Friday, March 15, 2013

Conflict and Terrorism in Africa

Following is the text of a speech I gave in February, 2013.
Conflict and Terrorism in Africa

Prepared for Angelo State University, February 2013

Robert E. Gribbin

Americans often think of Africa as a locus of violence.  A place where conflict and warfare are common; where strange politics brings barbarous men like Idi Amin, Jean Bedel Bokassa and Charles Taylor to power; where atrocities like starvation, rape and genocide are all too common as is the plunder of villages and the theft of resources.  More recently Africa has also been the site of international terrorism – specifically the killings of American diplomatic personnel in Libya and the occupation of northern Mali.   Unfortunately the stereotypes of violence in Africa are true or at least were true for parts of Africa.  In this talk I propose to look at the nature of conflicts and terrorism to see if we can better understand and find ways to deal with them.

First, I believe it import to know that conflict occurs over something.  The something might be land for grazing or agricultural rights; another might be people – slavery engendered lots of conflict; a third, religion – Nigerians, for example, still engage in religious based fighting between Christians and Moslems and of course international terrorism has its roots in Islamic fundamentalism; a fourth, ideology – war in the Congo, Angola and Ethiopia all contained cold war rationales. and a fifth, the liberation wars for southern Africa  were fought in opposition to the ideology of white rule. Whatever the accompanying reasons, basically conflict comes down to power – challengers seeking to control the government and its resources and defenders seeking to preserve dominance.

A second factor that is always in play in Africa is that of identity.  Although it has become politically incorrect to speak of tribalism, ethnic identity is precisely the factor involved.  Anthropologists define a tribe as a group with a common language, culture and myths of origin.  Tribal identity is integral to individual identity. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya, for example, and employing young men for a water project; their letters seeking employment would begin “Dear Sir, my name is James, I am Luo”  or  “I am Nandi by tribe.”  In modern Africa adherence to the larger tribal family provides a ready network for education, places to stay in the cities and jobs.  Those who have succeeded in life are inclined to look after their brothers first. It is expected of them and they expect to do it. In the post independence years after 1960 tribalism flourished as the building block of politics wherein each tribal group contested for power and the spoils of government.  This remains true today. African states are artificially constructed geographical entities and as such have forced tribes together that prior to the modern era by and large maintained their own systems of government, society and economy.  It is not surprising that tribal contesting for the control of government is the hallmark of African politics.

The African nations that have avoided being swept up in tribal based jockeying and conflict, either have one numerically overwhelming tribe in charge like Botswana or have too many tribes like Tanzania so that no single group can hope to prevail.  I have to footnote here that there are always exceptions. Somalia has but one tribe, the Somali, yet it has been riven by internal factions based on clans. Rwanda’s terrible genocide in 1994 that left about one million dead was based not on tribal differences, but on ethnic differences between Hutu and Tutsi, both ethnicities fall within the broader tribe of Kinyarwanda speaking people.  However, the basis for conflict both in Somalia and in Rwanda was the quest for power. 

In addition to the indigenous social pressures of tribalism, conflict in Africa has been historically exacerbated by other factors.  First, let’s go way back to slavery. Even though prior to the Atlantic slave trade slavery existed on the continent, it was a local phenomena.  However, the opening of the New World market beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century and continuing on into the 19th  century played havoc with peaceful society. Slavers ushered in an era of suspicion and violence that undoubtedly infected attitudes for generations that followed.  Neighbors could not trust neighbors.  The colonialism that came afterward was exploitation of people and resources by European powers.  Tribes were lumped together without considerations for differences and order was maintained by firepower.   Unfortunately, the system of colonial rule – that is an arbitrary system controlled through a rigid hierarchical structure for the benefit of European overlords was replicated in newly independent governments.  The tribe that was well placed to take over at independence did so to the detriment of others.  Even as they kept the strict autocratic colonial administrative system in place, new African governments justified their one man one party rule as being grounded in the traditional African value of consensus.  Everyone had to go along.  No opposition was permitted.

