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Troops, police, and civilians deployed under the auspices of United Nations peace operations routinely work under difficult circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional level of challenges for the 95,000 peacekeepers deployed across the world as part of thirteen UN operations, many of them in Africa. They have to continue their vital work to protect civilians, support peace and political processes, and promote human rights, all while applying critical prevention and mitigation measures to contain and otherwise help countries respond to the disease.

Within this context, UN peacekeeping missions quickly moved to adapt their community outreach efforts—a critical tool to inform, foster dialogue, and seek support for its mandates—to continue connecting with and supporting communities and local organizations while limiting the risks associated with social contact. Missions have boosted their use of broadcast and online tools to continue communicating, including through radio, WhatsApp groups, social media, and other messaging platforms to reach audiences.

 

The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers

 

Broadcast is a staple in most of the environments where UN peacekeepers operate, and it has proven to be a crucial tool to support host governments and humanitarian partners to raise awareness on COVID-19 preparedness, prevention, and response, while also addressing issues such as sexual and gender-based violence.

Whether peace operations manage their own radio stations (in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and South Sudan), or produce multilingual content for partner networks, up to 80 percent of production has been shifted toward COVID-19 awareness. This is particularly critical in environments with low literacy rates, limited Internet reach, and multiple languages.

The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers and communities alike, creating what the UN secretary-general has called a global infodemic. Which is why public communication is central to helping dispel rumors, counter misinformation, and provide people with timely and accurate information.

Mikado FM, a radio station operated by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), broadcasts a myth-busting program where listeners can ask questions and receive accurate information about the virus. The station reaches a wider audience by providing sixty-three community radio stations with prerecorded prevention messages in five local languages, and special radio shows in partnership with the World Health Organization and the Malian health authorities.

Some missions are also now providing education over the airwaves while schools are closed. Radio Okapi, the flagship station with the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), produces fourteen weekly hours of homeschooling in partnership with the DRC Ministry of Education and UNICEF. Peacekeeping missions’ radio stations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan are also similarly employing their resources to educate children.

 

Radio Okapi
Radio Okapi, a radio network established by MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has become a trusted source of information and news for the urban population. It provides programming in French, Lingala, Kituba, Swahili, and Tshiluba. (AFP)

The Right Tools for the Right Audiences

Ensuring information reaches at-risk groups, including women, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and rural communities is critical as their already limited access to news and communication tools may further expose them to the virus.

Now, even more than ever, inclusive communications plans must consider varying digital literacy levels of women and men and within different social groups.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) distributes thousands of educational flashcards explaining the symptoms of COVID-19 and prevention measures. In Darfur (Sudan), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, missions use moto-taxis and promo-trucks to disseminate information through speakers in IDP camps, protection sites, and remote villages.

As the UN embraced virtual meetings and remote-access technology following stay-at-home orders, colleagues in the field found creative solutions to grant Wi-Fi and online platforms access to local counterparts, including women’s groups, or expand the use of WhatsApp for interaction.

The mission in Mali, for instance, recently launched MINUSMA Kounafoni Blon (MINUSMA Info Hut) whereby communities from different regions take turns each month to interact on specific themes through a dedicated WhatsApp group hosted in the region’s language. Similarly, in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA is distributing 50,000 rechargeable radio sets to facilitate women’s access to information.

Where technically viable, virtual platforms can keep community dialogue alive. In Kosovo, UNMIK hosts weekly virtual townhall debates on community and national issues; the debates are broadcast on national television. The mission also launched a digital trust-building platform focusing on multi-ethnic cooperation stories and champions, with multilingual messaging on COVID-19. In several countries, women have told us they felt more confident exchanging views and ideas on these more targeted online platforms as opposed to larger groups meeting in person.

Missions are aware of how COVID-19 impacts women and men differently, and how best to direct interventions. Many women continue to work out of necessity to support their families, and therefore face increased contamination risks. MINUSCA, for example, is targeting markets to reach women as a “captive audience” while setting-up handwashing spots and conducting disinfection runs in these locations. MONUSCO also sensitizes women vendors on COVID-19 at markets together with the Congolese Ministry of Gender and the National Police.

