The Role of Peacekeeping in Africa


Africa continues to have more peacekeeping missions than any other continent. As conflict-stricken countries increasingly look outside the United Nations for support, experts say reforms are necessary to improve peacebuilding.


Today, more than fifty thousand troops are deployed for UN operations in Africa and tens of thousands more deployed for regionally led missions in countries where civil wars and insurgencies have killed civilians and threatened to destabilize surrounding regions.

Many experts agree that peacekeeping missions help to protect civilians and reduce some of the worst consequences of war but say they are often deeply flawed. Reports of sexual and other abuses by UN peacekeepers have drawn particular condemnation in recent years and prompted some reforms. Still, heated debate persists about how to make these missions more effective, such as by looking to non-UN initiatives to bring peace to conflict-stricken parts of Africa.

Where are peacekeepers deployed in Africa?

Half of the dozen UN peacekeeping missions around the world are in Africa: Abyei, an area contested by Sudan and South Sudan (UNISFA); the Central African Republic (MINUSCA); the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO); Mali (MINUSMA); South Sudan (UNMISS); and Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Additionally, there are a handful of peacekeeping or security missions under the auspices of the African Union (AU), European Union (EU), and other regional blocs. The largest are: the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the Lake Chad Basin Commission Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), and the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) Joint Force. Most recently, an EU task force led by France, known as Takuba, has joined other missions in the Sahel; and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has, along with Rwanda, deployed troops to combat the insurgency in Mozambique.

A map of major peace and security operations in Africa, showing the largest missions in CAR, DRC, Mali, Somalia, and South Sudan.Who oversees peacekeeping missions?

The United Nations is the preeminent body to authorize and oversee international peacekeeping missions. It generally follows three principles for deploying peacekeepers: main parties to the conflict should consent; peacekeepers should remain impartial but not neutral; and peacekeepers cannot use force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate. However, UN peacekeepers have been deployed to war zones where not all the main parties have consented, such as in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council can authorize an operation with an affirmative vote of at least nine of its fifteen members and without a veto from one of the five permanent members (the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom). The Security Council likewise must vote to renew peacekeeping operations when mandates are set to expire, typically each year.

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The AU and regional blocs such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) lead other peacekeeping and security-focused missions as alternatives to traditional UN peace operations. Still, in the case of AMISOM in Somalia, the United Nations authorized the AU mission and provides funding, logistics, and other support. Similarly, the two major ad hoc security initiatives on the continent, the MNJTF against Boko Haram and the G5 Sahel’s force, were authorized by the AU and won the backing of the UN Security Council, strengthening their mandates.

What do peacekeepers do?

Peacekeeping mandates differ depending on the scope and scale of the conflict and on the body or group overseeing the mission. 

The United Nations deploys peacekeeping forces to protect civilians in armed conflicts, prevent or contain fighting, stabilize postconflict zones, help implement peace accords, and assist democratic transitions. To achieve these goals, peacekeepers participate in a variety of peacebuilding activities, including:

  • disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of ex-combatants;
  • landmine removal;
  • restoration of the rule of law;
  • protection and promotion of human rights; and,
  • electoral assistance.

Experts note, however, that over the years, UN peacekeeping mandates have become stretched and the responsibilities of peacekeepers sometimes blurred. “Rather than monitoring peace as agreed by conflicting parties as the UN did during the Cold War until the late 1980s, peacekeeping operations, such as MINUSMA and AMISOM, are effectively taking sides and engaging in a variety of activities, including protection of facilities and infrastructure, counterinsurgency and effective warfighting,” writes the University of the Free State’s Theo Neethling.

The AU, which comprises fifty-five African member states, establishes peace operations when authorized by its fifteen-member Peace and Security Council. (The council has no permanent members.) AMISOM’s initial mandate, authorized by the AU Peace and Security Council and UN Security Council in early 2007, focused on the protection of Somalia’s transitional government as it took power in the capital; but the scope of the mission has changed over time. In more recent years, the primary mandate has been to facilitate the transfer of security responsibilities to Somali forces while reducing the threat posed by al-Shabab and other armed groups.

The missions of ad hoc initiatives, on the other hand, can exist outside the traditional UN framework. The G5 Sahel Joint Force—seen as a supplement to MINUSMA and composed of forces from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—is mandated with combating terrorism, cross-border crime, and human trafficking in the region.

How are they staffed and funded?

As of summer 2021, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Rwanda were the top contributors of military and police forces for UN missions in Africa. The United States, China, and Japan are the top donors to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, whose budget is overseen by the UN General Assembly. UN peacekeepers are paid by their own governments, which the United Nations reimburses, currently at a rate of roughly $1,400 per peacekeeper per month. 

The disconnect between those nations that send troops and those that fund missions is often a source of tension. Wealthy nations spend the most on peacekeeping, yet they send relatively few troops; meanwhile, countries that either send troops or whose citizens are directly affected by peacekeeping missions often have less say in how they are designed and mandated.

Bar charts showing that funding and personnel for UN peacekeeping in Africa come from different countries.

In Somalia, AMISOM member states provide troops while funding comes largely from the United Nations and the EU. The top troop contributors to AMISOM are Uganda, Burundi, and Ethiopia.

