What is the overall state of African security at this moment in 2018? Clearly, on a continent with fifty-four countries and more than a billion people, there is no way to handle that question with a simple answer. But it’s still useful to examine broad trends and dynamics as a guide to understanding the main challenges and framing policy options and approaches for the future.
At one level, it’s hard to think of the last twelve months as encompassing any big breakthroughs. For example, using Sweden’s Uppsala University database on world conflicts, of the ten countries out of Africa’s fifty-four experiencing the most recent violence, four had somewhat more documented casualties in 2017 than 2016 and six had somewhat fewer—but the overall numbers did not really change. In order of estimated fatalities in 2017, those countries include Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Ethiopia and Sudan. (Bear in mind that countries with more advanced infrastructure and more police and/or international presence may be able to document casualties more accurately—so this ranking is more suggestive than conclusive.)
While it’s frustrating to see no net progress, and the durability of heartbreaking and longstanding conflicts in places like the Sudans, Somalia, Nigeria, and DRC, it is worth noting that today’s wars are far less lethal than those of the early post–Cold War years, when conflicts from Sierra Leone and Liberia to DRC to Rwanda to Darfur to Angola to Burundi often killed many tens of thousands a year, if not hundreds of thousands. By contrast, though incomplete, the total documented fatalities in 2017 for the ten countries listed above according to the Uppsala database totaled somewhat more than thirteen thousand—still far too many, of course, but still major progress from a couple decades ago.
So rather than delve into the trends in more detail, we’ll take a more thematic approach with this piece and discuss the continent’s security and related political trends in a different way. Think of modern Africa as enjoying three blessings, and suffering still from three curses. We’ll begin with the latter so as to finish on a happier note, consistent with the gradual trend towards a somewhat more peaceful and hopeful continent in the twenty-first century.
Curse one: Ongoing ethnic and sectarian war. We know from the Balkans, from Afghanistan, from the Middle East, and elsewhere that sectarian and ethnic wars are not only found in Africa. But alas they still are found there in large numbers. Most of the conflicts listed above have their roots, or at least the oxygen that keeps then burning, in such differences. In Somalia, the fights are more clan-based; in CAR, and parts of Sudan, they are largely religious; that is also true in Nigeria. But ethnicity is often an exacerbating characteristic in most of these ongoing conflicts.
Curse two: Limited democracy. Conflicts in DRC, South Sudan, Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere are often caused or stoked by strongman leaders who refuse to allow fair votes, by weak institutions that make any fledgling efforts towards democracy incapable of stabilizing the countries, or by oppressive leaders that turn personal rivalry into vendettas against entire groups.
Curse three: Limited resources and poor economic prospects. Although about a third of its countries have been growing fairly well economically in recent years—a higher percentage than in the past—Africa and Africans still experience high rates of poverty. Often, conflicts are exacerbated by poor economic, climatic, or other environmental conditions that lead to intense zero-sum fights over dwindling farmland, rangeland, and the like. These problems are only growing as Africa’s population continues to grow fast while its arid regions expand. Partly as a result, numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons in Africa remain near record levels (even if fatalities from fighting do not, as noted above).
But if the problems remain serious, Africa enjoys several blessings, beyond the joyfulness of its peoples, richness of its culture, and somewhat favorable overall trends in violence, democracy and economic growth in recent decades that have already been noted. Some aspects of them are longstanding; some are more recent developments.
Blessing one: Lack of interstate wars. Africa’s countries may often be artificial creations, and its borders may often cut through traditional zones of key ethnic groups or tribal communities, but still, African countries don’t tend to fight each other. This has been true for a long time, yet 2018 has seen a major additional breakthrough with the détente and peace process between longstanding foes Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Blessing two: A stronger African Union. The union still has severe limits, no doubt. But it has become more politically decisive, and its forces more operationally effective, over the years. Notable cases have included Darfur, where the union has operated in conjunction with the United Nations, and also Somalia where it still runs a large operation with more than twenty thousand troops. That latter effort is somewhat stuck, in the sense that further progress in stabilizing and reintegrating Somalia has been difficult to come by in recent years. But the country is certainly better off than it once was, and the union for better or worse has stayed the course.
Blessing three: Pockets of hope for greater political stability in some key places. It is too soon to know for sure, but in some places where there have been political transitions or key elections in recent months, such as Kenya and Zimbabwe, there is hope for at least a measure of progress. Of course, the latter country in particular remains at a delicate point; countries like Burundi and DRC cannot get rid of leaders who have learned to delay elections and add terms to their constitutions and the like; Egypt is still ruled by a strongman who led a coup in 2013; and the continent overall, as noted above under curse number two, is far from democratic. But incremental progress is better than nothing, and a few key places like Nigeria and Ethiopia (sub-Saharan Africa’s two most populous countries) probably can be counted as ongoing partial political success stories, even if they are also clearly still works in progress.
A mixed scorecard like the above is hardly the basis for major celebration. But after many decades in which it witnessed many or most of the world’s worst wars, Africa is no longer all about bad news on the security front.
Namarig Kram is a graduate of St. Lawrence University and intern at Brookings, where O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and co-director of the Africa Security Initiative.
Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Image: Soldiers open fire to disperse crowds of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change supporters outside the party's headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings