March Madness at Notes on the Periphery!: Part 2 (Sub-Saharan Africa)

We’re now two weeks into the most exciting three weeks of the year—NCAA college basketball’s final tournament. For those of you who might not know: each year, 68 college teams (annoyingly bumped up from 65 a few years ago) compete for the national title in a single-elimination bracket. The “bracket” is broken down into four regionals, with each regional consisting of teams seeded 1-16 (under the new format, there are two of one of the seeds in each regional). The winners of each regional advance to the Final Four, then the prevailing two meet in a final championship game, and a winner is crowned in early April. (Unfortunately my Georgetown Hoyas, like usual, flubbed in the first round.)

In the spirit of March Madness, as it is often called, I thought I would try out the bracket concept as it relates to Notes on the Periphery. This time, instead of basketball teams, I will use 64 “forgotten” conflicts around the world—including active insurgencies, long-standing “frozen” conflicts, and tense territorial disputes.

The 64 flashpoints are arranged into four regionals (Middle East & Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas). Each regional includes 16 conflicts—ranked roughly by how likely (in my completely subjective opinion) each is to escalate in the coming year.

Of course, this March Madness analogy is not meant to be an exhaustive nor testable model of prediction. (It’s more of a cheap trick to combine two of my interests—conflicts and basketball.) But the idea is to provide a brief introduction to a multitude of different disputes you may not have previously been familiar with!


This post, the second in the series (see the first post here!) will break down the “Sub-Saharan Africa” regional. With maybe the exception of Mali, it is fair to say that no conflict in this part of the world gets a good deal of international media attention. Fortunately, the list of viable candidates for this bracket is smaller than it was, say, 20 years ago (there was an explosion of violent conflict right after the end of the Cold War) – but many long-standing (and some new) challenges remain unresolved.

So: see below for the 16 flashpoints, in order of least to most likely of escalation in the coming year. The bracket below:

Africa bracket

#16 – Cabinda (Angola)

Primary belligerents: Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) vs. Government of Angola

Angola’s devastating civil war finally dissipated in 2002, but a low-level insurgency persists in the small but important Angolan exclave of Cabinda. A leftover from the colonial era, Portugal bequeathed Cabinda to Angola upon independence—a mighty gift, as more than 60 percent of the country’s oil now comes from the province and its offshore deposits. FLEC holds the rather dubious honor of being one of the continent’s oldest insurgent groups, fighting (unsuccessfully) for Cabinda’s independence since 1963. The movement is best known, however, for an attack by one of its offshoots in 2010, when FLEC-affiliated gunmen shot dead three men aboard a bus carrying the Togolese soccer team to the Africa Cup of Nations. Alas, little detail is known about the status of the FLEC since 2010, as a dearth of independent news outlets in the region has made reporting difficult—but we can be almost certain that the conflict is ongoing at a low simmer.

Had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for this: As possibly the most underreported state conflict in Africa, there is very little literature on Cabinda. I found a couple write-ups here and here, but let me know if you find anything better!

#15 – Casamance (Senegal)

Primary belligerents: Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) vs. Government of Senegal

Drawing predominantly from the minority Diola ethnic group (Christian/animist in a Muslim-majority country), the MFDC has led a low-level violent campaign against Senegalese forces since 1983. Having previously neglected the Diola homeland, Casamance (map here), the government in Dakar in the 1990s finally attempted to co-opt the local population by bolstering economic investment to the region. But it was too little, too late. Violence escalated in the 2000s and—despite a series of ceasefires, internal fractures within the MFDC, and the loss of the rebels’ primary backer (Guinea-Bissau) in 2005—continues today. Despite its reputation as being the darling of Francophone West Africa, Senegal still has its hands tied in trying to put an end to the Casamance dispute.

Eager to read more?: Check out a good historical summary here and modern-day analysis here.

#14 –Ethiopia

Primary belligerents: Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) vs. Government of Ethiopia

Flying under the radar compared to its war-torn neighbors to its west and east (Sudan and Somalia), Ethiopia nonetheless faces a sporadic guerrilla threat from three ethnic separatist movements. The most prominent is the OLF, fighting for Oromo self-determination since 1974. After the fall of Mengistu in 1991, the OLF participated in a transitional government, but following 1992 elections, the OLF again quit politics and continued its armed struggle against Meles Zenawi’s new Tigrayan-led regime. In the southeast, ethnic Somalis have been struggling just as long as the OLF, but the rebellion’s latest rendition—the ONLF—has fractured and lost its main foreign backer (Siad Barre-led Somalia), relegating it to only a low-level capacity for carrying out attacks. Finally, the ARDUF, consisting of rebels from the pastoral Afar ethnic group, has primarily been a sideshow over the years, but an estimated 200 fighters sporadically claim attacks on Ethiopian forces and infrastructure, plus the occasional foreign tourist (on the edge of a volcano?!). All three conflicts have regional dimensions—as Ethiopia’s neighbors (namely Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia) have all at one point or another been accused of backing insurgents.

