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On August 1, 2018, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo declared an outbreak of Ebola in the country’s war-torn northeast. It was Congo’s tenth recorded outbreak of the deadly hemorrhagic fever, but the first in an active conflict zone. Determined to avoid a repeat of the West African Ebola epidemic in 2014, when outside help was too little, too late, donors threw caution to the wind and pumped more than $700 million into northeastern Congo to fight the disease over the next 20 months. To protect their staff members, the World Health Organization and its partners put both Congolese security forces and local militia members on their payrolls. This created perverse incentives: although the combatants had reason to refrain from attacking aid workers, they also had an interest in prolonging the epidemic so they could keep profiting from it. Between August 2018 and June 2020, when the Ebola epidemic was finally declared over, some militiamen and members of the government security forces stoked violence and instability so that the disease would continue to spread and the international aid agencies would continue to pay them. A well-meaning effort to contain the disease ended up doing the exact opposite.
This is the face of many African conflicts today. Whereas most armed groups on the continent once aimed to topple governments or secede and found new countries, those who take up arms these days are more likely to do so as a means of bargaining over resources. Some government officials in Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, and elsewhere have sought to prolong and even instigate conflicts, so long as they did not threaten their survival, and rebel groups in these and other countries have often challenged governments as a way of extracting payouts and other concessions. Although battles for state power haven’t disappeared altogether—the Ethiopian civil war is one such conflict—war in many African countries has become an economic bargaining tool, a way of life, and even a mode of governance.
This fundamental change in the nature of conflict on the continent presents a quandary for outside actors, including the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations, which often partner with African governments to fight terrorism or stem migration. If some African governments are not genuinely committed to stability or, even worse, are actively fueling instability, foreign partners risk becoming complicit in the violence by supporting them without demanding better governance and accountability in return. It is therefore time for a new approach. Instead of bolstering regimes that are too often part of the problem, Washington, Brussels, and other external actors should work more closely with civil society and democratic movements on the continent to promote democratic reform. Only by changing the character of African states can they hope to change the character of conflict in Africa.
The nature of war in Africa has changed dramatically over the past 60 years. In the 1960s and 1970s, most of the region’s conflicts were power struggles among the elites of newly independent countries, as was the case in Congo and Nigeria, or struggles between liberation movements and the last vestiges of colonialism, as in the remaining Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique and in the white settler colonies of Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. For all these insurgencies, the goal was to control the state—either the central state or a secessionist one—and to gain freedom. Throughout this period, belligerents were egged on and exploited by rival powers in the Cold War. The United States, the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba all sent weapons, military advisers, and money to countries across the continent, making the wars there more brutal and intractable. They also exported their ideologies, fueling conflicts between movements for African socialism and governments that had thrown in their lot with the United States.
The end of the Cold War unleashed new forces on the continent. Authoritarian governments, some of which had lost their external patrons, began to open up, both economically and politically. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed many countries to privatize and deregulate large parts of their economies in exchange for loans, and political leaders and civil society movements led a wave of democratic reforms. Within the span of about a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, the continent went from largely autocratic to mostly practicing some form of democracy.
These changes ushered in two new and seemingly contradictory trends: African conflicts became more frequent, but they also became more peripheral and less directly threatening to governments. In the past decade, the number of armed groups in Congo has doubled, to around 120. There are probably over 40 such groups in South Sudan, 20 in Libya, and at least several dozen in Nigeria. For the most part, however, these insurgents have no realistic chance of toppling the government; rather, they aim to bargain with it through violence. Gone are the days of bloody, all-out civil wars, such as those that occurred in Ethiopia and Rwanda in the 1990s. Africa has entered an age of grinding low-level conflict and instability.
This does not mean that the conflicts have become less destructive; they have just become less visible and sensational. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people forcibly displaced by conflict nearly tripled, even as the number of people killed fell. Large parts of rural Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan are now controlled by armed groups. In other words, a growing number of smaller, more fragmented conflicts are affecting larger geographic areas, especially on the peripheries of states. The World Bank predicts that if current trends continue, by 2030, up to two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor will live in countries affected by high levels of violence, a majority of them in Africa.
