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COLUMN

Same Old Story, New Characters

Basil Enwegbara

The attention and controversy that The Economist drew last year when it declared Africa, on its front cover, as a hopeless continent was truly as explosive as an atomic bomb. But before The Economist rang that bell of a hopeless continent torn by all forms of intractable ethnic and interethnic warfare, the mode of “Afro-pessimism” and “conflict fatigue” was already high among the Africa analysts in Washington, with most U.S.-Africa analysts concurring that the U.S. should no longer continue to engage in African conflict resolution, as they believe U.S. national interests are nonexistent. This way, the consensus has remained for the U.S. to be guided by the principle of “African solutions to African problems.” The National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, did not hesitate to confirm this pessimism in December 1994, in his address to the members of the Organization for African Unity when he warned, “Those of us who recognize the importance of the continued active engagement and support for Africa are confronting the reality of shrinking resources and an honest skepticism about the return on our investments in peacekeeping and development.” At the same time, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was rolling out its intelligence report that “ethnic conflict, civil war, natural disasters will place a greater demand on humanitarian support in Africa than at any time.” The picture the CIA finally painted of Africa by January 1995 is that “the nation-state is losing its grip in Africa because of unstable borders, large refugee flows between states, massive international migration within Africa, civil strife, criminal cross-border trading networks, the emergence of warlords in several countries, and foreign intervention.”

Behind Robert Kaplan’s coining of “Afro-pessimism” -- that sees only chaos and instability as the defining characteristics of contemporary Africa -- is a continent that suffered a larger geostrategic burden than any other during the four decades of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Even congressional leaders in Washington share the view that Africa is of no real interest to the United States; the continent as more trouble than it is worth; and aid to Africa as “money down foreign aid-rat-holes.” One of the questions being posed by Washington is: can we create a new international political model for combating wars and instability in a continent that is deep-seated in negatives -- from intractable ethnic intolerance and quest to destroy, to religious extremism and fanaticism? Reinforcing this new policy menu on Africa are the Western media’s negative images, a carefully sponsored machinery to filter out stores in confirmation of this hopeless thesis.

But the questions are: why is Africa conflict-ridden and incessantly an unstable continent? Is Africa’s present conflict situation unique in history? Or is Africa simply undergoing the historical process Europe, America and other continents have undergone in one stage of their journey to nationhood and homogeneity or the other? Is the dramatization of conflicts in Africa simply to generate deep-seated negative images to justify the physical atrocities and psychologically trauma meted to Africa by both Europe and America? What is needed is to browse through the history of any western country to be amazed by the number of wars fought and the intensity of the warfare its efforts to build a nation-state or to force its national interest on both close and distant neighbors. This accounts for the hypocrisy of Europe, a continent that has been and remains at the center stage of warfare for over a thousand centuries. A look at European conflict shows that, from 1400 to 1559, Europe was engulfed in dynasty warfare; 1559 to 1648, in religious battles; 1648 to 1789, sovereignty; and from 1789 to 1917, wars of nationalism. It was the same European nationalism and quest for imperial expansion that plugged the world into two wars in the last century.

Even the presence of the U.S.-led NATO to protect European countries from warfare has never stopped wars in Europe -- even when their political, economic and technical costs outweigh the gains. The fall of Yugoslavia tells the story of a continent that still enjoys warfare, as the declaration of Croatian and Slovenian independence once again flared up a Europe that could only looking up to the United States to fight its backyard battle. The case of Britain is an interesting one since it is still engulfed in battles with its “colonized” neighbors. These nationalist movements have grown since Britain lost its commanding position in the world economy to the United States in the 1870s, and with Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales discovering how less attractive the former imperial power has become. In France the case is not different, as the battle to suppress the nationalism in Corsica continues. Italy has the North resisting being the country’s bread winner. Separatist movements have not subsided in Spain, where the manufacturing powers of Catalan and Basque regions have continuously made them to view the agrarian Castile region as a dubious partner.

The story is not different in North America. While new economic geometry in Canada has increased tension for nationalism in Quebec, Alberta is constantly clashing with the eastern provinces over oil revenue. The case of the United States remains an interesting one full of battlefields and bloodshed indeed. To shake off any shackles imposed upon the colonies and perhaps place them back on the “barbarian occupiers” of the immense territory that nature favored with all the advantages of climate, soil, great navigable rivers, and lakes, Benjamin Franklin saw war as the inevitable option. But freeing the colonies from Britain and France and forming a Continental Union of America never translated into a peaceful country. To the extent that for almost a century the greatest Union ever built by human history remained a battlefield for secession. All the secessions were simply provoked by perceived threats to the economic or political interests of one region or the other with leaders engaged in the cost-benefit evaluation of continued participation the Union. It was first the Federalist New England that threatened to secede in 1812, as it feared its political influence and commercial interests undermined by the Louisiana Purchase. Later, it was the South seeking to secede, as it feared the economic domination of the industrializing North over the South.

What all these battles and warfare have in common is that they are all unfortunate but inevitable parts of nation-building which ends with the emergence of a new, stronger and more united nation-state, and the present wars in Africa are no different. The intractable nature of these new wars and their degree of violence and bloodshed is in correlation with the level of external involvement in African internal affairs -- from the infusion of arms and personnel to technical assistance and financial backing all to either make Africans start fighting or to continue fighting each other without efforts to resolve their differences. Not only have these foreign intrusions helped breed wars among ethnic groups in Africa but have also facilitated the wars being prolonged to interminable ends. Western interests have been solely advanced at both national and international levels as African states continue to be engulfed in one form of civil war or the other. The availability of cheap armaments after the Cold War has helped ambitious soldiers to challenge a government or helps facilitate new wars. While the absence of a continental defense force and regional peacekeeping organizations has in most cases created new conditions for conflicts in Africa, to such extent that ending or continuing these wars have become impossible without the same foreigners intervening, the end of these wars would transform Africa into a land of freedom: free from prejudice, hate and envy; free religious fanaticism, ethnic factionalism and rigid citizenship; and free from tyrants and coercive forces that will undermine the new image and a sense of a continental cohesion.