Reprinted with permission from the Harvard International Review

From Eritrea to Angola, a large swath of Africa has been engulfed by war for several years. The situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, because the conflicts arise from the disintegration of postcolonial states and thus from the order that was imposed on Africa by outside states. Wars will continue to flare up until a new order emerges. Such an order could either be imposed and maintained with force by the international community-that is, industrialized countries and the United Nations-or it could be based on new territorial and political arrangements reflecting the balance of power among African forces.

No Winners

The international community has decided that it must help restore stability in Africa by promoting negotiations, providing peacekeepers to monitor the implementation of agreements, and shoring up and reconstructing crumbling states. This policy has been a failure: commitment of resources has not matched the rhetoric, and international intervention has not been sufficient to bring any African conflicts to an end. International intervention, however, has been sufficient to prevent conflicts from ending the way most conflicts do: through the victory of one side. The current policy of the international community does not help populations and does not even help the international community. The reputation of the United Nations is becoming seriously tarnished by its African failures, and there is much resentment among Africans towards the United States.

The major source of conflict in Africa at present is the political and economic decay of a growing number of postcolonial states. Political decay has created a power vacuum in many governments that have only nominal control over their territories and little power over means of coercion. Economic decay has worsened the situation because, in the absence of a viable legal-administrative structure, violence is the only way of securing access to resources-the major conflicts in Africa involve diamond-rich countries. Economic decay also provides the warring factions with an endless supply of fighters, including childsoldiers who see few other career prospects in war-torn nations. The lone exception to this scenario of decayinduced conflict is the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which stems from the two countries' ambition to build strong states; in other words, theirs is a classic war between states vying for power and economic advantage.

The Great Lakes region provides the most dramatic, but by no means the only, example of how decay breeds civil war, which can then expand into inter-state war. The multiple, interlocked conflicts in the area stem from the implosion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, after decades of mismanagement. With the government no longer controlling the country, border regions have become havens for both opposition movements and the armies of neighboring countries such as Uganda and Rwanda. This, in turn, has invited political and armed intervention from all neighbors in a tangle that has been dubbed Africa's first world war. A victorious warlord, Laurent Kabila, has been installed in Kinshasa as president and enjoys diplomatic recognition as the country's leader by virtue of being there; however, two armed opposition movements, the RCD (Congolese Rally for Democracy), which is itself divided into two antagonistic factions, and the MLC (Movement for the Liberation of the Congo) combine to wage war on the government and periodically on each other with the support of Uganda and Rwanda. Troops from these two countries operate in Congolese territory against the government, while troops from Zimbabwe and Angola fight on behalf of the government. Other armed groups, including the indigenous Mai-Mai, the Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe, and the remnants of the pre-1994 Rwandan army, add to the complexity by simultaneously pursuing their own goals and those of Kabila.

Conflicts in Sierra Leone, Angola, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and Somalia have also sprung from the decay plaguing the continent. Other countries, such as Nigeria, are highly vulnerable. Nigeria's return to civilian government in 1998 was a positive step, but not a guarantee that the country will succeed in avoiding further decay and possibly violent conflict. Even the future of the countries of southern Africa, until recently the most stable and promising, is threatened by a political crisis in Zimbabwe and by their staggering rates of HW infectionaround a quarter of the adult population-which is bound to affect their economies and most probably their politics with unpredictable consequences.

Lukewarm Interventions

The international community's response to the spreading conflict in Africa has lacked coherence, to a large extent because the fighting does not significantly threaten the security or economic interests of any major power. The international community has responded to conflict not because of any clear self-interest but instead for humanitarian reasons and a rather vague, general interest in keeping Africa from sinking into complete chaos and becoming a breeding ground for new diseases. Humanitarian interests and hazy predictions of future threats have not elicited strong and clear policy responses to Africa's predicament. Rather, they have led to a dangerous combination of the idealistic and thus ambitious goals rooted in humanitarian considerations and the scant resources, and lukewarm commitment associated with the absence of immediate, concrete interests on the part of most industrialized countries. Such a combination is a recipe for failed interventions. A scenario that is becoming typical in Africa is the signing, under pressure from the international community, of a peace agreement to which the warring factions are not seriously committed; the implementation of the agreement is therefore dependent on a UN presence which has rarely been sufficient to do the job.

