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A continent at peace: five African hot spots cool down

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2004


As the new year begins, Africa - so often besieged by wars - is seeing a period of growing peace.

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For the first time in five years, no major wars are roiling the continent, even if low-level conflicts still smolder. A deal to end Sudan's civil war - Africa's longest - could be struck this month. And peace processes are pushing ahead in Liberia, Burundi, Ivory Coast, and Congo.

Perhaps it's just a lull between storms. Yet observers see fundamental shifts that may create an era of relative calm for Africa's 800 million people.

The biggest new force is Africans themselves. Led by South Africa, there's growing desire to arm-twist warriors into laying down their weapons. Also, outside powers, including the United States, are more engaged. They may be motivated by antiterror fears, need for oil, or guilt for inaction during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, but they're increasingly supporting Africa's peaceful impulses.

"The continent as a whole has asserted a good bit more activism about putting conflicts to rest - and has turned down the flames of its active wars," says Ross Herbert, Africa Research Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.

South Africa's role is key. In the late 1990s, President Thabo Mbeki and other South Africans "looked around and realized the continent was sliding into the abyss, and that if they didn't do something dramatic they'd find themselves surrounded" by decay, says Stephen Morrison, head of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. So they helped jump-start peace talks in Burundi and Congo. South Africa now has 2,500 troops in Burundi. Nigeria has played a similar role in West Africa.

The moves are good for peacemakers' economies, too. South Africa invests about $1 billion - and has exports of $3 billion - a year into the rest of Africa, says Alan Gelb, chief Africa economist at the World Bank in Washington. Nurturing peace protects and expands economic activity. Indeed, in the past two years or so, as African economies have become more intertwined, "Leaders have recognized that without action to stop conflict in Africa they're going to suffer economically," says Dr. Gelb.

Outside powers are key as well. "There is a longer-term trend of the West reengaging in Africa," says Mr. Herbert. The US sent a small contingent to Liberia earlier this year to help separate rebels and the government, who had been fighting for years. When Sierra Leone exploded in 2000, British troops intervened successfully. And French soldiers are still in the volatile Ivory Coast.

There's also clearly a self-interested agenda. In the post-9/11 world, the US sees chaotic African countries as potential terrorism incubators. It's also eyeing Africa's growing oil exports. Sudan symbolizes the many reasons for America's new engagement in Africa.

The United Nations has also played a bigger role in Africa as its role in large global conflicts wanes. In Iraq, Kosovo, East Timor, and elsewhere the UN was sidelined at first in favor of a lead player like the US, Britain, or Australia, notes Morrison. Meanwhile, "Africa has, in very short order, become the central zone for UN peacekeeping," he says. The world body has more than 30,000 troops in Africa and just 12,000 in the rest of the world. Its biggest global mission will soon be Liberia.

Not that Eden has been created here. Even amid peace treaties, peacekeepers, and power-sharing governments, atrocities continue. "Away from the eyes of journalists and cameras, the nastiness carries on," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. Eastern Congo is a prime example.

Several conflicts could also escalate this year. Observers point to Ethiopia/Eritrea tensions and a growing guerrilla war in western Sudan, which wouldn't be covered by a north-south peace deal.

And even if they don't explode, many problems still exist - lack of food, the AIDS crisis, ethnic repression, and more. Without addressing those, says Mr. Cornwell, "We're likely to have a situation of no war, but no peace either."

Sudan: America Intervenes

A deal to end Africa's longest-running war - which has killed up to 2 million people - could be signed as early as next week. Sudan's Muslim government and southern Christian and animist rebels have been fighting since 1983. The US, among others, is now pushing hard for peace.