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Conflict in Europe undermines peacekeeping in Africa

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Picture: Guerchom Ndebo / AFP – East African Community (EAC) force commander, Major General Jeff Nyagah, greets Kenyan soldiers at EAC headquarters in Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on Wednesday, November 16, 2022. A second round of Kenyan soldiers landed in Goma with Nyagah as part of a regional military operation targeting rebels in the region.

By Na’eem Jeenah

Since the end of October, there has been a renewed round of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with frequent battles between government forces (FARDC) and the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force Monusco, on the one side, and the M23 rebel movement, widely believed to be supported by Rwanda, on the other. The past two weeks have been particularly bloody.

Furthermore, the past few months have seen an increasing number of attacks by the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) against the Congolese military and civilians. The ADF pledged allegiance to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), though the relationship between the two is more symbolic than concrete.

Although the destabilisation of the DRC by M23 and ADF is not new, and the current round of M23 operations began in March, some credit for the recent successes of M23 may be attributed to the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

It is common cause that the crisis in Europe has had a devastating impact on Africa in terms of food supply, an increase in starvation, and humanitarian (especially food) aid in desperate contexts such as Somalia. Millions of dollars in aid have been allocated by richer states to Ukraine, ignoring an ongoing crisis in Africa. But, as the DRC example illustrates, the Ukraine war has also had negative consequences for peacekeeping on the Continent.

In early March, a few weeks before M23 resumed its attacks on DRC and UN forces, Ukraine announced that it was withdrawing its military contingent from Monusco, including personnel, helicopters and equipment. Around 250 Ukrainian military personnel and eight MI-8 helicopters (with pilots and technical staff) were part of the withdrawal and redeployment to Ukraine. In September, the MI-8s were moved to Uganda, where they were retro-fitted with night vision devices, airborne radar systems and other equipment before being transported to Ukraine via Poland. The aircraft were reconfigured at the UN base in Uganda; the UN peacekeeping headquarters in New York also paid for the cost of the helicopters’ return to Ukraine.

The withdrawal of the Ukrainian contingent has had a negative impact on the war against M23. The MI-8s were particularly important because aircraft are required in the mountainous Northern Kivu region, including around the capital Goma, where M23 has been most active. They were also used in conflict areas such as Beni, where the ADF is based. Many analysts believe that M23 is now a stronger force than Monusco.

In July, Russia announced that it had suspended the use of eight of its MI-8 helicopters intended to assist the African Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis), the successor to the AU Mission in Somalia (Amisom). The Russians said the decision was made after US military transport companies, adhering to US sanctions, refused to transport the craft to Jordan, from where they were to be sent to Russia for scheduled maintenance. The UN claimed the lease of the helicopters was terminated because of safety concerns. Whatever the real story, the effect is that, as in the DRC, the helicopters were critical to the work of Atmis and its work will suffer as the result of their grounding.

A number of such UN missions are also suffering because of the diversion of EU funding from Africa to Ukraine. In March 2021, the EU established the European Peace Facility (EPF) to replace the former African Peace Facility (APF). While the latter was focused on assisting peacekeeping in Africa, the former was set up to be able to assist in other parts of the world as well, though Africa remained the priority. The EPF also differed in that it was able to fund lethal weapons.

The EPF had made commitments to provide materiel to various peacekeeping missions in Africa. Further, it would provide stipends for soldiers in Amisom in Somalia, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, and various EU military and civilian Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations, including the training of Mozambican soldiers. EPF’s budget was €5.6 billion over a seven-year period.

Nearly all of the EPF’s 2022 budget was spent on Ukraine, not on the African conflicts to which the EU had made commitments. This allocation to Ukraine is 10 percent of the total seven-year EPF budget. If the Ukraine war continues into 2023, it is likely that the EPF budget, or a large part of it, will again be expended to arm Ukraine, leaving the EU’s African partners in the lurch. Furthermore, as Europeans become more concerned about instability in Europe itself, or in its neighbourhood, EU policy-makers will likely become wary of supporting African efforts in future, and might prefer to reserve funds for European conflicts instead.

The Ukraine war has had devastating consequences that have rippled across the world, including on the African Continent. The most obvious effects have been on the food and energy sectors. However, that crisis has also contributed to undermining peacekeeping efforts in Africa, in a manner that could worsen in the next year. These developments should leave African politicians and civil society concerned.

Na’eem Jeenah is the executive director of the Johannesburg-based Afro-Middle East Centre