Some of the interventions have been completely ineffectual, as in Sierra Leone, where peacekeepers have been unable to protect themselves from being kidnapped by the rebels, let alone fulfill their mandate. In other cases, the international community's approach has been not only ineffectual but morally outrageous, as in Rwanda, where the UN presence was reduced at the height of the genocide in 1994. Most major powers, including the United States, were unwilling to increase their symbolic commitment to the level necessary to protect the population. Finally, some international interventions aimed at ending conflict have simply made the situation worse, as in Angola, where the internationallysponsored and monitored agreements have been used repeatedly by the rebels to rearm, reorganize, and eventually restart the fight.

The intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at present also appears headed for futility or disaster-one can only hope for the former. The international community has supported negotiations and the resulting Lusaka agreement. This unrealistic pact is based on the assumptions that armed movements at war with each other can suddenly lay aside their differences, without any new developments having taken place on the ground; abide by a cease-fire agreement; and engage, together with representatives of civil society, in a national dialogue that will produce an agreement on a new political system in 45 days. The only concrete support the international community has provided for the Lusaka agreement so far is the deployment of a small number of observers with the pledge that 500 observers protected by 5,000 peacekeepers will be positioned in the country if the cease-fire is ever implemented. This is fewer than the number initially deployed in tiny Sierra Leone to support the Lome agreement; by September 2000, the United Nations was calling for an increase in the number of peacekeepers to 20,000, over three times the initial figure.

It is time to reassess the effectiveness of the international community's efforts to settle African conflicts and to rethink when and how interventions should take place, what the goal of intervention should be, and how intervention can best be managed. Only if the goals are realistic and the means are adequate can the international community have an impact on the conflicts in Africa.

Unlikely Conditions for Sucess

The purported goals of international intervention have matured during the last decade. In the "good old days" of the Cold War, it was enough to maintain the stability of pro-Western regimes and to deny access to the Soviet Union, and if these goals could be best attained by supporting a friendly dictator like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, so be it. Fortunately, the international community has moved away from that position, but, as often happens, it has swung too far in the opposite direction: the goals now are to stop conflict immediately through negotiations, to restore democratic and accountable government-from bullets to ballots in one smooth transition-and to do so while preserving the territorial integrity of all post-colonial states within the boundaries established by the colonial powers.

Commendable goals indeed. Unfortunately, so far there is little evidence that they can be attained except under special circumstances. Namibia and Mozambique did indeed go from conflict to stability under international supervision, but success was based on an unusual combination of factors. In Namibia, the South African government simply gave up its fight to keep control of the territory, and the major opposition movement had no difficulty accepting an electoral process where it was certain to win by a very wide margin. Furthermore, the United Nations deployed over 8,000 military and civilian personnel to administer the transition, a large number for a country of one million people.

Mozambique was also blessed with special circumstances. The conflict was two-sided, and neither side had the resources to continue fighting: the opposition movement, Renamo, lost its outside support when South Africa gave up the attempt to preserve apartheid, and the government was highly dependent on the donor community, which had no intention of financing a war. By contrast, all active conflicts at present are multisided. Even in small Burundi there are at present 17 parties and two armed movements that need to sign on for any agreement to be implemented. Furthermore, in Angola, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the conflict is self-financed, supported on all sides by the sale of diamonds.

