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Africa’s War Problem


An artisanal miner in southern Mali. JOE PENNEY/REUTERS
An artisanal gold miner in Mali. Rather than accept that natural resources can incite conflicts, it can be more useful to look at governance in examining causes of wars. JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

Too much of Africa is a mess. While there are, of course, great success stories, many countries continue, despite the end of colonialism and the Cold War, to suffer wildly from poverty, illness, corruption, coups and wars — too many compared with the rest of the world. Even as an outsized slice of United Nations and other international programs  focus on improving things, outsiders can be forgiven for wondering how much hope there is for Africa’s future.

Given this assessment, wouldn’t it seem incredibly useful to examine all modern African wars and try to pin down their likely causes? Even better, why not look into the effectiveness of all the various tools that were used to try to end those conflicts over the years, with an eye to refining them?

That was the ambitious goal set out by Paul D. Williams in his new edition of “War & Conflict in Africa,” released this year. The result, which devotes a lot of space to compiling and dissecting other scholars’ work, ends up being more a cool analysis of various problems than a guide to healing a continent torn by violence.

Starting in Chapter 1, Williams, an associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a peacekeeping expert, finds himself trapped in a technical debate over the meaning of the word “conflict” rather than conjuring a chilling glimpse at what all that killing means. His point is that since 2011, there have been more wars in Africa than anywhere else in the world, and this is bad. But he laments that it’s too complicated to put forward a number — or even a range of numbers — to make his case because each of the leading databases he analyzes is built on different assumptions.

The options are dizzying. Sheer numbers of conflicts, or shares of the world total? Should we look only at major wars or various grades of lesser violent events? Regime changes as well as genocides, ethnic wars and revolutionary wars? Instead of counting just conflicts with two sides, should we also include wars in which one group unleashes violence on another that merely stands there and takes it? In trying to count the victims, what is the right baseline to determine the excess death rate? Is a death from malnutrition, homelessness and illness the same as a battlefield fatality?

Williams ends up finding broad agreement on Africa’s war problem. “Whether measured in terms of its population or the number of its states, post-Cold War Africa has suffered more than its fair share of organized violence. It is this troubling fact that makes the search to explain and understand their causes so important,” he writes.

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He complicates his quest by resisting the idea put forward by many analysts that wars stem from one or two basic problems, such as a country’s colonial past, abundant natural resources or religious differences.

“As any beginner in the kitchen will testify, a list of ingredients is little use without details about the proportions, preparation techniques and cooking instructions as to which separate items should be combined to produce the dish in question. So it is with the causes of war,” he says.

Paul D. Williams, author of
Paul Williams, author of “War & Conflict in Africa.”

Rather than adopt, for example, the popular notion that natural resources like oil and diamonds touch off wars, he says it is more fruitful to focus on flawed systems of governance or instability. “Resources are always part of a political project. It is these political agendas, not the resources themselves, which generate conflict.”

As an example, he cites the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola movement, or Unita, whose leader Jonas Savimbi financed a long civil war with blood diamonds. Unita’s goal “was not to generate profit but to continue Savimbi’s campaign for power,” Williams writes. While the war ended less than two months after Savimbi was killed in 2002, “Angola’s diamond trade continues.”

He makes a similar argument about religion. “Different religious beliefs do not cause groups to fight but they can be interpreted to justify all sorts of practices, from altruistic acts of compassion [or] apathetic indifference, to spiteful acts of hatred.”

More important factors, he maintains, are questions of ethnic identity and sovereignty. This is fine as far as it goes, but doesn’t determine with certainty whether a particular hot spot is going to turn violent.

Williams’s ideas on how to transform war into peace include the array of mechanisms available to the international community — peacekeeping missions, development and humanitarian aid, measures to protect civilians and the Security Council of the UN and the African Union. But he is frank about their shortcomings.

Far too few peacekeepers are deployed relative to the size and complexity of their missions, which in turn have often lacked “a viable conflict resolution strategy.” Wealthy nations, seeing little strategic interest in the process, fail to become fully invested in the effort. Missions put too much weight on elections, which are costly and fail to advance key peacebuilding goals. The African Union, while adopting a strong stance against coups, does not always stand united behind that new policy.

Williams rightly accuses Washington of lukewarm support for African peacekeeping, saying that since 9/11, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have played a leading role in just one African peace deal, in southern Sudan in 2005. “The result was a form of low-intensity peacemaking where the resources were limited and initiatives often lacked political stamina.”

Williams offers his own advice, suggesting at one point, for example, that outside interveners equip themselves with “both credible sticks and tasty carrots.”

“We face a hugely daunting agenda that will require considerable time, money and, most of all, political effort,” he warns at another point.

Clearly, if people had better answers at the ready, it would be simpler to end Africa’s wars. The book thus reaffirms the obvious: no easy answers exist. Nevertheless, he says, “as one African proverb has it: peace may be costly but it is worth the expense.”

“War & Conflict in Africa, Second Edition,” by Paul D. Williams. Polity Press. ISBN (paperback): 978-1-5095-0905-8

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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