State of War

23 May 2004

State of War

By Gwynne Dyer

The worst killing in the world this month was in Nigeria, which isn’t officially at war. Nigerian police routinely underestimate the number of people killed in fighting between Muslims and Christians, believing that the true numbers will just encourage revenge killings elsewhere, but at least 600 Muslims were murdered in the central state of Plateau in early May in a steep escalation of tit-for-tat killings between Fulani cattle-herders (Muslim) and Tarok farmers (Christian) over land and cattle. “Allah will avenge us,” said one survivor in the burnt-out town of Yelwa. “The pagans have killed our people.”

Revenge came a week later, although not against those guilty of the murders. Between 500 and 600 Christians were killed in the Muslim-majority city of Kano in northern Nigeria by gangs of Muslims youths armed with machetes and clubs. Many of the bodies were burned and mutilated, and as in Yelwa even children were killed.

It has been a particularly bad month in Nigeria — but about 10,000 people have been killed in this kind of Christian-Muslim violence in the past five years. So is this war, or do we just treat it as a very bad case of civil disorder? The answer matters, because it shapes our perception of what kind of world we live in.

More people died violently in Nigeria this month than in Iraq, which got most of the headlines about war in May. Many more were killed in Nigeria than in the Gaza Strip, which came second in news coverage although actual deaths were far fewer. One side in Iraq and in the Gaza Strip was wearing military uniforms and fully involved in the fighting, whereas in Nigeria the uniformed people just went around collecting the bodies afterwards, but it seems reasonable to treat all of these clashes as a kind of war.

Then why were the Nigerian killings so under-reported? Because they were in Africa. People elsewhere see massacres between rival ethnic and religious groups in African countries as something chronic and specifically African which does not really have the same news value or political importance as killings elsewhere that involve regular armies. At the same time, however, people are dimly aware that there are a lot of ethnic wars in Africa, and it adds to their perception of a world ravaged by war.

So let’s count them. There is the ethnic struggle that may finally be ending in southern Sudan and the new one that has flared in Darfur province in western Sudan; the bizarre and bloody campaign of terror waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda; the civil war between the Muslims of northern Ivory Coast and Christians of the south, currently frozen by a ceasefire; the multi-sided war that still drags on half-heartedly in the eastern Congo; and the war between Hutu guerillas and the Tutsi-dominated government in Burundi. All of them are tribal in nature; some of them have an overlay of Muslim-Christian hostility — and there actually aren’t that many of them.

There certainly aren’t many compared to twenty years ago, when Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Eritrea were all consumed by guerilla war and Somalia was beginning its descent into anarchy. Sudan was already well into its north-south civil war, and President Robert Mugabe’s troops were busy massacring Ndebele in western Zimbabwe who had supported the wrong liberation movement.

The Congo was still at peace, but both Burundi and Rwanda were suffering from Hutu-Tutsi clashes and Morocco was waging a full-scale war against Polisario rebels in the Sahara. Ethnic strife in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest and most complicated country, was as common as it is now, and South Africa still writhed under the brutal apartheid regime, with no hope of peaceful change in sight. War is still a huge problem in Africa, but it is definitely smaller than it was twenty years ago.

Elsewhere, the number of wars has shrunk by more than half. Twenty years ago there were major guerilla wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru and Colombia; today the only such war that survives in all of Latin America is in Colombia.

Two decades ago Asia was the second home of war, with big guerilla insurgencies in Cambodia, the southern Philippines, East Timor, Burma, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and full-scale war between Iran and Iraq. Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan, all these countries are now at least provisionally at peace, and the only active new guerilla wars in Asia are in Nepal and Kashmir.

Above all, there is peace among the really dangerous countries. The nuclear war the industrialised countries had been preparing for since the late 1940s has been cancelled, and even the aftershocks attending the belated end of the Russian empire — ethnic wars in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia — have mostly died down.

The planet is more at peace now than since the European empires covered most of it like political glaciers and smothered all dissent and difference beneath their weight. The retreat of the glaciers was bound to unleash a lot of tectonic activity, but it is dying down again. The only kind of political violence that people in most countries have to fear any more is terrorism — and if that’s your only worry, then you really don’t have many worries.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“It in”; and “Above…down”)