Peace and Conflict in Africa: Reflections From an African Peacebuilder

Part I: Causes, Dynamics and Implications for the Emerging Global Order

The following remarks were delivered by Ethiopian-born conflict mediator Hizkias Assefa, who was in residence at Brandeis University for a week during the 1999-2000 academic year, where he led faculty seminars on reconciliation, forgiveness and impunity.

The discussion of large scale social conflicts, such as civil wars, is liable to be tragic, depressing and, at times, outright pessimistic, because it is about brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and children against their parents. And for some reason, Africa seems to have a large share of this tragedy. But it will be very presumptuous of me, or for that matter, anybody, to talk about African conflicts, their root causes and their implications in so short a time, and be definitive about it. Instead, I'm going make some preliminary remarks and observations on large-scale social conflicts — focussing on civil wars in Africa — and look at three underlying causes. These are the breakdown of African institutions, issues surrounding leadership in Africa, and the global context and its impact on African conflicts.

When one looks at the continent of Africa, compared to many continents and peoples, it is a continent that has been deeply traumatized. It has been robbed, massacred, degraded, discriminated against, and brutally exploited, not just once, twice, or thrice, but successively over generations, and for centuries. And I will talk about three traumatic episodes in recent African history that have had significant impact on the breakdown of African institutions, and thereby on the incidence and the intensity of conflicts in Africa. And these episodes are slavery, colonialism, and the modernization process.

I know these days it's not very fashionable to talk about slavery and colonialism in discussions of African conflicts. People want to talk about the here and now. However, I also believe that one cannot understand the deep sources of conflict in Africa without understanding the deep traumas that have come from its history. And talking about these events does not mean that there are no other explanations for these conflicts. What is happening in current economic, political, and social life in Africa has a lot to contribute, but the advents of slavery, colonialism, and the modernization process provide a deep insight into the present situation.

Secondly, I also notice that many accounts that I have seen of this era — particularly of slavery — seem to be very intellectualized. And I've found it is personally very useful to come face to face with the little evidence that we have of this dark period in human history by visiting museums or some historical sites that remind us of the transactions during this time. Then one begins to have a glimpse of what the human, social, political, economic and spiritual consequences have been.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the old slave markets in Zanzibar. And about a year ago, I was in Senegal at the port where most of the slaves from west Africa were exported to the New World. Some estimate that 40 million to 60 million Africans have been exported from west Africa alone during this time of slavery. In these Zanzibar markets, they were telling me that about 20,000 people were sold every year. And the 20,000 were only 10% of the catch. The other 90% died along the way to the market.

So about 200,000 people were captured yearly. And when you think of the number of years, of centuries, that slavery has prevailed in that continent, you can imagine the incredible amount of human displacement that happened during this time. Some historians talk about it as one of the greatest events of human displacement in history. And one of the things that touched me deeply at this slave market was what happened once the slaves got there. The slaves would carry ivory — and some of the tusks were so heavy that one person could not carry it — and when they reached the market, both the ivory and the slaves were sold. But even for those that made it to the market, there was a test for who was going to be sold. And this would be decided by whipping the slaves in front of the prospective buyer. The one that could withstand the whipping was considered strong enough, and attracted a good price. Those that could not withstand the pain and fainted were considered weak and whipped until they died. And these slaves eventually served to build up the wealth of Arabia, Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, the United States and the Middle East.

The horror of slavery was not only its incomprehensive cruelty but also the complete traumatization of African societies, the impoverishment of communities by taking away its strongest and most productive members, and the destruction of the fiber that held communities together. And this was not the end of this greed and brutality. It was not enough for Europe to have the bodies of Africans and exploit their labor; now Europe wanted the land. So five European powers partitioned off the whole continent among themselves to colonize and exploit it without any restraint. Africans that escaped slavery now faced a new form of dehumanization and exploitation under the banner of colonialism. Under this system, the African was not considered a human being; he was a bit better than the animal, but lower than the European human. African culture, religion, and institutions were considered inferior and the African had to even give up his name in order to be accepted by the colonial masters.

