During the summer media doldrums, it was hard to miss that a Canadian peace operations fact-finding mission, led by Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, visited East Africa. Sajjan’s mission, which included retired Supreme Court and international jurist Louise Arbour and retired general and senator Romeo Dallaire as advisors, produced an unusual flurry of Canadian media coverage and commentary around a Liberal foreign and defence policy conundrum: where should Canada re-engage in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping in Africa?
The Canadian government attempted to answer that Friday with a press conference announcing a commitment of $450 million and 600 troops to UN peace operations. Exactly which missions will receive Canadian support may be announced next month.
“We need to understand conflict better and that’s what we have been doing,” Sajjan said Friday. “So when we decide on a mission it will be to enhance what is already happening… This is not a political decision.”
There is no doubt that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) offer a range of capabilities that could enhance any UN mission and that Canada could help transform and improve existing practices. But there is something missing in the analysis so far: where is the systematic examination about why most of those large UN operations are in Africa?
Why do so many missions and security crises run concurrent to the “aspiring” or “rising” Africa motif, a continent that boasted many of the fastest growing economies of the new millennium? Was it an oversight that none of the mandate letters to Sajjan, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, or even International Development and La Francophonie Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau specifically mentioned Africa as a region that required Canadian reconsideration and re-engagement?
Canada is in danger of putting the cart before the horse: without a stronger understanding of Africa’s challenges through the lens of Canadian interests broadly conceived, including security, economic, world order, humanitarian and environmental interests (which should hopefully emerge from the foreign, defence and development policy reviews underway in Ottawa), the impulse to “find a mission” could drive future Canadian strategy towards Africa rather than the other way around.
Despite Sajjan’s assertion this week that support for a mission is “not a political decision,” Canada may be in danger of reverting back to an old pattern: using Africa to enhance Canada’s international stature and buttress our moral identity, as David Black’s important book illustrated last year and Edward Akuffo's important book conceptualized a few years ago. Instead, we need to devote more concerted attention to the trends and trajectories across the continent to assess how Canada can best make a difference towards longer-term outcomes that Canada, its allies and its closest African partners prefer (and the choice of those African partners is critically important).
In other words, before deploying military capability and committing limited fiscal resources, Canada needs to step back and develop an overarching strategy for its African re-engagement across the board. This was a widely shared concern that a small group of experts who participated in a June 2016 workshop in Calgary agreed to in a post-workshop survey, a survey where consensus was not the norm. Other areas of agreement included the related recognition of the interconnectedness of security, development and governance; the need for the CAF to enhance its own internal planning and assessment capabilities related to Africa; and even that the Royal Canadian Navy could play a bigger partnership role with African navies, including training and countering illegal fisheries, human smuggling and piracy.
A missing Canadian policy on Africa
Last year, Arbour reflected on her international experiences and called for “a blueprint for understanding before you act, as opposed to rushing into things.” Sometimes an emergency requires immediate action, but Canada should reflect a bit more on what it wants to achieve in Africa. Important “why” and “whether” questions should precede and then drive the “how” and “where” questions.
While strategy and policy clarity never translates directly to intended policy outcomes, it provides a framework for action and resource allocation, a yardstick for measuring outcomes, and a way to explain to the Canadian public the motivations behind specific policy outputs.
Many countries have undertaken these kinds of comprehensive regional policy exercises or have institutionalized relationship mechanisms with African states. Japan launched its Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 1993, with the sixth iteration in Kenya in August 2016. China released is first Africa policy in 2006 and updated it in 2015. Since 2000, China’s triennial Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (or FOCAC) provides a regular mechanism linking China and nearly every African government.
A decade ago, the Norwegian government funded a report that examined the implications for China’s resurgence in Africa on its foreign and development policy there, and released its own “Platform for an Integrated Africa Policy” in 2008. Australia established a high-level Advisory Group on Australia-Africa Relations just last year and provides a useful snapshot of its overall policy. Denmark released an Africa Strategy in 2007. Brazil has doubled its embassies across the continent and established a high-level foreign affairs office devoted exclusively to Africa.
The closest Canada ever inched towards a comprehensive approach to the continent was in February 2007, when the Senate released its bipartisan, extensively researched study. While the report generated considerable debate within Canada’s public “Africa constituency,” it was killed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper within a week. The main recommendation of the report was the creation of an “Africa Office” designed to combine diplomatic, trade, development and defence staff, with an expectation that both regional strategy formulation and policy delivery would be more coordinated, efficient and effective.
Justifying Africa’s peace operations
A more strategic approach would begin by asking this simple question: Why so many large peace operations in Africa? If you include UNTSO, partly based in Egypt, there are 10 UN “peacekeeping” missions across the African continent out of 16 total UN peacekeeping missions worldwide, a number that does not include the large, difficult African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM). In addition, there are a host of affiliated military and political missions conducted bilaterally or by international organizations, including African regional communities and the European Union.
Four countries around Lake Chad somewhat coordinate their fight against Boko Haram, with some training support from outsiders including Canada. Maritime piracy is down to its lowest global levels since 1995, given significant international efforts off the Horn of Africa, but remains a serious threat in the Gulf of Guinea. The diverse range of missions, overt and covert, undertaken by US Africa Command and France further illustrate Africa’s complex security and development environment.
