Fifty years of chronic conflict
On May 25 the African continent and the African diaspora celebrate Africa Day. This year’s celebrations officially conclude the year-long Organisation of African Unity/African Union (AU) 50th anniversary that was officially launched by the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in April last year under the theme Pan Africanism and African Renaissance.
The celebrations also coincide with other anniversaries; the two most important being 20 years since the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, in which 800 000 people were massacred in just 100 days; and the celebration of two decades since the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Sadly, Africa’s jubilee witnessed a sharp rise in acts of terrorism and violent conflict that threaten the continent’s renewed hope for a break with a past characterised by political instability, poverty and underdevelopment.
The kidnapping last month of more than 200 girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria by the Islamist Boko Haram terrorists blights Africa’s image, and the lackadaisical reaction to the tragedy at both national and regional level reflects badly on the continent’s peace and security architecture.
More recently, the same terrorist group is suspected of attacking a Chinese construction site in northern Cameroon, killing a soldier and abducting 10 Chinese workers.
Boko Haram has been fighting for five years now, carrying out attacks on civilians and security forces, with more than 3 000 casualties.
It has taken the abduction of the schoolgirls to deal with the growing security threat. Special forces from Canada, the United States, Britain, France and Israel have joined attempts to rescue the children.
This is a replication of Operation Serval launched by France last year that halted the Tuareg-led militants that swept through northern Mali in 2012 after long delays by the subregional grouping Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to deploy troops.
The Tuareg rebels are still a security threat in Mali, with recent reports of gun battles and the capture of the northern town of Kidal.
Ironically, West African leaders had to meet in Paris last week to agree to work together to wage “total war” on Boko Haram.
Not only that: in December 2013 France launched Operation Sangaris after the total collapse of law and order, the absence of the rule of law and rising sectarian tensions in the Central African Republic.
It is now a year since the Seleka militia captured the capital Bangui and deposed President Francis Bozize, leaving many casualties and 13 dead South African soldiers, but peace has not returned to the country.
The administration of the new interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, has struggled to restore order and religious and ethnic persecution increased even after Ecowas had deployed the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic.
Terrorism is also the biggest security threat in East Africa where Boko Haram’s partners in crime, the al-Shabab militants, have orchestrated a spate of bombings in Kenya and neighbouring states in retaliation for their contribution to the African Union Mission to Somalia, which is fighting the rebels and trying to stabilise the conflict-wracked country.
Further inland, Africa’s newest state, three-year-old South Sudan, has been at war with itself since December last year, with ethnic killings of genocidal proportions having been reported that led the AU to appoint a commission of inquiry in March led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.
The mandate of the commission is “to investigate human rights violations and other abuses committed during the armed conflict in South Sudan and [to] make recommendations on the best way and means to ensure accountability, reconciliation and healing among all South Sudanese communities”.
This gives an impression that the war has stopped, which is not true. Since its outbreak, the subregional grouping Inter-Governmental Authority on Development’s mediation efforts led to the signing of two ceasefire agreements that have both been ignored, with counteraccusations flying between the warring parties.
A threat of famine still lingers as more than one million internally displaced persons live in United Nations refugee camps, though the rainy season is fast approaching.
In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the situation has improved slightly since the defeat of the M23 rebel movement, but threats remain because of dozens other military groups operating in the region.
In North Africa, Libya hasn’t stabilised since Nato led the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which left an “arms bazaar” in the country: military hardware is easily accessible to the rebels now terrorising West Africa.
The region’s powerhouse, Egypt, remains suspended from the AU since July 2013 when then-president Mohammed Morsi was deposed in a military coup.
It is important to note that this year’s Africa Day also coincides with the 10th anniversary of the birth of the African Standby Force (ASF) concept, the idea of a unit that would be able to respond to conflict in a timely and efficient manner; it is now a decade since the ASF was approved by the AU. The force was originally meant to be operational in 2010 but the deadline was pushed to 2015. In May 2013, a decision, in principle, was made to establish an African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises as a transitional arrangement ahead of the ASF becoming fully operational.
The idea was to expedite the realisation of ASF’s rapid deployment capability. Sadly, only 10 countries, including South Africa, have so far committed to the idea.
As we celebrate Africa Day this year, we also begin the first year of the 2014–2024 Nelson Mandela Decade of Reconciliation in Africa, declared by the AU in January as a way to secure peace, stability and development in Africa, as well as to take appropriate steps to promote lessons learnt from his legacy in the areas of truth, reconciliation and peace-building.
May Madiba’s spirit give us hope for a better, conflict-free Africa – and may the centenary of Africa Day in 2063 give genuine cause for a long-overdue celebration of peace on the continent.
Webster Zambara is senior project leader for Southern Africa at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town.