Since the present model only appears to work under special circumstances, what can the international community do elsewhere? Although theoretically it could impose the settlement it wants on any country, if it were willing to provide a presence comparable to that in Bosnia or Kosovo for an indefinite period of time, in practice this can happen only in exceptional cases. This is not because racist attitudes prevent the commitment, as many Africans have come to believe, but because the scale of the conflict, the size of the territories involved, and the logistical problems preclude such intervention in many countries. A very simplistic calculation, based on population size, suggests that an international presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo comparable to that in Kosovo would require the deployment of some 900,000 military and civilian personnel. The figure should not be taken literally but is a sobering reminder of what robust intervention means in large, messy countries.

Selective Intervention

The key to more effective policy is to realign goals and commitment. This means increasing commitment in those cases where it is warranted and where it could be effective, and settling for more modest goals in the other, more numerous cases. When the international community opts for the immediate cessation of conflict, the preservation of the existing states, and their reconstruction as democratic entities, it must provide real rather than symbolic resources, and it must be prepared to sustain the commitment for a long period.

In all other cases, it would be more helpful, or at least less harmful, if the international community allowed conflicts to reach a decisive turning point before becoming involved, even if this implied that some post-colonial states might not survive.

At present, there is only one conflict in Africa where the international community should increase its commitment to fit presently stated goals, and that is in Sierra Leone. The present level of commitment has proven vastly insufficient, thus the choice is to increase it or to pull out altogether. Pulling out of Sierra Leone at this point would destroy once and for all the credibility of the United Nations in Africa, while making it impossible to get support for any kind of international intervention in the future. The failure in Somalia is still casting a long shadow, and another failure would be the final blow.

On the other hand, the small size of Sierra Leone makes it conceivable to provide sufficient peacekeepers and civilian personnel to end the conflict and to reconstruct the country. While it is proving difficult for the United Nations to get member states to commit sufficient troops to Sierra Leone, success is not impossible as it would be, for example, in the Congo. Finally, Sierra Leone would provide a manageable test case for the effectiveness of the international community's prescriptions for Africa. Does the international community know how to put an end to years of chaos without using undue force and hurting civilians? Can it bring the culprits to justice? Can it demobilize the combatants? Can it build the small, efficient, professional army it believes suitable for African countries? Can it develop a modern police force, an honest civil service, and an apolitical judiciary in a reasonable span of time? If it cannot be done in Sierra Leone, there is no point pretending it can be done elsewhere.

At the opposite extreme are the conflicts from which the international community should step back altogether until something clearly changes on the ground. Sudan is the prime example here. It has become obvious over the years that none of the parties in that war are ready for compromise and that negotiations are simply a game, an attempt by each participant to bamboozle the international community into believing in their good will and to put the blame on the other side. There is nothing to be gained by continuing this process. Stopping it will not bring the conflict to an end any faster, but it will at least send a signal to groups in other countries that the international community is not willing to participate in a game of perpetual negotiations.

Finally, there are cases, such as the Congo, where it is too early for the international community to pull back completely, but where massive intervention is neither warranted nor possible. If groups are still engaged in talks and outsiders can play a useful role, there is no reason not to continue-talk is cheap. But the international community must also make clear to all sides the limits of its willingness to engage. Kabila needs to be told clearly that if he does not want to abide by the Lusaka agreement, he cannot count on the rest of the world to save his country from disintegration if the fortunes of war turn against him. If rebel movements have no interest in compromise, they must risk defeat. The international community must clarify that it neither wants to, nor can, hold together a country whose leaders only want war and that it is up to them to make the choice. Even if the international community remains involved in the diplomatic effort to end the fighting, it must stop pushing for ideal frameworks and quick solutions, because they cannot work. The participants in the civil war in the Congo will never agree on a democratic political system in 45 days.

African conflicts will eventually come to an end, as conflicts always do. The example of Somalia suggests that, left to their own devices, and without the hope of getting more resources from the international community, or protection in the form of a cease-fire when the going gets too tough, the warring factions will find their own solutions. They will not be ideal solutions based on territorial integrity for all countries and democracy in our lifetime. However, it is time that the international community stepped back, lest in trying to promote ideal solutions without providing even remotely sufficient resources, it prolongs conflict in Africa.