Africa's Scramble for Africa: Lessons of a Continental War

The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which began in August 1998, is unprecedented-at times involving armies from eight African states. Soldiers from Chad are fighting alongside regiments from Namibia, Angola, and Zimbabwe in defense of President Laurent Kabila. And on offense, the two main rebel groups, the Congolese Assembly for Democracy (which is known by the acronym RCD) and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), are backed by troops from Uganda and Rwanda. As Susan E. Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, warned the House International Relations Committee in September 1998, "The fighting threatens regional stability, hampers economic progress, endangers the lives of millions of people, perpetuates human rights abuses, and impedes the democratic transformation of Africa's third-largest country." This war, Rice said, is potentially "among the most dangerous conflicts on the globe."

Yet, the war in Congo goes on almost unnoticed outside of Africa. While African heads of state spent much of the last year shuttling across the continent, wrestling with the crisis and searching for a peaceful solution, Congo has been largely missing from the agendas of the Western powers and multilateral organizations. Only in January, when the U.S. representative to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, taking advantage of his tenure as Security Council president to draw attention to Africa, did the war enter Western consciousness.

The conflict in the DRC is the first interstate war in sub-Saharan Africa since Uganda invaded Tanzania in 1978, and only the third since 1960. Although Africa is seen as a hotbed of violence and warfare, most conflicts have been intrastate in nature. Norms of sovereignty reinforced by clauses in the charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the constitutions of the various subregional organizations have effectively prevented cross-border conflict from the time of independence until now. The Ugandan and Rwandan-led invasion of Congo, as well as the presence there of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) intervention force, therefore represents a watershed in the recent history of African conflict. It appears that the forces preventing cross-border conflict since 1960 have become seriously weakened.

What are the implications of the rise of interstate war in Africa for peace and security on the continent? Why have Western powers been so reluctant to take an active role in resolving Africa's first "world war"? And what impact will the changing nature of warfare in Africa have on U.S. policy and the role of the United Nations there?