Wars without news

Wars without news

[UPDATE, 2015: Some months after this post was written in December 2012, the war in CAR did get *quite* a lot of news coverage…]

So to last week’s big news: on Tuesday two thousand Chadian troops crossed the border into the Central African Republic (CAR) to help fight a new Centrafrican rebel coalition, Seleka, which for the last month has been seizing towns and territory across northern CAR, just over the border from South Sudan.

Who? Where?

Of course, this hasn’t been big news at all. Outside the Francophone African press, it’s barely surfaced save the odd wire report. The CAR army has been perennially clashing with rebel groups across diamond-rich northern CAR for nearly a decade – fighting which has scarcely registered on the international community’s agenda, despite having displaced perhaps 200,000 people, and despite the fact that this new rebel coalition has the potential to topple the CAR government in the next few days.

News of Seleka’s advance only rang a bell for me because this time last year I was in Raga, on the South Sudanese side of the CAR/South Sudan border, just east of the area where the Seleka rebel forces are now ensconced. It’s one of the most interesting places I’ve been, and when I and my two fantastic colleagues weren’t trying to figure out how to get home for Christmas, my brief stay in Raga helped me to understand a little better why we seem to care about some places and not others.

This sleepy corner of eastern/central Africa is perhaps one of the least understood parts of the continent. It’s liminal in every sense. Geographically, it’s where the Sahel meets the Great Lakes, on the cusp of the two great African watersheds – those of the Nile and the Congo. Culturally, it’s where many people imagine an ‘Arab’ northern Africa meets ‘black’ West Africa, although the reality is nothing like this clash-of-civilisations stereotype.

Raga market

And it also falls between the cracks of the international community’s mental map – located on the margins of Africa’s three best known, A-list wars:

  • Perhaps the most familiar of these – thanks mainly to Mia Farrow and other celebrity genocide activists – is Darfur, ninety miles to the northeast.  That’s mainly why I was there, trying to get up to the Darfur border to find out how Darfur’s ten-year conflict is spilling over into this forgotten corner of South Sudan.
  • We have George Clooney to thank for awareness of a second conflagration that has started since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011: an international stand-off resulting in a necklace of bombings and ground clashes along Sudan and South Sudan’s contested border – including (although barely publicised) here at the western end of that border.
  • Finally, serious Africa nerds (and Ben Affleck fans) may also be aware that this junction point between CAR, Sudan and South Sudan is also the forested no-man’s land where enthusiastic LRA-watchers believe that Joseph Kony and his Lords’ Resistance Army remnants are holed up (if indeed Kony is still alive and the LRA still exists in any meaningful sense, as a single identifiable force, beyond the priapic dreams of American campaigners).

And at that point we tend to reach most people’s limits of acceptable complexity – mine included. This is an interstitial region filled with too many small wars already. Those that register on the international community’s radar tend to have been fitted into two neat conceptual boxes:(i) intra-Sudanese wars, involving (ii) ‘Arabs’ killing ‘Africans’. In Darfur, a layer-cake of local ethnic disputes, land pressures, state counterinsurgency and proxy wars with neighbouring Chad and Libya have been compressed for advocacy purposes into a tale of a purely domestic conflict in which Sudanese government-backed ‘Arab’ Janjaweed militias kill ‘African’ villagers. The new Sudan/South Sudan border war has likewise been shoehorned into a conceptually-convenient ‘Arab’/’African’ conflict, a supposed replay of the north-south Sudanese Civil War that ended in 2005, although it too is in reality a daisy-chain of localised conflicts drawing in not just the two national armies but also southern-allied Nuba rebels; Khartoum-backed splinter groups from southern tribes; and, confusingly, Darfuri rebels now fighting alongside the Nuba and the southern army itself.

The transnational exception to these convenient frames is the reported presence of Kony’s LRA, currently being hunted through this area’s forests by a lacklustre 4-nation contingent of Centrafrican, South Sudanese, Ugandan and Congolese troops ‘advised’ by 100 US special forces. But the LRA ‘situation’ has its own unique lobby in Washington and New York that cuts through complexity all by itself.

