Why Africa is Haunted by Wars…

Nachdem mein Dozent die verwirrende Frage aufgeworfen hat, warum Afrika denn staendig von Kriegen heimgesucht werde, begab ich mich auf eine kleine Reise der Suche. Einer Suche nach Gruenden, Wurzeln und Annahmen ueber das Schicksal dieses Kontinents:

Why Africa is haunted by war?
When talking about Africa, most Westerners immediately connect the term with darkness, poverty, war and disease, giving rise to the term “Afro-pessimism,” coined by Robert Kaplan in the 1990s. Africa has constantly been defined as a continent doomed by chaos and instability, the “Heart of Darkness”, mainly reduced to this negative notion.
But what is behind of this assumption? Although the usual person might already understand that there is more behind Africa, than this simplified negative ascription, it might be legitimate to ask why there are so many wars and armed conflicts particularly on the African Continent.
In the following, this article aims to examine some of the most common arguments concerning this question.
But first of all, let us turn to the difficulty of the question itself. The heading question does a mistake of gross simplifications in treating Africa like one big country.

When asking why Africa is haunted by war on might equally ask why the United States, China, India, Western Europe and Japan are haunted by problems. Given the vast territory of the African continent, the religious and cultural diversity, as well as the uniqueness in national histories, the question itself seems quite obsolete in terms of proficient conflict analysis.
However, we can find various comments and reflections on this very question, and it seems valuable enough to approach to the arguments. Gettleman argues that the wars we currently perceive on the African continent are not wars in the traditional sense. The notion of “New Wars” has become quite popular in the last 20 years – classifying a new form of wars that are self-nourishing. Mostly, so the argument, the combatants don’t have a clear ideology or goals, and are uninterested in winning converts.
But indeed, fightings are often about access to resources, such as mineral wealth like gold, diamonds, Coltan or uranium or even about political goals. So they are not literally fighting for no reason. Of course, one should approach various single conflict constellations in order to find their context and motivation. But in general we can assume that there are in fact motivations for fightings, even if we have to dig deep in order to find them. We have to examine social and political context, international economic issues and a number of further perspectives in order to fully grasp issues in appropriate context. Simplistic views offer little understanding of the complexities of causes for civil wars.
Gettleman, in his article, states that any negotiation would be useless, because rebel groups “don’t want ministries or tracts of land to govern – all they want is cash, guns, and a license to rampage”. He assumes that the only option to stop today’s rebels is to capture or kill their leaders (e.g. Jonas Savimbi in Angola, or Charles Taylor in Liberia). When looking at the persistence of particular armed rebel groups in the DRC, there might be some point of truth in this idea. The leader of the armed wing of the M23 movement, Sultani Makenga, for example, was continuously present in the rebel groups AFDL, RCD-Goma, CNDP, and M23 – so maybe getting rid of him would have weakened the persistence of those groups.

Global media tend to reduce the complexity of African conflicts in particular to the standard argument of ethnic, tribal and clan hatred. They assume that ethnic cleavages in Africa are the source of domestic instability and conflict.
In fact, there is proof to be found when looking at the organization structure of many rebel groups and even political parties. Often, they seem to be based on clan, tribal, or ethnic lines, and politicians and often play upon ethnic differences and identity for personal power.
In praxis, group friction alone is not sufficient to create armed clashes. They may intensify us vs them attitudes and increase ingroup-solidarity, but as long as there is a strong state to serve as a mediating platform for diversity between social groups, it’s possible to balance conflict.
In an extremely weak state, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, identity politics may easily be misused by rebel leaders and local politicians.

Using models of the overall incidence of civil wars in 161 countries between 1960 and 1999, we draw lessons with special reference to Africa, showing that the relatively higher incidence of war in Africa is not due to the ethno-linguistic fragmentation of its countries, but rather to high levels of poverty, failed political institutions and economic dependence on natural resources .

