What are the connections between Africa’s contemporary conflicts?

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch06 Jul 2015Annemarie van de Vijsel, Mirjam de Bruijn, Jonna Both, Karin Willemse, Han van Dijk

With so many conflicts emerging in Africa, the connections between these conflicts are becoming important. While conflicts are influenced by a diverse array of factors at local, national, regional and international levels, there is a need for policymakers to understand the way conflicts that extend across borders influence each other.

This article is the result of a conference on the ‘Governance in Connections’ (or how the connections between zones of conflict are governed), held at the Africa Studies Centre (ASC), organized in cooperation with the Leiden Institute of History, International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication and The Broker.

When examining conflicts in Africa, commonalities between the causes of these conflicts and the underlying dynamics of violence can be found. However, drawing conclusions about the linkages between cross-border conflicts should be a careful process that starts by bringing together experts from different disciplines and exploring patterns that shed light on the complex dynamics of the processes that fuel these conflicts.

Historical connections and new connectivities

Border crossings are often facilitated by existing trade and migration routes that date back to the pre-colonial (and pre-nation state) era. These may have fallen into disuse due to new modes of transport and the need for rapid movement – but they are not forgotten. The routes taken in the past by Muslims pilgrims, Islamic teachers, traders and travellers along the many trans-Saharan routes from West Africa across the desert are now used by nomadic peoples such as the Fulani and Tuareg in search of better pastures for their herds, as well as migrant workers looking for work in the region or attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Present day trans-border, regional connections are based on potential and collectively remembered connectivities through shared ethnicities, religions, ideologies or old patterns of mobility that escape national control and governance. Today these connectivities have acquired new characteristics through high-tech communication tools, such as mobile phones and the Internet. The porto-phones, which in the past were taken by force from international NGOs or security agencies, have now been replaced by easily accessible, low-cost mobile phones, which have made immediate communication about cross-border military strategies and alternative defence mechanisms possible. This has allowed for a more flexible reaction to local events, for example, in the hinterlands of Chad, Sudan and Libya, which have functioned as boundaries of refuge, allowing local refugees and rebel movements to regroup and rearm, escaping the control of governments on both sides of the border. In this case, governments have tried to regain some influence by siding with one of the warring parties.

At the same time, it seems that in these border zones new ways of connectivity have promoted ‘emancipatory’ movements. Mobility and communication studies consider connectivity the driving force behind changes in social networks and power relations. In particular, new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social media platforms enhance the spread of information, ideas, political agendas, and identities, while the low cost of these technologies make them easily accessible to all parts of society. Marginal regions have become increasingly connected, potentially leading to new patterns of identity formation and revolts. These movements are hard to repress, as infrastructural development in the form of roads and administration has lagged far behind developments in ICTs, hampering the economic and political connection of these regions to their respective state capitals. Although ICTs help to connect marginal groups and agendas, (post-) colonial infrastructural disconnections make it difficult to incorporate these movements into mainstream national political agendas.

An example of this disconnect is the war of communication between the Mouvement National de Libération d’AZAWAD (MNLA), which has been proclaiming autonomy for northern Mali, and the UN mission (MINUSMA), which is mandated to support stability there. The MNLA communicated its perspective on recent attacks more quickly than MINUSMA via its website and, as a result, has increased its popular support base among the local population at the expense of the UN mission.

The success of new ICTs across the African continent has led to an increase in the rapid exchange of ideas and support that connects especially young people, not just in border zones, but also in capital cities across the continent. Successful non-violent protest movements, such as Y’en a Marre in Senegal in 2011–2012 and Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso in 2013–2014 have inspired others through social media connectivity. The Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, as broadcast via the Internet and mobile phones, is another important example. Through the media’s depiction of these movements, young people have become aware that they can organize to demand change, making the attainability of change tangible. Protesters feel less vulnerable to state interference or mistreatment as they are being watched by the world.

ICTs are not just a way of disseminating knowledge of local power conflicts to the outside world, they also feed local communities with images of global political and social transformations and ‘modern’ consumption patterns. These images affect the aspirations of local youths. The use of violence is not always part of a carefully planned political trajectory, but is sometimes, or at the same time, an expression of frustration at the unattainability of the ‘modern lifestyles’ these young men (and women) witness through the use of ICTs, but cannot access. Thus, an interesting aspect of the violence comes to the fore, as especially young men who feel that they are not able to engage in a meaningful way in local networks of power or economic gain seem to be attracted by the army or cross-border rebel movements, new ideological formations, smuggling groups or political contesters.

Indeed young people’s inspiration for mobilization, like elsewhere, not only comes from democratic examples such as the Arab Spring or the Y’en a Marre movement in Senegal. From a disenfranchised position, young people can be especially receptive to ‘alternative’ messages and recruitment, which spread rapidly in already tense social situations. Jihadist movements, for example, widely use media propaganda, in the form of YouTube videos, among other things, to appeal to young people’s feelings of oppression and marginalization. In this sense, ICTs play a major role in recruiting young people to these causes.

The extent to which non-regional actors actively push or reinforce these new connectivities is yet to be examined. One of the recurring questions raised during the seminar was how effective government attempts are at disconnecting these people, while enhancing their governance through force, in these border zones.