War has become an economic bargaining tool, a way of life, and even a mode of governance.
As the nature of African conflicts has shifted, so, too, have the interests and motivations of the belligerents. Today’s armed actors aren’t liberation fighters in the tradition of Mozambique’s Samora Machel and Guinea-Bissau’s Amílcar Cabral. They aren’t “reform insurgents,” epitomized by Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who sought to seize power in order to transform their countries. They aren’t even warlords in the mold of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who despite his reputation for depravity aimed to capture the state. The armed groups wreaking havoc in Africa today defy these categories. They run the gamut from Islamist insurgents in East Africa and the Sahel to disgruntled army officers in South Sudan to organized gangs of bandits in northeastern Nigeria.
Despite what some of them might claim, few of these groups genuinely aim to overthrow the government or secede. Rather, they seek to extract resources from the state and local residents, involve themselves in local governance, and offer young men—rebellion is usually extremely masculine—a means of survival and dignity. In some cases, insurgents have developed symbiotic relationships with the governments they nominally oppose. In Congo, for example, a rebel commander named Laurent Nkunda told me in 2008 that his group received information and ammunition from a high-ranking Congolese general. “The government is our main logistician,” he said. A disgusted soldier in the Congolese army concurred. “We are being killed by our own bullets, with complicity of our own commanders,” he told me.
This symbiosis between rebels and governments does not imply a grand conspiracy to perpetuate conflict. Rather, violence has become systemic, transcending the intentions of any individual actor. Countries such as Congo are so weak and fragmented that leaders are hard-pressed to exercise centralized control over them. After all, imposing discipline and accountability within the security forces comes at a risk, especially on a continent with a history of military coups. Backing armed groups, by contrast, can be a safer bet, one that also provides lucrative business opportunities.
The jihadi insurgencies that have spread like wildfire across Africa in recent years might seem like the exception to the rule. Whereas very few rebellions framed their objectives in religious terms in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, a majority of the conflicts on the continent today involve insurgents linked in some way to al Qaeda or the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Such groups often claim they are trying to establish their own sovereign caliphates. But although many tax people in the areas they control and regulate daily life—as al Shabab does in Somalia, for instance—most no longer view state power as the prize. Instead of genuinely trying to overthrow the central government, they use violence as a means of controlling their troops, signaling their importance, and recruiting new funders and combatants.
Another factor driving the use of violence as a bargaining tool is that most of Africa’s insurgencies are repeat civil wars. That is, practically every civil conflict on the continent is playing out on top of the ruins of—and, more important, on top of the social networks, worldviews, and grievances associated with—previous episodes of violence. This has created entire social classes invested in conflict and has made armed mobilization a practical and accepted means of conducting politics. Armed conflict has become an occupation, or a métier, as the French political scientist Marielle Debos has observed of fighters in Chad.
Perhaps nowhere better exemplifies the new face of African conflict than Congo. Between 1996 and 2003, the country fought two large-scale wars, the second of which involved armies from nine different countries in the region and is sometimes referred to as the African World War. In 2003, the warring parties agreed to a peace deal that created a transitional government, which in turn drafted a new constitution and, in 2006, held Congo’s first democratic elections in 46 years. But the peace deal did not end the conflict. Instead, it marked the beginning of a more amorphous and fragmented phase of the war. Although the fighting is mostly confined to the provinces of Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu, as of 2021, there were more than 5.6 million internally displaced people in eastern Congo—more than at any time in recorded history.
A host of factors explain how the conflict metastasized as it did. The 2003 peace deal marginalized one of the most powerful belligerents, the Congolese Rally for Democracy, a faction of which went back to war. The process of demobilizing fighters and reforming the army created few alternative livelihoods for former combatants and sidelined many formerly powerful commanders, breeding resentment and spawning a multitude of new armed groups led by army defectors. And the rush to elections in 2006 and 2011 incentivized politicians to ally with armed groups that held sway over voters in certain areas and could intimidate opponents. Elections also created losers, some of whom resorted to violence.
