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Preventing conflict along Central Africa’s borders: understanding power at the periphery

News and Press Release
Originally published
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Publication date: Feb 2016

The transnational nature of armed groups is a hallmark of contemporary conflict in Africa. Our former East and Central Africa Projects Manager, Ned Dalby, shares his reflection

Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin, Al-Shabaab in the Horn and a cocktail of criminal, extremist and rebel groups in the Sahel defy easy solutions in part because of their cross-border reach. 

In Central Africa too, political and criminal violence in the borderlands is making life hell for locals and having disastrous effects for the political stability and economic prospects of the region.

The waves of violence that have rocked the Central African Republic (CAR) are aftershocks of the March 2013 coup by Seleka rebels. The group formed in the far northeast when local leaders formed temporary alliances with guns-for-hire across the border in Chad and Sudan.

Along CAR’s eastern frontier and further south along the northern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), chased out of northern Uganda, has found refuge.

Since 2011 Kony himself has been hiding east of CAR in Sudan-controlled Kafia Kingi. Thwarted by logistical and diplomatic obstacles, the Uganda-led mission trying to winkle him out is in its fourth year and the US recently committed to support it for a fifth.

The default for governments in the West trying to tackle these blights is to work with and through centralised states and regional blocs. But other legitimate players with formal or informal political authority along and across borders are proving viable peacebuilding partners.

Tribal chiefs, religious figureheads, civil society organisations including women’s groups and local peace committees have the local legitimacy and social status to mobilise collective action and effect lasting change. What’s more, their cross-border alliances can make them the go-to guarantors of peace in the peripheries.

The lure of the spaces in-between

Two characteristics of these border areas make them particularly appealing to armed militia. The first is the vast expanse of sparsely-peopled territory – room to hide and regroup. The second is natural resources.

Seleka rebels partly funded their fight by smuggling diamonds from CAR into Sudan. And Kony, looking for new lifelines, found a market in Sudan for elephant ivory so gave his footsoldiers instructions to harvest it in Garamba National Park in Congo. Sudanese traders exchange the ivory for ammunition and supplies. The decades-old trade has created a transnational criminal economy that armed groups can tap into for their own ends.

The emergence of armed groups and the cross-border traffic of natural resources are both symptoms of the chronic absence of effective governance structures in and across the border areas. Over decades the region’s governments have concentrated power in capitals, neglecting to develop local structures or provide security.

Ending the violence means tackling each problem head-on, but preventing new forms of insecurity in the future means addressing the dearth of local governance and law enforcement.

The limitations of statist approaches

Western governments’ relationships with African counterparts bind them into funnelling most of their assistance through state institutions. The thinking is that state institutions will radiate responsible governance and the rule of law from the centre to the periphery. But impact at the margins is minimal as most resources sink into heavily centralised bureaucracies.

Besides diplomatic imperatives, this dominant statist approach rests on a conceptual slippage. Western governments too readily reduce conflict prevention to state building. Helping to build reliable and effective state institutions is just one way to prevent conflicts turning violent; there are others.

Viable alternatives

In Central Africa’s remote border areas the state is only one actor in a complex and fluid political landscape. It is not necessarily the most influential or legitimate.

Customary chiefs and religious leaders have significant sway in the daily life of ordinary people. Often local and foreign businesses have more resources and greater leverage than state functionaries in dilapidated offices.

Along both sides of the Congo-South Sudan border community groups known as local peace committees – public-spirited men and women – resolve identity and land disputes before they escalate. These local players have cross-border kin, linguistic and trade relations that state officials often do not, which are invaluable for anticipating and mitigating security threats.

By promoting norms of lawfulness and non-violence they can deny armed groups new recruits, take part in the fight against illicit trafficking and prevent local conflicts escalating into national or regional security threats.

Western governments of course need to pay close attention to strongman politics at the centre. But as conflict and violence in Central Africa spring from between the gaps of nation-states, so too should peacebuilding responses look beyond the state as the only framework for action.

Philanthropic foundations should step up too. Free from the constraints of intergovernmental back-scratching, they have the latitude to put their money behind locally-owned initiatives with long-term peacebuilding prospects.