Five Major African Wars and Conflicts of the Twentieth Century

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Somali Civil War—1991

Armed conflicts in Africa during the twentieth century caused an enormous loss of human life, the collapse of socio-economic systems, and the degradation of health and education services across the continent. From the Nigerian Civil War to the Somali Civil War, these 20th Century conflicts submitted civilians to intense physical and psychological trauma that negatively impacted development throughout many African nations. To understand the magnitude and scope of inflicted trauma, and in order to prevent its recurrence, military historians and students should consider the following five significant African wars and conflicts of the 20th Century.

In 1991, a coup ousted dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, President of the Somali Democratic Republic. This shift in the balance of power sparked a twenty-plus-year civil war that killed as many as one million Somalis via violence, famine or disease. Following Barre’s removal from power, the Somali Democratic Republic divided into two opposing parties, the Somali National Movement in the North and the United Somali Congress of the South. This separation made it difficult to achieve control of the conflicting factions because no one ruling entity was recognized by all Somalis; those living in the north would not recognize authority from the southern faction, and those in the south opposed leadership from the Somalis in the north. The lack of a central government forced the U.S. to close its embassy that same year.

The United Nations and the United States became heavily involved in the conflict from 1992 to 1995, sending military forces and humanitarian aid to the country. The United States officially ended its involvement in Somalia in 1994 due to the lack of a foreseeable resolution and financial costs in excess of $1.7 billion. The Somali Civil War’s large death toll and protracted conflict could possibly have been avoided with earlier humanitarian action, according to a 1999 report commissioned by then-United Nations’ Secretary-General Kofi Annan. However, the heavy fighting between the warlords obstructed timely U.S. relief efforts in Somalia.

Nigerian Civil War—1967

After Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960, the country divided into ethnically defined regions—the Igbo people occupied the southeast, the Yoruba the southwest, and the Hausa and Fulani the north. Tensions grew as the nation’s military took power following the achievement of Nigerian independence and fighting broke out among the regions, resulting in as many as 30,000 Igbo deaths at the hands of the Yoruba. On May 30, 1967, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu seceded the Igbo territory, declaring it to be the Republic of Biafra. With the help of Great Britain, the Nigerian federal government reacted quickly, gaining control of the oil-rich southeast coast and blockading supplies to the region, causing severe famine and leading to the deaths of nearly two million civilians and 100,000 military personnel. On January 15, 1970, Ojukwu handed over control of the Biafran government to Major General Philip Effiong of the Biafran Army and fled the country with his family. Effiong subsequently surrendered to Nigerian military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, abruptly ending the thirty-month civil war.

The Nigerian Civil War was a nationalistic struggle to reunify and reintegrate Nigeria; however, it resulted in different ethnic factions fighting one another, creating chaos and leading to a massive crisis, including the deaths of countless civilians as well as the political redrawing of West Africa. Additionally, because the conflict was a civil war, stabilizing forces within the government had to figure out how to fight and also limit destruction, how to inflict wounds and simultaneously heal relations, and how to subdue forces without causing permanent injury. When the conflict ended the Nigerian government declared to the Igbo that there was “no victor, no vanquished,” but historians say the war did and still does affect national politics and policymaking in the region. For example, Ojukwu, in a 2000 interview with BBC News, said he believes the Igbos have been largely excluded from holding power since the civil war.

Rwandan Genocide—1994

Between April and July of 1994, the Hutus—a Rwandan ethnic group that comprised roughly 15 percent of the Rwandan population—murdered Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana; this jumpstarted the systematic and brutal genocide of approximately 800,000 Tutsis, the ethnic minority of Rwanda’s population. The hundred-day genocide was relentless, pitting neighbor against neighbor and in some instances, even forcing Hutu husbands to kill their Tutsi wives. Rwandan identification cards named a person’s ethnic classification, which made it impossible for Tutsis to escape persecution and slaughter.

As a result of the conflict, the United Nations established a military presence in Rwanda but did not have the authorization to take action; meanwhile, the United States government refused to get involved due to fears of another failed peace initiative similar to their previous undertaking in Somalia. The massacre ended on July 4, 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP), which had the support of the Ugandan army, invaded the capital city of Kigali and defeated the Hutus.

Much like the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide was caused by state-sanctioned hatred and dehumanization of the ethnic minority Tutsis. In 2008, the Canadian Supreme Court recognized that the classification of Tutsis as “other” created a climate of indifference in Rwanda which ultimately allowed the genocide to occur. Since the genocide, Rwanda has grappled with the status of former government forces and refugees in neighboring countries, how to best pursue justice for genocidal crimes, and how to reconstruct the political, social, and economic infrastructure of a country that was devastated by intense internal conflict.

The Lord’s Resistance Army Insurgence—1987

Led by the infamous Joseph Kony, The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is responsible for the longest-running rebel upheaval in Uganda and its neighboring countries, resulting in the displacement of nearly two million people and the deaths of thousands. The LRA originated in 1987 with the rebellion against Yoweri Museveni’s leadership in Uganda, when Kony dubbed himself a spiritual leader and the liberator of the Acholi people of northern Uganda. Since then, Kony and his regime have become notorious for abducting and forcibly recruiting children, and the LRA has kidnapped more than 60,000 civilians and forced them to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. The Ugandan government has tried several times to hold peace talks with the LRA, but it has thus far been unsuccessful in both opening dialogue and taking military action against the group.

The battle to end the LRA’s terror has been ongoing for two decades. Fighting the LRA is difficult because there are many child soldiers in their ranks, as well as many vulnerable women. While military operations to defeat the LRA have faltered and led to tragic civilian—and child soldier—deaths, there are several instances where negotiations and dialogues have yielded success, suggesting the potential to end hostilities through peace talks. Unfortunately, in April 2017 the U.S. and the Ugandan government announced each would officially end its hunt for Kony, and the LRA continues to abduct and terrorize people in the region.

Eritrean-Ethiopian War—1998

The two-year war between the neighboring countries of Eritrea and Ethiopia was triggered over a border dispute and claimed approximately 80,000 lives. The war began on May 6, 1998, when military and police from both countries exchanged fire in a rural area near the disputed border, and ended in 2000, between the months of May and June, after the two countries were able to negotiate a cease-fire agreement—called the Algiers Peace Treaty.

The Eritrean-Ethiopian War was classified as a “border war,” and the parties who negotiated the treaty took a purely legal stance at resolving the conflict, which left both sides unsatisfied and failed to ease tensions between the countries. Neither side wants a full-fledged war—Ethiopia because a war could reverse the country’s economic gains, and Eritrea, because its government knows it’s in a weaker political and diplomatic position. The result is a lack of dialogue and a climate of fear between the neighboring countries, which has led to economic tension, political unrest and a decrease of overall growth within the area.

These five examples of conflict and war from Africa’s history helped shape its past, and their intensely physical and psychological effects on humans could be felt long into the future. By examining the conflicts of Africa’s past, military historians can gain an understanding of how these conflicts negatively impacted economic and political development throughout many African nations.

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Somalia Civil War,

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Lord's Resistance Army, Oxford Bibliographies

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Ethiopia and Eritrea blame each other for border clash, BBC News

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Rwandan Genocide, History

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Somalia, 1992–1993, Office of the Historian