State of Peace and Security in Africa 2017: Little or No Change


By Olusegun Obasanjo  |

FOR the sixth time, I would like to extend another round of warm welcome to another edition of the Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa. I will not hesitate to note, with immense appreciations, that the Forum has established itself as a front-runner gathering in the calendar of high-profile events of its kind specifically addressing broad issues of peace and security, especially as they concern the African continent. I personally believe- and I imagine many of you must share my conviction- that with the myriad peace and security issues confronting our continent, the importance of this Forum for the frank exchange of ideas and in the search for creative solutions is assured.

As it has become our Tana Forum tradition and custom for me to give a panoramic view of state of peace and security in Africa to begin our presentations, discussions, deliberations and conclusions, I will maintain that tradition. But Before I take you along my journey of current Africa peace and security situation, let me heartily welcome you all to Bahir Dar, the home of Tana Forum, with all its allure and enchantment and I hope that in the next two days, you will relax, refresh, be re-invigorated, be informed, and be inspired. Let me remind you of the informality of Tana and the mutual learning process it provides.

Let me begin by casting my net wide. We cannot but be globalists because whatever happens anywhere else in the world has implications for us in Africa. We must therefore think globally while we act continentally to ensure peace and security in Africa as a crucial contribution to global peace and security.

Since our last gathering here, some water has passed under the bridge elsewhere in the world which we cannot afford to ignore. The first was the heavily increased outflow of migrants from Africa and Middle-East to Europe and the effect it had on the political and social landscape of Europe. The phenomenon remains with us as the causes of migration from the countries of origin are still very much there. The next issue flowing directly or indirectly from migration is what is regarded as rising populism and abandonment of liberal attitude or de-globalisation in favour of diminishing integration leading to Brexit in June last year. Admiring Brexit and using it to campaign in the U.S was the emergence of President Donald Trump, who against popular run of the mail became the 45th President of America with his populism, America First etc and the unknowns and the apprehensions about his presidency. There is a lot of disquiet about French election. All these cast dark cloud on the horizon of world peace, security, stability and solidarity especially as they are superimposed on the war in Syria which has now lasted more than six years, the situations in Iraq and Yemen. We are moving from the fairly liberal, stable if not totally predictable world to an unstable, unpredictable, populist, world with disequilibrium. There is danger for every nation and for every region in such a world. And Africa by virtue of its apparent weakness cannot wish for such a world where it will be a pawn and a victim especially in light of our current precarious peace and security situation.


A Snapshot of Peace and Security Trends in 2016

Before delving into our theme for the year on natural resource governance, permit me to provide the usual panoramic overview of Africa’s peace and security landscape in 2016. Permit me, therefore, to share with you some indicative headline:

In 2016, the overall number of conflict and violent events in Africa stood at 17,539; only two more than in the previous year even though their cumulative intensity and impacts remained dangerously high;

In 2016, the number of large scale wars and field battles either stagnated or declined while the continent witnessed an implosion in the number of non-state conflict agents such as militias, vigilantes, violent extremist groups and spontaneous movements (protesters) vis-à-vis the intensity of violence they perpetrate;

In 2016, countries like Libya, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria that have experienced long-standing violent conflicts also recorded the highest number of conflict events; with the four mentioned accounting for one-thirds of all violent conflict on the continent during the same year, slightly decreasing from 35% and 40% in 2015 and 2014, respectively;

In 2016, Africa witnessed a marked change in the character of armed conflict and violence as they became more diffused and dispersed with the spread of mass protests and militia activities.

In 2016, the numbers of so-called ‘low-intensity’ conflicts or ‘quasi-war’ situations increased as witnessed in Mozambique, Burundi, Cameroon, Nigeria, the DRC, Northern Mali, and those along border regions throughout the Sahel region where the writ of the state is minimal or non-existent. Unfortunately, due to scanty media coverage those equally deadly episodes of internecine violent rooted in unresolved or badly managed historical-political grievances mostly escaped public attention;

2016 was also a year of multiple riots, protests and socio-political anomies, with a 5% increase over the previous with outbreaks in Tunisia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Mali, Gabon, Cameroon, Chad and the Gambia, to mention a few. Sadly, those popular expressions witnessed where matched by the growing securitization of protests as many governments embarked on crackdowns, arbitrary arrests and detentions, shutdown of communication systems, to mention a few;

2016 witnessed a marked decline in reported cases of rape and gender-based violence in the DRC as well as in countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, CAR and the DRC.