Political change came via death of the leader, an occurrence that frequently happened as part of a military take-over.   This was the usual method of succession for many years.  It engendered understandable paranoia in presidents. They needed protection for their regime, so they wanted a competent security apparatus, yet frequently it was the head of the military who ousted them, so leaders did not want the military to be too competent.

The Biafran civil war in Nigeria in 1968 was Africa’s most hotly contested issue of secession. In short the Igbo people of the south sought to secede from the larger entity of Nigeria. The horrors of that war were well publicized and certainly gave substance to the perception that Africa was a violent, dangerous place. Yet resolution of the conflict via unconditional surrender of Biafra reaffirmed the continent wide tenet that no changes to colonial delimited borders would be tolerated.  This basic premise, with exceptions for Eritrea and South Sudan, has stymied secessionist movements elsewhere on the continent.   

The cold war was in full roar when Africa became independent. The west, the east and China choose sides.  The impact of the cold war on what might have otherwise been manageable internal conflicts was to magnify them especially by the provision of vast amounts of weaponry.  Thus, struggles in Congo, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Namibia were intensified and prolonged by cold war factors. Additionally, the over lapping liberation struggles in southern Africa including Zimbabwe and South Africa, with the added elements of combating white rule contributed to an era of widespread conflict.  


In the last decade we have actually seen a remarkable amount of progress in reducing the level of conflict in Africa.  I think this is due to several factors:

With the end of the cold war the amount of weaponry available and the cross border support that characterized those wars ceased. The end of the cold war also meant that western nations, including the U.S. no longer had reasons to prop up autocratic rulers like Mobutu in Zaire or Doe in Liberia and to ignore their corruption and human rights abuses.  

The liberation of southern Africa and the end of apartheid in South Africa, zeroed out race based conflict.

The wave of multi-party constitutions that swept across Africa in the 1990s changed the nature of contesting for political power throughout the continent. Today there is much less of a winner take all syndrome and a better understanding of accountability.  Whenever peaceful change occurs successfully the prospects for its repeating increase.   

Better political systems, clearly improved economics, more open communications and the rise of a middle class all tend to favor continuity and progress over conflict.  

Better militaries. Remember as I indicated above that African militaries have as their first responsibility protection of the regime.  The number of real out-and-out wars between African states are few – Tanzania/Uganda, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Somalia/Ethiopia and the second Congolese war are the only ones that come to mind.  Thus African states find it difficult to justify large military establishments.  But for what they do have, donor states including the U.S. have been willing to help “professionalize”.  This indeed has worked to some extent as it has resulted in better leadership, planning, financing and accountability. A better local military means that an insurgent group is less likely to challenge it.  Although impossible to measure we believe this sort of professionalization also helps keep the military out of politics.  Again, however, a footnote: Captain Sanogo who led the coup in Mali last year was U.S. trained.

The world, including certainly African leaders, has put into place and has employed much improved mechanisms for resolving disputes and thus ending or mitigating conflict.  Generally this involves mediation between contesting parties under the aegis of senior statesmen.  Examples of successful negotiations include: the Lusaka Accords for Congo, Arusha Accords for Burundi, the Liberian Constitution hammered out in Accra, Nairobi discussions on Somalia, talks for the Cote d’Ivoire and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Sudan.  Again a footnote: the Arusha Agreements for Rwanda in 1993 did not work and probably hastened the onset of genocide. Why? Because the hard liners that later instigated the genocide were not part of the process. The lesson learned was that all parties to conflict had to be at the mediation table.

As with negotiations, over the years we have learned lessons from peace keeping operations in Africa. For example, troops today are better equipped, trained and have clear mandates. Additionally, Africans are out in front.  Formerly in Liberia and Sierra Leone, now in Somalia and CAR and soon in Mali, Africans take the lead in running Peace Keeping Operations. African troops are likewise essential to UN Peace Keeping efforts in Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. 

Cool Spots 

Before I get to the hot spots, let me briefly review the successes of the last ten years or so. These nations are pretty much out of the woods in terms of slipping back into anarchy and violence.

Liberia – Although personally an optimist, when I was in Liberia in 2003 while megalomaniac Charles Taylor ran the place I had no hope for the nation.  But that has all completely changed. Liberia is well started on the road back under dynamic democratically elected president, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.

