Overview of African Conflicts

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

January 8, 2004


The year 2004 comes with some light of hope for the continent. There are fewer armed conflicts and most existing ones are on a way to be resolved, thanks mostly to combined interventions of African regional organizations and the international community. From Sierra Leone to the Congo, from Ethiopia to Burundi and to the Western Sahara, regional efforts have been supported and seconded by the United Nations, the United States, France and United Kingdom. The negative effects of these conflicts would however linger on for time to come.

In the 1960-70s, regime changes through military take-over occurred almost daily. With the exception of three countries, Kenya, Senegal and Cameroon, every country has had at least such a change. Countries that fought liberation wars in Southern Africa have somehow been mostly stable, with the exception of Angola that went through a devastating 13-year civil war that ended only two years ago with death of Dr. Jonas Savimbi, the head of UNITA.

Armed conflicts became the phenomenon of the 1980s, just as the late 1960s and 1970s were marked by military coups. These conflicts have caused the death of millions of people: 3 to 4 million in the Democratic Republic of Congo; 3 million in Angola; 180,000 in Ethiopia-Eritrea; 250,000 in Liberia; 60,000 in Sierra Leone and millions in Sudan, Uganda and Cote d'Ivoire. These conflicts also have other serious consequences on the development of the continent.

Effects of national conflicts regional integration
Conflicts have affected more than just the countries where they occurred. For many years, African governments have tried to integrate the continent's economies and development plans to create large markets, an important step for any continental sustainable development. These attempts to integration remained elusive because of national conflicts that extend beyond national borders.

For example, the Union of Maghreb, an important economic space that would have encompassed Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania never took-off because two of the most important nations in that Union were standing at odds for decades because of the Western Sahara. Morocco laid claims on the former Spanish colony while Algeria and Mauritania supported autonomy for the territory. In West Africa, the 15-country organization, ECOWAS that could have created one of the largest economic entities on the continent with some 250 million people and tremendous natural resources, was paralyzed for the past 15 years because of policy differences over the war in Liberia. The same misunderstanding is again prevailing over the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire.

The Congo civil war is certainly the most dramatic reflection of such case of an entire region caught in one country's internal strife. After Mobutu left in 1997, the Kabila government was perceived by Rwanda and Angola as offering shelter to people who committed the genocide or supporting rebel movements in Uganda. These two countries supported rebels against the Kabila regime while Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia sent troops to support the same government.

The new conflicts in Africa led by rebels are much different from the military coups that took place in the 1970s-1980s and were palace coups with a military leader ousting a president. While a few high ranking officials lost their jobs or their lives, not much changed in the country. The rebellions in Uganda, Liberia, Sudan and the Congo have created chaotic situations were governments stopped functioning, institutions were shut down and populations were forced to flee their homes.

Conflicts and the Spread of HIV/AIDS
These rebellions that ultimately toppled the sitting governments also created human disasters. One of those disasters now prevailing and making ravages is the HIV/AIDS.

Countries in Africa most affected by the HIV/AIDS virus are those that went through long periods of rebellion or "liberation wars." According to UN figures, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa are among the countries with the highest level of HIV/AIDS incidence in the world. They were engulfed in the spiral of "liberation wars" – countries like Mozambique and Botswana served as transit points for fighters. In the early 1990s, before the "AIDS revolution" of President Museveni that reduced HIV incidence from 30 to six percent, Uganda had the highest level of Aids infection on the continent. The Democratic Republic of Congo, once stable under Mobutu, now has the highest level of AIDS incidence on the continent.

In West Africa, Liberia, according to the USAID, with less than 1 percent, had one of the lowest of HIV/AIDS incidence in 1989 on the continent. Now, the country's HIV/AIDS level stands at staggering 16 percent.

"Rebel" armies that have little regard for human rights committed rape and sexual slavery wherever they went, as in the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Uganda, among other places. Sometimes, when peace comes through the intervention of neighboring countries, the sexual industry, because of poverty, becomes the only means of survival for impoverished youth. In this situation, soldiers with cash become the spreaders of sexually transmitted diseases. It is said that more than 25 percent of Uganda soldiers who went to the DRC were HIV positive.

