The recent outbreak of conflict in eastern DRC between the government and the M23 rebellion has brought back to attention the ineffectiveness of UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. The UN’s peacekeeping model in Africa is broken but Rwanda’s bilateral deployments provide a better alternative from which the UN should adopt.
In 1994, UN peacekeepers in Rwanda stood aside as génocidaires unleashed a brutal and preplanned anti-Tutsi genocide. Although the UN subsequently apologized to Rwanda for its cowardice and bureaucratic deflection, it was insincere: how else would one explain the promotion and subsequent re-election to the office of the secretary-general of the then head of peacekeeping Kofi Annan? That Annan was complicit in a million deaths and suffered no career consequence remains a stain on the organization. When it came to Rwanda, it would not be the UN’s last shame.
As the Rwandan Patriotic Front triumphed and ended the genocide, many génocidaires fled the country. Herein lies UN’s second mistake: rather than segregate and disarm those culpable in perhaps the worst atrocities of the late 20th century, the UN allowed the génocidaires to take refuge in UN camps just across the border in DRC. This means, for the past quarter of a century, the UN in the DRC has effectively been complicit in enabling génocidaires to hold refugees hostage while indoctrinating a new generation into racist, eliminationist hatred.
While terrorist regimes have administered other refugee camps—the Khmer Rouge ran camps in Thailand after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, for example—they did so without UN collaboration. In the DRC camps, however, the UN clearly collaborated with génocidaires. In effect, the UN repeated the mistakes it made in Palestinian camps in Lebanon and Gaza. In both the DRC and Palestinian cases, UN’s willingness to deny or ignore terrorists hiding in the midst of refugees perpetuated conflict and destabilized governments. UN officials benefit(ed) from continued conflict with lucrative jobs, while wasting billions of dollars in donor money.
The five most expensive UN peacekeeping missions today are in Africa. For the fiscal year 2022, the budgets for the missions in Mali, South Sudan, the DRC and the Central African Republic each topped US$1 billion, whereas the UN presence in Somalia added another half billion dollars. While UN missions in both the DRC and the Central African Republic missions have gone through name changes and bureaucratic reorganizations, they are almost a quarter of a century old. The UN Mission in South Sudan is more than a decade old, while the one in Mali is now approaching its first decade. In the case of the Central African Republic and South Sudan, UN peacekeeping expenses are equivalent to between a quarter to half the country’s gross domestic product, according to International Monetary Fund data.
If the definition of insanity is to repeat the same actions but expect different results each time, then UN peacekeeping in Africa’s most persistent trouble spots has been insane. When I worked first in Tajikistan and then in Iraqi Kurdistan, I learned firsthand from aid and relief workers that when they are deployed to war zones, they adjust to local society, but, ironically, when the UN enters a country, it expects local society to adjust to its practices and procedures. Such bureaucratic arrogance and inflexibility contribute to UN’s persistent failure in countries like Mali, the Central African Republic, and the DRC.
Another factor that compounds UN’s failure in its peacekeeping missions in Africa is moral equivalence. In the DRC, for example, the UN is unable to differentiate between génocidaires and others who seek to defend themselves from the génocidaires. In both the Central African Republic and Mali, the UN might recognize each country’s government, but it prioritizes observation and monitoring over action. The kneejerk reaction of the UN leadership in New York is to negotiate compromise and build a big tent. Not only does this incentivize terrorists to win through diplomatic concession what they cannot achieve at the ballot box but it also protects and extends terror campaigns and, essentially, doubles down on the ineffectiveness, if not complicity, that allowed the anti-Tutsi genocide 28 years ago.
Even though UN’s top officials themselves privately acknowledge their organization’s imperviousness to creative thinking, the stakes in Africa are too great to defer to UN sclerosis. Rapid state failure makes the status quo untenable.
Here, the UN might consider the effectiveness of Rwanda’s approach as a pillar of much-needed peacekeeping reform.
