Sub-Saharan Africa

In the post-Cold War world, the United States has few substantial security interests in sub-Saharan Africa; with the possible exception of South Africa, the region does not figure centrally in U.S. international political and geostrategic calculations. Yet, for several decades, the probability of U.S. force deployment to Africa has remained consistently high--although most interventions are relatively small-scale contingency operations of short duration. And that is likely to remain the case indefinitely because of:

Background and Trends

The end of the Cold War has had profound effects on Africa. On the positive side, it has:

On the negative side, it has:

Africa's Wars and Conflicts 1980­96

Source: Adapted and updated from Raymond W. Copson, Africa's Wars and Prospects for Peace.

Democracy and Economic Growth

The worldwide trend toward democracy is evident in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1989, only four states were considered democratic; in the next seven years, forty of forty-eight sub-Saharan countries began the process of democratization. About 20 nations that could be considered democracies have been established, while another 20 nations could be considered in transition to democracy. As of fall 1996, seven nations were expecting transitional elections within the next twelve months. There are, of course, also reversals and setbacks. In Nigeria, the Gambia, Niger and Burundi, democratic processes have been reversed by the military. In other cases--e.g., Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Sudan--movement toward freely elected democratic governments has been delayed or disrupted by internal conflict.

Africa's modest economic progress is significant because it reverses the negative trend of 1980­1992. In 1996, the economic success of a number of African countries is due to conditions of security and stability, a policy environment conducive to investment and growth, and government implementation of macroeconomic reforms, such as:

The International Monetary Fund has predicted that Africa will experience a 5% growth in gross domestic product in 1996, and that African countries would experience lower inflation and other benefits of structure reform.

Islamic Extremism

A number of countries in the region retain colonial political boundaries based on conquest, ease of administration, or economics instead of coherent ethnic or religious lines. As the colonial period ended, the new nations that emerged in the northern part of the continent (the Sahel and some states to its south) were populated in the north by Muslims and in the south by people of other religions.

In a number of states, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism provides a fertile field for the development of radical fundamentalism and could lead to closer ties with elements the United States has branded as terrorists, especially in Iran, Iraq, and Libya. In other cases, the radicalized Islamic state could become a threat to its own neighbors. A possible example is Sudan, which has been accused of plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Mubarak last year. The UN has already imposed diplomatic sanctions against Sudan and threatened sanctions against Sudan Airways if three Egyptians suspected in the assassination attempt are not extradited from Sudan.

Civil War and Ethnic Disorder

All ten major conflicts in Africa after 1980 were waged largely or entirely within a country or territory of one country and involved fighting between government forces and the armed forces of one or more internal resistance movements. In 1996, a state of armed conflict existed in Sudan, Liberia, Somalia, Northern Uganda, and the Zaire-Rwanda-Burundi border region. Conflicts in Angola and Sierra Leone appear to be approaching peaceful--but shaky--conclusions. The frequency of ethnically-focused, intrastate conflict in Africa should not lead to the impression that tribal warfare is unique to the continent. Tribal or ethnic warfare and abuse can be found around the globe, whether in the current Balkan war in Europe, persecution of minorities in and around China, or persecution of the Kurds by their Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish neighbors.

Refugees and Displaced Persons

In the 1990s, the problems of refugees and internally displaced persons grew dramatically, stressing neighboring countries, international relief agencies, and aid donors and leading to tensions along the borders of the countries involved. As of December 1995, Africa had some 5.2 million refugees and almost 10.2 million internally displaced persons, representing, respectively, some 34 and 48 percent of the world totals and constituting a tremendous economic and financial burden on the world's poorest region, even with international assistance.

Potential Flashpoints

Rwanda and Burundi

The conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi exemplify ethnic strife leading to civil war. The horrific abuses accompanying the civil war in Rwanda between the Tutsi ethnic minority, which ruled in precolonial times, and the Hutu majority drew in a reluctant international community too late to stop the genocide. Neighboring Burundi suffers from similar ethnic tensions, mounting ethnic violence, and deep divisions over the distribution of power between the Tutsi, who dominate politically and economically, and the Hutu, who hold little power. In both countries, the ethnic groups (pre-genocide) were approximately 89% Hutu, 14% Tutsi and 1% Tuva.