Conflicts and Development Issues
Development projects have all but been halted in many parts of the continent because funding from the international community or regional organizations are now spent on conflict management and peacekeeping and refugee issues, all direct results of conflicts.

Another humanitarian toll of the conflicts is even more devastating. Millions of people have been left homeless and now are refugees in unwelcoming lands. Hundreds of thousands of children have been forcibly conscribed to fight wars they did not understand while millions of women were raped and turned into sexual slaves in various conflict spots.

Many conflicts seem to be on the verge of being resolved while others loom on the horizon. Cote d'Ivoire is on a collision course with chaos and Guinea is on the verge of explosion. Countries with internal conflicts are a small minority in Africa, may be 6 or 7 all in all, but like bad apples, they carry whole regions into the abyss.

Western Sahara - Morocco
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Koffi Annan, called on Morocco to accept the UN Peace Plan for the Western Sahara. The plan, which was developed by UN Special Representative to Morocco, Mr. James Baker, calls for a referendum on independence after a five-year period of autonomy. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Sguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) has accepted the plan. However, very little has changed in the position of the Moroccan government, since the Marche Verte (Green Walk), some thirty years ago, when a wave of tens of thousands of Moroccans literally invaded Western Sahara to lay claim to the land. The Moroccan government has always relied on the tacit "understanding" of American administrations. But this new plan changed that. According to the French newsmagazine Jeune Afrique, President George W. Bush is said to have asked King Mohamed VI to be "creative." The US President is not about to contradict fellow Texan James Baker, a close family friend and Republican strategist. Moroccan officials still continue to view the POLISARIO as nothing more than a creation of Algeria. Morocco left the Organization of African Unity in the late 1970s because of the support of the majority of African countries for the independence of Western Sahara.

Recently, POLISARIO freed some 300 Moroccan "war prisoners." During a recent trip in the region, US Secretary of State Collin Powell called on Moroccan officials to start a dialogue with their Algerian counterparts, adding that the US would continue to support the Baker Plan.

Border demarcation between the two neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa was postponed indefinitely. The Ethiopian government refused to go along with the joint border commission's decision that gave Badme to Eritrea. Badme, a small dusty town with only a few mostly empty homes, surrounded by arid plains has now become the badge of honor that each government wants to give its people. The war caused the death of 140,000 soldiers from both countries, 120,000 civilians died and hundreds of thousands were made homeless. The commission had drawn a line "in the sand between" the two countries and the decision was to become formal in October but was postponed. Earlier this year, UN Secretary General Koffi Anan warned the two countries that the UN would not keep peacekeepers stationed there indefinitely. Meanwhile, the ghostly town Badme, claimed by both countries has become the symbol of one the least understood conflicts in African history.

President Charles G. Taylor went into exile in Calabar, in Nigeria on August 11 and Mr. Gyude Bryant was inaugurated as Chairman of the transitional government of Liberia for a two-year period in October 2003. However, although there is relative calm in Monrovia now under United Nations control, fighters of the three warring factions still control much of the countryside. Furthermore Chairman Gyude Bryant has had difficulties in asserting his authority especially in dealing with issues of appointing people to positions not included in the Accra Peace Accord signed in August 2003. Mr. Sekou Damateh, the leader of LURD (Liberia United for Peace and Democracy) has threatened to withdraw from the peace accord unless Mr. Bryant either resigns or renegotiates appointments of some of the LURD members in the government. Both Bryant and Damateh backed down but this signals hard times ahead for the new administration.

The strong UN presence so far is the best guarantee for a successful outcome of this new peace initiative. Sporadic fighting continues in remote areas of Nimba County in the northeastern part of the country, according to the UN military mission. The warring factions' demands for more ministerial positions in the government have slowed disarmament because of demands. Disarmament of fighters by the United Nations peacekeeping force began in December but was interrupted a week later, scheduled to resume in late January. There are currently 5,000 peacekeepers in Liberia and their number is expected to reach 15,000. The UN troops have deployed in rebel territories and should cover the whole country by March 2004, according Mr. Jacques Paul Klein, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Liberia.

