Africa: Building Peace in Troubled Places – South Sudan, the Sahel, Mozambique

A UN peacekeeper in the village of Diallo in the Bandiagara area in Mopti in Mali.
9 April 2021

A backgrounder for AllAfrica's online discussion with scholars and peace practitioners.

South Sudan

What's the backdrop?

Modern Sudan was recognised as an independent nation in 1956 after more than half a century of British colonial rule when it became Africa's largest nation by land area. From the outset, the country was plagued by the divide, seen across Africa from west to east, between peoples – largely across the continent's northern tier - who adopted Islam and those further south who adopted Christianity or adhered to traditional religions and cultures.

In Sudan, this divide led to civil war between the north and south from the time of independence to 1972 and again from 1983 to 2005. Among the drivers of the conflict was oil wealth, much of which was in Sudan's south, but which was exploited by and largely benefited northern elites that dominated the government.

Fighting subsided when the government in Khartoum in the north and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement in the south signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. The CPA was brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional grouping of east African states with one of Africa's better records of promoting peace.

What is the source of recent conflict?

The CPA allowed southern Sudan a degree of autonomy and provided for a referendum on independence after six years. The people of the south voted overwhelmingly for independence, and the new nation of South Sudan was born in July 2011 amid great celebration and high hopes.

Oil has sowed the seeds of conflict.

The succession cost Sudan the majority of its oil fields, but it continued to control the pipeline through which South Sudan petroleum reached international markets. Oil still accounts for approximately half of Sudan's revenue – and an estimated 98 percent of South Sudan's. In both neighbors, what has been called 'the curse of oil' has sowed seeds of rivalry for the profits generated by the oil business.

Two years after South Sudan's independence, a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar triggered a new civil war, this time within South Sudan and characterised by a mixture of ethnic, communal, and factional rivalries. IGAD-brokered ceasefires repeatedly broke down, as did peace agreements reached in 2015 and 2018. An estimated 400,000 people died in the new conflict and millions were displaced.

Where do things stand?

Salva Kiir and Riek Machar agreed to form a Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity in February 2020. Apart from localised outbreaks of violence, the peace has held, but it remains fragile, and little has been accomplished in building a diversified economy and providing services to a largely poor population.

Now IGAD has facilitated a new agreement, opening a dialogue between South Sudan's unity government and two rebel groups which were not part of the 2018 accord. The government has secured its first International Monetary Fund loan, and the United Nations has extended the mandate of its peacekeeping mission until March 2022.

In the words of an editorial in The East African newspaper: "The challenge now lays in the extent to which the parties can honestly discuss the pending agenda. Looking at the balance of power, the outcome depends on the extent to which the parties will be willing to make concessions... South Sudan will not see peace until the question of governance is settled."

Webinar participant Shuvai Busuman Nyoni, who heads the African Leadership Centre (ALC) based in Nairobi, is an expert on South Sudan. She says the nation is " yet to be at a place where the South Sudanese can say with certainty that they know that they can live well and they can live long...We have to look especially at the situation of women and children. We have high numbers of sexual violence [cases] that still continue, and also in certain parts of the country localised conflicts or what is oftentimes called inter-communal violence, which has underlying political linkages to the bigger political conflict... [W]e cannot say that peace has finally come, especially if some South Sudanese people themselves cannot say that with confidence."


What's the backdrop?

Violence in Mozambique's northern-most province of Cabo Delgado, bordering Tanzania, is nothing new. Slave traders operated there from the 18th century, and the liberation war against the Portuguese colonisers began there in 1964. More recently, there have been outbreaks of violence in 2005 and 2010.

Far from the capital, Maputo, in the south, Cabo Delgado is the country's poorest province. Unemployment is high, and many in the majority Muslim population feel marginalised. The discovery of natural gas reserves off the coast, the disruption the discovery and the exploitation of the resource has brought to some communities, and concern by local people that they will see no benefits have raised the stakes for the future.

"There is no lasting peace without social justice."

What is the source of the current conflict?

Young Muslims began in the early 2000s to organise themselves into a group called "Ansaru-Sunna" to promote a stricter form of the faith. A more militant sub-group split off and formed Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ), popularly called al-Shabaab, which loosely means 'the youth'. The group in Mozambique is not part of the organization of the same name in Somalia. Responding to appeals from mainstream Muslims, the government began to crack down on the ASWJ in 2016.

