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How might non-state actors derail attempts for a conflict-free future?

Posted By Sarah Skidmore, Thursday, August 13, 2020

Sarah Skidmore, a member of our Emerging Fellows program evaluates the role of non-state actors in threatening the peaceful futures of Africa through her eighth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


As with tribalism, non-state actors are not inherently prescribed as positive or negative. Non-state actors have the opportunity to sow division or foster greater unity as Africa works toward a conflict-free future. The motives and values of non-state actors are vast and diverse – and often multi-dimensional. The discussion of non-state actors really calls into question contemporary geo-politics and proxy wars specifically.


It is important to understand the influence that non-state actors bring. What is the motive of the non-state actor? What is the strategy of the non-state actor? Why is the non-state actor involved? What is the benefit to the non-state actor for being involved? These questions are critical as non-state actors bring a real threat of proxy wars. In proxy wars, non-state actors may instigate lasting harm to already weak nations by escalating conflict, struggle, and violence. Keep in mind that many proxy wars involve various foreign state actors. And, the interconnectedness and layers of complexity in proxy wars can evolve throughout the duration of the war.


Since 2014, Libya has experienced civil war. With armed extremists along with rival tribal groups all fighting to claim power in the country, this is a prime example of a proxy war originated by non-state actors. Or, consider violence in the Sahel. Though originally the Sahel experienced more climate-induced conflict, it evolved into more extreme conflicts including militia and religious groups. Libya and the Sahel are merely two examples demonstrating the role of non-state actors in conflict.


The motivations and actions of the non-state actors in these two conflicts are generating war, unrest, and violence now. How must their motivations and actions evolve over the next three decades to ensure a conflict-free future by 2050? Is that type of evolution even possible in 30 years? Or, might the hope of a conflict-free future be too big and complex a problem to achieve?


Prevalent non-state actors include the vast number of African tribal groups, American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and Chinese State-Owned Enterprises (SOE). Being a continent where tribal affiliations are stronger than national affiliations, non-state actors enhance the complexity of the continent. The actions and decisions of non-state actors – whether tribal groups, NGOs or SOEs for example - create avenues for greater division and strife throughout African regions. With African governments greatly influenced by tribal affiliations, non-state actors have heavy influence with national cohesion and local governments. In addition to the tribal influences, the Great Powers bring an added layer of complexity to conflicts.


Conflict is created when a non-state actor influences a party to take power from another party. Seeds are sown for growing - and cyclical - conflict through corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power. The growing violence and presence of armed groups along the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Great Lake States is merely one example of how non-state actors exacerbate existing conflicts among African nations. Ethnic divisions, fractured relationships, and power struggles shape much of the present conflict.


Another thirty years of tribal warfare, religious rivalries, and armed groups inhabiting the area will certainly not need to a conflict-free future – if any viable future to imagine. A continuation of groups vying for power or asserting dominance over weaker groups will not bring about a conflict-free future. How can this cycle of conflict be broken? Is a conflict-free future even possible? If so, how might non-state actors bring unity toward a conflict-free future? If not, what will happen in the coming decades if the conflict cycle continues? The cyclical, patterned power-based conflicts will not bring about intra-continental cooperation, help foster local entrepreneurship, or allow for critical infrastructure to be established. And, without those aspects, what type of future is possible for the African people?


© Sarah Skidmore 2020

Tags:  Africa  conflict  non-state actors 

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