Under colonialism and slavery, African traditional institutions of governance disintegrated or disappeared. The glues of African society were coming loose. Ethnic groups were pitted against each other for the purpose of weakening them in favor of the colonial master. In some instances, the colonists created ethnic hierarchy and some ethic groups were made to rule over the others. This increased animosity and destructive competition. Then towards the end of colonialism, came the modernization process. The new economic, political and educational systems destroyed whatever was left of the systems that African societies had evolved over generations, and put in place a totally alien value system. Western education in Africa generated even more alienation between the educated and the communities that they came from. Education became an instrument to supplant everything that is African instead of enhancing or adapting it to meet emerging needs of the African society. This is not to say that nothing good has come out of the modernization process, or everything that is traditional is good. There are many backward things about African traditions, and a lot of good has come from modernization. But all traditional societies like those in Africa, had developed values and institutions that enabled them to make sense of who they were, to coexist with each other, to cope with their environment, and to manage their resources. When this was brutally dismantled or discredited as it was during slavery and colonialism, a deep trauma and disorientation occurred. And this has significant implications on conflict at the personal, psychological, and social level. This lack of roots and the importation and imposition of values, ideologies and institutions on a society without the adequate consideration for whether it is well adapted to that social reality, contributes a great deal to understand African conflicts. When you consider all these traumas, it even surprises me that Africa is not in a worse situation. In fact, one can say that the African people and their culture are survivors. There are still lots of positive and healthy things about that society that if managed properly, could be the sources of Africa's salvation.

Here, I would like to share a poem with you, written by one of my mentors, Adam Curle. He was a professor at Bradford University before his retirement. It's called “Africa,” and it goes like this:

It is sickening to think how much we,

the slavers, settlers, exploiters, and such like muck

have messed the whole place up,

canting culture-killer missionaries,

corrupt traders in arms,

junk, worthless drugs, smart-aleck experts, scads of smug officials,

clowns all certain that they knew what is best for the natives.

This sorry crew have bled,

starved, robbed, attacked, belittled, divided, racked,

incestuously wrecked this motherland,

the womb from whom came humankind.

Allow me opposed to calm my hungry mind

before I pay humble tribute to the men and women,

so patient, so forgiving.

When I would have longed to hit him,

they obstinately forbore,

awaiting a change of heart that never came.

Only more cunning hidden pillage aid now the name for modern theft,

but the result the same.

But not many really understand our implications in the sort of land.

Once when I told a friendly man that we had lived ten years in Africa,

he answered, “Africa, eh?” reflected and said,

“A lot of troubles with the Negroes there, I’ve read.”

The African state has generated much conflict and miserably failed to regulate conflict, as healthy states should. It has been repressive, the holders of state power have been brutal and unaccountable, and governments have been corrupt and exclusive of many social groups. When one looks closely at the African state one observes that it is not adapted to African tradition, life, worldview or social relationships. The modern African state mimics the colonial states which it followed. In the previous system, the state was a mechanism that subjugated the entire country. The entire economic, political, religious and cultural system was used for the benefit of one ethnic racial group — in that case, the whites — at the exclusion of all Africans. Most of the African political leaders that took state power in independent Africa were socialized under this system. So when it was their turn to be at the helm, they copied the model on which they grew up. They made the state an instrument of oppression for the benefit of their own ethnic groups at the exclusion of others. Many conflicts have erupted around competition between ethnic groups and the state is seen as belonging only to those that are in power. Therefore, there isn't much of a sense of accountability or internal checks and balances. As a result, there have been endless wars between those that are in power and those that have been excluded for control of the state, just as during independence, African leaders struggled to take the state away from their colonial masters.