All these problems were exacerbated by the Congolese government’s cynical attitude toward the mounting insecurity. Huddled in the capital, Kinshasa, President Joseph Kabila and his close advisers were more concerned about managing their fledgling national army, newly created out of a patchwork of former belligerents, than about the ragtag armed groups sprouting up 1,000 miles to the east. Palace intrigue and fear of a coup dominated their thinking, so they saw greater risk in trying to impose discipline on the security forces than in allowing patronage and racketeering networks to proliferate. Instead of trying to create a politically neutral and meritocratic army, they forged independent—and sometimes competing—networks of loyal officers to extract rents and protect themselves against coups.
This governing tactic not only maintained the war economy, in which a narrow elite of politicians, military commanders, rebels, and entrepreneurs had prospered for more than two decades, but actually expanded it. For these elites, as well as for tens of thousands of combatants, the end of violence would have meant the end of their livelihoods—and of their sense of dignity. In peacetime, police and army officers struggle to survive on their meager salaries. But when sent to the front, they can make bonuses worth many times their official wages. Although their base salaries peaked at around $150 per month, military officers told me in 2014 that they often received conflict bonuses of up to $1,000 a month. Adding to the allure, soldiers deployed in wartime have many more opportunities for pillage, extortion, and embezzlement. “To make money, you have to fight,” one Congolese colonel told me. This cynicism has filtered down into popular sayings: Congolese refer to rebels who stir up trouble so that the government must negotiate with them as “pyromaniac firefighters.”
Nigeria also exemplifies the new normal in African conflict. The country is beset by a violent Islamist insurgency in the northeast, rampant banditry in the northwest, conflicts between pastoralists and farmers in the middle of the country, long-standing militia activity in the Niger Delta, and widespread criminality everywhere in between. In 2021, according to the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, the country had 9,691 conflict fatalities, the most in Africa. And just as in Congo, although many members of the security forces and the government are committed to pacifying the country, many others either benefit from the violence or have little incentive to clamp down on it. In the country’s north, the Nigerian security forces have either failed to quell the violence or actively fueled it by stealing operational funds and in some cases supporting militias. In one northwestern state, Zamfara, a government committee found that five emirs and 33 district heads had been complicit in attacks by bandits between 2011 and 2019. When it is not directly stoking the violence, the Nigerian government often does little to stop it. Over the last decade, various government entities have established at least 22 commissions of inquiry, panels, and fact-finding missions related to the violence in the northeast of the country alone. Almost none of their recommendations have been implemented.
The reason for this insouciance is clear: insecurity has become a racket. Millions of dollars have gone missing from public funds set up to support military operations and humanitarian efforts, allegedly embezzled by government and military officials. In 2020, the governor of Borno, the state worst hit by conflict with Islamist insurgents, claimed that security officials were sabotaging the fight against Boko Haram for their own profit. The sums at stake are colossal. In 2016, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo claimed that the previous government had stolen around $15 billion in state funds through fraudulent arms procurement deals alone.
The dynamic can also be found in South Sudan, which achieved independence from Sudan in 2011. By then, the rebel movement turned government of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, once an ideologically driven and popularly supported organization, had devolved into an unstable coalition of military entrepreneurs with separate bases of power held together by racketeering, ethnic loyalty, and the threat of violence. This government, which was almost entirely financed through oil revenue, fatefully decided in 2012 to shut off the pipelines to Sudan in order to negotiate better terms with its northern neighbor. The gambit failed, leading to a catastrophic decline in revenue and dissolving the financial glue that held the SPLM together.
Factions led by President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar had already been quarreling over resources and over old grudges from the civil war. But the sudden loss of revenue pushed them into open conflict. Abraham Kuol Nyuon, a former SPLM fighter, succinctly explained what happened in an interview with the Financial Times in 2021: “When we became independent, there was a cake in front of us and some said they were the ones who would eat it alone. . . . Other people said ‘if you are going to eat it, it is better we fight over it.’” In other words, South Sudan’s leaders could not work out how to share the spoils of independence. And so barely two years after it had come into being, the country succumbed to bloody civil war, as the SPLM splintered into two main groups and several minor ones, all of which recruited mostly along ethnic lines and were led by military strongmen.
