Africa’s New Year resolution: same old political violence?

At the end of every year, it is customary to most people to evaluate how well they have done in achieving their set objectives and also examine their shortfalls – all of which help to determine the path going forward into the new year.
Joe B. Jakes
Joe B. Jakes

At the end of every year, it is customary to most people to evaluate how well they have done in achieving their set objectives and also examine their shortfalls – all of which help to determine the path going forward into the new year.

In trying to use the same method for Africa’s continent, however, one is regrettably taken aback by the recent political developments in many countries and this leads one to conclude that 2013 has not been a good year.

Where is the ‘African dream’ if such a thing can actually exist in the continent? Why not a dream of peaceful 2014 and beyond where more families can enjoy freedom from murder, torture, rape and displacement?

A year in which more farmers can grow their crops, more children can go to school, more hospitals can be built to treat people, more businesses can create jobs to huge numbers of graduates, and more elite and political classes work for national interests.

The violence in the Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan is not only a setback to the dreams of so many in these countries, but also these worrying developments are significant enough to slow the continent’s economic progress and political maturity.

Security in these countries, for example, remains one of the most urgent challenges and requires effective and focused leadership in order to save lives, protect physical infrastructure and maintain the social fabric of societies.

The questions to be asked again and again, however, are why most Africans in position of power always get it wrong?

What do these intractable conflicts represent? Why do most of these rebellions lack well defined national goals? And, more importantly, how come Africa’s conflicts never end?

Clearly, there is no one single explanation of the continent’s endless conflicts but what is obvious today is the lack of articulated national agenda and ideology by many rebel groups in these countries.

This is a noticeable shift from the classic African liberation movements of the 1980s and 90s most of which were characterised by ideals of freedom, equality and social justice to name a few.

For instance, the liberation struggles in Rwanda and Uganda are such cases whereby the rebel groups had political visions and plans to change their societies for the better, at least in theory.

The debate as to whether these plans can actually be translated into actions or are simply illusions is entirely another matter, but one ought to acknowledge that massive progress was registered in both countries despite many remaining challenges.

As Africa welcomes 2014, one sees the danger posed by political groups seeking to change governments through armed conflict which is counterproductive in many cases due to heightened tensions among factions, and, of course, the war’s destructive nature.

In all the countries cited above, opposing forces are turning to committing heinous crimes against civilians for whom they claim to defend. Examples of endemic rape in the DRC and violent killings in CAR and South Sudan against civilians reflect this new phenomenon whereby some rebel groups are wilder, violent and act more like criminal gangs.

For instance, despite ongoing political negotiations between warring factions in South Sudan and intervention by United Nations peacekeeping forces, violent conflicts continue and have reached particularly alarming levels with innocent lives being lost cheaply as usual.

Perhaps, the biggest question is whether 2014 will see more political leadership from African ruling classes so that the general public can finally benefit from peace dividends.

Ironically, this is happening in a continent that has been dubbed ‘the hopeful continent’ due to the claims of improved lives of hundreds of million Africans over the last 10 years or so, and other daring predictions including the one that this is Africa’s century.

One remains cautiously optimistic about economic forecasts that rely on current gains. Knowing the political climate under which these achievements have been made, it is also worth noting that any political crisis has the potential to derail or reverse them, as the history shows.

These countries, like most of Africa, have an overwhelming task to fulfil basic development needs such as providing basic services, physical infrastructures and security to all of citizens.

Others struggle with establishing and building institutions of the state that would fight corruption, and address and manage issues of democratic and political processes.

And yet, most leaders seem to put their personal power ahead of national interests and would certainly seek to achieve it by all means possible, including the use of violence. Is this the African way?

Obviously not and nothing African!

But the challenges of conflicts in Africa are real and not easy to surmount, hence the need for focused, committed and collaborative leadership at national, regional and continental levels.

The mentioned cases demonstrate that there is no single cause of conflict, rather conflict is context-specific, multi-causal and multi-dimensional and can result from a combination of different factors.

There is no doubt these conflicts are political and institutional and, by this, one means factors such as weak state institutions, elite power struggles, political exclusion, breakdown in social contract, corruption and identity politics in some countries.

Furthermore, socioeconomic factors such as inequality, exclusion and marginalisation, absence or weakening of social cohesion and poverty are obvious sources of conflicts.

And finally, resource and environmental components that include greed, scarcity of national resources often due to population growth have arguably increased social tensions due to environmental insecurity and unjust resource exploitation.

Anyhow, with these renewed political instabilities across the continent, it is extremely difficult to tell what 2014 has in store for the continent and how Africa’s current positive economic trends would be sustained in the medium and long run.

The 2013 ended with signs of tension in named countries and some old ethnic politics had resurfaced even before the upheaval. In anticipation of the New Year, one would’ve expected to see emerging leadership signalling the desire to cease hostilities, but, unfortunately, the fighting rages on in those countries and many more lives are being lost in the process.

In conclusion, the year 2013 was characterised by political instabilities where hundreds of thousands of Africans were murdered by the state forces and non state actors, and others displaced and remain inaccessible to humanitarian assistance and protection.

The year 2014 starts with greater concerns of violence against civilians, but also targeting men, women and children from particular religious and ethnic groups.

The political crises in the countries above are examples of the significant tasks requiring effective and collaborative leadership.

In short, African political class faces a test in 2014 to prove they can resolve their problems, reconcile their peoples, and provide security and justice for all, guarantee multiparty competition, campaigns and debates on policy issues in a civilised and peaceful manner without shading blood.

The author is a researcher in Diplomacy and International Law based in the United Kingdom.

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