Neighboring Sierra Leone too is stable and progressing.

Rwanda has recovered remarkably from the impact of genocide. It has visionary leadership under President Paul Kagame who is striving to complement Rwanda’s agricultural riches with a high tech industrial sector. Rwanda has now judged those guilty of genocide and is attempting to move ahead into a society where ethnicity is not a factor.

Burundi’s civil war ended in 2005 with the inauguration of Pierre Nkurazizi and the implementation of an ethnically inclusive political system.

After much maneuvering and years of strife Cote d’Ivoire too has cobbled together a political compromise that provides for stability. Its economic leadership in West Africa may also recover as the benefits of peace are re-established.

Now for the hot spots.

Let’s take Mali first since it is so much in the news and look at three issues. First the descent of Mali into the current maelstrom began with the military take over last year by Captain Sanogo and his team.  Part of the dispute that led to this was a disagreement over the government’s role in the north.  Whatever the basis for the action, the takeover indicated that Mali’s democracy was fragile. It was corrupt and unresponsive and simply did not stand up to the coup makers.  So one item to be fixed in Mali is the restoration of healthy democratic government.  Even though the coup leaders have ceded some authority to an appointed civilian government, the key issue here – at least for the U.S. – is the seating of an elected government.  As a point of law, the U.S. ceases bilateral assistance whenever a legally constituted government is illegally overthrown.  Plans are underway for elections next summer.

A second issue in Mali is the exclusion of the Tuareg people of the Sahara from government.  This is the tribal issue at play.  Tuaregs have been in rebellion in some fashion or another since colonial times. Current difficulties began when leaders took advantage of the coup in Bamako to assert their independence in the north. They dubbed their breakaway nation Azwad. Some of the Tuaregs gained the weaponry needed to substantiate their break from having served in Qadafi’s military. When he fell, they came home with the guns.

The third part of the problem lies with terrorists. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a successor organization to a Salafist group from southern Algeria. Over the years its grievances have essentially been aimed at Algeria, even as its actions centered on smuggling and kidnapping for ransom.  At some point AQIM was acknowledged to be a “franchise” of AL Qaeda but analysts differ on how close contacts might be.  In any case in addition to Algerians, AQIM boasts fighters and adherents from Mali and several surrounding African states as well as from the Middle East.  Another outfit identified as Ansar Dine, which appears to be Libyan oriented also joined in.  In sum, these organizations, composed mostly of outsiders, coopted and took over the Tuareg secessionist movement. Their vision is one of Islamic extremism. One of anti-western jihad with careful adherence to the Koran and implementation of Sharia law. This is a much more rigid interpretation of Islam than the Tuaregs or other residents of the north practice.   

 The French led intervention has restored Malian control to most of the north.  The towns of Gao and Timbuktu are back in government hands.  I am confident that the French will stay involved to assure military success even after an African force is in place.  The terrorists have been chased back into the desert where small groups of them may remain active for some time.

The key to pacification of the north is some sort of viable agreement between the central government and the Tuaregs. Let it be said that Bamako governments have historically not been willing to make the concessions necessary for resolution.  We’ll have to see if a new government is more accommodating. Absent that you’ll have a military occupation and political stalemate that might endure for years to come.


Although Mali appears to be a solvable problem, Sudan may not be.  There are two conflicts outstanding in Sudan – one in Darfur and the other between Sudan and South Sudan.

