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Since the mid-1990s the UN, in tandem with major western powers, has embarked upon an ambitious effort of peace support operations in Africa. The results of what we may call the ‘Annan experiment’ are not yet in. But there are good reasons to fear that, in many African countries, such peace operations have defend normative outcomes that are beyond realistic expectation, so that they can never hope to ‘succeed’. This article examines the political and economic functioning of fragile African states using the lens of a ‘political marketplace’ in which local elites seek to obtain the highest reward for their loyalty, over short time horizons, within patrimonial systems. In such systems, political institutions are incapable of managing confect, which means that standard peacemaking efforts and peacekeeping operations do not align with domestic possibilities for settlement. To the contrary, external engagements can so distort domestic political markets that they obstruct national political bargaining and result in an open-ended commitment to peacekeeping in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.