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Why Is Africa Unstable?

Basil Enwegbara

The term “Afro-pessimism,” coined by Robert Kaplan in the 1990s, quickly became popular among American and European policy commentators. By the end of the decade this baptismal name given to Africa -- as a continent doomed by chaos and instability -- became unquestionably its defining characteristic. Most leading Western scholars, with their historical naivete, concurred that the ethnic and inter-ethnic war-torn Africa was hopeless, as it suffered from what they believed to be chronic conflict fatigue.

But the obvious questions to ask are: why is Africa conflict-ridden and incessantly an unstable continent? Is Africa’s conflict situation historically unique? Or is it simply an inevitable historical imperative, which both Europe and America had to embrace during their own turn of matching nationhood and social harmony? Couldn’t the dramatization of today’s African conflicts be a carefully designed propaganda to justify centuries of physical and moral trauma imposed on the continent?

The perplexing truth is that while most Western scholars seem ready to ask why African societies are conflict-ridden, they do less digging into Western history to discover why Africa is warring. In reality what these “experts” are not telling us -- or do not know -- is that, as far back as six thousand years ago, Europe was already a theater of incessant warfare and a continent of dog-eat-dog fatal competition.

As one surveys European history, one is easily shocked to see how warfare went hand-in-hand with European civilization. From 1400 to 1559, for example, Europe was engulfed in dynasty warfare. From 1559 to 1648 it became a continent overwhelmed by religious warlord. Bloodshed was commonplace as Europe battled for sovereignty from 1648 to 1789. The endless bloodbaths that besieged Europe from 1789 to 1917 were the consequences of the European quest for nationalism, which culminated in a brutal First World War, in which Britain alone had 57,000 casualties in a single day on the Somme, and in which over 800,000 were counted dead when the Battle of Verdun was over. Less than two decades later, the same Europe plugged the entire world into the fiercest warfare in human history -- the Second World War -- which claimed more than 20 million Russians, 10 million Germans, and millions of innocent Jews in holocaust atrocities, simply because they were ahead of thinking and wealth-making Europe.

Even North America was not free from incessant warfare. As far back as 1492, there was already massive warfare -- with English warlords continuously clashing with their American Indian counterparts -- which intensified by the 1600s with the rapid expansion of the English colonists, forcing Native Americans into ecological crisis. This turned North America into a fierce battledfield, with Native Americans resorting to survivalist warfare, including the brutal King Philip's war.

But do we really need to explore the very distant past to see how warfare was the order of the day, and how it shaped Western civilization? Europe has never been free from warfare. If the fall of Yugoslavia was not enough evidence of a Europe that still enjoyed warfare, shouldn't the declaration of Croatian and Slovenian independence, which precipitated another brutal ethnic cleansing in the 1990s demonstrate that Europe still loved warfare?

The United Kingdom -- England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland -- continues to struggle with desires of independence within its constituent countries. France has not been in a peaceful mode either, as it continues to suppress nationalism in Corsica. Italy has yet to resolve the North-South divide, as Northern Italians continue to resist their role as the country’s breadwinner. Separatist movements have not subsided in Spain, as the manufacturing powers of Catalan and Basque regions continue to view the agrarian Castile region as a dubious partner.

The story is not different in North America. As regional economic distance grows among regions in Canada so does the accompanying regional tension for separatism. In the United States the situation is only getting better, but not without animosities for the old wounds caused by the brutal Civil War.

If after all these centuries of brutal warfare, the West is not doomed by its pervasive and deadly past and present, then, why should Africa, especially given that present warfare has not made the entire continent a theater? While my argument does not attempt to justify the present wars in Africa, it is worth noting the infiltration of foreign arms and ammunitions that have brought innocent Africans death in the millions. Even the level of emotional and physical dislocation these wars have caused in recent years cannot be justified. It is also not my intention to say that Africans have not warred like others for millennia.

The point here is a simple one. What seems today as an uniquely African warfare was once commonplace in Europe, Asia, and America. In other words, chronic warfare is as old as human history, resulting from either ecological imbalance or resource stress or people exceeding their area’s carrying capacity. Today’s warfare seems to be different; it is an outcome of changing social organizational and physical territorial situations critical (or not) for a more harmonious and governable nation-state.

Can’t we see this so-called African warfare as one of the prices to pay for building a harmonious and united Africa? In fact, as unfortunate as African warfare may be, the fact remains -- as history has abundantly shown --that it is the inevitable component of nation building, out of which emerges the birth of a new, stronger and more united nation-state. Today’s African wars will end with the transformation of Africa into a more united continent; a continent free from ethnic factionalism and rigid citizenship; and above all, a continent free from the forces of tyranny and coercion, which for decades have deprived the continent of its vital culture of social solidarity.