ONLF, OLF, ARDUF, IDK?: A look at the various conflicts through the lens of ethno-federalism, and IRIN Africa on the ONLF.

#13 – Ethiopia-Eritrea

Primary belligerents: Government of Ethiopia vs. Government of Eritrea

The Horn of Africa over the past 50 years could in part be described as a web of overlapping proxy wars—with Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea fighting rebel groups backed by the others. This makes outright state-on-state conflict more likely—and indeed brought Somalia and Ethiopia to a head in the late 1970s. But perhaps the most bitter modern-day rivalry involves Ethiopia and Eritrea (boasting two of the continent’s largest armies), which fought a bloody interstate war from 1998-2000 (as well as a long civil war when Eritrea was part of Ethiopia). A long-stalled border demarcation process and proxy arming on both sides has left the door open for renewed hostilities.

The most tense border in Africa: An International Crisis Group report and specifics on the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission.

#12 – Lord’s Resistance Army (CAR, South Sudan, DRC)

Primary belligerents: Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) vs. Governments of CAR, DRC, South Sudan, and Uganda

Of course you’ve heard of this one, because you probably watched that ubiquitous Kony2012 video back in the day. But a recap in case you’ve forgotten: the LRA began in the 1980s as the personal army of Acholi messianic cult leader Joseph Kony, who claims to be fighting on behalf of the Christian Ten Commandments. Particularly notorious for “recruiting” child soldiers to fight on his behalf, Kony terrorized entire swathes of northern Uganda for almost two decades before being pushed out of the country in 2005. Since then, Ugandan forces were granted permission to pursue Kony’s LRA into the jungles of neighboring DRC, South Sudan, and even the eastern reaches of the CAR. LRA-inspired violence has since subsided, but the group remains elusive—despite President Obama’s decision to deploy 100 American officers to help with the hunt in 2011. With Bozize’s government recently unseated in the CAR, Uganda just this week announced a temporary cessation of its pursuit—giving Kony more time to elude his hunters.

More on the LRA: An awesome “Crisis Tracker” map and, of course, International Crisis Group.

#11 – Chad
Primary belligerents: Union of Forces of Resistance (UFR) vs. Government of Chad

Three years ago, Chad appeared to be a good news story. Mired in nearly half a decade of conflict with Sudanese-backed rebel groups, President Idriss Deby’s government signed an agreement with Sudan in 2010 that ended their proxy conflicts in Darfur/eastern Chad. But recent rumblings suggest Chad may be vulnerable once again (not a total surprise, considering the country’s almost never-ending civil war status since 1965). Just last month, the UFR announced it would continue its armed struggle and is now attempting to fill its ranks with discontented former fighters in eastern Chad. With 2,400 troops fighting in Mali and 600 in the Central African Republic, Deby’s forces to deal with this threat are in short supply. The situation is almost certain to escalate in the coming year.

Hanging Chads: An excellent book on the Chadian Civil War from 1965-1991 here and story on the new potential armed struggle here. (It’s tough to find detailed and reliable info on Chad!)

#10 – Sudan-South Sudan

Primary belligerents: Government of Sudan vs. Government of South Sudan

You know the basic story: after a long, bloody civil war, a mostly Christian and animist South Sudan gained independence from the predominantly Muslim north in 2011—the first successful partition in Africa since Eritrea/Ethiopia in 1991. But decades of animosity do not disappear overnight. An unresolved border demarcation, cross-border rebel proxies, and aggressive rhetoric drove the two countries back to the brink of war in early 2012. South Sudanese forces invaded Heglig, an important oil-rich region claimed by the north, in March 2012, but were beat back almost a month later. Fortunately, intense international pressure and domestic wariness for another long conflict scaled back the war rhetoric. A groundbreaking border deal earlier this month paved the way for restarting oil production in South Sudan (and transportation through northern pipelines), and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir plans to visit the South for the first time since the 2011 split. Things are looking up for now, but continued instability in the border region could spell more trouble in the future.

The Two Sudans: A recent Reuters analysis and extensive coverage from the US Institute of Peace.

#9 – Kenya

Primary belligerents: Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) vs. Government of Kenya

The good news is that Kenyan national elections this year did not precipitate the same disaster (i.e. election-related violence) that killed over 1,000 people in 2007. Despite losing this year’s election as well as a court ruling confirming Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory, Raila Odinga and his supporters have mostly acted responsibly to prevent an outbreak of violence. The bad news in Kenya is that inter-ethnic feuds continue, especially in the ill-developed countryside, and a once-dormant separatist organization—the MRC—has picked up steam in its violent campaign for self-determination. The MRC does not hold territory per se; rather, as both a militant and political movement, it is embedded in coastal towns—making the violent perpetrators more difficult to catch. Just this week, authorities blamed the MRC for an attack on a casino popular with tourists, suggesting the group is gaining strength and widening its reach.

