Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Lessons from African Wars: Implications for the SANDF

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Lessons from African Wars: Implications for the SANDF

Article excerpt


At the start of the 21st century Africa is still unstable and rent by wars leading to famine, brutality, disease and failing economies. Major Western and many African nations, the latter verbalised by South Africa, seek a drastic turnaround in these appalling conditions. One of the ways to achieve change is to deploy military forces to enforce peace agreements reached on political platforms. The deploying forces obviously study the likely operational areas as best they can, doing physical reconnaissance as required. However, detailed military studies and reports are hard to come by regarding the real military aspects of African wars.


Few studies of wars in Africa have been done. Firstly because the battle space is extremely disorganised and dangerous for journalists and military observers, and secondly because the wars are considered to be pre-modern conflicts. Facilities to write, store and send reports are poor, no side in the conflicts can ensure the reasonable safety of observers and for modern military organisations there is often little or nothing to learn from groups involved in what are mainly ethnic conflicts fought with mostly out-of-date weapons.

For a defence force such as the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the militaries of Nigeria and Egypt it is, however, essential to note what can be learned from Africa's many conflicts. They are being asked, and consider it their duty, to help restore peace in various parts of Africa because they are African, and because Western countries are convinced that African armies for various reasons should supply the peacekeeping and peace enforcement forces for Africa. Against this background, this article attempts to draw lessons from military research done on African conflicts.


Measured by modern standards of warfare, most of Africa's conflicts in the post-colonial era have been in violation of the laws of war, often fought by ragged bands who operate as gangs rather than armies. Robert Kaplan, an American journalist, speaks of "reprimitivized man" and the re-emergence of primitive warrior societies. (1) In July 1993, 24 Pakistani peacekeepers were hacked to death by Somali women and, in September of the same year, Somali militia downed a United States (US) helicopter, killing the pilots, after which they dragged the bodies through the streets of the capital for all the world to see. (2)

A further characteristic of African wars which has been given wide media coverage is the extensive use of child soldiers. Much has been written to describe the evils of this practice and how it disadvantages the children involved. It also leads to a proliferation of violence and greater levels of atrocity. Unfortunately child soldiers have become a symbol of many modern African conflicts, and their presence serves as a tragic introduction to the characteristics of African wars.

2.1 Classification of wars in Africa

To classify all types of war can become extremely complicated and eventually causes more confusion than clarity. Wars could be categorised as conventional inter-state, or limited conventional inter-state, intra-state, low intensity, guerrilla, revolutionary and a host of other descriptions. For the purposes of this analysis it will be simplified to classify African wars as conventional or semi-conventional as one category, and unconventional as the other. The latter, most of which during the Cold War had a communist revolutionary character, are now best described as intra-state, political-ethnic conflicts.

Strictly speaking, conventional wars should at least involve belligerents who have an overall military strategy, an operational strategy and tactics. The last two aspects are strongly influenced by the military doctrine used to train and prepare the forces involved. On this basis the wars which could truly be classified as conventional since 1945 would be the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli and India-Pakistan wars, the Iraq-Iran War and the two Gulf wars of 1991 and 2003. …

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