Patrolling the Ethnic Frontier: Central Africa
United Nations involvement with central Africa began with the operation in the Congo in 1960, its first peacekeeping venture in Africa. UN military engagement with that country continued, though in a new form, forty years later. In the intervening period the Congo had undergone two name changes, several more changes of regime and an unending ebb and flow of political and inter-ethnic violence. Between the first and second engagements with the Congo the UN had also been involved in other parts of the region, most dramatically Rwanda. The interconnections between the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the subsequent war, rebellion and foreign intervention in the Congo were such as to make the second crisis virtually a continuation of the first - though the unresolved issues of the 1960s also loomed large in the Congo in the late 1990s.Further to the north in the central African region, away from the ethnic, political and diplomatic crucible of the ‘Great Lakes5, United Nations forces were involved in another crisis of the 1990s, in the Central African Republic. Here UN intervention was in different ways more complex and more simple than that in the Congo and Rwanda. It was more complex in the terms of the international context of the UN peacekeeping operation - which could be described as a continuation of regional intervention by other means. It was more straightforward than the involvements further to the south in that it was largely free of the constantly shifting dynamics of these crises and more tightly delimited in its functions and objectives. These four UN interventions in central Africa between them illustrate almost all of the characteristic difficulties and challenges, political and operational, that have confronted peacekeeping in the continent. The problems thrown up by neo-patrimonial forms of government were close to the heart of each crisis. The conflicts which drew UN intervention were between groups competing for control of
the state and its resources, a competition that brought the state itself to the point of disintegration. The ethnic basis of these competing interests, and the discontinuity between ethnicity and nationality, were also particularly marked in the violence that afflicted the Great Lakes area, and gave these crises a clear international dimension. This was not merely regional. Broader rivalries that were present in other parts of Africa were particularly evident. These took different forms - from the east-west rivalry that attached itself to the first Congo crisis (which took place at the height of the cold war) to the Anglophone-Francophone divide that was at least an element in Rwanda and in the later Congo conflict. On the ground these political subtexts hugely complicated the task of the peacekeepers. Security Council mandates for the operations changed (in the Congo) or failed to change (in Rwanda) to meet shifting circumstances, re-ordered priorities and competing diplomatic objectives. At the centre of these shifting operational demands lay the dichotomy between interposition and enforcement, that is to say, between ‘peacekeeping’ narrowly defined and the type of ‘collective security’ action that was envisaged by Chapter VII of the UN Charter. It was not clear that the passage of four decades between the first and the latest engagement by the United Nations had seen any significant change in these general conditions in the region - but the UN itself had certainly acquired a new and necessary institutional caution over the period.