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Is Africa heading for a new era of proxy wars on its soil?

Is Africa heading for a new era of proxy wars on its soil?
  • PublishedMarch 8, 2023

Internal conflicts in Africa open the door to outside meddling and the disastrous prospect of the continent once again becoming a site for proxy big power wars. We need stronger collective security to avoid this, writes Onyekachi Wambu.

 The ongoing Ukrainian war has raised profound issues about collective security, with implications for our own African collective security frameworks.

 Ostensibly, the Russians give two reasons, one specific, one general, for their invasion – the specific being protection of the local ethnic Russians in the Donbass area of Ukraine; and the general being the lack of collective security guarantees provided by NATO, an argument they have presented over the last 30 years of expansion by the latter. 

Collective security should, as the title suggests, be mutual, offering protection for both parties, they argue. 

One of the clearest ways to secure such mutual protection is to design an architecture that offers undeniable benefits to the participants. The NATO bloc system is an indication of such an architecture, as is the kind of pooling of political and economic sovereignty (plus increasingly, military resources) that the EU represents. 

Externally, both structures have been perceived as a threat from those on their periphery, such as the Russians. Internally, both have had success in guaranteeing stability, with the EU having notable successes in reducing longstanding conflicts, such as the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the UK, Ireland, and warring Northern Irish religious factions. 

Internally, NATO has been less successful, judging by the continuing simmering tensions between Greece and Turkey, which have occasionally erupted into conflict with the Turkish occupation of Cyprus, and may yet explode again.

In the African context, a huge paradox exists in our search for durable collective security frameworks that would eliminate conflicts. Kwame Nkrumah’s dream of a united Africa and an African High Command was an attempt to combine both an EU- style political and economic integration project, alongside a NATO-style military bloc alliance. His dream for the former is slowly being implanted via the African Union, the regional communities such as ECOWAS and SADC, and now the Continental Free Trade Agreement that will enable us to trade rather than fight. 

The previously influential but now largely moribund ECOMOG was a limited attempt by ECOWAS to create a military bloc system in West Africa. Both its successes and failures testify to the paradoxes that dog African security. 

Whereas Nkrumah envisioned such a bloc system as being a defensive protection of African sovereignty against renewed external imperialism, the real threats, as the ECOMOG activities demonstrated, have largely been as a result of internal implosion from disaffected ethnic, regional and religious factions.

Entry point for foreign meddling

Sometimes, such convulsions spill across national boundaries, especially when colonial-created borders remain in dispute; or they are likely to become more prominent when issues of resources are at stake, an example of which is the growing tension between Ethiopia and Egypt over control of the Nile.

These intra-African conflicts and the lack of consensus they create have always been dangerous for the continent as they are the entry point for external meddling by outside powers. 

Where in the past a consensus existed in the region for ECOMOG to intervene in Sierra Leone and Liberia as part of a home-grown collective security initiative, now the region looks to once more be inviting in different external players to resolve its issues.

The role of France as a guarantor of security across Francophone West Africa is now being openly challenged in a number of countries. In Mali the French have been asked to go (and perhaps soon it will happen in Burkina Faso), to be replaced by the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. 

At best the French are accused of incompetently dealing with the security threats posed by Islamist militants. At worst they are accused of abetting said militants in order to keep those countries unstable, allowing an increased military presence and thus enabling continued resource exploitation. 

However, is the replacement of one external security guarantor by another one – in this case the Russians – the answer to our collective security issues? For instance, the presence of the Russians to its north has now led to the Ghanaian government seeking an increased American military presence in the region. 

Given the growing multipolarity, expect Africa to once more be at the centre of a ‘new scramble’ for resources. We should not allow our differences to invite in the different players and enable the kind of proxy war that is being fought out openly in Ukraine by different powers. Once in the 20th century was enough, thank you.

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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