Between bullets and votes: Australia’s role in improving security in Africa

A United Nations peacekeeper from the Indian battalion of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) examines AK-47 magazines stored in a warehouse in Beni, where all weapons and ammunition are stored after they have been collected in the demobilization process in Matembo, North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.As Australia begins to take a greater role in African security issues, we must also begin to better scrutinise the role the international community has had in perpetuating the militarisation of political power in many African countries.

It’s foreseeable that we will continue to contribute to international decision-making on African security issues well beyond our two-year term on the Security Council. At this point, we need to stop and analyse how we can use our position to contribute productively to building a more stable and prosperous Africa. If we’re to make a contribution that will benefit both continents, we need to help address the underlying causes of insecurity and conflict on the continent rather than signing up to the status quo approach and especially to military-based solutions. How to really contribute to building a more stable, secure Africa, which is ripe for increased and less risky Australian business, investment, trade and the utilisation of our services sector, is an issue worth examining for Australians.

While this article focuses on the Great Lakes region of Africa and in particular the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the issues raised are also relevant in other parts of Africa. The key to achieving long-term security in many conflict-ridden African states is good governance and democracy. In the case of the DRC—which, despite being labelled ‘post-conflict’, is still experiencing high levels of insecurity and conflict—this is easy to state and difficult to implement. The issue that Australia must address is how the international community can better promote and support good governance in African countries.

To begin with, the political nature of insecurity in the Great Lakes region must be recognised and addressed. A disturbing trend in the international community is its propensity to resort to military means to address endemic insecurity in places such as the eastern provinces of the DRC.

The Security Council has approved the creation of an ‘intervention force’ to assist the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) in taking on rebel groups that proliferate in the area, particularly the M23 movement. It’s unlikely that a new ‘attack force’ will be effective in eliminating the threat of rebel groups. Instead, it’s vitally important to address the underlying political, legal, ethnic and economic factors, such as competition for control of the DRC’s immense mineral wealth, that fuel the creation and dominance of armed rebel movements in this area.

Predictably, the political leader of the M23 movement stated that ‘from now on, peacekeeping forces will wage war on groups of citizens who are demanding good governance in our country’. The suggestion here is that more violence resulting in civilian casualties might ensue. This statement highlights the fact that attempts to resolve insecurity through military means are misconceived. The result is a greater militarisation of an already precarious situation and an increased determination among the various armed groups in the region, which in turn perpetuates insecurity and conflict.

Many of the issues causing conflict in the eastern DRC have been festering for decades and have never been addressed or adequately resolved, and thus became grievances that were ripe for manipulation by neighbouring countries. This is by no means meant to condone in any way the heinous atrocities committed by armed groups in the region.

Recent statements by the spokesman of the South African armed forces (which comprise part of the intervention force) that they’re ‘not scared to go to war’ with rebel groups in eastern DRC are counterproductive. A military pacification of rebel groups (if it’s possible) won’t eradicate local and regional grievances that fester in the area. A military solution isn’t a long-term political solution—it just adds another armed group to a region that already has far too many of them. The question that needs attention is why people are joining and supporting armed rebel movements.

The path to political power in the Great Lakes region is almost exclusively through leading an armed rebel movement (or being related to a leader). In essence, yesterday’s armed rebels are today’s government leaders. Thus, if the only way to political power and its associated wealth is through an armed movement, then it’s little wonder that armed rebel groups are prolific in the region.

Both non-state and state actors prey on the populations and carry out horrendous human rights abuses. The national Congolese army is notorious for committing human rights violations on the population, largely because it’s been allowed to act with impunity. The armed forces often comprise unpaid soldiers who pillage local communities in order to survive.

The international community often treats elections as a Holy Grail and a panacea for the woes of African countries. But, as Oxford Professor Paul Collier points out, what’s been spread in many regions are merely elections, rather than democracy and good governance. In fact, in many instances elections are simply a facade to appease international aid donors. The international community is often willing to support and fund elections, but when irregularities arise and evidence of electoral fraud is documented, as was the case in the DRC’s 2011 presidential election (subscription required), the international community remains oddly silent.

In order to enable security to be established, the international community can’t remain silent when electoral irregularities and fraud are reported. The human rights abuses of both governments and non-government actors must be condemned equally. The insecurity in the Great Lakes region must be viewed as political and so needing a political remedy. It’s important to unblock peaceful political avenues such as talks, genuinely free and fair elections, and independent institutions supported by an unbiased international community.

The cycle in which people pick up a gun when they don’t like their government can be stopped, but it will involve the international community adjusting its approach. Funding facade elections, showering governments in aid and then wondering why insecurity predominates and good governance is elusive is an absurd approach for the international community to be taking and it needs to be changed. Australia needs to speak up and break the silence.

Sabrina Joy Smith is a PhD candidate with the Centre for the Study of the Great Lakes region of Africa at the Institute for Development Studies and Management, Belgium. She is currently based in New South Wales. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.