In fact, as I show in a recent piece in African Affairs, looked at since the end of the Cold War, wars are not becoming more frequent in Sub-Saharan Africa. To the contrary: according to the Uppsala Armed Conflict Data Program, the preeminent tracker of warfare worldwide, wars in the 2000s are substantially down from their peak in the early 1990s. Even if one counts an uptick during the past two years, there were about one-third fewer wars in Sub-Saharan Africa in the period compared to the early-to-mid 1990s.
Another prevailing view is that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most war-endemic region. Not so, especially if one looks at the continent’s history since 1960. Wars in Sub-Saharan Africa (compared to other world regions) are not longer or more frequent on a wars-per-country basis. Those distinctions effectively go to Asia, where between wars in India, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, among others, wars are more frequent and longer lasting.
The pattern holds true for extreme cases of mass killing, like Rwanda in 1994 and Darfur in the mid-2000s. Such events are on the decline in Africa; viewed across time, Africa is also not the regional leader of such events on a per-country basis.
My point is not to engage in crude regionalism, but rather to suggest that what often transpires as common sense about Sub-Saharan Africa is wrong.
The bigger point is that we may be witnessing significant shifts in the nature of political violence on the continent. Wars are on the decline since the 1990s, but the character of warfare is also changing. There are today fewer big wars fought for state control in which insurgents maintain substantial control of territory and put up well-structured armies to fight their counterparts in the state—Mali not withstanding. Such wars were modal into the 1990s. From southern Africa in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, and even Zimbabwe to the long wars in the Horn in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan to the Great Lakes wars in Rwanda and Uganda, the typical armed conflict in Africa involved two major, territory-holding armies fighting each other for state control.
Today’s wars typically are smaller. They most often involve small insurgencies of factionalized rebels on the peripheries of states. Today’s wars also play out differently. They exhibit cross-border dimensions, and rather than drawing funding from big external states they depend on illicit trade, banditry, and international terrorist networks.
“We may be witnessing significant shifts in the nature of political violence on the continent” One hopes. Funny because a friend sent this to me a while back. It’s an old article, but the timing is great. Glad this new article came out right after I read the old one.