Zones of conflict: challenge to African unity

There is a new danger plaguing Africa: zones of conflict are expanding into regional wars that take an ever-increasing human toll.

In the recent past, Africa was wracked by wars for liberation from colonial rule, coups d’etat by military commanders, and civil wars stemming from age-old conflicts. More recently, conflicts have begun to spill over national borders, particularly in West Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes Region and Central Africa bordering Sudan.

Africa is a massive and complex continent, rich in human, material and cultural wealth. But most Africans have not shared in the continent’s wealth.

Although 50 years have passed since the decolonization of Africa, starting with the independence of Ghana in 1957, virtually every African nation is saddled by the burden of the colonial past.

The European colonial powers carved up Africa in the 1800s, creating artificial political boundaries and splitting up or merging ethnic groups at the stroke of a pen. The legacy of those divisions lives on in some of the regional conflicts of today.

And foreign domination in Africa is not just a thing of the past. The current imperialist policies of European countries, the United States and Japan, along with the policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, help keep Africa poor and underdeveloped.

These policies perpetuate the exploitation of the continent. They also inflate national military budgets, something the peoples of Africa can ill afford.

Giant multinational corporations control the extraction of valuable mineral resources and therefore reap most of the rewards of Africa’s wealth. What wealth does stay in African countries rarely makes it to the hands of working people.

The G8 countries, representing the biggest imperialist powers on the globe, met in Canada in 2002 and discussed Africa, among other things. They blamed Africa itself for its problems.

In response, two organizations, Action for Southern Africa and World Development Movement, issued a statement that reads, in part, “It is undeniable that there has been poor governance, corruption and mismanagement in Africa. However … the context [is] the legacy of colonialism, the support of the G8 for repressive regimes in the Cold War, the creation of the debt trap, the massive failure of Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank, and the deeply unfair rules on international trade.”

The groups called on the G8 countries to end “the unjust policies that are inhibiting Africa’s development.”

Sudan and Darfur

The U.S. media rarely covers African developments. That has changed to an extent with the conflict in Darfur. The humanitarian crisis there has become a cause célèbre in the U.S., and the call for military intervention in Sudan has become an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

On July 31, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to send peacekeeping forces to the Darfur region of Sudan in East Africa. The 26,000 UN and African Union (AU) troops will constitute the largest peacekeeping force on the globe today and will replace the 7,400 AU peacekeepers already stationed in Darfur. Their stated mission is to protect the 6 million civilians in the region who have been the main victims of the conflict.

The brutal loss of life in Darfur, totaling anywhere from 200,000-400,000 deaths, is a catastrophe, and international pressure is important to put a stop to the killing. But the conflict is not a simple “ethnic conflict,” as some in the West see it.

Understanding that Darfur is part of a regional conflict that includes Sudan and neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic is essential to finding lasting solutions.

Darfur is a large region in western Sudan, roughly comparable to the size of California. The armed conflict there emerged just as a decade-long civil war in the south of Sudan was ending.

Local groups with long-standing conflicts with the central government in Khartoum erupted in revolt. Some of the groups made demands for reform in Sudanese policies toward the region. Others claimed the right for Darfur to secede. Some of the groups are based in Chad.

Khartoum responded with force. By most accounts, President Omar al-Bashir — who was commander of the military coup that took power in 1989 and subsequently became president in 1993 — supported the brutal suppression of the rebel groups.

Mounted local militias, called the janjaweed, clashed with these groups, raided villages and killed many civilians. UN workers and observers have documented thousands of human rights abuses by the janjaweed, including torture and rape.

What is happening in Darfur is certainly a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions. There is no doubt that Khartoum is backing these activities. The Sudanese military has reportedly assisted in some of the attacks.

Taking a bigger view

The problem, however, is that many concerned groups in the U.S. and elsewhere fail to see Darfur in a broader context.

As the Communist Party of the Sudan notes, “The Darfur problem is a part of the overall crisis of the Sudan” and any solutions must be a “project for national unity which could be agreed upon by all Sudanese parties aiming at paving the way for peace, unity, democracy and equitable development in the country.”

Left out of the equation of causes and solutions by some is the role played by neighboring Chad, a country ruled by another dictatorship, which is funding, supporting and encouraging armed rebellion in Darfur for its own reasons. Direct military conflict between Sudan and Chad broke out around the time of the Darfur crisis. The two countries signed a cease-fire in 2006.

What are these reasons for such conflict? Some explanation can be found in the vast oil and mineral wealth located in the Darfur region. Local and foreign interests — including the U.S. and European corporations — are willing to fight hard for the control of such wealth.

Ecological problems are also at work. Many years of drought, along with an encroaching Sahara Desert, have driven hundreds of thousands from their homes in search for arable land for farming and livestock grazing.