An acknowledged empirical finding in the academic research of International Relations, has stated the theory of “Democratic Peace”, which basically proves that democracies are less likely to enter into war with another democracies. In this context, also nascent democracies and any forms of autocracies increase the likelihood of war. Unlike mature democracies, that own established institutions of balancing and public participation, nascent democracies still lack mechanisms to avoid entrance into war. Closely linked to this factor is the impact of state weakness and state failure. In failed and weak states, courts are corrupt, police are underpaid, armies tend to be under-funded and untrained, education systems tend to be bankrupt, basic health care is unavailable to most people, and elections are often fraudulent. That is why several African governments are often deeply involved in fueling ethnic violence between groups. In the absence of the rule of law, what limited economic activity takes place usually concentrated in diamond mines, plantations, or oil wells. This circle opens a path for civil war and armed rebellions.
Another aspect that increase the likelihood of war is colonial legacy. In the Southern hemisphere, particularly in Africa, former colonial rulers had created artificial boundaries that accommodated a great extent of cultural and ethnic diversity. Most of the current borders still reflect the way Africa was divided between the colonial powers since the Berlin Conference of 1884/85. These borders that were drawn by colonialists, neglected former structures of governance. Not much is needed to understand that it contributed to internal tension among newly formed nations, particularly in countries where a single ethnic group gained dominance and replaced pre-colonial structures.
Moreover, colonial administrations used classic “divide and conquer” techniques to get local people to help administer colonial administration . In most areas, colonial administrations did not have the manpower or resources to fully administer territory and had to rely on local power structures, thus creating factions and groups within the societies which exploited this situation for gaining positions of power.
The strive for independence and for rebuilding is still proving difficult and in no case fully completed:
“We must remember that the European agreements that had carved up Africa into states paid little attention to cultural and ethnic boundaries and ethnic groups had little opportunity or need to form political alliances or accommodations under repressive colonial rule.… Think of countries such as Canada, which has been trying for hundreds of years with mixed success to accommodate only two linguistic groups — English and French — and you get an idea of the problems of African states with far greater cultural and linguistic divisions. — Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 2002), p. 302

Furthermore, economic conditions affect the likelihood of war. A legacy of colonialism can be observed in rent-seeking elites that had continued the exploitation of Africa’s wealth.
A high level of development can reduce ethnic rivalries, but might on the other hand substitute class conflicts for tribal conflicts
International trade and economic arrangements have done little to benefit developing countries and has further exacerbated the problem of poverty. IMF/World Bank policies like Structural Adjustment have aggressively opened up developing nations with disastrous effects, including the requirements to cut back on health, education (and AIDS is a huge problem), public services and so on, while growing food and extracting resources for export primarily, etc.
Such policies have resulted in an increased poverty of Sub-Saharan Africa and immense burdens of state debt of those countries, which limit self-reliant domestic policy options.
Also, corporate interests, exploitation, corruption and other issues play a major role. Their lack of support for basic rights in the region, plus a lack of supporting institutions, as well as the international community’s political will to do something about it and help towards building peace and stability has also been a factor. Where there is ethnic diversity, there is actually less chance for civil wars, as long as there not a great extent of ethnic polarization.
Evidentially, these factors are just some of the most crucial causes to explain wars in Africa. Most of them are complementary and reinforcing each other, creating cycles of poor governance, corruption and mismanagement.
African countries are prone to violence because their colonial past has left their governments extraordinarily weak. With rent-seeking elites and international economic imbalances, national levels of wealth tend to be low and unequally distributed, creating a basis for conflict and insurgency.
Referring to the initial question, we have to acknowledge another tendency, which may be hard to accept with our basic perception of Africa as the failed continent – in fact, African wars do end. Data from Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Program show that between 1999 and 2006 the number of “state-based” conflicts in the region had dropped by more than half. Even the amounts of civil wars have dramatically decreased .
In fact today – with exception of some failed states such as Somalia, DR Congo, and Zimbabwe – most African countries are politically stable and are achieving stable economic growth.
So, when we ask the question, why Africa is haunted by war, we should better examine the context and conditions of the specific war we are talking about.

Social Conflict and political Violence in Africa Written by Jesse Driscoll, Ph.D. student, Political Science, Stanford University
Shah, Anup. “Conflicts in Africa—Introduction.” Global Issues. 12 May. 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.
Basil Enwegbara: Why is Africa unstable?
Jeffrey Gettleman, Africa’s forever Wars. Why the continent’s conflicts never end. in Foreign Policy Magazine, March/April 2010

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