Triggers of Conflict in Africa

By Bahati Ntama Jacques

After the violence, death, and displacement in Kenya, it seems the leaders have finally agreed upon a power-sharing deal that placates both sides. Kenya’s conflict has now subsided from the news headlines and it is hoped that the country will begin to reestablish itself as a stable African nation. However, it is important that we continue to examine the issues at play in Kenya and that we do not divert our eyes from the continent of Africa. What lessons can we learn from the Kenya example? What is it that we, as advocates for peace in Africa, need to know to prevent another crisis such as Kenya’s?

The end of authoritarian regimes will be the beginning of peace and prosperity in Africa.  Authoritarian regimes are one-party states headed by the president who runs the nation with a few elites; or in their modern forms, the leader allows for the creation of other parties to establish a pseudo-democracy, but the government remains non-democratic.  These regimes are corrupt, greedy, oppressive, controlling, and limit citizen participation in government. Power is often in the hands of the elites and decisions are made by a few in the name of all citizens.   Uganda fits this description.  Zimbabwe fits this description. Libya, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea fit this description.  To end such regimes, many opposition leaders find it necessary to take up arms and fight from inside as well as from neighboring nations.  Many African leaders get into power by force or use force to remain in power.

The current Chadian President Idriss Déby and his rebel group the Patriotic Salvation Movement overthrew former president of Chad Hissene Habre in 1990 with military support from both the Sudanese and Libyan governments.  In 2005, he campaigned for a referendum that amended the constitution thereby extending the presidential term beyond two years.  The referendum allowed him to run and win the presidential election for the third time in 2006 after wins in both 1996 and 2001. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has followed a similar course, changing the constitution in 2005 to allow himself a third run at the presidency. Museveni, once known as the first in a line of new, legitimate, and hopeful African leaders, has now been in power since 1986 and is growing increasingly corrupt with each year in office.

Today, Chad and Uganda are not listed as military dictatorial regimes.  In this way, Western powers have been apathetic in making sure African leaders learn the democratic principles.  Instead, the West helps them strengthen their oppressive regimes, perhaps in part because they still adhere to the philosophy of the Berlin Conference of 1885. In dividing up the states of Africa, European powers had in mind exploitation, not development. This Western view of Africa as the place for resources continues to make Africa susceptible to authoritarian regimes and therefore a perfect and favorable ground for internal and interstate conflicts.

Mobutu Sese Seko, former president of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, stayed in power from 1965-1997 despite strong internal opposition and armed rebellions.   The United States of America, interested in Congo’s Cold War support and natural resources such as Uranium, disregarded Mobutu’s human rights violations and helped him survive the Congolese people’s attempt to end his oppression.  France and Belgium also defended Mobutu against those who opposed his policies.  Finally, in 1996, Mobutu faced two determined enemies: aserious prostate cancer which took his life only shortly after his second enemy Laurent Desire Kabila took power in an invasion lead by Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian troops.  Some African regimes like Mobutu’s are guilty of human rights abuses enough to call them out of their offices, but many have grown so strong at home and abroad that it is hard to depose of them peacefully.  Others, such as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak who has been in power since 1952 and Libyan president Muammar Al-Gaddafi who has been in power since 1969 have secured their power at home and have continuously ignored voices against their dictatorships from the international community.

Bad governance is key to understanding conflicts in and between African nations.  African administrations tend to be more exclusive than inclusive.  Politicizing and mismanaging the rich ethnic African diversity continues to be one of the causes of political crises and is often followed by ethnic wars. The Hutu-Tutsi wars in Rwanda and Burundi were the result of exclusive and marginalizing approaches to governing multiethnic states.  Even though there is relative peace in these two nations today, the scars from the many and long wars may burst at any time if nothing is done in terms of good governance, peace, reconciliation, and prevention of conflict.

One of the most significant groups to suffer from political exclusion is that of women. Women often find it difficult – if not impossible – to participate in political processes and their rights tend to come secondary to those of men. However, many African countries have proven to be quite responsive to the importance of putting women in positions of leadership. Under President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has taken the lead with a constitution that requires at least 30% of its leadership to be women.  Research studies show that countries which have undergone civil conflict and have seen a complete restructuring of their political system tend to include women in government in far greater numbers than countries which have not experienced conflict.  The reason for this, experts argue, is that it is much more difficult to put women into an already-established governing body than to write women into a newly forming political system.

However, when a government fails to equally distribute resources and opportunities across the nation, this becomes ground for conflict.  People are starving, they lack healthcare, and literacy rates are stagnating while leaders are depositing state funds into personal bank accounts and are living luxurious lifestyles.  It is because people are poor that rebel groups find recruits to fight for change with violence instead of using nonviolence and diplomacy.

In conclusion, even if each case of conflict in Africa is complex, the causes of conflicts in Africa are commonly political, geopolitical, economic and social.  Africa Faith and Justice Network believes that lasting peace, real democracy and economic prosperity will never be sustainable if African leaders continue to take power by force.  The rule of law, accountability, visionary leadership and a strong civil society are imperatives to progress in Africa

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