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Africa’s Dirty Wars

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Richard Mosse/Jack Shainman Gallery
Young rebels from the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo—whose fighters, according to UNHCR, are told to spray themselves with ‘magic water to protect themselves from bullets’—Lukweti, Masisi Territory, North Kivu, 2011. The photograph is titled Vintage Violence and appears in Infra, Richard Mosse’s book of infrared images of eastern Congo. The book includes an essay by Adam Hochschild and has just been published by Aperture and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

In December 2009, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal African rebel group guided by a wig-wearing commander named Joseph Kony, massacred more than three hundred people in a remote corner of northeastern Congo. Most of the victims were clubbed to death, some were killed with machetes, a few were shot, and a few more were strangled. The LRA, as it is widely known—in Congo it’s simply called tonga-tonga, which means something like “those who attack silently”—had just kidnapped hundreds of people and was moving quickly through the bush. Anyone who couldn’t keep up was killed. Most often the other conscripts, many of them children, were forced to do the killing.

Because that corner of Congo is so isolated and sparsely populated, it took weeks for news of the massacre to filter out, unusual in today’s hyperconnected world. I had to charter a plane to reach the massacre area, because there were no functioning roads close to it. I flew into a little town called Niangara, an old trading post at the confluence of two rivers. During Belgian rule, Niangara was a boom town for cotton and coffee, though you would never know that now. The roofless old Belgian houses are sinking into the elephant grass and the once-paved roads are gluey mud. There was no evidence of war or distress when I landed, not even fresh-faced foreign aid workers in their white vests. When I stepped out of the plane, onto the red dirt landing strip, all I saw were huge leafy trees, their branches dripping with mangoes, and a group of skinny men on bicycles.

This is the story of conflict in Africa these days. What we are seeing is the decline of the classic wars by freedom fighters and the proliferation of something else—something wilder, messier, more predatory, and harder to define. The style of warfare has shifted dramatically since the liberation wars of the 1960s and 1970s (Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau), the cold-war wars of the 1980s (Angola, Mozambique), and the large-scale killings of the 1990s (Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Liberia). Today the continent is plagued by countless nasty little wars, which in many ways aren’t really wars at all. There are no front lines, no battlefields, no clear conflict zones, and no distinctions between combatants and civilians, which is why the kind of massacre that happened near Niangara is sadly common.

There’s often very little effort by rebel leaders to develop a persuasive ideology and win converts and new recruits. About the only people, then, who these types of rebels can get to fight for them are children, whom they kidnap and turn into four-foot-tall killing machines. Children are the perfect weapon—tough, easily manipulated, intensely loyal, fearless, and, most important—especially in Africa—in endless supply. A reliance on child soldiers often means a reliance on magic and superstition. Children are told to rub themselves with palm kernel oil as a shield against bullets.

Today, we see dozens of small-scale, dirty wars in Congo, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, from east to west, from some of Africa’s mightiest nations to its smallest and least significant. The specific situation in each of Africa’s fifty-five different countries varies widely. But it is safe to say that many of the rebels are simply thugs.

A few decades ago, Africa produced some very cunning and ultimately successful rebel leaders, committed to fighting colonialism, tyranny, and apartheid. Some were skillful enough to run countries, among them Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki. None was committed to democracy. All are still clinging to power by means of brute force, but each was well educated and each had a vision of how he and his country might survive.

Afewerki, for instance, spent decades reconstructing Eritrean society from the bottom up in a labyrinth of underground bunkers and trenches while Soviet-supplied warplanes carpet-bombed the Eritrean countryside in an attempt to crush his liberation movement for independence from Ethiopia, which had ruled Eritrea since the British withdrawal in 1952. Living in the dark, men and women, Christians and Muslims, farmers and doctors, were thrown together and fought together, making their own medicines, shoes, even sanitary napkins. When Eritrea finally won its independence from Ethiopia, in 1993, it was celebrated as one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet. Nineteen years later, the promised elections have never been held.

What happened? William Reno, a political scientist at Northwestern University who has spent years studying African rebel movements, has written a thoughtful answer to this question in Warfare in Independent Africa. He tells a clear story about the ways that dramatic political change in Africa has been expressed through rebellion.

Reno divides rebels into five categories, from “anti-colonial” rebels such as Frelimo, who fought the Portuguese in Mozambique in the 1960s, to “parochial rebels” like the MEND—Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta—criminals in the Niger Delta, who today can be found in the jungle pumping iron and kidnapping the occasional foreign oil worker while claiming they want Nigerian oil to benefit the local population. He has a simple premise: “From the early 1960s the majority of wars in Africa have involved armed groups that are not part of national armies, or what in this book are called rebels.”

In other words, Reno quite persuasively sees African wars as largely civil wars. Most of the violence has raged within borders, not across them. The political map has changed surprisingly little since the late nineteenth century, when the imperial powers carved the continent up. When colonialism faded in the 1960s, most of the newly independent states simply retained the boundaries of their former masters. They realized that the lines that the imperial powers had drawn were often totally arbitrary, slicing through rivers, mountains, and ethnic groups. But one of the first things the Organization of African Unity did when it was formed in 1963 was to declare these borders sacrosanct. Without saying so, the founding fathers of independent Africa agreed that once you started tinkering with the borders, you might not be able to stop.

Few African governments have invaded other countries. Waging such war is expensive, and it takes more complex organization than most African countries possess. As Paul Collier, an economist at Oxford, explains in his Wars, Guns, and Votes (2009), a society mainly concerned with waging war or defending itself from war will need to impose high taxes, which in turn may engender a more responsive, representative government. Most of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa can’t impose heavy taxes—or don’t want to, wary of revolt. Most still lack representative government, and even a sense of themselves as unified nations.

Africa also had the bad luck of gaining its independence as the cold war was at its height and the United States and Soviet Union were trying to recruit proxies; the East–West rivalry therefore shaped much of Africa’s internal politics and many of its rebellions. The superpowers propped up brutal, thoroughly hated tyrants purely because they supported one side or another, and likewise co-opted rebel groups and plied them with money and guns to fight for or against communism.

When the cold war abruptly ended in 1990, the superpowers’ sudden disengagement from the African continent left a number of tyrants exposed and ripe for overthrow. Africa exploded. Ethiopia’s dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, supported for years by the Soviet Union, and Somalia’s despot, Mohamed Siad Barre, backed for years by the United States, were both ousted in 1991. Both countries had been viewed as strategically important cold-war battlegrounds and were awash with weapons. A few years later, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, probably the most corrupt man on the most corrupt continent and a major American ally until he became obsolete after the cold war, was deposed in a brutal war that continues to this day, and has become one of the most violent conflicts of modern times, in which several million Africans have died.

The end of the Soviet Union had another disastrous effect on Africa. Eastern bloc countries that cranked out Kalashnikovs for the Soviet army had to find new markets. Africa, with its unpatrolled skies and endless shorelines, its gold mines and diamond mines and free-flowing cash economies, became a new market. Guns suddenly became very cheap and very accessible. Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer recently convicted in the US for arms trafficking, single-handedly sustained several African mini-wars at the same time, including in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, and Congo. Now just about anyone could get in on the rebel game.

Without superpower dominance, African rebel groups began to fragment. During the cold war, the Americans and Soviets had pushed rebel leaders to unify their ranks because when they decided to back a rebellion, they wanted to deal with one rebel leader, not twenty-three.

Today, the failed peace conferences to end wars in Darfur or Somalia or Congo show what happens when this pressure to stay unified is absent. In 2003, when the Darfur conflict began in western Sudan, there were two main rebel groups fighting the central government. Today there are countless factions. Many of the current African rebel movements have continued dividing and subdividing to the point that some groups have become tiny and ideologically indistinguishable from one another, without power to cause serious changes in government. Reno writes that “it is as if the politics of rebellion has reached a cul-de-sac in the worst-off parts of the continent, with a surplus of armed conflict and a dearth of political transformation.”

The rebel barrier to entry used to be much higher. In the cold war, as Reno observes, guerrillas had to be much craftier because they were fighting not just the army of a poor dictatorship but also the superpower behind it. For example, if you were an Angolan rebel, you faced Cuban soldiers in the field and Soviet aircraft in the skies and you had to be clever and skilled, like Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA—a political party that engaged in a civil war with its Soviet-aligned rival, the MPLA, after the two parties won Angolan independence from Portugal in 1975. Savimbi spoke seven languages and had backing from the US and China, as well as the white South African regime, whose special forces were well equipped and well trained. He eventually lost and died in 2002.

As the superpowers disengaged from Africa and many of the African nations grew weaker, rebel groups found that they could operate more freely. More territory became lawless, whether in the rural Congo, rural Sudan, most of the Central African Republic (almost entirely rural), or in the vast, unpatrolled desert regions of the Sahara, where rebels, thugs, and bandits predominate. But Hobbesian spaces are sometimes found even in the middle of the capital, like the seething slums of Nairobi or Kinshasa, where public services are entirely absent and people have set up their own security forces, their own illegal ways to get electricity, their own tax systems—in short, their own ways to survive. Many of the armed groups that operate in this atmosphere of near-complete breakdown of state power are driven by raw greed and brutality, without any pretense of an ideological excuse for their violence. They have no cause, and no plans to build a political organization of any sort.

“There might have been a little rhetoric at the beginning,” Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone and author of the best-selling A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007), told me. “But very quickly the ideology gets lost. And then it just becomes a bloodbath, a way for the commanders to plunder, a war of madness.”

We now have a better sense than ever about such violence because of the new communication devices that allow just about anybody, anywhere, to put out his message. A dozen years ago, rebel leaders fought in obscurity for years before they would get an opportunity to meet a United Nations official or to give an interview on the Internet or to Al Jazeera. That process has been short-circuited. Any rebel leader with a “media office” (i.e., a friend with a satellite phone) can quickly acquire a public identity. The problem is that many of the recently publicized “leaders” aren’t really leaders—they don’t have much of a following and they haven’t had the time to formulate a clear political position or inclination. When they get to the negotiating table, they often don’t know what it is that they want.

I saw how hollow such leadership can be when I attended an expensive Darfur peace conference in Sirte, Libya, in 2007. What fascinated and attracted the rebels was not the plenary sessions or the one-on-one meetings with United Nations officials. It was the all-you-can-eat hotel buffet where turbaned figures laughed as they heaped mountains of rice and meat onto their plates and drank gallons of Pepsi. None of the Darfurian rebels I talked to at that conference could tell me what he was fighting for. In fact, although I had spent much time in the region they came from, it was hard to know if any of these men were fighting at all. The leaders I had met in the field were not there.

In eastern Congo, the internationally backed peace talks have given the rebels a perverse incentive to promote themselves through brutality. In July 2010, several dozen armed men swept into a village near Walikale and gang-raped more than three hundred women, some as old as eighty. It later emerged that their leader, a young upstart named Sheka, wanted public attention before talks with the government began. His logic may have gone something like this: mass rape was clearly something that would get international attention, so attacking a village and raping three hundred women was an effective way to make himself more menacing and increase his chances of getting a higher position in the government army. When that didn’t work, Sheka turned to politics. He recently campaigned openly for a seat in Congo’s parliament. He lost, but remains active in the eastern part of the country.

As Reno observes, there are still some ideological rebels in Africa, but not many. The Ogaden National Liberation Front, the guerrillas fighting in Ethiopia’s Ogaden desert, are ethnically Somali and Muslim and are fighting for more autonomy from Ethiopia’s Christian-led government. These young men seemed disciplined and motivated—during my desert trek with them, I observed that several were keeping notebooks, and there were education classes under the acacia trees. They appeared to have the support of the people they claim to be fighting for, the destitute Somali nomads who are often brutalized by the Ethiopian army.

But the equivalent of the cold war today is the campaign against extremist Islam, in which the United States compromises its democratic principles to back dictators willing to assist in fighting terrorists. In the Horn of Africa, which is a hotbed of Islamist extremism, America’s new best friend is Ethiopia. The United States gives the Ethiopian army millions of dollars in assistance every year and even shares classified intelligence; the government is ruthless in punishing even mildly dissenting Ethiopians and the Ogaden rebels have little chance of ever winning.

Some of the most organized, disciplined, and ideologically sophisticated rebels today are the Islamist extremists. Somalia’s Shabab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram are serious threats not just within their countries but outside them as well. The Shabab and Boko Haram have teamed up with al-Qaeda and have killed hundreds of civilians with sophisticated explosives. Beyond that, they are successfully using their jihadist philosophy to attract recruits from around the world, including from the United States. This is of much concern to the Obama administration’s counterterrorism officials, who talk of young, angry Somali-Americans going off to fight with the Shabab and eventually returning to the States, more radicalized and fluent in the arts of terror. Some al-Qaeda offshoots have shown considerable ingenuity. The Shabab recently opened a Twitter account and have been wildly tweeting, bragging about their attacks and criticizing their enemies with elaborate rhetoric. Here we have a militant group best known for sawing off hands and stoning women, in the cause of establishing a seventh-century-style Islamic caliphate, that is also adept at using twenty-first-century networking devices.

Some of these groups escape definition, like the Lord’s Resistance Army, which seems to be fighting for absolutely nothing. It started in the 1980s as an ethnically based militia fighting for the rights of Uganda’s oppressed Acholi people, led by Kony, a former Catholic altar boy who became possessed by spirits, including one named Who Are You? He said his movement was guided by the Ten Commandments, but soon it was breaking every one of them.

These days Kony and his forces move to the parts of Africa where government is weakest. Having been run out of Uganda, he and his band of child brides (he’s said to have about fifty) and child soldiers have drifted up to the borderlands of three of the worst-off countries in the world—Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. There they continue to murder and maim with impunity. The Obama administration recently sent one hundred military advisers to help fight his forces.

Just this past December, The Economist published a cover story entitled “Africa Rising,” which was the title of a 2009 book by Vijay Mahajan, a business school professor at the University of Texas. Not long ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a series on African economic growth also called “Africa Rising.” Some parts of Africa are indeed rising. Impressive new buildings are appearing in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where I live. Countless new members of Africa’s middle class drive around in shiny little Toyotas and Nissans, causing huge traffic jams in just about every capital across the continent. The African Development Bank says the number of middle-class Africans has tripled over the last thirty years to 313 million people, or more than 34 percent of the continent’s population. Many African countries, like Madagascar, Zambia, Burkina Faso, and Niger, have dramatically boosted the number of children in school. Others, like Rwanda, have vastly improved public health.

McKinsey recently commissioned a thick report on “African Lions,’’ trumpeting the continent’s business potential and predicting that by 2020, Africa’s GDP will grow to $2.6 trillion, about a sixth of the size of the American economy today. The reasons? Relentless demand for Africa’s commodities, like oil, gold and copper, and, in some places, better government policies. Angola and Ghana, which both pump oil, are now among the fastest-growing economies in the world. But at the same time, many parts of Africa are clearly sinking deeper into violence, chaos, and obscurity.

I was called back to Niangara, in northeastern Congo, a few months after the massacre in which three hundred people were killed. The LRA had struck again, hacking and clobbering to death another one hundred villagers. This time a fresh-faced aid worker in a white vest was there when our plane landed on the red dirt airstrip. One victim had survived, I was told, and was convalescing in a field clinic.

“Want to see her?” the aid worker asked me.

I walked under the mango trees and into an old house, the field clinic. A young woman sat on an iron cot. She had been fetching water when she was attacked, apparently for no reason. The rebels had pinned her down in the dirt and sliced off her lips. She was twenty-three. Now her mouth will forever be open, like a scream.

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