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The author of this account has been a post-doctoral fellow at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies since mid-1997 and also teaches history at North Carolina State University. She earned a doctorate in history at Duke University in 1985. — Ed.

Conference on “Conflict in Africa”

by Carolyn W. Pumphrey

On February 5-6, 1999, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS) hosted a two-day conference at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on conflict in Africa. Co-sponsors were the University Center for International Studies and the Institute for African-American Research, both of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill), and this journal, American Diplomacy.

The sponsors were honored by the response; attendees came from as far away as Kenya, Senegal, the Netherlands, and Canada, and represented a still broader group of nationalities. A session on the Horn of Africa, for example, included a Sudanese, an Eritrean, an Ethiopian, and a Somali. The attendees brought an extraordinary range of professional expertise to the meeting. Among them were university professors, former diplomats, ministers, political activists, professionals belonging to a wide-variety of government and non-government organizations, high-school teachers, and university students. The participants more than did justice to the occasion, delivering thought-provoking presentations and engaging in lively discussion with the audience.

Presentations – February 5

After opening remarks by Professor Richard H. Kohn, executive secretary of TISS and head of the UNC-Chapel Hill Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense, Kenya-born Professor Ali A. Mazrui, Albert Schweitzer Chair of Africana Studies at SUNY Binghamton, addressed the plenary session. A distinguished writer of both fiction and non-fiction who has lectured in more than twenty countries since 1964, Dr. Mazrui opened the meeting on Friday morning with an introduction to conflict in Africa. In a presentation laced with wit and irony, he outlined the roots and the nature of conflict in Africa before concluding with suggestions of how these conflicts might be reduced.

Professor Mazrui focused initially on the paradoxes visible in large-scale political violence and war. While black on black conflicts have been more destructive than black on white conflicts in the second half of the twentieth century, these conflicts are ultimately rooted in problems generated by colonialism, which destroyed old methods of conflict resolution without creating effective substitutes. While most African conflicts are partly caused by largely artificial borders which include diverse and sometimes hostile peoples, they are not fought over borders. In Arab Africa the worst conflicts tend to be religious in origin, and in Black Africa they tend to be ethnic/ tribal. Dr. Mazrui held that while whites tend to clash with blacks over resources, blacks tend to clash with blacks over their identities. African wars today are fought with modern weapons, but African armies are not modern, professional armies. Africa has many plural societies — those that contain multiple groups defined ethnically or by other parameters — and while these are often seen as a cause of conflict, dual societies may in fact be more dangerous. Finally, the speaker noted the relative rarity of interstate conflicts in present-day Africa as a blessing, even though their rarity in the past may have been unfortunate: History demonstrates that such wars, at least in the European experience, served to externalize conflict and promote greater unity at home.

Dr. Mazrui illustrated certain of these ideas using excerpts taken from his own award- winning TV series, “Africa: A Triple Heritage” (BBC, 1980’s). The documentary reinforced the point made by Mazrui about the destructive legacy of colonialism which imposed arbitrary and “iron divisions,” weakened native institutions, and left behind the gun, today the real power in Africa. Contemporary Africa, the documentary made clear, is caught between too much government (tyranny) and too little government (anarchy) and has endured no less than seventy coups in the last half century.

In conclusion, Professor Mazrui offered his insights into how a number of Africa’s problems might be overcome. He cited as relevant factors tolerance (not something always easily learned by victims), capitalism (the “manure” for liberal, pluralistic democracy), and the empowerment of marginalized groups such as women. He suggested that integrating a state such as Rwanda with a stable plural society might help its warring members recognize their common interests. And he spoke of his dreams for an African Security Council. Dr. Mazrui ended on a note of urgency, quoting the seventeenth century English poet Andrew Marvell: “Time’s winged chariot [is] hurrying near.” Time is running out and the need for reforms is pressing.

The afternoon session on February 5 was devoted to an effort to determine the causes that underlie conflict in Africa today. Each participant was asked to focus on the explanation that he or she found most compelling.

