process, and not only in Sudan. It provided a small but essential force in Liberia, helping open the door there to the West African and UN forces now trying to repair some of the damage caused by Charles Taylor. As in Bunia, we are seeing what can be accomplished when a permanent member of the Security Council works in close cooperation with African partners and UN agencies.

Africans are bringing their biggest civil wars to an end. A pragmatic optimism, based on experience and increasingly resilient, is taking hold in African politics. The United States, the EU and the UN Security Council have a range of tools, many of them new, to extend this precious, and still fragile, progress. They should use them now, for the chances of peace in Africa have never been greater.

* The writer is United Nations Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations.



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