How Africa’s Internal Wars Ended: Lessons for Prevention?

Ted Robert Gurr
Distinguished University Professor Emeritus
University of Maryland

We cannot say with certainty that a genocide has been prevented, or for that matter that any deadly internal conflict was checked before it began.  We usually do know, though, when an internal war has ended and how.  Moreover almost all genocides and most massacres take place during such wars - often they are essential elements of contenders' strategies.  So ending an internal war is a major step toward ending or mitigating mass atrocities.  Usually, not necessarily, because victors may exact murderous revenge on losers, and because losers may rearm, regroup, and fight again.

This paper asks what might be learned about prevention, or mitigation, from the ways in which continental Africa's internal wars ended.  In the accompanying table (see in attached file at the end) I have compiled information on 19 internal wars in post-colonial Africa: their protagonists and issues, outcomes, and what seem to be the most important factors shaping their outcomes. These are sustained, high-casualty wars between armed contenders. The list is not "complete" but it does include the most deadly of armed conflicts in post-colonial Africa.[1]  Examples of more short-lived and low-casualty insurgencies excluded from the table are rebellions by Tuaregs in Mali and Niger in the early 1990s; the Casamançais secessionist movement in Senegal, also in the 1990s; and the Ogaden insurgency in Ethiopia that began in 1996. The 19 wars nonetheless provide the basis for some generalizations about how African wars end.


Genocidal Violence in African Wars

Genocides and politicides took place during ten of these wars, of the 18 such events identified by Barbara Harff.  Mass killings by agents of the state occurred in three others, according to Ulfelder and Valentino's analysis [2]  In three additional instances rebel groups relied on massacres of civilians as a primary war-fighting strategy - RENAMO in Mozambique, the RUF in Sierra Leone, and the GIA and other jihadists in Algeria.  There were serious human rights violations in the remaining three cases - the Eritrean independence war, the Oromo insurgency in Ethiopia, and the insurgency in the Niger Delta - but they have not (yet) been shown to meet the criteria of geno/politicide or mass killing used by the authors cited here.



First, not all African internal wars that began in the last half century have ended. They continue in Darfur, the Niger Delta, Oromia, Chad, and eastern Congo. Second, of the 14 that have more or less conclusively ended, rebels won six and governments won two, plus Darfur where the Khartoum government is near victory.

  • The National Resistance Army won power in Uganda in 1986, putting an end to five years of anarchic and often genocidal violence
  • The Isaaqs who dominated the the Somali National Movement established an independent Somaliland in 1991 after three years of war with the Siad Barre regime
  • Tigrayans, allied with Eritreans, overthrew the Dergue regime in 1991 after a 17-year revolutionary war
  • Eritreans achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after 30 years of war
  • The Tutsis of the Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated the Hutu regime in 1994, though not in time to halt genocide
  • Two insurgent groups in Liberia defeated the Charles Taylor regime in 2003

In two of these victories an international presence helped shape outcomes. The UN in effect midwifed Eritrea's secession by ensuring that the question of independence was put to a referendum and that the results were honored by the new Ethiopian government.  In Liberia ECOMOG and US military forces facilitated Charles Taylor's flight into exile and deterred revenge killings of his supporters.  In Rwanda, on the other hand, UN and regional efforts to negotiate peace between the Hutu government and the RPF - the Arusha accords - failed and the UN peacekeeping force was rendered impotent by UN Security Council decisions in which the US played a major part.

These are the three wars that ended, or in the case of Darfur are close to ending in government victories:

  • In 1970 the Nigerian government decisively defeated Biafran secessionists
  • The Algerian military and security forces had eliminated most jihadist cells by 2005.
  • The Khartoum government and their Janjaweed militia have suppressed or sidelined most Darfuri rebels

In both the last two cases some fighting continues, so it is premature for governments to claim total victory. Rather, as has been said about the Algerian war against Islamists, governments may find it useful to have continuing low-level rebellion to justify repressive policies and to help secure external security assistance.