Wedged between these three celebrity African conflicts, anything else happening in this ‘shatter zone’ simply never makes it onto the list of international priorities – those ‘situations’ on the agenda of the UN Security Council or the ICC, for example. The area’s remoteness and depopulation doesn’t help. It’s not particularly risky to get to, but it’s a bit trickier than journalists or researchers can afford to bother with in the absence of an urgent story: visitors must obtain the right travel permissions from military and civilian authorities in Juba, South Sudan’s capital; then fly on to Wau, the state capital; and then drive 200 miles on an occasionally difficult road towards the Central African Republic. The area’s population is lower than in the 19th century, thanks to late-Victorian slaving, colonial displacement and occupation, endemic tsetse-fly infestation, and post-colonial strife. The main Wau-Raga road, for example, remains largely an empty corridor today because villages along its route were cleared by the Sudanese army during the Ananya-1 civil war of the 1960s, and the thousands of residents forcibly moved to the state capital never returned.

Wau-Raga road

But above all I think this corner is forgotten because of its stubborn refusal to fit the neat frames with which we’re accustomed to read the ‘celebrity wars’ of eastern/central Africa. It refuses fit the narratives we’ve been told across four dimensions: actors, cause, geography and chronology.

Firstly, the ‘enemy’ looks different at ground level. To those fighting and being fought over, this region’s security threats don’t look anything like the neatly packaged ‘celebrity wars’ listed above. The LRA, for one thing, barely features. While Invisible Children and other high-profile American activists describe Kony as the greatest human security threat in Africa and this region as his last refuge, local authorities here barely mention the LRA as a security concern (alleged LRA attacks are, admittedly, more severe further south in DRC, but even these have been tailing off). Authorities here and in CAR occasionally blame the LRA for attacks and thefts of weapons and supplies from villages and police posts, but there’s generally little evidence about who the perpetrators actually are.** Narcotics and ivory abandoned during such raids are held up as evidence that they were the work of LRA-turned-criminals, although the whole region is wide open to all kinds of traffickers, smugglers and poachers.

What local authorities say they worry about instead are groups and threats that don’t register on the international community’s agenda. They worry about Rizeigat ‘Arab’ militias coming southwards from South Darfur as far as CAR – movements sometimes conflated with the perennial (usually armed) migration of ordinary Rizeigat cattle-herders, but also sometimes backed by the Sudanese government as de-facto popular defence force (al-difa al-shabie) militia forces. They worry about Sudanese Armed Forces’ troops occupying the lost Kafia Kingi triangle between CAR, South Sudan and Darfur, and suspected of arming and backing those Rizeigat militias. They worry about an alphabet soup of CAR rebels manning roadblocks and occasionally skirmishing with wildlife militias and the CAR army. And they also worry, arguably out of all proportion, about the Mbororo – the reserved and self-enclosed group of Fellata cattle-herders, originally from West Africa, who travel in small groups through the DRC, CAR, Chad and the Sudans, who are suspected as outsiders of acting as spies and proxies for various enemies, and who are attacked and persecuted by militias and state authorities in South Sudan, CAR and DRC.

These may seem like local tribal contexts to the region’s bigger security dynamics. But they are the region’s security dynamics, causing as much death and displacement the celebrity wars, and linking up those wars themselves. In the northern slice of DRC bordering South Sudan, for instance, the Congolese army – assisted by UN forces – spends much of its time not chasing Joseph Kony but hunting down Mbororo herders accused of stealing crops and pasture from local populations. The Congolese army killed 50 herders in a single clash in Banda near Ango in February last year, according to local NGOs; around the same number of deaths as LRA-watchers have attributed (often with no on-the-ground verification) to ‘LRA’ attacks across all four countries in the whole of 2012.

Equally, to the north, Rizeigat militias are a major source of attacks against the South Sudanese army and local populations. A Christmas Day attack three days ago by likely Rizeigat militias against South Sudanese military positions at Kiir Adem in the disputed ’14 Mile’ zone between South Sudan and South Darfur (backed later in the morning by a Sudanese aerial bombing raid) risks re-sparking the international north/south conflict in this part of the border, yet has gone virtually unreported.

A Fellata family in Deim Zubeir, on the Wau-Raga

Secondly, causes and drivers don’t stack neatly. This region’s overlapping conflicts are in many cases fuelled by dynamics that have little to do with the international bogeymen that we’re told have caused this region’s ‘A-list’ wars: the irrational blood-thirst of Joseph Kony; or the genocidal counterinsurgency of Omar al-Bashir. For example, regional researchers allege that one reason why Gula rebels in northern CAR – whose UFDR dissident members make up one of the three Seleka factions now marching on Bangui – have become so militarily capable is that many of their members have drawn weapons and training from a major EU-funded anti-wildlife poaching initiative, ECOFAC, which for nearly 25 years has quietly operated their own Gula-dominated armed militias in CAR, led by Russian and French mercenaries serving as EU ‘technical assistants’ (a story documented single-handedly by US anthropologist Louisa Lombard). Lombard reports that members of these militias, equipped both with EU-funded equipment and heavier weapons (including ‘light-aircraft-mounted mortars’ allegedly procured through contact with Russian oligarch safari hunters), have massacred alleged poachers, fought other armed groups from Chad and Sudan, and then drifted off to join formal armed rebellion against the CAR government. This is not to argue that the EU’s militarized conservation efforts have caused the CAR civil war; but certainly the EU project has provided material resources to armed actors in an already over-militarised region, and has itself been the source of considerable military combat and civilian deaths.

