War in Africa

28 April 2024

War in Africa

By Gwynne Dyer

“We could see an all-out war between all the tribes and that is really the doomsday scenario. At this point, it’s not unrealistic,” the head of an international non-government organisation that is working in Sudan told the Al Jazeera news agency last week. (She asked them to withhold her name to protect her in-country team in North Darfur.)

‘Doomsday’ is a strong word, but the fighting in Sudan is probably already killing more people per day than are dying in the wars in either Ukraine or the Gaza Strip. An estimated nine million people have fled their homes in Sudan since the war began just over a year ago, and severe hunger is already setting in there on a Gaza-like scale.

So why, you might well ask, have you heard so little about it?

I’m not pointing any fingers here. This is a twice-weekly column, and I try to ration the number of times I write on Gaza and Ukraine to once a month each to leave some room for the rest of the world. Nevertheless, I struggle to hold them down to that frequency, whereas I have written only once about Sudan in the past year.

‘News’ has to be about events that people care about, and that is largely a function of distance: the farther away it is, the less important it seems. But there’s another factor at work in the relative silence about Sudan: ‘news’ needs to be new. That is, it needs to be different from the normal, the usual, the past. Unfortunately, war in Africa is none of the above.

There has never been a time in the last half-century when peace has reigned everywhere in Africa. Once the short century of European imperial rule ended – around 1960 for most of the continent, although it took another generation in southern Africa – it has been back to normal.

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There are 54 countries in Africa, which means that there are many opportunities for things to go badly wrong. However, there are also fifty countries in Europe, but apart from the Balkans wars of the 1990s and the current war in Ukraine there have been no major wars in the region since 1945.

Africa is very different. In addition to the big war in Sudan right now, the internal war in Ethiopia between Amhara and Tigray states is starting up again. Major Islamist insurgencies are underway in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad, in each case controlling large chunks of the country’s territory.

Internal, essentially tribal wars continue in the new country of South Sudan and in various parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The English-speaking minority is in revolt in Cameroon, the Islamist al-Shabaab group still holds most of southern Somalia (the north has broken away), and there are Islamist rebels in northern Mozambique.

Eleven countries out of 54, containing more than a quarter of Africa’s population, are at war, and mostly they are at war with themselves. There’s nothing new, nothing radically different, nothing for outsiders to be surprised by. THAT’s why the rest of the world isn’t paying much attention – but why is Africa like this?

Maybe it’s because there are at least 75 African languages with more than a million speakers, and probably another hundred with at least a quarter-million. Moreover, only a dozen have more than 20 million speakers. Language is the biggest element in cultural and political identity, so Africa is by far the richest continent in terms of ethnicities and identities.

This is a triumph of sorts, because in Eurasia and the Americas that same spectacular cultural and linguistic diversity was ground down over millennia and finally extinguished by repeated conquest, migration and assimilation.

In Europe, only eight languages now account for 80% of the continent’s population. Just two languages, Mandarin and Hindi/Urdu, will enable you to speak to almost half Asia’s population. This homogenisation, accomplished mostly by force, did eventually produce long periods of peace over large areas, like the Roman empire or the Ming dynasty in China.

Africa did not take the same road. Iron-working began in Africa at about the same time as in Europe, India and China, but big empires did not follow. African empires did exist, but they came and went relatively fast and never controlled a large part of the continent.

That’s why Africa retains so much of its original diversity in language and culture. This is not a ‘post-colonial problem’. Small but frequent wars were the price Africans paid for that rich diversity all through their history, and they are still paying it today.

Since modern communications technologies now make it almost impossible to suppress all those languages and cultures, the only possible solution is to integrate them into broader shared identities. The work has begun, but it will take at least another generation. Meanwhile, lots of wars, mostly internal ones.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“I’m…year”; and “There…normal”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Intervention Earth: Life-Saving Ideas from the World’s Climate Engineers’. Last year’s book, ‘The Shortest History of War’, is also still available.