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    Key regions serve as measure for African security

    Author  :  LI XINFENG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-12-24

    Peace and security in Africa are closely related not only to the stability and development of the continent but also to that of the world. How to monitor the status of peace and security in Africa thus has been a hot topic in academia. The three key regions of “One Horn, One Great Lake and One Belt” are the most volatile, so they could serve as a barometer for the panorama of African conflict. 

    Horn of Africa

    The Horn of Africa is located in the northeast of Africa, on the south coast of the Gulf of Aden, separated from the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula by the narrow Red Sea. Due to the geographical location and geopolitical importance of the region, its security and stability contribute to the security of the entire African continent.

    During the Cold War, the Horn of Africa became an important arena for the United States and the Soviet Union to compete for hegemony. At the end of the Cold War in particular, the number of armed conflicts such as proxy wars breaking out on the Horn of Africa increased sharply. Since the 1990s, as the Cold War ended and Western powers withdrew, the Horn of Africa has become somewhat of a power vacuum and one of the world’s most insecure regions. 

    According to the 2018 Conflict Barometer released by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, major armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa are concentrated in the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa, among which major armed conflicts are more frequent in the Horn of Africa.

    Security in the Horn of Africa as a whole could be summarized as follows. To start with, tribal conflicts and civil wars are intense. In the past, the European colonialists arbitrarily drew the colonial boundaries of the Horn of Africa in disregard of local situations, which set the stage for ethnic conflicts and border disputes after the nations in the Horn gained independence. 

    A border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea erupted in a war between 1998 and 2000 that resulted in heavy casualties, but the border dispute remained, and for nearly two decades the two countries remained hostile, often skirmishing over border jurisdiction. This conflict continued until July 2018 when, under the mediation of the Gulf States, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a joint declaration on peace and friendship and restored diplomatic relations.

    Meanwhile, prolonged internal tensions in Sudan and the spread of civil war in South Sudan continued to impede regional stability and development. The army took power in April 2019 following a military coup that ousted President Omar al-Bashir, but Sudan’s main opposition coalition and the ruling military council are not always on the same page, and armed conflict remains a possibility along the border between North and South Sudan. 

    The ongoing civil war in South Sudan poses a serious threat to the stability of the Horn of Africa, especially Sudan’s neighboring countries. Since the start of an ethnic conflict between the two dominant tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, in South Sudan in December 2013, power struggles and oil wealth disputes have displaced a large number of people and led to a serious humanitarian crisis.

    Second, terrorism and extremist groups are thriving. Somalia, bordering the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, is strategically important because it is located on the world’s famous trade routes. Somalia has been in a state of anarchy or weak government since 1991 due to a long civil war and continued instability, which has led to the indiscriminate looting of Somali pirates and the proliferation of the extremist group al-Shabab. At present, the terrorist attacks of the group have become cross-border, trans-regional, frequent and localized, causing a large number of innocent casualties at home and abroad. 

    Lastly, the involvement of foreign military forces has increased. In recent years, the military intervention of countries outside the region has made the Horn of Africa one of the most militarized regions in the world, and the Horn of Africa has become a new point of regional competition among global powers. While strengthening relations with Africa, major countries in the world have strengthened their long-term military presence in the Red Sea waters of the Horn of Africa, while countries in the Middle East have also become important participants in the military and security affairs of the Horn of Africa through allied competition, proxy wars and port politics. As a result, hot issues in the Middle East have spilled over into the Horn of Africa, complicating the security situation in the region.

    Great Lakes region

    The Great Lakes region is a term used to describe a series of lakes in the East African Rift valley that runs through eastern Africa from Ethiopia in the north to Malawi in the south, including the African Great Lakes to the south. Geographical advantages and abundant water resources make the Great Lakes region one of the most densely populated regions in Africa.

    In the late 19th century, colonist rule arbitrarily interrupted the natural integration process of the ethnic groups in the region. They imposed racial fantasies on to the population by issuing identity cards, racial quotas, and racist propaganda, so that the differences and contradictions between the tribes were artificially amplified to an irreconcilable situation. 

    In the process of decolonization, sociocultural identities formed by language, custom and religious belief, promoted ethnic groups to become the basic unit supporting the rise of local political forces, which laid great hidden dangers for the development of democracy and modern nation-state construction in the region.

    With the advent of comprehensive political liberation, various politicized ethnic groups immediately began to fill the power vacuum left by the withdrawal of Western colonialists with the law of the jungle. Military coups, civil wars, regional separatism and inter-state wars began to play out in various countries. 

    Just a month after independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was plunged into a national political crisis over the Katanga insurgency, which ultimately led to the murder of the national liberation leader Patrice Lumumba. Two civil wars in the DRC left the country ravaged. The second civil war, which involved many African countries, was called “Africa’s world war.” The east of the DRC remains the greatest challenge to peace and security in the Great Lakes region.

    At the same time, the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi has led to the overthrow of the constitutionalism of Rwanda and Burundi by military coups since one of them monopolized power shortly after independence. In the 1990s, the increasingly intensifying conflict not only provoked the two countries into successive civil wars, but also led to the world-shocking Rwandan genocide. 

    Sahel region

    The Sahel region is an east-west belt of the southern Sahara that extends from Senegal on the Atlantic coast to Eritrea on the Red Sea. Sahel is an Arabic transliteration meaning “edge,” referring to the edge of the desert.

    As a transition between two natural geographic units, the Sahel region is not only a natural gauge that clearly delineates the boundary between the Arab population of north Africa and the black population of sub-Saharan Africa, but also the forefront of the fierce collision among Islam, traditional African religions and Christianity. In a sense, this stretch of land resembles a civilizational fault line between different races and belief systems. 

    At the same time, due to the relatively harsh natural environment, the Sahel belt is far away from the political and economic centers of the countries it crosses, with a small population, closed traffic, backward economy and poor living conditions. It is a marginal region that has been forgotten. These two factors have led to widespread dissatisfaction with the government and a relatively weak sense of national identity in the Sahel, which has led to frequent military coups, armed rebellions, civil wars and bad relations among neighboring countries.

    Boko Haram was founded in 2002 in northeastern Nigeria. Its members are mainly the local Kanuri ethnic group, which advocates the establishment of Islamic fundamentalist rule in Nigeria. In 2015, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq. It has been responsible for appalling violence in Nigeria’s northern states and the borders of Chad, Cameroon, Niger and other countries around Lake Chad for years, making itself the most active terrorist group in the Sahel and West Africa as a whole. 

    Northern Mali is also haunted by terrorism, with a variety of extremist groups such as indigenous Berbers and Tuaregs, as well as dozens of terrorist groups from neighboring Mauritania, Niger and Algeria. As of now, northern Mali has been dubbed Africa’s “terrorist training camp.” With the concerted efforts of the international community, the Sahelian states have repeatedly repelled large-scale military offensives launched by terrorist groups. The bigger threat now comes from widespread small-scale terrorist attacks.

    In sum, the One Horn, One Great Lake and One Belt three key regions can be regarded as a barometer of the African continent, because they bring together all aspects of Africa’s peace and security issues. To achieve the peace and stability of the barometer, we need to address both symptoms and root causes, adopt a comprehensive approach, and make a concerted effort. The intervention and influence of external forces is not the decisive factor in the security situation of the One Horn, One Great Lake and One Belt. Only by facilitating their own wisdom and solutions can the dawn of peace be achieved and spread across Africa. 

     

     

     

    Li Xinfeng is executive vice-president of the China-Africa Institute at CASS.

     

     

     

     

    (Edited by YANG XUE)

    Editor: Yu Hui

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