The United Nations Priority for Africa: Approaching Instability Through the Peace and Development Nexus

If we are to implement the long-term vision for achieving peace and stability that is enshrined in Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda, we need to undertake an in-depth assessment of current and historical challenges that African countries face.

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

In 2017, shortly after taking office, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General addressed the Security Council and presented his vision for promoting international peace and security by “meeting the prevention challenge”. In order to achieve this objective, the Secretary-General emphasised the need to reform the Organisation, leverage partnerships, surge prevention capacities and support the implementation of the 2030 Agenda as a tool for long-term prevention of conflicts. All in all, the Secretary-General’s proposal to Member States entailed reviewing the role played by the UN in the peace and security value chain and increasing the organisation’s focus and resources on areas that, until then, had been neglected but that would provide more sustainable results in a more cost-effective way, both with regard to financial resources employed and to human suffering.

Some twenty years after the independence, the flaws of the system were clear. But no one questioned whether those inherited structures were adequate for Africa’s reality, or whether home-grown political solutions were required @Duarte_UNOSAA

Unfortunately, five years later, as the world suffers from a surge in conflict and instability, the international community failed to live up to this vision and proposal on conflict prevention. Despite the fact that the Secretary-General delivered on his pledge for reform and promoted the strengthening of the UN partnership with the African Union (AU), both with regard to peace and security and the joint implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the AU’s Agenda 2063, the international community continues to approach peace and security in Africa in a reactive way. As the Secretary-General reminded us a couple of months ago, the world has already spent too much on peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and military expenditures. It is high time now to place the focus of our action on promoting universal health coverage, social protection, education and job creation. Because “the flames of conflict are fuelled by inequality, deprivation and underfunded systems”.

Against this background, the COVID-19 pandemic and, most recently, the war in Ukraine, represent major challenges. The pandemic has overstretched already limited public budgets, undermining African countries’ public services. The war in Ukraine has worsened Africa’s food security, which might further feed instability on the continent. As a result, both have deteriorated the living conditions of African citizens. However, at the same time, both have also created opportunities to achieve sustainable peace, by pointing out the impact that public service delivery has on the continent’s stability, and unveiling Africa’s food dependency, which, if properly addressed, could be transformed into quick wins for empowerment and development. 

In order to seize this opportunity, we need to start by acknowledging that short-term approaches do not deliver sustainable peace and development in Africa. And if we are to implement the long-term vision for achieving peace and stability that is enshrined in Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda, we need to undertake an in-depth assessment of current and historical challenges that African countries face. 

If we were to undertake such analysis, we would realise that at the heart of these problems, there is a combination of external and internal factors that have impacted African countries’ capacity to prevent violence. Factors such as external competition for a country’s natural resources have been feeding instability on the continent. While natural resources have the capacity to enhance the lives of Africans if properly managed, they also trigger power struggles or are misused to finance illicit armed groups and terrorism. In addition to fuelling unrest or financing illicit activities, these flows also have devastating environmental consequences.

However, at the end of the day, the impact of external factors depends on internal factors that might work as contention measures or, conversely, create a fertile ground for them to thrive. For example, the illicit extraction and trade of natural resources such as minerals, oil, and timber are facilitated by porous borders that feed the black market and make it easy for smugglers and illegal groups to get away with all kinds of illicit trafficking.

Internal factors such as governance, the national control of economic flows, endemic poverty, inequalities, marginalisation, and respect for human rights, impact the state’s legitimacy and limit its capacity to address, prevent and mitigate the impact of external factors. In this regard, long-term peace and stability requires that African policymakers focus on tackling those internal factors, since they have the power to catalyse holistic solutions that will also be able to address the external causes of instability. 

While most of the internal factors may have apparent current direct causes, their roots go back in history. Colonialism has often been blamed for the economic exploitation of the African continent, but its impact on the current governance shortcomings has seldom been discussed. 

When African countries achieved independence in the decade of the 1960s, they inherited state structures that were not designed to run successful states and, consequently, were not poised to deliver the independence vision. From an economic perspective, colonial administrations did not focus on promoting economic development, but rather on resource extraction and tax collection. From the point of view of the rule of law, their objective was not to uphold the rights of the individuals (liberal interpretation), but to exercise authority (authoritarian interpretation). Even from the point of view of the land, the objective was not to ensure the presence of the state across the territory, but to control strategic sites either for their location (borders, ports) or their economic value. On top of that, as it is well known, African States also inherited ruler-drawn borders that had been established a century before not to organise a population, but to distribute the natural wealth of a continent.

When African countries achieved independence in the decade of the 1960s, they inherited state structures that were not designed to run successful states and, consequently, were not poised to deliver the independence vision. @Duarte_UNOSAA

As a result of these historical factors, African countries inherited public institutions mirroring the structure of the traditional nation-state, built under the premise “one people, one nation, one territory”. But the reality is that they had to manage, and still have, three geographies. First, the geography of the peoples they rule over, which in many cases spreads through different countries and constitutes one of the causes of the porosity of the borders. Second, the geography of the nations that coexist within one country’s territory. Conversely, to other states that emerged out of one nation, in the case of Africa, post-colonial states were imposed with disregard to pre-existing nations. Third, the real geography of the state, for most incipient African administrations were (and in many cases still are) only present in a fraction of their territory.

Some twenty years after the independence, the flaws of the system were clear. But no one questioned whether those inherited structures were adequate for Africa’s reality, or whether home-grown political solutions were required. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the enshrinement of the market economy, mainstream international thinking focused on highlighting the inability of state-driven structures to deliver, which led to the downsizing of state presence worldwide. Similarly, African countries were pushed to adopt market-driven models, with the hope that the wisdom of the market would bring about success. But while market economy doubtless helps flourish stable and consolidated states, it also magnifies the deficiencies of fragile institutions. 

As a consequence, African economies have failed to deliver inclusive development. Instead, unequal access to resources, services and opportunities has been the norm. And regardless of whether those inequalities stem from ethnical, religious or social grounds, or they are the result of inefficiencies, or they are even just perceptions, they work as seeds of discord that undermine the credibility of the state, the trust of the population and, eventually, trigger unrest and instability.

This is the reason why addressing the nexus between peace and development is the most urgent need for ensuring peace and security in Africa. Continuing to spend billions of dollars on military operations amounts to applying plasters to stop the bleeding of a wound. The real root-cause of conflict in Africa is the absence of a state that is able to deliver inclusive development, a state that makes diversity a source of wealth and added value and manages to build a common nation for all its citizens.

This is why prevention through development and nation-building should be our priority.

Ms. Cristina Duarte is the Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa to the United Nations Secretary-General.

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