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Volume 9 Number 1
1 February 2000

During the Cold War, regional conflicts were internationalised, subsumed within the superpower competition and controlled to avoid escalation into nuclear conflict. In the process, the strategic relevance of regions such as Africa was elevated as part of the global chessboard. At the beginning of the 21st century, the situation is much changed. Africa has lost its strategic relevance and the fragility of many African countries have been exposed. Apart from humanitarian concerns, only selected areas with exploitable natural resources demand the attention of the more powerful companies and countries. Regional conflicts are now more likely to stay regional without a direct impact on global security concerns.

A new paradigm appears to be emerging with both donors and African countries subverting the central role that many assumed the UN would perform at a global level. Africans are frustrated by so-called donor neglect and the differential treatment of conflicts in Kosovo and East Timor as opposed to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Rwanda and the DRC. The result is a move towards the establishment of regional security arrangements and peacekeeping forces, supported by a number of donor countries that want to assistant subregional organisations such as ECOWAS and SADC, instead of relying on the UN and the international system.

Although the chance of global war has receded, regional tensions have increased. Many have assumed both an internal and a regional character in Africa as the weakness of states was exposed after the removal of the scaffolding of colonialism and the Cold War. As time passed, many African states have contracted inward, reflecting the urban limits of governance and a rural neglect that renders international boundaries meaningless. African states are weaker than ever before with conflict increasing rather than decreasing.

At the interstate level, the strategic problem in Africa is not deterrence, but reassurance. Unlike deterrence, which relies on strategic interaction between opposing states, the key to reassurance is reliable normative and institutional structures. The appropriate framework for weak countries is that of a comprehensive approach to regional security and stability that emphasises transparency, confidence-building and the co-operative engagement of neighbours — building on an approach that provides domestic security first. The challenge is thus not collective defence, but collaborative security that focuses away from the role of the armed forces.

In seeking to support the establishment of subregional peacekeeping forces, donor countries are looking at capacitating weak states to provide security in the region where these states cannot do so within their own territory. Basic stability and law and order must be a first priority in a country that wishes to provide the same in its neighbourhood. Encouraging undemocratic weak states to assist other such states in the provision of security without a significant involvement of the international community in an oversight role may have unintended consequences over time. One such consequence may further strengthen external involvement in the affairs of others while continuing to allow poor countries to expend significant scarce resources on the maintenance of security agencies with an essentially non-domestic security orientation

Ironically, a real focus on non-interference by African countries and leaders in the internal security affairs of their neighbours is probably the greatest contribution that African leaders can make to stability on the continent.