International actors sought to influence the outcomes in each of these three wars. France led European efforts, some from private organizations, to provide assistance to the beleaguered Biafran people.  This aid probably did no more than prolong resistance. The governments of France and other EU countries proactively checked the flow of funds and recruits - relatively small ones - from Islamists in Europe to the Algerian jihadists, especially after 2001. And, also after 9/ll, the US organized and funded a Maghreb-wide security program in cooperation with the Algerian, Tunisian, and other regional governments.

This leaves six African wars that ended with negotiated settlements:

  • The first Sudan North-South war was ended by the Addis Ababa agreement of 1982
  • The second Sudan North-South war concluded with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005
  • RENAMO's 16-year insurgency against the Mozambique government was ended by a 1992 settlement
  • UNITA's insurgency against the Angola government that began in 1975 was checked by the 1994 Lusaka protocol and, after another round of fighting, ended in 2002 with reaffirmation of the protocol
  • The decade-long RUF insurgency in Sierra Leone ended in 2001 with a UN-brokered peace agreement
  • Interethnic civil war in Burundi that began in 1993[3] culminated in a 2001 peace and power sharing agreement that was accepted piecemeal by Hutu rebel groups - and a renegade Tutsi group - over the next five years.

There was very substantial international engagement aimed at ending internal wars, especially since 1991.  Leaders of Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa - including Botha and Nelson Mandela - even Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe played significant parts in pushing for settlements and hosting the negotiations that arrived at them.  The former colonial powers and the US usually played secondary, or at least less visible, roles. The US role was most open in Angola and Liberia. The UN and, later, the African Union also were engaged in some. Peacekeeping forces were provided by the UN in several instances - Sierra Leone, eastern Congo - and by the Nigerian-led ECOMOG in Liberia. 

Another distinctive feature of the successful settlements is the involvement of what might be called nonconventional actors.  The World Council of Churches helped negotiate the agreement that ended the first Sudan civil war. The East African development agency, the IGAD, was a major player in ending the second Sudan civil war.  And the Catholic lay organization Sant'Egidio was a neutral arbiter, trusted by both sides, in the lengthy negotiations that ended RENAMO's war against the FRELIMO government of Mozambique.

There is another side to international involvement in Africa's internal wars:  outside support for some of the combatants in pursuit of the intervening party's own political and economic interests. In three instances African wars were sustained by support from the Cold War alliances - they had local political bases but were essentially proxy wars:

  • Soviet-bloc assistance sustained the Dergue government of Ethiopia in its civil wars against Eritreans and Tigrayans, and also its international war against Somali forces in the Ogaden in 1977-85. When that assistance ended, the Dergue collapsed.
  • In Angola and Mozambique the UNITA and RENAMO insurgencies were supported by South Africa and the US, while the Soviet bloc provided major support to the Angola government, and lesser support to FRELIMO in Mozambique. When the Cold War ended external support was suspended and it was possible to negotiate settlements.

African states themselves have repeatedly supported insurgencies in neighboring countries for a great diversity of reasons.  These are some examples, others are mentioned in the accompanying table.

  • The wars of eastern Congo began when Rwanda and Uganda instigated and backed the insurgency that overthrew Mobutu, with the aim of reducing attacks by exiled Hutu militants. Thereafter a number of neighboring countries piled in, mainly to exploit the region's rich resources, and at the same time patronized local warlords - who kept the conflicts and killings going until international agreements led to the withdrawal of most intervenors by 2003. In this as in other internal wars the follow-on local conflicts are self-sustaining and very difficult to contain.
  • The Revolutionary United Front's insurgency in Sierra Leone was instigated and supported by Charles Taylor's regime in Liberia.
  • Thirty years of civil wars in Chad have been variously encouraged, sustained, or checked by military and political intervention from neighboring states - Libya in the earlier years, Sudan today - and from France and the US, among others. On the several occasions when Chadian contenders reached settlements it was usually in the absence of active international intervention.


