They are Africa's rebels without borders

How nation-state sovereignty hinders a co-ordinated response to East and Central Africa's arc of conflict.

South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo. Somalia. Sudan. Central African Republic. Burundi. 

Looking at the situation today, it seems that the Afro-optimists celebrated the “Africa rising” phenomenon a tad early. Civil war, sectarian conflict, insecurity, and/or terrorist attacks continue to plague these countries, while another group - Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea - are relatively stable, but have been involved militarily in conflicts in their volatile neighbours, with mixed results. Together, these countries encompass an arc of conflict that spans nearly 3 000 kilometres.

But one curious feature of the conflict is just how interconnected these armed groups are, so much so that the ongoing instability could be said to be one big war with tentacles all over the region, as a recent report by the Enough Project has noted. Even more significantly, the ragtag militias, former army generals and disgruntled rebels wreaking havoc from Bangui to Mogadishu are mobile, moving easily across the region’s notoriously porous borders and shape-shifting as the situation demands. 

The problem with such fluid groups is that it becomes nearly impossible to accurately define them, or even locate them on a map.

Yet those who describe these conflicts - journalists - and those who respond to them - the international community - continue to pigeonhole violence within state boundaries, while the armed groups themselves do not recognise such borders. Take the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as the quintessential example. It began in northern Uganda as a pseudo-spiritual cult, morphing into a guerrilla army fighting the government in Kampala on the one hand, and committing mass atrocities against northern Ugandans on the other. 

Rebel at heart
A rebel at heart, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had been drawn into supporting the South Sudanese liberation movement, and in retaliation, Khartoum adopted and armed the LRA against Kampala. 

When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan and the South was signed in 2005, propping up the LRA ceased being a strategic concern to the government in Juba, and with time, the LRA fractured and diminished considerably in effectiveness. Today, the militia continues to commit attacks against civilians in the jungles straddling South Sudan, northern DRC and the Central African Republic.

Similarly, the crisis in the Central African Republic today has links to Darfur in Sudan, and to Chad in the north. In 2006, when the Darfur conflict was at its height, Chad accused Khartoum of supporting a coalition of armed groups and army deserters known as the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD). 

This group, along with the Sudan government-backed Arab Janjaweed militia, was accused of attacking villages in eastern Chad, whose population has a similar ethnic make-up to that in Darfur. Sudan, in turn, accused Chad of backing Darfur’s National Redemption Front rebels as they carried out cross-border raids. 

There have also been allegations that many of these rebels have become assimilated into Chad’s national army, a charge Chad’s government denies. The Central African Republic also accused Sudan of backing a similar rebel group in CAR, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), which had seized towns in CAR in 2006.

Genocide risk
The UFDR, later known as the Seleka rebels, was the group that marched south and captured the capital in March 2013, ousting president Francois Bozize. The country descended into ethno-religious violence, with thousands of people fleeing their homes and the UN warning that there was a high risk of genocide.

Somalia is an even more complicated story. As the country’s central government broke down in the early 1990s, up north, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1994 after a bitterly contested war. But the bad blood between the two continued, with frequent eruptions of fighting in the years to follow. 


Meanwhile, Ethiopia was also struggling to contain a rebellion in the southeast of the country in Ogaden, a region mainly populated by ethnic Somalis. At the time, much of southern Somalia was under the sway of the Islamic Courts Union, a rival administration to the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu. 

Nursed dreams
The ICU nursed dreams of a “greater Somalia” that would bring together all the lands in the Horn of Africa inhabited by ethnic Somalis - Somalia itself, Ogaden, parts of Djibouti and northeastern Kenya. Ethiopia therefore saw the ICU as a threat to its territorial sovereignty - the rebels in Ogaden could demand secession as Eritrea did - and Ethiopian troops helped the TFG in breaking up the ICU in 2006 and driving them underground. 

A year later, the first battalion of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), comprising soldiers from Uganda and later Burundi, arrived in Somalia. But the ICU quietly regrouped, and soon, its most hardline elements emerged as the now notorious al-Shabab.

So, for both Ethiopia and Eritrea, Somalia was merely the theatre of a proxy war, an extension of their longstanding border dispute, with each side supporting various rival factions and administrations since 1998. 

