The following is an additional essay written for my African Politics course. This time, I offer my thoughts on political violence in Africa – both its causes, and its mitigators. While it may not seem relevant to Invictus Institute, it is important to note that we operate in parts of the world where day-to-day life (including education) is far more likely to be disturbed by serious fighting. Just recently, our program in Cameroon had to be placed on hold due to violent uprisings there. Sadly, children often experience immense suffering during these times of upheaval. If we truly want to improve the lives of our students, we should do our best to fully empathize with them.
Granted, the opinions I offer should be taken with several grains of salt; I am by no means an expert on Africa. But if nothing else, I hope it inspires some contemplation from our readers on a very real, very human, social problem:
While a variety of factors contribute to the spread of violence in sub-Saharan Africa, the broader, social-systemic factors appear to have more influence than individual drives, especially ethnicity. Mitigating violence is therefore most effective when divisions along these lines are softened through pervasive intervention.
Strong examples of these social-systemic factors include ethnicity, corruption, natural resources, and poor governance. Disputes centered on them often embroil sub-Saharan Africa in fierce conflicts, including the Rwandan genocide, the Belgian oppression of the Congo, and the civil war in Liberia (Scott 2006; Gbowee & Mithers 2013; Jennings et al. 1998; Hochschild 1998). In each of these striking examples, a combination of all the above factors permeated state government and society, resulting in untold suffering.
Of the four social-systemic factors discussed in the previous paragraph, ethnicity seems to hold the most sway. As Alex Thomson summarizes in An Introduction to African Politics, ethnic divisions create hierarchies in which ethnic groups of lower esteem must compete against those held in higher esteem for scarce resources (Thomson 2010). By serving as the basis for distribution of resources and power, ethnicity under-girds all conflicts (to varying degrees) that incorporate the other three elements.
Between Philip Roessler and Adam Hochschild (two scholars whose work we have studied throughout the semester), Roessler would be more inclined to agree with the aforementioned ethnicity argument than Hochschild. After all, his seminal work on ethnicity’s role in African state politics claims that the state’s degree of ethnic power-sharing can largely determine whether a coup or civil war breaks out (Roessler 2016). He would, however, emphasize that a nation’s ethnic hierarchy is no mere coincidence, but “a strategic choice” made by the nation’s rulers (Roessler 2016: 19).
Hochschild, on the other hand, would likely refute this argument. In King Leopold’s Ghost he repeatedly stresses the influence of the Congo’s natural resources on the devastation that took place there, particularly ivory and rubber (Hochschild 1998). The historian would probably use the Congo to argue that natural resources, not ethnicity, have the greatest effect on political violence in sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the many case studies that supports this view of ethnicity’s role in political violence is the aforementioned Liberian civil war. In describing the conflict’s outbreak, Gbowee frames it as decades worth of ethnic tensions finally exploding, with Charles Taylor leading the so-called indigenous people against the so-called (traditionally ruling-class) Congo people (Gbowee & Mithers 2013). The underlying ethnic tensions seemed to not only prompt the struggle, but exacerbate it. As an American Medical Association article details, violent acts against Liberian women became more common if they were accused of belonging to a certain ethnic faction, highlighting the magnitude of ethnicity’s part in the conflict (Swiss et al. 1998).
A counterfactual example to the ethnicity argument is the brutal despotism in the Congo by the hands of the Belgians. While the Europeans clearly considered themselves the inferior race, the thirst for wealth in ivory and rubber was the primary driver of their inhuman rule over region’s natives. Their looming quotas prompted crimes against humanity such as the lucrative slave trade, holding women and children hostage, and lethal beatings (Hochschild 1998).
While colonial Congo may be an exception, the permeating influence of ethnicity in African political violence cannot be denied. Therefore, in order to mitigate violence, the ethnic tensions (and all other social-systemic disparities) that underlie them need to be mollified. Evidence of this course of action’s effectiveness exists in Rwanda, home to one of history’s most disastrous ethnic conflicts. Nowadays, “even mentioning the two dominant ‘ethnic groups’, Hutu and Tutsi, is a major taboo,” (Olopade 2014: 226). Since the genocide’s conclusion, Rwanda has become a West African model of inclusivity, innovation, business, and more. As unlikely as it may have seemed in the not-too-distant past, Rwanda offers hope that political violence in Africa can and should be abated for the sake of the continent’s future.
Arriola, Leonardo R. “Patronage and Political Stability in Africa.” Comparative Political Studies 42, no. 10 (October 1, 2009): 1339-362. February 27, 2009. Accessed October 26, 2017. doi:10.1177/0010414009332126.
Bellows, John, and Edward Miguel. “War and Institutions: New Evidence from Sierra Leone.” American Economic Review 96, no. 2 (2006): 394-99. 2006. doi:10.1257/000282806777212323.
Gbowee, Leymah, and Carole Mithers. Mighty be our powers: how sisterhood, prayer, and sex changed a nation at war: a memoir. New York, NY: Beast Books, 2013.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. 1st ed. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Olopade, Dayo. The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa. New York, NY: First Mariner Books, 2014.
Roessler, Philip G. Ethnic politics and state power in Africa: the logic of the coup-civil war trap. Cambridge, United Kingdom, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Straus, Scott. The Order of Genocide Race, Power, and War in Rwanda. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
Strohecker, Karin. “Africa struggles to improve governance in past decade: Ibrahim survey.” Reuters. October 03, 2016. Accessed October 26, 2017. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-africa-governance/africa-struggles-to-improve-governance-in-past-decade-ibrahim-survey-idUSKCN12310Y.
Swiss, Shana, Peggy J. Jennings, Gladys V. Aryee, and Rojatu S. Turay-Kanneh. “Violence Against Women During the Liberian Civil Conflict.” Jama 279, no. 8 (1998): 625. February 25, 1998. Accessed November 4, 2017. doi:10.1001/jama.279.8.625.
Thomson, Alex. An Introduction to African Politics. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2010.