Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Today in Africa

Sudan 'is arming rebels' in Chad
Sudan's government is arming rebels in Chad, the government has alleged amid reports that rebels are moving towards the Chadian capital, N'Djamena. …
"These rebels entered Chad from Sudan and they could only have procured this type of military equipment within the sight of and with the knowledge of the Sudanese authorities. Sudan cannot deny it," Chadian Foreign Minister Ahmar Allami told AFP news agency.
Khartoum denies backing the rebels, and in turn accuses Chad of backing rebels in the war-torn Darfur region.

Ethiopia is 'technically at war'
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says that his country is "technically" at war with Somalia's Islamic courts. "The jihadist elements within the Islamic Court movement are spoiling for a fight," he told Reuters news agency. …
The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) has consolidated its control over much of southern Somalia after seizing the capital, Mogadishu, in June. …
The Islamists accuse Ethiopia of having troops inside the country as a fighting force backing the weak transitional government. …
Eritrea, which is deeply hostile to Ethiopia, is also alleged to have sent troops to Somalia to reinforce the UIC.

Niger's Arabs to fight expulsion
Leaders of around 150,000 Arabs in Niger say they will fight moves to expel them to Chad in the courts. Niger's government has ordered the Arabs, known as Mahamid, to leave the country accusing them of wrongdoing, including theft and rape. …
"The government has decided to return to its frontiers the Mahamid Arabs because of their difficult relations with indigenous rural populations," Niger's Interior Minister Mounkaila Modi told national television.
… many of the Arabs were nomads who fled neighbouring Chad to escape fighting there and have lived in Niger for up to 50 years.

People often talk about ‘failed states’ across Africa. But when you consistently see ‘civil’ conflicts and political disputes that spill across borders (the most horrific recent example being around the DR Congo), this phrase doesn’t quite capture it. A better view would be that the state system in Africa is (with some notable exceptions) a failure. The colonisers may have gone home long ago, but they left intact the colonial states with their ridiculous borders; in too many cases, a change of skin colour among the men at the top hasn’t led to stable nation-states.

It took a long time, and a lot of killing, for most borders in Europe to become reasonably well settled and for meaningful national identities to form. Which invites the question of whether the violence in much of Africa represents the death throes of the colonial system or the birth pangs of a legitimate order loosely based on that structure?

One enormous difference between Africa now and the Europe of centuries past is the international UN system, backed by far greater powers than exist in Africa. It means that changes to borders these days are comparatively few and far between, as the legal–political barriers against wars leading to legitimate border changes are much higher. As this acts as a disincentive for straightforward interstate wars, it’s also another reason why so much of the conflict in postcolonial Africa has been between states and nonstate groups. (This dynamic is also fed by the weakness of state institutions and the fact that the strongest political identities are often not based on formal nationality.)

However, the internationally guaranteed survival of the current state structure (give or take) doesn’t just mean that there’s less reason to attempt conquests. It also means that there’s less reason for rulers to build effective states to secure their territories, fully eliminating or coopting internal threats – rather than merely suppressing them, buying them off or forcing them out on an ad hoc basis. The asymmetric and often transborder violence isn’t likely to necessitate the strengthening and stabilisation of states; it could just rumble on and on sporadically, inconclusively.

These remarks only touch on the complexity of it. A solution is far, far beyond the likes of me, but given the disparity between popular identities and state borders, it would probably have to involve national leaders shifting some of the political focus upwards (which they seem to be doing some of, tentatively, through the African Union) and downwards to localities, allowing different groups to make policies in line with their own interests and shape institutions in line with their own values and traditions.

Obviously, this will be hellishly difficult. Colonisation can’t wholly be undone, but with time and skill and effort and luck, it may perhaps be transcended.

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