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7. Armed conflict and peace processes in sub-Saharan Africa


Overview, Ian Davis

I. Key general developments in the region, Ian Davis

II. Armed conflict and peace processes in West Africa, Ian Davis

III. Armed conflict and peace processes in Central Africa, Ian Davis

IV. Armed conflict and peace processes in East Africa, Ian Davis

There were at least 18 states (out of a total of 49) in sub-Saharan Africa with active armed conflicts in 2021. High-intensity armed conflicts occurred in 12 states: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. Low-intensity, subnational armed conflicts occurred in 6 states: Benin, Burundi, Chad, Kenya, Madagascar and Uganda. Eleven of these 18 states suffered higher estimated conflict-related fatalities in 2021 than in 2020, with the total increase for the region standing at about 19 per cent.


Almost all the armed conflicts were internationalized due to the involvement of external state actors and/or the trans-national activities of armed groups and criminal networks. Conflict dynamics and ethnic and religious tensions were often rooted in a combination of state weakness, corruption, ineffective delivery of basic services, competition over natural resources, inequality and a sense of marginalization. Security dilemmas in sub-Saharan Africa in 2021 were also shaped by the presence of armed groups and criminal networks, election-related violence, and water insecurity and the growing impact of climate change. There were four successful military coups (in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan) and three failed coups (in CAR, Niger and Sudan), compared with just one coup in the region in 2020 (in Mali). There was no substantive progress in any of the region’s peace processes in 2021, although sub-Saharan African states continued to host more multilateral peace operations (22) than any other region of the world.


West Africa

Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria were West Africa’s hotspots of insecurity in 2021, mainly due to attacks by armed groups, with some operating across national borders. Security forces countering these armed groups included national, regional and international forces, as well as local self-defence groups. In June 2021 France announced a drawdown of the 5000 Operation Barkhane troops in Mali, to be replaced by the European multinational Task Force Takuba, which was established in 2020. The security situation in Nigeria worsened in 2021, with a 27 per cent increase in conflict-related fatalities compared with 2020, due largely to the high number of conflicts between farmers and herders in central areas of the country, a sharp rise in banditry in the north-west, and intensifying uprisings by separatists in the south-east.


Central Africa

Large-scale violence continued in the eastern DRC as external and Congolese armed groups engaged in multiple armed conflicts with the government, alongside a resurgence of intercommunal violence. In Cameroon the anglophone separatist insurgency in the south-west and north-west of the country, as well as the insurgency in the north, continued. In CAR the security situation became even more volatile as government forces, backed by Russian private military companies (PMCs) and Rwandan troops, fought to recapture territory from armed groups. Due to the growing influence of the Russian PMCs, France suspended aid and military cooperation to CAR in June 2021, and the European Union suspended its military training activities in December.


East Africa

In East Africa 9 of the 22 states or territories were involved in active armed conflict in 2021, with 5 in particular—Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan—experiencing ongoing or sharp escalations in large-scale armed violence. This violence has led to more than 9.6 million people being internally displaced and more than 4.7 million people becoming refugees. Grave human rights violations against civilians continued to be committed in the region, while at least 33.8 million people were severely food insecure.


The insurgency in Cabo Delgado province in the north of Mozambique continued in 2021, leading to a regional military intervention in July 2021. However, the conflict’s root causes, including the need for a more equitable distribution of the province’s mineral and hydrocarbon resources, remained unaddressed. In Somalia al-Shabab continued to be a major threat despite the presence of an African Union-led peace operation. There was some progress in South Sudan towards implementation of the 2018 peace agreement, but violence continued to affect communities across the country. In Sudan, despite the October 2020 Juba Peace Agreement, the situation deteriorated in 2021: there was a military coup in October and a near doubling of the estimated conflict-related fatalities during the year. 


East Africa, including the Horn of Africa

East Africa, including the Horn of Africa
Note: The boundaries used in this map do not imply any endorsement or acceptance by SIPRI.


Dr Ian Davis