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.

Though rarely addressed in peace talks, armed nonstate groups have as great a capacity for destruction as do conventional forces, and just as much skin in the game. Their names are becoming more familiar with every passing year. In addition to al Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army, there is the Janjaweed, a loose collection of militias in Darfur; the White Army, a band of armed youth in South Sudan; the Seleka, a Muslim rebel coalition that overthrew CAR’s government last March; the anti-Balaka, the Seleka’s Christian opponent; the March 23 Movement, or the M23, a rebel army that was fighting for control of Congo; and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a militia now based in eastern Congo.

Such groups rarely sit at negotiating tables, sometimes because they aren’t invited, and other times because they refuse. But there is little point in continuing with peace processes without strategies to counter them, or engaging in talks that exclude civil society groups and citizen advocates. It is similarly counterproductive to hold elections before meaningful political reforms have occurred, to pass sanctions if arms continue to flow freely across borders, to integrate human rights abusers into national armies without demobilizing their supporters, or to deploy expensive UN peacekeeping missions that have limited mandates. Yet this is the norm in African conflict resolution today.

There is a rational explanation for this structural failure. The world is still one in which the nation-state is the dominant actor, so peace processes often end up ignoring regional or subnational dynamics. And although many states have learned much about disrupting terrorist financial networks, they have made little effort to halt the funding to African groups committing human rights atrocities or prolonging violent conflicts.

There is new cause for hope, however: efforts to bring an end to horrific violence in Congo, home to the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II, have finally made headway. Since the mid-1990s, successive conflicts have troubled the eastern part of the country. In 1998, Rwanda and Uganda’s invasion kicked off what became known as Africa’s first world war, with nine neighboring states involved. Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed insurgencies have plagued eastern Congo since then, killing more than five million people. After years of inept peacemaking and ineffectual peacekeeping, an African regional initiative, backed by UN envoy Mary Robinson and U.S. envoy Russ Feingold, managed to help bring about the defeat of one of the most pernicious regional militias, the M23, at the end of 2013. 

The approach essentially had three legs. First, the UN buttressed an existing peacekeeping mission by deploying the so-called Force Intervention Brigade -- 3,000 African troops who were authorized to use deadly force and assisted the Congolese army in a series of winning battles with the M23. Second, the military effort followed a series of actions designed to dry up the international market for so-called conflict minerals, which help fund the armed groups in Congo. Numerous corporations, including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Motorola Solutions worked to reform international supply chains that had allowed illegally extracted minerals to trade on global markets and end up in cell phones and computers everywhere. Congressional legislation and corporate initiatives have dramatically reduced the money available to armed groups such as the M23, which previously financed themselves by smuggling minerals and other natural resources. Finally, the United States and a number of other countries effectively pressured the M23’s chief external sponsor, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, to pull his support for the group.

Today, further efforts are moving the country forward. An emphasis on accountability has lent the peace mission unusual credibility: the M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda is now being held in The Hague, the Congolese warlord Germain Katanga has already been prosecuted there for war crimes, and local courts have tried Congolese military officers for mass rape. Congo’s parliament has discussed setting up a court with a “mixed chamber,” bringing together local and international jurists to deal with the huge number of atrocities that have been committed as part of the war. And international monetary support for Congolese civil society has increased, as have domestic demands for reforming the government and the military.

If this approach ultimately yields fruit in Congo, it could serve as a model for peacemaking and mediation efforts elsewhere, including CAR and the two war-weary Sudans. As has been the case in Congo, however, future success will require a concerted effort on the part of diplomats, peacekeepers, multinational companies, civil society, and international leaders. For the millions of vulnerable Africans who are suffering from unrelenting violence, however, the longer the status quo in peacemaking goes unchallenged, the more destruction, displacement, and death they will see in the years to come.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now