Africa's Wars and Conflicts 1980­96


Belgian colonial authorities preparing for departure from Rwanda in 1959 were convinced that Tutsi nationalists were too radical, so they put the Hutu in control. Thousands of Tutsis fled to neighboring countries. After independence in 1962, a cycle of Tutsi cross-border raids and Hutu gang attacks continued until a large, well-trained, and well-equipped force of Rwandan Tutsi soldiers in the Ugandan military, calling themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), crossed into Rwanda in 1990 as the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA). Only the arrival of French and Belgian troops stopped the RPA's march to the capital. A new RPF offensive in 1991 resulted in international calls for a negotiated settlement, an Organization of African Unity (OAU) monitoring group, a 1993 accord calling for an all-party government, and a small international peacekeeping force. Initially in June 1993, that force was the UN Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR); in October 1993, it became the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR).

In 1994, after a plane crash killed the president of Rwanda and the president of Burundi (who was a guest on the plane), a well-prepared and well-organized genocide was launched by the Hutu-dominated government. Even though the RPA fought its way to the capital, taking control of the government after about three months, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were massacred throughout the country. The international community took no effective action, and UN military personnel in the country were ordered not to intervene. The Hutu army of the previous government was escorted to Zaire by French forces, where they established base areas for future operations.

UN troops left Rwanda in April 1996 after the failure of a nearly three-year mission to halt the ethnic-based killing. Estimates of the casualties in the 1994 genocide range between five hundred thousand and one million people. The minority Tutsi, having defeated the Hutu-dominated government army in the civil war, still blame the United Nations for failing to halt the killing, and when the UN mandate expired in March 1996, the government refused a further extension.

In the summer of 1996, more than 1.7 million Hutu refugees from Rwanda remained in neighboring countries, afraid of retribution if they return in spite of government assurances to the contrary. Exacerbating this fear were threats and intimidation of potential returnees by former Rwandan government officials living in the camps. The departure of UN and OAU troops and observers reinforced the fears of camp residents, but in fact the situation seemed to change very little after those departures, probably because the UNAMIR troop strength the during the final six months of its operation was too small to make a noticeable difference. Immediately following the withdrawal of troops, there was an increase in incursions by rebels from Zaire, but the numbers quickly subsided. However, the mere presence of the large number of refugees presented problems of support and supply for host countries and the international community, and provided a reservoir of disaffected persons for mine laying and cross-border raids. Concurrently, 250,000 long-displaced Tutsis within Zaire were being forced off their land, both by Zaireans and by the recently arrived, well-armed Hutus.

In October 1996, these simmering issues exploded into a long-anticipated crisis in eastern Zaire (see the box on eastern Zaire).


In Burundi, similar outbreaks of ethnic violence have occurred frequently since independence. Between 1993 and 1996, more than one hundred thousand people were killed in ethnic fighting and massacres. As Hutu insurgents, operating from secure areas in Zaire, stepped up their attacks in the spring of 1996, and the Tutsi-dominated government army responded viciously, another one hundred thousand people fled the country.

The growing insurgency has crippled the economy and called into question the government's ability to meet its financial obligations, and perhaps even to survive. The Burundi military, in its continuing struggle with Hutu insurgents, has been guilty of serious human-rights abuses, eroding its own support in the countryside. As the struggle continues, it threatens to draw in Rwanda and potentially the neighboring states of Zaire, Uganda, and Tanzania. Hutu refugees from Burundi have also continued to cross into neighboring countries, where they strain the limited infrastructures of the host, place additional demands on relief agencies, and provide a pool of discontents who operate in support of rebel attacks against the government in Burundi. In July 1996, a military coup against the shaky Hutu-Tutsi coalition government brought Tutsi Major Pierre Buyoya (who had previously ruled Burundi from 1987 to 1993) to power. Ethnic violence intensified, and Buyoya's refusal to promptly return to civilian rule prompted Burundi's neighbors to impose stiff trade and economic sanctions on Burundi.

