Wherever you look, there's conflict. (Samir Bol/AFP/Getty Images)

April 24, 2024   5 mins

“God Loves You.” An accusing finger looms out of the billboard, pointing directly at passers-by. Lord Kitchener has been press-ganged into a different kind of national service.

Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, is a tundra of low-roofed buildings and patchy roads lined with threadbare bush. It is the billboards, though, that stick in the mind. A combination of the generic and the personal, they offer everything from tempered glass to soft drinks to the chance, with the help of a professional medium, to become wealthy, get your ex back or simply take “revenge”.

This impulse for revenge, that “kind of wild justice” as Francis Bacon wrote, is doing its debased work across the region, not least among Zambia’s neighbours: Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to the north, and Mozambique, to the east. So far, the war in eastern DRC has seen 5.8 million people displaced in a population of 7 million; 72% of people now live on less than $1.90 a day. In northern Mozambique, nearly one million people have been displaced by conflict since 2017, 80% of whom are women and children.

It’s not just a regional problem. While the world has rightly focused on Vladimir Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine and the war in Gaza following October 7, Africa has descended to mass violence and, in some places, near anarchy. There were 104 conflicts across the continent in 2022, the deadliest year in Africa for more than three decades. And since the Sudan civil war broke out one year ago, 8.6 million people have been forcibly displaced, and more than 15,000 confirmed killed (though the actual figure is likely to be far higher).

African leaders have long understood the gravity of the problem. Last month, Hakainde Hichilema, the president of Zambia and current chair of Southern African Development Community (SADC), last month convened a summit to discuss the SADC’s peacekeeping deployments in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — known as SAMIDRC and Mozambique (SAMIM). SADC is a southern African regional bloc that primarily deals with economic and political cooperation, but has increasingly been forced to focus on security concerns. In recent years, violence has concentrated the minds of SADC nations, and African leaders generally: never have peacekeeping forces been more necessary, more problematic — or, according to those on the ground, more inadequate.

The SADC has already made some efforts to help DRC. Last December, it deployed a joint force to eastern DRC to fight the M23 rebel army, but it ran into difficulties. M23 is allegedly backed by Rwanda, which denies any involvement, though the UN accuses it of “direct interventions” to support the rebels. The summit concluded by reiterating SADC’s “unwavering commitment to provide both diplomatic and military support to the Government and people of the DRC”.

Separately, the United Nations has been running MONUSCO, its own peacekeeping operation, in eastern DRC for more than 25 years. At its peak, the mission was vast, with around 13,500 people attached to it. But it was always dysfunctional. In 2010, I spent time with various MONUSCO peacekeeping forces deployed across the country, and it was obvious that they were unable to effectively deal with the various militia groups berserking across the east. I embedded with Guatemalan peacekeepers in the jungle near the city of Bunia in eastern DRC. These were tough men, drawn from the ranks of Guatemala’s Kaibiles Special Forces whose motto was, memorably: “If I advance, follow me. If I stop, urge me on. If I retreat, kill me”. They were desperate to fight the gangs of murderers and rapists in the thick bush just kilometres away — in this instance the sordid Lord’s Resistance Army. But in practice, it was hard for them to get permission to engage. The most energetic I ever saw them was when we watched the 2010 World Cup Final on base, and they exploded into mass ululation when AndrĂ©s Iniesta scored a 116th-minute winner for Spain.

No wonder MONUSCO was always unpopular locally. The Congolese government was talking about kicking it out when I was there, and in December 2023, the decision was finally taken when a UN Security Council vote dissolved the force. It will be totally withdrawn by the end of the year. SADC will take its place.

“Africans want to take the lead in solving African problems.”

The feeling on the ground is unmistakable: Africans want to take the lead in solving African problems. They have lost faith in the West to intervene. But wars aren’t the only problem they’ll have to face alone. Though the Islamist threat has largely disappeared from the international press, it continues to strafe Africa. Al-Qaeda offshoot Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) is sluicing its way around Mali and Burkina Faso as well Benin. Meanwhile, al-Shaabab and the Islamic State West Africa province (Iswap) are busy murdering as usual. Last year saw 23,322 deaths from Islamist violence — a rise of 20% from 2022.

To make matters worse, there have now been seven successful coups in three years in the Sahel, which is experiencing a near-systematic disintegration of democracy. With that of course comes yet more violence: in 2023, fatalities in the region rose by 38% and civilian deaths by 18% from the previous year.

Change and leadership must come from within Africa. African peace-keeping forces are now the region’s greatest hope. But these forces must achieve far more than ending the slaughter — an evidently noble and much-needed aim, but only ever the first step. It is here that we usefully remember the second half of Bacon’s quote on revenge: “The more man’s nature runs to [it], the more ought law to weed it out.” The aim of peacekeeping is far wider: encouraging people to get around the table and reach political settlements. In the end, wars are never ended or resolved on the battlefield, but at the tables around it. Dialogue not drones is what brings peace. And Africa, more than almost anywhere else, needs political dialogue and the rule of law, not more conflict.

This is why SADC needs the West’s support. All this chaos is a blight for those who are unfortunate enough to suffer it, but it is also an opportunity for bad actors who wish to exploit it. Russia is now the leading arms supplier to sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for 25% of all sales between 2018 and 2022. Its mercenary Wagner Group spent the last several years killing and vacuuming up local resources. Since the death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, it has been ominously re-named “Africa Corps” — and is now fully under Kremlin control. Meanwhile, China is Africa’s second largest arms supplier; its drones have been used in DRC among other places. It is also an increasingly influential friend and investor: between 2000-2022, Beijing’s state financiers have lent $170 billion to African nations. Conversely, between 2008-2022, US trade with Africa has decreased by 48%.

The result has been yet more instability. As a source working on regional security recently told me: “Zambia is a peaceful nation committed to the principles of stability and democracy, but we are living in a time where it’s hard for us to make sure those values and that stability are reflected across the region.”

Africans will take care of their own problems. But the West can still help them to restore stability. It may not be able to compete with the investment policies of China, but it can help fund African peacekeeping missions. More broadly, it can encourage greater African representation on the world stage: the September 2023 decision to give the African Union a seat at G20 was correct — though long overdue.

Dusk in Lusaka is sleepy. But with DRC and Mozambique next door, the people of this relatively tranquil city know that mass violence is never far away. And it is not just the region that is at risk, but the international stability that is already unravelling to levels not seen since the run-up to the Second World War. Africa needs the West’s help — and like Gaza and Ukraine, this is a crisis that affects us all.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)