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Work for the peace party

Patrick Smith
By Patrick Smith
Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report.

Posted on Friday, 25 May 2012 11:04

Few wars are reported as badly as those in Africa. Laziness, stereotyping and misinformation all feed into a medley of calumnies that blame weak journalism on harsh conditions and poor communications.

Having covered wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, I can attest that conditions for journalists were considerably better than those of the combatants or the preyed-upon civilians. The advent of satellite phones and internet have almost deprived us of that age-old excuse: ‘I just couldn’t get a line out.’

Better technology has not helped the reporting much. Our East Africa editor Parselelo Kantai gets behind the scenes in the Somali and Sudan conflicts because he knows the territory and the history, so people trust him to be fair and accurate. One reason for Africa’s sharp reaction to the US-based Kony 2012 campaign was its slickly packaged but crassly ill-informed reporting by activists. Sadly, the doctrine of humanitarianism – that is the obligation of all to promote human welfare – has helped obscure some of the big causes of conflict and suffering.

The promotion of human welfare is necessary, but it is far from sufficient to stop war. The idea that mad greedy warlords are the main problem distracts everybody. Another correspondent writes about “un-wars” in which the protagonists simply seek “cash, guns and a licence to rampage”. If all this was true, that contingent of US Special Forces in the Central African Republic would have already fixed the Lord’s Resistance Army problem.

In reality, history and economics play a much bigger role. Entrenched corrupt and autocratic regimes, predatory resource extraction, widening inequities and the destruction of the environment are all exacerbated by established state relations and foreign interventions. Received wisdom argues that with the end of the Cold War, foreign responsibility also ended for wars in Africa. The spate of rebellions in the 1990s, the argument continues, was driven by rebels without a cause, save personal enrichment.

For those of us who saw them at close range, the rebellions of the 1990s were more about the unfinished business of the Cold War, the skewed autocracies that Samuel Doe and Mobutu Sese Seko had run. That does not exonerate Charles Taylor, Foday Sankoh and other perpetrators of atrocities from blame but explains some of the continuing traumas their countries are living through. Understanding them should produce better policies and institutions.

There is much more work for the peace party. The number of big wars and mass killings has steadily declined in Africa over the past two decades, but other forms of political violence – such as election conflicts and land-use disputes – are worsening. There are long-standing insurgencies in Mali, Namibia, Senegal, Somalia and Sudan that may not have the journalistic drama of the wars of the 1980s and 1990s but are equally intractable. Fewer people may die on the battlefields but more perish from the denial of food and basic medical facilities.

Armed groups lead these insurgencies and cross frontiers with impunity, drawing on arms and training from terrorist and criminal networks. Such groups are more impervious to pressure from governments and international organisations. Secessionist and Islamist groups in northern Mali control large swathes of territory, consolidating a rebellion that has thrown the political class in Bamako into confusion.

The better news is that more pan-African institutions are developing mechanisms to tackle such conflicts. Just as former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan mediated a political settlement after Kenya’s disputed elections in 2007, the Economic Community of West African States is leading negotiations for a political transition in Mali. In cases such as Sudan, the UN and the African Union are belatedly showing more determination to sanction aggression. Tougher diplomacy and a bid to work with organisations such as the African Development Bank to tackle the political economy of conflict could help pre-empt the growing threat of local resource wars. ●

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