Anthony Clayton, who was Senior Lecturer in history at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, from 1965 to 1994, spoke first. The focal point of his talk was a comparison between modern-day and pre-colonial warfare, a theme addressed in his most recent work, Frontiersmen: Warfare in Africa since 1950. Dr. Clayton started by offering general insights into the nature of the African under development predicament. Like Professor Mazrui, he stressed the destructive legacy of colonialism, which destroyed traditional politics and societies, sharpened ethnic consciousness, fostered martial traditions, and led to uneven economic progress. With the colonial “glue” gone, problems only worsened. Corrupt regimes, strident ideologies, rising population, worsening economies, and epidemics of terror fanned by modern forms of mass communication, all marred the Cold War period. States lost their legitimacy as they failed to solve their countries’ problems. Today, in the “new world disorder,” Africa finds itself still further destabilized as small arms pour into the continent from the former Soviet Union and as great powers withdraw their support from African regimes.

Clayton suggested that in the pre-colonial period Africa had been covered by literally thousands of polities without clearly demarcated formal boundaries and of varying degrees of organization. The young men of these polities were warriors or “frontiersmen.” They allied, fragmented, and formed again in changing patterns and freely crossed frontiers. They engaged in continuous local scrapping over the perceived assets: land, cattle, and women. They lived to fight and fought to live.

Stripped of its rhetoric, Clayton continued, most of the warfare in post-independence Africa in the second half of this century bears a strong resemblance to warfare of the pre-colonial period. The weapons may have changed, but not the fluidity of political structures nor the kinds of things Africans are fighting for. Even the importance of the “Big Man” is an echo of the past. Africa today is a poor continent in which continued control of the little one retains becomes desperately important as a means for survival. Given this understanding of the root of the problem, the solution of Africa’s ills, Clayton concluded, must lie in economic development, accompanied by a fair distribution of its fruits.

The next speaker, Julius Nyang’oro, is a political economist born in Tanzania and educated in Africa and the United States, who now teaches at the UNC-Chapel Hill. In his presentation Dr. Nyang’oro discussed the economic context of conflict in Africa. He hypothesized that Africa’s fundamental problem was linked to the non-maturation of the capitalist system. Dr. Nyang’oro explained how Africa’s current economic system, mixing as it does capitalist and non-capitalist formation, has created problems. It has developed just far enough to stimulate a desire among Africans for a standard of living that cannot, for the most part, be sustained, and yet not enough to permit Africans to be self-sufficient or to weaken ethnic divisions. The state, moreover, has failed to resolve Africa’s social and economic ills. As a result, violence has ensued.

Dr. Nyang’oro stressed the dysfunctional effects of wars in Africa. Most, he said, are civil wars, hence especially brutal and divisive. They do not even have the merit of stimulating domestic industries because weapons are purchased abroad. Foreign companies and governments engaged in the arms trade may have vested interests in continuing conflicts. From the African perspective, conflicts have ruined potentially prosperous nations and blocked development.

Further development of the capitalist system, Professor Nyang’oro continued, could reduce conflict, partly by developing multiple arenas for conflict resolution and partly by reducing the brutality of the fighting. The tricky question is how best to develop capitalism. Relying on programs supported by international financial institutions may prove dangerous because these are linked to an irresponsible type of capitalism. Africa might do better to develop a system that permits a degree of state intervention.What Africa needs is a more mature form of capitalism, one capable of stimulating economic development. At the same time it needs legitimate states strong enough to deal with the international forces and yet accountable to their own people.

French-born political scientist René Lemarchand, professor emeritus at the University of Florida at Gainesville, spoke next. Ethnicity is widely regarded as one of the root causes of conflict and is blamed for the recent outbreaks of genocide in Africa. Dr. Lemarchand put the role played by ethnicity into perspective. Ethnicity, he pointed out, is not inherently a bad thing. It can be a creative force in the forging of communities. Nor do ethnic polarities explain all conflicts; clearly some multi-ethnic political entities are peaceful while others, even though ethnically homogeneous, are conflict ridden. The question is how and why peaceful ethnic cohabitation gives way to death and destruction. The problem lies in the possibility of ethnicity being manipulated. By a process of myth making, collective memories of the “other” can be altered and lead to irreconcilable moral standoffs.

