While southern Africa is enjoying an impressive long run of peace, other parts of the continent are increasingly threatened by an upsurge in “small wars”, and old borders and the unitary nation-state are under tremendous pressure from the new breed of insurgents.
Since 2000, there has been a sustained reduction in the number of large-scale armed conflicts. Many of the major guerilla movements like UNITA in Angola and Renamo in Mozambique - iconic of the classic era of big civil wars - died out through military conquest or peace treaties.
However, the eruption of fierce localised insurgencies across many parts of the continent in the last few years is fuelling renewed fears that it could be entering another period of instability.
From transnational jihadists in violent quest of a Pax-Islamica in the Sahel-Sahara and the Horn, to armed insurrectionists carving up enclaves in Nigeria, the Sinai and Mali, the new violence is steadily loosening the territorial and administrative control of states in North, West, Central and the Horn of Africa, and pose the greatest challenge to the stability of the continent.
Somalia, Somaliland, federalism
No other African country has been as radically altered by “small wars” as Somalia. In three decades, it has been transformed from a united and centralised state into a deeply fragmented nation, a patchwork of large and tiny sub-national entities and enclaves, autonomously administered by clans and the militant group, Al-Shabaab.
Somaliland, a northwestern province that was called British Somaliland in colonial times and which briefly forged a union with the rest of Somalia, broke off in 1991 following a popular referendum.
Its independence is contested by Mogadishu and not recognised internationally. The region, however, has earned widespread respect for its relative peace and functional government. That has however not made its quest for African recognition any less daunting.
Talks in the last four years between the Somaliland administration and the government in Mogadishu, facilitated by the UK, have eased old tensions, but have not brought them any closer to reaching an accord on the thorny issues of independence and unity.
For a variety of reasons, not least the recent experience in South Sudan, the African Union (AU) is wary of supporting a process that may risk plunging another African country into a new large-scale conflict.
The militant Al-Shabaab’s territorial control has diminished in the last three years as a result of military action by the 22,000-strong AU peacekeeping force, AMISOM, but the group still controls significant areas in south-central Somalia, which it administers tightly.
Throughout much of 2007-2008, the group used a combination of tact and pragmatism to co-administer areas under its control with clans in a bid to legitimise its rule. The move was cast as part of its grand Islamisation project - a novel example of the Islamic shura (consultative) principle in action, designed to foster greater inclusivity in governance. Many of these co-administered regions were often called “Islamic emirates”.
However, Al-Shabaab’s philosophy of government was always centralist and monopolist. It actively worked to foil the emergence of parallel local authorities not subservient to it, and railed against federalism, which it portrayed as a foreign plot to dismember and weaken Somalia.
Its vision, as articulated by its hardline leader Ahmed Abdi-aw Godane, is one of a strong, centralised Somali state that forms the nucleus of a future Caliphate. Consequently, and not unlike other transnational jihadi groups, it does not recognise existing international borders.
Sudan and DRC
Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are today two of Africa’s quintessential “small wars” states -plagued by endemic armed insurrections and periodic pogroms in their vast peripheries.
Most of the violence in Sudan is in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, but there are potential trouble spots in the east too, where a truce with local ethnic rebels remains tenuous and discontent is rife.
There also are growing suspicions that Sudan is getting sucked into the civil war in South Sudan and is supporting armed factions allied to the rebel leader Riek Machar.
Whatever its tactical or strategic calculations, it is hard to fathom how such support may change the game, and much less how a prolonged conflict in South Sudan could be in Khartoum’s objective long-term interest.
The regime’s renewed indiscriminate aerial bombardments in Kordufan, and in particular, the tactical use of lethal Syria-style “barrel bombs” suggest a serious escalation.
In DRC, the regime has been fighting a bewildering array of low-level insurgencies on multiple fronts in much of the east for many years, especially the Kivus.
Despite attempts by the Joseph Kabila government in Kinshasa to quell the rebellion through dialogue and military help from the UN peacekeeping mission, no breakthrough is in sight.
The actual functional territorial control of the regimes in power in Khartoum and Kinshasa has steadily diminished, with the proliferation of these localised insurgencies.
Geography and size partly compounds their inability to effectively counter local insurgencies, build state structures, improve local governance and provide basic services.