Black Affairs, Africa and Development

Spate of conflicts undermine Africa’s re-brand

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By Eleanor Whitehead

A decade ago, Africa was famous as a ‘failed continent’ whose plight was synonymous with conflict and Kalashnikov-wielding child soldiers.

Since then, it has staged a remarkable turnaround. The civil wars that defined the region during the Cold War have petered out, political and social stability has improved, and Africa has been lent a new, more hopeful reputation. But just as perspectives on the continent begin to change – and Afro-optimists lambast the media and outsiders for continuing to think of Africa as a war zone – the last year has seen worrying security reversals.

A longstanding insurgency in Mali tipped into a civil war last year, and conflicts broke out in poverty-stricken Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. Resource-rich Mozambique slipped back into fighting as rebels reneged on a peace agreement, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo a period of uncharacteristic calm gave way to shootings this January. The terrorist threat gained momentum in two of the continent’s most important economies, as Islamist militants staged deadly attacks in Nigeria and Kenya. And religious extremism also posed a growing risk north of the Sahara, where Egypt and Libya struggled to manage the violent fallout of their revolutions.

That instability required meaningful international intervention. The United Nations has dispatched a record number of peacekeepers to the continent in recent years, at a cost of billions of dollars to US and European nations. France, meanwhile, sent troops to two former colonies, Mali and CAR.

So does this herald a longer-term return to the darker days of the Cold War? Almost certainly not. But a risk report from Maplecroft, the analysis group, does show that growing levels of terrorism, coups and fighting have driven up political risk in a fifth of all African countries over the past three years. Here are some of the insurgencies and civil wars that will drag on African development through 2014.

The civil wars: CAR and South Sudan

The situations look increasingly concerning in two of the continent’s less developed countries, CAR and South Sudan, which are both in the throes of sectarian violence.

It is less than three years since South Sudan gained independence from the north, but the world’s newest state has been plunged back into turmoil since December, as political power-mongering drives a dispute played out mostly along ethnic fault lines. The fighting pits President Salva Kiir’s SPLA government forces against rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar. The president hails from the country’s most populous tribe, the Dinka, while Mr Machar is of the Nuer faction.

Neighbouring countries, fearing the knock-on effects of the unrest on their own stability and economic development, are pressing for a solution. But peace talks between government and rebel delegations have not made a promising start and the fighting continues in key oil-producing areas. The United Nations estimated weeks ago that the number of deaths since the war broke out had exceeded 1,000, and the International Crisis Group reported more recently that at least 10,000 people had been killed.

Analysts say that security issues will persist even if an ceasefire is negotiated during talks in Addis Ababa. “Should a ceasefire be agreed upon, implementation will likely be very spotty and hard to enforce given the broad array of ‘rebel’ forces involved,” explains Clare Allenson, Africa analyst with Eurasia, the risk consultancy.

In CAR, where a war between Muslim and Christian militias is dangerously close to toppling into a sectarian genocide, the situation is even more dire. Violence erupted last March, when the rebel group Seleka staged a coup, bringing the country’s first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia, to power. Mr Djotodia ordered Seleka to disband, but breakaway factions went on a reign of terror, driving Christians – who constitute half of the population – to form vigilante groups in response.

Amnesty International estimates that 1,000 people were killed in December alone, while the UN says that more than a million citizens – a fifth of the total population – have been displaced since fighting broke out last year. Although France has allocated 1,600 troops to its former colony to support an African Union peacekeeping force, there does not look to be much hope of a resolution any time soon.

Mr Djotodia resigned last week amid pressure over ineffectual leadership, but Charles Laurie, head of the Africa practice at Maplecroft, warns that his exit may create a “security and leadership vacuum [which] makes the scenario unpredictable and prone to major escalation”.

He says that ongoing unrest and a mounting humanitarian crisis ought to “exacerbate the need for international intervention”, but it is not clear what countries would be willing to contribute troops.

Nigeria: The growing threat of Boko Haram

Religious and ethnic violence isn’t only linked to the continent’s less developed countries. In Nigeria – which is tipped to become Africa’s largest economy and is already a magnet for foreign investment – the al-Qaeda linked Islamist group Boko Haram claimed hundreds of lives last year in a brutal set of gun attacks and bombings.

By 2012, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism ranked Boko Haram the second most deadly terrorist group in the world, after the Taliban. And there’s room for the insurgency to get a lot worse as Nigeria counts down to 2015 presidential elections, despite a heavy government offensive against the group as well as vigilante campaign emerging from the Niger Delta.

A note from JLT, the insurance group, predicts that violence could increase in the second half of the year in the north, the middle belt, and even the political capital of Abuja and the commercial capital of Lagos. “We’ve got primary elections later this year, a general election early next year. That will be an ideal time for Boko Haram to escalate their efforts,” explains Elizabeth Stephens, JLT’s head of credit and political risk advisory.

Neighbouring countries are affected. The insurgency has already spilled across the border into Cameroon, and neighbouring countries may feel an impact on economic growth. “Terrorism shaves around 0.5-1 percent off the GDP of those countries most severely affected. As the largest economy in west Africa, an upsurge in political violence in Nigeria will impact economic growth and act as a drag on the economies of neighbouring territories,” JLT’s note says.

The old and the new

Terrorism is also growing both in the Sahel and north of the Sahara, where Egypt continues to grapple with the fallout of its 2011 revolution. Violent demonstrations gained momentum last year after the military ousted the elected president Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. With the former president now under arrest and the Muslim Brotherhood officially declared a terrorist organisation by the military-led government, some of its members are likely to resort to more extreme measures. Fatal protests are set to continue as the country heads down an increasingly repressive path.

“The situation in Egypt has now deteriorated to such an extent that the country is likely to be mired in elevated levels of political risk in the coming years,” Maplecroft’s Mr Laurie says.

Across the border, Libya has suffered increasing lawlessness since the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, as the interim Tripoli government struggles to assert its control over thousands of armed militia groups, each seeking their own goal. As faith in the leadership wanes, the country’s deputy industry minister was shot dead during a visit to his hometown of Sirte last weekend, in one of a series of politically motivated killings. Tens of civilians have already been killed this year in clashes between rival tribes. Political disputes have taken their toll on the economy, pushing down vital oil production from a high of 1.4m barrels a day after the ‘Arab Spring’ to as low as 200,000 bpd in recent months.

Meanwhile, new spates of instability are hitting Kenya and Mozambique – both countries favoured by investors. Kenya has been increasingly exposed to Somalia’s instability since it sent forces to intervene against al-Shabaab forces in 2011. That risk peaked when Islamic militants attacked the upmarket Westgate mall in Nairobi last September, killing more than 70 people.

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