2016 witnessed the highest number of migrants’ death in the Mediterranean with the number of casualties and missing persons from the multitude seeking to cross into Europe through North Africa, especially from Libya, topping 5,098; or 35% above the 2015 levels. On average, to quote the UNHCR, 14 people die every single day in 2016 trying to cross the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean;

In 2016, finally, the scale of human fatalities from multiple sources that included those from organised armed conflict events was estimated at 30,000, a decrease by 6,000 from the previous year’s levels. Even at that, civilians continued to be targeted or caught in crossfires to the extent that violence against civilians across the continent increased for the second year in a row to 45%, up by three percentage points from 2014 levels.

From the brief synopsis so far, I would like to draw out three unmistakable points about the peace and security challenges that Africa faced in 2016: (1) Conflicts is a ‘wicked’ problem; (2) Violence in and outside of formal armed conflicts the real problem; and (3) From Africa Rising to ‘Africans Rising.’


Conflicts as a ‘wicked’ problem

I recollect my speech at this same podium last year where I drew your attention to the dangerous resurgence of old conflicts across the continent. Sad to say, my conclusions then are still relevant today to the extent that some of the issues, problems and predictions made then have become self-fulfilling prophesies. My intent is not to celebrate them as prophecies but return to them as a way of redirecting our attention to the complex realities of managing and resolving seemingly intractable Africa’s security challenges. By returning to then, also, I hope we can better grasp the enduring impacts of the structural weaknesses that underlie much of the old conflicts and security challenges facing Africa. In 2016, there was neither movement nor motion towards peace in major theatres of conflicts such as Libya, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, Central Africa Republic, to name a few. Across board, several genuine peace and reconciliation efforts were thwarted by several failed attempts to implement peace agreements, continued belligerency among actors, and the absence of political will.

Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen, much more than any other conflict in 2016, that in Africa’s newest country- South Sudan- made the headlines for the wrong reasons. In my view, South Sudan is a poster example of the ‘wicked’ nature of the peace and security challenges Africa faces, with some of the narrowest scope for peace and security in the immediate term. Permit me to illustrate my point further by recalling how political tensions and inter-ethnic acrimony escalated into full-scale violence in Juba, the capital, following armed clashes between the SPLM government forces and SPLM-IO troops in July 2016.

The forced exit of Vice President Riek Machar from Juba, as you know, triggered new rounds of clashes and bloodletting that setback the implementation of the August 2015 peace agreement brokered by IGAD. The immediate trigger was the deadlock over plans by the government to change from the 10-provinces plan contained in the peace agreement to a 28 state structure, but even that is rooted in historically fault-lines and structural blind-spots in the character of the conflict, the nature of peace agreements and the current approaches and priorities of mediation and conflict resolution activities in Africa.

Sadly, there are other pockets of low-level violent contestations among local communities over ownership of land and identities, boundaries delimitation, land grabbing, and dwindling access to grazing compounded by lingering effects of adverse climate change and limited adaptive capacities. The collapse of South Sudan’s economy in 2016 further increased social tensions and dampened the prospects of peace. The latest fighting quickly led to the internal displacement of 1.6million persons, with another one million or more scattering as refugees across neighbouring countries to the extent that the overall number of people facing risk of food insecurity to over 4.8million.

Violence in and outside of formal armed conflicts the real problem: In previous editions of the Tana Forum, the geography of violence was recognised as one of emerging concern in Africa. There was a greater evidence of this in 2016 as armed violence is no longer the preserve of fragile and conflict-affected states but also a more frequent occurrence in supposedly stable and middle-income countries that were previously supposed to be immune. In that year alone, there were several cases of ‘low-intensity’ or ‘quasi-war’ situations in areas farther from major capitals, cities and towns where civilians and their livelihoods were routinely targeted and disrupted. Notable examples include Mozambique, Burundi, Cameroon, Nigeria, DRC, Northern Mali, and border regions across the Sahel.