Leaders in Africa and within the United Nations have called for African forces to play a larger role in securing peace and stability on the continent, but budget constraints persist. Unlike the United Nations with its regular peacekeeping budget, the AU has to continually seek out donors—such as the United Nations, the EU, and the United States—to fund its missions. In 2021, all of the AU’s budget for peace support operations was expected to be funded by international partners, not member states.

Are peacekeeping missions considered effective?

Experts differ on how to measure success: an improvement of the status quo, accomplishing the mandate, and an end to the conflict are among the possible benchmarks. Generally, peacekeeping missions are considered to have had mixed results in Africa, with a few considered more successful, such as those in the Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone, a UN mission known as UNAMSIL was deployed in 1999 to help bring an end to the country’s nearly decade-long civil war through the implementation of the Lome Peace Agreement. Observers credit the success of the mission to a number of circumstances, particularly the warring parties’ commitment to the peace process; a fitting mandate with sufficient resources to carry it out, including for the disarmament and reintegration of ex-combatants; and international support for the peace and accountability process. “It was imperfect, but it was widely considered to have done most of what it had been established to do,” says CFR’s Michelle Gavin.

However, if at least one party is not willing to cease hostilities, a peacekeeping mission is likely to face greater challenges, as has been the case in the Central African Republic (CAR) and DRC. Similarly, good relations with the host state are crucial to carrying out a genuine peace process and political strategy.

On a broader scale, many researchers have sought to assess the benefits of peacekeepers on the ground. Georgetown University’s Lise Howard, for example, has found that peacekeepers correlate with fewer civilian casualties, and that more peacekeepers—particularly more diverse peacekeepers—correlate with both fewer civilian deaths and fewer military deaths.

What are the major criticisms?

UN peacekeeping missions on the continent have been criticized for a wide range of problems, including mismanagement, failure to act when civilians are under threat, rights abuses by peacekeepers, and financing troubles. But oftentimes at the core of missions’ faults, experts say, are broad and overly ambitious mandates.

“The topic that comes back again and again is realistic mandates,” says Gavin. “How realistic is it to ask MONUSCO to protect civilians in the DRC, for example, given the geography and difficulties of moving through that terrain? How sustainable can civilian protection efforts be in the absence of a productive relationship with local authorities?”

Peacekeepers have come under fire for failing to intervene at critical moments: A 2014 report [PDF] by UN internal investigators found that peacekeepers globally only responded to one in five cases in which civilians were threatened and that they failed to use force in deadly attacks. Despite some reforms in recent years, failures to protect civilians continue, the Economist reported, in large part due to restrictions by troop-contributing countries on how their peacekeepers can be used. Additionally, a 2021 internal evaluation found that peacekeeping staff perceive the level of ethics and integrity to be low and that accountability for misconduct is low. 

Peacekeeping forces have also been accused of committing human rights abuses, including pervasive allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation. Most recently, the United Nations withdrew hundreds of Gabonese peacekeepers from the CAR and opened a probe following allegations of sexual abuse of girls. Though UN investigations into such allegations have increased in recent years, very few lead to prosecutions and none has resulted in a public conviction. (UN peacekeepers have immunity from prosecution in the countries where they are deployed, leaving their home countries to undertake legal action.)

Other critics argue that peacekeeping missions are too costly given their mixed success, and that they are too reliant on funding from a few major donors. The Donald Trump administration reinstated a cap on annual U.S. contributions to UN peacekeeping and sought additional, massive cuts to major operations in Africa. Meanwhile, China has boosted its support in recent years, including by launching a ten-year, $1 billion fund for peacekeeping operations. Still others point out that the veto power of the Security Council’s permanent members can delay or weaken peacekeeping mandates, such as in Sudan’s Darfur region.

What are the prospects for reform?

Some reforms are underway at the United Nations. In 2018, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, which focuses on developing more targeted peacekeeping mandates with clear political strategies, improving the safety of peacekeepers as well as civilians in mission areas, and better training troops. In tandem, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution aimed at improving leadership and accountability in peacekeeping, in response to the reports of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers. However, it remains to be seen whether A4P is translating into concrete change. Meanwhile, experts note that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the urgency to undertake the kind of reforms outlined in A4P.

Given the proliferation of ad hoc initiatives, the Institute for Security Studies’ Gustavo de Carvalho argues, the United Nations should more closely coordinatewith the AU and regional blocs to complement one another and avoid unnecessary overlap in their missions. With African personnel increasingly filling the demand for peacekeepers, Nadine Ansorg and Felix Haass of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies stress the importance of countries with advanced militaries helping to train and equip troops.

Other analysts encourage inclusivity. Former CFR Fellows Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein have advocated for more women peacekeepers, whose participation has been shown to improve missions’ effectiveness.

Moreover, many experts urge major powers to do more than bankroll missions. Victoria K. Holt of the Stimson Center and Jake Sherman of the International Peace Institute argue that the Joe Biden administration should use the United States’ permanent seat on the Security Council to ensure that missions are tailored to their environments; guided by clear, inclusive political strategies; and take into account challenges such as climate risks.



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