Three quick items may interest readers.
First, a report I authored on Islamists in Mauritania was published yesterday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The PDF version is available here. If you read the report, please stop back by and let me know your reactions in the comments section.
Second, a piece in the New York Review of Books by Jeffrey Gettleman, “Africa’s Dirty Wars,” received a great deal of attention yesterday on Twitter and elsewhere. The reviewed work is Warfare in Independent Africa, by Professor William Reno of Northwestern University. Reno (whom I believe I have never formally met, though we are both at Northwestern) is a distinguished scholar of rebellions and conflict in Africa, with a tremendous amount of fieldwork experience and publications on Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Nigeria, and elsewhere. You can view his vita here (.pdf). I have not read his latest book, but I intend to. What I have to say below is not a reaction to Reno’s work.
What interests me about Gettleman’s piece is how much of his own views and experiences he injects. Without having read Reno’s book yet, it seems to me that Gettleman’s line differs somewhat from Reno’s. Reno, as quoted and summarized by Gettleman, is keen to historicize African rebellions (particularly by assessing the impact of the end of the Cold War) and to subdivide them into different categories; Gettleman, for his part, seems keen to generalize patterns of conflict and to suggest that the nature of violence in Africa today mostly has to do with what he sees as the pettiness of the actors involved:
This is the story of conflict in Africa these days. What we are seeing is the decline of the classic wars by freedom fighters and the proliferation of something else—something wilder, messier, more predatory, and harder to define. The style of warfare has shifted dramatically since the liberation wars of the 1960s and 1970s (Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau), the cold-war wars of the 1980s (Angola, Mozambique), and the large-scale killings of the 1990s (Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Liberia). Today the continent is plagued by countless nasty little wars, which in many ways aren’t really wars at all. There are no front lines, no battlefields, no clear conflict zones, and no distinctions between combatants and civilians…
Today, we see dozens of small-scale, dirty wars in Congo, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, from east to west, from some of Africa’s mightiest nations to its smallest and least significant. The specific situation in each of Africa’s fifty-five different countries varies widely. But it is safe to say that many of the rebels are simply thugs.
The adjectives he chooses – “nasty” “dirty” “little” etc – merit further scrutiny, as does his decade-by-decade style of categorization. And the caveat that “the specific situation in each of Africa’s fifty-five different countries varies widely” deserves expansion. Is it the case that all of the conflicts going on in Africa now are slight variations on the same theme? I think not, but I would like to know what readers think too.
Third, Somalia’s rebel movement al Shabab is showing that it can still go on the offensive. The BBC reports on a “surprise attack” the movement perpetrated against Garbaharey (map here), “a south-western town used by Ethiopian and Somali government-backed troops as a base to launch assaults.”
BBC Somali Service analyst Abdullahi Sheikh says the Garbaharey attack was a major military operation – and a strong indication that the movement’s retreat from key positions does not mean it has given up the fight.
He says al-Shabab, which recently announced it was joining al-Qaeda, may be weakened – but it is far from a spent force and still controls swathes of territory in south and central Somalia.
IRIN, meanwhile, details the complex situation in Mogadishu, where al Shabab’s withdrawal has not meant an end to violence – some of it allegedly committed by “defectors” with ambiguous loyalties.