A Tribute to AMIS
At the end of this month, the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) hands over to the “hybrid” United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). This marks the end of the African Union’s biggest, most challenging and some say controversial and indeed most ambitious peace observation and peacekeeping operation ever.
To appreciate the significance of AMIS, we must think back to the moment of its birth in early 2004. The African Union had been constituted barely 18 months earlier and its first full chairperson, President Alpha Omer Konare, had been in office for just six months. Article 4 of the Constitutive Act of the AU, which mandated intervention in cases of humanitarian crisis or grave human rights abuses, was taken to herald a new era in which Africa would not hesitate to act, decisively, to solve African problems. The Peace and Security Council of the AU had only just been set up and its first two urgent matters were Darfur and Ivory Coast. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development was also newly created, holding out the promise of a new era of African cooperation and governance.
While the world debated what to do about Darfur, and funded humanitarian activities, Africa acted. The AU dispatched diplomats to N’djamena to negotiate an expedited ceasefire, and the AU organized the troops necessary to monitor the ceasefire. The first members of the African Union Mission in Sudan arrived barely six weeks after the ceasefire had been agreed””with a speed that surpassed any peacekeeping operation in recent years. While the UN has complex procedures and non-shrinkable timeframes for sending peacekeepers, the AU won immediate commitments of troops from Nigeria and Rwanda (Senegal and South Africa soon followed). Even though the financial procedures were not in place to ensure the sustainability of the operation, African governments committed their troops to Darfur, with the understanding that if need be the transition to the UN will take place. Anyway, the ultimate responsibility for peace and security world wide is that of the UN Security Council, therefore, the transition to the UN is from one multilateral institution to another as provided for in Chapter Eight of the UN Charter.
The troops were also committed without a properly workable ceasefire and with an inadequate mandate. The N’djamena ceasefire was violated by both parties from day one, and the agreement itself did not contain essential provisions such as maps of the parties’ positions, which were vitally important for making the ceasefire monitoring workable. The UN or for that matter any other multilateral organization would not have sent troops in such circumstances. But the AU did, discarding the checklist, hopeful that the problems could be resolved in the implementation. And in the first months of the AMIS deployment, morale and energy were high, and the impact was appreciable. President Konare visited Darfur early on, bringing with him the director of Africa Humanitarian Action, to make the point that Africa could contribute also to resolving the humanitarian crisis.
By comparison, UNAMID has taken months to negotiate and deploy its first troops and is still some month far from reaching full strength. For all practical purposes, UNAMID is playing it by the book. Its planners, its lawyers and its accountants have been through every aspect of the deployment with a fine toothcomb. AMIS short-circuited all those steps. Africa responded with its heart, not its head.
The first AMIS force leadership was vigorous and creative, constantly bending the rules to warn the warring parties against military actions, and flying across Darfur at a moment’s notice to show that the AU meant business. Within a few months, the AMIS mandate had been revised to allow the troops to protect civilians””but only when they came across civilians in immediate threat, during the course of their regular monitoring activities. The mandate was still much too restrictive.
Other problems surfaced too. AMIS lacked sufficient translators. It lacked sufficient civil affairs officers and sufficient political liaison section. It was short of equipment and increasingly short of funds, so that the troops often didn’t get paid on time.
Darfur in 2004 was the world’s toughest peacekeeping assignment””keeping the peace in the middle of an ongoing war. Thrown into the front line of this heroic challenge, African soldiers responded with bravery and steadfastness. They operated in conditions of danger and lived in conditions of hardship. In the early months, the level of atrocities in Darfur dropped and the humanitarian operation was ramped up. They have yet to be thanked for their efforts. Today I stand before you to say thank you on behalf of AMIS civilian staff.
Three and a half years later, Darfur’s crisis still rages. For most of its life, AMIS has been the object of criticism, and a campaign to replace it with UN troops has overshadowed whatever AMIS has, indeed, managed to achieve. The entire debate over “transitioning” from AMIS to the UN was conducted at the expense of the AU””the premise of the argument was that the AU simply wasn’t up to the job.
