Conflicts in Africa—Introduction
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- This page: http://www.globalissues.org/article/84/conflicts-in-africa-introduction.
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Despite decades of conflict, death and tragedy, coverage of issues in Africa has often been ignored, oversimplified, or excessively focused on limited aspects. Deeper analysis, background and context has often been lacking, so despite what seems like constant images of starving children in famines, news of billions in aid to Africa from generous donor countries, the background context and analysis is often missing.
Whether aid makes the situation worse, or why there is famine and hunger in Africa when African nations are exporting crops to other parts of the world are rarely asked by the mainstream.
This web page has the following sub-sections:
- Africa Hardly Attracts Media Attention Despite Pressing Concerns
- Many Conflicts Throughout Africa
- Root Causes of Problems
- The Legacy of European Colonialism
- Unequal International Trade; Comparative Disadvantage
- Cold War by Proxy; Supporting and Arming Dictatorships in Africa
- Corporate Interests, Exploitation, Corruption and Other Issues
- These And Other Causes Reinforce Each Other
- Africa Maps Showing Modern and Pre-Colonial Areas
Africa Hardly Attracts Media Attention Despite Pressing Concerns
Recent years have seen many regions of Africa involved in war and internal or external conflict, from the seven or so countries directly involved in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the Sierra Leone crisis and the war in Ethiopia/Eritrea and the various other civil wars.
Yet here, as mentioned in the media section of this web site, , the western mainstream media does practically nothing to raise this awareness (or, perhaps it is not deemed important enough to report extensively about).
Occasional coverage is provided, but not anywhere near the volume like we had seen during the build up and the ensuing crisis in Kosovo, or Iraq, or Palestine/Israel, each of which were serious conflicts, but in terms of deaths and displaced, were often far less than many conflicts in Africa.
More coverage about issues concerning Africa can be found on the Internet than the traditional mainstream media outlets, but even then it is not as easy to find the information. Side Note»(Since originally making this point in 1999, additional web sites from African organizations have emerged providing a lot of information, about news, cultures, and so on about all aspects of Africa. Even the popular press in the West are providing more information on African news, although these are often very brief and without the much needed perspectives and backgrounds from political, historical, socioeconomic angles etc.)
According to research from media organization Media Tenor, from 1 January 2002 until 30 June 2003, “September 11 has turned the watch back to the pre-1990’s, virtually eliminating all events and issues that are not related to either the United States or its coalition partners—especially when reporting on conflicts.… conflicts and wars played the most important role in all analysed television stations in Britain, Germany and the United States. But subtracting from this coverage Iraq and Afghanistan, only 0.2% (n=507) of all reports (N=23587) focused on conflicts in Africa. Wars without the involvement of the Western nations, do not seem newsworthy enough to appear on international TV news agendas, and the little coverage given only focuses on the brutality of the conflict and not on possible solutions.”
But why is it important whether or not media outlets in countries such as those in the West provide coverage of African and other conflicts that do not appear to involve them?
- Background such as the colonial as well as post-World War II history, social and political context, international economic issues and much more are all perspectives needed to help people in the western nations and elsewhere to really begin to understand the present situations and issues in appropriate context. Simplistic views (at their simplest and crudest, they are even racist, intentional or not) offer little understanding of the complexities of causes, let alone a platform from which to form ideas on how to move forward.
- In international affairs, influential nations, such as many from western countries all have direct and indirect influences around the world, so it is important for such issues to be presented broadly and to see issues such as those in Africa with this context in mind.
- From a somewhat self-interest perspective (which, after all, most countries prioritize on, in international affairs), things happening far away have an impact on us. For example, J. Brian Atwood, former head of the US foreign aid agency, USAID commented that “failed states” (which included a number of African countries suffering from conflict) “threaten our nation. They cost us too much. They create diseases that impact on us. They destabilize other nations. They stymie economic growth and they deny us economic opportunity in the largest new marketplace — the developing world.” (quoted from Esman and Herring, editors, Carrots, Sticks, and Ethnic Conflict; Rethinking Development Assistance, (University of Michigan Press, 2001), Chapter 3 USAID and Ethnic Conflict: An Epiphany? by Heather S. McHugh, p. 54.)
Many Conflicts Throughout Africa
There have recently been numerous civil wars and conflicts going in Africa, some of which are still going on, including
- Angola, which has seen an estimated 500,000 people killed since 1989 and an estimated 3 million refugees. It is also being torn apart due to resources such as diamonds and offshore oil, with various factions fighting for these prizes, supported by multinational corporations and other governments. See also the following:
- A Rough Trade; The Role of Companies and Governments in the Angolan Conflict, by Global Witness, December 1998. (Their web site has other reports on related issues as well.)
- The Zambian Connection: Ukrainian plane came to deliver UNITA diamonds? from the Monitor for Human Rights and Development, Issue 101, April 7-13 2000, also reports on the Diamond and Zambia connection.
- ANGOLA: Allegations of embezzlement of 'petrodollars', by IRIN, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 26 March 2002
- The Democratic Republic of Congo
- Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
- Sierra Leone
- Sudan and South Sudan/Darfur
Some of these nations are also involved in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the DRC is also involved in some of these civil wars.
No less than 28 Sub-Saharan African states have been at war since 1980, as pointed out by international development organization, ID21.
When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.
— Bishop Desmond Tutu
Root Causes of Problems
Political corruption, lack of respect for rule of law, human rights violations are all common reasons heard for some of the causes of Africa’s problems. Although, not the only reasons, some often overlooked root causes also include the following:
The Legacy of European Colonialism
European colonialism had a devastating impact on Africa.
