Africa's reality of 1999 is war; Eight major conflicts, many ethnic feuds add to record of bloodletting


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.

Ethiopia acknowledges breaking a U.S.-brokered moratorium on airstrikes by sending warplanes into battle. Eritrea says it will maintain the moratorium but, after the initial fighting last weekend, claimed to have killed 1,500 Ethiopian troops.

Sierra Leone

Seven years of on-off-on fighting have brought this country the notoriety of being the worst place on Earth to live.

The dreadful status was accorded to it by no lesser an authority on international hellholes than the United Nations Development Program, which monitors living conditions in 174 countries.

Since 1992, Sierra Leone has suffered enough eruptions of violence -- coups, countercoups, outside military interventions and internal uprisings -- to drown any country in blood.

In 1998, Nigerian peacekeepers seized control of the capital Freetown from rebel forces, allowing President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to return after two years in exile. But last month, the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front were back in town, committing atrocities, forcing a mass exodus, and burning large sections of Freetown before being forced out by the Nigerians.

Kabah has offered to meet detained rebel leader Foday Sankoh and his commanders for peace talks, but on condition that Sankoh recognizes the "legitimacy" of the government, something he has fought against for years.


If there is a country where the cost of civil war can be measured in widespread human suffering, it is Sudan, blighted by factional fighting for the past 16 years.

The conflict, compounded by recurrent drought, has left more than 1.5 million dead, and inflicted displacement and famine on many millions more.

A cease-fire is in place to allow aid agencies to make another attempt to minister to the human victims of war scattered over the barren countryside.

The main fight is between the forces of the fundamentalist Islamic government in Khartoum and members of the Dinka tribe in the south of the country, who are mostly Christians or Animists, an African spirit-based religion.

The Dinkas, who fight under the banner of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, oppose the imposition of a Muslim state and demand independence.

One ugly feature of this war is the use of slavery as a terror tactic by the Arab militia, known as the Popular Defense Force, who fight alongside the government troops. Women and children are the main victims, captured in raids and put to work as domestic, agricultural or sexual slaves.

The practice has been condemned by the U.N., the U.S. State Department and most major human rights organizations. It is denied by the government in Khartoum.


This is a country that has paid the ultimate price for civil war.

It has disintegrated into three major fiefdoms of warlords. Hardly a remnant of central authority exists, although two feuding clan leaders -- Ali-Mahdi Mohamed and Hussein Aidid -- claim to be national president and are disputing control of the capital, Mogadishu, another fiefdom.

It also is the country where the United States abandoned peacekeeping in Africa after 18 of its troops in the U.N.'s "Operation Restore Hope" were killed by gunmen in October 1993 in Mogadishu.

Since then, Somalia has gone its bloody way.


The conflict in this former Portuguese colony is typically African -- lots of coups and lots of bloodshed but little attention from a uncaring world.

In June of last year, a sacked army chief of staff staged the latest military revolt, sparking fierce fighting in the capital city, Bissau, and bringing a warning from the U.N. of another humanitarian crisis hatching under the African sun.

The two sides agreed to a cease-fire this month but not before a Roman Catholic priest said Bissau had become "hell" during the artillery and mortar exchanges between loyalist and rebel troops.

Republic of Congo

"A good, old-fashioned fight for power."

This is how James Higgs, director of studies with the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, describes the brutal armed conflict among three local political leaders.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso faces military challenges from the so-called Ninja rebels of former Premier Barnard Kokelas and the Cocoye militia backing former President Pascal Lissouba.

With hundreds of thousands of ordinary Congolese -- particularly residents of the capital Brazzaville -- caught in the cross-fire, Sassou-Nguesso rejected talks this month with "people who have destroyed the country and who have knives in their teeth."

Gilbert A. Lewthwaite is a reporter in The Sun's Johannesburg Bureau.

Pub Date: 02/21/99

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