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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

War Profiteers

Getting worse:

What we are seeing is the decline of the classic African liberation movement and the proliferation of something else -- something wilder, messier, more violent, and harder to wrap our heads around. If you'd like to call this war, fine. But what is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry. My job as the New York Times' East Africa bureau chief is to cover news and feature stories in 12 countries. But most of my time is spent immersed in these un-wars.


Even if you could coax these men out of their jungle lairs and get them to the negotiating table, there is very little to offer them. They don't want ministries or tracts of land to govern. Their armies are often traumatized children, with experience and skills (if you can call them that) totally unsuited for civilian life. All they want is cash, guns, and a license to rampage. And they've already got all three. How do you negotiate with that?

In short, Africa has returned to business as usual before the colonial era. It became fashionable in the 1960s to blame Africa's travails on the exiting European powers. There was some measure of truth to this, as the continent was exploited for cheap labour and its treasure trove of natural resources. Yet the European influence was far more limited than is generally understood. Until the late nineteenth century the ability of colonial powers to project themselves more than a hundred miles inland was virtually non-existent. An explorer, trader or missionary might penetrate the heart of the continent, he was however an isolated individual at the mercy of his hosts. 

The advent of the gunboat and early machine guns allowed Europeans to influence affairs deep within the continent. The scramble for Africa which followed established nominal political borders between the colonial powers, which became templates for national boundaries after independence. These lines on coloured maps have been denounced, rightly, for ignoring ethnic and regional considerations, instead being based on the strategic interests of the imperial governments. More gravely it was what the lines implied, the concept of the nation state, that was misplaced. 

Much of Sub-Saharan Africa today is not too removed from the stone age tribal societies which Livingston and Pinto encountered a century and a half ago. The cell phones, second-hand t-shirts and footballs notwithstanding. The cultures, however, have remained mostly static. Decolonisation was not the process of granting independence to emerging nations, but a hasty surrender of power by colonial official - themselves exercising only a tenuous control of territories beyond the major cities - to motley collections of tribal leaders. Depending on the skill and outlook of the tribal leaders, and the ethnic composition of their new states, the countries politically degenerated at various rates. Collapsing almost completely within weeks of independence in some cases - Angola - while others lingered for decades until the overthrow of a tribal strongman - as in the former Belgian Congo. 

The result was usually the same, either successions of military coups and shame elections, or outright warfare between roving gangs of mercenaries. The fate of modern Africa is scarcely unique. Descriptions like those of the above author bear comparison with Europe during the Thirty Years War. Begun in the heat of religious controversy, the war quickly became thinly veiled excuses for raping and pillaging the German states. Europe grew away from these atrocities, with occasional relapses. There is no reason that Africa cannot do the same.

Posted by Richard Anderson on April 7, 2010 | Permalink


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