The artificial boundaries created by colonial rulers as they ruled and finally left Africa had the effect of bringing together many different ethnic people within a nation that did not reflect, nor have (in such a short period of time) the ability to accommodate or provide for, the cultural and ethnic diversity. The freedom from imperial powers was, and is still, not a smooth transition. The natural struggle to rebuild is proving difficult.
Artificial Borders Created by Imperial Europe
In the 1870s European nations were bickering over themselves about the spoils of Africa. In order to prevent further conflict between them, they convened at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to lay down the rules on how they would partition up Africa between themselves.
The natural struggle to rebuild is proving difficult
Some have commented that pointing to colonialism is not an excuse as many African countries have had decades to try and resolve this. The implication of the argument is that the effects of centuries of colonialism, in effect, are supposed to be overcome in just a few short years. Yet, as Richard Robbins, professor of anthropology suggests, if countries like Canada have been struggling with accommodating different groups, then in Africa the problem is more complex:
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)
In some parts of Africa, slavery and/or colonial administration had almost erased cultures and community with an “education” and “civilizing” program that gave Africans only a minimal skill set that served European colonial interests. Rebuilding from decades and centuries of this has been a tough struggle.
Unequal International Trade; Comparative Disadvantage
Colonialism had thus transformed an entire continent. Vast plantations and cash crop-based, or other extractive economies were set up throughout. Even as colonial administrators parted, they left behind supportive elites that, in effect, continued the siphoning of Africa’s wealth. Thus has colonialism had a major impact on the economics of the region today. Various commentators, mostly from the third world observer that colonialism in the traditional sense may have ended, but the end results are much the same.
International trade and economic arrangements have done little to benefit the African people and has further exacerbated the problem. IMF/World Bank policies like Structural Adjustment have aggressively opened up African 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, thus continuing the colonial era arrangement.
The resulting increased poverty of Sub-Saharan Africa and the immense burden of debt has further crippled Africa’s ability to develop.
Limited rights to land also prevents a chance for successful development, as Oxfam details.
Cold War by Proxy; Supporting and Arming Dictatorships in Africa
Throughout the Cold War, major powers such as the U.S.A, the Soviet Union and others supported various regimes and dictatorships. Some possibly promising leaders in the early days of the independence movements throughout the Third World were overthrown. There was disregard from the major powers as to how this would affect the people of these countries. ($1.5 billion worth of weapons to Africa has come from the U.S. alone, according to a report from the World Policy Institute, while Europe for example, was able to “exploit Africa’s resources” to help rebuild after World War II.)
Africa has become an attractive and profitable dumping ground for nations and arm manufacturers eager to get rid of weapon stocks made superfluous by the end of the Cold War or by technological developments.
— Center for Defense Information weekly update, November 4, 1999
Corporate Interests, Exploitation, Corruption and Other Issues
As the companies duel, countries and communities often find themselves in the crossfire.
— Danny Schechter, Chapter 2, Peace Journalism and Media War: the Fight to Reform Journalism
Corporate interests and activities in Africa have also contributed to exploitation, conflict and poverty for ordinary people while enriching African and foreign elites.
The easy access to natural resources to maintain and fuel rebellions (combined with corporate interests) makes for a nasty combination.
A 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. A World Bank report notes that “politics and poverty cause civil wars, not ethnic diversity.” It also points out that in Africa, failed institutions are also a cause. It adds that where there is ethnic diversity, there is actually less chance for civil wars, as long as there is not just a small number of very large ethnic groups, or ethnic polarization.
These And Other Causes Reinforce Each Other
For the June 2002 G8 summit, a briefing was prepared by Action for Southern Africa and the World Development Movement. In that, they also pointed out similar causes to the above, when looking at the wider issue of economic problems as well as political:
It is undeniable that there has been poor governance, corruption and mismanagement in Africa. However, the briefing reveals the context — 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 Programmes imposed by the IMF and World Bank and the deeply unfair rules on international trade. The role of the G8 in creating the conditions for Africa’s crisis cannot be denied. Its overriding responsibility must be to put its own house in order, and to end the unjust policies that are inhibiting Africa’s development.
As an aside, though also related, in terms of the economic situation, it has been common, as the above briefing is titled, to “blame the victim” on causes of poverty, corruption, lack of development, and so forth. This has often applied to Africa, as well as other regions around the world when discussing such things in the mainstream. But, as the above briefing also highlights, some common “myths” are often used to highlight such aspects, including (and quoting):
- Africa has received increasing amounts of aid over the years—in fact, aid to Sub-Saharan Africa fell by 48% over the 1990s
- Africa needs to integrate more into the global economy—in fact, trade accounts for larger proportion of Africa’s income than of the G8
- Economic reform will generate new foreign investment—in fact, investment to Africa has fallen since they opened up their economies
- Bad governance has caused Africa’s poverty—in fact, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), economic conditions imposed by the IMF and the World Bank were the dominant influence on economic policy in the two decades to 2000, a period in which Africa’s income per head fell by 10% and income of the poorest 20% of people fell by 2% per year
The G8 section on this web site also looks in more detail at the way Western nations appear to have offered to help Africa, e.g. through wiping out their debts, but that in reality it turns out far less has actually happened, and that G8 nations are amongst the ones that have actually played a big role in Africa’s current problems.
Hence, as well as looking into the urgent and critical issues of corruption, mismanaged leadership and governance in Africa, external factors resulting from geopolitical power play must also be considered.
Africa Maps Showing Modern and Pre-Colonial Areas
The two maps below, courtesy of Black Studies Library (BSL), Empathos National Library, show the partitioning of Africa.
For more maps, check out
- The Maps from the Black Society Library. They provide some interesting historical insights into the region.