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.