Ken-ya tell me some more?: A long report on the MRC here, a shorter piece here, and more on Kenya’s many inter-ethnic conflicts here.

#8 – South Sudan

Primary belligerents: South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) and Yau Yau militia vs. Government of South Sudan

Though insurrections in the north (read: Darfur, SPLM-N) receive more attention, South Sudan also faces numerous armed threats. Most stem from individual grudges after a new South Sudan in 2011 did not bring certain politicians/soldiers (David Yau Yau, George Athor, and Peter Gadet) the power and influence they thought they deserved. While Athor’s militia dissipated shortly after he was killed in December 2011, Yau Yau’s militia and Gadet’s SSLA continue to wreak havoc in long-troubled Jonglei state. A reported clash with Yau Yau’s forces last week killed upwards of 100 rebels (though this number is likely exaggerated) and some 70 civilians. In addition to these threats against the central government, communal violence in Jonglei state, Unity state, and elsewhere has worsened the burden—and is likely to continue into 2013 and beyond.

More on the South’s woes: Profiles on Peter Gadet and David Yau Yau.

#7 – Central African Republic

Primary belligerents: Seleka/transitional government vs. ??

Because the rebel Seleka coalition so swiftly and completely swept away President Bozize’s forces in late March, taking the capital and declaring a new government under Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, the likelihood of conflict in the coming year has probably diminished. Few serious pockets of resistance remain. But several factors work against the prospect of long-term stability: (1) as a barely coherent, “motley” coalition that merged several rebel groups from different areas of the country, Seleka is likely to unravel to at least some degree; (2) in a country that is “neither governed nor governable,” it is difficult to exercise control over the large and ill-developed state; (3) it is possible that South African forces will attempt to undermine Seleka’s grip on power (though unlikely). Stay tuned to keep up with a rapidly-changing situation.

“Baby, you can drive my C-A-R!”: A recent look at the failed peace processes in the CAR here and an International Crisis Group primer here.

#6 – Darfur (Sudan)

Primary belligerents: Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) vs. Government of Sudan

Darfur attracted international attention in 2003 when Sudanese forces and their loyal proxy (Janjaweed) led a full-scale assault on the region to put down a growing rebellion headed by the SLM/A. Somewhere between 90,000-200,000, mostly civilians, were killed in this first phase of the war, which lasted until 2005. And low-level insurgency persisted throughout the rest of the decade, despite splintering of the rebel coalition. A few small factions of the insurgency have signed ceasefire agreements with the Sudanese government—but the bulk of the opposition remains committed to combat. What began as a rebellion to simply achieve greater autonomy for the region has morphed into a war to unseat President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum—a goal becoming more and more possible as Bashir’s control over the fragile country slowly withers.

Darfur, then…and now: Mahmood Mamdani of “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” lore has an excellent history of the Darfur conflict, and International Crisis Group offers a modern-day analysis of the “Sudan Problem.”

#5 – Somalia

Primary belligerents: Al-Shabaab vs. Government of Somalia and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)

Since President Siad Barre’s fall in 1991, Somalia has largely been in a constant state of chaos (excepting Somaliland and parts of Puntland in the north). A byproduct of the now-defunct Union of Islamic Courts, al-Shabaab held control over most of southern Somalia (Somaliland and Puntland operate essentially autonomously) from 2009 to 2012. During that time, as the al Qaeda-linked militants consolidated power over much of the country, an internationally-organized counterweight, the secular “Transitional Federal Government (TFG)” was relegated to only a small piece of Mogadishu. However, the tide began to turn in October 2011, when Kenyan troops invaded Somali territory. Together with the TFG, AMISOM, and Ethiopia, Kenyan forces pushed al-Shabaab out of most of its major strongholds, including (most of) Mogadishu and Kismayo. In June 2012, the Kenyan contingent was formally placed under the AMISOM umbrella, and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected in September 2012 as president of a country looking more promising than any other moment during the past two decades. That said, as al-Shabaab shifts tactics, suicide bombings in the capital have become more frequent than ever before.

More on Somalia: The Atlantic on al-Shabaab’s undoing and a good map of the current state of play.