Just before the Christmas of 2020, rebels loyal to François Bozizé, a former president of the Central African Republic, marched on the streets of the capital. This incident caused civilians to panic and flared both ethnic and sectarian tensions across the country. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra called UN headquarters for help, but the global body was unresponsive. While the Rwandan contingent made it clear that it would protect itself (and other national peacekeeping contingents redeployed to move closer to the Rwandans for their own protection), the UN Secretary-General did not greenlight any substantive action to hold the rebels at bay. In effect, it was a repeat of UN’s traditional actions in the days immediately prior to the anti-Tutsi genocide. Touadéra also called Paris and Washington but received no response. President Paul Kagame, however, responded. So long as Touadéra would allow Rwandan forces to take and fortify the airport in order to ensure secure logistics, the Rwanda Defense Force would deploy and protect key infrastructure, including the presidential palace. Within 48 hours of that phone call, Rwandans were on the frontlines, and Bangui was saved. While the UN continues to observe events in the Central African Republic at a cost of US$135,000 per hour, Rwandan bilateral forces continue to secure infrastructure, capture terrorists and give the country space to recover from decades of instability. The Rwandan success is evident in Bangui, where Muslims and Christians again mix, and once deserted markets are bustling again.
Events in Mozambique showed that the effectiveness of bilateral deployments was the rule rather than the exception. Successive governments in Maputo ignored the northern Cabo Delgado province. The Mozambican army, meanwhile, neglected civil affairs. Not only did soldiers not speak the local Makhuwa or Makonde languages, but they also could not speak Swahili. Because local villagers and townsmen did not trust Mozambican forces and feared the army would interpret forewarning with complicity, the eruption of the Islamic State insurgency in March 2020 blindsided President Filipe Nyusi. He initially sought to contract Russia’s Wagner Group, but they failed in the face of the same challenges as the Mozambican Army, and so Nyusi instead turned to both the Rwanda Defense Force and, separately, a multilateral Southern African Development Community (SADC) force.
The Rwandans proved most effective, both because of the unity of command and because of the willingness to fight. Because, like the UN elsewhere, SADC was more interested in showing its flag than in joining the fight, Rwanda has increased its area of operations and recorded a great deal of success. As in Central Africa, it took just days for Rwanda to secure key infrastructure and just weeks to secure road and population centres in order to allow displaced populations to return. The mentorship between Rwandan Police and their Mozambican counterparts has put local security on a sounder footing. Certainly, the crisis is not over. Maputo’s lack of capacity continues to impede the fight against Islamist militancy. But the turn to bilateral deployments with Rwanda has stabilized Cabo Delgado far quicker and at a lower cost than the years of multi-million-dollar United Nations peacekeeping missions. This is the major reason why Mali, now in its second decade of persistent insurgency, has inquired about the possibility of supplementing, if not supplanting, UN operations with a bilateral force.
When US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken travelled to the region to address the tension between the DRC and Rwanda, he should have recognized that the problem is not simply between Kigali and Kinshasa, but that the problem is New York: Decades of UN mismanagement perpetuated a conflict they could have avoided if UN peacekeepers had disarmed génocidaires and not enabled them to transform their camps into terrorist safe havens. Diplomats might pontificate about M23 from their compounds 1,600 kilometres away in Kinshasa, but the truth is that Congolese Tutsi need no outside incentive to avoid their own slaughter. UN’s Force Intervention Brigade has some utility, especially as Ansar al-Sunna and myriad other terrorists seek to carve out more safe havens. But there is evidence from experience in other countries that a more dedicated bilateral force might help the eastern DRC become an economic engine for the entire country rather than its bleeding ulcer.
For too long, the United Nations and the international donor community have treated peacekeeping as a jobs programme and a mechanism to virtue signal rather than to make peace. The cost of this deception is great, costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives annually as UN negligence perpetuates conflicts that well-paid, business class-flying UN diplomats promise to resolve.
Africans should say that enough is enough. If peace is indeed UN’s goal, then it is time for the global body to study what works and recognize that 75 years after its first peacekeeping missions, they should be open and sincere enough to adopt innovative and pragmatic approaches to peacekeeping. If they seek to replicate what works, the Rwandan deployments in the Central African Republic and Mozambique would be a good place to start. The UN might revert to a fundraising role to identify and subsidize those forces who can do what UN-recognized governments in conflict zones request in order to end persistent insurgency and terrorist safe havens, as well as to enable military and intelligence capacity building.
Michael Rubin is Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, and a former Pentagon official. He is a frequent visitor to conflict zones in Africa, including Somalia, Western Sahara, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Mozambique.