No easy answers

Easy answers for Africa are sure to be off the mark. Sudan is a huge country with a rich and complex history, many tribal and clan groups, and different cultures and languages, not to mention Muslims, Christians and those practicing traditional religions.

The civil war that plagued Sudan for more than a decade was largely between the Muslim rulers in Khartoum and the Christians and animists in the south of the country. The conflict in Darfur is between Muslims on the one side and Muslims on the other side, too. Some have described the conflict as “ethnic” in nature, pitting “Arab Black African Muslims” against “non-Arab Black African Muslims.” Others, particularly Sudanese commentators, say this observation shows a misunderstanding of Sudanese identity and culture.

A 2004 power-sharing agreement, which ended the civil war in the south of Sudan, did not solve the social and political crisis, a crisis that has been aggravated by a theocratic, Islamic dictatorship at the country’s helm. The Communists say only a national “democratic transformation” can resolve the crisis.

Darfur is therefore more complex than many people realize. And well-meaning individuals could help fan the flames of regional war by invoking calls for direct U.S. military action in the region.

The Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa includes the eastern African countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti. The Horn has been called the most militarized region in the world; it contains the only sub-Saharan U.S. military base, in Djibouti. The Horn is strategically located as well, butting up against the Middle East and with access to the Indian Ocean.

Today, the major conflict stems from a destabilized and increasingly fractured Somalia. Somalia, a primarily Muslim nation, has had no central government for over 15 years, ever since a disputed president was overthrown and the country was divided up between regional powers and self-serving warlords.

More recently, the U.S. bombarded the country and Washington encouraged the government of predominantly Christian Ethiopia to invade and unseat the Islamic Courts Union that had established rule in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.

The Bush administration claims the ICU leaders are connected to Al-Qaida and is therefore a legitimate target in the “war on terrorism.” Although Ethiopia has since pulled out, it claims the “right” to strike against Somalia or to invade again in order to defend its “national interests,” as does the U.S.

Another intervention would likely further destabilize the country and worsen the refugee crisis. Ethiopia has also continued saber rattling over border conflicts with Eritrea, which it previously occupied.

The Great Lakes

The Great Lakes region is the area surrounding the Rift Valley lakes such as the famous Lake Victoria. The countries in this region include Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and others.

In a series of well-documented events, the first elected president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, an ethnic Hutu, was assassinated in 1993, sparking a well-planned genocidal retaliation by Hutu rebels against masses of Tutsi civilians. This provoked further retaliation by the Tutsi-run military, ultimately resulting in over 100,000 deaths. But the bloodletting was not over.

The following year, a helicopter carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, sparking a massive civilian slaughter in Rwanda of upwards of 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis.

The conflict in Rwanda and Burundi eventually spilled over into Zaire (now DR Congo). Neighboring Uganda and Rwanda invaded DR Congo. Other countries, including Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, sent troops in support of the government forces of DR Congo. It was the closest Africa has come to a full continental war. The war in the DR Congo officially raged from 1998 to 2003, but fighting continues to smolder in the eastern part of the country.

The war in DR Congo has claimed an unthinkable 4 million lives in less than 10 years. At its height, the war there involved troops or proxies for 12 African countries. This crisis never much reached the U.S. media nor received the same attention as Darfur has.

African solutions exist

Ending the spiraling conflicts in Africa is essential to laying the basis for peaceful development, security for civilians and economic progress. The risk of continent-wide conflict has never been greater, but neither has the potential for continental unity.

African leaders met at the Summit of the African Union in Accra, Ghana, July 1-3, to discuss prospects for open borders and a unified currency and security force. Such a project, first envisioned by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, is by any measure far off and uncertain. But the African leaders have reasserted the principle that Africans must solve African problems themselves, along with support from the international community.

The AU and its member states have played a decisive role in bringing peace to Africa’s regional conflicts. The AU has helped negotiate peace agreements in Darfur, DR Congo and Ethiopia, for instance. The diplomatic role played by countries like South Africa, including its former president, Nelson Mandela, have also contributed to peace on the continent.

It is clear that true African unity and cooperative peaceful development between African nations will only come when Europe and the U.S., primarily the G8 countries, come to the table with resources and political will to assist Africa in solving its problems in the interests of the people, and not the profit of a few, whether native or foreign.

Prescriptions for change, funds with strings attached and military action will only fan the flames of war and conflict in Africa. Deeper solutions rooted in a full understanding of the historical and economic origins of conflict, based on international cooperation and peacekeeping led by Africans, are the only hope to put out the fires for good.

Libero Della Piana studied in Liberia and has traveled to African countries several times.


Libero Della Piana
Libero Della Piana

Libero Della Piana, the Senior Strategist at Just Strategy, has thirty years of experience as a writer and organizer for social movement organizations. His writing has been featured in such publications as The Forge, Colorlines, Black Commentator, and People's World. Libero was born and grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and lives in East Harlem, N.Y.