Africa: ending poverty remains key to halting armed conflicts

Better peacekeeping and peace enforcement by African governments may wind down the growing number of conflicts on the continent. But only social and economic change will prevent new ones – and that’s going to take time.

There are currently 28 countries in Africa involved in of affected by 21 armed conflicts. Their numbers have grown following a decrease in armed conflicts after the end of the Cold War. New ones have emerged, and they are principally rooted in the meagre levels of social and economic development that most African populations have to endure.

According to the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, armed conflicts have been increasing since the onset in 2008 of the global financial crisis, which has increased unemployment in poor countries across Africa. Poverty and conflict are probably nowhere more intertwined than in Africa, and capitalist crises elsewhere take a heavy toll on the continent.

As elsewhere in the world, present day conflicts in Africa have less often been interstate affairs between two or more countries. They are more likely to be between states and one or more groups inside their territories, spreading across borders, and sometimes involving intervention from other states. One example is the Boko Haram insurgency, which has mainly centred on the north of Nigeria but has spread to neighbouring Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

Some countries have more than one armed conflict on its territory. Wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have raged on separate fronts involving five different antagonists. In a number of cases there are several countries fighting the same enemy, such as the four states attacked by Boko Haram.

The civil war in South Sudan involves seven armed groups in nine of its ten states, added to which there is the cross-border insurgency of the Lord’s Resistance Army. LRA operations originated in Uganda and spread to the Central African Republic and DRC, in addition to Sudan.

There are also conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan involving rival nomadic clans or tribes in armed struggle for resources, such as water and grazing land, made scarce by environmental degradation. Environmental problems are already a cause of much migration elsewhere in Africa, and it is not hard to see how they will be linked to future conflicts.

But Africa’s armed conflicts remain largely out of sight and out of mind for the rest of the world. The age-long blanket dismissal of Africa as a hopeless case beset by war and famine remains widespread. Usually Africa’s wars attract mainstream attention only sporadically, when outside interests are at stake or the international news media attention clusters voyeuristically around the drama of a particular situation. For the most part the conflicts only register feebly in news media outside Africa.

Take the Democratic Republic of Congo. At least 5.4 million people – half of them children under five – were killed in the multi-antagonist war that raged from 1998 to 2003 and has rumbled on with less intensity until today. That vast casualty figure is a 2008 estimate. More recent estimates put it at 6 million. The conflict in the DRC is known as the Great War of Africa, a term hardly used outside Africa. This holocaust has attracted relatively little media or political attention in the West. The smaller but no less brutal war in Syria, which has claimed over 200 000 lives, has from the outset featured prominently in Western press coverage and public awareness.

Just why this is so is a story for another day. But one upshot of it is that for long the international community did nothing to try to bring about a peace settlement in the DRC. And the same is true of other areas. Though peacekeeping under various mandates is being used to deal with armed conflicts in Africa, the major powers and their intergovernmental organisations have applied nothing like the same conflict resolution efforts on the continent as they have elsewhere.

Bad history features prominently in Africa. The legacies of colonialism and how much they are to blame for present instability and other problems always feature in current debates within Africa about the state of the continent.

This has been especially so recently in South Africa, still relatively raw from its democratic genesis. The dysfunction inherited from colonialism and apartheid is conspicuous and not hard to differentiate from post-apartheid government shortcomings. Increasingly, the two are intertwined. Simmering social tensions over lack of services that are now happening in the form of xenophobic violence in poor areas are a blend of past legacies and government failures in ending poverty.

We see this combination elsewhere in Africa. Oppressive and corrupt governance coupled with ruinous history have provided fertile ground for armed conflicts. The footprint of colonialism, for example, is visible in the design of national borders. These reflect the carve-up of Africa by European imperial powers in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Among other developments, the scramble for Africa laid out the geo-political spaces that framed the course of conflicts far beyond the waves of national independence that started in the 1950s. The arbitrary corralling or division of unwilling population groups that the imperial borders imposed were often factors in later conflicts.

But it wasn’t just state borders that were the problem. The imperial powers also frequently resorted to inventing or manipulating clan and communal traditions to facilitate colonial rule. The impacts of this are still with us. A notorious example is Rwanda, where Belgium cultivated the myth of Tutsi supremacy over the larger Hutu population with calamitous consequences that still fester.

Africa is remains the poorest continent on the planet. Many of its countries have made big strides in growth and development since the 1990s but the link between poverty and the conflict is hard to ignore. It is rooted in the system of relations between former colonisers and former colonies after African states gained independence.

Kwame Nkruma, independent Ghana’s first leader, termed these relations ‘neo-colonialism’. Probably the best analysis of the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism on Africa is Walter Rodney’s seminal study How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, published in 1973 (available free on the internet), which explains much in terms of why Africa has been prone to armed conflicts so much over the last 50 years.

Rotten governance in post-independence Africa has also been a major cause of problems within states, usually exacerbating already existing crises. The grotesques of the past and present play out in unison in Africa’s armed conflicts. As the World Bank noted pithily in a 2000 report, “politics and poverty cause civil wars”.

Increasingly, and especially with the formation of the African Union and the inclusion of South Africa within the fold of free African states, the emphasis has been to find African solutions to African problems. Down the years, the experience of outside intervention by the major powers has been disastrous in terms of handling conflicts.

Libya is the latest example. The 2011 the military intervention by an outside coalition of mainly Nato states has left the country in total chaos, beset by civil war and with massive loss of infrastructure. This has allowed Islamic State to establish a strong presence and spread violence to neighbouring Mali and Tunisia. African Union efforts to resolve the Libyan conflict peacefully as the uprising against Mu’ammar Gaddafi escalated were belittled and brushed aside by the major powers, which used the non-fly zone mandate of the UN security council as a ruse to muscle in on the conflict for their own reasons.

The African Union and African regional groupings, such as SADC (Southern Africa Development Community), are developing their security, conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction capabilities. The AU is involved in armed operations against Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. It also runs seven peacekeeping operations, one of them in Darfur jointly with the UN. The UN has a further seven peacekeeping missions on the continent.

Last year, SADC scored a preventive success in the tiny state of Lesotho, by negotiating a settlement just as it appeared that armed conflict would break out. The mediation was mainly done by South Africa, which at the time was chair of SADC’s security and defence troika.

This was an exception. Usually, multilateral peace efforts in Africa, especially those of the AU have been plagued by delays and indecision, which allows conflicts to become embedded, making them hard to wind down. It also allows Western countries to intervene in various ways and on various pretexts, usually “humanitarian”.

A big challenge for the AU and Africa’s security, defence and conflict resolution work is to be able to respond rapidly. This is especially needed to deal with growing threats from terrorism of the Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and Islamic State varieties. But it is also being viewed by African security analysts as doubly important in the terms of the looming security threats to Africa posed by climate change.

Past legacies may well be relevant to the contexts of new conflicts and crises, but tackling them will depend on how well African governments develop peace keeping and peace enforcement while moving more quickly to enhance social and economic development as a buffer against instability. This means that there’ll be no end to new eliminating the causes of conflicts any time soon.

Mark Waller


An earlier version of this article was published in Finnish in the Helsinki-based magazine Ydin in May 2015.

About Mark Waller

a freelance journalist and translator from Finnish to English, currently living in South Africa. Mark has been freelancing for Finnish media and organisations since the early 1990s, and mainly focuses on issues to do with overseas development, foreign policy, social policy and the EU, and Southern Africa. Waller has visited the Southern African region frequently in the 1990s and early 2000s, and for the last 10 years has been based in South Africa, where he has covered aspects of the transition to democracy for Finnish papers and magazines.
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed