Total deaths in African conflicts drop but flare-ups still feared


Total fatalities dropped in Africa’s conflicts last year mainly due to significantly fewer war deaths in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. A survey by the London based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported last week that total fatalities in African conflicts were down by 21 percent on the previous year to 26 600.

While metrics such as body counts and refugee numbers are useful indicators, the larger picture portrayed in the report is one of a series of long festering conflicts which go through periods of intense violence. There is little evidence in the report to show that outright military victories or durable peace settlements are in the offing in the case of current African conflicts.

Last year government forces in Nigeria and Somali were able to regain ground, but in these conflicts the insurgents have since changed tactics from holding ground to often going for softer targets, making it difficult for government forces to achieve decisive victory.

Data in the Institute’s Armed Conflict Survey 2016 showed a drop in fatalities also occurred in Libya and Mali. The number of fatalities rose in all the other regional conflicts – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria against Boko Haram, the conflict in the Niger Delta, Somalia, and Darfur in Sudan.

Fatalities are defined in the Survey as “military, insurgent, and civilian lives lost as a direct result of armed conflict.” The IISS says that in some cases the fatality data are estimated, but where available are derived from publicly available information, including press reports, and the annual assessments of international organisations.

Apart from the Central African Republic, where fatalities dropped with the process of reconciliation, fighting in none of the other conflict zones was viewed by the IISS as lowering in its intensity.

With 11 000 fatalities last year, up by 57 percent, the conflict with Boko Haram is the continent’s most serious. The Boko Haram insurgency is ranked in the report as the fifth most severe conflict in terms of numbers of deaths after the wars in Syria, Central America, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Last year global conflict related fatalities were 167 000, of which 55 000 were in Syria.

In the areas where Boko Haram operates, the intensity of fighting remains high. Since January last year, when Boko Haram massacred around 2 000 civilians in the town of Baga and displaced thousands of residents, there have been significant gains against the insurgents. Despite the Nigerian army recapturing the towns taken by Boko Haram in 2014, the campaign is far from “technically” won, contrary to claims by the government, the Survey notes.
“One of the key challenges in the fight against Boko Haram remained the group’s capacity to adapt and change tactics,” the report says. The group has taken up guerrilla warfare and has resorted to burning, homes, killing indiscriminately and kidnapping young people. “It seemed possible that Boko Haram’s increased use of women and children indicated weakness within the group, as it resorted to forcibly recruiting civilians chosen at random, as well as hiding bombs near beggars on the street.” This has made it more difficult to prevent attacks and for the military to adapt to Boko Haram’s tactics.

This assessment is largely in accord with that given by the International Crisis Group in its report “Boko Haram on the Back Foot?” released last week. The Crisis Group report says the group is, “unlikely to be eliminated in a decisive battle.”

In Somalia, the Survey reports that al-Shabaab has increasingly resorted to suicide attacks in the face of offensives by government forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia. The big change last year in the conflict is the emergence of a divide among the leadership of al Shabaab on the matter of whether or not to maintain their allegiance to al Qaeda.

The drop in conflict related deaths in South Sudan last year was the result of efforts to implement the peace agreement between the government of President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, the former Vice-President. Machar has since returned and was sworn in as first vice-president in a new unity government last month. “Any optimism that surrounded the deal was tempered by the memory of at least seven failed ceasefire agreements and there remained significant doubt about the willingness of both the Sudanese government and the opposition to honour its terms,” the Survey noted.

The Survey has not covered Burundi, where according to Reuters last week, a police report said more than 450 people have been killed in the unrest that began a year ago. Burundi’s crisis was sparked by the plans of the country’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza, to run for a third-term. Much of the ensuing violence has been ethnically based and has raised international concerns of a rekindling of the country’s civil war.