Which African wars are forever?
I got into a bit of a discussion with a friend the other day about the current conflicts in Africa. This discussion was spurred on by an article in Foreign Policy magazine called “Africa’s Forever Wars” written by Jeffrey Gettleman. The article’s central premise was that the internal conflicts of Africa have devolved from political violence against repressive governments to “opportunistic, heavily armed banditry” perpetrated by rebel groups lacking a political ideology. Gettleman’s argument is that negotiations cannot take place with these groups because there is very little to offer them politically. As Gettleman says, “all they want is guns, cash, and a license to rampage. And they’ve already got all three.”
My friend didn’t agree with this assumption. Her reasons: you can’t generalize Africa’s conflicts and, as outsiders, we fail to see the particular causes of conflict. Fair enough. There are more than 50 countries on the continent. There is famine, repression, competition over resources, ethnic-religious tensions, arbitrary state boundaries, and many other issues from which conflict arises. There certainly is more to the rebellions in Darfur, Western Sahara, and Nigeria than just simply pillaging, rape, and banditry. But what about groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army which have become so abstruse in their political ideology and prevalent in their use of brainwashed child soldiers that the violence they employ seems misguided and purposeless, to say the least. Are they provoking Africa’s forever wars?
To his credit, Gettleman acknowledges that these conflicts often begin with legitimate grievances. As he states:
Ethnic tensions are a real piece of the conflict, together with disputes over land, refugees, and meddling neighbor countries. But what I’ve come to understand is how quickly legitimate grievances in these failed or failing African states deteriorate into rapacious, profit-oriented bloodshed.
Gettleman adds that the profit-motive has made popular support irrelevant for these rebels. Meaning they are more likely to engage in tactics that terrorize the people. As well, their demand for child soldiers will increase.
The downside to not caring about winning hearts and minds, though, is that you don’t win many recruits. So abducting and manipulating children becomes the only way to sustain the organized banditry. And children have turned out to be ideal weapons: easily brainwashed, intensely loyal, fearless, and, most importantly, in endless supply.
Now I’m no expert on African wars but some of what Gettleman says seems to be true. In places where armed groups can exert control, they can make one of two choices: push forward on a political agenda or seek short-sighted gains through the use of indiscriminate violence. It seems the longer a group is in the fight and the more mysterious is their agenda, the more likely they are to become armed bandits instead of a coherent political movement.