Africa Only Fights Internal Wars. Right? Wrong.

15 October 2019

It's time to bring the academic study of conflict in Africa back in line with reality.

Africa's public intellectuals often find themselves living in two worlds: that of lived experience and that of the academy. In this contradiction, researchers often have to filter and re-write real life stories in line with the received academic wisdom - which is dominated by Western scholarship - before they are considered publishable.

Some fields - such as environmental science and economic statistics - have already been upended after taking subaltern perspectives seriously and subjecting conventional wisdom to critical scrutiny. But not all have been similarly emancipated.

Political science and international relations are among them. They still take it as accepted fact that African countries don't fight inter-state wars. Scholars of conflict may regard the continent as uniquely conflict-prone, but they see it as a truism that while African states go to war, they do not go to war with one another.

"There is something different, something exceptional about Africa in terms of interstate war," writes political scientist Douglas Lemke. Interstate war in Africa "has become a rare event" concludes the RAND Corporation. A whole sub-field of academia has been constructed on this basis.

These accounts, however, are also in need of critical scrutiny. There are fundamental flaws in the data underpinning them and it is time to put the record straight. That was the rationale for our analysis in the new issue of the Journal of Modern African Studies.

Gaps in the data: a case study

The go-to reference for African conflict data is the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP). The database uses public record sources, such as newspaper articles and NGO reports. It classifies something as a conflict if it meets a threshold of 25 battle deaths in a calendar year.

It's an enormously useful source, but it also has crucial weaknesses. There are many instances we could draw on to demonstrate this, but let us begin with the example of clashes on the Ethiopia-Sudan border in 1989-90. In this conflict, five parties were involved: the Sudanese Armed Forces; the Ethiopian Defence Forces; the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA); the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF); and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

In November 1989, the SPLA and Ethiopian troops crossed into Sudan where they overran an army garrison. They were poised to take the town of Damazin and the nearby Blue Nile dam. The Sudanese army, which was in full retreat, was saved only by a secret commando action by the EPLF, which attacked the SPLA and Ethiopian army on both sides of the border in January 1990. The EPLF took with them a contingent of OLF fighters who were inserted into western Ethiopia where they acted as a proxy for the Ethiopian army, launching guerrilla operations and frequently facing the SPLA.

This complex episode illustrates the following points.

First, an incident involving five armed groups can be very hard to classify as being inter-state or not. This is especially the case since the EPLF - a "non-state actor" - was the senior partner in the counter-attack.

Second, assaults are often clandestine with details only emerging later. Both cross-border attacks in the above episode were secret and the involvement of Ethiopia in the first and the EPLF in the second was not reported at the time.

We now know that Ethiopia and Sudan were locked in a battle to destablise each other in the 1980s and 90s. Ethiopian troops fought in Sudan; Sudanese-sponsored rebels were active in Ethiopia; and several other rebel groups served as counter-insurgents for one side or the other. Based on contemporaneous reporting, however, the UCDP records Ethiopia and Sudan as only having internal conflicts at the time. The dataset's under-representation of covert and proxy warfare means the Ethiopia-Sudan conflict is almost entirely missing.

Third, the number of combat deaths can be hard to assess. In the clashes, the number of casualties was not reliably reported so it is unclear whether the UCDP's threshold of 25 combat deaths was met for any of the six potential pairings of belligerents ("dyads" in the UCDP's terminology).

Setting thresholds is always somewhat arbitrary and justifiable, but the dataset's battle deaths criterion risks disregarding the political significant of an encounter. There are many examples of highly significant but low intensity conflicts such as long-running on-off insurgencies or disputes between states in which major force is threatened but little actual fighting takes place.

Covert and international

The Ethiopia-Sudan conflict in 1989-1990 shows how a highly significant inter-state conflict can easily be coded incorrectly, but it is just one instance. Many conflicts across Africa are covert, proxy and/or low-intensity.

At a similar time in West Africa, for example, Charles Taylor was leading a hundred or so combatants into Liberia. Among those who participated in the 1989 assault were Libyan-trained Liberians, Burkinabe soldiers and Sierra Leonean mercenaries. Taylor was supported by weapons, radios and diplomatic assistance from Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré and fighters linked to Sierra Leonean rebel Foday Sankoh.

In north Africa when the popular uprising against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya turned violent, there was a high-profile intervention by NATO and a coalition of Arab countries. Less well-known was Sudan's intervention, supplying the Libyan revolutionaries with arms, advisers and intelligence.

Military coups are also often undertaken with foreign sponsorship. The assassination of Togo's President Sylvanius Olympio in 1963 was reportedly engineered, organised and financed by Ghana. The 1977 coup in the Seychelles was backed by Tanzania who secretly trained, armed and supported the operation that installed France-Albert René as president. Tanzanian troops then later protected René from a coup attempt by South African mercenaries.

A persistent assumption

Academic careers have been built on the truism that African states only have internal wars. Many take this assumption as a given and, accordingly, downplay the role of interstate dynamics. In fact, even scholars who detail how individual wars cross boundaries and governments destabilise their neighbours seem ready to accept the internal war assumption when talking about the continent as a whole.