From 2013 until 2018, when a peace deal brought Kiir and Machar back under the same roof, military leaders used violence as a means of bargaining among themselves. Kiir and Machar were the main belligerents in this struggle, but a host of local strongmen also raised smaller rebel factions to challenge and negotiate with the central government. The result was a patchwork of patronage networks linking government officials to militias and local power brokers—all of them using violence to bolster their stature and obtain resources.
In June 2020, the Small Arms Survey made a quixotic attempt to map the main alliances and rivalries among South Sudanese elites. What the organization produced was a riotous collage of overlapping arrows. In the end, almost all the armed actors were connected to all the others—evidence, it seems, for the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s observation that “the postcolonial mode of domination is a regime that involves not just control but conviviality.”
Conflict in Africa has many causes: weak and illegitimate states inherited at independence, illogical borders drawn in colonial times, and economies heavily dependent on natural resources. But most of these factors haven’t changed for decades, whereas the nature of the violence has. To understand the rise of conflict as a bargaining tool and of the perverse symbiosis between many governments and the rebel groups that oppose them, one must look to the rapid liberalization of economic and political systems that occurred at the end of and after the Cold War.
Economic liberalization began in Africa in the 1980s, driven by the dismal economic performance of many countries and pressure from the World Bank, the IMF, and business elites. Privatization and deregulation eventually boosted innovation and competitiveness, but they also created new sources of profit for armed groups and made it easier for them to recruit. While average incomes finally began to grow around 2002, producing a strong new African middle class, the number of poor people on the continent has also risen. Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to over half of the world’s extreme poor: 490 million people as of 2021, up from 284 million in 1990.
Nigeria’s experience with economic liberalization in the mid-1980s showed how dangerous these economic shifts could be. Faced with enormous debts, falling oil revenues, and a general economic crisis, the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida decided in 1986 to implement an IMF program that devalued the currency, cut spending on social services and subsidies, and privatized state-run companies. As a result, average incomes plummeted, and many people had to drop out of school and could no longer afford to see a doctor. Although Nigeria’s economic fortunes eventually improved, the initial shock of the reforms undermined the legitimacy of the Nigerian state and accentuated divisions within society as politicians resorted to ethnic and religious appeals to shore up their own legitimacy. Liberalization also created opportunities for graft and illicit business, giving rise to petroleum smuggling, commercial and financial fraud, and the drug trade. As in all illegal markets, those who wielded violence enjoyed an additional advantage.
Africa has entered an age of grinding low-level conflict and instability.
Economic liberalization also created a population of willing foot soldiers for armed groups. By concentrating agricultural capital and land in the hands of a small elite, the IMF-led reforms devastated rural peasants and widened the economic disparities between urban and rural areas. Cities beckoned more than ever, promising consumerism and opportunity but delivering mainly sprawling slums. Left behind in the Nigerian countryside were large numbers of subsistence farmers with shrinking farms and dwindling economic prospects. As was the case elsewhere in Africa, these marginalized rural dwellers joined armed groups in disproportionate numbers, pointing to a related shift in the nature of conflict on the continent: whereas previous rebellions had recruited from both urban and rural populations, bridging the two, many recent insurgencies—in the Central African Republic, Congo, South Sudan, and Sudan, for instance—have been largely composed of rural fighters operating mainly in the countryside. Concerned primarily with extracting resources from the state rather than seizing control of it, these movements have little intention of taking over large cities. Armed rebellion has thus become geographically peripheral at the same time as it has become economically and politically central.
But it was not just economic liberalization that set the stage for a new kind of war; it was political liberalization, as well. After the end of the Cold War, multiparty democracy was introduced across most of Africa. This political opening had many benefits. It drew would-be insurgents away from the battlefield and into electoral politics. It redirected resources away from armed groups and toward political parties and elections. And it changed norms across the continent. In 2002, the African Union formally obligated its members to reject unconstitutional changes of government. This political transition brought encouraging reforms in some countries, such as Ghana and Malawi, but in many others, it remained incomplete, producing regimes that blended authoritarianism and patronage politics with some form of electoral competition—what some have called “illiberal democracies” or “hybrid political orders.”
