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Africa’s arc of crisis overwhelms the UN

Thursday, February 14, 2008 Free Headline Alerts

UNITED NATIONS — A vast swathe of the African continent is being ripped apart by strife. In Kenya, “ethnic clashes threaten to escalate out of control,” in Chad there’s the “deteriorating situation in the capital N’Djamena and elsewhere,” and in Sudan’s Darfur region “the situation is no less troubling…insecurity continues to severely restrict humanitarian access to civilians in need of assistance.” These dire assessments, made by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, tragically underscore Africa’s widening crisis and the real challenge to the UN to politically attempt to stem the spiral of violence.

From Somalia in the horn of Africa to the deep sub-Saharan desert of Sudan’s forsaken Darfur region, the continent faces ethnic warfare which has turned already poor regions into places of death and destitution. Off the coast of Somalia, food aid shipments destined for the beleaguered capital Mogadishu were often harassed by pirates. Since November, French Navy frigates have provided security for humanitarian supplies to Somali ports. The World Food Program expects to feed to 1.8 million people in Somalia this year. The USA remains the major aid donor.

Sadly and surprisingly the East African country of Kenya, once a haven of peace and relative political calm, has exploded in tribal violence following disputed Presidential elections in December. Amid ethnic killings, another 300,000 people have been forced to flee their homes turning this beautiful and once tranquil land into a seething cauldron. The UN, including former Secretary General Kofi Annan, has tried to bring the warring factions together. Until recently Kenya ironically was hailed a model African state.

In Sudan at long-last, UN peacekeeping troops are trickling into the vast desert of Darfur to protect the vulnerable black farmers from the terrors of the Janjaweed militia. The woefully undermanned UNAMID mission has deployed some African peacekeeping troops on the ground along with Bangladesh and Chinese units. At best, the mission is too little too late. More than 250,000 people have already been killed by ethnic strife and more than two million displaced and turned into refugees. While Sudan’s Beijing-backed regime has offered very conditional cooperation with the UN over the deployment of a planned 26,000 peacekeepers, stopping the violence will be more difficult. Resources and military mobility are woefully lacking in this arid and trackless area the size of France.

As this column predicted a few years ago, the Darfur crisis has now spilled over into neighboring Chad. The reasons are complex. Over 300,000 Darfur refugees are in Chad, their transit camps need security. But on the verge of a UN protection force being deployed to the frontier region, not surprisingly, Sudan’s Islamic rulers may have played their own cards by allegedly using rebel groups to try to topple the Chad government. Recent fighting in the capital N’Djamena aimed at overthrowing President Idris Deby, has raised new alarms about wider destabilization.

Some diplomats accuse Khartoum’s rulers of trying to install a regime favorable to their interests in Chad and have tried to derail the impending deployment of a 3,700 member UN military force on their western border.

Ban Ki-moon expressed his “alarm” over this new crisis and warned, “it has devastating consequences not only for the people of Chad and Darfurian refugees seeking shelter there, but also for Darfur itself.” Indeed Darfur has now become a regional crisis.

Significantly the UN Security Council acting with alacrity, issued a statement calling for an end to the violence but importantly also giving authority to governments to “provide support for the Chadian government if it seeks assistance.” France, the former colonial power, evacuated foreign residents and reinforced its military presence in the country to 1,250. By backing Chad’s ruler, France openly played its military cards, and has through strength and presence apparently stopped the most recent uprising.

Just a few years ago the headlines were Rwanda, Congo and Liberia. They are now Chad, Sudan and Somalia, and tragically Kenya. There’s crisis overload in the UN; political, peace-keeping and humanitarian resources are stretched to the breaking point. This is not a call for American military involvement but one for political and economic engagement.

President George W. Bush will visit Africa to view the progress in efforts to increase economic development and fight HIV/Aids and Malaria. Equally the President will meet with regional leaders in Benin, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia to, in the words of the White House, “discuss how the United States can continue to partner with African countries to support democratic reform, respect for human rights, free trade, investment and economic opportunity across the continent.” This remains a daunting challenge.

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