Christopher Clapham, for instance, describes how African insurgencies usually draw on international support, but his generalisations about African rebels are based on the supposition that their determining dynamics are internal. William Reno's case studies of West African insurgencies detail their cross-border dimensions but he similarly centres on internal dynamics in Warfare in Independent Africa. Kidane Mengisteab argues that "by far the most intractable of African conflicts are the intrastate ones", but overlooks the fact that external involvement often makes these internal conflicts so intractable in the first place.

The internal war assumption doesn't only go unchallenged in academia. Among politicians and diplomats, the truism is also maintained. Policymakers have political vested interests for doing so as it allows them to pretend that the norms against inter-state war are being upheld. This means that the established modalities for peace-making can continue unaltered. UN Security Council resolutions are passed, Special Envoys are dispatched, and peace conferences are organised all premised on the unscrutinised belief.

We don't want to discount the internal factors involved in Africa's armed conflicts. Rather, we wish to elevate recognition of inter-state rivalry - pursued through covert or proxy military action - as a co-equal cause along with those internal factors.

Among other things, this change of focus would create space for the untold stories of Africa's wars to be recounted more fully. An account - necessarily greatly simplified - of the last 60 years of African conflict that more fully acknowledged its international aspects might look like this:

Africa's wars revisited

Phase 1: 1960 to mid-1970s

From around 1960 to the mid-1970s, newly-independent countries across the southern half of Africa worked together to support liberation fronts fighting racist and minority regimes in South Africa, Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

These were wars of pan-African solidarity. The Organisation of African Unity's Africa Liberation Committee was headquartered in Dar es Salaam where radical students such as Yoweri Museveni received training in Mozambican camps and Congolese activists such as Joseph Kabila struck up lifelong friendships with the leaders of Zimbabwean and Namibian liberation fronts.

This was also the era in which some nationalist politicians tried to pursue what they saw as the unfinished agenda of decolonisation. They launched wars for independence in South Sudan and Eritrea, while Somalia attempted to unify the Somali-speaking peoples in Kenya and Ethiopia under one flag.

Phase 2: mid-1970s to 1989

From the mid-1970s until 1989, many African states' regional ambitions intersected with the dynamics of the Cold War.

Somalia and Ethiopia channelled Soviet and American weaponry, respectively, into a deadly regional rivalry that also saw Sudan entangled in wars across the Horn. Comparable dynamics played out between Angola and Zaire, while apartheid South Africa sought to destabilise and dominate its neighbours. Libya invaded Chad and sought hegemony across the entire Saharan region, while Algeria and Morocco's rivalry was played out in the stalemated guerrilla war in the Western Sahara.

Phase 3: 1990 to mid-2000s

Immediately after the end of the Cold War, there was a surge in purely internal conflicts. However, these quickly mutated into - or were subsumed within - large-scale conflicts.

Among these was the so-called "Great War" of Africa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (1998-2003). This second Congolese war was initiated by Rwanda and Uganda, but it soon drew in most neighbouring countries including Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Sudan, Chad, Libya, Burundi and the Central African Republic. Its origins, however, go back to the 1990-94 civil war in Rwanda between the government at the time and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a direct outgrowth of Uganda's armed politics. After the RPF took power, it invaded the DRC in 1996, which led to Congo's first civil war and planted the seeds for the second.

Elsewhere in the mid-1990s, Ethiopia and Sudan were engaged in a proxy war, which was part of a wider conflict. Eritrea and Uganda supplied arms and combat units to Sudanese rebels, while Sudan's regime supported jihadist groups in Eritrea and Ugandan rebels such as the Lord's Resistance Army. In 1997, the zone of interlinked conflicts stretched all the way from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

In West Africa meanwhile, there was competition between Burkina Faso (backed by Libya) and Nigeria over Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Côte d'Ivoire. Taylor's warlord politics was one driving factor; cross-border sponsorship was another, with Burkina Faso's President Compaoré a major backer of guerrillas. This phase lasted until approximately the mid-2000s.

Phase 4: Mid-2000s to today

The current period is one in which the African Union (AU), supported by the UN, has developed an ambitious peace and security architecture. The cover story is that African leaders have put in place a system of conflict prevention and management - that when a village hut catches fire, all the neighbours rush to help put out the flames.

This has an element of truth - a war next door is a danger to all and a crisis in any part of the continent tarnishes the reputation of all - but it is also a convenient fiction. The African peace and security system also reinforces and legitimises the established inter-state power hierarchy. In most cases, a neighbour contributing troops to a peace operation is also pursuing its own hard national interests.

Another key feature of the current period is a much-increased level of European and US support to African governments pursuing armed conflicts. This was very rare in the 1990s but the US became far more active in deploying combat forces in counter-terror operations after 2001. France also returned to its practice from the early post-colonial days of dispatching troops, advisers and other forms of military support to its favoured countries.

Speaking honestly

None of this is new knowledge as such. All of these are facts known to historians of contemporary Africa and to the politicians and soldiers who make history. Yet somehow these realities have been deemed unimportant and invisible to the high-status quantitative research that sets the paradigms and dominates policy.

This article is a plea to bring the academic study of conflict in Africa back in line with those lived realities. This is necessary for the sake of honesty and accuracy in scholarship and for the purpose of better policies and practices in the field of peace and security.

The late Toni Morrison made an eloquent plea for African-American writers to liberate themselves from the "white gaze" and write honestly to their own experience without needing to speak a white audience. African students and practitioners of politics should share that confidence: their experience is no less real than that of their Western counterparts.


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