The alarming deterioration of the Burundi situation raised expectations of some form of international intervention, and the UN Secretary General repeatedly recommended raising a stand-by intervention force. Other intervention initiatives were proposed by the OAU and by Burundi's neighbors. But the probable need for a large, heavily armed fighting force made potential donors wary, and the willingness and ability of the international community to actually commit troops to Burundi remained in doubt. As for the United States, it made it clear that it might be willing to provide airlift and some financial and logistical support.

U.S. Involvement

U.S. objectives in Burundi include promoting national reconciliation and supporting Burundi's transition to democracy, including rights for minorities. U.S. development aid has stopped because of the war and human-rights abuses, but humanitarian aid and aid to promote democratic governance continue. A small International Military Education and Training program was reactivated in 1996 and current year activities were completed in July, just before the coup. The program's aims are to encourage greater professionalism within the Burundi military and to increase understanding of the role of a military in a democratic society, including respect for human rights.

The lack of vital U.S. political or military concerns, and the U.S. belief that Belgium and France should shoulder major responsibility for handling the crisis, make the commitment of U.S. forces to peacekeeping operations in Burundi unlikely. Nor are U.S. forces likely to be committed to peacekeeping operations in Rwanda.

However, some (even some substantial) U.S. commitment to humanitarian operations remains possible. The United States has already had low-level military involvement in Rwanda. As genocide and large-scale population displacement developed in 1994, U.S. military forces were deployed to reinforce in-place relief operations. U.S. military personnel assisted in improving airport capabilities at Goma (Zaire), Entebbe (Uganda), and Kigali (Rwanda) in response to emergency requests for air movement of humanitarian supplies. More than 1,200 airlift sorties delivered almost 15,000 tons of humanitarian aid in Operations Distant Runner and Support Hope.

This Rwanda precedent and an outburst of genocidal ethnic fury in Burundi would certainly lead to new demands for international intervention. If the United States were to agree to support another international intervention in Rwanda or Burundi, U.S. forces would likely be limited to air transport, and technical and logistical support of peacekeeping forces, or to a strictly humanitarian mission, with the emphasis also on air transport, logistic support, and possibly provision of specialized (e.g., medical) personnel and equipment.


The still unresolved Angolan conflict exemplifies African civil wars fought mainly for political advantage rather than ethnic considerations. The three movements that fought the Portuguese colonial government in the late 1960s and early 1970s--the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)--were unable to agree on transitional arrangements leading to the election of a constitutional assembly. The struggle among the groups quickly became internationalized. After more than ten years of crisis and often heavy fighting, in 1988 the U.S. helped broker an accord among the MPLA, the South African government, and Cuba for a phased withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, withdrawal of South African troops from neighboring Namibia, and a UN-sponsored peace process leading to the independence of Namibia. This set the stage for serious negotiations to resolve Angola's civil war.

In 1989, Zaire and sixteen other African countries brokered a cease-fire between UNITA and the MPLA. Although this cease-fire soon broke down, negotiations continued with the active assistance of Portugal, the U.S., and Russia. In 1991, UNITA and the MPLA finally signed a peace agreement, but after the initial round of elections in 1992, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi rejected the results. Heavy fighting again broke out, with much of the country's remaining infrastructure destroyed in the ensuing struggle for control of key provinces and resources. The Angolan government, with massive new arms imports and assistance from a South African mercenary force (made up mainly of personnel who had earlier fought with UNITA), eventually wore UNITA down, and a new peace agreement was brokered in November 1994.

Soldiers from the 325th Airborne Combat Team establish a fighting position on a balcony in the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia's residence. The soldiers are at the embassy to augment the Special Forces teams already in place during Operation Assured Response.

In 1996, some 7,000 UN troops (UNAVEM II) were stationed in Angola, the largest ongoing UN operation in the world. Most of UNITA's soldiers have been encamped and are to be demobilized or incorporated into the new armed forces. UNITA's political cadre and leaders have been offered positions in the government. Nevertheless, animosities remaining from twenty years of civil war make the transition to peace difficult and uncertain. Killings, violent crime, and deep distrust between the government and UNITA plague the country. Violations of the accords by both sides have given observers reason to doubt their full commitment to the process. On balance, however, optimism prevails.

During the Angolan civil war, the U.S. covertly supplied support and military equipment, first to the FNLA and then to UNITA, to counter the influence of the Soviet Union in Africa and the presence of Cuban combatants. With the signing of the Bicesse accords in 1991, the United States terminated military aid to UNITA. Since then, the U.S. has invested much diplomatic capital in helping bring peace to Angola. The U.S. also has substantial commercial interests in Angola's energy sector, since Angola provides 5 percent of U.S. oil imports.

Liberia and Somalia

In Liberia and Somalia, ethnic rivalries and disputes have transcended the civil war phase and destroyed the institutions of the state. Some analysts have described the result as a new phenomenon: the failed-state syndrome.


In Liberia, the conflict initially involved the government of Samuel Doe, which took power in a coup in 1980; the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), formed in 1989 by Charles Taylor; and the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), which broke away from the NPFL in mid-1990. Each side--and, over time, other factions and splinter groups--attacked civilians of ethnic groups supporting the others.

Despite the efforts of a force of 11,500 sent by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1990, and numerous subsequent diplomatic initiatives and peace conferences, fighting continued, fueled by exploitation of the country's natural resources by the faction leaders and shadowy international business associates. The principal warlords have consistently defied all pleas and demands of the international community to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict.

The civil war has destroyed the country. The majority of its citizens have been dislocated. Some 150,000 citizens have been killed. The economy has been surrendered to vicious warlords supported by thousands of militiamen, many of them child soldiers. In addition, the U.S. lost an estimated $400 million in facilities.

Armored Humvees from the 1st Platoon, 10th MP Company, from Fort Drum, NY, patrol the perimeter road of Mogadishu Airport.

In the fall of 1996, Liberia remained divided between the NPFL; the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO) and its splinter group, ULIMO­J; and the Liberian Peace Council. The factions claim a combined force of sixty thousand fighters, although this number is certainly exaggerated, and most of the fighters have no formal military training. In August 1996, the armed factions signed the latest of many peace agreements. In September, a transitional government, led by Africa's first female head of state, took office but has been unable to prevent further outbreaks of violence. In practical terms, the "government's" authority seems limited to Monrovia.

The U.S. and Liberia have had a longstanding special relationship, strengthened by:

Nevertheless, when the civil war broke out in 1989, the United States denied the special relationship and any obligation to intervene. Liberia's low priority in a post-Cold War world was not enough to warrant military intervention to nip a civil war in the bud. This approach has remained firm to date, although the U.S. has remained active diplomatically and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid and in aid to the West African peacekeeping force.

The crisis has required the U.S. to maintain naval and marine forces offshore for long periods (in 1990 and 1996) and to conduct several noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs). Another NEO could be required unless the United States either intervenes to put an end to the chaos or closes down its diplomatic mission.

Given the constancy of the U.S. nonintervention approach from 1989 to 1996, it is unlikely but not inconceivable that the U.S. would participate in a peacekeeping or major humanitarian operation requiring deployment of U.S. military forces on the ground. But any such intervention would most likely be driven by renewed media attention to the carnage, not by national interests. In that regard, the plight of Liberia has gained the attention of the African-American constituency in the United States, and there have been a number of approaches to Congress and the White House for sterner action. Some articles and editorials in the mainstream press have also encouraged U.S. involvement in ending the fighting. If the United States were to involve its military in a direct peacekeeping operation in sub-Saharan Africa, Liberia would be the most likely venue.


Following colonization of Somali territories in the 1880s by Italy, France, and Great Britain, ethnic Somalis lived in French Somaliland (later Djibouti), northern Kenya, the Ogaden, and what is today Somalia. When the British gave the Ogaden to Ethiopia in 1897, it set the stage for later conflict in the region.