From the Congo to Kenya to Nigeria, political elites used the electoral system to bolster their legitimacy and divide their opponents, but they have also often resorted to backing armed groups in order to enhance their status, intimidate their rivals, or extract resources. Since the outcome of competitive elections suddenly determined how public patronage would be shared, elites now had enormous incentives to manipulate the electoral process and capture the political system. In Mali, for instance, a country once hailed as a standard-bearer for democracy on the continent, the political system was eventually hijacked by national elites and regional “big men,” fueling subsequent cycles of insurgency. Once in office, political leaders in dysfunctional and weak electoral democracies were incentivized to use conflict and ethnicity to pit their opponents against one another and stay in power. This was the playbook of Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then called Zaire (now Congo) in the 1990s, and it has been that of various political leaders in Kenya and of President Paul Biya in Cameroon.
It should come as no surprise that a wave of incomplete democratization that invited corruption and ethnic strife delivered little in the way of accountability and oversight. In Congo, almost a third of parliamentarians do not even bother show up to vote. The government has never audited the security services, despite repeated allegations of corruption and the poor performance of the military. Part of the problem is that elected officials often feel no obligation to their constituencies. Many political leaders I interviewed in Kinshasa displayed little knowledge of or interest in the conflict in the eastern part of the country. “Those people have always been at war. Nothing we can do will change that,” one member of Parliament from Kinshasa told me. “When I campaign in my constituency in Kinshasa, no one ever asks me about violence in the eastern Congo,” another told me. The situation is similar in Nigeria. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, only nine percent of voters said that addressing violence should be the government’s top priority.
Violence as a lifestyle and a bargaining strategy is not unique to Africa. An equally perverse symbiosis between the government and insurgents can be found in Mexico, where the per capita homicide rate is at least as high as that of Congo or Nigeria. There, too, economic liberalization and democratization have played a role in escalating violence. As the researchers Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley have shown, for 71 years under the single-party rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Mexico’s government managed and profited from the drug trade without inviting anywhere close to the current level of bloodshed. When Mexico transitioned to democracy in 2000, however, this centralized management of the drug trade broke down. Feuds between different cartels broke out, even as most of them maintained ties to the state. Similar networks linking political and economic elites to criminal gangs and militias can be found in other Central American countries, as well as in some of Brazil’s major cities.
What sets African conflicts apart is the degree to which foreign donors and diplomats have unwittingly become complicit in the violence. Warring elites in Somalia and South Sudan have regularly used peace processes as vehicles for extracting rents from international donors. Congo provides another cautionary tale. To cement the 2003 peace deal, donors helped rewrite the country’s mining, tax, and investment codes in order to improve transparency and attract foreign companies. Their hope was to create a middle class that could one day hold the government accountable. Instead, they opened the way for an enormous influx of foreign capital, much of which Congolese elites were able to siphon off despite the new laws. Estimates of the amount stolen in just a few of these deals range from $1.3 billion to $5.5 billion. Documents leaked from a Gabonese bank showed that members of Kabila’s family embezzled at least $138 million in state funds between 2010 and 2020. In addition to helping the Congolese people hold their government accountable, in other words, foreign donors helped build a system that drained the Congolese state of much of its revenue.
Africa’s international partners have an even worse record when it comes to situations in which their national security interests are on the line. In order to fight terrorism and stem migration, for instance, the United States and various European countries have routinely backed African security forces more intent on protecting their own privileges than on securing their populations. The United States provided $118 million in military aid to Uganda in 2019, for instance, even though Museveni’s authoritarian government frequently uses force against its own citizens. France was even bolder, deploying its own military to Chad in 2008 and 2019 to help defeat rebels trying to oust the country’s authoritarian president, Idriss Déby, a key French ally in the Sahel. And the United States and European states are not the only sources of such funding. In 2019, Burundi’s government received $13 million from the United Nations, or roughly 20 percent of its total military budget, in exchange for sending peacekeepers to the Central African Republic.
