The New Face of African Conflict

In Search of a Way Forward

Congolese soldiers walk past a former M23 armory near Congo's border with Uganda, November 2013. (Kenny Katombe / Courtesy Reuters)

As a new wave of violent conflicts has ravaged Africa, borders and conventional peace processes have done little to contain them. A cold war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has spilled over into Somalia, where Eritrea has supported the jihadist group al Shabaab in its fight against the Ethiopian-backed government in Mogadishu. Meanwhile, the group has helped fuel the illegal ivory trade and launched terrorist attacks in neighboring Kenya, one of which killed 67 people in a Nairobi mall last fall. Sudan and South Sudan have supported insurgencies in each other’s backyards, and Sudanese Janjaweed militias have fought in eastern Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR). The Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group led by Joseph Kony, has sought refuge and wreaked havoc in the Democratic Republic of Congo, CAR, and South Sudan. And civil war in Congo has been the deadliest of them all, long subject to cross-border destabilization from Rwanda and Uganda.

These conflicts are not new, but they have never been more linked than they are today. In most cases, criminal networks or neighboring governments have empowered armed groups to seek control of some of the world’s weakest states. Yet traditional peacemaking efforts have consistently failed to grapple with that reality. Outside mediators -- whether from the United States, the United Nations, or the African Union -- have focused almost exclusively on the most powerful military actors. In Sudan, multiple subnational peace negotiations between the Khartoum government and rebel groups have compartmentalized regional conflicts in the Abyei area, the Blue Nile, Darfur, eastern Sudan, and the Nuba Mountains. Yet combatants in these areas harbor similar grievances that should be addressed in a single comprehensive peace process. In South Sudan, UN diplomats never addressed widening rifts within the ruling political party after the country gained independence in 2011. As a result, when disputes among senior politicians boiled over, the South Sudanese army splintered along ethnic lines in the capital last December, leading to ethnic violence and civil war almost overnight. In Congo, deal after deal has integrated a succession of warlords into the national army but has never addressed any of the underlying causes of the violence there, including a corrupt army, a weak state, and the looting of the country’s natural resources.

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