By Aaron Ross and David Lewis
JOHANNESBURG/NAIROBI (Reuters) - On June 29, Maman Sidikou, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, received a cable from headquarters in New York in which his bosses laid out in no uncertain terms that the world's largest peacekeeping mission had to make cuts, and fast.
Facing an 8 percent, or $93 million, budget cut for 2017/18, Sidikou was told to revise staffing, slash fuel costs by 10 percent and streamline aircraft use - all without compromising the mission's mandate, according to the cable seen by Reuters.
The mission in Democratic Republic of Congo, known as MONUSCO, must work out how to juggle those demands with the need to respond to a growing political and humanitarian crisis in the central African giant - and it is not alone.
Belt-tightening at MONUSCO, which has about 18,000 uniformed personnel, is part of a broader push by the United States, the biggest U.N. contributor, to cut costs. In June, the 193 U.N. member states agreed to a total $600 million in cuts to more than a dozen missions for the year ending June 30, 2018.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said at the time: "We're only getting started."
On Wednesday the 15-member U.N. Security Council will discuss peacekeeping reform during the annual gathering of world leaders. Ethiopia, council president for September, said it expected about 10 heads of state or government to attend. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is due to represent Washington.
Diplomats said the council was due to adopt a resolution pushing for improved accountability, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness in peacekeeping performance and to make peacekeepers more agile and flexible.
"My intention is to do everything to preserve the integrity of the peacekeeping missions, but, of course, to do also everything possible to make it in the most effective and cost-effective way," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters last week.
But critics worry that harsh cuts could harm peacekeeping operations in some volatile African states.
The United Nations has spent $18 billion on peacekeeping in Congo since the mission began in 1999. MONUSCO says efforts to boost efficiency by making military units more agile and reducing operating costs are bearing fruit.
Analysts and some U.N. insiders say progress is slow, however, and that administrators in New York are dodging many of the thorniest issues – specifically the poor quality of many troops, confusion over the mission's priorities and a culture that protects senior, well-paid officials even when they do not perform.
Military leaders within MONUSCO are pushing to replace underperforming units, long accused of passivity in protecting civilians, with more capable troops. But long-standing reluctance by governments to risk their soldiers' lives in distant conflicts continues to undermine effectiveness.
"In recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential because of bureaucracy and mismanagement," U.S. President Donald Trump told a meeting on U.N. reform on Monday, adding: "We also ask that every peacekeeping mission have clearly defined goals and metrics for evaluating success."
Trump has said he wants to cap the U.S. share of the $7.3 billion peacekeeping bill at 25 percent, down from 28.5 percent, a level he says is "unfair" to the top contributor.
MORE TROOPS NEEDED?
While a peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast closed earlier this year and troop levels in Sudan's Darfur region are due to be halved, U.N. officials say they need more, not fewer, blue helmets in hot spots like Mali, Central African Republic and South Sudan.
"Peacekeeping reform is essential, and the U.S. should lead in demanding better performance and accountability. But that will not be achieved by crippling the ability of U.N. troops and civilian personnel to operate where they’re needed most," said Matt Wells, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International.
In a July 15 cable addressed to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, MONUSCO's Sidikou outlined his streamlining plans. They included a reduction of the force size by at least 750 troops, cuts to official travel and reductions in rations provided to Congolese soldiers.
In another cable three days later, Sidikou said he intended to ease restrictions on where units can operate, making them more flexible and able to respond to crises more quickly.
After several years during which the focus had been largely on foreign armed groups, the U.N. mission is now having to contend with increasingly dangerous local rebellions. An uprising in Kasai, on the border with Angola, has displaced 1.4 million people over the past year alone.
Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila also failed to step down when his mandate expired last December, a decision that has fueled violence across Congo, where millions have died in violent conflicts over the past two decades.
It is unclear if he will respect an agreement that calls for an election by the end of this year to choose his successor.
"In the near future, elections related violence might erupt across the whole of the DRC. Consequently, the Force requires the freedom to deploy its troops in a timely manner, to wherever they may be required," Sidikou's cable said.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York and Jason Patinkin in Addis Ababa; Editing by Peter Cooney)