 

Empowering Through Partnerships

Strengthening partnerships with humanitarian actors and local organizations is another way to maintain community outreach and work together to respond to COVID-19.

Religious, traditional and local structures are trusted messengers to convey accurate information and dispel rumors. Arts, sports, socio-economic, and trade groups wield influence and operate within communities. Mikado FM in Mali has partnered with the musical duo Amadou and Mariam to disseminate COVID-19 awareness messages in local languages. In Cyprus, the UN Peacekeeping Force UNFICYP has partnered with Cypriot women’s organizations to boost information for women experiencing domestic violence during quarantine. And MINUSCA trains members of the National Youth Council with speaking and hearing impediments to conduct door-to-door awareness on the virus.

Engaging with the media is yet another way missions are mobilizing partnerships to fight the pandemic. UNMISS works with humanitarian agencies, local authorities, and Facebook to provide validated and timely information, counter hate speech, and remove incendiary posts as appropriate. Similarly, MINUSMA partners with the Union of Free Radios and Televisions of Mali and religious leaders to provide information on COVID-19. MINUSCA held media awareness-raising sessions to promote objective and professional reporting on the pandemic while helping journalists protect themselves against the virus in their daily tasks. As a result of these workshops—held in line with WHO and host governments’ protection and prevention guidelines—more than fifty journalists signed up to a Charter of Good Conduct on reporting on COVID-19 in the country.

 

Patrolling and Informing

Strategic communications are part of UN peacekeepers’ daily work on the ground, and everybody has a role to play. As most civilian personnel are working from home, military and community policing patrols by the mission become opportunities to relay life-saving information. A community violence-reduction program such as the one in the Central African Republic also involves at-risk populations in income-generating activities such as mask-sewing and soap-making to help combat COVID-19 while expanding their economic options.

It is in this challenging context, and through the examples of peacekeepers continuing their work outlined above, that the United Nations can leverage the power of information and its ability to build strong partnerships with local communities while saving lives. The crucial work of those continuing to undertake core activities, despite the current challenges, is a credit to the resilience of both peacekeepers and the communities they serve.

 

Charlotte Morgan is an intern at the Strategic Communications Section of the United Nations’ Department of Peace Operations

Sophie Boudre is a public information officer at the United Nations

 

A man painted in the colours of Malian flag gestures at Independance square as protesters gather to demand that Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta leaves office in Bamako on June 19, 2020. Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the most influential personalities in Malian political landscape, called for a political march to be held after the Friday prayer, against Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and his government. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
A man painted in the colours of the Malian flag gestures at Independence Square in Bamako as protesters gather on June 19, 2020, to demand that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta leave office. Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the most influential personalities in the Malian political landscape, called for a political march to be held after the Friday prayer against President Keïta and his government. (Michele Cattani/AFP)

ECOWAS, the West African regional bloc, has urged Mali to organize new local elections in districts where recent election results have been subject to review, and to convene a government of national unity. This comes as tens of thousands of Malians rallied in the streets of the capital Bamako and elsewhere for the second time this month, demanding the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

 

The voter turnout was low due to threats of jihadist violence and fears over the pandemic

 

Since winning a second five-year term in 2018, Keïta has faced several crises severely undermining the stability of Mali, including ongoing jihadist attacks, a teacher’s strike, an ailing economy, and COVID-19. The legitimacy of legislative elections held in early March has been contested because of low voter turnout due to threats of jihadist violence and fears over the pandemic. These fears were exacerbated by the abduction of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé just a few days before the election. His whereabouts are still unknown.

Members of the National Assembly are torn between going ahead with ECOWAS’s recommendation to hold partial elections, or to simply dissolve parliament and start all over.

A meeting was recently held between representatives of the ruling majority coalition and of the Mouvement du 5 Juin (M5), a coalition of the main opposition parties that helped organize the protests (first held on June 5, hence the name). At the meeting, the presidential camp recognized the grievances of M5, but insisted on the need for a joint framework to move past this political crisis, and asked that M5 drop the demand for President Keïta to resign. M5 is, however, not likely to budge on the issue of his resignation.

