Africa's reality of 1999 is war

Eight major conflicts, many ethnic feuds add to record of bloodletting

February 21, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- For all the talk of an "African Renaissance" -- suggesting a time of peace, progress and enlightenment -- this continent is as war-ravaged as ever.

No fewer than eight major conflicts and dozens of tribal feuds are adding new chapters to Africa's awful record of bloodletting.

From the Horn of Africa in the northeast, through the central Great Lakes region, to the Cape of Good Hope in the southeast, regional stability is threatened.

Escalating clashes between Ethiopia and Eritrea in recent weeks have provoked a warning from the United Nations Security Council of full-scale war with "devastating effect" on the entire area.

Civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which six neighboring countries are belligerents, risks becoming, in the words of Susan Rice, U.S. undersecretary of African affairs, "Africa's first world war." The more immediate risk is that it could engulf all of southern Africa.

Yet no one seems able to bring an end to the violence and suffering across this continent:

* The U.N. keeps trying but failing, and, as if more proof were needed, is withdrawing its peace monitors from Angola after four years of frustration.

* The United States has refused to commit troops to Africa since losing soldiers in Somalia more than five years ago, and would rather the Africans impose and keep their own peace. As U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said on a visit to South Africa on Feb. 10: "We do not go beyond the diplomatic role in any country in Africa."

* Many Africans would like to take care of their problems, but their continent has never recovered from colonialism and ethnic strife. Africa has had more than 30 wars since 1970, accounting for creating half the world's war dead annualy. The major trouble spots are:

Democratic Republic of Congo

When President Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed by rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila in May 1997, the change was hailed as an expression of the "African renaissance." Prematurely, Kabila was identified as one of a new generation of democratic leaders replacing the old gang of corrupt dictators who had kept much of the continent in penury for their profit.

Now Kabila is widely viewed as little better than a latter-day Mobutu. Dictatorial, untrustworthy, and reportedly sharing the country's fabulous mineral riches among his friends and allies, he provoked an uprising by some of the forces that initially swept him to power less than two years ago.

Ominously for the entire southern African region, six other nations have been drawn into the battle. On Kabila's side are Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad and Namibia. Backing the rebels are Uganda and Rwanda. Desperate regional efforts to barter a peace accord have foundered on Kabila's refusal to negotiate directly with the rebels, and the fighting continues to lay waste to what could be the richest of African countries.


This is born-again bloodshed.

After four years of peace, the civil war that started before the country gained independence from Portugal in 1975 broke out again in December. The government and rebels have since declared a 1994 peace accord dead, deciding to settle their differences once and for all on the battlefield.

An estimated 800,000 have been killed, and tens of thousands of refugees displaced over the last three decades.

On one side is the ruling Angolan People's Liberation Movement, headed by Marxist President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. On the other, the rebel National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola, led by Joseph Savimbi.

In the early days of the conflict, Angola was a proxy Cold War conflict, with the Soviet Union and Cuba supporting Dos Santos, and the United States and apartheid South Africa backing Savimbi.

Once the Cold War ended, the international dimension of the conflict disappeared.

In 1994, the two sides signed a peace deal. It offered the rebels political power within a government of national unity in return for disarming and handing over captured territory.

The rebels reneged, and on Dec. 5, a frustrated Dos Santos ordered government forces to attack two major rebel strongholds. Savimbi, who claims he was excluded from the peace process by Dos Santos and would have been assassinated had he turned up in the capital Luanda, promptly declared all-out war.

Eritrea and Ethiopia

Battle was renewed this month over the disputed border between the two neighbors in the Horn of Africa.

Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia two years after the 1991 overthrow of Ethiopian military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, but the border was not completely settled.

The conflict today stems from Eritrea's decision last year to send troops into the disputed areas, provoking clashes with Ethiopian troops which escalated into bombing attacks from each side, causing civilian casualties.

International mediation efforts produced a seven-month standoff, just breached.

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