Poverty: Root of Africa’s wars

Since the euphoric independence wave that swept Africa out of the jaws of colonialism, the major disappointment has been that almost half of African countries have been involved in civil war.

Since the euphoric independence wave that swept Africa out of the jaws of colonialism, the major disappointment has been that almost half of African countries have been involved in civil war.

In the international press, Africa has disparagingly come to be synonymous with conflict, which has largely been perceived to be ‘ethnic’ or ‘tribal’.

A typical major Africa story has been painted to show uncivilized tribal men killing others due to a ‘deep ancient hatred.’ Nothing can be further from the truth.

We, the Africans have not helped matters either. We have offered cultish following to politicians with no particular leadership qualities other than the ability to whip us into fetish support based on ethnic identities, for their own selfish gains.

So how did Africa become synonymous with ethnic conflict?
The chaos of Africa cannot be totally blamed on colonialism. But the impact of colonialism in Africa is the single most important event that has permanently altered Africa’s prosperity path and way of life.

Before, the white man conquered Africa; it is on record that the most advanced civilizations in the world then, in ancient Egypt and further west, in present day Tunisia.

Had Africa been left on its own civilization trajectory, it would have developed to rival or supersede the other global centers of civilization in Asia and Europe. Colonialism did not bring wars.

It destroyed the traditional systems of administration, justice and conflict resolution. Our best manpower was exported forcefully to new worlds through slavery, to labor for the farms and industrial centers that powered the British and European industrial revolution. 

Our land and natural resources were shared out, effectively carving up Africa into countries that did not have any common cause or identity except the will to expel the intruders.

According to professor Ali Mazrui, while most African conflicts are partly caused by borders, those conflicts are not themselves about borders.

The conflicts are partly caused by borders created by colonial powers to enclose groups with no traditions of shared authority or shared systems of settling disputes.

It is a pity that many African countries have gone to war in defense of the artificial boundaries that the same loathed white man drew, or against fellow citizens, for belonging to another tribe or ethnic group.

Yet before colonialism, the single unifying factor among Africans was these tribal groupings which thrived on their shared origin and cultures, as well as, on their intermingling, or similarity of customs.

So do we hate each other sufficiently because of the different languages we speak, to go to war? Is it not possible that underlying causes of conflicts exploit the easiest avenue of alignment that is the tribe?

In a 2003 study, the Stanford civil war experts James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin looked at 127 civil wars from 1945 to 1999, most often in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

They found that regardless of how ethnically mixed a country is, the likelihood of a civil war decreases as countries get richer.

The richest states are almost impervious to civil strife, no matter how multiethnic they might be — think for instance of Belgium, where Flemings and Walloons show almost no inclination to fight it out.

And while the poorest countries have the most civil wars, Fearon and Laitin discovered that, oddly enough, it is actually the more homogeneous ones among them that are most likely to descend into violence (The New York Times). Does this ring a bell?

After independence, Africans thought that the job was done, that all the wealth that the exploiters had been pilfering would automatically materialize into wealth for black Africans.

Instead, well intentioned but ill-equipped independence agitators who lived and breathed pan-africanism woke up to realize that it needed more than zeal to run a country.

They reveled in rewarding their comrades and themselves with the citizen’s hard earned tax and resources and forgot that they had to maintain and expand the social services system.

Asian countries that were behind or worse off than many sub-Saharan countries in the sixties began to lay long-term strategies on economic growth, while Africans sunk deeper into poverty, drunk with ideological fights provoked by cold war players.

In the midst of this came the fight for natural resources between the new haves and the have-nots. Congo descended into anarchy because it had too much gold, diamonds etc for its own good. And so did Angola, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

In all those fights, the invisible hand of neo-colonialists continued to fuel the anarchy, through out the cold war and later due the thriving illegal trade of these resources.

Joseph Conrad, in his Heart of Darkness, wrote, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much,” about the European colonial powers.

The Cold War was the excuse for major powers to support various regimes and dictatorships. In the process some good leaders in the early days of the independence movements throughout the Third World were overthrown, without the slightest regard of how this would impact on the citizens of those countries.

“The United States was founded on democratic principles, but why does it support dictatorships in other parts of the world?” said Louis Muamba, a professor of psychology at the University of Kinshasa.

“The only thing we ask of the United States is to live up to its ideals.” 

So as the world powers were teaming to influence Africa and have their share of the pie, its leaders were playing up to cold war politics, the Africans sunk deeper into poverty, suffered from the briefest bloodiest conflicts (remember Biafra), and succumbed to the slightest of otherwise very curable diseases.

One would ask, if political analysts are so insistent on denying that tribalism is the root for  Africa’s misery, then what about 1994 in Rwanda? What about Northern Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Darfur, to name but a few?

Richard Robbins, professor of anthropology at the State University of New York says “If we examine cases of purported ethnic conflict we generally find that it involves more than ancient hatred; even the ‘hatreds’ we find are relatively recent, and constructed by those ethnic entrepreneurs taking advantage of situations rooted deep in. For Africa to put its house in order, its citizens need to address a few issues.

First, we need to find ways of equitably distributing the available resources to avoid disfranchising selected communities. To do that, we need strong, accountable and democratic governments that will put in place political and economic institutions which are not subject to the will of the ruling elite.

This will ensure that governments can plan strategically to lift their masses out of poverty, utilizing the available resources. But for governments to be able to do this, they need to be independent of the political paymasters in the west who will do anything to influence the direction of politics in Africa so that they get a share of our vast resources, at the expense of the average African peasant.

That is the hard one. Tanzania founding father, Julius Nyerere, had it on his mind when he said that “It seems that independence of the former colonies has suited the interests of the industrial world for bigger profits at less cost. Independence made it cheaper for them to exploit us. We became neo-colonies.” It thus goes that poverty and its complex causes are the reason for Africa’s wars, not tribalism per say.

Contact: kelvion@yahoo.com

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