Africa’s ‘Civil Wars’ Are Regional Nightmares

Long considered domestic issues, the continent’s battles are really international contests for influence and power.

A boy living in a derelict building damaged during the Angolan civil war is seen through a hole in Kuito, in Angola’s Bie province, on June 2.
A boy living in a derelict building damaged during the Angolan civil war is seen through a hole in Kuito, in Angola’s Bie province, on June 2. Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

This month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the bold steps he took last year to make peace with Eritrea.

Between 1998 and 2000, the two countries fought an extremely bloody border war. On the ground, it was World War I-style trench warfare; in the air, there were dogfights between fourth-generation jet fighters. An estimated 80,000 young men and women died, almost all of them soldiers who perished in mass infantry attacks. Ethiopia gradually gained the upper hand, launching a vast ground offensive in the spring of 2000 that cut through the defending Eritrean forces and threatened to capture the capital, Asmara. That didn’t happen: The Ethiopians agreed a cease-fire and the terms of a peace deal, signed in Algiers soon after the offensive. But the terms of the peace deal were never implemented. Notably, when an international boundary commission awarded a small but symbolically crucial piece of land called Badme, where the war had started, to Eritrea, Ethiopia refused to hand it over.

For almost 20 years, the two countries were locked in a cold war, with their armies mobilized in force along their common border. Communities were divided, trade was cut, and vast numbers of Eritrean youth served indefinite compulsory military service on the front line. Meanwhile, the two governments did everything they could to destabilize each other by supporting each other’s political opposition, including guerrilla groups that infiltrated across the border. In 2009, Eritrea’s support for anti-Ethiopian jihadi groups in Somalia brought down the wrath of the U.N. Security Council, which imposed a draconian sanctions regime on the country—one that continued even after Eritrea abandoned its backing for those groups three years later.

Shortly after coming to power last year, Ethiopia’s Ahmed cut this Gordian knot and flew to the Eritrean capital Asmara to offer peace. He embraced Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, opened the border and promised to implement the controversial boundary ruling. It was a bold move—precisely the kind of peacemaking that the Nobel committee has had in mind for its peace prizes since they were established in 1901—and Ahmed has been appropriately honored.

The media are abuzz with two big questions: first, whether Ahmed deserves it, and second, why Afwerki was not honored—as is customary when two countries make peace. But there’s a third issue hiding in the background, and it has to do with interstate peacemaking in Africa.

The Nobel award should alert policymakers to an underappreciated danger to peace and security in Africa: interstate war, either overt or—more often—covert and through proxies. The threat is growing and can easily be predicted, and now is a good moment to put it on the policy radar.

The conventional wisdom is that African states frequently go to war, but not with one another—with the Eritrean-Ethiopian war standing as the conspicuous exception that proves the rule. African wars are seen instead as domestic, civil wars. Analyses of security threats in the continent focus on fragile and failing states, ethnic rivalries, violent extremism, and conflict over natural resources. African governments are seen as too weak to project power as far as their borders, let alone across them. And indeed, since African countries achieved independence in the 1950s and 1960s—and especially since 1964, when the newly founded Organisation of African Unity adopted its “Cairo Declaration” on the inviolability of inherited colonial boundaries—there have been few border wars and just two successful secessions (Eritrea and South Sudan). There have been only a handful of regime change invasions—such as when Tanzania toppled Uganda’s Idi Amin in 1979, and Libya’s invasion of Chad under Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Yet closer analysis suggests that this standard story misses an important element in the picture: interstate conflict. In Africa, this rarely takes the form of conventional wars over boundaries or invasions to install a new regime. Instead, armed rivalry takes different, disguised forms: covert war and proxy war between states is common—in fact, it’s standard. Scratch below the surface of any civil war and there’s usually a foreign sponsor to be found. Occasionally this is just a matter of a government quietly tolerating the guerrillas from a neighboring country using a refugee camp to recruit or a porous border to smuggle weapons. But that’s rare. Official pleas of ignorance or incapacity to police a border are a convenient excuse. Most of the time, involvement in a neighbor’s war is authorized at the highest level and implemented systematically, if secretively, by military intelligence or national security.

Take the Ethiopia-Sudan border. Civil wars on each side haven’t just spilled over to the other as if by natural contamination. The two governments have spent long periods actively but covertly attacking the other. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Ethiopia and Sudan each sponsored rebels in the neighboring country with training camps, arms, and logistics, through policy decisions made right at the top. Each country also deployed its own troops clandestinely in the other’s territory—Ethiopian commanders led operations under the flag of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), for example. Sometimes the rebels were even drafted in as counterinsurgents in their hosts’ own countries. The SPLA fought against Oromo rebels inside Ethiopia in the 1980s; the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in turn repelled an SPLA operation inside Sudan’s Blue Nile province in 1990.

