UN Peacekeeping Missions are Facing a Crisis of Legitimacy in Africa: Here is how Influence Operations can help

by Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, PhD

The following article is an original work published by the Information Professionals Association. Opinions expressed by authors are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of or endorsement by the Information Professionals Association.

Legitimacy, influence, and power all go hand in hand. No United Nations (UN) mission can function adequately without all three. UN peacekeepers are facing an increasingly hostile environment in Africa.  The Stabilization Missions in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo are facing crises of legitimacy with significant consequences on the UN’s broader influence and credibility. This article discusses why UN peacekeeping needs a coherent influence strategy.

Recently, the Government of Mali expelled the spokesperson of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Olivier Salgado was given 72 hours to leave the country, over “tendentious and unacceptable” posts he made on Twitter. The expulsion comes amid frictions between Bamako and the UN mission. Mali’s military government, which has not hidden its preference for Russian mercenaries over UN peacekeepers, recently suspended all rotations of mission military and police contingents for “national security” reasons. The government-backed nationalist movement, Yerewolo-Debout sur les Remparts has led anti-UN and France sentiments across the country. Members of the group celebrated openly when French troops left the country on August 15th after almost a decade of military intervention.  Russia is eager to fill the void after a sustained charm offensive on African leaders.

Similarly, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo recently expelled Mathis Gillman, the spokesman of the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) for making “indelicate and inappropriate” statements. The Congolese foreign ministry blamed Gillman for stoking tensions that led to the anti-UN protests that killed 36 people including four UN peacekeepers.  Renna Russo, Head of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute has rightly noted that the anti-UN protests highlight the UN mission’s crisis of legitimacy. 

Legitimacy, influence, and power all go hand in hand. No UN mission can function adequately without all three. A mission’s power resides in its ability to influence the behaviors of relevant publics and actors towards a desired set of outcomes. Legitimacy confers that power. A mission’s legitimacy is not obtained merely from the authority of its security council mandate, but on the local perception of that mandate. As Jeni Whalen has brilliantly noted in her book, How Peace Operations Work: Power, Legitimacy and Effectiveness, the normative system that legitimizes a peace operation is specific to a particular society.  A well synchronized influence strategy can help stabilization missions to build, strengthen and sustain the normative systems that legitimize the mission among relevant publics and actors, giving them their own reasons to yield.

Due to their very nature, and the typically challenging environment they operate in, stabilization missions particularly need an influence capability. Still acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, stabilization missions place more emphasis on supporting and stabilizing state authority and the political process, implementing ceasefire agreements, and countering local drivers of conflict.  MINUSMA, for example, is mandated to ensure security and protect civilians; support national political dialogue and reconciliation; assist in the reestablishment of state authority, the rebuilding of the security sector, and the promotion and protection of human rights in Mali.  With over 17,000 personnel, including 11,798 contingent troops, it is presently the most expensive mission in the world. At a budget of $1.2bn (2022-23), it consumes 19.29% of the total UN peacekeeping budget, followed by the stabilization mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and MONUSCO at 16.65% and 15.96% respectively. Although the US is not a lead troop-contributing country to UN peace operations, it is the largest single financial contributor, contributing 26.94% or $1.8b of the peacekeeping budget.

The Emerging Challenges of Stabilization in Africa

Contemporary stabilization missions in Africa operate within increasingly complex strategic, social, political, and security environments that are interwoven with an equally complex information environment. The contemporary information environment is more diffused, weaponized, and characterized by an assortment of actors who exert new forms of asymmetric influence on mass populations and peace processes. Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) with a muted kinetic capability, but an enhanced communication competence can exert asymmetric influence on mission outcomes. The stabilization phase of peacekeeping involves a more society-focused process; hence a malign influence operation can have significant implications on public trust and the mission’s legitimacy. 

The UN has recently sought to enhance its peacekeeping communication strategy. At its recent 9090th meeting, the UN Security Council deliberated on the key role of strategic communications for efficient peacekeeping operations. A presidential statement presented by Ronaldo Costa Filho of Brazil stressed the need to improve the culture of strategic communication across critical components of UN peacekeeping operations.

The UN has also revised its policy on public information and strategic communication in support of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) operations. Two years ago, I was invited by the UN’s Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions to lead an international academic team to assist the DDR section in the Department of Peace Operations to revise the Module on Public Information and Communication Module (4.60) of the Integrated DDR Standards (IDDRS).  The revised module, validated in February 2021, advocates a more assertive role for public information and strategic communication to a) convince fighters to voluntarily exit armed groups/forces; b) challenge and mitigate the impacts of misinformation, disinformation, and extremist narratives; c) contribute to the transformation of conditions that can potentially impede the successful return and reintegration of people associated with armed groups.  It also articulates a broader communication role in the reintegration of combatants and persons associated with armed forces/opposition groups into society.  These are great starts, but there is room for much more.