The group carried out its first attack around the town of Mocímboa da Praia, near the Tanzanian border, in 2017. It has since escalated the conflict, including perpetrating such gruesome atrocities as the beheading of women and children. Its fighters seized control of Mocímboa da Praia in August 2020. Researchers say the group includes some Tanzanians.

Dr. Yussuf Adam of Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo is one of the foremost experts on the region. In an interview last year, he told AllAfrica that simplistic explanations, such as Islamic extremism, obscure the complex causes of violence and retard the path to peace. Using "the oppressive apparatus of the state" in response to local protests had been counter-productive, he said, where what was needed was more services, less repression, and less corruption.

"We have to have long-term projects at a slow pace, at a peaceful pace, where we manage to talk to people, work with people, have their collaboration," he said. With colleagues, Adam was planning a research programme that would take faculty and students " to work with the community, with the villages, with the mosques," to help the population evolve community-based solutions to the unrest.

Where do things stand now?

The government's militarized approach in the region escalated, and extremists exploited the growing discontent. The sophistication of the insurgency is growing. The recent invasion of the strategic port town of Palma - a base for corporate gas operations - has made international news.

More than 2,000 people have been killed. The United Nations says the number of people forced from their homes grew from 70,000 a year ago to nearly 700,000 today. They expect a million to be displaced by June. Towns change hands as fighting with government forces and foreign mercenaries – including South Africans – goes back and forth. Conditions have been worsened by the coronavirus and cyclones in 2020.

The government's reliance on a military strategy, plus reported abuses by the military and mercenaries, is troubling to NGOs, churches, and Muslim religious leaders, who say the core issues of marginalisation and poverty are being neglected. As our webinar contributor on Mozambique, Daniel Matsinhe, comments: "[T]he people of Cabo Delgado have been neglected by the current government." The scarcity of social services, such as schools and health facilities, and the lack of infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and water supplies, make daily life a struggle.

Another concern is the recent designation by the United States of the ASWJ as a "Foreign Terrorist Organization" and the man they name as its leader, Abu Yasir Hassan, as a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist". U.S. officials are using the name "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique)" to describe the rebels.

The Americans say classified intelligence shows the Mozambican group has ties with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, calling the evidence "quite incontrovertible". But the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) says while there is evidence of some contact, "communication between the groups and some coordination in disseminating propaganda does not suggest especially close links."

In the view of the ICG, describing southern and central African militants as international terrorists "could unintentionally send a counterproductive signal to political actors in the region. Especially in DR Congo [where a similar group has also been designated a terrorist organisation] and Mozambique, where these measures are not fully understood even by top policymakers, they could be used by hardliners to justify calls for addressing the challenge... through military action alone.

"Military operations in the DRC and Mozambique have recently dented both groups, but tackling the threat they pose will require a broader approach, including efforts to appeal to the Congolese and Mozambican citizens who respectively make up the bulk of fighters in both groups," the ICG added.

Left-behind and left-out young people watch local riches being plundered.

David Matsinhe says a resolution to the conflict will require significant investment in social programmes for local people whose rage is fueled by desperation. "They are standing aside," he says, "looking at outsiders, those who come from elsewhere within and outside of the country, benefiting from the development of these mining and gas projects."

He points out that "a lack of investment in education for the past 45 years means that the people of Cabo Delgado, especially young people, were left without skills, which means not only are they unemployed but they are also unemployable in the growing mining and gas industry in the province."

The Sahel

What's the backdrop?

The largely semi-arid region crosses Africa from east to west between the Sahara to the north and the tropical savannah to the south. The region is largely agricultural. Herders and farmers play a major economic role. Across West Africa, the Sahel is a land of porous national borders and weak central governments. It is particularly susceptible to climate change, with rainfall declining and scientists predicting that temperatures could be 3 to 5 degrees higher by 2050.

What is the source of current conflict?

The upsurge in violence dates back to 2012, with an insurgency aimed at independence or greater autonomy for northern Mali. Separatists from the Tuareg group of nomadic pastoralists were the early militants, followed by groups calling themselves Islamic. The instability spread to Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger, involving communal and extremist violence, illegal trafficking across borders, forced changes of government in Mali, and an uprising in Burkina Faso.