We hardly ever read, hear or watch them in the mainstream media but they have remained vociferous and deadly, especially for civilians caught in the crossfires. They have variously become proxy wars, a part of the network of complex alliances among armed groups, or simply outcrops of wider conflicts and deadlocked peace processes. In all, they are deeply rooted in unresolved or badly managed historical-political grievances just as they have become extremely fluid in responding to short term triggers such as policy changes, electoral disputes, and particular arrest or brutality and/ or killings by security officials.

Again, as noted in my speech last year, armed clashes escalated between the ruling FRELIMO government and the opposition RENAMO in 2016. The current episode was triggered by disputed elections in 2014, and RENAMO’s demand for the right to set up autonomous government in the provinces it won majority seats. It is also linked to the control of lucrative trade routes in and around RENAMO strongholds in the north. In 2016 alone, 92 political violence events were recorded in 10 provinces; up from 19 across 6 provinces in 2015.  Crucially, the attacks linked to RENAMO in 2016 spread to provinces across the north and central regions, especially places where it had rarely or never been carried out attacks since 2013. There have also been reprisal violence against RENAMO and people suspected of supporting the group accumulating in violence against civilians increasing by 700% while civilian fatalities has doubled over the past two decades.

There are other examples that should be watched in the months ahead as they are capable of quickly getting out hand. In Cameroon, for instance, spontaneous protests and clashes with security forces erupted in the last quarter of 2016 in English-speaking regions in the Northwest and Southwest over the protection of Anglo-Saxon language and cultural heritage. In Nigeria, there have been multiple cases of atomized violence especially those involving nomadic herdsmen and farmers in the central regions, and the resurgence of armed groups in the Niger Delta. In the Middle Belt region, an estimated 30 attacks took place July-September 2016 between farmers and herders with over 222 deaths and several injuries recorded. In these cases, natural resource issues related to land and hydrocarbon resources were major triggers but they are embedded in deeper structural problems around resource control and identities.

Every well-meaning African and friends of the continent should therefore be concerned that growing cases of atomised violence not only reveal the true scale and challenge of violence in Africa but also the prospects that they might witness an upsurge in the short to medium terms. I am troubled, though, that several a number of African government are themselves culpable in the outbreak of such conflicts. It is also clear to me that such violence exposes the limitation of current peace-building approaches fixated disproportionately on macro-level violent conflicts to the neglect on smaller and seemingly disconnected pockets of violent expressions.

From Africa Rising to ‘Africans Rising’ The outbreak of fresh and old protests in Tunisia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Mali, Gabon and Chad in 2016 implied that they could no longer be ignored in any serious discussion of peace and security in Africa. We have seen how the increasing use of protests, or ‘street power’, to express dissatisfaction and dissent or to demand changes in socio-economic and political condition, have produced mixed results. The bitter and hard lessons Presidents Blaise Compaore and Yaya Jammeh must have learned is that the fear of street protesters have now become the beginning of wisdom for many governments in Africa. Unfortunately, from Cameroon to Morocco, governments have not shown the temperament to embrace dialogue and accommodation. Rather, they have replied by mobilizing a repertoire of intimidating options to repress opposition elements, and to strangulate mainstream and new media.

In all honesty, we should not lump these protests together given that they differ from one country to another in terms of causes, demands and responses by governments. Nonetheless, they all reflect the widening of structural fault-lines linked to inequality, economic hardships, and the foreclosure of civil liberties. In 2016, economic issues linked to tax rises, inflation, poor social service delivery, withdrawal of subsidies and rising cost of living triggered riots and protests in Sudan, South Sudan, Namibia, South Africa, Libya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe. Political issues such as corruption and poor governance, group-based inequalities, human rights violations, limited civil liberties, elections, and manipulation of constitutional term limits also prompted protests in Cameroon, DRC, Gambia, Gabon, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

It is not very clear if it was merely a coincidence, or an indication of deeper structural resilience linked to embedded norms of democracy and good governance, that West Africa was the least affected by street protests compared to other regions. In 2016, South Africa and Tunisia recorded the highest of such protests in Africa. Virtually all the countries in North Africa. From Algeria to Egypt, witnessed protest activity in 2016, reaffirming the same trend that started five years earlier in 2011.

What these incidences tell us, in the first instance, is that street protests have become a metaphor for popular expressions of powerlessness. In another sense, they represent ‘new’ ways of asserting citizens power. Either way, I think the rise in their numbers could be a sign of progress, regardless of the subsisting challenges. After all, these protests appear to have increased at the same time that the number of full-scale armed conflicts are decreasing, or flattening out. Could it be that less costlier street protests are replacing armed conflicts on the continent? It also becomes a sign of progress given that most recent protests are short-lived, episodic and record fewer fatalities relative to armed conflicts.

For as long as they could be used to renegotiate the social contract, check the excesses of incumbents of power, and generally hold governments accountable, the mass protests witnessed in 2016 could also reflect a broader global trend of rise in populist ideas and impulses, and the ascent of what the Munich Security Conference calls a ‘Post-Order’ system. Still, the possibility of protests spiralling out of control and leading to major armed conflicts cannot be discounted.

Overall, no one should be left in doubts that the political consciousness- and consequences- associated with demands for good governance are increasing across Africa due to a number of factors such as growth in internet penetrability to progress in school enrolment and literacy rate, higher rural-urban migration, rapid urbanization, and the substantive role of diaspora groups in the politics of their home countries. That the transformation of protests into street power might, with time, shift the epicentre of political power and the balance of sovereignty from regimes to citizens could have far-reaching implications for state-society relations across Africa. Very much like the paradox of progress that attended the achievement of industrial and information age, street protests have come to stay but whether or not they are able to deliver danger or better opportunities in equal measure is inconclusive.

Let me now make a few remarks in relation to our thematic focus for this year’s Tana Forum on natural resource governance and security in Africa. I am sure most of you would have had the chance to peruse the concept note on the theme focusing on practices, conventions and statutes relating to ownership, exploitation and distribution of natural resources, and how they connect with the peace and security challenges facing the continent. The issue of natural resource governance has assumed greater salience over the last two decade, with contrasting epithets such as ‘resource curse’, ‘blood diamonds’, ‘greed and grievance’, ‘new scramble’, and lately ‘Africa Rising’, to illustrate the challenges and opportunities that come with natural resources exploitation in Africa.

The existence and exploitation of natural resources is a key determinant of the wellbeing of resource-rich African countries. As the economic livewire of several of them, it is inevitable that transformations in global economic production should have multiplier effects, for good or bad, on the demand and importance of Africa’s natural resource at home and abroad. The continent’s natural resource landscape have attracted a wide range of national, multinational and state-backed foreign companies seeking to capitalize on the surge in demand and incentives offered by governments in many Africa countries. It is not surprising that even with the risks or actual presence of violent conflicts in places where natural resources are found and exploited, enthusiasm to invest have not diminished or significantly changed the pattern of Africa’s international relations at bilateral and multilateral levels.

It is clear to me that different layers of old and new contestations exist over the exploitation of natural resources in Africa. Such contestations have pitched governments against resource-bearing communities while in others instances locked host communities against local and foreign companies. In many others, still, contestations have occurred between and among different local communities, or brewed tension and conflict among political elites. Regardless, the way and manner natural resources are exploited and how revenues from them are harnessed and expended have allowed social and political divisions to fester in ways that many countries cannot expect to focus on best practices.

Those, like me, who have insisted that the last four centuries of global industrialisation have been partly built on the back of the extraction and processing of natural resources from Africa have been proved right. There is no question the familiar narrative of a continent on the margins of global society conceals a broader pattern of relations which link Africa to the rest of the world through its natural resources. This link has generated billions of dollars in trade, and has facilitated the evolution of a densely connected or networked world. Yet, the impact of natural resources on the continent itself has been far from flattering as the presence of resources has generated violent conflict, distorted local livelihoods and even doomed the march of civilisation. The question we are confronted with, and hopefully one that should engage our attention this weekend, are multiple folds but generally should be on why natural resources- land, water, minerals, oceans, forests, have had such a mixed and contradictory impact on Africa.

Excellences, distinguished participants, let me draw out three main ways of responding to the important issue; hoping that you would add more during the different sessions of this Sixth Tana Forum.

There appears to be a linkage between broader governance deficits and those specifically linked to the governance of natural resources in Africa. This, in my view, partly explains why weakness in governance happens despite (or perhaps because of) the centrality of natural resources to the economic and political life of many African states. It is in such countries, for instance, that the entire value-chance process involved in natural resource exploitation, is by far the most opaque and mostly mired in corruption.

From my own experience in public service spanning six decades, the second reason for the mixed impact of natural resources on development is the high levels of dependence on foreign technologies, capital and managerial know-how in that sector. How then can African states endowed with natural resources expect to maintain the levels of regulation and transparency required in the best interest of everyday people when they are held captive by foreign capital, technology and interests? Even when global norms of good governance (such as the Kimberley Process for Diamond) are introduced, they often simultaneously undermine the agency of local actors in ways that ultimately encourage violent conflict.

Finally, natural resources have been bad for Africa because of the adverse environmental impacts that their extraction continues to have on local host communities. One of the most obvious examples, sadly, is the Niger Delta region of Nigeria where decades of oil exploration has resulted in a blighted environment.

It is a well-established fact that the presence of natural resources has had a direct and devastating correlation with violent conflicts in Africa. Occurring as they do within political climates that border on repressiveness and in which democratic inclusion is hardly a priority, natural resources have become one of the most potent triggers for intractable violence on the continent, even when its initial causes are political, religious or ethnic. As a result of the immense wealth associated with illicit extraction and trade in natural resources, there is almost no incentive to accept any peaceful settlement that may return resource extraction back into the control of legitimate authorities or impose greater scrutiny on resource governance.

The illicit flows and laundering of conflict resources also allow otherwise legitimate business concerns and channels, particularly the international financial system, to become actively involved, albeit from a distance. Finally, as Wikileaks and the Panama Papers have shown, foreign governments are also sometimes complicit in this as the many upheavals of the 1960s in the Congo suggest.

Invariably, Excellences and my distinguished audience, the issues so far highlight the importance of building robust governance regimes to guide natural resources extraction and revenue generation. The way I see it, at least four key criteria must be fulfilled going forward:

There must be an understanding among stakeholders that the interest of everyday people in all of its economic, democratic, environmental and cultural ramifications must be respected and placed at the epicentre of extraction and distribution processes;

There must be transparency in the way proceeds from natural resources are governed, with schemes like the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) and Publish What You Pay (PWYP) pointing in the right direction;

There must be a conscious decision to ensure that natural resources are exploited in a manner that is efficient and sustainable.

There is need for any viable natural resource governance architecture to the drive ownership and inclusion of local people and make real efforts to increase their involvement and participation.

I believe that any natural resource governance architecture that incorporates these four criteria will mark a radical departure from the ratnbher unacceptable norm currently in place and go further to break the long-drawn jinx between resource curse and violent conflicts in Africa. After all, natural resource governance issues are themselves linked to many of the broader political, economic and social issues that governments and their citizens contend with on daily basis.

Conclusions: Some progress, regardless

Excellences, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, before I draw the curtain on my statement on the African peace and security landscape in 2016, I would like to be clear that it was not all about chaos and setbacks during the past year but also one of several positive vibes. In that year, Africa reached several key milestones in managing insecurity and resolving conflicts. Notwithstanding the scale of violence and collateral fatalities, African states and institutions such as the AU and RECs were active in preventing, de-escalating and forging politically negotiated solutions to violence and conflict situations.

In Gabon, Burundi, Libya, Sudan and recently, the Gambia, the prospect of open armed confrontation or surge in the scale and intensity of violent clashes was averted or moderated through proactive mediation and political settlement initiatives. African states and institutions were able to develop and use strategies and approaches to preventing and managing conflict and security challenges that were consistent with the historical, social, political and institutional realities of African states. As the President of the ECOWAS Commission rightly noted regarding the Gambia, for instance, “[The] operations… took place without shedding of blood, without any casualty, and without any foreign intervention whatsoever. This is a clear indication that Africa can face her own challenges and find solutions to her problems.” A true example of African solution to African problem.