The Mano River countries of West Africa—Liberia, Sierra Leone, and their neighbors—followed the same pattern. When the Liberian political entrepreneur Charles Taylor began an insurgency in 1989, he did so with arms and men from nearby Burkina Faso, whose leader Blaise Compaoré was practically a pyromaniac, lighting conflagrations in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast as well. When Nigeria, which sees itself as the West African regional hegemon, sent troops to Liberia in 1990, ostensibly as a West African peacekeeping force (the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group), the aim wasn’t only to stabilize Liberia and prevent Taylor from taking power, but also to rein in Compaoré’s ambitions and cement Nigeria’s status as the West African powerbroker.

In a recent article in the Journal of Modern African Studies, some colleagues and I found that just 30 percent of African conflicts since 1960 were “internal” and the remainder a mixture of “internationalized internal” and “interstate”: fully 70 percent were actually internationalized in one way or another.

The new data doesn’t invalidate dominant stories about how African conflicts originate or escalate. But it adds a new layer of explanations. It reveals a story of pan-African cooperation to support anti-colonial insurgencies in southern Africa; of mutual destabilization in the Horn of Africa, as Ethiopia sought to cement its position as regional hegemon and undermined governments in Somalia and Sudan and they reciprocated; of Libya’s invasion of Chad and sponsorship of rebels across the Sahel and West Africa to try to establish Muammar al-Qaddafi as the big man of Africa; of rivalries between Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso fought out in Liberia and Sierra Leone; and of how the path towards Africa’s “great war” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was paved by interstate armed rivalries and proxy wars in the African Great Lakes, the Nile Valley, and Angola.

During the last 15 years, as the African Union and United Nations, along with regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States, have constructed a new peace and security order for Africa, these patterns of armed interstate rivalry have not gone away. Rather, power hierarchies have been legitimized, and peace operations have become part of dominant states’ repertoire of power projection.

Somalia is a case in point. The backbone of the African Union Mission in Somalia, a combat mission against the militant group al-Shabab, is made up of troops from next-door Ethiopia and Kenya, both of which have used force against Somalia many times over the previous decades. So far, the mission has suffered somewhere between around 750 and 1,150 fatalities—losses that could only be borne by countries with national-security stakes in the outcome. The mission would be inconceivable without some real advantage to the national interests of its major troop contributors.

Similar calculations underpin Chad’s dispatch of special forces to Operation Barkhane in Mali, which is a French-led military intervention to fight al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other insurgent groups. Scores of Chadian soldiers have died, a price that the country’s government is willing to pay because of its own security interests. Also at play is Chadian President Idriss Déby’s desired role as preferred African counterterrorism enforcer, which keeps his elite troops on the international payroll and gives him a free pass for domestic repression.

In the DRC, the U.N. Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) is a combat force to supplement the peacekeeping mission, with the aim of suppressing violent insurgents in the east of the country. The most powerful of those armed groups are backed by Rwanda. The FIB’s main troop contributors are South Africa and Tanzania—both of which have political interests in keeping Rwanda’s ambitions in check.

Across the continent, in other words, old patterns of cross-border conflict are now replicated under the banner of peacekeeping, endorsed by the United Nations, the African Union, and Africa’s regional organizations. Peace agreements follow the same pattern. Last year’s peace deal for South Sudan was first and foremost a pact between the country’s two meddlesome neighbors, Sudan and Uganda. Peace agreements for countries such as the Central African Republic, Mali, and Somalia first cater to the interests of the regional powerbrokers and only second deal with internal issues. Certainly it’s better for such military operations to be internationally mandated and monitored. But that doesn’t mean that they are innocent.

As with every world region, peace and security in Africa exists in a tension between international proscriptions against war and the rules of real power. As the norms and principles of the United Nations and the African Union are weakened, the danger of interstate war in Africa increases. Such conflicts are likely to follow the established patterns of combining covert intervention and support to proxies, but overt wars cannot be ruled out. International policymakers shouldn’t be taken by surprise when the contours of Africa’s interstate armed rivalries suddenly come into view.

This article draws on research conducted jointly with Noel Twagiramungu, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe, and Allard Duursma.

Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.