Armed conflict:  Multilateral intervention

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This section looks at multilateral intervention in central and eastern Africa. The principal protagonists of this type of intervention have been the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union, though other regional organisations have also deployed forces. Interventions can be seen in context in this timeline, and some of the major operations are described below. You can find more material on this subject by clicking on links on this page or by looking at our Resources – and we would love to hear your thoughts, either in response to the questions at the bottom of this page or on a relevant issue you have identified.

Timeline for multilateral interventions in central and eastern Africa

The United Nations

During the Cold War the UN was effectively powerless, as the presence on the Security Council of opposing superpowers (the US and Soviet Russia) made consensus almost impossible. In 1991 hopes were raised that the UN would begin to play the role for which it was originally envisaged – “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Africa quickly became a major area of involvement, and since 1991 no less than 27 peacekeeping missions have been mounted (more than any other part of the world). Nine of these – including four which are ongoing – have taken place in the region. The UN has been the principal external military actor in Africa in the post-Cold War era; the results, however, have been mixed.

Operation in the Congo, 1960-1964

In the days and weeks after Congo became independent from Belgium in June 1960, the army mutinied and the provinces of Katanga and South Kasai attempted to break away. Katanga, home to most of Congo’s mineral wealth and Belgian and western mining interests, was supported by Belgium and white mercenaries. Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s prime minister, requested aid from the UN, which deployed a large force to ensure the withdrawal of Belgian troops and to assist government forces in maintaining law and order.  After Lumumba was killed in 1961 in Katanga with Belgian support, the UN’s mandate was widened to allow it to conduct operations to end Katanga’s secession and remove all foreign military personnel. In mandate, size (almost 20,000 at peak strength), and size of area of operations, the operation was a first for the UN. UN troops went far beyond peacekeeping, and by 1963 were conducting large-scale offensive operations by land and air against Katanga. In the UN’s own words, it “became embroiled by the force of circumstances in a chaotic internal situation of extreme complexity”.

Mission in Rwanda, 1993-1996

In Rwanda the UN was deployed to help implement the Arusha peace agreement, signed between the Hutu government and Tutsi armed groups in 1993.  The peace, however, was extremely fragile, and the death of Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana when his plane was shot down over Kigali in mysterious circumstances in April 1994 provided the spark for pre-planned mass killings of Tutsis by Hutu extremists. The UN mission was physically unprepared for the scale of the violence and was left “in disarray”; furthermore, after the killing of ten of its soldiers, Belgium, which had provided the bulk of the UN force, withdrew its troops.  With the UN force reduced to a mere 270, it was powerless to prevent the killing of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and politically-moderate Hutus in the months that followed. Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN force, later bitterly recalled that “the developed world, impassive and apparently unperturbed, sat back and watched the unfolding apocalypse or simply changed channels”. Inaction in Rwanda – on the part of the UN and the international community as a whole – permitted a human catastrophe which might have been prevented if an appropriate commitment had been made. An independent inquiry later concluded that the West’s lack of will in 1994 could be traced to the disastrous US intervention in Somalia in 1993.

Stabilisation mission in the DRC, 1999-

After the Tutsi victory in the Rwandan civil war 1.2m Hutus, fearing reprisals, fled to eastern DRC, an area inhabited by ethnic Tutsis. In 1996, Congolese anti-government leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila, supported by Rwanda and Uganda, led Tutsis against Mobutu Sésé Seko’s government in the First Congo War. Less than a year later, Mobutu was overthrown and Kabila became president. In 1998, however, the Second Congo War began, with Rwanda and Uganda again on the side of the rebels (but now against Kabila), and Kabila supported by Angola, Chad, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The conflict quickly developed into a major interstate war. Following a ceasefire agreement in 1999, the UN established a large stabilisation mission – which today numbers over 20,000 military and police personnel – to observe the ceasefire and supervise its implementation. After the DRC’s “first free and fair elections in 46 years” were held in 2006 – electing Joseph Kabila (the son of Laurent, who was assassinated in 2001 by one of his bodyguards) as president, the focus shifted to consolidating the peace and continuing to support the government against remaining armed groups. As conflict has continued in eastern DRC, the UN continues to conduct offensive operations in support of the DRC government and in furtherance of stabilisation and peace enforcement efforts, and in March 2013 created a specialised ‘intervention brigade’ to forcibly disarm remaining groups. The UN mission in the DRC is called MONUSCO (short for Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo – United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

