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Report revealed how African regional interventions are perceived in Gambia and Burkina Faso

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Although African regional interventions have tangible effects on politics and order in African states, we know little about how people living in the countries concerned experience and evaluate these interventions. The assumption in the literature is that African interventions are generally perceived as legitimate due to the interveners’ cultural proximity to the contexts of intervention. Based on interview and focus group research, we present firsthand and systematically generated empirical data on local perceptions of AU and Ecowas interventions in two African states: Burkina Faso (2014/15) and The Gambia (2016/17). Contrary to the assumption in the literature, we demonstrate that (1) AU and Ecowas interventions are locally more contested than often assumed, but that (2) local perceptions are at the same time multiplex. In both countries, we find (3) a marked difference between elite perceptions on the one hand and those of ‘everyday citizens’ on the other, which reflects variegated experiences with and exposures to the regional interventions resulting from different social, political, and spatial positionalities. These findings extend existing research on local perceptions of interventions by a perspective on non-Western interveners; and they have important implications for understanding both the legitimacy and effectiveness of African regional interventions.

With the ‘local turn’ in peace and conflict research, the question of how people living in societies subject to intervention experience and perceive these endeavours is receiving increasing attention from both practitioners and scholars. Scholars have studied local perceptions of military interventions,Footnote1 but also those of international peacebuilding,Footnote2 humanitarian assistance,Footnote3 as well as mediation and peace negotiations.Footnote4 In particular, this research has revealed the conflictive nature of international interventions – feelings of imposition, broken promises, and outright resistance – and by this pointed to crucial disconnects between international interveners and those living in societies under intervention when it comes to the understanding of the conflict at hand as well as the values and goals that interventions are set out to promote. Understanding local perceptions is hence not only relevant from a practical point of view – in making interventions better – but also from an analytical-epistemic perspective: for better understanding the legitimacy and likely effects of international interventions.

However, despite this growing scholarly attention to local perspectives, this literature has so far predominantly been concerned with interventions conducted by the United Nations (UN) and Western interveners such as the European Union or individual states. This focus neglects an important reality of contemporary intervention practice, that is, the growing role of regional interveners. In fact, since 2015, the large majority of international peace interventions has been conducted by regional organizations or alliances and not by the UN.

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One important factor behind this global geography of intervention is the growing role of African regional organisations like the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in undertaking interventions in their member states. Twenty percent of the peace operations deployed in 2022 took place under the mandate of African regional organizations. And 29% of the globally deployed military, police, and civilian personnel was hatted by African regional organisations.

Despite calls for de-centring intervention researchFootnote7 and paying more attention to the growing role of non-Western interveners, however, there is scant systematic engagement with the question how these African interveners are actually perceived on the ground.

One reason behind this research gap is the widespread assumption that African interveners can count on a generally high local legitimacy due to their cultural and ideological proximity to the contexts of intervention. When mediating conflicts, African third parties are said to ‘possess a social status that (…) provides them with a high degree of legitimacy’ due to ‘a common African commitment to the norm of African solutions to African challenges’. They are said to be perceived as ‘an insider’Footnote11 and to ‘share the same cultural background [and therefore] are likely to be more in tune with a conflict at hand’.Footnote12 Contrary to this argument, African regional organizations are also often portrayed as merely serving the interests of incumbent political elites, which would make them interested and partial third parties.Footnote13

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In this article, we therefore explore how African regional interventions are perceived locally and what explains these perceptions. In so doing, we present first-hand and systematically gathered data on local perceptions of two African regional interventions by AU and Ecowas – in Burkina Faso and The Gambia – and with this provide evidence to nuance both assumptions hitherto prevalent in the literature. In both countries, AU and Ecowas intervened in response to political crises in order to re-establish constitutional order and to defend African regional political norms, which is the most dominant form of African intervention practice today.Footnote14 While the regional intervention in Burkina Faso was based on mediation, negotiations, and the application of targeted sanctions, the one in The Gambia also included a military component, the Ecowas Mission in The Gambia (Ecomig), which continued to be deployed even after the initial crisis was resolved.

In order to reconstruct local perceptions of these two interventions, we draw on empirical insights generated in two phases of field research between 2020 and 2022, in which we conducted more than 20 focus groups and more than 150 interviews with elites and ‘everyday citizens’ in different parts of both countries.

Based on this wealth of empirical data, we demonstrate that, first, African regional interventions are locally more contested than suggested in the literature, but that, second, perceptions of these interventions are at the same time more multiplex than often assumed. With multiplexity, we mean the simultaneous existence of various forms of relating to, experiencing, and evaluating an intervention both at the individual and the societal level. Thirdly, and connected to that, in both countries we find a marked difference between elite perceptions on the one hand and those of everyday citizens on the other. With this, this article also extends previous research on local perceptions of regional interventions based on media reports, which reflects elite perspectives, but is largely unable to capture those of everyday citizens.Footnote16 Altogether, the multiplexity of perceptions points to variegated experiences with and exposures to regional interventions, which are a result of people’s different social, political, and spatial positionality, and which in turn shape how these interventions are (differently) perceived.

