The Africa Series: A review


This week’s blog briefly reviews the ongoing series on conflict in Africa, which thus far has covered Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of these, Somalia has been in continuous conflict the longest, with the current conflict taking place between al Shabaab and the Transitional National Government (TNG). South Sudan is a relatively new country, emerging from the Sudanese civil war in 2011, with a dispute between the President and Vice-President escalating into a civil war exacerbated by ethnic differences. In the Central African Republic (CAR) fighting broke out between the government and the Seleka rebel coalition in 2012 and the Seleka took power and were dissolved by their leader. Since then rival militias have emerged along ethnic and religious lines, or due to simple opportunism and the results have been brutal. Finally, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which is purportedly at peace after the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement ended the Second Congo War in 2003, there has been continuing violence in the east of the country and a recent flaring of violence in its Kasai Central region. The former is due to opportunism and banditry over valuable resources alongside the ethnic differences and regional rivalries that provided the spark for the Second Congo War (this includes the Hutu-Tutsi conflict). The latter began over a regional succession of power that linked in with a political crisis between the government and the opposition but quickly became an ethnic one, spawning numerous rival militias and provoking brutal action by the Congolese Army.

This would all make Africa seem a searing mass of violence driven by ethnic differences. It should be made clear that this is not the case. Firstly, this blog derives from a website focused on conflict analysis and resolution, meaning that the focus will be explicitly on current cases of armed conflict, whether in Africa or not. One of the blog’s aims is to provide a focus on conflicts in Africa that do not get the attention they warrant outside of Africa where attention is more focused on events in the northern hemisphere. Another aim is to understand better conflict resolution within Africa and local and regional approaches towards the ending of armed violence. Secondly, the focus on armed conflict generally excludes the countries that are peaceful and are more concerned with the more mundane but crucial matters of their economy and political representation. Even within the countries suffering from violence there are hotspots of violence and other areas that are comparatively unaffected and continue as normal. Thirdly, the causes of the conflicts covered are not ethnic, even if ethnicity comes to form a major identifying factor, but relate to whom holds power over whom, the level of representation in society, and who controls what resources in a given area. Identification with an ethnic group is a matter of birth, not personal choice, and ethnicity comes to the fore in terms of how one is identified by someone else. While ethnicity is not a root cause of conflict, it does become a major source of difference when it is politicised.

A general overview of the four cases presented in the blog so far indicates general patterns in terms of the consequences of the conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, the CAR and the DRC. The most devastating is the overall impact of violence on the local populations, notably in the form of human rights violations, access to medical care and employment, and the availability of food. The scarcity of medical care and food has led to famines and outbreaks of disease that would not normally have occurred or could have been mitigated. The lack of employment means that people cannot buy food or access medical care even if it is available and are then dependent on humanitarian aid or local conflict economies. The outcome is that people move, en mass, to other parts of the country or across the border into neighbouring countries, thus becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees. Aside from the sheer cost of hosting refugees this brings with it the potential for instability in the host country and contributes to the development of what are known as regional conflict complexes. Refugees are rarely welcome, wherever they go, and even the nominally advanced economies of the EU states do not prevent political differences over what to do about refugees. The human rights violations that have taken place in South Sudan, the CAR and the DRC have included mass murder, rape and torture, all of which require the victims to have been dehumanised in the eyes of the perpetrators. The majority of casualties in the four cases are civilians, often on the basis of their ethnic or religious identity. Human rights violations are so evident in the conflicts that the CARIS website covers that a Human Rights Advisor was recruited.

Contributing to the emergence of armed conflict in the four cases is the existence of previous conflicts that have either carried on locally after a national or regional peace agreement or are new ones resulting from unequal political representation after such agreements. In the wake of major conflicts new governments are notoriously fragile, relying on either military capability or promises of better political representation while at the same time attempting to rebuild their country. Without outside help this is near impossible, but the benefits can be seen in Western Europe and the Marshall Aid provided to countries rebuilding after the Second World War. Without the resources to rebuild and effective political accountability corruption and profiteering is enabled and politics risks becoming dominated by religious and ethnic identities with politicians mobilising their support along ethnic lines. At the local level economies become vulnerable to warlords who will exploit the situation for their own benefit. A further contributing factor is lack of security as this depends on rule by consent and effective but impartial control of the territory within a country’s borders. Without genuine and equal political representation the army and the police are unable to police by consent and provide security, leaving the vacuum to be filled by militias raised for a multitude of reasons, including self-defence, but which have the tendency to revert to ethnic cleansing, rape and opportunism. The security vacuum that is evident in all four cases has been mitigated by the UN and contributions from regional organisations such as the EU and AU as well as interventions by individual external actors. These are frequently undermanned and, in case of the UN in particular, require the consent of the parties involved in a conflict to carry out peacekeeping. This is much more difficult when a conflict is in fact a number of micro-conflicts involving an alphabet soup of armed groups and the forces of the government are implicated in human rights violations. The solution in the CAR’s eastern provinces was to revert to peacemaking by actively fighting major militias but if this becomes a general norm then the UN becomes a participant in conflict instead of providing the space for conflicts to transition to non-violence.

This short review indicates that lack of political representation and lack of security are key contributors to armed conflicts in the four cases covered. In South Sudan, the CAR and the DRC government forces, their opposition, and myriad armed groups and militias of varying size have all been involved in human rights violations against civilians resulting in humanitarian refugee crises. In all four cases there has been substantial intervention by external actors, including the UN and regional organisations, to mitigate the consequences of the violence, provide mediation, and to put peacekeepers on the ground.  The full story cannot be covered in one blog and the reader is encouraged to read the previous blogs on Somalia, South Sudan, the CAR and the DRC where the origins and nature of the armed conflicts in each country are covered in more detail, as are the attempts to end the violence and potential solutions.

The blogs can be accessed at the CARIS website, which has links for Twitter and Facebook:

Next week, the blog returns to the situation in Syria for an update on events there.

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

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