 

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir arrives for talks at the African Union aimed at forming a power-sharing government ahead of a February 22 deadline, in Addis Ababa on February 08, 2020, Michael Toweled/AFP
South Sudanese president Salva Kiir arrives for talks at the African Union aimed at forming a power-sharing government ahead of a February 22 deadline in Addis Ababa on February 08, 2020. (Michael Tewelde/AFP)

The African Union (AU) has suspended South Sudan’s participation in meetings over its inability to pay financial contributions of about US$9 million for the past three years. Hakim Edward, deputy spokesperson for South Sudan’s ministry of foreign affairs, explained that the country had not been deprived of its membership, but South Sudanese diplomats may not take part in or contribute to African Union meetings. He said efforts were under way to resolve the matter.

The failure to pay its dues points to South Sudan’s economic woes as it tries to formalize a unity government, a critical component of the 2019 peace agreement that put an end to a bloody seven-year civil war. The deal was struck around the same time that the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a report detailing how several South Sudanese officials had embezzled state funds, and how lucrative oil contracts had been used to fund armed militias engaged in the civil war.

 

The suspension risks hampering critical discussions

 

Suspending South Sudan’s participation in meetings is the result of new measures the AU implemented in 2018 to ensure member states fulfill their financial obligations. But it risks alienating South Sudanese and hampering critical discussions, especially as the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) struggles to contain the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. South Sudan’s healthcare infrastructure is among the poorest on the continent, and millions of internally displaced people living in UN-protected camps are at high risk of contracting the virus.

 

Soumaila Cisse
Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé has been missing since March 26, 2020, when he was abducted while campaigning in the Timbuktu region. (AFP)

It has been more than two-and-a-half months since Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, head of the Union for the Republic and Democracy party, was kidnapped while campaigning in his home district only a few days before parliamentary elections. No group officially took credit for the abduction, but given years of conflict between state security forces and jihadist groups in the region it is suspected that one of the terrorist organizations was behind it.

On Tuesday, June 16, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta gave a public address insisting that his administration had concrete proof that Cissé was still alive and knew the identity of his captors, but did not disclose this information and urged patience. Some outlets claim Cissé is being held by Katiba Macina, a jihadist group predominantly made up of Fulani herdsmen and aligned with the al-Qaida-affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims (known by it transliterated Arabic acronym JNIM). If this were true, it raises significant concerns over the handling of Cissé’s kidnapping, as JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Tuareg militant who helped instigate the 2012 rebellion that kicked the Malian military out of the northern territory of Azawad.

 

It would do even further damage to his credibility

 

President Keïta confirmed in February that his government was reaching out to Ag Ghaly and other jihadist leaders to conduct formal negotiations and help bring an end to the perennial conflict. Should Cissé’s release become integrally woven into conflict negotiations, it would do even further damage to his credibility, which has already been rocked by thousands-strong demonstrations that began on June 5. All of the opposition parties are represented among the protesters, who have been calling for Keïta’s resignation for failing to effectively manage the worsening security situation, the economic contraction, and the crisis of political legitimacy.

 

Abiy - Alburhan
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, then chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and now chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, photographed in Khartoum on June 7, 2019. (AFP)

Sudan and Ethiopia have both condemned cross-border incursions by Ethiopian militiamen and soldiers last week, and have called for a truce and an amicable solution to the border tensions.

On May 27 and 28, Ethiopian bandits launched cross-border raids on the Sudanese villages of Mashre El Fursan and Barakat Nourein, witnesses told Radio Dabanga. A Sudanese army captain was killed in the skirmishes, and several soldiers and civilians were wounded.

Such raids and occupation of farmland are not uncommon in the border region of El Gedaref state, especially during the harvest season, but this time the gunmen were supported by hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers, according to Brigadier General Amer El Hasan, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Armed Forces.

