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MONUSCO's Early Withdrawal and the Future of UN Peacekeeping in Africa

Dr Rajeesh Kumar is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 02, 2024

    On 19 December 2023, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2717 to end its 24-year-old peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The resolution outlines a comprehensive disengagement plan for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), comprising three phases to gradually transfer responsibilities from MONUSCO to the Government of the DRC by December 2024.1 The UNSC decision was prompted by the DRC’s earlier request for the Mission's withdrawal. As the UN's longest-standing peacekeeping mission with a robust mandate faces a turbulent exit, it is crucial to ask what its critical failings were and what the UN can learn from them.


    MONUSCO commenced its peacekeeping mandate in the DRC, aiming to stabilise the nation torn by internal conflicts and political instability. Established in July 2010 by UNSC Resolution 1925, MONUSCO succeeded an earlier mission known as MONUC (United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), initiated in 1999.2 This peacekeeping operation in the DRC became one of the longest-standing and most extensive UN missions globally, involving multifaceted objectives encompassing security, political stability, protection of civilians, and promoting human rights and development.

    In its initial years, MONUSCO deployed approximately 20,000 troops and played a crucial role in reducing the presence of foreign rebels in the DRC. Over its two-and-a-half-decade presence in the DRC, MONUSCO navigated complex challenges marked by internal strife, armed rebellions, regional tensions, and humanitarian crises. Within a few years after its establishment, MONUSCO achieved significant milestones, including disarming Congolese ex-combatants, repatriating foreign combatants, facilitating the return of Congolese refugees, and releasing children from armed groups.3  

    However, despite concerted efforts, MONUSCO faced persistent hurdles in achieving its mandates due to intricate and protracted nature of the conflicts, resource limitations, and political complexities. One of the contentious facets within the MONUSCO was establishing the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in 2013, an offensive military unit operating within the peacekeeping framework.4 The core objective of the FIB centred on curbing the expansion of armed groups, neutralising their impact and disarming them, thereby enhancing state authority and civilian security in eastern DRC to facilitate stabilisation efforts.
    The induction of the FIB into MONUSCO initially sparked hope for change. With joint efforts between the FIB and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), there was an anticipation of fostering peace and stability in the volatile eastern region. However, despite the FIB's presence for over a decade, the DRC security situation has seen limited improvement, falling short of expectations.5

    DRC has suffered immeasurable losses, with an estimated 6 million lives lost in the last two decades.6 It also faces the largest internal displacement crisis in Africa, with ongoing violence forcing 5.8 million people—over half of them women—to flee their homes. Since June 2022, over 600,000 people have been displaced due to escalating violence.7 In 2023, approximately 10 million people in the DRC required aid amid the turmoil.8 This dire situation fuelled widespread resentment against MONUSCO, prompting calls, including from the DRC president, for its withdrawal.9

    Anti-MONUSCO Protests and Attacks against Peacekeepers

    Since July 2022, DRC has seen a series of protests against MONUSCO. Attacks on UN peacekeepers surged, with over a dozen peacekeepers killed in one of the deadliest assaults against peacekeepers in recent history.10 More than 50 protesters died demanding the UN's withdrawal, blaming its inability to control rebel groups causing lethal attacks in the east.11 In November 2022, civilians targeted a UN peacekeeping convoy in eastern Congo, highlighting ongoing tensions. Also, a UN helicopter was attacked on 5 February, further underscoring the challenging situation faced by the mission in the region.12

    Protests against MONUSCO in the DRC are not new. For instance, in 2019, following the ADF's atrocities in North Kivu, which MONUSCO could not prevent, large-scale protests against the UN mission erupted. However, this recent series of protests stands out due to its scale and the level of violence involved. Moreover, political elites also joined in criticising MONUSCO, intensifying pressure on the UN mission in the DRC. The International Peace Institute's 2022 report highlights increased disinformation about MONUSCO in the DRC, worsening negative sentiments towards the mission.13 Similarly, a recent survey revealed that nearly 45 per cent of Congolese want MONUSCO to leave the country immediately.14 This poses significant concerns regarding the future of peacekeeping missions in the continent.

    Future of UN Peacekeeping in Africa

    Africa has hosted the highest number of UN peacekeeping missions, accounting for nearly 47 per cent of all missions worldwide. The continent has been historically plagued by conflicts, civil wars, and humanitarian crises, making peacekeeping missions essential for regional and global stability. Despite many setbacks, UN missions helped end insurgencies, support elections and build peace in many African countries. However, growing resentments against UN missions raise serious concerns about the peacekeeping missions' effectiveness and long-term impact in the continent.

    The protests and premature withdrawal of troops indicate the crisis confronting UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. Since 1948, more than 4,300 UN personnel have lost their lives in peacekeeping missions, with over 1,000 falling victim to targeted attacks, predominantly in Africa.15 Since 2013, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, and the DRC have witnessed the highest number of attacks against peacekeepers.16

    The UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is by far the most dangerous mission for peacekeepers, with 310 fatalities resulting from malicious acts from 2013 to 2023.17 The Security Council terminated the mission in June 2023, and peacekeepers exited the country without achieving their mandate. The African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) also encountered opposition from political elites and exited without fulfilling its mandate.18

    This peacekeeping crisis revolves around two main issues: first, concern about the erosion of core UN peacekeeping principles, leading to peacekeepers becoming parties in the conflicts they aim to resolve. Second, the missions' limited operational effectiveness, especially combating non-traditional threats like terrorism. These issues were evident in CAR, DRC and Mali, where peacekeepers were tasked with peace enforcement mandates. Further, most peace operations lack the necessary resources and training for counter-terrorism tasks. Peacekeepers, typically underfunded and undertrained, lack the specialised equipment, skills, and intelligence essential for effective counter-terrorism efforts. Hence, it becomes crucial for peacekeeping to adapt and evolve to address the challenges of the present era effectively.

    MONUSCO's closure marks the end of a significant era for large-scale UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. Its exit signifies a reduced UN presence on the continent compared to previous years. This situation might lead host governments to seek other security partners, including private military companies. For instance, Mali and the CAR extended invitations to the Wagner Group to operate within their countries.19 Likewise, in 2022, the DRC also opted for the involvement of private military contractors to intensify operations in the eastern regions.20

    These instances collectively suggest a bleak outlook for the future of UN peacekeeping in Africa, highlighting the urgent need for a comprehensive restructuring of the UN's approach in the region. India recently proposed the establishment of clear, realistic mandates for peacekeeping and effective communication strategies involving local stakeholders. As the increased robustness of mandates has proven ineffective, there is a need to explore alternative solutions.21 As a significant Troop Contributing Country (TCC), India emphasises fostering trust and cooperation between mission leadership and host states to address acts against peacekeepers. India's proactive initiatives, mainly promoting accountability for crimes against peacekeepers, underscore essential areas requiring improvement.22

    In light of the persisting challenges that extensive stabilisation missions face in achieving lasting peace in Africa, there is a growing rationale for the UN to consider shifting towards more traditional and narrowly focused peacekeeping missions. It would also enable the UN to maintain a clearer and more distinct role as a neutral mediator in conflicts, thereby rebuilding trust among the host governments and the local populations. This recalibration could lead to a more targeted and efficient use of resources and personnel.