International Relations

“Ethnic conflict in Africa is a form of organised crime” (Berkeley 2001). Really ?

Matt Oddy (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations 

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Since the end of the colonial era, much of Africa has been plagued by recurrent civil unrest and violence. Such conflicts have been largely characterised in ‘ethnic, ethnoreligious, or ethnoregional terms’ and are seen by many as the result of warring ‘tribes’ fuelled by ancient animosities.[1] In recent years, however, scholars have challenged the idea that ethnic conflict in Africa is primarily the result of inter-group ‘grievances’ and have stressed the importance of economic motivations, claiming that most conflicts are in fact over control of natural resources. This debate between ‘grievance’ and ‘greed’ based explanations has, however, obscured the complex nature of conflict in many regions by reducing its causes to a single factor and neglect the political and historical context.[2] Furthermore, while scholars are right to note that conflicts in Africa do have an economic motivation, this is by no means a new phenomenon and should not be portrayed as being distinct from other conflicts. The tendency to characterise ethnic conflict in Africa as a form of ‘organised crime’ does, in this regard, fail to take into account both the specific causes of violence within individual contexts as well as the nature of warfare as a whole. This essay will, therefore, argue that ethnic conflict in Africa is neither the result of warring ‘tribes’ or ‘racketeering enterprises’ and should instead be viewed as part of a wider struggle over power that has resulted from the unstable and divisive nature of many post-colonial states.

In order to prove this thesis, it is first necessary to examine the debate over ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’ on which much of the literature is based. Perhaps the clearest explanation of this debate is provided by Christopher Cramer who in Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing characterises the dispute in terms of two conflicting arguments about the relationship between resources and conflict – one of scarcity and one of abundance. Unlike proponents of resource scarcity, who emphasise the importance of ‘desperation and inequity’, proponents of the abundancy, or ‘greed’ framework, see ‘calculation and opportunity’ as the main source of conflict and argue that the decision to engage in military action is primarily motivated by the economic self-interest of those involved.[3] The assertion that ethnic conflict in Africa is essentially a form of ‘organised crime’, therefore, suggests that the motivations for war are largely over control of resources and that conflicts are more likely to occur in regions rich in natural resources. This is the arguments made by Paul Collier, one of the most prominent proponents of the ‘greed’ thesis, who puts forward a model for explaining civil conflicts based on the importance of primary exports, cost of attracting recruits to the rebellion, and education rate.[4] Adopting a methodology of proxies, Collier applied this model to a number of different case studies and came to the conclusion that ‘the presence of primary commodity exports massively increases the risk of civil conflict’.[5] It should be noted, however, that the methodology that Collier adopts in his analysis is largely based on neo-classical economic theory and is, as a result, constrained by assumptions and logic that are, according to Cramer, ‘questionable on both logical and empirical grounds’.[6] Despite this, based on Collier’s extensive analysis, there is little doubt that ‘ethnic conflict’ is at least partly motivated by attempts by to gain control over natural resources.

Although economic motivations do play a role in civil unrest in Africa, this does not necessarily mean that the parties involved are essentially ‘racketeering enterprises’ or that economic self-interest is even their primary motivation. This is supported by Wanjala S. Nasong’O who in The Roots of Ethnic Conflict claims that the tendency amongst scholars to characterise violence in Africa and, in particular the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a ‘resource-based conflict fuelled by need and greed’ is largely reductionist and overlooks the ‘complex set of relations and causal factors’ that also play a role.[7] Nasong’O is supported by Cramer who argues that single factor explanations of conflict, such as those provided by proponents of the greed and grievance theories, is overly simplistic and goes against ‘Clausewitz’s advice that a theory that stresses one ‘tendency’ to the exclusion of others is likely to be useless’. Cramer instead emphasises the value, when taking into account the causes of conflict, of ‘having in mind a spectrum or continuum of violence’, especially with regards to its causes, conduct and organisation.[8] Furthermore, while economic motivations do play a role in ethnic conflict in Africa, this is by no means a new phenomenon, nor is it evidence of a new type of warfare. This is supported by Jocelyn Alexander, Jo Ann McGregor and Terence Ranger who are critical of the idea espoused by proponents of ‘new wars thesis’ that most wars today are ‘apolitical’, stating that those engaging in warfare have always had to be ‘financially and economically creative’.[9]

To portray ethnic conflict in Africa as both the result of warring tribes and racketeering enterprises does, in this sense, ignore their often complex nature and leads to unsatisfactory responses by the international community. This is shown by Mahmood Mamdani who in ‘The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency’ argues that US policy towards Rwanda in the run up to the genocide helped worsen the crisis. ‘Instead of using its resources and influence to bring about a political solution to the civil war’ the Clinton administration decided to back the opposition Rwandan Patriotic Front, allowing it to ‘pursue victory with impunity’. Had the administration analysed the situation more thoroughly it would have recognised that the conflict was not simply an ethnic one and that a more comprehensive political settlement was required.[10] This analysis is also provided by Bowen who claims that characterising violence in terms of ethnicity makes it appear characteristic of a certain people or region rather than the ‘consequence of specific political acts’, justifying inaction on the part of the international community.[11]

The way in which the warring parties themselves have adopted the language of ethnicity in order to describe their conflicts is, in this regard, problematic and should be viewed with a large degree of scepticism. Both ‘rebel groups’ and government forces are, after all, unlikely to admit that their primary motive is self-interest and can be expected to justify their actions on the basis of ethnic grievances. Characterising civil unrest in the language of ethnic conflict also allows groups to maintain good relations with the international community and receive more support from home, making it even more difficult to determine the genuine causes of the conflict. [12] This difficulty in uncovering actual motives is perhaps best summarised by Collier who states that ‘even where the rationale at the top of the organisation is essentially greed the actual discourse may be entirely dominated by grievance’.[13] In order to identify the causal factors that account for ethic conflict it is therefore necessary to go beyond analysing the discourse of those involved and instead adopt a broader comparative approach looking at both the internal politics and history of the state in question. This is the approach taken by John R. Bowen who, in ‘The Myth of Global Ethnic Conflict’ highlights the propensity among observers to characterise all violent confrontations between different groups of people living in the same country as ‘ethnic conflict’ and argues that, while there are situations in which identity plays a role, most conflicts are simply about ‘getting more power’.[14]

 This was clearly demonstrated in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Although tensions between Hutu’s and Tutsi’s existed prior to the massacre, the crisis began mostly as a power struggle amongst the ruling elite and an attempt by Habyarimana to consolidate his rule. It just so happened that the primary opposition group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, was comprised of a different ethnic group. Indeed, it was only after the death of Habyariamana in 1994 and the subsequent disorder that followed that the widespread targeting of Tutsi’s occurred.[15] This is shown by Mamdani who says that the genocide was essentially ‘born of a civil war which intensified when the settlement to contain it broke down’. The genocide in Rwanda should not in this regard be seen as either the result of warring ‘tribes’ or ‘racketeering enterprises’ but as a result of a political struggle and the refusal of both sides to agree to a power-sharing arrangement.[16] This was also the case in the conflict in Matabeleland in the 1980s in which ideas of ethnicity were, according to Alexander, McGregor, and Ranger, ‘introduced as a justification for oppression, and used as a means of limiting, delegitimising and dividing Zapu’s sources of support’.[17]

The difficulties posed by characterising conflict in ethnic terms is also shown by Nasong’O, who though still subscribes to the grievance based narrative, concedes that ‘ethnicities in and of themselves are not problematic’ and that the conflicts only emerge in situations in which they are ‘instrumentalised’ and exploited for reasons of ‘material self-interest’.[18] Moreover, while it is true that Africa is the most ethnically diverse continent and is comprised of mostly pluralistic societies this does not necessarily mean that conflict between different groups is inevitable or that ethnic identities will remain the main source of political mobilisation.[19] Alexander, McGregor, and Ranger, for example, criticise the view that ‘the salience of ethnic antagonism in some recent wars’ is a result of ‘ancient tensions’ arguing instead that they ‘are the product of a reworking of historical memories in particular political contexts’.[20] Ethnic mobilisation in Africa should, in this sense, be seen as largely a modern phenomenon that has been used as a tool utilised by elites competing for political power in a region left, in the wake of colonialism, with ‘the dual problem of state building and nation building’.[21] [22] The whole notion of ‘ethnicity’ in Africa should, in this regard, be seen as a product of the colonial era and must not be analysed without taking into account the wider historical context.[23]

In conclusion, ethnic conflict in Africa is not best understood as a form of ‘organised crime’ resulting from the material self-interest of the perpetrators, nor should it be characterised in purely ethnic terms. While most scholars attribute the cause of ethnic conflict in the developing world to greed or grievance, both interpretations fail to provide an adequate explanation for why conflict is more pervasive in certain countries and, by reducing the cause of conflict to a single factor, ignore the complex nature of many conflicts. The tendency to focus on ethnic differences also neglects the fact that ethnicity in Africa is a relatively modern construct and that tensions between the groups, though genuine in some cases, are not based upon historical grievances. The widespread conflict in the continent is not in this regard simply the result of warring ‘tribes’ or ‘racketeering enterprises’ but rather a result of its colonial legacy which, as well as bequeathing the problems of state building and nation building, helped create the conditions necessary for widespread ethnic mobilisation.