Lemarchand illustrated his point by discussing four varieties of myth-making in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
First he looked at the myth of Tutsi depravity. Between 1959 and 1962, the Hutus took Hamitic myths (introduced by the Europeans and grafted onto native myths of origins) and recast them in such a way as to discredit an entire ethnic community. Where earlier myths had ignored the achievements of the dark “agricultural masses” (the Hutus) and presented the lighter-skinned pastoralists (Tutsis) as bringers of a higher civilization, these later versions stressed Tutsi cunning and duplicity.
Second, he looked at the mythical interpretation of genocide. Both Hutus and Tutsis argued that massacres perpetrated by their own people were the result of a spontaneous outburst of collective anger and insisted that they themselves were the victims of collective anger.
Third, he showed how the Kigali authorities, in order to legitimize the presence of RPA troops in North Kivu, fostered the myth that much of Eastern Congo had been part and parcel of the pre-colonial Kingdom of Rwanda.
Fourth, he discussed the startling ethnogenesis of the Banyamulenge. In order to get themselves accepted as authentic Congolese some 300,000 Tutsis living in North and South Kivu (Congo), many of them recent immigrants, claimed to belong to this ethnic group. In origin this group is small in number and highly localized.

In short, Lemarchand concluded, myths in Central Africa are growing like tumors, replacing positivistic knowledge and laws and becoming encrusted in despotism, terror, and mendacity.

Pearl Robinson of Tufts University, political scientist and Africanist whose teaching and research span the fields of comparative politics and international politics, stressed the need for a more dynamic approach to the study of politics and war, one which takes into account the processes by which institutions such as the state are forged and one which considers the role played by a broad spectrum of non-state actors.

Dr. Robinson looked at the paradox that, while interstate conflict is often perceived to be a crucial element in state formation, states are also regarded as a key to stability. She challenged conventional wisdom holding that chronic conflict and disorder in Africa stem in large measure from the absence of structures and institutions, specifically the absence of states. She suggested, rather, that the idea of the state has a greater hold on Africans than is commonly thought. But she implied that the existence of a state is of less importance to stability than the existence of the right kind of state — a democratic one. We may be wrong to see the state in Africa as weak, Robinson elaborated. Recent studies indicate that national loyalties may override ethnic loyalties. The prevalence of mercenaries may not just indicate the lack of a strong state; it may be they are used in order to develop more effective state control. Deviant states can often be seen to be carrying out the functions of states and are sometimes legitimized by elections. The reemergence of tribalism may point to a desire to benefit from what a state can offer — solidarity, protection from bodily harm, and a better life.

On state building in Africa today, Dr. Robinson argued that new institutional arenas are evolving and new norms of behavior for citizens and leaders are being established. As she witnessed in Uganda, the engagement of civil society groups with the issue of war has served to reinforce citizens’ rights and has popularized notions of government responsibility and accountability. The peace movement in Uganda has not only pressured the government into rethinking its invasion of the Congo, but has also contributed to the process of state formation. In the long run, the insertion of people into the public arena may make war and the pursuit of war more difficult.

Summary Session – February 6

The second morning of the conference provided an opportunity for general theories to be tested in a more precise context. Six different regions of Africa (the Horn, the Great Lakes, Coastal West Africa, Angola, Guinea-Bissau/Senegal, and Nigeria) were explored in six separate conclaves at the Friday Center. At the end of the morning, with Gerald Horne of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as moderator, one panelist from each group reported the group’s findings (see the addendum at the end of this report for a list of the panelists).

Economic difficulties were widely perceived to be a root of current conflict, particularly when accompanied by population rise. The decline of international economic support for Africa was also generally seen to be destabilizing. On the other hand, the reports made clear that it is not always the absence of resources that is the problem. Ken Vickery of North Carolina State University drew attention, for example, to Angola’s natural wealth. Here economic assets, specifically diamonds, prolong conflict by providing the means for the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) to sustain its struggle.

