Welcome to the New Age of Military Intervention in Africa
A whole generation of leaders who fought their way into power now deploy troops to quash rebels
Last week, Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni acknowledged that thousands of Ugandan soldiers are fighting on the side of the government in South Sudan’s civil war.
Ugandan soldiers are also fighting in Somalia against the extremist group Al Shabab, alongside troops from Kenya, Ethiopia and Burundi. The U.S. Air Force recently airlifted Burundian and Rwandan soldiers to take part in peacekeeping efforts in the Central African Republic.
It’s a new age of military intervention by Africans in Africa. And the implications are huge for the entire world.
In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of the 1990s and early years of this millennium, when civil wars across the African continent drew in African powers and countries from all over the world. The difference today is that African countries intervene on behalf of embattled neighboring governments, not against them.
Supporting rebel groups is out. Only pariah governments like Sudan and Eritrea still engage in the practice.
Changes of government
One of the most striking developments of Africa’s continental diplomacy over recent years is the new consensus on unconstitutional changes of power. From Mali to South Sudan, military takeover attempts draw universal condemnation.
When Capt. Amadou Sanogo and his comrades chased Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré out of power in 2012, the regional organization Economic Community of West African States quickly closed ranks and threatened to embargo the land-locked country—or even stage an invasion to reinstate the government.
ECOWAS backed down a bit when Islamist rebel groups in the country’s north made territorial gains and the regional body realized it needed the Malian military to put up a fight. But ECOWAS continued to systematically undermine Sanogo’s position. Today, the former captain is in custody, charged with the killings of counter-revolutionaries during his short reign.
On the other side of the continent, South Sudan’s former vice president Riek Machar is experiencing pretty much the same thing now. His supporters weren’t successful in ousting the country’s government, headed by rival Salva Kiir. The regional body Intergovernmental Authority on Development opposed Machar’s bid for power. Ugandan president Museveni led the charge against Machar and even committed his country’s special forces to the fight.
Even Sudan, which has a long history of mutual enmity with South Sudan—a young country that gained its independence from the north in 2011—categorically denied any support for Machar’s rebels and even offered to contribute troops to secure the South’s oil fields.
Cynics will argue that this restraint is mainly an unholy compromise between potentates who have overstayed their welcome. Long-time rulers like Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni came to power themselves by force of arms. In establishing and enforcing a consensus of “no rebellions, please,” these autocrats are essentially investing in their own security.
But while the cynic’s view would explain the fate of Sanogo and Machar, it doesn’t present a clear rationale for the continent’s strong commitment to the peace mission in Somalia, the Rwandan and Burundian presence in the Central African Republic or that of Tanzania and South Africa in Congo.
Some of it is just savvy foreign policy. Rwanda has a capable army and its support of peacekeeping missions have earned it brownie points in the halls of the United Nations, where troop-supplying countries are in short supply. The Rwandan government can also use its considerable peacekeeping portfolio as a bargaining chip with donor groups and nations, for when the donors take exception to the autocratic tendencies of the Rwandans.
But on a grander scale, African governments seem to have realized that stability is beneficial to their economic and political interests.
Make no mistake, Africa’s interpretation of stability is a very conservative one. African governments tend to view military force as a viable solution to a wide range of problems. This is a policy position that could prove problematic in the future.
But for the moment at least, most African politicians seem to be happy to use their armed forces within the boundaries of international law and in line with the demands of host countries. And while this is by no means a wholly satisfactory situation, it is nonetheless a big step into the right direction.