This is an intervention: Africa’s new fondness for military solutions

By Simon Allison 7 September 2012

The weapons are loaded and the safety is off as African leaders prepare to pull the trigger on two major military interventions. By the end of the year – final diplomatic hurdles permitting – 3,000 West African troops will be trying to recapture northern Mali from Islamist militants, while 4,000 Southern African soldiers will take on rebels in the DRC. This is in addition to the nearly 18,000 men representing the African Union in Somalia. SIMON ALLISON wonders whether this is Africa’s coming of age moment, or just more examples of dangerous cowboy belligerence.

In war rooms across the continent, battle plans are being drawn up.

In East Africa, the best military brains of Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Uganda are plotting the final defeat of Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab in Somalia. There are nearly 18,000 African soldiers there, now operating under the banner of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), and after a year of consistent advances their opponents find themselves with their backs against the wall. Kenyan troops have reportedly surrounded Al-Shabaab’s last holdout, the port city of Kismayo, and have begun shelling key installations to soften resistance.

Meanwhile, the top brass in southern and central Africa have been putting their heads together to figure out how they can help restore peace and stability in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC government has officially asked SADC to send a military force to help it quell an armed rebellion in the east, and SADC has said it is more than happy to oblige, pending diplomatic approval from countries involved in the conflict. At the same time, central African ministers described the need for a 4,000-strong “neutral force” to enforce a tentative cessation in hostilities between the rebels and government forces in the always volatile region.

Further north, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) is champing at the bit. It wants to deploy 3,000 troops into Mali to help that struggling country deal with the various Tuareg and Islamist groups that have claimed control of northern Mali (and are alleged to be working with al-Qaeda, although this threat is almost definitely exaggerated). Until now, the powers that be in southern Mali – primarily the army officers who led the March coup – have resisted any calls for intervention, insisting they could deal with the matter themselves. Perhaps sensing the futility of this position, the transitional government has finally buckled and invited Ecowas to help (against the will of junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, apparently).

Looked at from a continental perspective, this is an unprecedented collection of African forces assembled and prepared to take on some of Africa’s most dangerous and intractable conflicts. It shows a willingness from the continent’s major powers to take a leading role in crisis management (Kenya and Ethiopia in Somalia, Nigeria in Mali and South Africa in the DRC) and a confidence in the capabilities of their armed forces to play that difficult and dangerous role.

African solutions for African problems, Thabo Mbeki would have called it – although he would have been disturbed at the haste with which our leaders are jumping to military solutions. He’s more of a quiet diplomacy kind of guy, as his mediations in Zimbabwe in Sudan proved.

Mbeki would be right to be worried. Africa’s history of military interventions is middling to poor at best. The highest-profile example was the various African countries that intervened on different sides of the Congolese war of 1998-2003, a domestic conflict that spiralled into an eight-country war that killed millions of people. Not exactly a blueprint for the future. It should greatly concern all involved that the current conflict in eastern Congo has its roots in this.

The most oft-lauded example of an African intervention is the Ecowas deployment in Liberia, an ultimately successful mission marred by human rights abuses committed by militias with whom the intervention force had allied itself. Again, this is not really a model that should be repeated in full.

Then there’s the question of just how African is this African solution of military intervention. In at least two of the three cases, the answer is a definitive “not very”. The invasion of Somalia, spearheaded by Amisom, is largely funded and supported by the United States, which is using African troops as a proxy in the War on Terror, to target Al-Shabaab for its al-Qaeda links (as comprehensively described in a Los Angeles Times report).

In Mali, France is playing a significant role in mobilising international support for intervention, and has even offered to send troops itself. It is expected, especially given the historically close relationship between France and many West African states, that France will have a behind-the-scenes, advisory role no matter what form the intervention eventually takes. Again, the spectre of al-Qaeda is distorting the international response, giving the situation far more attention than it would otherwise have received (just ask other movements vying for autonomy or independence in Africa – Somaliland, say, or Casamance).

This is not necessarily a bad thing, just important to remember before we get too excited about African solutions to African problems. And nor is the concept of a military intervention necessarily a bad idea. Defence analyst John Stupart told the Daily Maverick that he thinks interventions in both the DRC and Mali have the potential to be successful, if handled correctly. SADC in particular is well-prepared for just these kinds of operations, having conducted major exercises which envisaged similar scenarios and with real experience on the ground, in the form of the South African contingent to the United Nations mission in the DRC.

We might be getting ahead of ourselves, however. Somalia aside – that particular bullet left the chamber a long time ago – the proposed interventions remain at the planning and policy stage. Most crucially, it is unclear where the money to sustain them will come from. Wars, no matter how just, are always expensive.

The weapons might be loaded and the safety might be off, but the trigger still needs to be officially pulled. If, when and how this happens will show us just how serious Africa is about looking after its own problems. DM

Read more:

  • “Somalia: let’s keep the optimism on hold,” on Daily Maverick  
  • “Mali formally requests regional intervention force,” on Voice of America 
  • “SADC ready to deploy force in eastern DRC,” on Africa Review 

Photo by Reuters



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