Mesfin Wolde-Mariam has a very simple theory about why Ethiopia is at war with Eritrea.
"It's the story of creation," said Professor Mesfin, a historian and head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, when the war first started nearly a year ago.
"It's the point at which the creature rebels against the creator."
And so Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi rebelled against Eritrea's President Isaias Afewerki - who taught him most of what he knew, whose advice and patronage had gotten him to power in May 1991, and whose pressures he had accommodated, with increasing difficulty, for much of his tenure.
At about the same time Congo's President Laurent Kabila was just beginning to show his intolerance of the Rwandan elite that put him in power in Congo.
But 11 months of war have revealed different mechanisms at work.
Analysts say the conflict in the Horn of Africa is as much about the suffocation of Eritrea's economy by Ethiopian hard-liners as the impact of nationalist rhetoric on two people of equally belligerent dispositions. And Mr. Kabila's war on tiny Rwanda is as much about Rwanda's de facto annexation of a swath of eastern Congo as it is with Congo's mineral riches
Still, Mesfin's paradigm of creation and subsequent revolt raises basic questions about a continent where regional, not national, politics determines the degree of peace and prosperity sovereign nations can aspire to.
The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has already killed 10,000 people and stalled the economies of two of the world's poorest countries.
Kabila's war in Congo has drawn seven African armies into the heart of the continent, disrupted an alliance of power that stretched from East to West Africa, and redefined the conflict with Rwanda's Tutsi minority - which narrowly escaped a genocide in 1994 - in dangerously ethnic terms.
Reducing such human disasters to a personal act of rebellion would leave too much unaccounted for, analysts say.
Yet Meles Zenawi would not have made it to power without Isaias Afewerki - who took him in as a fugitive and helped him build the rebel army that eventually overthrew the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia.
The case of Kabila, Congo's embattled president, observers have noted, provides a much starker example of "creation" in that Kabila was handpicked by Rwanda and Uganda to replace longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Then Kabila was delivered to power halfway across the continent at the end of a seven-month war largely fought by Rwandan crack troops.
In both cases, war has released tensions accumulated over an initial debt of gratitude.
Because he helped place Meles in charge of a far larger economy than his own, Isaias expected a specific kind of generosity in return. When Eritrea made plans for a new currency to symbolize its hard-won independence, it assumed Ethiopia would let it be pegged to the Ethiopian birr for at least six months. Ethiopia's refusal, an Eritrean government official pointed out last year, came as "a slap in the face" and a sign of "fundamental ingratitude".
The expectations Rwanda placed on Kabila were even greater. Having delivered to power a warlord of little previous consequence, the Tutsi minority in Rwanda expected nothing short of complete control over North and South Kivu, two provinces in Congo's far east that Rwanda is endeavoring to turn into a security zone. The Rwandan government made matters plain by placing a half-Rwandan Tutsi, James Kabare, at the head of the Congolese Army and thus damaging Kabila's standing among his fellow Congolese from the start.
"Kabila needed to distance himself from his sponsors to gain legitimacy in [Congo's capital] Kinshasa," says Richard Cornwell of the South African Institute for Security Studies.
When Eritrean troops crossed the ill-defined border last May, Ethiopia's prime minister was left with little choice but war. "Meles had to react, he could not lose face," says Salih Booker, senior fellow at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Similarly, when Kabila realized his days under Rwandan patronage were numbered, his desire to remain in power led to his theatrical expulsion of all Rwandan troops from Congo, an act that triggered almost instant war.
ANALYSTS have argued that such extreme forms of patronage - Isaias's sponsorship of Meles and Rwanda's of Kabila - are peculiar to Africa. Nowhere else, the reasoning goes, are state and government institutions weak enough for the sort of foreign interference routinely seen in Africa.
Rwanda's attempt to lay down the law in Congo, a nation 90 times its size, is perhaps the most accurate measure of the weakness of the Congolese state. Mobutu's 30-year dictatorship did little to strengthen the institution of the state, But, observers say, the concept of the state, the whole notion of nontribal authority, was borrowed to begin with.
"The natural evolution of states in Africa was interrupted by colonialism, which imposed its own concept of state. When it resumed, it was constrained by the cold war," says Mr. Booker. "Now we are back to neighborhoods sorting out their relationships with one another. It's either going to happen through cooperation or through conquest."