Even on a slow news day, stories about Africa rarely attract much attention in the United States. With an upcoming election, the economy, and the coronavirus to worry about, the continent is not even a blip on most Americans’ radar screen. That is unfortunate, in part because events there often reveal important truths about the world at large. Such is the case of the recent military coup in the West African nation of Mali, which demonstrates why United Nations peacekeeping today is destined to fail and why much of the policy of the United States toward Africa will fare no better.
Prior to the August coup, tens of thousands of Malians had been protesting for months against their government over poverty, a lack of jobs and education, and a long-running conflict with violent extremists. They wanted the president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, to step down, but he refused and instead employed maneuvers such as using the country’s Constitutional Court to keep more members of his political party in parliament in an attempt to maintain his grip on power.
Mali has been beset by intercommunal and ethnic violence for years, including attacks by terrorist groups. Efforts to negotiate a resolution to the conflict included providing more regional autonomy so people at the local level could feel more in control. But this and other reform measures were never implemented, and those responsible for the abuses were never brought to justice. Believing their government was unwilling or unable to improve their lives, many Malians took to the streets to demonstrate against it, and the appeal of groups that promised change, even if through the use of violence, grew.
At that point, the army stepped in and, with wide popular support, detained Keita and forced him from office. A transitional government has been established, with military officers as president and vice president and a civilian chosen as prime minister. They are supposed to guide the country to new elections in the next year and a half.
The overthrow of an elected government brought the predictable reaction from leaders in Africa and abroad. They demanded that Keita be reinstated, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a strong condemnation of the action. A mediation effort was undertaken by the Economic Community of West African States, which did not restore Keita to power but did result in the formation of the interim government with some civilian participation. While international pressure urged the swift restoration of democracy, it seemed to be based on the assumption that occasional elections are the only requirement for democracy to function. Condemnation of incumbent presidents who rig the system to keep themselves, or their parties, in power is rarely heard.
The upheaval is not just a failure of the Malian political system, but of international efforts—including U.N. peacekeeping—to improve the situation. In 2013, the United Nations dispatched a peacekeeping mission to Mali and tasked it with protecting civilians and helping the government extend its control over its own territory. Following a 2015 reconciliation agreement between various Malian factions, implementing this accord was added to the mission’s mandate.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the peacekeepers to use “all necessary means” to carry out their assignment “with a proactive, robust flexible and agile posture.” Thus far the mission has accomplished little besides becoming one of the most deadly of the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations, with 220 fatalities and counting.
Peacekeeping was not always so dangerous. When the U.N. first got into peacekeeping in 1948, it was to help resolve wars over territory between countries. As that kind of conflict became rare, peacekeeping evolved into dealing with the aftermath of civil wars in newly independent countries. Those operations have largely ended, and peacekeeping has evolved into a third phase.
That phase consists of the six youngest ongoing operations, which are all in Africa and include the one in Mali. They are supposed to help governments protect civilians and stabilize the country. To accomplish that would require the peacekeepers to become warfighters, however, and that is something they are not willing or able to do successfully.
The peacekeepers will not succeed in defeating the insurgents in Mali or in the other five operations because of how peacekeeping has changed over time: Rich countries have largely abandoned it as a viable strategy. The wealthy countries do pay 86 percent of the financial cost of peacekeeping, with the United States picking up 28 percent of the tab. But they provide very few of the troops, especially for the dangerous protection and stabilization missions.
In Mali, for instance, fewer than 6 percent of the troops are from wealthy countries; the United States contributes only nine staff officers to the over 13,000 soldiers in the mission. The lack of troops from rich countries severely reduces the capabilities of the peacekeepers, because the wealth of a troop-contributing country matters. With soldiers—as with most things in life—you get what you pay for. The level of funding an army receives translates directly into how well trained, equipped, and led the troops will be. That peacekeeping has been left to the poor countries is demonstrated by the fact that over three-quarters of the U.N. troops in Mali come from Chad, Bangladesh, Egypt, Senegal, Togo, Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast.
Military capability notwithstanding, there is an even more fundamental reason why the peacekeepers will not succeed in Mali. The refusal of the country’s leaders to compromise, work together, and govern honestly means there is no actual peace to keep. If Malian soldiers not only won’t fight to defend their government, but are also willing to overthrow it, how can peacekeepers from Chad or Bangladesh be convinced to put their lives on the line in order to assist that government?
The peacekeepers failed on the political front as well as the military one because they were unable to successfully encourage implementation of the 2015 reconciliation agreement. They could not do that because they lack the leverage over the local political elites, and the international community was content to simply send in the blue helmets and transfer responsibility for not solving the problem to the U.N.
Despite the exhortations from U.N. headquarters in New York, peacekeepers from a dozen different poor countries cannot successfully engage in combat operations. They should never be asked to do so unless they have the ability and will to win, but that is not included in the U.N.’s budget. Because of the way U.N. peacekeeping forces are currently constituted, they will never have that ability, especially given the side on which they are asked to play. As the U.S. military has demonstrated for many years in Afghanistan, an insurgency cannot be eliminated even by the best military forces if the local government is corrupt, is incompetent, and does not earn the support of its own people.
If the peacekeepers are given a political objective, the international community, especially the countries and multilateral organizations providing economic aid, must also be prepared to use “all necessary means”—including withholding that aid—to help the peacekeepers succeed. Otherwise, the only objective the Security Council will achieve will be to widen the gap between the expectations and the abilities of any given peacekeeping operation.
International actors do have leverage if they choose to use it. Half of the Malian government’s budget comes from foreign aid, and nearly half the country’s population lives in abject poverty. Two Africa experts, writing in Foreign Policy about the situation in Mali, urged that a comprehensive economic recovery plan similar to the Marshall Plan be created for Mali and neighboring countries.
There are two problems with such a course of action.
It is unlikely ever to happen, because foreign aid is unpopular in donor countries even in the best of times. Public opinion polls have shown it is the only federal program that a majority of Americans want to cut. That is because the public overestimates the percentage of the federal budget devoted to foreign aid by about 20 times what it actually is. And at a time when donor countries are dealing with the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, suggestions for sending massive amounts of new aid abroad will go nowhere.
Even if attempted, such a plan is unlikely to succeed, because the analogy itself is flawed. The Marshall Plan rebuilt countries in Western Europe whose infrastructure was destroyed in World War II, but whose human capital and organizational skills were largely still intact. One can’t rebuild a country that was never really built either economically or politically and therefore rests on an already shaky foundation.
So providing development aid and believing things will improve will be no more effective than assuming peacekeepers can impose peace. Throwing a few dollars and a few peacekeepers at the problem is not enough to secure the right outcome.
Democracy means more than just elections; in an extremely poor country like Mali, the institutions that are fundamental to its functioning are weak and easily controlled by a government run by people determined to keep themselves in power. If some restraints on the government’s power to misuse resources are not imposed from abroad, much of the aid will be wasted.
The solution to the crisis in Mali is better governance and giving the Malian people confidence in their own institutions and the hope that it can actually improve their lives. If the policy of the United States and other countries continues to seek only stability, looking the other way when elections are stolen, and providing aid without bothering to insist on a less corrupt and more inclusive government, Washington will join the peacekeepers on their road to failure.