Sudan summoned the Ethiopian embassy’s chargé d’affaires over the attacks, and in response the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs said there was “no honorable reason for the two countries to descend into hostility”.

 

Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties

 

It is imperative for Khartoum and Addis Abbas to reach a peaceful resolution to the issue amid the ongoing fraught negotiations over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. If Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt fail to reach an agreement before July—when Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties—it might lead to a dangerous instability in the region.

 

Fathi Bashagha, Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord's(GNA) interior minister, gives a press conference in the Libyan capital Tripoli on April 22, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic crisis.  Mahmud TURKIA / AFP
Libyan interior minister Fathi Bashagha gives a press conference in the capital Tripoli on April 22, 2020. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP)

In a statement released on Monday, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said it welcomed the fact that the two Libyan camps—the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA)—had agreed to the resumption of ceasefire talks.

Libya has been in a state of turmoil ever since the ouster of the late Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The GNA was established in 2015 under a UN-led agreement, but all efforts to achieve a long-term political settlement have failed. Since April 2019, the LNA under Khalifa Haftar has been leading a military offensive against the GNA, based in Tripoli.

Previous attempts to broker a ceasefire and to get the two parties to negotiate have failed.

In recent weeks, there has been fierce fighting near the capital Tripoli, fanned by foreign actors, including Russia and Turkey. Haftar’s forces have suffered several setbacks, and Russian private military contractors were evacuated after heavy losses.

 

Peace Talks

At a conference in Berlin on January 19, UNSMIL proposed a military “5+5 committee” composed of five senior military officers each from the GNA and LNA, appointed by leaders Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, respectively. The ten members were named at the conference and met in Geneva in February under the auspices of the United Nations.

The parties have now agreed to talks resuming in this format, UNSMIL said, but through video calls because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It did not say when this would happen, and neither side has commented on the UN statement.

UNSMIL called on the parties to also cease hostilities, and for “those countries who are fueling the conflict to definitively halt all forms of military support”.

 

Obasanjo Adesina
Akinwumi Adesina (left), president of the African Development Bank, and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, photographed during the anniversary of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria, on July 24, 2017. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP)

 

Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, has written a letter to twelve former African presidents in defense of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and its president, Akinwumi Adesina, who has come under fire from the United States Treasury Department. Adesina had been accused of ethics violations by a group of anonymous whistleblowers, but was exonerated by the AfDB’s Ethics Committee. Steven Mnuchin, secretary of the US Treasury, rejected the committee’s decision and insisted that an independent investigation be launched, which was approved on May 29.

In his letter, Obasanjo lists the numerous achievements of the AfDB under Adesina’s tenure, before turning his ire on the United States’ efforts to undermine his leadership and re-election bid in August. Regarding Mnuchin’s call for an independent investigation, he writes, “This is outside of the rules, laws, procedures and governance systems of the Bank. The US Treasury Secretary disparaged the Bank and ridiculed the entire governance system of the Bank, which has been in place since 1964.

 

“This is unprecedented in the annals of the African Development Bank Group”

 

Obasanjo’s letter comes amid renewed tensions between Nigeria and the United States, the former being placed on an expanded travel ban list by the Trump administration in February. The former president concluded the letter by calling on African heads of state to rally around Adesina. “We should speak against the introduction of alien practices being recommended by some parties given that such recommendation falls outside the laid down procedures, laws, rules, and regulations of the Bank.

“It is also critical that we emphasize the need for the ADB to remain an Africa-focused development Bank rather than one which serves interests outside Africa.”

 

Felicien Kabuga
A courtroom sketch of Rwandan genocide suspect Félicien Kabuga, made on May 20, 2020, shows him wearing a face mask as he appeared before the Paris Court of Appeal.

Félicien Kabuga, who is being held in a Parisian jail after he was arrested earlier this month for crimes related to the Rwandan genocide twenty-six years ago, will be transferred to and detained in Arusha, Tanzania, once lockdown-related travel restrictions are lifted. Judge William Sekule of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (MICT) ruled on May 28 in response to a request to temporarily transfer Kabuga to The Hague.

