Most of the times Africa makes the international news agenda, it is because of some catastrophe, a terrible disease like Ebola, or, as is often the case, war.
The scene is predictably repetitive: soldiers in dirty fatigues and gumboots, chains of belts strung across their chests, walking through some bushy landscape past bodies lying in pools of blood. If it is an urban contest, the images could be of soldiers riding through a dusty village on a jeep with a machine gun bobbing on the roof.
Close your eyes and point to the map of Africa and you could easily stick your finger in a country with some form of war going on, from South Sudan to Somalia, Central African Republic to Mali.
It is sometimes hard to tell that Africa is the most peaceful it has been in almost 50 years! The guns long fell silent in countries like Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Angola and Liberia. DR Congo is not yet out of the woods but it is more peaceful today than it was 15 years ago, and even our own northern Uganda is about to celebrate a decade of not having war.
The bigger problem we face today is not that there are too many wars in Africa. It is that they are the wrong wars. Every war, with its capacity for destruction, is a terrible thing. Some wars, however, are a double tragedy for, on top of the violence and mayhem, they are fought over nothingness.
The fight against the Apartheid Regime in South Africa claimed its victims but it was a good war, as were the anti-colonial wars in Zimbabwe, Namibia and elsewhere.
A fight over control and use of the River Nile would be terrible all around but it would be a war over principle and an attempt to correct a historical colonial injustice that gave Egypt dominion over upstream countries.
Similarly, a war against Somalia to end piracy and the spill-over insecurity in the region has consequences but it is a ‘good’ war to fight, as would a war to ensure open access for African products to foreign markets or raw materials.
Yet the wars we are fighting are either fuelled by the small, parochial interests of greed, tribe, or religion. The failure to distribute the spoils of independence in South Sudan sparked a political contest that turned into war and lit the torch paper of ethnicity. Now the country has been brought to its knees as Nuer hunt Dinka and Dinka hunt Nuer, as if those differences in tribe and ethnicity are what feeds the children of South Sudan.
In the Central African Republic and Nigeria, communities that lived side-by-side for centuries now slaughter each other over religions – Islam and Christianity – that in some cases did not exist in those societies 200 years ago.
In Somalia, al-Shabaab took religious extremism to the realm of madness, banning people from sport, watching television and other ordinary activities.
The Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram, has made large swathes of Nigeria ungovernable through bombings, kidnappings and killings. Yet they do not fight to rid Nigeria of its notoriously corrupt elite or to force the government to reform the oil sector to benefit ordinary Nigerians. These dreaded merchants of death are driven primarily by opposition to – wait till you hear it – Western-style education!
It would, of course, be nice to have peace across the continent, in the same way that it would be nice for lambs to rest in the bosoms of lions. It would be more acceptable if the wars we fought were over substance, not over rosaries and surnames. Peace would be nice, thank-you-very-much, but if we can’t have it, let’s go to war for the right reasons.