Conflict trends in Africa: a turn for the better in 2015?

Although 2014 was the most deadly year in Africa since 1999, trends in fatalities from political violence in 2015 are positive.

Last year was Africa’s deadliest since 1999 with fatalities, which have steadily risen since 2011, reaching a peak. No wonder there was a sense of despondency during the sixth annual retreat of African mediators that the African Union (AU) organised in Windhoek in late October.

In 2014, the number of fatalities from political violence in Africa reached levels last seen during the final stages of the Cold War. During that time the number of armed conflicts in Africa fluctuated at unprecedented levels, and were much higher than we have seen in recent years. Eventually the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of proxy wars on African soil ushered in a peace dividend that continues to benefit current generations – even after the surge in violence from 2011 to 2014.

Despite the increase, much of Africa is generally at peace. The extraordinarily high levels of fatalities occur in a handful of countries, and it skews an analysis of current levels of violence. If we exclude fatalities from just five of Africa’s 54 countries (Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Libya), fatality levels resulting from political violence remain constant at low levels that are unprecedented by historical standards.

In fact, fatalities in a number of countries, including Angola, Burundi (until recently), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and elsewhere have steadily declined over time. But news of steadily declining armed violence seldom makes the front page.

Africa is much less violent than at the end of the Cold War

Similarly, a closer look at terrorism in Africa presents an interesting picture, where the number of terrorism-related incidents has remained constant over several decades, despite the rise in fatalities in Nigeria and Somalia. This means that more people are being killed in 2014 and 2015, but the number of events remains the same.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has become far more deadly and effective, but in 2015 this has in part been due to the increased use of remote bombs and suicide attacks, rather than armed attacks.

In Somalia, al-Shabaab is on the back foot and steadily being pushed back by the AU and United Nations (UN) peacekeepers. The high fatalities recorded there is therefore largely a reflection of the pressure that the African Union Mission to Somaliahas been able to exert, rather than an advance by the terrorists.

Things are slowly improving in 2015, although many challenges remain, particularly as regards the future of Libya and the war in South Sudan. According to the Armed Conflict and Event Data Project (ACLED), 194 800 deaths occurred in 2014 due to political violence. Recent data from ACLED, for January to October this year, indicates signs of the surge in fatalities being reversed.

By September 2015, the number of monthly incidents of political violence declined by a quarter, and the number of fatalities by more than half since the start of the year. After 1989, the burden of fatalities due to political violence was steadily declining. If recent trends continue, Africa should see a resumption of this decrease.

The Africa rising narrative has given way to a more cautious tale of Africa improving

It is important to emphasise that although a small number of African countries are more violent today than they were 10 years ago, Africa as a whole is much less violent now than at the end of the Cold War. Instability is increasingly limited to a small number of countries. This remains true even after we factor in the impact of population growth, since larger numbers of people result in higher absolute incidents of violence.

There are many reasons for the recent increase in instability such as the fall-out from the Arab Spring in North Africa, violent infection from Syria and Iraq, the turbulence that accompanies democratisation and the associated elections, and, of course, terrorism in countries such as Nigeria and Somalia. Africa is violent because it has a young population, many of them without jobs and frustrated by their poor prospects.

In a globalised world, the sense of relative deprivation among Africa’s large young population is heightened by constant exposure, especially via the media, to the wealth of others, including in their own country. Although growth rates have improved and we forecast average growth of around 6% for Africa over the long term, the short-term prospects are far less robust. Much faster growth is required if the continent is to move towards key targets, such as eradication of extreme poverty.

Work done by the African Futures and Innovation team at the Institute for Security Studies suggests that managing Africa’s urban spaces will become particularly difficult in the future. Rapid development is often a tense process as people move to urban areas, traditional land rights are challenged and smart entrepreneurs (and companies) abuse the rights of others. This is particularly true where governance is weak, corruption levels high and accountability systems underdeveloped.

Africans are steadily shaping their own destiny

For many, the narrative of Africa rising has therefore given way to a more cautious tale of Africa improving, but that large sections are being left behind, including in more affluent societies. High levels of inequality serve as an additional drag on inclusive growth and job creation, and contribute to heightening tensions.

The situation would have been much worse had it not been for the efforts at peacekeeping, conflict prevention and mediation by the AU and the UN. It seems to have become de rigueur to dismiss the efforts of the UN and castigate the AU for its apparent failures.

Yet, unlike before, African mediators are now at the forefront of making peace. Africa provides the bulk of peacekeepers on the continent, increasingly also contributing financially. Challenges remain, most prominently the extent to which the continent is unable to fund peacekeeping in Africa and its inability to make fully operational the African Standby Force, particularly its rapid response component.

A previous ISS Today by Peter Fabricius also pointed to the lack of consistency in combating impunity at leadership level within the AU, with different standards being applied to different situations. The AU is struggling, particularly in holding Africa’s crop of geriatric leaders to account; those who cling to power in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo, not to speak of the situation in Swaziland where claims of hereditary tradition trumps the will of the people.

These are all countries where instability is certain to accompany the unfolding of democracy, as it may in other countries such as the DRC, where Laurent Kabila has been emboldened by events in Burundi and is intent on extending his rule.

Yet these anomalies often obscure the broader trend, which is towards higher levels of growth, greater levels of accountability, reductions in instability and steady progress towards democracy. In line with global trends, Africans today have higher standards of living, suffer from less conflict, live longer and are healthier than ever before. While some still revel in the external blame game, singling out colonialism, France and the United States of America for particular attention (the United Kingdom has shrunk its global role to the extent that it of little consequence in Africa), the reality is that Africans are steadily shaping their own destiny.

Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, Institute for Security Studies

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