Some Observations on Future Peace-Making

External military and political support for contenders has arguably been the single most important factor sustaining African internal wars.[4]  The grievances and greed that motivate the insurgencies ordinarily are local, but international support keeps them going.  Low-level insurgencies like those of Tuaregs in Niger and Mali, and the Casamançais in Senegal, remain at low level and have been more easily susceptible to settlements because the rebels have lacked significant external support.

Containment of the spill-over effects of internal wars is crucial.  Porous, unsecured borders allow rebels to take refuge in neighboring states and facilitate the movement of supplies, armaments, and refugees.  One strong recommendation follows: the disposition of African states to advance their own interests by supporting one or another contender in their neighbors' internal wars must be countered by regional and international pressures and incentives.

The negotiations that have led to settlements of Africa's internal wars often lasted as long as the wars themselves.  Observers talk about protracted civil wars; peace-makers must anticipate protracted talks-about-talks, intermittent negotiations, piecemeal cease-fires and agreements, and maybe, someday, comprehensive peace agreements.

Successful settlements involve a great diversity of external actors -regional and international organizations, other African countries, NGO's.  There does not seem to be any optimal combination of parties.  It does seem to be important that one or several parties take "ownership" of the negotiation process.

The domestic parties to internal wars are the key actors in any negotiations and settlements. If governments and negotiators are to settle with rebels, especially those who have not yet suffered a decisive military defeat, they need to be bought off by giving their leaders positions in government, disbursing money to their constituents, and disarming and incorporating their fighters into armies - and paying them a living wage. 

The major powers outside Africa, including the US and Europe, ordinarily do not take a leading role in negotiations; that is better left to Africans.  Where they can play a major part is in providing some of the inducements that nudge the contenders toward agreement, and in providing the means for security guarantees.[5]

Regional and international peacekeepers have played an important role in a number of African internal wars.  But they are only effective to the extent that some key conditions are met: that peacekeeping is accepted by the main domestic contenders; that the peacekeepers have broad and flexible mandates; and that the sponsoring international actors provide ample logistic support. These conditions are not always satisfied - see the AU operations in Darfur - and are only likely to be met, if at all, late in the negotiation process.

(Note: See attached table in file bellow)


[1] Not included are one-sided genocidal massacres like those of Equatorial Guinea (1969-79) and Zimbabwe (1982-87).

[2] Barbara Harff, "Assessing Risks of Genocide and Politicide," in Monty G. Marshall and T. R. Gurr, Peace and Conflict 2005: A Global Survey of Armed Conflicts, Self-Determination Movements, and Democracy (College Park: Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland, 2005), p. 58; Jay Ulfelder and Benjamin Valentino, "Assessing the Risks of State Sponsored Mass Killings," Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) for the Political Instability Task Force, February 2008.

[3] An earlier episode in this recurring conflict was a 1988 Hutu uprising in northern Burundi in which hundreds of Tutsis were killed and as many as 20,000 Hutus were massacred in retaliation.  An earlier genocide against Hutus was carried out by Tutsis between 1965 and 1973 with a death toll estimated at 100 to 200,000.  Neither of these were wars fought by armed, organized political contenders like the 1993-2006 conflict.

[4] Much research has been done on the causes and consequences of  international meddling in internal wars.  See among many other examples Stephen Saideman, The Ties that Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy, and International Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001) and a recent overview by Monica Duffy Toft and Stephen Saideman, "Self-Determination Movements and Their Outcomes," pp. 39-50 in J. Joseph Hewitt, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, and T. R. Gurr, Peace and Conflict 2010 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009).

[5] Security guarantees have been shown in comparative studies to be crucial for reaching settlements and ensuring that wars do not resume.  One study to be recommended is Barbara F. Walter's Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).


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