Africa is, of course, a massive continent with 54 UN member states. Much of the continent is peaceful. In fact, the decade leading up to 2012 was one of the least violent in Africa’s post-colonial history. But for many Africans, since 2012 things have gotten worse, from South Sudan’s implosion, insurgency in the Niger Delta, and factional warfare in Libya to increased Salafist activity around Lake Chad and across the Sahel. Even countries that seemed to have left large scale political violence behind, such as Mozambique, Burundi, and Ethiopia, show worrying signals that peace, political compromise, accountability mechanisms, and inclusive economic development may still be frustratingly elusive.
It is true that drastic drops in oil and other commodity prices over the last few years have weighed heavily on some African economies, but those high prices concealed institutional economic and political weaknesses in many states. Now, the ongoing need for large scale, long-term peace operations or military interventions, the increasing propensity of governing elites to use violence against political opposition and civil society protests, the related drift towards a more authoritarian brand of politics (reflected in the rise of “third termism” tendencies by too many incumbent presidents), and current levels of mass human displacement and migration all suggest worrisome trends that work against any assumptions that simply adding some additional CAF support to a UN mission or two will make a significant difference.
In other words, a high number of lingering peace operations across the continent seems to reveal that something systemic, either in African politics or international approaches to conflict resolution or both, requires strategic reassessment. Violent political conflict and economic underdevelopment are two sides of the same complex coin.
As both Sajjan and experts have pointed out, traditional peacekeeping missions of the Suez or Cyprus variety have long been the exception rather than the rule. If one revisits the scale of political complexity and combat operations during the first UN Congo mission (1960-1964), including the use of air power, it has always been surprising that, in the minds of Canadians at least, the “traditional” (or what has been termed the first generation) idea of peacekeeping lingered so long.
Other than the tiny UNTSO observer mission, UNISFA (deployed in the Abyei region, a still disputed territory between Sudan and South Sudan), and MINURSO in the Western Sahara, the other seven UN peace operations in Africa are multi-dimensional stabilization missions, that is, they exist because of state breakdown and civil war, not inter-state disputes.
These missions necessarily blur the line between security and development. Large operations which now include Protection of Civilians (POC), Security Sector Reform (SSR), Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR), and various other state- and institution-building functions that also sometimes include unvarnished warfighting and counter-terrorism components.
These are big, expensive, cumbersome, often dangerous, bureaucratic missions with many moving parts: MINUSMA in Mali includes over 11,000 military and police personnel from over 40 countries, with an annual budget of just under US$1 billion. Mali’s entire Gross Domestic Product in 2015 was just over US$13 billion. Missions themselves, as Aisha Ahmad’s case study of Somalia illustrates, have both economic and political repercussions beyond their intended scope and mandate.
To point out their complexity and bureaucracy is not to reject stabilization missions, but a reminder that too much focus on trying to improve their technical aspects—enhancing capabilities, cultivating political will among contributors, and ensuring appropriate resources—should only be one aspect of any Canadian decision to re-engage somewhere. As I’ve said elsewhere, peace operations are the duct tape of international security efforts, and as we know, sometimes duct tape takes on the illusion of a permanent solution.
Just last year, the UN High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations released its report that stressed the primacy of political over military and technical solutions, and reiterated the importance of civilian protection. Recent UN, NGO and media reports from South Sudan suggest those priorities are still difficult to implement in practice. In fact, Richard Gowan, in a highly insightful article earlier this month, makes the difficult case that in places such as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the UN has “become entangled in fractious and arguably unethical relationships with national leaders who, driven by greed or fear, have little real interest in stable, open and inclusive political systems,” the UN may have to make extremely difficult choices, effectively go big or go home.
How long should UN missions work with or linger in places where political elites operate against national and public interests, always invoking the cloak of sovereignty or the war on terrorism to excuse all manners of sins?
London Peacekeeping Summit: An upcoming opportunity
The full effects of Africa’s sovereignty paradox have played out since the end of the Cold War. The International Criminal Court, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, and large, lingering peace and stabilization missions are all variants of international duct tape designed to cover over lapses in what we expect responsible sovereign states to do, and not do. International law underpins state sovereignty, but within that protective framework too many elites have not felt enough pressure to be locally accountable or deliver the goods, so to speak, to all their citizens.
Sovereignty is too easily claimed where it is not sufficiently earned. But sovereignty is also critical to keeping some semblance of order within the international system. Awareness of this paradox does not make policy-making easier, but it should counter simplistic assumptions that Africa’s problems are simply rooted in tribalism, arbitrary borders or the need for benevolent “Big Man” leadership.
With the pressure on for further announceables either at London’s Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping on Sept. 8, or the UN General Assembly, which kicks off Sept. 13, we can expect more out of Ottawa soon.
The UK-hosted summit is a follow-up to President Barack Obama’s summit a year prior, an event that drew over 40 governments but not Canada. Like Canada, however, the UK is undergoing its own round of soul searching and examination of its potentially enhanced role in UN peace operations.
The time is ripe for Sajjan to show up in London next month not just with mission details in hand, but to offer a deeper, more detailed vision about Africa’s specific challenges and Canada’s commitment to work with like-minded stakeholders to, first, do no harm, and second, make a lasting difference.
That is a tall order from a young government, but that would really signal that “Canada is back.”