In the past few years, Eritrea has been accused many times of supporting al-Shabab, with a 2011 UN Monitoring Group report cataloguing Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki’s growing notoriety in the world of terrorism finance, and in particular the global web through which these funds are routed, with Kenya serving as a global transaction distribution hub. The report detailed how al-Shabab was propped up by Eritrea’s determination to keep Ethiopia “off-kilter and overstretched,” according to British journalist Michela Wrong, writing in the Financial Times

Justifies actions
According to the report, Eritrea justifies its actions in Somalia by pointing to Ethiopia’s failure to implement the UN arbitration ruling on the disputed border, and the continued presence of Ethiopian civilian officials and military forces on territory awarded to Eritrea. Eritrea has strenuously denied funding al-Shabab, but growing international pressure and the threat of sanctions against Eritrea led to al-Shabab finding an alternative source of funding -the illegal ivory trade in East Africa.

In 2012, an investigation by conservation activists Elephant Action League identified the proceeds from illegal ivory as funding “up to 40%” of al-Shabab’s activities; EAL estimated the militia’s monthly income as between $200 000 and  $600 000. 

With one to three tonnes a month passing through Somali ports at $200 a kilo, ivory, according to the EAL, ivory has become the “white gold” of jihad. Kenya’s elephant and rhino populations were recovering from the brink of disaster in the late 1980s, but more than two decades later, the country is once again facing soaring levels of poaching. 

At least 59 rhinos were killed for their horns last year, compared with 30 in 2012, while 16 rhinos have been killed already this year. Some 384 elephants were killed in 2012, and 302 last year. At this rate, it is feared that elephants and rhinos in the country could be extinct within a decade. The EAL investigation suggests that ivory plays just one part in the bigger picture. 

Foreign funding
Foreign funding raised through the Hawala system and Islamic “charities” with a hidden agenda, supplemented by criminal activities, enables al-Shabab to hold on to its troops. The criminal activities include taxation of businesses and NGOs, trafficking in drugs, arms and humans, and involvement in the counterfeit currency trade.

Although Kenya seems to be a source of illegal funds for al-Shabab, it has also been targeted by the group in several terrorist attacks, ostensibly as revenge for the Kenyan army’s intervention in Somalia in late 2011 after a series of tourist kidnappings on the Kenyan Coast. In September 2013, 67 people were killed in an al-Shabab attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall.

But the single deadliest conflict going on in Africa today is in eastern DRC, and its story begins across the border, in Rwanda. In 1994, following the Rwandan genocide, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans crossed Lake Kivu to seek refuge in Zaire. Prominent among them were the génocidaires themselves, including elements of the former Rwandan army, the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) and independent Hutu extremist groups such as the Interahamwe, who fled Rwanda fearing retaliation by Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front, which had just put a stop to the genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus. 

Brutal regime
Mobutu Sese Seko’s brutal regime had long been unable to control opposition groups this far from the capital Kinshasa, and these disgruntled elements, along with ethnic Tutsis in Zaire supported by Kagame’s troops, ultimately joined forces (albeit for different reasons). Mobutu was overthrown, but instead of a happy ending, things took a convoluted turn for the worse. 

Nine African nations, including Uganda, Angola and Zimbabwe, ended up embroiled in the country’s war, and although some form of peace was achieved and elections held in 2006, the conflict in the eastern DRC continues to this day. 

Despite its massive latent economic potential, the country, in many ways, remains a proxy battleground for regional and international interests, and the latest conflict has involved a splinter group from the Congolese army known as the M23, which Rwanda is accused of supporting, a charge President Kagame strenuously denies.

This month marked the 20th anniversary of the onset of Rwanda’s genocide, and the 10th year after the genocide in Darfur was recognised. But the conflicts in the Great Lakes region, Central Africa and East Africa continue, and part of the problem is that these crises are still seen in isolation from each other, defined by nation-state boundaries both by journalists and the international community, when in actual fact, they are cross-border and shape-shifting. 

Main actor
A recent report by the Enough Project suggests a rational explanation for this: The world we live in is still one in which the dominant actor is the nation-state, so peace processes end up being centred around states. 

Because state actors wrap themselves in sovereignty, it is “often difficult to address some of the core systemic drivers of violence.” “The UN Security Council and other international bodies are usually hopelessly divided when debates unfold regarding potential intervention to protect civilian populations, mostly because of the sovereignty barrier, which for China and Russia is usually a brick wall,” they say.

Until there is a fuller recognition of the core drivers of African conflict, their cross-border nature, and the need for more nuanced and comprehensive responses, the activists say, the likelihood will remain high that more and more anniversaries of mass atrocity events will have to be commemorated by future generations.

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