To avoid inadvertently reinforcing the very conflict dynamics they seek to combat, the United States, European countries, and the United Nations need not disengage from Africa or abandon the promotion of democracy. Rather, they should help strengthen and deepen the reforms initiated across the continent in the 1990s. Doing so would reinforce Africa’s greatest political strength: its vibrant—and, yes, noisy and messy—pluralism. The demand for democracy in Africa is still strong. When polled, seven out of ten Africans reject autocratic rule and express support for electing their leaders.
Yet Washington has been inconsistent about backing democratic movements in Africa, wavering in its support for North African protesters during the Arab Spring and bolstering autocratic regimes in Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda at the expense of democratic reform. Despite credible reports of fraud in Congo’s 2018 presidential election, the Trump administration didn’t just accept Félix Tshisekedi’s supposed victory; it celebrated it. When I asked a senior U.S. official about this reaction, he said, “It was the best result we could hope for.”
France has maintained a similar posture toward the Sahel, often appearing more concerned with shoring up its alliances there to stem migration across the Mediterranean than with promoting democracy. After Déby’s unexpected death in 2021, for instance, French President Emmanuel Macron pointedly sat next to the late Chadian strongman’s son Mahamat at the funeral, visibly demonstrating Paris’s support for dynastic succession over a transition to democracy. “France will not let anybody put into question or threaten today or tomorrow Chad’s stability and integrity,” Macron declared to the gathered mourners.
Many of the autocratic governments that Western governments prop up in the name of stability rule through weakness and insecurity.
But the tradeoff between security and democracy is a false one. Many of the same autocratic governments that Western governments prop up in the name of stability rule through weakness and insecurity. They tolerate and even invite conflict in order to pry aid from Western donors and facilitate their illicit business. Sending more aid to these governments makes little sense if the ruling elites can simply siphon billions of dollars from public coffers. According to the United Nations, capital flight from Africa exceeds aid to the continent by around $40 billion each year—a good chunk of which can likely be explained by corrupt elites squirreling away money abroad.
The United States and its European partners should start by reforming the international financial system that allows for and even encourages such behavior, doing away with tax havens and provisions for banking secrecy. But they should also push for even deeper structural transformations in Africa itself: free markets have produced growth and opportunities for a narrow elite there, but they have also driven the bulk of the population into precariousness. Almost every country that has made the jump from low- to middle-income status has done so thanks to significant state intervention in its domestic industries. African countries are no different. To trade with other states on a more equal basis, not just as sources of raw materials, they will need to build up their domestic industries, which will require technology transfers, investment in education, and tax barriers to protect local companies.
Most important of all, the United States and its European partners must match their rhetoric on democracy with action. This will require taking a strong stance in defense of free elections and civil liberties, a stance that may be harder to maintain as hawkish Western officials increasingly come to see African politics through the lens of geopolitical competition with China or as an arena for counterterrorism operations. It will also require greater financial support for African democratic institutions—civil society organizations, election commissions, media outlets, independent auditing bodies, and parliaments—as well as for universities, which are the incubators of innovation and activism. The vast majority of U.S. foreign aid currently goes to health care, humanitarian aid, and economic development. Much of that is money well spent, but as a share of its economy, the United States spends a third of what France, Germany, and the United Kingdom spend on foreign aid and a quarter of what Norway and Sweden spend. It could do much more.
The Biden administration has taken a different rhetorical approach to Africa than its predecessor. On Antony Blinken’s first trip to the continent as secretary of state, in November 2021, he said the United States would place a greater emphasis on democracy. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has proposed getting rid of tax havens by instituting a global minimum tax on corporations. Macron has also promised to improve France’s relationship with the continent, including by creating a foundation to support democracy and by returning African art currently held in French museums. But such cosmetic changes are unlikely to alter the pattern of conflict that has taken root in Africa over the last three decades. Once entrenched, patterns of conflict tend to last.