Dispatch from Guinea: The struggle to operationalise “peacebuilding”

In 1958, Guinea was the only French colony to opt for immediate independence. Its first President rebuffed Charles de Gaulle to his face, declaring that ‘we prefer poverty in freedom to riches in slavery’.

The imagination thrills at the moment, most of all when picturing de Gaulle’s reaction. Things then took an sharp downward turn, however.

Sekou Touré’s regime was single-party and aspired to totalitarianism. It gave way to a feckless military regime in 1984, which was itself replaced by military coup in 2008 amidst grotesque scenes of violence.

It was in this context that the UN engaged with Guinea, under the new rubric of peacebuilding. Financial engagement by the Peacebuilding Fund was followed by political engagement by the Peacebuilding Commission.

What followed is mapped out, and scrutinised, in a chapter I contributed to a recent Routledge volume entitled UN Peacebuilding Architecture: the First Ten Years.

(I regret to note that the volume is priced at USD 45. This is one of the reasons I went with a small-run publisher for Follies in Fragile States, and put it at a paperback price.)

The key factor that drives the story is that Guinea has mostly flown under the radar, as things go in international peace and security. There has been scant high-level political engagement, and a peace operation was never on the table.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, that makes it an ideal case to look at the effectiveness of the UN’s peacebuilding tools. I argue that when one strips away the jargon, the crux of the situation was that we were trying to operate in:

a new middle ground between the two extremes of the UN Charter: the default position of non-intervention in internal affairs, and the exceptional case of Security Council action to meet a threat to international peace and security.

The meat of the chapter is then an investigation of the many adaptive challenges that the institution faced in order to operate in that middle ground.

On the one hand these constrained the Peacebuilding Commission—which ended up limiting its role to polite peer advice to the sitting President. From the point of view of the political opposition in-country, of course, this was infuriating. It was precisely the government’s legitimacy to speak for them that they were contesting.

On the other hand, meanwhile, there were the UN development agencies on the ground. Here I summarise at one point that “from the day of the inauguration of President Condé it was if a switch had been flipped—the UN Country Team was all-in with the new administration.” Just as for the PBC, this self-defined role of “accompaniment” ruled out a role in facilitating dialogue around an unfinished political transition, or in brokering the many institutional reforms that the government of the day was not trusted to lead.

Perhaps the key takeaway, however, is that none of this was the result of idiosyncratic choices. Rather, that “all-in” approach was over-determined from the outset by a range of well-entrenched systems and processes. Many of these came straight from the General Assembly, which actively shapes expectations for fundraising, and systems like the Resident Coordinator arrangement.

The hard reality then: Declaring peacebuilding goals is one thing, but aligning the UN behind them is another. There are a lot of moving parts that have to be considered once the high-level panels have disbanded, and they are mix of the operational and the political.