Governance and connections

The focus on governance in border zones has resulted in some alternative maps of the governance of connections. One of these maps can be drawn in the Lake Chad region, where Boko Haram has become increasingly active in a wider territory, spilling over the borders of Chad and Cameroon. There are indications that Boko Haram has been able to build on relations of loyalty and support across borders, such as long-existing networks of trade, the influence of local big men, and the discontent of disenfranchised youths. By controlling access to mobile phone companies and the broadcast of violent actions in the name of a ‘pure’ Islamic society, Boko Haram has succeeded in instilling fear in local people, allowing it to violently govern northern Nigeria. Lately, the movement has been expressing its connection to the international Islamic State and is fully present on social media, in particularly on YouTube, to show its connectedness with the worldwide jihadist movement. At the same time, conflicts like these have provoked regional armies to engage across territories to combat such mobile movements. In this way, the governments of Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria are able to expand their governance across their borders, to seek specific alliances and oppose others, while also establishing themselves as regional powers to be reckoned with.

The flipside of governance though connectivity is disconnected governance. States employing development models that connect with international ideas, but that do not connect with the aspirations of their own people, are an example of connectivity and disconnectedness at the same time, leading to conflict. In Ethiopia, the donor-supported approach toward agro-pastoralists is a good example of how international standards of governance can conflict with the promotion of ‘developmentalism’ and lead to the disconnection and exclusion of the country’s own people. Another example is the case of Chad, where significant resources have been invested in building up an army to engage, among other things, in cross-border conflicts. While the Chadian president connects with international agendas and important military allies such as France, disconnectedness with the people living in poverty within the country has led to internal conflict. Here we see two different governance styles at work: one is functioning through high levels of connectivity and the other through what seems like a purposeful internal disconnection.

At the same time, lack of information about rebel groups’ strength and operations allows all kinds of parties (governments and political actors) to frame these groups according to their own interests. An example is the Lord’s Resistance Army and Allied Democratic Forces in the DRC-Uganda-CAR and South Sudan border region, which operate in the most disconnected borderlands and have been depicted in a variety of ways by the different interest groups. A lack of information on rebel groups and surrounding communities (not connected through ICTs and hiding in forest areas) allows states to downplay or exaggerate the threat posed by such armed groups according to their own strategic interests. In such cases, regions that are remote from the central seat of governance and easily attacked by rebel groups remain largely disconnected and do not seem to have the means to reach out to the world about what is really taking place. Information becomes obscured in these situations, allowing conflict to proliferate.

Local communities, especially those living in border zones, often have their own conception about who has a legitimate mandate to govern and which parties are, therefore, considered illegal (contesters or even outlaws). These local views do not always follow dominant notions about legitimized state power and coercion, but sometimes have alternative, local conceptions of who the perpetrator is and who the victim is in cross-border conflicts. This can produce alternative notions of ‘good governance’. Clusters of local groups that share interests may develop common socio-political and economic agendas that extend across state boundaries. At the same time, even when local armed resistance groups are cast as more legitimate than the national government, these alternative groups often employ similar governing mechanisms and logic as the governments they contest, whereby local communities remain on the receiving end of corruption, violence and marginalization. Hence, notions about alternative modes of governance need careful scrutiny.

Preliminary conclusions

Although the study of the governance in connection is a new field, some preliminary conclusions can be drawn:

As a broad analytical approach, the focus on governance and (dis-)connections offers an alternative perspective that draws more attention to the connected nature of regions involved in conflicts.

Complex maps of connectivity are emerging, which often correspond with older historical connections (between population groups, networks and routes), while at the same time being continuously redrawn by access to new ICTs. Hence, taking deep-rooted historical dimensions into account remains important.

‘Emancipatory movements’ in marginal regions seem better able to mobilize and connect across borders with the help of new media without being extensively controlled or governed.

Young people across the African continent seem particularly connected through the use of new media, and mobilization is not always according to more ‘democratic’ examples (such as the Arab Spring). Young people are increasingly being offered alternative models of liberation by jihadist movements, which are becoming skilled in the use of new ICTs and social media.

Rising unemployment resulting in feelings of marginalization and exclusion, and disconnection from global economic and political networks requires attention across the continent, particularly in marginal border-regions.

To prevent young men from turning to militarized movements, they need to be given a chair at the negotiating table, alongside other national and international interest groups.

States connecting to outside actors and models of development often disconnect further from their own population while reinforcing their international legitimacy.

In zones where state power becomes weak, new and alternative forms of governance often emerge, which no longer adhere to state boundaries. These dynamics can be observed even in seemingly strong states such as Chad.

The abilities of states or alternative governing groups to control and repress means of communication and people’s ways of circumventing these and their ability to stay ‘connected’ seem to differ across countries and demands further research.

The workshop was made possible with support of: ASC (African Studies Centre Leiden), LUF (Leiden University Fund/van Steeden Fund), ICCT (International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, The Hague), Connecting in Times of Duress, Leiden University, Grounding Land Governance, NWO, VICI and NWO-WOTRO.


  1. M. de Bruijn & R. van Dijk (eds), The social life of connectivity in Africa, MacMillan, 2012.
  2. K. Willemse, 2009. ‘The Darfur War: Masculinity and the construction of a Sudanese national identity.’ In S. Hassan & C. Ray (Eds.), Darfur and the crisis of governance in Sudan. A critical Reader (London: Cornell University Press), pp. 213-233; K. Willemse, 2005. ‘Darfur in War: The Politicisation of Ethnic Identities?’ ISIM Review 15, Spring 2005, pp. 14-15.