It is important to understand the context of the UN’s emergent pivot from public information to strategic communication. Two contexts of change have impelled this pivot. The first is the UN’s broader peacebuilding policy.  The UN’s sustaining peace approach, which aims at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation, and recurrence of conflict, has significantly expanded the scope of peacekeeping activities. Unlike early or first-generation DDR for example, which were linear, sequenced, and limited only to signatories of peace accords, DDR under the sustaining peace approach can be deployed in contexts of ongoing military operations with no signed peace agreements in place. Also, the catalog of mandated beneficiaries of DDR has expanded. It now includes a broad range of actors and groups, including those with no political structures or interest in signing and committing to a peace agreement ranging from armed groups designated as terrorist organizations and foreign terrorist fights, to militias, armed gangs, and bandits.  

The second context of change is the operational environment within which peacekeeping is conducted. Contemporary peace operations are conducted within an increasingly complex global security environment, characterized by diverse interests and actors at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.  In Africa for example, the Islamic State has found a second life after its military defeat and territorial demise in Iraq and Syria. This has led to the attendant rise in terrorist violence and jihadist banditry, thus changing the local conflict dynamics, particularly in the West African Sahel region. At the operational and tactical levels, contemporary AOGs are well equipped with commercially available military-grade communication tools and more readily available weapons and ammunition from a thriving global black market. At the strategic level, they are very aware and engaged. They know how a weak international resolve to intervene plays out in their favor and what it takes to ignite a national outcry for governments to pull their troops from military operations abroad. When, for example, the Canadian government announced its decision in 2019 to withdraw troops from MINUSMA, pro-ISIL media outlets celebrated using hashtags and memes, one of which featured a photo of a finger-pointing jihadi fighter and a distraught U.S. soldier with the message, the withdrawal of your soldiers from Mali is the best decision you have made … And be sure that the jungles of Africa will devour what’s left of the Crusaders – an apparent reference to the remaining U.S. and French troops. The meme was shared across several channels on Telegram, including pro-Al-Qaeda channels, which do not usually share materials from pro-ISIS sources.  Another example is the fatal ambush of U.S. special forces in Tongo Tongo, Niger by militants of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). The attack led to a reassessment of the strategic value of U.S. tactical engagement in the Sahel and proposals for the pull-out of US forces, including abandoning a recently built $110 million drone base in Niger and ending assistance to French forces battling militants in the region.

Why an Influence Capability is Critical to Stabilization Missions

At its core, stabilization missions and the overarching sustaining peace approach is about people and societies. A favorable local public opinion and support are critical to success. Understanding and influencing individual and group behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, fears, and expectations and the narrative frames and social structures and networks through which they are conveyed, encountered, and contested is a valid and hugely important capability for any stabilization mission.  This is particularly important in environments where the exertion of force is neither desirable nor tactically sustainable. The hostility of the local population can impose significant damage on the mission and can provide a distinct operational advantage for AOGs. Moreover, when powerful political groups are opposed to the terms of a peace agreement, it is not unlikely for such groups to create a hostile environment for reconciliation and reintegration processes to take root. To transcend such scenarios, stabilization missions must find ways to build and nurture new social norms that promote healing, compassion, a sense of shared humanity, and reconciliation, beyond the peace agreement. 

In transitional and post-conflict societies, changes permeate almost every aspect of life. Such changes deliver new opportunities to reimagine the intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions of social, cultural, and political life. Hence, concepts of self and the Other, collective memories of the conflict and past hurts, and imaginations of future relationships are interfering variables in the conflict environment and must therefore be a part of the mission’s core informational engagement activities.

In addition to providing accurate and objective information, a competent influence strategy would seek to delegitimize extremist leaders and erode the support they enjoy among their fighters; reduce the pool of potential recruits for AOGs; challenge the extremist ideologies that incentivize or rationalize fighting; weaken combatants’ resolve to continue fighting; reduce combatants’ anxieties and uncertainties about civilian life; assure combatants who have already handed in their weapons or in the process of doing so, that they have made the right decision; persuade and win over communities opposed to having former combatants and persons associated with armed groups back in their midst; challenge the stigmatization and social rejection of ex-combatants and vulnerable persons associated with AOGs such as abducted children, women, and girls who often face the most barriers to reintegration.  These will require new capabilities, which are outside of the UN’s conventional peace operations toolkit. 

