Child soldiers are an inextricable part of these movements. The LRA, for example, never seized territory; it seized children. Its ranks are filled with brainwashed boys and girls who ransack villages and pound newborn babies to death in wooden mortars. In Congo, as many as one-third of all combatants are under 18. Since the new predatory style of African warfare is motivated and financed by crime, popular support is irrelevant to these rebels. The downside to not caring about winning hearts and minds, though, is that you don't win many recruits. So abducting and manipulating children becomes the only way to sustain the organized banditry. And children have turned out to be ideal weapons: easily brainwashed, intensely loyal, fearless, and, most importantly, in endless supply.
In this new age of forever wars, even Somalia looks different. That country certainly evokes the image of Africa's most chaotic state -- exceptional even in its neighborhood for unending conflict. But what if Somalia is less of an outlier than a terrifying forecast of what war in Africa is moving toward? On the surface, Somalia seems wracked by a religiously themed civil conflict between the internationally backed but feckless transitional government and the Islamist militia al-Shabab. Yet the fighting is being nourished by the same old Somali problem that has dogged this desperately poor country since 1991: warlordism. Many of the men who command or fund militias in Somalia today are the same ones who tore the place apart over the past 20 years in a scramble for the few resources left -- the port, airport, telephone poles, and grazing pastures.
Somalis are getting sick of the Shabab and its draconian rules -- no music, no gold teeth, even no bras. But what has kept locals in Somalia from rising up against foreign terrorists is Somalia's deeply ingrained culture of war profiteering. The world has let Somalia fester too long without a permanent government. Now, many powerful Somalis have a vested interest in the status quo chaos. One olive oil exporter in Mogadishu told me that he and some trader friends bought a crate of missiles to shoot at government soldiers because "taxes are annoying."
Most frightening is how many sick states like Congo are now showing Somalia-like symptoms. Whenever a potential leader emerges to reimpose order in Mogadishu, criminal networks rise up to finance his opponent, no matter who that may be. The longer these areas are stateless, the harder it is to go back to the necessary evil of government.
All this might seem a gross simplification, and indeed, not all of Africa's conflicts fit this new paradigm. The old steady -- the military coup -- is still a common form of political upheaval, as Guinea found out in 2008 and Madagascar not too long thereafter. I have also come across a few non-hoodlum rebels who seem legitimately motivated, like some of the Darfurian commanders in Sudan. But though their political grievances are well defined, the organizations they "lead" are not. Old-style African rebels spent years in the bush honing their leadership skills, polishing their ideology, and learning to deliver services before they ever met a Western diplomat or sat for a television interview. Now rebels are hoisted out of obscurity after they have little more than a website and a "press office" (read: a satellite telephone). When I went to a Darfur peace conference in Sirte, Libya, in 2007, I quickly realized that the main draw for many of these rebel "leaders" was not the negotiating sessions, but the all-you-can-eat buffet.
For the rest, there are the un-wars, these ceaseless conflicts I spend my days cataloging as they grind on, mincing lives and spitting out bodies. Recently, I was in southern Sudan working on a piece about the Ugandan Army's hunt for Kony, and I met a young woman named Flo. She had been a slave in the LRA for 15 years and had recently escaped. She had scarred shins and stony eyes, and often there were long pauses after my questions, when Flo would stare at the horizon. "I am just thinking of the road home," she said. It was never clear to her why the LRA was fighting. To her, it seemed like they had been aimlessly tramping through the jungle, marching in circles.
This is what many conflicts in Africa have become -- circles of violence in the bush, with no end in sight.