A. Doss: A Peacekeeper in Africa: Learning from UN Interventions in Other People’s Wars

A Peacekeeper in Africa. Learning from UN Interventions in Other People’s Wars

Doss, Alan
340 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ulf Engel, Institute of African Studies, Leipzig University

This book is the result of a project with the International Peace Institute in New York NY which is an “independent, international not-for-profit think tank dedicated to managing risk and building resilience to promote peace, security, and sustainable development”1, working very closely with the United Nations (UN). It is an autobiographic narration of United Nations peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Among others, the author was Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) in the DRC and Liberia and head of the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC, 2007–2010). From 2018 to 2020 he was president of the Geneva-based Kofi Annan Foundation (the late Annan was has served as the UN’s he seventh Secretary-General from January 1997 to December 2006). Alan Doss is a British national who has spent his entire career in the UN system. A graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Doss joined the United Nations in 1977, he retired in 2010. He started his career in Asia, and in 2000 became a specialist on peacekeeping in Africa – initially as Deputy Special Representative of the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), serving concurrently as UN Humanitarian Coordinator and Resident Representative of the UN Development Programme. Basically, this book covers important sites and dynamics UN peacekeeping in Western and Central Africa during the first decade of the millennium.

The book is structured into four parts. In the first part (pp. 5–150), titled after Chinua Achebe’s famous novel “Things Fall Apart” (1958), the author looks at three conflicts in West Africa: Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia). In the second part on “Wars Without Winners” (pp. 151–231) the focus is on the DRC. The third part “Out of the Shadows: The Promise of Peace” (pp. 233–260) offers general lessons learned on UN peacekeeping in Africa. And in the final part, “Moving Forward” (pp. 261–303), the future of peacekeeping is discussed. References and the bibliography are kept rather short and mainly focussed on UN reports and decisions (pp. 305–313 & 315–323).

Obviously, parts I and II are the empirically richest sections of the book. On West Africa, Doss provides rare insights into international efforts to manage protracted violent conflicts. One does not necessarily have to share the author’s conceptual landscape: “failed states”, “anarchy”, etc. invoke over-simplistic and normative notions of African societies and conflicts. But his thoughts about the exercise and misuse of power, the detailed accounts of relations with host governments, armed insurrections, regional organisations; the thick description of key actors, but also UN headquarters, are extremely rich and revealing. Interestingly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, which became the African Union in 2002) only play a secondary role in the author’s account. At least on Côte d’Ivoire more reference is made to ECOWAS. However, the regional body did not assume the role of mediator “because President, the chair of the ECOWAS, did not have much time or sympathy for [Ivorian President Laurent] Gbagbo …”. Hence, South African president Thabo Mbeki had his “moment” (p. 85), starting a short-lived mediation effort on behalf of the African Union. However, conflict management in the country dragged on, finally leading to contested elections in 2010 and a resurgence of the civil war and, after a French/UN intervention, finally the removal of Gbabgo. Doss describes his experience in Côte d’Ivoire as “relatively short but discouraging” (p. 93). He admits that, in his days, the international interveners did not really understand the mix of politics and personalities which was at the heart of the conflict after the patronage system of founding president Felix Houphouët-Boigny had collapsed in the 1990s. But Doss was already onto his next station in West Africa, Liberia, which he saw moving from “Apocalypse Now” to Ellen Sirleaf being elected in 2006 as the first female president in Africa. For Doss, the complicated transition towards sustainable peace “turned out to be a truly extraordinary experience, a highpoint of my years of UN service” (p. 150).

The DRC section of the book got a little out of hand, the authors admits. Instead of a planned one chapter per country he has served in, the part on the RDC developed into four chapters. The emphasis is mainly, but not only on the Kivu provinces in the eastern part of the country. Historically, the chapters follow the development from MONUC to MONUSCO, the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC which was mandated by the UN Security Council on 28 May 2010. The transformation reflected lessons learned on the limits of MONUC’s mandate and the move towards more robust peace-keeping – although international critique of the United Nation’s failure to protect civilians and deter insurgencies and other armed violence continued (a robust intervention only followed in March 2013 by a coalition of the willing and the able – Malawi, Tanzania and South African – which fought off the Rwanda-backed M23 militia group and later became known as the UN Force Intervention Brigade). Throughout this phase Doss played a major role as SRSG. The author develops a historic introduction to this part of the book which starts with the Berlin Conference 1884/85 and also recalls the dramatic UN experience after independence in which UN Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjöld and other UN personnel got killed under still very dubious circumstances in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (today’s Zambia) en route to mediation on the Katanga secession. Doss refrains from adding any interpretation to these events, and simple talks about the Secretary-General’s “death” (p. 158).2 The strength of the DRC chapters, however, lies in the analysis developed on the Kabila regime (father and son), the repeated failure of peace accords and the struggling UN interventions. On the latter, Doss admits that UN peacekeeping habitually is “risk-averse” (p. 235). Again, like in the book’s part on West Africa, regional organisations – most importantly, the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) – or the African Union are only discussed in passing (p. 185f.). Almost 50 years in the UN system certainly have contributed to develop a certain perspective, despite the increasing importance of inter-organisational relations and the strategic partnership which has developed between the United Nations and the African Union after ca. 2007.

The comparative lessons learned in part III of the book are intriguing. This holds true in particular for the discussion of the limits of intervention (pp. 241–246) and the importance attached to what Doss calls the “pillars of peace” (p. 253): security for all; the rule of law, justice and reconciliation; elections and legitimacy; and also attention to the political economy of conflict. Adding to these reflections, the author develops “The Ten Commandments: A Primer for Would-Be SRGSs” (pp. 280–285) which neatly summarize his ten years of experience in UN peacekeeping in West and Central Africa. Against this background in part IV of his peacekeeping memoirs Doss discusses the future of UN peacekeeping. This section very much centres on the HIPPO report which was tabled on 17 June 2015 by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council’s High-Level Panel on Peace Operations. The Panel was established with a view to adjust to an environment in which UN peace operations increasingly find themselves deployed in countries “where there is no peace to keep, where insurgencies are ongoing, and where peacekeepers face asymmetric threats”3. The more than 100 recommendations made by the Panel not only refer to relevant mandates and appropriate military and civilian means, but also on the question of how to address seriously issues of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.
“Peacekeeping”, Doss holds, “demands a distinctive mindset and mode of engagement dissimilar from war fighting” (p. 2). In his book he manages to illustrate this insight in many ways. To summarize: Although not an academic book, the autobiographic account of UN peacekeeping in Africa offers great insights, is a pleasant read, and deserves many readers among both scholars and practitioners. The author critically reflects on his experience and that of the institution he was working for. Therefore, the volume adds to recent critical scholarship on UN peacekeeping on the African continent.4 And it details insights which bear relevance for current peacekeeping efforts in Mali, the Central African Republic and other places on the African continent, and beyond.

1 See International Peace Institute, <https://www.ipinst.org> (accessed 15 July 2020).
2 See my review of Henning Melber, Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Decolonisation of Africa, London 2019, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 24 January 2020, <www.connections.clio-online.net/publicationreview/id/reb-29536> (accessed 15 July 2020).
3 Jaïr van der Lijn et al., Progress on UN peacekeeping reform: HIPPO and beyond, The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael” (= Clingendael Report), 2017, p. 4.
4 See, for instance, the special issue of the journal International Peacekeeping 26 (2019) 5; Cedric de Coning and Mateja Peter (eds.), United Nations Peace Operations in a Changing Global Order, Cham 2019; and Tony Karbo and Kudrat Virk (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Peacebuilding in Africa, Cham 2018.

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