Violence down sharply in sub-Saharan Africa

WASHINGTON—After decades as the world's most violent region, sub-Saharan Africa has lost that unwanted title and is finding peace.

The number of conflicts south of the Sahara Desert is down sharply, according to two new tallies, and so is their lethality. The reports' authors credit successful peacemaking and peace-building efforts by international organizations such as the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union as well as interventions by individual African countries.

"This is very good news," said one of the authors, Andrew Mack, the director of the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. It's a conflict-reduction research center funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the governments of Canada, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

According to the center's Human Security Brief 2006, most of the drop in violence is recent. From 2002 through 2005, the number of sub-Saharan conflicts in which government troops participated dropped from 13 to 5. The number between factions or tribes that didn't involve government forces dropped from 24 to 14.

Also down was the lethality of conflicts in the region, which comprises 46 countries south of the Sahara Desert. For state-backed conflicts, which are the deadliest, the region's estimated combat death toll in 2005 was 1,851. As recently as 1999, it was nearly 100,000.

Sudan's Darfur region, the site of Africa's most-publicized ongoing conflict, wasn't included because the Vancouver center classifies Sudan as part of North Africa. If Sudan had been included, however, it wouldn't have changed the overall picture.

"The trend is undeniable," said Susan Rice, who was the assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Clinton administration and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research center in Washington. She's worried, however, about recent surges of violence in Somalia as well as in Sudan, both of which the State Department counts as part of sub-Saharan Africa.

Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria who's a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations research center, was more optimistic about the trend toward peace. "I think it's going to last, because the Africans are very concerned about it," he said.

Both former diplomats credited the African Union with effective peacemaking. That alliance of 53 African countries was founded in 2001 to end intra-African conflict and create a common market.

"There's more effort under way, more seriousness and more leadership on the part of the Africans," Lyman said.

Both also credited the United Nations, now operating in Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Burundi and Sudan.

In sub-Saharan Africa in 2002, state-based armed conflicts were under way in Angola (two), Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Ethiopia (two), Ivory Coast, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda.

In 2005, conflicts persisted only in Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia (two) and Uganda.

An article in the March Foreign Policy Bulletin reports the same trend in sub-Saharan conflicts. It's also borne out by fewer refugees fleeing conflicts and, to a lesser degree, fewer internally displaced people trying to do the same.

"We're reaching the point where most of the fighting has stopped in most of Africa," said the article's author, Monty Marshall, the director of research at the Center for Global Policy, a conflict analysis group at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

Central and South Asia is supplanting sub-Saharan Africa as the world's most war-torn region, according to Mack's center. It's composed of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

If the sub-Saharan peace outbreak surprises most people, Mack said, that reflects the singular focus of journalists and human rights advocates on conflicts and abuses of power, especially when it comes to Africa.

"Wars get lots of news coverage," said Mack, a former BBC journalist. "But when wars peter out, that tends not to get covered."

By the same token, he said, "Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch exist to draw attention to abuses of power. It's not their job to tell us things are getting better."

Iain Levine, the program director for Human Rights Watch, based in New York, didn't disagree.

"We're not providing an objective overview of global trends," he said. Rather, the group's purpose is to spotlight injustices that need international attention.

His group and Mack's, Levine added, "are doing different important things."


To read the Human Security Centre's report online, go to and click on "Access the Brief."

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