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Central African States set to unravel as regional wars defy solution

M.A. Shaikh

From the Atlantic coast in the west to the Indian Ocean shores in the east, Central African States locked in civil or regional wars are on the brink of unravelling--in some cases facing the prospect of having their borders redrawn--as those conflicts defy solution, despite external intervention or because of it.

The grim prospect has forced itself on the world’s attention following convincing demonstration by Sierra Leone’s rebels that they cannot be defeated militarily; admission by the United Nations that it is withdrawing its team of monitors out of Angola as Unita rebels break the ceasefire and resume hostilities; and failure of the Congolese government or rebels, and their respective allies, to reach a peaceful settlement or win a decisive military victory to pre-empt a permanent redrawal of the country’s international borders.

In the eastern part of the region, the sudden announcement, on January 21, by the US that it had failed to mediate successfully between Ethiopia and Eritrea in their border dispute--which led to war last year--and that it had advised American nationals to leave the area, signalled that war between its two allies was imminent.

In Somalia, which ceased to be a State in 1991, after the overthrow of the former military dictator Siyad Barre, warlords continue to fight in the south of the country over dwindling spoils, while in the north, which declared a separate State so far unrecognized by any country, potentially hostile clans live in a constitutional and developmental limbo. Unlike Angola and Sierra Leone, Somalia is not oil or diamond rich, and its people are of the same religion, language and ethnicity. And the conflict’s continued resistance to resolution makes no sense, especially when the combatants are not divided by ideology either.

In the Sudanese civil war, there is no change in the confrontation between government forces and rebel militias. As John Garang, leader of the SPLA Southern Christian group, and northern Muslim opposition leaders continue to hope that the resolve of the US and its Arab allies to bring down the Islamically oriented regime of president Omar al-Bashir will not weaken. But the tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea and divisions among opposition groups have strengthened Khartoum’s position, as has the involvement of Uganda and Rwanda, strong supporters of the SPLA, in the Congolese war.

Of the various African conflicts, the latest, in Sierra Leone, is in a sense the most savage. But the Sudanese and the Congolese wars pose the greatest regional threat.

In Sudan, the intervention of western governments and church leaders, using regional Christian proxies, to aid Christian southern warlords against ‘Islamic and Arab’ northerners threatens to introduce an uncontrollable religious and racial conflagration that could set the entire region ablaze. Such intervention can also lead to war over access to the Nile waters involving Egypt, Sudan,Ethiopia and Uganda.

In the Congo, the military involvement of six African States on opposite sides of the conflict could break up the country and trigger off a regional war. Already, Congo, formerly Zaire, is split in two: president Laurent Kabila and his allies--Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad--control its western two-thirds, while the rebels and their allies--Uganda and Rwanda--control a growing third in the east. No African conflict has ever drawn in so many combatants--a development that not only makes the civil war that much more unmanageable but also threatens to blow it into a wider conflict.

None of the governments involved is in the Congo for altruistic reasons. In a country fabulously rich in gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, oil and timber, each government is there in pursuit of security or financial interests or both. It is one of the ironies of history that post-colonial African States are descending on the Congo--or for that matter on Sierra Leone and Angola for reasons similar to those that attracted colonial powers to the region like a magnet in the past, and continues to attract them and the army of mercenaries they hire nowadays.

The irony in the Sierra Leone situation mostly remarked upon is the claim by the Nigerian army that it is intervening on the side of the government to restore democratic rule to the war-torn West African country. The Nigerian army--which has ruled Nigeria with an iron grip for most of the years since independence in 1960 and has plundered its mineral and oil resources--can hardly be a harbinger of democratic rule. It is true that the Nigerians are trying to restore an elected president on a mandate by the West African Economic Group (ECOMOG), but the elections were held under conditions of civil war and only a quarter of the electorate voted.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah took office in 1996 after a four-year civil war and was overthrown the following year. He was restored by the Nigerian army in February 1998 with the help of western arms and finance and mercenary troops.

But with the national army fragmented after four years of civil war and coups, Kabbah had no real power, and the rebels were able to regroup and attack even the capital Freetown on January 6. And although the Nigerian army has pushed them back to the outskirts of the city, it is clear they cannot be defeated militarily. Once again a ‘peace-keeping’ effort has failed to resolve an African conflict.

The failure of outside intervention, whether African or foreign, is not surprising, because it is neither altruistic nor in pursuit of enforcing a total peace agreement which both sides want to see implemented. In the several African conflicts so far tackled, only the peacekeeping effort in Mozambique has succeeded because the parties to the conflict are committed to the implementation of the peaceful settlement negotiated.

Clearly, Africans cannot blame intervention, even when it is foreign and wrong, because they either invited it expressly or by implication, given their ceaseless squabbling and failure to settle internal disputes. In every case, it is the parties to the conflict that seek outside help to defeat their rivals. Consider the Somali clan warlords who invite the Arab League, the Organization of African Unity, the Organization of Islamic Conference and even the European Union and the US to help them revive a State their lust for power and loot has destroyed.

Muslimedia: Feb.1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 23

Shawwal 14, 14191999-02-01

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