A donors-conference scheduled for early February 2004 and sponsored by the UN, the USA and the World Bank will try to raise some $300 million for the reconstruction of Liberia.

Côte d'Ivoire
ECOWAS leaders met in Accra, Ghana, on November 11, 2003, with President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d'Ivoire in the absence of rebels and opposition parties to review the peace process in Côte d'Ivoire. Just a year ago, the signing of the Lina-Marcoussis Peace Accords in France that led to a power sharing government gave hope that the crisis would come to an end. The rebels, who control more than half of the country, suspended their participation in the government in September; they accused President Laurent Gbagbo of refusing to implement aspects of the Marcoussis peace Accord that would allow them to have effective control of sectors of the government allocated to them. On his end, President Gbagbo wants rebels to end their unilateral occupation of territories they seized on September 19, 2001 and submit to disarmament. Tensions flared up at the end of November when a group of "loyalists" attempted to penetrate the rebel territory and an organization of "Young Patriots" staged demonstrations in front of French military base in Abidjan, causing injuries. A meeting between present Gbagbo and the rebel leadership in Yamoussoukro on Thursday, December 4, 2003 brought hopes for a renewed commitment to the peace plan. Presidential elections scheduled for 2005 are highly unlikely under the current circumstances. On December 22, 2003, rebel leaders decided to end their boycott of the transitional government and resume negotiations for disarmament. On January 6, 2004, rebel ministers attended their first cabinet meeting with President Gbagbo since August 2003.

The war in Congo lasted 7 years. 4 million people were killed, the great majority by the effects of the war, such as hunger and disease. More than 60,000 child soldiers took part in the war that started in 1998, after the rebel movement of Joseph Kabila overthrew the government of Mobutu Sese Seko. After months of negotiations, the 55 million-nation is slowly awakening to a fragile peace. A new government of national union was formed, under the leadership of Joseph Kabila, Jr. who rose to power after his father was assassinated in 2001. The current government comprises 4 vice-presidents and 62 ministers, along with a transitional assembly of 600 members. Security is still tense in the country, especially for political leaders. One of the vice-presidents, Jean Pierre Bemba maintains a helicopter on his property ready to take off while Nzanga Mobutu, the son of the late president Mobutu who returned home in 2001 does not move without his seven bodyguards. But according to Colonel Mountaga Diallo, Head of the UN Peacekeeping force, there is a serious commitment from all factions to sustain the new albeit fragile peace process.

On November 16, 2003, political, defense and security power sharing agreements were signed between the government and the rebel movement CNDD-FDD (Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie) of Pierre Nkurunziza. The signing took place during a regional summit that brought together leaders of the sub-region in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania. The accord was reached after lengthy negotiations in South Africa. The accord called for the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping force to take-over from African Union troops. The heads of state also gave the other rebel faction, FNL, (Forces Nationales de Liberation) a 3-month deadline to start negotiations with government.

Talks between the government of Khartoum and rebels of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLPA) were suspended because of the Muslim Ramadan holy month. Both sides claimed that major issues have been resolved and looked forward to meet after the Ramadan to iron-out details.

"Sudan has never been so close to reaching a comprehensive peace agreement and we are hopeful that belligerents will seize the opportunity," said Ms. Jennifer Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, DC, based think tank that recently organized a conference on health related issues attended by both the government of Khartoum and rebels of the Sudanese People's Army (SPLA). US Secretary of State Collin Powell also traveled to Kenya to give his support to the talks that brought together Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and the leader of the SPLA, John Garang. Mr. Collin Powell promised the full support of the United States government to an imminent peace accord. For his part, Mr. John Garang, who received "carte blanche" from 2,000 members of his movement to negotiate a peace settlement, said, "We have made considerable progress regarding the presidency, elections and power sharing." According to Ms. Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C., one of the crucial issues still to be resolved concerns security during the interim period. Both the government of Khartoum and the SPLA as well as observers, including the United States, expect a peace agreement by the end of the year, bringing to a close the longest conflict on the continent.