All year round the scholarly folks at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) tediously map out incidences of political violence in over 50 developing countries, the majority in Africa.
Viewed from a distance, their data resembles a fancy heat map, and it is easy to forget that each multi-coloured dot often represents fatalities; a father, a son, a brother. With nearly all conflicts on the one-billion strong continent rooted in its predominantly zero-sum brand of politics, it is tempting for one to conclude the project will be around for some years to come, with predictable results.
But not always: The data sometimes throws up surprises. Last year ACLED documented that the number of violent conflicts reduced in 2013, compared to 2012, with 13504 events to 9000 for the latter.
With 2014 off to a particularly bloody start, it would appear the 2012 dip was only a blip. Conflicts in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria and Egypt have continued to take the lustre of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. The IMF projects that the African economy will grow 6.1%, way ahead of the 3.7% average projected for the rest of the global economy.
Yet conflict remains the greatest threat to such robust growth. South Sudan’s civil war started off as a political fallout over the reform of the ruling party, but has since acquired dark overtones of ethnic conflict, with the US Secretary of State John Kerry last week warning of a genocide risk.
With an estimated 10,000 killed, the UN Security Council was recently moved to describe it as a “horror” in a strongly-worded statement, following one particularly brutal massacre in oil-rich Bentiu, capital of Unity State. CAR has since descended into a cycle of retaliatory killings, with Muslims forced to relocated to the resource-rich but poorly-governed country’s north.
The conflict there is estimated to have killed at least 1,500, although few keep count. The fallout over Egypt’s revolution has bred a new nationalist-figure in Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who is seen as the kind of strong figure needed to restore order in a country that was teetering on the brink of outright lawlessness. Having vowed to snuff out Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood if elected, the country’s spate of deadly terrorist bombings look set to continue.
It took the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria to cast the spotlight on the country’s Boko Haram challenge, with most organisations having lost track of the number of villagers and militants killed regularly in the country’s north-east. The Islamic militant group had already moved to rope in the predominantly-Christian and previously-aloof south into the conflict, recently bombing the capital Abuja twice and claiming close to 100 lives.
Warnings have also been issued over the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, with the latter still scarred by its experience with genocide. At first glance, it would appear that the struggle for political power and, by extension, resources are the key triggers for the fallouts, buttressed by ethnic divisions as in the case of Nigeria, DRC, CAR, and South Sudan, which between them count nearly 600 ethnic groups.
With such a diverse make-up, the narrative follows that conflict on the continent is inevitable. This has seen the scramble for “new” ideas to tackle the ever rising conflict.
But it would appear the solution has all along been with us.
The problem is not how deep the divisions run, but in how the “loot” is shared out. Respected British scholar Prof Frances Stewart, in her seminal 2008 work Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict, argued that when one group has political power and the other is economically privileged, as in Nigeria, the chances of conflict are greatly reduced.
Anyone who has been in Nigeria will understand how deep the divisions between the east, west and north run. The haughty Yorubas are seen as the richest ethnic group in the West African country, while the economically marginalised Muslim north has interestingly held power for most of its post-colonial history.
In South Sudan, oil was discovered in Nuerland in the 1970s and 1980s, an area dominated by the Nuers. Rivals the Dinka, on the hand, wield the political power, and it was only when the Neurs made a play for power that things went south, sparking the latest conflagration.
The Central African crisis has had a scarcely reported narrative—that of jealousy by the poorer but more powerful Christians, and the richer but politically excluded trader and herder Muslims. Again the Muslim-led power grab that deposed Francois Bozize rankled with the Christians, and has seen property looted as the Muslims have fled.
In a nutshell, according to the scholars, the same group—be it ethnic or religious—holding political and economic power is a recipe for disaster.
Divvying up the resources between parties often helps calm things down, even if groups don’t like each other much or have decades of historical animosity.