Thirdly, the geography’s all mixed up. Distinctions between the region’s different conflicts don’t make very much political, military or geographical sense to their combatants. This is a place where borders matter too much, and simultaneously not at all. Or rather, territory matters rather than borders. Tribal access to disputed territory is the pretext for both militia attacks and formal military occupation at the CAR/Sudan/Chad junction. Yet armed groups also conceive of this whole region as their area of operations, and national borders as almost irrelevant. A hundred miles outside desertified Darfur, for example, there are pockets of Darfur rebels in the forests here, both on the South Sudanese side of the border and further south into northeastern CAR (including near to a Darfuri refugee camp in Sam Ouandja, which the Seleka alliance took two weeks ago).  We sat with one of their commanders – last encountered earlier in the year in the lobby of a 6-star hotel in Qatar on the margins of the Darfur peace negotiations – as he described how his forces in CAR exchange weapons with CAR rebel factions, and fight LRA groupuscules and Rizeigat militias alongside the CAR rebels. Indeed, he told us that his group was so ensconced in the area that they were seeking to mediate a reconciliation between two of the CAR rebel groups – the Gula- dominated UFDR led by Zachariah Daman, and a faction of the Runga-dominated CPJP led by one Issa Abdallah. Perhaps significantly, splinter factions of each of these groups have now reconciled to form two-thirds of the new Seleka alliance marching on the CAR capital this Christmas.

Finally, conflict motives run back longer than the tour of duty of a UN ambassador. The presence of Darfur rebels here, for instance, is conventionally depicted as a straightforward spillover of the Darfur war since 2003, with allegations that the South Sudanese have established a rebel safe haven at this junction box just south of the Darfur border, to train and resupply Darfur rebels fighting against Sudanese forces inside Darfur. This is what I suspected too before I visited Raga. In fact, the South Sudanese government’s attitude towards the Darfur rebels in this corner of their new country is fairly ambivalent, and the Darfuris are here not least because of their much older connections to this  slice of central Africa. The Darfuri rebel commander mentioned above said that he drew forces and support in part from members of a marginalised Darfuri tribe, the Masalit, who have been here for nearly a hundred years. Originally from eastern Chad, with their official Sudanese ‘homeland’ (Dar Masalit) in desertified West Darfur some five hundred miles to the north, many Masalit moved down into these southern forests in successive waves of drought migration and colonial displacement from the 19th century onwards:

“A Masalit community was already present [here in Raga county] in the 1920s. At that time Masalit from El Geneina area [near the border with eastern Chad] first moved to Gereida and then to Raga. The British colonial administration refused to host all the Masalit in El Geneina and so the [British] Darfur Administrator came to visit the Dongo leaders to see whether some Masalit could be hosted in this area.”

Short history lessons like this, with which big men in this part of the world commonly start political explanations, are not just preambulatory antiquarianism. They are entirely current explanations for why people are where they are, and why they care enough about the place to fight others for it. These ‘Darfuri’ Masalit have a history of fighting Sudanese encroachment into their new homeland: a number fought in Raga county with the (then rebel) South Sudanese army during the second Sudanese civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In other words, this Centrafrican junction point is not just an external rear base for the Darfur rebellion – it is the ground that some long-displaced Darfuris may ultimately defend from encroachment by Sudan to the north (as the Darfuri commander said, “Masalit do not fight for [military] positions, they only fight for land”). If our political maps say they should be fighting five hundred miles further north, neatly within Darfur’s boundaries, then our political maps are wrong. Nor does this mean that the fighting in this region are simply ‘primitive’ tribal skirmishes: in some (though not all) cases they are modern, networked techno-conflicts, fought with diaspora fundraising from the Gulf and London; by armed groups whose personnel have been trained everywhere from N’Djamena to Asmara; using new Chinese weapons captured from state forces to use against Chad’s new Ukrainian Sukhois or Sudan’s Iranian surveillance drones. But these globalised techno-wars are grounded in a weft of place, territory, entitlement and allegiance that drive conflict across the region, and which – for their combatants – have as much to do with this region’s slaving displacements during the Turko-Egyptian regime of the mid-19th century as they do with the corruption and predation of their current governments.

It is, of course, easy to criticize activists and securocrats trying to tackle conflicts with the haughty response that “things are complicated”. Darfur, Sudan’s border war, the LRA – these are real wars, involving real crimes, whose perpetrators should indeed be brought to justice in the way that celebrity activists suggest. But as we fit these celebrity African wars into the kind of neat explanatory frames we undoubtedly need to mobilise diplomats and aid efforts, we miss connections, misunderstand causes, ignore bigger problems outside our fields of vision. I submit humbly that perhaps we can sometimes learn about conflicts by looking at the spaces in-between them. From these spaces – empty, complicated, forgotten – we find that the actors, geography, chronology and causes of familiar conflicts look completely different; sometimes more intractable; but at least a more accurate picture to help avoid messing up.


This post, and the navigation of my brief stay in Raga – though not my undoubtedly numerous mistakes here – owe much to the single stand-out study of the CAR/Sudan/South Sudan junction point, Eddie Thomas’ extraordinary mix of history and ethnography in his 2010 book on the Kafia Kingi triangle. 

Photographs made in Raga county, South Sudan, December 2011.

**The SPLA did indeed capture two self-confessed LRA members last year – youths in Deim Jalab, near the border of the Kafia Kingi triangle – who claimed they had been commanded by a former LRA commander Caesar Achellam, who was indeed captured in CAR in May 2012, and a Col. Atoh Aguen. No mention of Joseph Kony.

2 thoughts on “Wars without news

  1. This is a great post and reminds me how little I know about this part of the world (even after working in SS for three years). Going forward, the Rizeigat appear to be intent on a peaceful migration into NBeG, which is a good sign of a reduced tension between them and the SPLA (as they would have to agree to come un-armed). My personal suspicion is that they stayed mostly out of the last fight at Kiir Adem (the Nazir himself said this), as they really need the NBeG grazing corridor as they burned their bridges with the WBeG grazing corridor in previous years.

    Hopefully the CAR issue will get reported on more. What do you think is the way forward for peace/development in CAR?

  2. Thanks! You're more of a SS veteran than me. But I agree absolutely that there's no unified 'Rizeigat' position on the border's location, access, or alliances with SAF forces. At Kiir Adem there are harmonious relations between SPLA and Rizeigat traders (and Rizeigat sheikhs), who sell goods to SPLA visitors at Samaha, 2km north of the river into South Darfur. And it's clearly not just the need to keep the grazing corridor that keeps that cordiality – the economic importance of the main truck route between Darfur and South Sudan, which crosses the Kiir/Bahr el Arab at Kiir Adem, is also evidently key. Refusals by some Rizeigat sheikhs to support PDF recruitment at Abu Mutareq in late 2012 also speak volumes.

    Nonetheless sections of Rizeigat leadership in South Darfur (in El Daien) and in Khartoum *are* clearly more hardline on their views of access and ownership to Mile 14 in NBeG and sections of WBeG. You only have to look at the newspaper articles and speeches of Mohamed Issa Aliyo, head of the Rizeigat shura council (We wrote about this a bit in a Small Arms Survey working paper on Darfur recently).

    The real question for me is how much the 27 September Sudan/S Sudan agreement has changed positions and opinions on the ground about border location and access? The most recent fighting in the last couple of weeks at Kiir Adem does seem to have involved both SAF and some armed Rizeigat. Equally, actual SAF/SPLA fighting north of Raga just after Christmas doesn't bode well (there are reports that 2 SAF battalions have moved just north of KitKit, and have engaged with the SPLA in the Balbala area in the past few days). This silent stand-off in WBeG since 2010 receives almost no attention in comparison to Unity and Upper Nile, yet has the real potential I think to become an Abyei 2 – albeit with a much less dense population.

    CAR: I really don't have a strong understanding of the dynamics. All I do know is that CAR is too often depicted as a zone empty of its own politics – as a space short on 'governance' into which *other people's politics spill, whether it's as a corridor for poachers and smugglers between DRC and Chad; as a rear base for Darfuri rebels; or as a hiding place for Joseph Kony. I think Seleka makes it clear that it's national CAR politics, not just "strengthening governance", that matters for peace and security there?

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