The remainder of this article is structured as follows. In the next section, we define what we mean by perceptions and elaborate on our methodological approach to study them. We then give some background to the AU and Ecowas interventions in Burkina Faso and The Gambia before presenting our main findings on elite and everyday citizens’ perceptions of both interventions. Based on this, the fifth section explains what contestation and multiplexity mean for understanding perceptions of African interventions. In the conclusion, we summarize our argument and discuss implications for both the conduct and the study of African regional interventions as well as for intervention research more broadly.

Researching local perceptions

While perceptions have become an important subject for both scholarly analysis and policy practice, it is less often clear what perceptions actually are and why they matter for a particular issue at hand. In this article, we use the term perceptions to denote individuals’ understanding and interpretation of concrete experiences.

Perceptions are therefore by definition subjective, for they are shaped by individual experiences in concrete social contexts. However, perceptions also draw on and generate collective and intersubjective meanings. While perceptions are not necessarily equal to the realities on which they are based, they can have real effects in that they shape people’s behaviour and thus create realities.

This is particularly important in the field of international interventions, since externally promoted strategies to build peace and change orders necessarily require support and active participation from the societies – or at least parts of them – in which change is supposed to take place. People’s perceptions are therefore ‘an essential building block to peace’.

If interveners are seen as external occupation, as pursuing hidden agendas, only following their own interests, or as not fulfilling their mandate, cooperation with them is likely to be low and trust in the intervening actors can be permanently damaged. Such a situation might increase societal conflict in the countries concerned and can, in turn, lead to withdrawal from or outright resistance to the intervention.

The study of perceptions is therefore linked to but also distinct from studying the legitimacy of a given intervention. While studies on the legitimacy of interventions are usually interested in measuring a level of support and local willingness to cooperate, often evaluated on singular, external yardsticks, analysing perceptions records people’s own sense-making, allowing a better understanding of just how and why support or critique is articulated. Perceptions can therefore be considered as the meanings that nourish particular understandings of legitimacy.

In order to make perceptions understandable for practical empirical research, this article builds on two analytic specifications generated from the existing literature. The first relates to the object of perceptions, that is, what is perceived. As several authors have pointed out, local perceptions might differ starkly on whether debate is about the structure of an intervention, that is its aims, mandate, etc., whether it is the conduct of an intervention that is at stake, i.e. the behaviour of mediators, peacekeepers, decisions by the respective organization, etc., or the intervention outcomes. Against this background, we examine perceptions with regard to all three dimensions: (1) the structure, (2) conduct, and (3) outcomes of an intervention.

The second analytic specification relates to the subject of perception, that is who perceives and in what way. As argued by Andrea Talentino, interventions are a ‘perceptual minefield’Footnote26 in which ‘different categories of people are likely to see things differently’. Difference in perceptions is for instance attributed to individuals’ diverging roles during the preceding conflict, to different socio-economic and educational backgrounds, or to locality and different spatial experiences of interventions.

In order to operationalise the multiple subjects of perception, we distinguish between two broad categories of actors: elites and everyday citizens. With the term ‘elites’, we refer to people in influential positions, which includes the political realm (political elites), but also the broader social realm (societal elites). While elites are also citizens, we use the term ‘everyday citizens’ to describe what is otherwise often referred to as ‘non-elites’ or ‘ordinary citizens’, hence members of the general public that do not hold any influential position.

Our empirical data consist of more than 20 focus group discussions and over 150 interviews conducted between 2020 and 2022 in different parts of Burkina Faso and The Gambia. Contrary to alternative methodological approaches such as media analysis, focus group and interview research allows going beyond the elite-bias of most media outlets; and other than survey research, they capture people’s own narratives rather than merely registering predefined opinions.

Among the research participants were 200 political and societal elites as well as 163 everyday citizens.

In both countries, separate focus groups were held with elites, such as parliamentarians from governing and opposition parties or leaders of social movements and civil society organizations, and everyday citizens, for instance residents of marginalised urban areas and villages, market women, or youth (see Table A1 in the Annex). While the selection of participants was not statistically representative, it followed a strategic sampling approach in order to reflect difference with regard to socio-economic status, age, gender, and ethnicity. Individual focus groups were designed with the greatest possible internal homogeneity in order to ensure a trustful conversation among the participants, as well as significant heterogeneity between the different groups to capture the greatest possible spectrum of voices. The focus groups were based on a jointly developed questionnaire and moderated by a Burkinabè/Gambian moderator. While some focus group participants spoke French/English, others used local languages such as Mooré, Dyula, Wollof, Mandinka, and Fula.

AU and Ecowas interventions in Burkina Faso and The Gambia

Over the past two decades, African regional organizations have become important interveners, responding to conflicts in their member states and thus affecting politics and order on the continent in substantial ways. This applies particularly to the AU as well as the sub-regional body Ecowas. One area in which this growing intervention role has become especially visible is in these organisations’ responses to political and constitutional crises as well as coups d’état in their member states. Both organisations have defined common political standards and developed legal norms to address such situations and work for the ‘restoration of constitutional order’ in the states concerned.

The research was conducted by the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).

To be continued

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