Ethnic strife, rather than being viewed as the major cause of black-on-black struggle south of the Sahara, was seen by many as a pretext for, or an ingredient in, regional conflicts. Yomi Duratoye (Wake Forest University), Mustafah Dhada (Clark Atlanta University), and Charles Piot (Duke University), reporting from the Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau/Senegal, and Coastal West Africa working groups, all noted that, while ethnic hostility exists, current leaders draw support from across ethnic lines. Religion, by
contrast, seen by Mazrui as a relatively minor factor in the conflicts of Black Africa, was regarded as a significant cause of conflict in Nigeria. As to myth making, this was recognized to be a widespread phenomenon which distorted truth not only about race, but much else besides.

Failing states were also perceived to be a problem by many. West Africa’s conflicts were seen to be rooted in cult-centered and corrupt leadership and autocratic states which deny power and access to wealth to large numbers of people. David Newbury (UNC-Chapel Hill), reporting on the Great Lakes, noted that the failure of governments in this region to listen to voices from below is a major obstacle to peace.

The role of foreign intervention, past and present, in Africa is one of obvious interest. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, relatively little stress was put on the destructive legacy of imperialism except in the case of Angola and coastal West Africa. Angola’s troubles were explicitly linked to the anti-colonial wars of the past and to direct intervention by the great powers during the Cold War. Liberia and Sierra-Leone’s difficulties were tied to the slave trade and the repatriation of slaves.

Discussion of contemporary intervention by African and non-African states received rather more (and largely critical) notice. The Economic Community of West African Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) was judged to be part of West Africa’s problem, though it was conceded that, properly managed, intervention by Africans might be useful. Non-African involvement in Nigeria, the Great Lakes, and West Africa was seen to be largely linked to economic self-interest, often based on ignorance of the local scene, and often futile.

All of the groups considered the prospects for peace. Politically, federal solutions were proposed by several working groups, but democratization received the strongest endorsement as a necessary step on the road to a more peaceful future in Africa. Economic aid was rather widely seen as crucial, although Professor Dhada pointedly insisted that it would be a waste of time in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau unless preceded by political reforms. The group studying the Horn of Africa discussed how to tame the military. Only in the Nigeria group did anyone suggest an “African” solution; here it was argued that traditional African religions might offer some creative new ways to resolve conflict.

The reports reflected the dynamics of groups of very different size, composition, and interests, and obviously no definitive conclusions could be reached in the time allocated. There were some surprises; the lack of attention to gender issues was unexpected, given the degree to which this has recently surfaced in discussions of war and peace. At least one panelist, Joseph Smaldone (U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency), reporting on the Sudan, felt that the most telling lesson to emerge from the conference was the danger of making broad generalizations. The Saturday morning sessions nonetheless provided a valuable opportunity for interaction and made clear the diversity of Africa and the need to find creative and varied solutions
to its conflicts.

Conflict Resolution – February 6

On Saturday afternoon, the conference reconvened and discussion turned to conflict resolution. Claude Welch, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Co-Director of its Human Rights Center, opened with an analysis of how non-government organizations might contribute to the reduction or resolution of conflict in Africa. Dr. Welch started by characterizing the nature and functions of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Though diverse, they share several traits. They tend to respond to crises, they are non-profit organizations, and though they are often local, they may mirror the broader interests and goals of larger networks. Some NGOs are less independent from governments than their name suggests. Their functions can be neatly described by three E’s and three D’s: Enforcement (working for better legal protection of people), Education (promoting rights), Empowerment (focusing on marginalized groups), Documentation (documenting abuses), Democratization, and Development. To this should be added a function in conflict resolution and reduction, which to date has received little attention.

Professor Welch outlined the historic development of NGOs. He discussed their origin in voluntary groups that focused on social welfare and protection against life’s problems. In the 1970’s, drought and famine and the weaknesses of the state helped to fuel NGOs, which were viewed as efficient and grass-roots oriented. The external funding they received and channeled made them politically formidable. In the ’80’s and ’90’s, they became the functional equivalent of governments. Some NGOs took on a more explicit political role, undertaking such tasks as election monitoring.

