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Conflicts in Africa: There Is Hope

By   /  April 19, 2010  /  7 Comments

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A conflict arises when two or more parties have incompatible goals about something. According to Prof. Mwagiru Makumi, in a simple conflict, for example one between two people, the incompatibility arises because they may both have different perceptions, goals, and ideas about how to achieve them.

The following are the common root causes of conflicts in Africa. Colonialism: The colonial powers destroyed old method of conflict resolution and traditional African political institutions, and failed to create effective substitute ones in their place. Failing states then have been one of the major sources of conflict in postcolonial Africa. Prof. Mazrui asks the question whether borders are to blame. He argues that the Berlin conference of 1885 created political boundaries in Africa arbitrarily which enclosed groups with no traditions or shared authority or shared systems of setting disputes. Other identical communities were scattered; a case is the Somalia people of Africa. Somalis factually have been scattered into five countries: Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Djibouti not to mention the eminent split into Somaliland and Somali.

Ironically, African governments have tended to be possessive about these artificially created colonial borders. Unlike before, the borders now generate more intra-state conflicts but less inter- state conflicts. An example is the northern frontier conflict where Kenyan Somali wanted to secede to join their brothers in Somalia. The intractable Ogaden war is a case in this category. Another example is the northern frontier conflict where Kenyan Somali wanted to secede to join their brothers in Somalia. Religion or ethnicities are other roots of conflict. Worst conflicts in Arab Africa are religious, while those in black Africa (sub-Sahara Africa) are ethnic (tribe) e.g. Hutu or Tutsi in Rwanda.

Comparatively, Mazrui looks at resources or identity as a cause of African conflicts.

  • Black (Africans) clash with each other over identity.
  • Africans clash with whites in Africa over resources.
  • Major clashes appear to be related to cultural demarcation.
  • The ethnic message rather than the economic message has proved to be cause of conflict among Blacks. For example when Oginga Odinga tried to campaign on platform of the economic gaps; members of his Luo community whether of high or low class followed him, while the low class in other communities still avoided his Ford- Kenya party; a fact that it is ethnicity that mattered and not social class.

Comparatively, Mazrui looks at resources or identity as a cause of African conflicts. Most of Africa’s fierce internal violent conflicts have been over identity. Sparse resource based conflicts have been evident among pastoral communities in the Arid and Semi-arid areas such as norther Kenya, northern Uganda where the Samburu, Pokot, Karamajong, Turkana etc engage in not only cattle rustling by violent conflicts over scarce pasture and water. However, major clashes appear to be related to cultural demarcation. The ethnic message rather than the economic message has proved to be cause of conflict among Blacks. For example in Kenya the case is serious since politics, economic influence and human development opportunities as well as security are advanced and/or curtailed by ethnicity.

Modern weapons and standing soldiers have made soldiers the most powerful force in African politics since independence. They seek political power through coups. A good example is Niger, a country that has experienced a myriad of coups. In Zimbabwe there are allegations by the opposition that the ruling ZANU-PF has embarked on militarization of civilians in rural Zimbabwe. Nigeria has for a long time grappled with security and democratic leadership issues due to the strength of the army both intellectually and militarily.

Is it dualism or pluralism that increases the propensity of conflict? A plural society is one which has multiple groups defined ethnically (racially) religiously, culturally or by other parameters. USA is a plural society. A dual society is one in which two groups account for over 80% of the population for example, Zimbabwe (Tshona 75 %), Ndebele (15%) of Twa (10%). A dual society runs a number of high risks such as prolonged stalemate, polarized ethnic distrust, prolonged period of tension of violence, separatism and secessionism, genocide and potential genocidal reprisal (e.g Rwanda).

The reduction in inter-state wars may be a curse or blessing. Civil wars are more devastating than interstate conflicts e.g. Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda. Today external aggression is no longer a viable means of forging national unity and statehood. Leaders could provoke external conflict with neighbors whenever internal pressure for governance increased. Former Uganda junta Idi Amin was adept at this scapegoat proxy wars. This explains the current prevalence of intra state conflicts in the present Africa, because states can no longer engage in inter-state conflicts.

Conflict Resolution

Africans have the ability to resolve their own internal conflicts. This can be achieved by cultivation of tolerance, developing pluralism, improving civil- military relations and fostering innovative pan-Africa solutions. The rigid possession of territorial independence, called borders, should take the back seat as regionalism and globalization takes the front seat. The world has become so interdependent that borders are becoming weakened. Tolerance is the ability to accept difference. Emergence of toleration of dissent in Africa must be cultivated actively and institutionally enforced. This is what is much needed in Somali. Constructive   pluralism: Decentralization (pluralization of power) should be encouraged by promoting the development of multiparty systems, capitalism federalism, and the political representation of women to end conflict at the grassroots levels. Kenya needs such a line of thought. The greater politicization and empowerment of women has direct security consequences. Women will have an effect on the choices that are made for war or peace (feminist theories) e.g. Rwanda and Uganda have increased women representation and are working for peace.

Civil- military relations should be improved. The military could be utilized in nation building activities such as road construction, bridges, water systems, etc so that they could mix with civilian and foster common understanding. Africans should intervene in a neighbor’s territory to try to minimize chaos and solve the conflict. Regional integration in this way will be vital for quicker intervention probably by having a standing army. The envisaged African rapid response concept also known as the African Standby Force (ASF) should be speedily operationalised. However, the proposed ASF continues to face hurdles that slow its development such as interstate relations which include lack of trust among regional brigade states, hegemonic rivalry over command headquarter or who is to be in charge of planning element etc. This is eveident in the Eastern brigade where Kenya and Ethiopia as lead nations have undercurrent rivalry which saw the headquarters placed in Ethiopia while the planning element is in Kenya; unlike in SADC brigade where both strategic institutions have been retained at the Southern’s sub-region headquarter in Gaberone Botswana. Regional integration in this way will be vital for quicker intervention probably by operationalising the standing army.The era of non-interference a corollary of sovereign legality of states has been redefined and should be abolished altogether.

Africa is capable of rising from the ashes; in fact it is no longer in the ashes but at the threshold of realization. What ails Africa now are external interests contending in its territory. The West has been unable to let go its resource feeder Africa. Whenever international interests converge in a country, its journey to a failed state will be complete. This is what contributes to Somalia’s undoing; so many external interests from US, Middle East, al-Qaeda, Palestine, Sudan, Ethiopia to name a few, all have vested interests in the state of Somali and subsequent profits arising from illegal business common in failed states.

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About the author


Wilfred Mulliro is Kenyan columnist. MA in International Studies from University of Nairobi, B.Ed. in English Literature from Kenyata University. His articles which focus on Social issues and Politics appear in Kenya's leading Newspapers.


  1. avatar farah says:

    thank u for your article

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  3. avatar Kabiito Benedict says:

    Good work Wilfred!, we badly need people to invest time in understanding our problems and craft redemptive solutions, which are home grown. The problem still remains with African rulers[ we don’t have leaders yet] who are insensitive about how to best go about our challenges.
    Thank you.

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