First, Darfur.   Conflict in Darfur is a mélange of tribalism, regionalism, desertification, secessionist sentiment, Khartoum politics and opportunism. Essentially in the early 2000s Darfur saw the South getting an acceptable deal – including oil - from Khartoum. It too wanted autonomy and reversion to the independence it enjoyed in the 19th century.  Additionally, African tribes correctly felt that Khartoum favored Arab tribes whenever issues -  such as disputes over land or grazing rights arose.  Droughts in the eighties and nineties exacerbated such tensions.  So Darfur rebelled.  Khartoum’s response was harsh.  It unleashed the superior firepower of the air force and the army.  It authorized and equipped Arab militia units to terrorize, destroy and loot.  The international community characterized this violence as genocide. Over a million people fled to internal camps and across the border to Chad.  Throughout the central government denied any involvement in any atrocities, but it adamantly refused to let the humanitarian community care for victims.  The worst of the violence was in 2003 and 2004. The conflict has since settled into a standoff. There has been no resolution and efforts to negotiate a settlement have gone nowhere, but a UN peacekeeping presence has lessened the number of violent incidents and, as grudgingly permitted, humanitarian assistance has helped the afflicted.  I do not see anything new happening in Darfur until there is regime change in Khartoum and a willingness on the central government’s part to accommodate some autonomy for Darfur.

Southern issues are more intractable and inflammable.  The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 was a successful effort that ended 40 years of civil war; a war that in simplistic terms pitted black African Christian or animist southerners against Arab Muslim northerners. The key provision was that in six years the South would hold a plebiscite on whether to remain with Sudan or not.  Since in the interim period neither side did much to encourage unity, it was not surprising that the South voted for independence. Thus in 2011 South Sudan was born.  Despite the term comprehensive, the agreement punted on several difficult issues.  They included oil revenue, the status of Abyei, the oil producing area, and the future of southerners in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces, areas that were left under northern sovereignty.         

Eighty percent of oil production occurs in the south, but the pipe lines to export it transit the north.  Oil revenues were a major source of financing for the government in Khartoum – especially for its war efforts -  and, after independence, virtually the sole source of revenue for the new government in Juba.  During the interim period prior to the plebiscite the parties could not agree on a formula for dividing revenues.  Additionally, even though the CPA ordained a separate referendum to decide the status of Abyei, the parties have been unable to agree on the terms for that process. So last year, as tensions heightened and the two nations approached the brink of renewed war, the South declared a moratorium on oil exports.   This had an obviously catastrophic effect on southern revenues, but underlined how determined the new government was to assert its sovereignty and to use the money lever to extract a workable formula and better behavior from the regime in Khartoum.   So far, it has not worked.

Without further definition the CPA stated that suitable arrangements would have to be decided vis a vis ethnic southerners and sympathizers in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Black Africans in those areas, especially the Juba Mountains, were part and parcel of the Southern Peoples Liberation Movement for which they fought and died, but they were not included in the new state.  Afterwards as they continued to agitate against Khartoum, they were subjected to brutal and indiscriminate suppression, essentially a policy of annihilation.   

Intervention by African presidents last year in compelling talks between presidents Bashir and Kir have avoided open warfare between the two states, yet despite a UN Peace Keeping Presence, meddling by each side across the border and conflict along the border continues apace.   

Although the money issue will ultimately force the parties to some workable agreement – oil production may resume in several months – other issues are stalemated.  As with Darfur, if any real progress is to be made it will probably come after a regime change in Khartoum.

Meanwhile, the international community having helped create a failed state in South Sudan must shoulder some enormous responsibilities in fostering progress.


The current imbroglio in the Congo has many roots, but conflict there is clearly tied to power. Power over the land, the people and the resources.  Parties to violence have exploited tribalism, local, national and regional politics.  Outside powers have intervened, ostensibly to protect their national security interests.  Various negotiation efforts produced sparse results. The result has been a region in anarchy. Estimates are that up to five million people have perished during the past twenty years – some directly from warfare, most from the collapse of social infrastructure – markets, agriculture, roads, heath services, schools, food and medicine distribution systems and so forth. A million people are displaced and the economy has suffered grievously.