Following his arrest in a Parisian suburb earlier this month, Kabuga appeared before a French court on May 20, where his lawyers said he wanted to be tried in France. The UN tribunal’s prosecutor said a request had already been issued to transfer him to United Nations custody, and that he could initially be held in The Hague rather than in Africa.

The French court is set to rule on June 3 whether to hand him over to the MICT to be tried in Arusha.

 

The Elusive Genocidaire 

Kabuga had been on the run since the end of the genocide in 1994, passing through several African and European countries before settling in France under a false identity. The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted him in absentia in 1997 on seven counts of genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity. When the tribunal was closed in 2015, its responsibilities were transferred to the MICT, which is based in The Hague but also has an office in Arusha.  

A well-connected and highly influential businessman during the rule of President Juvénal Habyarimana, Kabuga stands accused of using his vast wealth to arm the Interahamwe militia that carried out gruesome ethnically-targeted killings against the minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus, contributing to the slaughter of an estimated 1 million people in the span of four months. He also founded Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, a radio station that broadcast racist propaganda intended to incite violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

For 24 years, Kabuga was always a step ahead of investigators and had dozens of false identities. He escaped Rwanda after the Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the Genocide and has been on the run since. 

 

School Girls Burkina Faso
A policeman walks behind schoolgirls in Yemboate, a village in the far north of Togo, as they cross the border into Burkina Faso on February 17, 2020. Togolese security agencies have intensified surveillance around the border to prevent incursions by jihadists.

Human Rights Watch has reported that over 2,500 schools in Burkina Faso have been forced to close in response to escalating numbers of terrorist attacks, holding back around 350,000 primary school-aged children from receiving an education. Since 2017, the country’s Ministry of Education found that at least 222 education workers have been deliberately targeted and made “victims of terrorist attacks”.

The report documented 126 attacks and threats of violence against educators, learners, and schools, more than half of which occurred in 2019 alone. This added security concern compounds the risks posed to Burkinabe children, who are set to return to school in nine days following countrywide closures put in place on March 14.

Armed Islamist groups have targeted schools in opposition to the teaching of French and other forms of Western-based education.

 

Joint Military Operation

The marked negative impact that terrorism has had on Burkina Faso’s schools reaffirms the importance of a joint military operation with Côte d’Ivoire, dubbed Operation Comoé, which recently reported a successful raid on a jihadist base in the border town of Alidougou in southern Burkina Faso.

 

UNAMIL
Rwandan peacekeepers, part of the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), stand guard in the war-torn town of Golo in Jebel Marra, Central Darfur, on June 19, 2017.

 

The Sudanese presidency issued a statement on Tuesday, March 26, saying the mandate of the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which ends in October 2020, would not be renewed. This was agreed in a phone call between the chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council and two senior US diplomats in which the withdrawal of the peacekeeping troops was discussed.

The chairman, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, spoke with assistant secretary for the US State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy and US special envoy for Sudan Donald Booth, pushing for the United Nations and African Union to move away from peacekeeping efforts and towards state building. Nagy and Booth have not commented on the discussion.

This has been a consistent position held by the new Sudanese government that formed in the wake of the removal of dictator Omar al-Bashir. Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok sent letters to the United Nations Security Council in January and February requesting a special political mission under Chapter VI of the UN Charter that would cover the whole of the country, with an emphasis on continuing peace-building exercises in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, along with financial assistance, repatriation of displaced Sudanese, and integration of former rebel combatants into the Sudanese military.

 

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly warned of the dangers of a full UN withdrawal from Darfur

 

Hamdok’s decision has ignited heated discussion not only within Sudan but also among the international community. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly warned of the dangers of a full UN withdrawal from Darfur, saying that marginalized communities there cannot rely on Sudanese security alone for their protection. Earlier in May, a cohort of ninety-eight civil society groups, including activist organizations from Darfur, strongly urged the prime minister to maintain peacekeeping forces and extend the UNAMID mandate past October 2020.

 

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