Bibliography

 Alexander, Jocelyn. McGregor, Jo Ann. Ranger, Terence. ‘Ethnicity and the Politics of Conflict: The Case of Matabeleland’. War Hunger and Displacement: Volume 1. Nafziger, (eds.) E. Wayne. Frances, Stewart. Väyrynen, Raimo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Bowen, John R. The Myth of Global Ethnic Conflict, Globalisation and the Challenges of a New Century. (eds.) O’Meara, Patrick. Mehlinger, Howard D. Krain, Matthew. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000, 88.

 Collier, Paul. ‘Chapter 5, Doing well out of war: an Economic Perspective’. Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars. (eds.) Berdal, Mats. Malone, David. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000. Pp. 91-111.

Cramer, Christopher. Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing: Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries. London: Hurst & Company, 2006.

Goody, Jack. ‘Bitter Icons’. New Left Review. Jan/Feb 2001. Pp. 5-15.

Hayden, Robert M. ‘Imagined communities and real victims: self-determination and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia’. American Ethnologist. Vol. 23, No. 4. Nov 1996. Pp. 783-801.

Keen, David. ‘War, Crime, and Access to Resources’. War Hunger and Displacement: Volume 1. (eds.) Nafziger, E. Wayne. Frances, Stewart. Väyrynen, Raimo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Mamdani, Mahmood. ‘The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency’, London Review of Books. Vol. 29, No. 5. March, 2007. Pp. 5-8.

 Nasong’o, Wanjala S. The Roots of Ethnic Conflict in Africa: From Grievance to Violence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Nasong’o, Wanjala S. ‘From Grievance to Ethnic Mobilisation’, The Roots of Ethnic Conflict in Africa: From Grievance to Violence. (ed.) Nasong’o, Wanjala S. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

[1] Wanjala S. Nasong’O, The Roots of Ethnic Conflict in Africa, (ed.) Wanjala S. Nasong’O, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), xi.

[2] Christopher Cramer, Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing: Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries, (London: Hurst & Company, 2006),12.

[3] Cramer, Civil War, 12.

[4] Paul Collier, ‘Chapter 5, Doing well out of war: an Economic Perspective’, Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, (eds.) Berdal, Mats and Malone, David, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), 93-94.

[5] Collier, ‘Doing well out of war’, 96-97.

[6] Cramer, Civil War, 12, 131.

[7] Nasong’O, Ethnic Conflict, 6.

[8] Cramer, Civil Wars, 10, 11, 135.

[9] Jocelyn Alexander, Jo Ann McGregor and Terence Ranger, ‘Ethnicity and the Politics of Conflict: The Case of Matabeleland’, War, Hunger, and Displacement: The Origins of Humanitarian Emergencies, Volume 1, (eds.) E. Wayne Nafziger, Frances Stewart, and Raimo Väyrynen, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 10, 12.

[10] Mahmood Mamdani, ‘The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency’, London Review of Books, Vol. 29, No. 5 (March, 2007)

[11] John R. Bowen, The Myth of Global Ethnic Conflict, Globalisation and the Challenges of a New Century, (eds.) Patrick O’Meara, Howard D. Mehlinger, and Matthew Krain, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000), 88.

[12] Collier, ‘Doing well out of war’, 92.

[13] Collier, ‘Doing well out of war’, 92.

[14] Bowen, ‘Global Ethnic Conflict’, 79.

[15] Bowen, ‘Global Ethnic Conflict’, 83.

[16] Mandami, ‘The Politics of Naming’

[17] Alexander, McGregor, and Ranger, ‘Ethnicity’, 324.

[18] Nasong’O, Ethnic Conflict, 3.

[19] Nasong’O, Ethnic Conflict, 3, 5.

[20] Alexander, McGregor, and Ranger, ‘Ethnicity’, 305.

[21] Bowen, ‘Global Ethnic Conflict’, 79-80, 82.

[22] Nasong’O, Ethnic Conflict, xi.

[23] Bowen, ‘Global Ethnic Conflict’, 79-80, 82.

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