UN-AU mission in Darfur, 2007-

In February 2003 Darfurian armed groups rose against the Sudanese government, accusing it of politically and economically marginalising the region. The Sudanese government forces’ and associated militias’ response has led to a conflict in which the UN estimated in 2008 that up to 300,000 had died. But despite the UN’s adoption in 2005 of the doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’, based on a promise to respond “in a timely and decisive manner… to help protect populations” where needed, the UN response in Darfur has been slow. An AU mission was present in Darfur from 2004 (see below), but was understrength and underequipped. At the end of 2007 the force became a joint UN-AU mission – the first of its kind – and currently numbers almost 20,000 uniformed personnel. Its duties include protecting civilians and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons, of which there are currently 1.4m in Sudan), providing security for humanitarian aid delivery, and monitoring agreements such as the Darfur Peace Agreement (2006) and the Doha Document for Peace (2010).

The African Union

Previously called the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), all African states (except Morocco) are now members of the African Union (AU). Since 2003, it has intervened militarily in Burundi and Sudan, and has also sent forces elsewhere in Africa. AU operations often rely on Western financing and logistical support to be effective, and have suffered when such support has not been forthcoming.

AU mission in Darfur, Sudan, 2004-07

Darfur represented the AU’s first peacekeeping mission; it was, as many have commented, a baptism of fire. The mission comprised just over 3,300 uniformed personnel in 2004, which was later increased to around 7,000. Its mandate included protecting IDPs, monitoring Darfur’s extremely fragile ceasefire and disarming  government-controlled militias, conducting humanitarian operations, and providing a military presence across an area the size of France. The mission was quickly overwhelmed; by May 2007, it was “on the verge of collapse… crippled by funding and equipment shortages, government harassment and… armed attacks by rebel forces”. The UN finally took over, after much delay, at the end of 2007, and AU personnel were incorporated into the new mission.

The European Union

The European Union (EU), as part of moves towards a common European defence policy, has conducted interventions in the DRC and the CAR since 2003.

EU operation in Ituri, DRC, 2003

As part of a peace agreement signed at the end of the Second Congo War in 2003, several thousand Ugandan troops withdrew from Ituri in northeast DRC. This left a power vacuum in the diamond-rich region, and Lendu and Hema ethnic groups began to fight for the town of Bunia, displacing 8,000 people and endangering Congo’s peace process. Fearing a repeat of the 1994 violence in Rwanda, the UN authorised a ‘coalition of the willing’ to restore security in Ituri, and after a majority-French force was deployed under EU auspices, Bunia was secured. The operation represented the EU’s first autonomous intervention outside Europe.

EU operation in Chad and the CAR, 2007-2009

The EU’s largest mission to date in Africa, the EU operation in Chad and the CAR was authorised by the UN and intended to act as an interim force pending the organisation of a UN force. It was mandated to protect refugees and ensure humanitarian aid deliveries in eastern Chad and northeastern CAR, where over 450,000 refugees from conflicts in Darfur, Chad and the CAR had grouped. The mission suffered from logistical problems, which delayed its launch by several months, and accusations of partiality. In 2008, the majority-French force was accused by Chadian president Idriss Deby in 2008 of “cooperating with rebels” in Chad, where France also bases regular troops.

Other multilateral interventions

Multinational forces in the CAR, 1998-2000 and 2003-

After the closure of French bases in the CAR in 1997 and in the context of continuing insecurity in the country, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon and Chad, members of the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC), were deployed to fill the power vacuum. Between 1998 and 2000 and from 2003, the CEEAC, with French logistical and operational support, deployed forces to the CAR. Initially mandated to assure the security of president Ange-Félix Patassé, help with armed forces reform and participate in mixed patrols along the frontier with Chad, the mandate has since evolved along with the ongoing situation in the country, notably the removal of Patassé by general François Bozizé in 2003 and Bozizé’s own overthrow by anti-government forces in 2013. African forces have now been present in the CAR for over ten years.

What do you think?

Have the UN and other multilateral organisations been able to protect African civilians from the affects of war?

To what degree are multilateral organisations subject to the interests of their most powerful members? Is there a danger that multilateral operations can be used to advance members’ interests?

Why did the UN fail in Rwanda and succeed in Burundi?


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