As 2005 drew to a close, AMIS was facing mounting problems. The gravest of these was that it was under attack. The AU troops were easy game””they were under-armed and could not defend themselves effectively against highly-mobile, well-armed and determined fighting groups operating in their own terrain. And troops who could not defend themselves were not able to protect the civilian population of Darfur. The small but effective activities undertaken by AMIS in its early months, such as patrols to protect women gathering firewood, were overshadowed by a general deterioration in the mission’s capacity.
But the crucial turning point was the aftermath of the Darfur Peace Agreement. Anticipating that the DPA would be signed by all the warring parties, it contained provisions requiring it to provide assistance to the parties for implementation of the ceasefire. This included non-military aid such as food, shelter and medical services to the rebel camps and logistical assistance to the representatives of the government and movements to allow them to travel freely. When only the government and the SLA-Minawi signed the DPA, the AU was bound to provide this assistance””but at the same time it was supposed to remain neutral with regard to the factions that hadn’t signed the DPA. This conflict of roles simply couldn’t be resolved. The non-signatory groups””and Darfurians at large””began to see that AMIS was cooperating with the government and the SLA-Minawi, but not with the others. Matters came to a head when the non-signatories left the Ceasefire Commission. Once the Ceasefire Commission and its political counterpart, the Joint Commission, became paralyzed then the entire mission was in jeopardy. AMIS became intimidated, both by the scale of the problem it faced, and by the day-to-day threats to its security. Many AMIS units retreated behind their razor wire and sandbags, to a garrison mode of peacekeeping that had minimal interaction with the local population. Without good links to the local community, AMIS’s ability to identify threats and protect itself were diminished.
No fewer than 35 AMIS troops have been killed in the line of duty, and one was taken prisoner in December 2006 and has not been heard from since. The most brutal was the attack on the Haskanita military observer group at the end of September, in which ten AMIS soldiers were killed.
These soldiers deserve to be honoured for the sacrifice they have made. Their comrades in arms deserve to be honoured for continuing to remain in their posts, despite lack of equipment, an insufficient mandate, lack of good intelligence about what surrounded them, and in many cases, with mounting arrears of pay. AMIS was faced with mission impossible, and it is a tribute to the soldiers of AMIS that they tried as hard as they did to make that mission work. It is also a tribute that despite this shocking loss of life, no African troop contributor has withdrawn its forces from Darfur. Africans have died for Darfur.
Serious mistakes have been made which contributed to undermining the moral and effectiveness of AMIS troops and led to it being attacked. There are many structural deficiencies in AMIS which need to be examined and remedied, both for UNAMID and for future African peacekeeping missions. There are also failings of political leadership and lack of cooperation from the parties. Ordinary African soldiers have paid the ultimate price for these mistakes.
As AMIS comes to an end, we should reflect on the lessons learned, and on the sobering experiences in Darfur that will do much to determine the future direction of African peacekeeping. We should recognize that goodwill and determination are not enough to deal with complicated and intractable conflicts. But we should also not shortchange ourselves: Africa made a sterling effort, and paid a high price for its readiness to rush in.
There are important lessons to be learned, if Africa’s commitment to peacekeeping is to continue. The proper lessons must be learned from Darfur.
As AMIS hands over to UNAMID, we should reflect on the fact that the hybrid operation remains predominantly African in character, and that the great majority of the soldiers who will be entrusted with keeping the peace in Darfur are still African. The lessons of AMIS need to be learned for UNAMID too. The strengths of the AMIS legacy must be recognized and built upon while the weaknesses must be frankly acknowledged and remedied.
Sudanese should not forget that Africa cared enough about Darfur to send its troops into the middle of an ongoing war in a brave attempt to help bring the bloodshed to an end. Darfurians should not forget that, whatever the shortcomings of AMIS, Africa’s children were the first to respond to their cries for help. Africa should be proud of its sons and daughters who serve in Darfur. Long may the memory live of those African soldiers who sacrificed their lives in Darfur.
Abdul, I met you 2 weeks ago when you and Abdi Yunis introduced me to two people from the DFID Stabilisation Unit, in the initial efforts to get up and running some help for the DDDC process.
It was a brief meeting with you, as you were called away, but I am happy to read your words relating to AMIS and their role as the “first peacekeepers.” Thanks for taking the time to tell a story that needed telling.