Strategizing Influence in Stabilization Missions

In conflict and post-conflict settings, rumors swirl like dust motes at Harmattan. Stabilization missions must therefore see information as a humanitarian need – as important as food and medicine.  The general population yearns to know when normalcy will return. Older combatants (particularly those with wives and children) desire to know if there is life after or outside of fighting. Displaced persons desire to know if it is safe to return home. Businesspersons desire to know if it is ok to restart their business. Farmers desire to know if it is ok to go back to the farms and plant ahead of the next harvest season. Young workers want to know if the factories will open again soon or if they should learn a new trade. Young women desire to know if it is ok to settle down, start a family and have children. These diverse desires to know create a collective cognitive vulnerability to misinformation and disinformation. The central objective of a stabilization mission should therefore be to provide the information that can give hope and tame uncertainty. People will gravitate to whoever can provide the information that will give them reasons to hope.  Giving reasons to hope, not false hope, can indeed provide the basis for an emotional connection with the people.

Influence is not simply talking down to people, through media and spokespersons. In stabilization contexts, influence operations must first and foremost inspire hope. Second, it should create a multidimensional space for stakeholders to have a dialogue about the peace process (based on transparent information) and how the process fits into their hopes and aspirations. In this approach, town hall events become far more important than press conferences and press releases. Along with talk shows and audience participation programs, they should create opportunities for society to collectively imagine a hopeful future. The role of the mission then becomes to facilitate the future they imagine.

The stabilization phase is fraught with multiple potential spoilers and the mission should have a strategy for dealing with them. Spoilers are predominantly leaders of armed groups and their political runners who have a stake in conflict continuation. A mapping of spoilers and their motivation or factors that influence their decision to commit is critical. Local amplifiers and respected opinion leaders can play a crucial role in countering the influence of spoilers and should, therefore, be carefully cultivated.  A social mapping to identify potential amplifiers or critical influencers and their constituencies should be undertaken very early on.

A partnership with local journalists can help to counter the influence of spoiler movements such as Mali’s Yerewolo-Debout sur les Remparts.  Since journalists and their media organizations are generally known and trusted, they can become credible amplifiers. They can also be nurtured to become mediators, truth-speakers, and hope-givers. People can turn to them for truth and hope, instead of turning to peddlers of falsehood and fear. By monitoring and reporting the situation on the ground, local journalists can provide early warnings of simmering discontentment before they erupt openly. Local journalists are well plugged into the community and channels of communication — including the local rumor mill. They can thus help challenge conspiratorial narratives, false rumors, and hate speech. Their voices on their own channels can be more credible than UN spokespersons’ on UN media outlets. They can resonate well among relevant audiences.  Local media organizations already have the audience, the programs or columns, and in many cases the credibility.  They already understand the context of the conflict and, in most cases, how to frame grievances and solutions.  Also, existing programs such as radio drama series or soaps can be adopted and adapted for mission purposes. Storylines can be added or embedded to support reconciliation and other mission objectives. Characters on such programs that already have an audience following can be used creatively.  Care must be taken, however, to ascertain the roles of the local media in the conflict and their credibility.  It is one of the reasons media mapping is an essential and critical first step.

Finally, peacekeeping operations are getting increasingly caught up in great power politics as Mali has shown. There is a need therefore for the UN to develop a coherent influence strategy at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels as success or failure at one has implications on the others.  A coherent UN influence strategy will serve not just its interests at the mission level, but also its broader strategic interests and capacity to rally a supranational public opinion behind the cause of world peace.


Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob is the Dean of Graduate School and Research at the American University of Nigeria. He recently partnered with UNICEF Nigeria to create the country’s first graduate degree program in Communication for Social and Behavior Change. He has assisted the UN’s Department of Peace Operations in developing policy and operational guidelines for strategic communication in support of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants. Jacob is a member of the Research Advisory Council of the Researching Solutions to Violent Extremism (RESOLVE) Network at the US Institute of Peace where he co-leads RESOLVE’s ethical and methodological guide for violent extremism research. He earned his PhD in Communication Studies from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom. His previous academic affiliations include New York University and Dickinson College.  Jacob is the author of Convincing Rebel Fighters to Disarm: UN Information Operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DeGruyter, 2017) and other works. He is also a member of the Information Professionals Association.