Despite what some might regard as political stalemate in Burundi, AU engagements still recorded major breakthroughs that should be given credence, including the acceptance to establish an Inter-Burundian Dialogue, with the consent of Bujumbura. That decision paved way to double the number of human rights observers in the country to 200 and to restart dialogue with opposition groups. I believe that the AU and EAC engagements, if given the attention it deserves, are capable of easing the political temperature in Burundi and becoming the foundation for a viable political settlement in the medium- and long-terms. It should not come as a surprise that in spite of the volatile political and security conditions worsened by the dire humanitarian situation, Burundi recorded a decrease in the number of conflict events from 847 in 2015 to 784 in 2016 just as conflict-related fatalities dropped by 56%.

Other cases of progress in conflict resolution efforts include the one in the DRC where a peace deal was reaches between the ruling party under the central government and opposition groups over a new timeline for elections in 2017, the composition of a transitional cabinet and the continued stay in power until elections of President Kabila. But it is not Uhuru yet in DRC. DRC situation must be on the watch list.

In Somalia, negotiations involving Somaliland, Khatumo state, and Pundtland over contested provinces has commenced in earnest. Several ceasefire and peace deal agreements have been reached leading to the withdrawal of armed militias from contested areas. It was in the face of an empire of odds that the country recently held its first nationwide general elections in decades and a new government formed.

Let us also not forget that it took the governments of Sudan and South Sudan many false starts to sign a new peace deal focusing on financial issues, security measures and border demarcation. The deal has now paved the way for the reduction in oil transmission fees, resumption of trade and transport, renewed commitments to halt support to armed groups, redeployment of joint military forces along the Demilitarized Border Zone, reopening of border posts and crossings, and the establishment of direct communication between the two countries.

There were further signs across Africa of strategic containment- and in some cases, of actual rollback- of the presence of violent extremist groups. In 2016, the threats posed by violent extremist groups such as the Boko Haram Movement, Al Shabaab, and AQIM were either neutralized or reduced. By the end of that year, majority of the continent’s violent extremist groups experienced one or more of the following: the loss of territory and constricting spaces to operate, degraded capability to undertake ‘audacious’ and high-profile attacks, loss of fighters, collapsed or limited support base and fighting infrastructures, etc. They have now reduced their activities to the launch of sporadic guerrilla attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombings targeting ‘soft’ civilian targets such as hotels, schools, markets, and social functions.

Let us, even at that, not lose sight that the Sahel corridor appears to buck the trend described, though, with less evidence of containment or rollback in Northern Mali and border communities in Mauritania, Niger and Algeria where violent extremist groups appear to have expanded their operational perimeter into Central and Southern Mali, and in Niger, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. We must not ignore, also, the home truth that our best of efforts have neither extinguished extremism nor diminished their potent appeal to young Africans. We are, invariably, left with a difficult and ominous paradox; that of winning the minds presenting us with a greater challenge than winning the war.

Finally, Africa must prepare itself to handle and solve most of its problems by itself in a world of rising populism, inward-looking and diminishing liberalism. This means cooperation, integration, and experience-sharing with common security, common prosperity, stability, cohesion, equality, justice, development and growth.

“State of Peace and Security in Africa 2017: Little or No Change” being a presentation by Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria and Chairperson of the Tana Forum Board at the 6th Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa 22-23 April 2017, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia


1 See, Africa Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED) 2017

2 United Nations Security Council Report. 2016. November 2016 Monthly Forecast for South Sudan.

3 ACLED (2017) Conflict Trends No. 55, p. 7.

4 ACLED.2016. Real time Analysis of African Political Violence, October 2016. Conflict Trends No.52, p. 6,

5 Munich Security Report 2017, pp. 7-8.

6 USA National Intelligence Council (2017) Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, p. ix.

 7 See ECOWAS (2017) ‘ECOWAS Commission President welcomes the Peaceful outcome of the post-electoral crisis in The Gambia’, 24 January 2017,

8 ACLED (February 2017) Conflict Trends No 55, p. 4.

9 HIIK 2017, Conflict Barometer 2016, p. 58.

—  May 8, 2017 @ 01:00 GMT


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