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Building African capacity in peace, security with Nordic countries

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Picture: Paul Kagame / Flickr – New conflict patterns and an evolution in the practice of conflict resolution by Africa’s intergovernmental, state and non-governmental actors, has heralded new African efforts in the field of peacemaking and peacekeeping, leading to Nordic collaboration in training and capacity building in these areas, the writer says.

By Vasu Gounden

The last decade has witnessed co-operation between the Nordic region and Africa to address increasingly complex civil conflicts

Beginning in the early 1990s, geopolitical developments, new conflict patterns, and an evolution in the practice of conflict resolution by Africa’s intergovernmental, state and non-governmental actors heralded new African efforts in the field of peacemaking and peacekeeping, leading to Nordic collaboration in training and capacity building in these areas. The last decade has witnessed co-operation between the Nordic region and Africa to address increasingly complex civil conflicts, through mediation and peacekeeping.

A geopolitical shift in the aftermath of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a unipolar global order dominated by the United States. It also coincided with an era characterised by political shifts in Africa and elsewhere, from one-party states to multi-party democracy. These shifts led to the birth of competitive politics in many countries across Africa. And in many instances – such as in Somalia, the DRC and Burundi – competitive politics led to conflicts that ranged from civil protest to civil war, and that required mediation and peacekeeping.

Although mediation is an age-old practice, the sudden proliferation of civil conflict called for the rapid development of conflict management skills, systems and structures. South Africa and the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), established in 1992, developed a praxis of conflict resolution from two well-developed strands in the United States – labour-management relations, dominated by the legal profession; and community relations, led by community activists and social scientists.

As conflict resolution expanded and conflicts became more complex, involving both soft and hard security issues, a third strand was added that borrowed from the field of security and strategic studies. ACCORD’s expertise thus developed into a combination of labour dispute resolution and community relations; this was then tested during the efforts to bring about a resolution to the violent civil conflicts that characterised the South African political landscape in the early 1990s.

In this same period, the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – the precursor to the African Union (AU) – were in the early stages of evolving mechanisms to deal with the rise in civil conflicts. ACCORD began interacting with and supporting the OAU in 1993, as the continental body was developing its fledging Conflict Management Centre, the forerunner of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA).

The re-conceptualisation and expansion of the concept of traditional peacekeeping, to include the civilian dimension, was the raison d’être of the TfP programme.

It was during the debate on peacekeeping operations in the fourth committee of the UN General Assembly in 1994 that a new idea was born. African countries were adamant in their view that they could take on a more active role in resolving African conflicts. South African President Nelson Mandela brought this up at a meeting with former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in March 1995, and suggested that South Africa and Norway could consider some kind of co-operation in this context.

Against this background, Nordic support for mediation and peacekeeping commenced in 1996 with support from the Government of Norway to ACCORD, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) to establish the Training for Peace (TfP) project, prophetically named for what it evolved into later.

At the time of its establishment, it was conceived as a training programme within a changing peacekeeping context, with a shift from traditional, inter-positional peacekeeping related to inter-state war to peacekeeping within a civil conflict, where civilians are both victims and protagonists.

Adapting to these new demands thus required the development of doctrine, skills among peacekeepers, documentation of experiences, best practice, and the creation of fresh and innovative knowledge. The re-conceptualisation and expansion of the concept of traditional peacekeeping, to include the civilian dimension, was the raison d’être of the TfP programme.

The OAU, and later the AU, also needed to facilitate the end of civil conflict peacefully, through facilitation, negotiation and mediation. The well-established doctrine of subsidiarity meant that resolving disputes should be devolved to the sub-regional level and become the responsibility of the continent’s regional economic communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms (RMs). They, too, needed to evolve doctrine, develop skills, and establish early-warning and mediation mechanisms.

It was in response to these needs of the AU, the RECs and the RMs that the governments of Sweden and Finland provided – and continue to provide – support for ACCORD and other conflict management organisations to work with the AU, RECs and RMs in order to develop their capacity for the establishment of mediation support units and prepare a cadre of mediators and mediation support staff to respond to increasing civil conflicts. Sweden’s relationship with conflict management organisations spans over 25 years, and Finland’s over 15 years.

The Nordic states should determine how their previous three decades of valuable assistance to Africa can be continued and how they can engage effectively in a more complex environment.

Ultimately, the TfP programme also evolved from a peacekeeping training project into a peace support programme, strengthening the AU Commission’s capacity to prevent, manage and resolve conflict on the continent by deploying effective full-spectrum peace operations. As the UN’s conflict management mechanisms, the APSA and the conflict management mechanisms of the RECs and RMs evolve, it is fair to say that Nordic support has played – and continues to play – a crucial role in shaping the peace and security agenda in Africa and globally.

Today, Africa is at an inflection point: its economies have yet to transform to meet the demands of an exponentially growing population that is rapidly urbanising into unplanned cities; and those same economies are not generating enough jobs, so there is increasing poverty and inequality.

These challenges are fuelling social and political protest, and an increase in radicalised insurgencies and criminal syndicates. In addition, rapid technological change and global inter-connectivity have seen hybrid military and non-military covert and overt threats – ranging from the weaponisation of social media to the use of private military companies – increase in speed, scale and intensity in Africa.

If it is to respond to these new threats to stability in Africa, and the consequent impact on Europe, the Nordic partnership with Africa must evaluate the nature, extent and form of co-operation. The Nordic states should determine how their previous three decades of valuable assistance to Africa can be continued and how they can engage effectively in a more complex environment. In this context, the lessons of the past will ultimately shape the strategic approach of Africa and her Nordic partners to the future.

Vasu Gounden is the founder and executive director of ACCORD. This piece is a contribution to a report entitled: A Shared Commitment: African-Nordic Peace and Security Co-operation, published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) on 17 October 2023. The full report is available here.

This article was first published on ACCORD