Welch discussed the problems and ambiguities that surround NGOs and make their achievements more potential than actual. Uncertainty exists as to what kind of relationship exists or should exist between NGOs and states. Are they their partners? Extensions of the state linked to development and aid? Their opponents and watchdogs? NGOs can, at times, be manipulated by donor states and forced to cooperate by governments on whose territory they operate. They may be directed by well-intentioned board members who are, however, out of touch with local realities. To whom NGOs should be responsible is also a moot point. Welch concluded that there are still unanswered questions about NG0s, but the measure of their success should probably be whether or not they can expand the bounds of civil society and whether they can be help resolve or reduce conflict over time.

In the next presentation, Pauline Baker, president of the Fund for Peace in Washington, DC, and professor at Georgetown University, explained a conceptual model currently being developed by her organization designed to help anticipate and assess countries at risk of internal conflict and state collapse. The model is built on the premise that state collapse often engenders ethnic conflict rather than the reverse. Hence it is of key importance to know when a state is or is not capable of “sustainable security,” that is, when it can solve its own problems peacefully without an external political or military presence. A secure state can be identified by the fact that it has, and is perceived to have, an “immutable core” consisting of a professional, autonomous military, police force, system of justice, and civil service.

Just as auto-immune diseases can be diagnosed when clusters of known problems are indicated, so too clusters of symptoms tend to appear in states in failure. In any given conflict, various stages present opportunities for different types of intervention. In the first stage, she noted, problems predisposing a state to conflict may be detected. In the second, specific events fuel the conflict. Thereafter, there is a moment of decision at which point the society may reform and restructure or lapse into violence. The appropriate moment to look for indications of state collapse and internal conflict is the first stage.

Professor Baker listed twelve indicators of state collapse and internal conflict, ranging from economic inequality through brain drains. The most useful of these indicators is a corrupt, predatory, and coup-ridden state (a “delegitimized state”). To evaluate how near to collapse any given state is, Baker explained, analysts using her model would first of all assess how many of these indicators were present. Then they would also rate the intensity of the indicators on a scale of zero to ten. For example, to evaluate how paranoid a given society was, analysts would note, among other factors, the existence of hate radio, the presence of scapegoating, and patterns of atrocities. Finally, they would also take into account the effectiveness of a state’s core institutions and its leadership.

Her model, Dr. Baker concluded, is capable of revealing states’ trends to and from stability and of giving warning of pending conflict. It can pin-point those problems most in need of remedy and thus make a contribution to conflict reduction and resolution.

In the penultimate session, Bona Malwal, currently a senior research fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, brought his own extensive experience to bear on his presentation. A founder of the Southern Front Party of Southern Sudan and its first secretary general, he rose to become minister of culture and information for over seven years (1972-1978). He spoke with conviction about negotiating in the Sudan, a process in which he is still involved.

Dr. Malwal gave a brief history of conflict in this “misfit” state, stressing the deep-seated and virtually irreconcilable differences between North and South. He noted that in colonial times, North and South Sudan had been administered separately by the British for all but the last nine years. The Sudan meets the description of Mazrui’s dangerously dual state, the North being “Arab”/Moslem, the South, “African”/Christian. It is riddled by economic divisions, ethnic and religious quarrels, and even racism. When the Sudan became independent in 1956, power was given to the Arab minority (according to a survey taken at the time, sixty-one percent of the inhabitants called themselves Africans and only twenty-nine percent, Arabs). Now the Sudan is caught in a situation in which the minority feels too threatened to open itself up to a majority system, yet resists self-determination for the South.

He discussed the history of negotiations which have been ongoing for the forty-four years since the Sudan gained its independence. Of all the earlier negotiations, according to Dr. Malwal, only one had been remotely successful: In 1972, South Sudan had won autonomy, although power continued to be vested in Khartoum. Sadly, the agreement was abrogated ten years later, with little or no international protest. Today, southern Sudan is famine-ridden and desperate. Its suspicions of the North are exacerbated by the fact that the northern regime has declared Sudan to be an Islamic State; this threatens to leave the southern Sudanese as Christian and pre-Christian second-class citizens. The majority in the south now hope for partition.

