DEPENDING on which part of the continent you live and your circumstances in life, the onset of the rainy season is usually either a cue to patch up those nuisance leaks in your roof, or to spend your hard-earned money on fancy wet weather gear.
But in the battlefields of Africa, rain introduces a different dynamic, and can often mean the difference between life and death, a crushing loss or an exhilarating victory, or good-humoured talks and nasty exchanges.
Nowhere has this been more recently apparent than in the conflicts raging in South Sudan and Somalia.
South Sudan’s internecine conflict has just entered its ninth month, and the grim numbers continue to pile up: thousands killed and more than 1.5 million displaced.
Reluctant peace makers
Last week an exasperated United Nations Security Council threatened sanctions against uncompromising leaders from both warring sides following wide frustration that neither President Salva Kiir or his political nemesis Riek Machar seem to want a genuine peace deal, and are cannily holding out for a military win.
One of the markers of the conflict in Africa’s youngest nation has been the flagrant violation of an increasing number of ceasefire deals, as an August 10 deadline for a transitional government passed without progress. And true to form, fighting has again restarted, with heavy clashes recorded in Jonglei and Unity states.
It is no coincidence that the renewed hostilities have come in the last days of the country’s abundant rainy season, which often starts in April and peters out towards October.
The ensuing conditions considerably hinder movement of both fighters and war machinery, and it is easier to track rebels’ track in the rain. In addition to the cold, diseases also torment combatants more. In South Sudan during the war against Khartoum, SPLA fighters who had homes on the Ugandan side would hang their AK47s, cross to farm and work their gardens during the rainy season, and go back into Sudan to fight after the rains.
The result of these factors is that in South Sudan warring sides are usually happy to hold their positions, and in recent times content to attend peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which have made little movement.
From Somalia to Mali
The same rain-driven patterns of combat are evident in Somalia. There troops from the 22,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force (Amisom) and Somali government soldiers last week clashed with powerful warlord Ahmed Dai in what observers said was heavy fighting even by Mogadishu standards.
The fighting killed nearly 15 people nearby. Dai, who is now on the run, leads a powerful militia in the city that even provides protection to visiting foreigners.
Amisom is conducting a disarmament process, and big caches of Dai’s weapons were seized. More than 500,000 guns are believed to be in circulation in Somalia, which has been lawless since 1991 following the collapse of the central government.
The operation was part of a campaign launched earlier this month against militias. It is also seen as the restart of the offensive against Al-Shabaab, the first phase which saw Amisom make a string of territorial gains against the Al-Qaeda-allied terror group at the start of the year.
The push however slowed down at the onset of the country’s unpredictable rains, which are pinned down to between April and June, following which was the holy month of Ramadan. Amisom often finds that it can’t move its tanks, one of its most formidable weapons against the Shabaab, and the militants too can’t put their mounted pick-ups, popularly called “technicals”, to good effect.
Because of these lulls, warring sides are often more amenable to peace talks.
Mali negotiations have in recent months gained momentum, with the bulk of the country’s rainfall coming in July and August, as have the stuttering meetings in the Central African Republic (CAR), whose wet season overlaps these months.
In addition to “space” being granted for farmers to plant crops, another factor is that the wet season also complicates aid operations. Humanitarian agencies report difficulties in moving food and medicine for the hungry, while diseases also set in among refugee populations, from pneumonia to cholera, spurred by overcrowding and unsanitary practices.
Rainy season public relations
Those deteriorated conditions often bring the plight of the refugees into sharp focus, leading to a barrage of global headlines as agencies put out appeals for donor funding, and urge for the opening of transport corridors.
Control of the main roads is often a big prize in war, and rival sides take a lot of political mileage from having been seen as facilitating help to refugees, despite their being responsible for the suffering.
Even rebel groups often have other reasons to be grateful for the rainy season - a big blow for Al-Shabaab came due to Somalia’s drought in 2011, which claimed between 50,000 and 260,000 lives. The famine was announced in areas majorly controlled by the militia group, which for political reasons refused foreign aid. It was a mistake that turned out to be a huge public relations disaster for the group.
In past years rainy seasons around the continent have tended to be more predictable, but climate change is making these forecasts difficult.
This is not also helped by the fact that Africa is already one of the regions in the world that received the highest levels of sunshine, as the map shows. Much of the continent records between 2,000 and 3,000 hours of sunshine, and in the Maghreb this is often goes well above this.
Negotiators in African conflicts—especially those that are long-running—often account for this rain factor in their planning, though few would admit it, preferring to instead refer to “realities on the ground”.
Perhaps the continent’s future lies in the outcome of various climate change mitigations resolutions - conflict negotiators will hope these are effective enough to bring back long rainy seasons.