And let me make what I am saying clear. All these historical and global factors do not exonerate Africans from their responsibility for their plight. Many states have now experimented with independence for close to forty years, and some even for a longer period. Leaders can make a huge difference. They can bring the worst or the best out of people. If leaders opt for the best, it can still be done in Africa. People point to the miserable poverty of Africans that they say underlie many of the conflicts, but actually Africa is very rich, and with proper leadership, tremendous prosperity can be unleashed in that continent. Unfortunately, the continent has failed in generating leaders who have the capacity to bring people together, to heal their wounds, and inspire them to collaborate. Instead, the types that we are generously endowed with are those that thrive in hatred, exclusion and selfishness. One of the astounding aspects of Africa, as I said before, is that despite all this, the continent is rich and the people are quite gentle and friendly. African people have still a lot of humanity left. This is why even those who know Africa, once stung by the African bug can never get it out of their soul. The last words of David Livingston, one of the first explorers of the Nile were, “When I die, bury my body in Britain, but bury my heart in Africa.” And they took out his heart and buried it in Zambia.

The third element that I want to touch on is the global context in which Africa's conflicts play out and the role that they play in contributing to or generating conflicts. Here, there are two main factors. The first is the contradiction between the professed values of the global political and economic order and its practice. Although the west and the industrial North profess democracy and equity as desirable values and push it on the world, their own practices in the international arena dramatically contradict these values. The affluent societies that constitute about 25% of humanity control over 75% of the world's resources and also dominate the global, political and military power. Therefore, the model of governments and economic management that this global order presents for the rest of the world is not much different from the situation which prevails in many conflict-ridden African states — such as minority rule, exclusion and unaccountability. The president of one state in Africa which got its independence about eight years ago, said in a press interview, “What I learned from my six years of presidency by looking at the global order is that might makes right.” This is the stuff that is tearing apart the societies of Africa.

The second factor is that there are some specific policies that are emerging from the prevailing global order and feeding conflict in Africa. Specifically, these are the structural adjustment and privatization policies that are being pushed onto the poor and conflict-ridden countries in Africa. Even though the long-term benefit of these policies can be debated, what we are observing is that they are generating an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. More and more people are joining the ranks of the dissatisfied and angry and are turning to crime, armed robbery, prostitution or destructive insurgencies such as the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. When I think of my own country, Ethiopia, and the impact that these policies have, I am greatly saddened. In the late '60s and early '70s, I was in the student movement. At that time, the gross inequality between the rich and the poor had created a revolutionary situation in which students and other civil society actors were militating for rapid social change. But then the social process went out of hand and created a revolution that ultimately overthrew the monarchy and brought about a very brutal dictatorship. And in the process of this change a high human price was paid. After a long time, with the collapse of the socialist systems in Eastern Europe, this system also collapsed, and we had a new regime that adopted the free-enterprise system as a remedy for the country's problems. Now, when I go to Ethiopia, I see that the rich are getting incredibly rich, but the poor are getting poorer. Again, I see cruel history repeating itself and I wonder when we are going to learn from the past. After all, sooner or later those that are disenfranchised are going to hear the calls of political demagogues. I get very angry to see how the international system forces us to get into situations that make us repeat what we thought we have left behind.

In conclusion, as we could see from this presentation that some of the causes and problems that underlie conflicts in Africa seem to emerge out of unique African situations while others seem to be shared by all of us as members of the global order. As we saw already, African history is also European, American and Middle Eastern history. Ironically, just as the colonized Africans and the slaves suffered, the enslavers and the colonists also suffered, because an ideology that degrades certain human beings at the hands of others also degrades all of humanity. The stories of slavery and colonialism are told not to point accusing fingers or inculcate guilt, but to warn all of us of the immense capacity that we all have for evil, and to challenge us to hold hands, examine our consciences and dismantle the values, practices and institutions that we still have today and which continue to enslave people and colonize their minds. There are oppressive and exploitative national and global economic systems that thrive on evil by supplying instruments of human brutality against each other. There are social and cultural systems that deprive 2/3 of humanity and nature of their proper place on this earth. Perhaps there is hope of global partnership among those that have been alienated by the emerging order to cooperate across borders and contribute to the creation of a much more compassionate and inclusive global system. If we don't use the tale of this suffering to challenge us to bring about this transformation, then indeed the experience of African suffering has been in vain. Thank you.

Question and Answer