Dissecting the ins and outs of the chaos is complicated.   I’ll give a thumb nail sketch.  In the last decade or so of Mobutu’s Zaire, central government control of eastern Zaire slipped away.  So when the Rwandan genocide occurred in 1994 the lands across the border were lightly regulated.  The influx of a million Hutu refugees who remained under the control of those who organized genocide augmented existing tribal hatreds.  Shortly, the new Rwanda leadership allying with Tutsi citizens of Zaire and under cover of a Zairian organization compelled the return of most refugees from the border camps. However, genocidaire forces accompanied by several tens of thousands of refugees fled westward into the jungle.  Ultimately fighting led to Mobutu’s departure and Laurent Kabila’s installation as chief of state.  Several years later, Kabila in turn betrayed his sponsors and that led to a second Congolese war.  That war ended when in accordance with the provisions of the Lusaka Accords foreign forces withdrew, a UN Peace Keeping operation began and internal dialogue ensued leading finally to the establishment of a legitimate government in Kinshasa, now headed by Joseph Kabila.   Yet the anarchy in the east continued.  Rwandan and Ugandan surrogates battled each other. Genocidaire forces, local militia and warlords ran amok. Tribal and ethnic issues became even more contentious. The UN operation proved inadequate.  Political solutions did not stick. External actors – mostly Rwandan and Ugandan – plundered natural resources.   Iterations of violence continued. 

The central government has not proven able to control the east. Its reconstituted several times military forces remain as much a problem as they are a solution.  The UN PKO, the largest in the world, remains marginally effective.  In the round of violence beginning last year a Tutsi militia group called M23 renewed independent operations claiming that the March 23rd agreement of 2009 that should have included them in the Congolese army had not been honored.  Subsequently, presidents of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda hammered out yet another deal designed to calm the east.

I think we have been on the right track towards solutions for some time.  Key is to hold governments and organizations to their commitments. External meddling is not helpful, but the fecklessness of Kinshasa’s approach to the east is also counterproductive.   More widespread peace is clearly the principal requirement for progress.


I have to talk about Somalia in any discussion of conflict in Africa.  I won’t do a blow by blow, but will observe that the situation there after decades of conflict has improved.  This is due to several factors: years of political discussions and maneuvering – mostly among Somali leaders themselves -  finally led to a process and establishment of a legitimate government.  Thanks to an African Union military intervention force dubbed AMISOM, that new government has the space to operate and consolidate its authority.  Much remains to be accomplished.  International terrorist linked forces of Al Shabaab while now in retreat are nonetheless formidable adversaries.  The U.S. keeps a careful eye out for them and has acted unilaterally on several occasions to impede them.  Outsiders including the US and African contributors to AMISOM will have a role to play in promoting pacification in Somalia for years to come.


Let me close with a few observations about terrorism.  Although acts of terrorism can and have been employed by disgruntled elements for years, we are most concerned today with terrorists who link their cause to an Islamic fundamentalist jihad aimed at the west, aimed at America.  Blowing up U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, bombing the USS Cole and of course the 9/11 attacks are examples of their work.  Defeating such terrorists requires intelligence about them and their plans as well as the ability to interdict and defeat them.

African states share our abhorrence with international terrorism and within their means are supportive of efforts to deny it footholds, root it out and destroy it. With the exceptions of when Sudan hosted terrorists, including Ben Laiden, in the early nineties, and the ungoverned spaces of Somalia and Mali, African governments deny sanctuary to terrorists. Terrorists have to operate clandestinely.

U.S. policy is to encourage and support African efforts to more robustly combat international terrorism. To this end we cooperate on intelligence matters and on the military side we train and equip African units for interdiction operations.  Much of the justification for U.S. involvement in Somalia, the presence of our military task force in the horn of Africa based in Djibouti and certainly our support to operations in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahara are based on anti-terrorist criteria.

From a policy perspective of an ambassador I think the necessity here is to be cautious and to strike a proper balance.  We must not let anti-terrorism considerations become the sole wherewithal for American relations with African nations. 

Let me conclude by reiterating that the trends regarding conflict in Africa are encouraging.  Today there are fewer volatile situations and better mechanisms for avoiding violence than was true in the past.  But until African political systems are fully resilient and mature, disgruntlement can easily morph into violence.  Meanwhile hot spots – especially Sudan, Congo and Somalia - will remain combustible and others may flare up.  Finally, terrorists will continue to probe for targets of opportunity.  

So while, the overall situation is much improved, vigilance and action are still necessary.  In that regard the United States will remain a viable partner in helping to quell conflict and squash terrorism.     

Well I have said a lot. Let me stop here and listen to your comments and questions.
Thank you.

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