In Africa south of the Sahara, the last four decades have seen 35 major armed conflicts, which together have taken the lives of almost 10 million people. In just a few months beginning in the spring of 1994, genocidal strife and a series of epidemics spawned amid the ensuing refugee flight and disorder killed nearly a million citizens of the small country of Rwanda. The warfare, drought, and disease that plague Africa have given the continent a refugee population currently estimated at 26 million people; in a typical year, Africa absorbs nearly half of the world’s emergency food aid. In the 1990s, a new wave of violence has swept Africa even as the continent underwent relegation to the status of post-Cold War political and economic backwater. In keeping with the general pattern of the postcolonial era, most of this violence came in the form of civil conflict, with set-piece clashes among states relatively rare.
The era of independence and decolonization, which began in the early 1960s, was marred by a series of messy wars as various leaders and factions struggled to fill the power vacuum left behind by the retreating colonial powers. Colonialism left Africa a patchwork of states with borders drawn in European capitals, highly centralized administrative systems, and indigenous military cadres trained in the colonial regiments of European powers. The violence of the early postindependence years created a deadly legacy whose effects are still being felt. In 1990, for [End Page 35] instance, 13 open conflicts were recorded, including major civil wars in Ethiopia, Angola, Liberia, Somalia, Mozambique, and Chad. Armed struggles between majority and minority ethnic or communal groups occurred in Uganda, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, the Western Sahara, Sudan, and Rwanda.
Even more deadly than open warfare is the general disorder that besets sub-Saharan Africa. The various crises facing the region have been well documented: massive external debt, rapid population growth, and the bleak prospects for achieving sustainable development are the subjects of an extensive and depressing literature. Since 1989, national conferences and elections have become common phenomena, and multiparty politics has been accepted—at least in principle, and often at the urging of Western countries.
Many causes of dissatisfaction remain, however, and disillusionment with these new political arrangements seems to be growing. The upheavals have exhausted countries like Nigeria, Zaire, and Togo. Disputes brought into the open by democracy have shattered the professional, apolitical facade of the military; ethnic cleavages have forced many countries into a downward spiral of civil war, lawlessness, anarchy, and misery. Disorder—whether in the form of multisided turbulence or rule by corrupt and inept despots—has brought about a decline whose precipitousness can hardly be overstated. A recent World Bank report estimated that at the present rates of growth, it will take 40 years before the poor African states south of the Sahara regain the per-capita income levels they enjoyed in the mid-1970s.
In the fragile economic environment created by crushing foreign debt and the loss of some traditional export markets for tropical products and raw materials, droughts and famines can magnify the effects of armed conflict and give rise to major disasters. Movements of refugees and successive layers of exiles, whether fleeing famine or war, contain the seeds of future crises—which the rest of the world will not notice until they are shown on CNN.
The human diversity of the continent has long been a source of intense conflict. In sub-Saharan Africa, 52 states whose borders were drawn with no regard to ethnographic realities govern 700 million people. The Cold War, during which Africa was an arena of contention between competing international blocs, promoted political stability by reinforcing the inviolability of the colonial-era boundaries. Now this source of stability is no more. Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia, though peaceful, may be the harbinger of a bloody new age as unviable postcolonial states subdivide into ethnic ministates and clan zones, or simply melt down amid confusion, brigandage, and outbursts of genocidal violence. Fears that Africa’s multinational countries will be dismembered along ethnic lines derive from the obvious failure of the unitary and...