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A fire engulfs Campsdrift Park, which houses Makro and China Mall, in Pietermaritzburg following protests. Picture: SIBONELO ZUNGU/VIA REUTERS
A fire engulfs Campsdrift Park, which houses Makro and China Mall, in Pietermaritzburg following protests. Picture: SIBONELO ZUNGU/VIA REUTERS

Dec. 31, 2020 came and went without the AU meeting its deadline — set in 2013 — of Silencing the Guns by 2020.  No-one was surprised. The AU then extended the deadline to 2030 and committed itself to renewed efforts to achieve it.

As 2020 ended the guns were still sounding across the continent; especially in the Sahel, northern Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Since then an Islamic State-affiliated insurgency has intensified in northern Mozambique and war has erupted between the federal government of Ethiopia and its Tigray province.

Silencing the Guns was supposed to be the AU’s theme for 2020. Then Covid-19 arrived and the AU had to devote almost all of its energies to that. Still, there would have been no magic wand to end armed conflict by the end of 2020 anyway, as Jakkie Cilliers observes in his book, Africa First! Igniting a Growth Revolution.

Cilliers, who chairs the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, notes that the causes of violent conflict run deep, as AU leaders have also recognised. Legacies of armed conflict, large youthful populations with associated social dynamics such as high levels of unemployment and inequality, instability associated with political transitions and grinding poverty, all contribute.

Africa is caught in a Catch-22 trap; poor countries are usually more violent, and because of this they cannot grow rapidly enough to alleviate the stresses and grievances that lead to further instability.

Arbitrary, colonial-era borders are often blamed for Africa’s conflicts, because they split some ethnic groups and lumped together other hostile ethnic groups. But Cilliers observes that “conflict in Africa is not directly driven by ethnic divergence as is often assumed, but rather by historical grievances, including the ongoing mobilisation of identity for political and economic participation and influence”.

In essence though, the drivers of conflict are economic deprivation — absolute or relative — and political marginalisation. Cilliers notes that even the jihadist violent extremism spreading mostly across the Sahel and West Africa, though affiliated to global Islamist terror groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, is mostly driven by local causes and grievances.

“Inclusive economic development, coupled with substantive electoral accountability, offers the best prospect for greater peace and stability,” he says. Countries tend to become more peaceful as they become more prosperous and more democratic, as people then have fewer grievances, including poverty, poor service delivery and stolen elections, to fight about. 

And Africa is slowly becoming more prosperous and more democratic, so is it also becoming more peaceful, slowly. The number of deaths in armed conflicts has oscillated in the 21st century, from an extreme high of about 68,000 in 2000 (mainly in the Ethiopia-Eritrea war) down to about 17,000 in 2001; rising to about 22,000 in 2002; falling to a low of about 4,000 in 2005 before rising again — especially after 2010 — with the Arab Spring and the rise in Islamist extremism, to about 24,000 in 2014; and then declining to about 15,000 in 2018.

There are some indications, though, that it has risen again since then. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has calculated that, except for the CAR and Somalia, all the other 18 armed conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa had higher estimated conflict-related fatalities in 2020 than in 2019. But the overall trend has been slightly downwards, Cilliers says, and even more so in the deaths relative to population, which is rapidly rising. 

The nature of political armed violence in Africa has also changed. Today, most conflicts on the continent happen within rather than between states. The seven countries that experienced the highest number of fatalities due to armed conflict from 2009 to 2018 are Nigeria, DRC, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, CAR and South Sudan. 

The wild card in this trend is violent Islamist extremism, which is growing fast. In 2010 it affected only five countries in a sustained way — Algeria, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Somalia. By 2017 that list had grown to 12 countries, Cilliers says, adding Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Egypt, Kenya, Libya and Tunisia to the list. Since then, one could also add Mozambique and the DRC, list, though the exact character of the supposedly Islamic State-linked violence in those two countries is contentious.

Cilliers also says that in contrast to the declining impact of armed violence, Africa is experiencing an increase in incidents of antigovernment social violence, including riots and violent protests. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, the number of nonviolent protests and violent riots in Africa has increased twelvefold since 2001 and at a greater rate after the start of the Arab Spring in December 2010.

Cilliers notes that undemocratic states are more prone to violent change, whereas democratic states such as SA and Kenya generally experience less violent protest as their governments are not as prone to repress dissent with excessive force. And generally, riots and protests appear to have become less deadly over time, with fewer fatalities per event. For example, Africa experienced an average of eight fatalities per riot/protest event from 2001 to 2003, and three from 2015 to 2017.

While larger-scale armed conflict and its associated fatalities are likely to continue their steady long-term decline, it is less clear what the short-term impact of the increase in social instability and protests will be. Though economic growth and improvements in general living conditions usually reduce instability, Cilliers makes a surprising observation that this is not necessarily because people are more content with improved standards of living —  rather, it is the increased capacity of governments to provide or enforce security as countries become richer.

And even though conflict might only end when poverty has been eradicated, it still has to be addressed in the meantime. Cilliers believes the UN, the AU and Africa’s subregional bodies have done quite well in tackling conflict through peacekeeping efforts. He cites research that shows the risk of conflicts recurring drops by as much as 75% in countries where UN peacekeepers are deployed.

Southern Africa, for one, has gone beyond conventional peacekeeping. In 2013 the Southern African Development Community sent a “force intervention brigade” into eastern DRC under the UN flag but with a more robust mandate than conventional peacekeepers, to “neutralise” rebel armed groups. And an Sadc standby force has just begun deploying in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province to combat insurgents supposedly affiliated to Islamic State. 

But Cilliers says that instead of just being reactive to violence in this way, the AU and subregional bodies should become more pre-emptive by tackling the political triggers of violence — especially poor governance such as stolen elections in countries like Zimbabwe and DRC — instead of turning a blind eye to these political abuses.

This is especially because faux democracies are the most unstable states.  There are more elections being held on the continent than ever,  but much of this democratic reform is superficial. Many of these elections are a sham as the incumbent leader or party wins every time by manipulating the outcomes. Cilliers calls these countries “anocracies” — a hybrid of democracies and autocracies. Anocracies are six times more likely than democracies, and 2.5 times more likely than autocracies, to experience outbreaks of civil conflict. “Africa needs to move from its focus on conflict management to substantive conflict prevention and a focus on the structural drivers of violence,” he concludes.

In short, Cilliers says, “Besides a history of conflict and chronic underdevelopment, those countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that suffer severe inequality, rely heavily on primary commodities and have a large youth bulge and an oppressive regime, are virtually assured of future instability and even a violent rupture.” He calculates that if Africa could reduce its violence and instability to the level of South Asia’s by 2030, its combined economy would between 2020 and 2040 grow by an accumulative $974bn more than on its current path, largely by attracting more investment.

But Africa is likely to remain turbulent, not only because it is poor and young, and because African governments have limited capacity to provide security, but also because it is growing and dynamic. Many African countries are experiencing a political awakening, shaking off the legacies of foreign intervention and autocratic exploitation by their own leaders. Such radical change is inevitably volatile.

• Fabricius is a consultant to the ISS.

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