Why do we continually misunderstand conflict in Africa?

Published: 10 Feb 2014
By: Lucy Hovil
Source: African Arguments

Violence in Africa seems particularly prone to the scourge of one-dimensional descriptions. Often described as ethnic or tribal, and sometimes as sectarian, the media prescribes an adjective that quickly becomes accepted as gospel and this explanation is then hard to shift. Thus we are told that the recent outbreak of violence in South Sudan is ethnic(Nuer against Dinka); and fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) is sectarian(Christians against Muslims). It is seldom described in political terms.

The problem here is not just semantics or the irritation caused by inadequate descriptions of complex issues. The real problem lies in the fact that misdiagnosis is a dangerous business. Once a label is fixed to a conflict it can become an exclusive explanation for that conflict (normally expounded by some form of argument that animosities derive from a primordial source), and can dictate resolution to that conflict. As the logic usually goes, if the two “˜groups’ or warring factions can sign a ceasefire followed by a peace agreement then the conflict is resolved. Yet time and time again, ceasefires, peace agreements and externally enforced power sharing arrangements based on reductive understandings of the causes of conflict prove to be quick fixes, little more than holding exercises until conflict breaks out again.

For decades the war in Sudan was portrayed as being between the Muslim north and the Christian/animist south, which became accepted as an accurate analysis of what was taking place. Yet there is little in this binary representation of conflict that allows for an accurate understanding of the multiple complex factors driving a war that was, in fact, between a centralised state and multiple sites of marginalisation across the country. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was signed in 2005 was eventually whittled down to only one of its elements – the referendum on the independence of the south. The referendum neither resolved conflict in the reduced state of Sudan (as evidenced by renewed conflict in Darfur and, more recently, in South Kordofan and Blue Nile), nor led to consolidated peace in the newly-created state of South Sudan (now graduated to the label of “˜ethnic’ conflict). The misdiagnosis of the problem enabled those with short term political agendas to scrap the democratic transformation agenda that had been included in the CPA, and consequently the secession of the South has failed to generate peace in either Sudan or the new South Sudan.

In the same way, the prevalent interpretation of past violence in Rwanda – and, therefore, the response to that violence – has been reduced to ethnic genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in 1994. There is seldom mention of the broader context of violence in which the genocide took place – and, therefore, of the need to engage with broader issues of post-conflict (as opposed to exclusively post-genocide) recovery. This oversimplification has enabled the post-genocide government to avoid scrutiny for its own actions. Once again, therefore, it is unsurprising that individuals continue to flee Rwanda in fear for their lives as a repressive state feeds off its genocide credit; and that the lack of honest appraisal of what took place during and after the genocide continues to haunt the region not least in the form of cornered militias in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo trying to fight their way out of an alleged “˜génocidaire’ cul-de-sac.

Yet we never seem to learn the lesson. Right now, the potential impact of these oversimplifications can be seen clearly in South Sudan, one of the most recent outbreaks of violence on the continent. Although there is much rhetoric about the need for a comprehensive national process, there has been little talk about how and when this will happen. Most energy so far has gone into persuading two small groups of powerful individuals who allegedly represent two ethnic constituencies to sign a ceasefire. This energy is now going into discussions on monitoring of that ceasefire. A ceasefire is an important first step, but unless regional and international actors insist unequivocally on the need for a broader national process, little will change.

By reducing conflict to ethnic antagonism, (with its dangerous bedfellow, genocide, lurking just around the corner) there is an assumption that people position themselves in one-dimensional categories. This approach ignores local realities in which people create and maintain multiple forms of belonging not least in order to ensure multiple forms of legitimacy and access to resources. While not denying that people might identify themselves along ethnic and/or sectarian lines – just as they identify themselves, for instance, along gender or economic lines – in a context of multiple forms and expressions of belonging, the reduction of conflict to simple binaries inevitably falls wide of the mark.

Ultimately, therefore, this continual cycle of misdiagnosis fails to engage with broader issues, not least the key areas of poor governance that leave a small minority perched in their feathered nests, ignoring the needs and demands of the majority of people whose lives are impacted by violence and who so desperately want peace. For as long as those holding the weapons are the only ones heard, any resolution of conflict is going to fail: negotiations simply re-define and reallocate power within the circles of this increasingly unattractive minority. Instead we need to be far more nuanced in the way in which we talk about conflict, resisting the temptation to distil complexity into formulae that history has proved fail to work. We need to ask different questions in order to prioritise an understanding of the broader context of the social fabric in which conflicts take place so that in the midst of conflict, when the situation is raw and quick fixes are undeniably attractive, we force ourselves to be multidimensional in our thinking.

Programmes: Causes of Displacement, Citizenship and forced migration in the Great Lakes Region
Regions: Great Lakes Region
Type: External Article