The finding that violent conflict has declined, especially after the Cold War, has generated a great deal of interest. Much of the initial debate focused on whether the claim itself is correct, but the finding itself seems robust in the sense that that the number and severity of violent conflicts has declined in most data sources. However, there has been less attention to why violent conflict has declined. This is unfortunate, since the confidence in stability and the expected future outlook ultimately depends on understanding the possible causes of the decline.
The era of foreign intervention in Syria is coming to an end – at least that’s what Russian President Vladimir Putin said when Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, visited Sochi last week. Granted, Putin’s statement was ambiguous – “in connection with the significant victories … of the Syrian army … foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic” – but Russia’s Syria envoy clarified the next day that Putin was, in fact, calling on all militaries to vacate the country.
At the recent Kuwait International Conference on Reconstruction of Iraq, countries and international organizations pledged US$30 billion to reconstruct Iraq after years of war, falling well short of the US$80 billion estimated necessary by the Iraqi government. As this case aptly demonstrates, civil wars create lasting damage that can take decades to overcome. Despite such huge costs, the international community struggles to find effective ways to prevent conflict escalation, relegating their involvement to the post-conflict reconstruction phase. But might there be ways to address conflicts before they erupt into all out war?
As with most civil wars, the war in Yemen is marked by the influence of outside actors. It began in September 2014, when the Iranian-backed Houthis took over the capital Sana’a, and it might well have ended six months later, when the president fled a Houthi advance on Aden. Instead, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of ten Arab countries—supported by the United States—in an air and ground campaign against the Houthis. Since then, the war has ground on, with a new dimension of fighting opening recently between southern secessionist militias—many of which receive support from the United Arab Emirates—and government forces backed by the Saudi coalition. Since taking office, the Trump administration has increased American air strikes in Yemen six fold.
50 years after Nigeria’s then Eastern Region declared itself the Republic of Biafra, sparking a brutal and costly three-year civil war, the country again faces a separatist challenge. Across the Igbo south east, there is resurgent agitation for an independent Biafra state.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s forceful response to the agitation has been counter-productive, inflaming passions and boosting separatist sentiments. The government needs to change course and prioritise dialogue over coercion.
The starting point of any response is to understand the agitation’s roots. They include political and economic grievances, a deep sense of collective victimisation among the Igbo, and the failure of south east politicians to provide good governance and development.