AFRICA, POLICE THYSELF

A mob raged through Abidjan's richest neighborhood, hunting whites. French tanks rolled out of a base near the airport to confront the militants. French warplanes had destroyed the tiny Ivorian Air Force earlier this month after the government broke a ceasefire by bombing rebel positions and a French base. That sparked rioting and set the scene for a classic African bloodbath. A brigade of U.N. troops from tiny Togo took the lead in evacuating expatriates. The French-speaking African force performed admirably--not a single expat died in the upsurge of violence. "The Togolese, and only the Togolese, know how to talk to these hotheads," says Col. Dumont St. Priest, operations chief for the 6,400-member U.N. force. "They can go to places the French can't. In Ivory Coast, the Africans will be more and more the U.N.'s operational face."

The Ivory Coast is not the only place where Westerners are turning to Africans to help defuse a crisis. As problems multiply across the world's poorest continent, both leaders of Western nations and architects of the two-year-old African Union say Africans must take the primary role in restoring the peace--easing a burden that now rests almost solely on the United Nations. The first big test case for a new AU force will be Darfur. There, a Pan-African peacekeeping force--managed by the AU, not the U.N.--is deploying in an effort to shut down a proxy war that's killed tens of thousands of people. "We remain loyal to our [colonial] past, but we live in a new epoch, that of Africanization," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told Le Figaro last week. "France's role in Africa is to be the partner of development and peace, but surely not the policeman."

Lowering France's profile in the Ivory Coast won't be easy. A force of 4,000 French troops backs up the 6,400-member U.N. mission that separates the rebel-held north from the government-held south. But the AU has helped; last week it threw its support behind an arms embargo against erratic Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, which the U.N. Security Council afterward unanimously approved. In the long term, such political cover may help ease France's exit from its former colony. The move also made good on a key AU promise: to police errant African nations.

It's no mystery why outsiders favor a new peacekeeping paradigm. Right now, there are six U.N. missions in Africa comprising nearly 50,000 troops from 86 nations, 61 of them from outside the continent. More than 30,000 of the soldiers are deployed in West Africa, where the contiguous countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast make up what amounts to a new U.N. protectorate. Arguing for more U.N. missions has become a very tough sell for Secretary-General Kofi Annan--countries outside Africa simply don't have the soldiers. Yet the G8 nations have promised to pay billions of dollars to train tens of thousands of regional peacekeepers to calm various flash points. "The reality is that it is much easier to commit African troops to an African conflict than it is to get foreign countries to commit troops," says Aminu Wali of Nigeria, who represented AU Chairman Olusegun Obasanjo at a U.N. Security Council session in Kenya last week. The Security Council approved a new resolution calling for a final peace deal between the Sudanese government and southern Sudanese rebels by Christmas--a somewhat meaningless gesture a spokesman for Oxfam calls "disappointing token diplomacy."

While the AU wants to shoulder more of the peacekeeping and diplomatic burdens in Africa, plenty of people question its capacity to handle the jobs. A member of the U.S. delegation in Nairobi said the AU's force in Darfur is small, disorganized and struggling to quell the violence. Only about 700 troops out of a promised 3,300 are on the ground. The small detachment hasn't prevented continuing clashes between rebels and pro-government militias. In the hottest war zone, south Darfur, Nigerian Lt. Col. Henry Mejabi, the sector commander, says Darfur rebels sometimes chase off members of his team by firing shots over their heads. Two AU military observers recently watched helplessly as police bulldozed an unauthorized refugee camp and beat its residents. "We talk to the belligerents and prevail on them to observe the ceasefire," says Mejabi. "We want to be more proactive. That is the essence of the AU mission."

Disappointing as its early work may be, the new Darfur mission likely will prove more effective than previous African efforts at self-policing. In West Africa, Nigerian troops deployed to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s under regional mandates proved almost as brutal and corrupt as the local warlords they supplanted. Western armies since then have invested heavily in training African peacekeepers. Given enough support, say experts, they can leverage their unique rapport with the combatants to stave off chaos--as the Togolese did during Abidjan's recent crisis. That's progress. With outsiders increasingly unwilling to take on the heavy lifting in Africa, it may be unrealistic to ask for more.

AFRICA, POLICE THYSELF | News