Most recent rounds of negotiations have also been failures. The process has been complicated by the United States’ loyalty to Egypt, its powerful Middle Eastern ally; Egypt fears the independence of a people who control the back door of the Nile. The emergence of other groups in central Sudan seeking independence from Khartoum is another wild-card. However, the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), composed of countries from the Horn, which has pressed for peace since 1991, has made some progress. It has won support for two principles, first that South Sudan has a right to self-determination and second, that it should not be governed under an Islamic state. Though unprepared to accept one solution (separation of church and state) the government of Khartoum has recently agreed in principle to the right of South Sudan to self-determination.

Unfortunately, as a result of the recent outbreak of hostilities in the Horn of Africa, three of the four members of IGAT are no longer on speaking terms, which bodes ill for future negotiations held under its aegis. Bona Malwal’s final comment was that, given the profound mistrust that exists between peoples in the Sudan, self-determination offers the one real chance for lasting peace.

Richard Joseph, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science and former head of the Africa Governance Program of the Carter Center at Emory University, closed the discussion. The conference, he said, defied brief summation and so he would merely offer a few rather personal thoughts about conflict and conflict resolution in Africa.

The study of conflict in Africa is chilling, Professor Joseph said. Instability in Africa now is assumed. The optimism that followed the end of the Cold War has dissipated, and the international community seems to hope for little more than merely containing the damage that Africa can do to itself and to others. The conflicts are almost beyond analysis. Africa is without direction. The conflicts are marked by amorality, corruption, atrocities, and the use of drugs and terror. People caught in the conflicts seem to have no idea what the fighting is about.

What can be done to solve these problems? Dr. Joseph remarked that the rationalities of the academy do not get very far in this environment. Hence the importance of, as it were, “institutionalizing” Professor Ali Mazrui. The great genius of Dr. Mazrui, Dr. Richard, noted, is his willingness to envisage creative new solutions. These are both familiar and unfamiliar, sometimes cogent, and sometimes impractical. Yet they represent the kind of new thinking so desperately needed.

Dr. Joseph offered a warning and a word of advice.
The warning was against the unwise “willing suspension of disbelief.” Too often, he said, we overlook abuses and try and convince ourselves that something positive is happening in Africa, even when it is not. The advice was that we look at Africa in a global context. Such an effort would make it clear that the difficulties of this continent are not unique.

Professor Kohn brought the conference to an end with his closing remarks. After commenting on the extraordinary depth of knowledge and experience brought to the conference by participants and attendees, Dr. Kohn reflected on the problems that accompany the study of conflict. A conference, he said, that focuses on these difficult issues can leave us deeply pessimistic, with a sense that the glass is neither half full nor half empty, but fully empty. Nonetheless, it is our inescapable obligation as scholars to continue to study war and conflict. Paraphrasing John Adams, he explained why: We study politics and war, he said, so that our children can study commerce and development, and their children can study philosophy and music and art. Such a conference at least serves to help us think, write, and teach. We can count it a success, Professor Kohn said, if it enables us to rededicate ourselves to the task of working, each in our own way, for peace, reconciliation, and a more humane and tolerant future.

(Note: Group leaders are listed first and rapporteurs are listed third.)

John Cann, U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College
Jeffrey Eliot, North Carolina Central University
Kenneth Vickery, North Carolina State University

Great Lakes (Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi)
Catherine Newbury, UNC-Chapel Hill
Alphonse Mutima, UNC-Chapel Hill
David Newbury, UNC-Chapel Hill

Horn of Africa (Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia
Bereket Selassie, UNC-Chapel Hill
Frank Crigler, American Diplomacy
Joseph P. Smaldone, U. S. Arms Control & Disarmament Agency

Robert Ann Dunbar, UNC-Chapel Hill
Simeon Ilesanmi, Wake Forest University
Yomi Durotoye, Wake Forest University

Coastal West Africa (including Sierra Leone and Liberia)
Michael Lambert, UNC-Chapel Hill
Kenneth Brown, Dean Rusk Center, Davidson College
Charles Piot, Duke University

Andrew Clark, UNC-Wilmington
Eunice Charles, U. S. Department of the Army, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Mustafah Dhada, Clark Atlanta University

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