Humphrey Asamoah Agyekum, University of Copenhagen
Published in 2020 in Africa Spectrum
Available at: doi.org/10.1177/0002039720922868
The return of German soldiers of the Bundeswehr from Afghanistan in summer 2021 has triggered a new wave of media articles and interest in the broader implications for society as well as the potential trauma within the ranks of the deployed. But German soldiers abroad are still a rare occurrence. In most peacekeeping operations and therefore on a global scale the main troop-contributing countries are in fact located in what is called the Global South, frequently in Africa. But we know little about the assessment of missions by the peacekeepers themselves and most of this evidence is based solely on anecdotes. One striking exception is Humphrey Asamoah Agyekum’s contribution, reviewed in this ALMA blog. In his article the author develops “a post-deployment perspective” showing “how Ghanaian soldiers upon return to the safety and relative quiet of the barracks introspect on these experiences and observations, and translate these into narratives that are shared with others”.
This is indeed of strong interest to the entire field of peace and conflict studies. Ghana has a long tradition of providing peacekeepers to UN missions, including very difficult assignments, starting with the UN mission in the DR Congo 1960. What African officers and the rank and file take from such experiences is very relevant and certainly not less so than in European countries: the military usually has a strong influence in domestic politics in many African countries. However, it is important to differentiate strongly between countries. Arguably, the aims of troop contributors in sending out peacekeepers range from the conviction to contribute to peace, to “training on the job”, to material gain and finally to simply keeping one’s own troops busy (and far from home). The unintended consequences may, however, turn out to be just as important: peacekeepers learn preparations for rebellion, the acceptance of an aggressive attitude also towards civilians and disillusion when facing limited effectiveness, as well as experiencing psychological and physical trauma. It is well known that in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire soldiers returning from a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic staged a mutiny that ended in the toppling of President Henri Konan Bédié in December 1999. The so-called Christmas coup was triggered by the non-payment of bonuses and by accusations of corruption, though it would be too much to presume that these were the root causes of what became all-out civil war – and a long list of further mutinies. Ghana, by contrast, has a “republican army” that is credited with high levels of trust, according to recurrent Afrobarometer surveys, and today looks fully different from its own “tainted past” of the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, Agyekum rightly assumes that the personal experiences of peacekeeping abroad matter – and not only for the image that fellow Ghanaian citizens have of military personnel.
Indeed, “very few studies feature the soldiers’ perceptive, while none examine soldiers’ thought processes, their introspective processes, or narratives”. These are provided here, based on ethnographic methods, i.e., mostly a good number of interviews, but also participant observation. The shock of witnessing widespread cruelty when deployed to end Liberia’s bloody civil war is reported; it triggered a process of introspection – mostly leading to the branding of violence as “senseless”. But also gender roles were rethought by soldiers (who usually consider themselves as strong men) when witnessing the powerlessness of men in warzones. The overall emphasis in this article is different, however: Agyekum highlights the underrated positive effects of introspection, as when experiences of peacekeeping lead returning Ghanaian soldiers to value the societal and political achievements in their own country as higher and thus to reflect on their sense of duty and service. He thereby manages to counterbalance the picture of the “unintended negative consequences” on the domestic front that are usually attributed to African peacekeeping – which are, however, also quite real. The overall balance sheet is probably mixed and it looks as if context matters strongly, not least the political context in troop-contributing countries. Ghana is in that respect much better off than others – Ethiopia, Egypt and Rwanda are among the main African contributors of troops.
It would have been a pleasure to read more direct quotes from the author’s interviews, but it was already a very enriching experience as a reader to view African peacekeeping missions from a new perspective. The solid academic production on Ghana’s military that we owe to other Ghanaian scholars, such as Kwesi Aning (e.g. 2017) and Eboe Hutchful (e.g. 1997), is enriched by this new take based on original empirical research. In the future, comparative analyses between African and also non-African experiences using such a perspective would be very welcome.
Reviewed by Andreas Mehler
Hutchful, Eboe. “Military Policy and reform in Ghana.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 35.2 (1997): 251–278.
Aning, Kwesi, and Fiifi Edu-Afful. “Peacekeeping in a Francophone space: Experiences of Ghanaian peacekeepers in Cote d’Ivoire.” The Round Table 106.4 (2017): 375–391.
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Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe