Armed conflict:  Interstate & intrastate conflict

Interstate conflict | Intrastate conflict | What do you think?| Resources

This section looks at inter- and intrastate conflict in central and eastern Africa. Inter-state conflict is between state governments and intra-state conflict is between a state government and an armed group or groups originating from the same state. Intra-state conflicts are more commonly referred to as internal conflict or civil war.

An overview of these kinds of conflicts can be seen in context in this timeline, and many are described in more detail below.


Timeline for inter- and intrastate conflict in central and eastern Africa


Interstate conflict

Despite the high frequency of armed conflict in central and eastern Africa, few of the region’s wars can be described as interstate in the traditional sense of the word, i.e. fought between state governments. Thus it is very difficult to classify conflict in the region as inter- or intrastate. In the conflicts described below, state actors were the principal protagonists.

Uganda-Tanzania War, 1979

Following Idi Amin’s seizure of power in a military coup in 1971, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere offered sanctuary to ousted president Milton Obote, beginning a long period of strained relations between Uganda and Tanzania which included the attempted ousting of Amin by a group of Tanzanian-based exiles in 1972. Events came to a head in 1978, when Tanzania supported another anti-Amin uprising, to which Amin responded by invading the northern Kagera region of Tanzania. The Tanzanian armed forces were able to quickly mobilise, expel Ugandan troops from Kagera, and advance towards Kampala. Despite direct assistance from a Libyan expeditionary force and Palestinian armed groups, which both sent front-line troops to defend Amin, Tanzanian forces took Kampala in April 1979 and Amin fled the country. Amin’s departure left a power vacuum which, despite the continued presence of Tanzanian troops, led to a period of intense competition for power and, eventually, civil war.

The Congo Wars, 1996-97 and 1998-2003

With the RPF victory in Rwanda in 1994 (see below), over two million Hutus, including remnants of the extremist Interahamwe militia and members of the ousted Hutu government, fled to eastern Congo. Refugee camps set up there soon became militarised, and started to be used as bases from which to attack the Tutsi government in Rwanda. In response to such attacks, Rwanda invaded eastern Congo in November 1996, but the invasion sparked a wider uprising against the rule of Mobutu Sésé Seko and soon included groups from across the country, which came together as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo under the leadership of Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Aided by regular Rwandan and Ugandan forces, they quickly advanced across the country, taking Kinshasa in May 1997. Mobutu fled, and Kabila became president. From the end of the First Congo War Kabila faced internal criticism that he was an instrument of foreign powers, notably Rwanda. In response he removed his Rwandan chief of staff and, in July 1998, ordered Rwandan and Ugandan forces still in the country to leave. However, the power vacuum created by the troops’ departure allowed the uprising in eastern Congo, still subject to the same ethnic tensions between Tutsis, Hutus and local tribes, to restart. As the conflict intensified, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi entered the war in support of specific groups, while Angola, Chad, Zimbabwe and Namibia intervened in Kabila’s defence, intervening to push back the uprising as it advanced on Kinshasa. The war thus quickly became a major interstate conflict which directly involving at least eight nations and many more armed groups. With at least 2.7m killed during five years of war, the conflict became the deadliest in modern African history, and while officially ending in July 2003 conflict in eastern Congo continues today, as seen below.

Intrastate conflict

Almost all of central and eastern Africa’s post-indepedence conflicts have involved weak state governments, multiple local and foreign armed groups, neighbouring government forces or militias, and external unilateral and/or multilateral intervention.

Internal conflict in the Sudan, 1955-1972, 1983-2005, 2003-

The Sudan has spent most of its nearly 60 years of independence mired in civil war, which can be split into at least three distinct major conflicts. The first of these can be traced to the decision of Britain and Egypt, who ruled the Sudan together until 1956, to merge the north and south of the country into a single administrative unit. As the government in Khartoum – located in the predominantly-Muslim and Arab north – moved to increase its domination of the mainly-Christian and animist south, southern armed groups led by Joseph Oduho began an insurgency which eventually ended, 17 years later, with the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement which gave southern Sudan increased autonomy. Just over ten years later, president Gaafar Nimeiry’s declaration of an Islamic state across all Sudan and the termination of the 1972 agreement marked the beginning a new conflict. This time, the group the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army initially fought for the restoration of southern rights but later allied with northern opposition groups, thus changing the war’s character from one of north against south to one of centre against periphery. Up to two million Sudanese died as a result of war, famine and disease between 1983 and the war’s official end in 2005. South Sudan became an independent state in 2011. As one internal conflict in Sudan came to an end, however, another, in Darfur, was quickly increasing in intensity. Traceable – again – to Khartoum’s political and economic marginalisation of the non-Arab periphery, an uprising by the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has been ongoing since 2003. The latest conflict has been particularly deadly for Sudan’s population, up to 450,000 of which have died since 2003 as a result of direct violence, starvation and disease. Over two million have been displaced. In 2010, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes relating to mass killings in Darfur by government-supported militias.

The Congo Crisis, 1960-1965

In the days that followed Congo’s independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960, the Congolese army mutinied against its Belgian officers, and the provinces of Katanga and South Kasai attempted to break away. Belgium initially supported mineral-rich Katanga, where most Belgian and Western commercial interests were based, and Belgian troops, along with significant numbers of white mercenaries, fought with Katangan forces. By September, the Congolese army’s chief of staff Joseph Mobutu had come to power in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) in a military coup which overthrew Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first democratically-elected leader. Lumumba’s supporters proceeded to set up a rival government in Stanleyville (Kisangani), and by early 1961 Congo was effectively split between four power bases. During five years of violent upheaval Belgium, the US, mercenary groups and the UN all became directly involved in the conflict.

Ugandan civil war, 1980-1986

The internal power struggle in Uganda which followed Idi Amin’s ousting at the end of the Uganda-Tanzania war eventually led, in 1980, to the return to power of ex-president Milton Obote in hotly disputed elections. After the election, however, the armed group the National Resistance Army (NRA), headed by Yoweri Museveni, began a guerilla campaign against government forces. Despite coming close to defeat in the early years of the war, the NRA were able to benefit from infighting amongst government forces and a coup against Obote in 1985 to advance and take Kampala in January 1986, after which Museveni became president.

Rwandan civil war, 1990-1994

The conflict between Rwanda’s Hutu government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a group of mostly-Tutsi exiled Rwandans based in Uganda, had two distinct phases. The RPF’s invasion of northeast Rwanda in October 1990 from its bases in Uganda began a conventional phase which saw repeated offensives advance deep into the interior turned back by the Hutu government’s army, which received extensive support from the French army. After the signature of the Arusha Accords in August 1993, a ceasefire was declared and French troops withdrew. The ceasefire proved extremely fragile, however, and when president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali in April 1994 Hutu extremists began pre-planned mass killings of Tutsis and politically-moderate Hutus, beginning a new phase of the war. In a few months, around 800,000 were massacred, and the killing only ended when a new RPF offensive drove out the Hutu government in July 1994, provoking a mass Hutu exodus.

Conflict in the Central African Republic, 1996-

Civil conflict in the CAR spilled into the open when president Ange-Félix Patassé attempted to marginalise Yakomas, which had held a majority in the army during the rule of André-Dieudonné Kolingba, and fractions of the army mutinied. On three separate occasions in 1996, the mutineers clashed with the presidential guard and militias loyal to Patassé in Bangui. After French-sponsored negotiations between Patassé and the mutineers, the Bangui agreements were signed, to be monitored by a French-supported inter-African force from Gabon, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali. Fighting between numerous armed groups and forces of president François Bozizé of the Central African Republic began in November 2004 with an attack on the remote town of Birao. In 2006, the main group, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDU), advanced and captured a number of towns across the country. After its headquarters were bombed by French jets, however, the UFDU accepted a peace agreement which was later signed by other groups. In 2012, a new coalition of armed groups, known as Séléka, restarted the fighting, advanced and took Bangui in March 2013, overthrowing Bozizé. Séléka’s leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself president.

Kivu conflict, 2004-

Despite the official end of the Second Congo War in 2003, residual conflict continues in the Kivu provinces of eastern Congo, and has variously drawn in Hutu and Tutsi groups, local groups, the Congolese army, and the UN force in the Congo; Rwanda and Angola are also suspected of involvement. After a joint operation between Congolese and Rwandan forces against Hutu groups in 2009, the National Congress for the Defence of the People, the main Tutsi group, signed a peace treaty with the Congolese government. In 2012, however, its former members mutinied and formed a new group, the March 23 Movement (M23), claiming the government had failed to honour the treaty. In late-2012, the group briefly took the provincial capital of Goma, but a joint Congolese government and UN offensive later pushed the group back. Conflict in the region has been of a cyclical nature and is likely to continue.

The BBC have created a map of current locations and divisions of the numerous armed groups in the region of eastern DRC:

Eastern Congo armed groups

What do you think?

How was Rwanda able to transform itself so quickly after 1994 into a regional military power?

Why did it intervene in the Congo?

Why has there been such a high frequency of conflict in central and eastern Africa? Is it just about resources, bad governance, and an abundance of small arms, or are there other factors?

Is interstate and intrastate conflict in Africa a result of arbitrary borders drawn in the colonial era? Should states be allowed to break up into more relevant entities?


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