Unrest and violent attacks have spilled over into Mauritania and Nigeria. Adding to the tensions of governance disputes are droughts and floods resulting from climate change, which are increasing competition for land between pastoralists and farmers.

Ornella Moderan, webinar participant from the South Africa-headquartered Institute for Security Studies' Sahel project in Bamako, Mali, calls the security situation in the region "extremely worrisome". Assessing some of the reasons behind the instability, she observes that "local conflicts, age-old local tensions, have spiraled and worsened", while access to guns, a reduction in the presence of reliable government, and a lack of basic access to social services "have all worsened".

Where do things stand now?

Since 2012, tens of thousands have been killed. In 2020, nearly 6,500 people were killed in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Millions have been forced from their homes.

In June 2020, nearly one million Burkinabe had reportedly been internally displaced, and the region hosts an estimated 850,000 refugees, mainly from Mali. In October, 13.4 million people – or one in five Sahelians – needed humanitarian assistance. In 2020 nearly five million more people experienced food insecurity than in 2019.

French intervention in northern Mali early in the 2012 insurgency blocked extremist fighters from taking over the south. But militants have since entered central Mali, south-western Niger, and northern and eastern Burkina Faso. An al-Qaeda affiliate, Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, and the local Islamic State offshoot have exploited local discontent to gain recruits.

Last year in Mali and Burkina Faso, more civilians were reported killed in clashes involving local militias and armies than in attacks by extremists. Islamic supremacists repeatedly attack members of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma), making it the most dangerous UN peacekeeping mission in the world.

Islamist extremists' involvement in the violence has attracted French support for Sahel governments in the form of a military intervention called Operation Barkhane, costing a reported 600 million euros a year. American security assistance to the "G5-Sahel" – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger as well as Mauritania – over the last two decades has totaled nearly $1.4 billion.

But western backing is not curbing the insurgencies. A recent research paper from the London-based think tank, Chatham House, observed: "Today, success depends first and foremost on the willingness (much more than on the capacity) of corrupt leaders to reform and renew their social contract with citizens, especially in rural areas. International efforts will fail as long as impunity prevails and local armies can kill civilians and topple governments without consequence."

How to secure a future free of violent conflicts? Put those who feel left out at the centre of peacebuilding.

Veteran American commentator on Africa, William Minter – who keeps a sharply critical eye on interventions in Africa – believes that the western alliance against terrorism may finally be starting to realize that military intervention will not wipe out the problem. "All seem to agree," he says,  "that Western counter-terrorism policy in the Sahel has been both over-militarized and ineffective.... Unfortunately, it seems likely that the policy in practice is still unlikely to follow the rhetoric, as the institutions invested in military solutions have far more influence..."

Cameron Hudson, former chief of staff for the United States special envoy to Sudan and former Africa director of the White House's National Security Council agrees that military policies differ markedly from stated intentions.  "For all of the Biden Administration's soaring rhetoric about 'joining with like-minded allies and partners to revitalize democracy the world over,' he writes in an AllAfrica guest column, 'Western interests routinely outweigh our values to pernicious effect."

Those realities are ones African scholars, peace practitioners, and civil society organizations have been trying to explain. AllAfrica's expert panel of researchers is in agreement that lasting peace cannot be built without responsive, inclusive governance that addresses persistent poverty and the disillusion it breeds. "We really need to challenge ourselves on the assumptions on which we work", Moderan says in the discussion. "We need to include others; we need to include local actors; we need to include research."

The ALC's Nyoni concurs. "A lot of the focus in trying to establish peace or trying to change the situation on the ground, as David [Matsinhe] mentioned, is focused on military intervention, is focused, as Onela [Moderan] has said, in trying to deal with terrorists and insurgents. "Very little focus, Nyoni says, "is on understanding the needs of those who feel left out, including women."

"How do we secure the future in a way that is free of violent conflicts?" she asks. "As David so eloquently put it, we must put young people at the centre, not only as those who are involved in conflict or violence but also young people who are thinking, who are researching, who are activists, who are on the frontline as peacebuilders or just citizens."

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