Contrary to conventional wisdom, wars are not “endless” in Africa, as some respected observers insist. In a new paper in the latest issue of African Affairs, my favorite academic journal on the subject, Scott Straus, a professor of politics at the University of Wisconsin, advances a cogent case for the view that African wars are growing less frequent, fierce and problematic. Summarizing his important findings, which essentially expose as empty and misguided much of both the academic and journalistic writing about African wars, Straus writes:
“The principal finding is that in the twenty-first century both the volume and the character of civil wars have changed in significant ways. Civil wars are and have been the dominant form of warfare in Africa, but they have declined steeply in recent years, so that today there are half as many as in the 1990s. This change tracks global patterns of decline in warfare.6 While some students of African armed conflicts, such as Paul Williams, note the recent trend, it is fair to say that the change in the prevalence of civil wars is not recognized by most Africanists and generalists. Equally important but even less noted is that the character of warfare in Africa has changed. Today’s wars are typically fought on the peripheries of states, and insurgents tend to be militarily weak and factionalized. The large wars that pitted major fighting forces against each other, in which insur- gents threatened to capture a capital or to have enough power to secede, and in which insurgents held significant territory – from the Biafra seces- sionists in Nigeria, to UNITA in Angola, RENAMO in Mozambique, the TPLF in Ethiopia, the EPLF in Eritrea, the SPLM in Sudan, the NRM in Uganda and the RPF in Rwanda – are few and far between in contem- porary sub-Saharan Africa. Somalia’s Al-Shabab holds territory and repre- sents a significant threat to the Somali federal transitional government, but given the 20-year void at the centre of Somalia the case is not repre- sentative. In April 2011, rebel forces in Co?te d’Ivoire captured Abidjan, but they did so with external help and after incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, facing a phalanx of domestic, regional, and international opposition, tried to steal an election.
More characteristic of the late 2000s and the early 2010s are the low- level insurgencies in Casamance (Senegal), the Ogaden (Ethiopia), the Caprivi strip (Namibia), northern Uganda (the Lord’s Resistance Army), Cabinda (Angola), Nigeria (Boko Haram), Chad and the Central African Republic (various armed groups in the east), Sudan (Darfur), and South Sudan, as well as the insurgent-bandits in eastern Congo (a variety of armed actors, including Rwandan insurgents) and northern Mali (al-Qaeda in the Maghreb). Although these armed groups are in some cases capable of sowing terror and disruption, they tend to be small in size, internally divided, poorly structured and trained, and without access to heavy weapons.”