The New Times reported last week (26/8/2011) that the United Nations/African Union peace keeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) was providing medical care to citizens of the war-ravaged region of Sudan. It was reported that the force, led by its Rwandan commander, was giving them eye and dental care, and attending to their ENT and abdominal problems, skin diseases and hyper tension.
It was refreshing reading. Here was a peace keeping force, not just keeping the peace (which often means standing between warring factions and watching helplessly as they carry on the butcher of innocent people), but also becoming a community development operation.
It was different from what we have been accustomed to - depressing reports of peace keepers breaking what little peace exists where they are deployed and instead turning into the same lawless belligerents they are supposed to keep apart.
In the past few years, this change of roles has been happening with greater regularity in our region, leading many to lose faith in the value of peacekeeping operations. Some cynics have, in fact, called them expensive looting and pleasure excursions. Conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) under UN peacekeeping operation (MONUSCO) have been said to be not very different from King Leopold’s Congo.
That may be harsh, but it generally sums up the negative manner in which UN Peace missions are regarded.
The conduct of UNAMID in Darfur, especially that of its Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) contingent is changing that perception and may redeem the image of UN Peace Keeping. And if it does, that would make for marvellous irony. UN peace keeping failed Rwanda and now Rwanda may offer salvation to UN peace keeping and restore belief in its effectiveness!
Last week’s report of UNAMID’s involvement in health care in Darfur follows another one about three months ago that spoke of the RDF building a school in the region.
A battalion of RDF helped build a school in Turba Village valued at US$16,000. Officers and men of the battalion contributed US$5,000, while technicians provided windows and doors and other furniture.
In typical Rwandan concept of community development, this was not about simply making a donation to Darfurians. They had to be involved in the project so as to gain ownership of it. The local population provided 10% of the labour.
At the time this story was reported, there were plans to expand the school and also drill a borehole to give the inhabitants that most precious commodity in the arid conditions of Darfur – water.
In participating in community development, the RDF has given new meaning to peacekeeping. It is not enough to separate warring factions and offer protection to vulnerable people alone. The difficult circumstances the people often face are not just about war; they are also existential and developmental. In addition to security, they include those things that contribute to the quality of life that people lead – such as education, health care, and access to basic things like water.
And so, if there is a lull in hostilities – which peacekeepers are supposed to facilitate – then the forces can be deployed to help improve the lives of the people and build their self-esteem, shattered by years of deprivation and conflict.
These reports suggest that the RDF has been doing that. But as they say, you can only give what you have. The RDF has taken to Sudan the Rwandan experience of self-help and of the army being involved in development in peace time.
In this sense the RDF is not only contributing to classical peacekeeping but also laying the foundations for meaningful and lasting peace.
In another sense, as noted earlier, the RDF is playing a saviour role. It is taking the lead to turn around the dismal record of peacekeeping in Africa from independence to date.
Nowhere has this record been as depressing as in DRC during its upheavals and many changes of name. The very first peace keepers just after independence never kept the peace; they took sides in the conflict and are perhaps partly responsible for today’s mess in that country.
The more recent ones have tended to lead obscenely luxurious lives which they have sometimes used to lure under-age girls and even older women into sex and other acts of debauchery. When flaunting luxury is not enough attraction, they have not hesitated to use force to rape the same women.
It seems self-preservation is a higher motive among some peace keepers than keeping the peace. So they will play safe, avoid getting hurt and maintain their all-expenses-paid lifestyle, which means letting the conflict continue.
We read reports from DRC about peace keepers turning a blind eye and plugging their ears as atrocities are committed under their noses. We have heard of them selling arms to rebels in exchange for precious stones. A similar incident happened only a week ago when a UN peacekeeping driver in DRC was caught ferrying a huge load of minerals for sale outside the country.
There is a greater dividend to peacekeeping than self-indulgence. The RDF continues to show that you can reap more from complementing peacekeeping with community development. In time this approach should be adopted as the model for peacekeeping.
Eid Mbarak to all my esteemed readers.