#4 – SPLM-North insurgency (Sudan)

Primary belligerents: Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) vs. Government of Sudan

Sporting more than 30,000 fighters and better armed than ever before, the Nuba-led resistance in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states represents the most potent challenge to President Omar al-Bashir’s rule in Sudan. Years of fighting—over land, economic, and political rights—have produced a bitter stalemate between government forces and the SPLM-N rebels. More than half a million civilians have been displaced by the conflict, with thousands more dead. Sudan has long accused the SPLM/A in newly-independent South Sudan of providing support to the SPLM-N rebels. Last month, however, Sudanese government posture, previously hardline, appeared to soften: Khartoum expressed willingness to hold direct peace talks for the first time, invited SPLM-N rebels to help prepare a new constitution, and began releasing political prisoners as a sign of good faith. Could this bring about a negotiated end to conflict? Barring an extremely enticing package presented to the rebels, my guess is no.

In case you haven’t read enough about Sudan’s woes: International Crisis Group report on South Kordofan and Sudan Tribune coverage.

#3 – Eastern DRC

Primary belligerents: M-23 and Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) vs. Government of DRC

Foreign meddling (read: Rwanda and Uganda) and the sheer distance from the Congolese capital (Kinshasa) have ensured that violence in North and South Kivu has persisted over the years. A rough descendent of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) rebellion, the M-23 movement emerged in April 2012 after some 300 CNDP soldiers integrated into the Congolese army resigned and turned once again against the government. In November, M-23 took control of Goma, an important border town. In February 2013, Rwandan and Ugandan commitments to halt financing for the M-23 opened up the possibility for a ceasefire. Two recent events suggest there could be progress in the coming year: (1) CNDP-turned-M-23 commander Bosco Ntaganda turned himself in at the US Embassy in Rwanda, removing a hostile and divisive leader who likely would have spoiled ceasefire negotiations; and (2) the UN approved an “intervention brigade” with a mandate to pursue and neutralize militants operating in the Kivus (including the Hutu, anti-Rwanda FDLR).

All you need to know about Congo…from Jason Stearns: Stearns is hands down the best American scholar on the DRC. His book provides a great historical starting point, then his report on “CNDP to M-23” brings us up to speed, and finally his thoughts on the “intervention brigade” look to the future.

#2 – Mali

Primary belligerents: Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) vs. Government of Mali (and intervention forces)

Shortly after a March 2012 coup that sent President Amadou Toure fleeing from the capital, a secular Tuareg movement (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad—or MNLA) pushed the disorganized and poorly-equipped Malian military out of all of northern Mali (a territory the size of Texas). The MNLA’s hold on power was fleeting, however, as Islamist forces—Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and AQIM—quickly nudged the secular group from power over the summer. The international community dithered in its response until January 2013, when a French-led invasion sent Islamists scattering—fleeing to remote mountain ranges and across borders, or immersing themselves into local populations. Since then, hardened Islamist fighters have sporadically harassed national, French, and West African security forces in an attempt to retake the territory they once had. Insurgency is unlikely to wither away in the near-term, and the French-led intervention has done little to address the problem of the separatist MNLA, which has moved back into key northern towns.

Mali mania: This happens to be a Notes on the Periphery specialty, so check here for more. But don’t just take it from me: check out Andrew Lebovich’s four-part series on the jihadist groups operating in Mali and Bruce Whitehouse’s splendid reporting and analysis from Bamako.

#1 – Northern Nigeria

Primary belligerents: Boko Haram and Ansaru vs. Government of Nigeria

Northern Nigeria earns the dismal distinction of claiming the #1 spot. While many of the other conflicts on this list have modest prospects for improvement over the next year, the ongoing scourge of terror led by Boko Haram and its new, smaller cousin Ansaru leaves little reason to be optimistic. Boko Haram, Hausa for “Western education is forbidden,” emerged in 2009, when its fanatical leader Mohammed Yusuf was killed after street violence that took the lives of more than 1,000 others. The Islamist group regrouped and remerged stronger than ever a year later, and has been terrorizing the (mostly Muslim) population of Nigeria’s north ever since. The predominantly indigenous terrorist group uses a mix of gun battles, explosions, and suicide attacks to put pressure on security forces—all in support for an eventual collapse of the present Nigerian state and replacement with an Islamic caliphate (modeled on the Sokoto Caliphate). Ansaru, thought to have separated from Boko Haram in January 2012, favors a different tactic and a different target: kidnapping foreigners. Both groups show little sign of dissipating.

More on the chart-toppers: A primer on Ansaru here and perhaps the most comprehensive report to date on Boko Haram here. Plus, two reports on Ansaru and Boko Haram’s international connections here and here.

Other potential candidates: ADF-NALU rebellion (DRC/Uganda), Bakassi dispute (Nigeria-Cameroon), Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti-Eritrea, southern DRC, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, religious violence in Nigeria, Niger Delta (Nigeria), east Sudan, Zanzibar (Tanzania).


Well there you have it! 2 down, 2 (and ¼) to go! Stay tuned for the Asia and Latin America brackets coming up soon.

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3 Responses to March Madness at Notes on the Periphery!: Part 2 (Sub-Saharan Africa)

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