There is a very simple reason why some of Africa’s bloodiest, most brutal wars never seem to end: They are not really wars. Not in the traditional sense, at least. The combatants don’t have much of an ideology; they don’t have clear goals. They couldn’t care less about taking over capitals or major cities — in fact, they prefer the deep bush, where it is far easier to commit crimes. Today’s rebels seem especially uninterested in winning converts, content instead to steal other people’s children, stick Kalashnikovs or axes in their hands, and make them do the killing. Look closely at some of the continent’s most intractable conflicts, from the rebel-laden creeks of the Niger Delta to the inferno in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and this is what you will find.
What we are seeing is the decline of the classic African liberation movement and the proliferation of something else — something wilder, messier, more violent, and harder to wrap our heads around. If you’d like to call this war, fine. But what is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry. My job as the New York Times‘ East Africa bureau chief is to cover news and feature stories in 12 countries. But most of my time is spent immersed in these un-wars.
I’ve witnessed up close — often way too close — how combat has morphed from soldier vs. soldier (now a rarity in Africa) to soldier vs. civilian. Most of today’s African fighters are not rebels with a cause; they’re predators. That’s why we see stunning atrocities like eastern Congo’s rape epidemic, where armed groups in recent years have sexually assaulted hundreds of thousands of women, often so sadistically that the victims are left incontinent for life. What is the military or political objective of ramming an assault rifle inside a woman and pulling the trigger? Terror has become an end, not just a means.
This is the story across much of Africa, where nearly half of the continent’s 53 countries are home to an active conflict or a recently ended one. Quiet places such as Tanzania are the lonely exceptions; even user-friendly, tourist-filled Kenya blew up in 2008. Add together the casualties in just the dozen countries that I cover, and you have a death toll of tens of thousands of civilians each year. More than 5 million have died in Congo alone since 1998, the International Rescue Committee has estimated.
Of course, many of the last generation’s independence struggles were bloody, too. South Sudan’s decades-long rebellion is thought to have cost more than 2 million lives. But this is not about numbers. This is about methods and objectives, and the leaders driving them. Uganda’s top guerrilla of the 1980s, Yoweri Museveni, used to fire up his rebels by telling them they were on the ground floor of a national people’s army. Museveni became president in 1986, and he’s still in office (another problem, another story). But his words seem downright noble compared with the best-known rebel leader from his country today, Joseph Kony, who just gives orders to burn.
Even if you could coax these men out of their jungle lairs and get them to the negotiating table, there is very little to offer them. They don’t want ministries or tracts of land to govern. Their armies are often traumatized children, with experience and skills (if you can call them that) totally unsuited for civilian life. All they want is cash, guns, and a license to rampage. And they’ve already got all three. How do you negotiate with that?
The short answer is you don’t. The only way to stop today’s rebels for real is to capture or kill their leaders. Many are uniquely devious characters whose organizations would likely disappear as soon as they do. That’s what happened in Angola when the diamond-smuggling rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was shot, bringing a sudden end to one of the Cold War’s most intense conflicts. In Liberia, the moment that warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor was arrested in 2006 was the same moment that the curtain dropped on the gruesome circus of 10-year-old killers wearing Halloween masks. Countless dollars, hours, and lives have been wasted on fruitless rounds of talks that will never culminate in such clear-cut results. The same could be said of indictments of rebel leaders for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. With the prospect of prosecution looming, those fighting are sure never to give up.
How did we get here? Maybe it’s pure nostalgia, but it seems that yesteryear’s African rebels had a bit more class. They were fighting against colonialism, tyranny, or apartheid. The winning insurgencies often came with a charming, intelligent leader wielding persuasive rhetoric. These were men like John Garang, who led the rebellion in southern Sudan with his Sudan People’s Liberation Army. He pulled off what few guerrilla leaders anywhere have done: winning his people their own country. Thanks in part to his tenacity, South Sudan will hold a referendum next year to secede from the North. Garang died in a 2005 helicopter crash, but people still talk about him like a god. Unfortunately, the region without him looks pretty godforsaken. I traveled to southern Sudan in November to report on how ethnic militias, formed in the new power vacuum, have taken to mowing down civilians by the thousands.
Even Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s dictator, was once a guerrilla with a plan. After transforming minority white-run Rhodesia into majority black-run Zimbabwe, he turned his country into one of the fastest-growing and most diversified economies south of the Sahara — for the first decade and a half of his rule. His status as a true war hero, and the aid he lent other African liberation movements in the 1980s, account for many African leaders’ reluctance to criticize him today, even as he has led Zimbabwe down a path straight to hell.