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Disaster and Intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa: Learning from Rwanda

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | September 1994

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Human disasters born of armed conflict will continue to plague Sub-Saharan Africa. When the American people demand engagement, the U.S. military, especially the Army/Air Force team, responds effectively and efficiently when local order has collapsed or when local authorities resist relief efforts. The better that Army planners and leaders understand the nature of African conflict and the better they've prepared before such conflicts occur, the greater the likelihood the Army can fulfill the public's expectations at minimum cost to other efforts.

Why Rwanda Happened.

Human disasters in Sub-Saharan Africa are characterized by widespread famine and disease, and often by large refugee movements which overwhelm precarious systems of public health and provision. They are almost always the direct or indirect result of organized violence combined with economic stagnation and disintegration, population pressure, ecological decay, and regional conflict. Some are deliberately engineered by a regime or local authorities to punish opponents, derail a separatist movement, or undercut support for an insurgency. Others are accidental, occurring when authority collapses.

Because of its combination of a history of primal violence, intra-elite struggle, a weak economy, proximity to conflict-ridden neighbors, and a lack of outside interest, Rwanda was especially vulnerable to human disaster. In many ways, the crisis of 1994 was the inevitable result of 50 years of misrule, repression, and violence.

Strategic Concepts.

When the United States joins a disaster relief operation in Sub-Saharan Africa, our objectives must be limited. The U.S. military's long-term objective should be only to establish or reestablish civilian control that meets minimum standards of human rights. The limits of our interests and the extent of our global commitments simply will not allow sustained, expensive engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa. The key to increasing efficiency and effectiveness in disaster intervention is establishing and refining concepts and procedures. At the highest level, the United States must make a number of key strategic decisions before engaging in disaster intervention:

  • When to intervene;
  • Force mix and authority relationships; and,
  • Exit strategy.

The specific contribution of the Army will depend, in part, on whether a disaster is controlled or uncontrolled.


The disaster in Rwanda supports several long-standing ideas important to American policymakers and strategists:

  • Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa is multidimensional;
  • In African politics, personalities are vital;
  • In areas of limited direct or tangible national interests, the United States is unlikely to preempt a conflict or intervene to stop a war;
  • The United States needs to help develop better multinational mechanisms to respond to African disaster before crises happen;
  • For the U.S. military, there is no substitute for experience at disaster relief in Sub-Saharan Africa;
  • The Army/Air Force team will bear the brunt of future disaster relief efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa;
  • While EUCOM will bear the major responsibility for planning African disaster relief, the Army and Air Force staffs should be more directly involved;
  • Disaster relief strains Army Active Component combat support and combat service support resources;

  • Disaster relief should not be considered a primary Army mission.

Army commanders might consider humanitarian relief in Sub-Saharan Africa a distraction from their principal warfighting mission, but they will probably be called on to perform these kinds of operations in the future.