Conflicts worsen in African countries

Most African countries that experienced conflict in 2019 saw it worsen in 2020—although much of the continent remained peaceful.

Although covid-19 has put a stop to events around the world, it has provided no respite from rebel attacks. In a band of countries stretching diagonally across the top of the African continent, from Mauritania and Tunisia to Kenya and Somalia, the situation has worsened in 2020: according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the number of attacks has increased overall by 45% compared to 2019. The majority are not small-scale attacks against civilians: they are often armed clashes between rebel groups, sometimes classified as terrorist organisations, and government or international forces. Indeed, the tactics more commonly associated with terrorism—suicide bombs and IEDs—are a small minority.

The increase has been driven partly by ever greater instability in Mali, in which the number of attacks, largely carried out by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, more than doubled. The country has been involved in an ongoing battle against insurgencies since early 2012, when several groups demanding independence forcibly took control of large tracts of land in the north. On 18 August 2020, a military coup deposed the Malian President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, and Prime Minister, Boubou Cissé, and led to the dissolution of the government. Although bloodless, the takeover has done little to bring the situation under control, with the pace of attacks and accompanying death toll (the highest in Africa from rebel activity) increasing.

Despite starting from a lower baseline, Egypt has also seen a tripling of the number of attacks as it continues to fight Islamic State in the Northern Sinai region. Ethiopia, too, has suffered big increases in the number of events and associated deaths as it struggles to bring together its myriad ethnic groups into a federal whole: the death of the musician Hachalu Hundessa, whose songs spoke out against the marginalisation of the Oromo people, triggered deadly riots, while war broke out in the northern Tigray region in November, although the latter is not included in the ACLED dataset.

The picture is not all bleak: some countries have witnessed decreases in rebel-linked violence and countries commonly associated with terrorism now have remarkably low levels of it: Libya, for example, was victim of only ten terrorist attacks across 2019 and 2020. And to focus on the African countries that have suffered from conflict is to ignore the majority in which there were no reported events in either years.

Coronavirus, therefore, has failed to put a break on the activities of rebel groups. Maybe this is to be expected: in a context of instability, to which a pandemic can only contribute, it is easier to plan an insurgency than fight against it. But perhaps, just like a pandemic, conflict—and peace—is contagious: worsening, and improving, states form contiguous masses, while large regions of the continent remain peaceful.