After independence in 1960, Somalia began a quest for arms in response to popular sentiment for regaining the Ogaden, Djibouti, and northeast Kenya. Rebuffed by the West, Somalia turned to the Soviet Union in 1964, and for more than a decade received a lavish flow of Soviet weaponry. However, in the Ogaden war in 1977, the Soviets assisted the Ethiopians (also their client) in defeating the Somali invasion. Cuban troops also quickly deployed to Ethiopia and were not withdrawn until 1989.

The Somali regime under Siad Barre proved dictatorial and intractable, and domestic opposition gradually grew. Small, clan-based insurgencies supported by Ethiopia since the Ogaden war flamed into major incursions in 1989­1990, and a brutal Somali army response soon led to a complete deterioration of relations with much of the populace, and then to a full civil war. The Somali army soon fractured, and by January 1991 rebels had gained the upper hand. Siad fled, the government collapsed, and clan-based factional fighting badly damaged central Mogadishu and left the populace to be preyed on by extortionist bands in the employ of dozens of warlords. From this chaotic situation would emerge starvation, humanitarian disaster, and, in late 1992, a massive international intervention.

In 1980, the United States established a new politico-military relationship with Somalia to gain access to port and air facilities at Berbera and Mogadishu. This development reflected implementation of the Carter doctrine to prepare for a military defense of American interests in the Arabian Peninsula and its environs. Subsequently, the United States mounted a program of large-scale economic assistance and limited military assistance designed to avoid giving the Somalis the capability to threaten their neighbors again. Despite the close relationship and the access agreements, U.S. forces did not use Somalia as a staging base, and U.S. interest in expanding the facilities gradually waned over the 1980s with the passing of the Cold War.

After a decision not to intervene in the Somali civil war, U.S. military helicopters in January 1991 evacuated U.S. embassy personnel and several hundred relief workers from the new embassy grounds in Mogadishu. In August 1992, as a result of widespread starvation and ever deteriorating conditions in Somalia, the United States launched Operation Provide Relief, an airlift operating from Kenya that delivered food to Somali refugees and to areas within Somalia suffering severe food shortages. Before ending operations in March 1993, U.S. military aircraft had flown over 2,000 sorties, including 875 cargo sorties carrying 28,727 metric tons of food. U.S. government-funded civilian aircraft carried another 19,435 metric tons to Somalia and northern Kenya, and fifteen common-use ships and two fast sealift ships delivered another 338,000 metric tons of relief supplies. Meanwhile, the UN had authorized a military "UN Operation in Somalia" (UNOSOM), with the initial troops (from Pakistan) arriving in July 1992. Unfortunately, these forces were restricted by Somali factions to the airport, and proved completely ineffectual.

When the U.S. and UN (UNOSOM I) humanitarian efforts in Somalia failed to ease the crisis because of interference from Somali fighters at ports and along the highways, the United States led a UN-sanctioned Unified Task Force (UNITAF) into Mogadishu in December 1992. The large-scale UNITAF coalition operation quickly opened Mogadishu's port and major highways and ended the food crisis. However, the operation neither restored peace nor defeated the local warlords, and fighting resumed soon after the U.S. main forces left in May 1993, terminating the UNITAF operation. The residual U.S. force--supporting the revised and expanded UN military effort (UNOSOM II) included combat elements, and these were reinforced in the summer of 1993 by elite ranger elements dispatched in what came to be perceived as a manhunt for the most formidable Somali warlord, General Farah Aideed. The U.S. and the UN were now deeply embroiled in Somali tribal politics, and little attention was paid to implementing urgently needed projects to revive the nation.

Forty-four U.S. soldiers were killed and 175 were injured or wounded in the humanitarian and follow-on nation-building efforts in Somalia. But efforts to capture or break the warlords failed. Instead, public and congressional pressures generated by mounting casualties and dramatic media coverage forced a phased U.S. withdrawal ending in March 1994, followed in March 1995 by total UN withdrawal.

With the exit of the would-be peacemakers, Somalia reverted to a state of lawlessness; but the famine has not returned, and commercial activity has revived somewhat at the local level, in some cases with international connections. In 1996, the international community seems to have accepted Somalia as a failed state with no functioning central authorities, and currently not deserving of further political or social engineering.

The failure in Somalia and widespread adverse reactions from the public and Congress greatly reduced the enthusiasm of the U.S. government for peacekeeping operations anywhere, and weakened its ability to call on others to take action. Any near-term commitment of additional U.S. forces directly into Somalia in support of humanitarian or peacekeeping operations seems most unlikely.

U.S. Interests and Approaches

Net Assessment

The stress of internal chaos and financial collapse in some African countries has led to the end of government and the collapse of state institutions--the troubled-state syndrome. In almost every case, militant ethnicity and unwillingness by the dominant ethnic faction to share power seems to be at the center of the problems. As of 1996, Liberia and Somalia were failed states. Angola, Zaire, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi were approaching the syndrome, and Chad, Nigeria, Niger, and others showed similar tendencies. Those states that have utterly failed must either be rescued or left to flounder in their own incapacity.

On the other hand, taken as a whole, Africa in the 1990s has made substantial progress towards democracy and has made modest economic progress. With continuing attention and assistance from the international community, these positive trends should be sustainable. The progress of South Africa is particularly significant.

U.S. Interests

U.S. interests in sub-Saharan Africa are modest.

Promotion of Stability

U.S. political interest in Africa has historically been low. The event that most increased U.S. interest and involvement in the region was the beginning of the Cold War. Over the Cold War's four decades, U.S. interest in the region alternately waxed and waned; many policymakers tended to regard regional problems as part of the East-West struggle and superpower competition and to allocate resources fairly generously to regional clients. After the Cold War, U.S. political interest and commitment of assistance resources again waned, reducing the priority attached to African issues and the leverage available to U.S. politicians and diplomats attempting to help Africa address its problems and crises.

Defending Humanitarian Values

U.S. values are shocked when hundreds of thousands of people die from natural disasters like the mid-1980s Sudan drought or from genocidal civil war as in Rwanda in the early 1990s. While these situations may not threaten vital U.S. national security interests, the U.S. will act on humanitarian grounds in face of a dire situation. However, in those situations where it is unclear what can be done to help, as is often the case in civil unrest, the U.S. may not act, despite extensive suffering.

Access to Trade

Sub-Saharan Africa plays only a small role in overall U.S. trade: in 1995, its forty-eight countries accounted for less than 1 percent of U.S. commodity exports and approximately 2 percent of U.S. commodity imports. The United States's one important economic interest in Africa is oil: in 1995, Angola provided 5 percent of U.S. oil imports, Nigeria 8.6 percent.

U.S. Approach

Despite sub-Saharan Africa's position at the bottom of U.S. policymakers' priorities, the United States in the 1990s has committed military forces to large-scale peacekeeping operations and humanitarian missions in Somalia and Rwanda and to frequent evacuations of U.S. citizens.

There is less contact between the U.S. military and armed forces in sub-Saharan Africa than there is in any other area of the world. Except for about 50 military attachés and security assistance officers and about 200 Marine embassy security guards, there is no permanent stationing of U.S. military personnel in Africa, nor do U.S. national interests in the region require it. There exists no vital U.S. military interest in the sub-Saharan region that might lead to a major deployment of U.S. forces. Nevertheless, the region has been a frequent area of operational activity for the U.S. military, mainly in humanitarian operations and NEOs. Circumstances will very likely oblige the U.S. military to participate in several small military operations in the region by the early years of the twenty-first century.

Because conflict and humanitarian disasters may require some form of U.S. response in Africa, the U.S. approach encompasses the following areas, with emphasis on preventive action:

U.S. forces will be used for multilateral peacekeeping or peace enforcement operations only in rare circumstances, and then only for short-term periods and with minimal involvement of combat elements. The U.S. contribution would normally be limited to the same type of support as for humanitarian interventions, and in most cases would be of short duration, until forces from other nations could be prepared to fill those roles. Unilateral U.S. peacekeeping or peace enforcement operations in Africa are not anticipated, with the possible (albeit unlikely) exception of Liberia.

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