FROM Turkey to Mexico, the world’s most volatile flashpoints will get a lot more unpredictable this year ICG’s president Jean-Marie Guéhenno writes in in an examination 10 conflicts in the world to watch in 2017. In an abridged article, we look at the three Africa cases he highlighted.
THE world is entering its most dangerous chapter in decades. The sharp uptick in war over recent years is outstripping our ability to cope with the consequences. From the global refugee crisis to the spread of terrorism, our collective failure to resolve conflict is giving birth to new threats and emergencies. Even in peaceful societies, the politics of fear is leading to dangerous polarization and demagoguery.
It is against this backdrop that Donald Trump was elected the next president of the United States — unquestionably the most important event of last year and one with far-reaching geopolitical implications for the future.
Much has been said about the unknowns of Trump’s foreign-policy agenda. But one thing we do know is that uncertainty itself can be profoundly destabilising, especially when it involves the most powerful actor on the global stage. Already, jittery allies from Europe to East Asia are parsing Trump’s tweets and casual bluster. Will he cut a deal with Russia over the heads of Europeans? Will he try to undo the Iran nuclear accord? Is he seriously proposing a new arms race?
Who knows? And that is precisely the problem.
WAS ALREADY LOOKING BACK BEFORE TRUMP
The last 60 years have suffered their share of crises, from Vietnam to Rwanda to the Iraq War. But the vision of a cooperative international order that emerged after World War II, championed and led by the United States, has structured relations between major powers since the end of the Cold War.
That order was in flux even before Trump won the election. The retrenchment of Washington, for both good and ill, began during Barack Obama’s presidency. But Obama worked to shore up international institutions to fill the gap. Today, we can no longer assume that a United States shaped by “America first” will provide the bricks and mortar of the international system.
U.S. hard power, when not accompanied and framed by its soft power, is more likely to be perceived as a threat rather than the reassurance that it has been for many.
In Europe, uncertainty over the new U.S. political posture is compounded by the messy aftermath of Brexit.
Nationalist forces have gained strength, and upcoming elections in France, Germany, and the Netherlands will test the future of the European project. The potential unraveling of the European Union is one of the greatest challenges we face today.
Exacerbated regional rivalries are also transforming the landscape, as is particularly evident in the competition between Iran and the Persian Gulf countries for influence in the Middle East.
Many world leaders claim that the way out of deepening divisions is to unite around the shared goal of fighting terrorism. But that is an illusion: Terrorism is just a tactic, and fighting a tactic cannot define a strategy. Jihadi groups exploit wars and state collapse to consolidate power, and they thrive on chaos. In the end, what the international system really needs is a strategy of conflict prevention that shores up, in an inclusive way, the states that are its building blocks. The international system needs more than the pretense of a common enemy to sustain itself.
With the advent of the Trump administration, transactional diplomacy, already on the rise, looks set to increase. Tactical bargaining is replacing long-term strategies and values-driven policies.
Beijing’s hardheaded approach in its relationship with other Asian countries and with Africa and Latin America shows what a world deprived of the implicit reassurance of the United States will look like.
Such transactional arrangements may look like a revival of realpolitik. But an international system guided by short-term deal-making is unlikely to be stable. Deals can be broken when they do not reflect longer-term strategies. Without a predictable order, widely accepted rules, and strong institutions, the space for mischief is greater. The world is increasingly fluid and multipolar, pushed and pulled by a diverse set of states and nonstate actors — by armed groups as well as by civil society. In a bottom-up world, major powers cannot single-handedly contain or control local conflicts, but they can manipulate or be drawn into them: Local conflicts can be the spark that lights much bigger fires.
Whether we like it or not, globalisation is a fact. We are all connected. Syria’s war triggered a refugee crisis that contributed to Brexit, whose profound political and economic consequences will again ripple outward. Countries may wish to turn inward, but there is no peace and prosperity without more cooperative management of world affairs.
- Greater Sahel and Lake Chad Basin
Overlapping conflicts across the Greater Sahel and Lake Chad Basin have contributed to massive human suffering, including the uprooting of some 4.2 million people from their homes. Jihadis, armed groups, and criminal networks jockey for power across this impoverished region, where borders are porous and governments have limited reach.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Mourabitoun remain active while a new group claiming affiliation to the Islamic State is developing. All appear likely to continue attacks targeting civilians, as well as national and international forces. Mali is the U.N.’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission, with 70 personnel killed by “malicious acts” since 2013.
Mali could face a major crisis this year, as implementation of the 2015 Bamako peace agreement threatens to stall. The recent fracturing of the main rebel alliance in the north, the Coordination of Azawad Movements, has contributed to a proliferation of armed groups, and violence has spread to central Mali
Regional powers should use the upcoming African Union summit in January to revive the peace process and possibly bring in groups that are currently left out. Algeria, an important broker of stability in the region, has a key role to play as the deal’s chief mediator.
In the Lake Chad Basin, the security forces of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad have stepped up their fight against the Boko Haram insurgency. At the end of December, the Nigerian president announced the “final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists in their last enclave” in the Sambisa Forest, yet the group has not been vanquished. A leadership quarrel has split the jihadi movement, but it remains resilient and aggressive. Although international attention has focused on Boko Haram’s kidnapping and abuse of women and girls, policymakers should also note that some women joined the movement voluntarily in search of economic and social opportunities. Understanding the various ways women experience the conflict should directly inform strategies to tackle the roots of the insurgency.
The Boko Haram insurgency, the aggressive military response to it, and the lack of effective assistance to those caught up in the conflict threaten to create an endless cycle of violence and despair. If regional governments do not react responsibly to the humanitarian disaster, they could further alienate communities and sow the seeds of future rebellion. States should also invest in economic development and strengthen local governance to close off opportunities for radical groups.
- Democratic Republic of Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo received some good news shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve when Catholic bishops announced that a deal had been reached to resolve the country’s political crisis.
President Joseph Kabila has not yet signed on to the agreement, which requires him to step down after elections are held, sometime before the end of 2017. Despite high levels of mistrust between the parties, the deal mediated by the Congolese Catholic Church remains the best chance for a path forward. The overarching challenge now is to prepare for elections and a peaceful transition in short order, for which solid international backing is essential.
Kabila’s determination to cling to power beyond his second term, in defiance of the Congolese Constitution, met with significant opposition and volatile street protests throughout 2016 — and threatens more widespread violence to come. Congo’s endemic corruption and winner-takes-all politics mean Kabila’s entourage has much to lose, so they may not let go easily.
African and Western powers need to coordinate efforts to pull Congo back from the brink and prevent further regional instability. MONUSCO, the U.N.’s largest peacekeeping mission, does not have the capacity to deal with such challenges and would be more effective with a narrower mandate, moving away from institution building and toward good offices and human rights monitoring.
Last September, at least 53 people were killed, mostly by security forces, when demonstrations against Kabila’s rule beyond the end of his mandate turned violent. Clashes between security forces and protesters in several cities around the end of his term, on Dec. 19 and 20, reportedly killed at least 40 people. Violence is likely to continue if the elections are again postponed. The main opposition coalition, the Rassemblement, will be prepared to harness the power of the street to try to force Kabila out. The political tension in Kinshasa is also contributing to increased violence in pockets throughout the country, including the conflict-ridden east.
- South Sudan
After three years of civil war, the world’s youngest country is still bedeviled by multiple conflicts. Grievances with the central government and cycles of ethnic violence fuel fighting that has internally displaced 1.8 million people and forced around 1.2 million to flee the country. There has been mounting international concern over reports of mass atrocities and the lack of progress toward implementing the 2015 peace agreement. In December, President Salva Kiir called for a renewed cease-fire and national dialogue to promote peace and reconciliation. Whether or not these efforts succeed depends on the transitional government’s willingness to negotiate fairly with individual armed groups and engage with disaffected communities at the grassroots level.
The internationally backed peace agreement was derailed in July 2016 when fighting flared in Juba between government forces and former rebels. Opposition leader and erstwhile Vice President Riek Machar, who had only recently returned to Juba under the terms of the deal, fled the country. Kiir has since strengthened his position in the capital and the region as a whole, which creates an opportunity to promote negotiations with elements of the armed opposition, including groups currently outside the transitional government.
The security situation in Juba has improved in recent months, although fighting and ethnic violence continue elsewhere. International diplomatic efforts are focused on the deployment of a 4,000-strong regional protection force — a distraction that would do little to quell an outbreak of major violence and pulls energy away from the deeper political engagement needed to consolidate peace.
The existing U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, needs urgent reform — which is especially clear following its failure to protect civilians during last July’s spasm of violence in Juba. A glimmer of hope in the country’s tragedy is the delicate rapprochement underway among South Sudan, Uganda, and Sudan that might one day help guarantee greater stability.