Excerpted from African Media and Conflict By Abiodun Onadipe
and David Lord is available online at
1 of 5)
The Roots of African Conflicts
No corner of the globe and no society is without conflict. Europe, Asia,
Latin America and Africa have all been the scene of tremendous human carnage
and material destruction in this century. But while many parts of the world
have moved towards greater stability and political and economic
co-operation, Africa and the territory of the former Soviet Union remain
cauldrons of instability. The variety of possible conflicts in any society
allows different perspectives and frameworks -- political, economic,
historical, social, cultural, psychological -- for defining and describing
them. The fullest explanations also take into account the internal and
external dynamics of conflict. In recent years, those studying conflicts
have paid increasing attention to multidisciplinary approaches to
understanding and responding to a wide range of conflicts.
One way of looking at Africa's violent present and recent past is through
the frameworks of identity, participation, distribution and legitimacy.
According to political scientist Stephen Stedman, these causes of conflict
can be subdivided further into struggles for power, ethnicity, militarism,
alienation of people, and deep-rooted historical, socio-economic and
Identity relates to how the individual sees himself in relation to socially,
politically and territorially delineated groups. Participation denotes how
well an individual considers his access to political and economic
decision-making will result in beneficial policy changes. Distribution
refers to the level of perceived fairness and justice in the sharing of
resources, such as land, financial and educational opportunities. Legitimacy
refers to perceptions of the rightness of the rules governing political
competition. These areas of conflict overlap and can often reinforce each
other. For instance, identity conflicts can coincide with limits on
political participation and uneven distribution of scarce resources, as can
be observed in many conflicts in Africa.
Among the economic causes of African conflict that have been noted by the
United Nations are: "A hostile international economic environment and
African vulnerability to the changes in external conditions (e.g. terms of
trade), external debt burden, shift from a global economy based on the
exploitation of natural resources (the base for most African economies) to
one based on the exploitation of knowledge and information, declining
national incomes accompanied by reduction in social spending, food
insecurity, and increasing poverty and economic inequities, as well as poor
Africa's colonial legacy is also often cited as a continuing source of
conflict. With hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups lumped together in
50-odd countries, the majority of their borders arbitrarily determined by
colonial powers with little consideration for ethnic boundaries,
state-building and the implantation of ideals of nationalism have proved
difficult. African politicians and military leaders have too often chosen to
consolidate their own positions and those of their immediate supporters by
manipulating communal and internal competition over the allocation of
resources, religion, identity, territorial claims and political
participation. The result has often been communal warfare. In many cases,
colonial borders also cause tension by dividing ethnic groups, cutting
through shared resources and hindering economic and social mobility.
Conflict in Africa has also been portrayed as resulting from a clash between
modernisation and democratisation and other entrenched forces in society.
For example, leadership in Africa is largely authoritarian and based on
systems of economic and social patronage. Pluralism, transparency and
participative decision-making are rare commodities within African
nation-states. Without open and responsive policies that are seen to be fair
by the majority within a state, those in power are the sole winners and the
governed the losers. Irresponsible leaders cling to power or the trappings
and benefits of their limited power and refuse to accept political defeat,
alternance and peaceable competition.
Last but not least is the psychological and biological perspective on
conflict, aggression and violence. One example of this comes from Francis
Fukuyama, an American academic, who writes:
"The basic social problem that any society faces is to control the
aggressive tendencies of its young men. In hunter-gatherer societies, the
vast preponderance of violence is over sex, a situation that continues to
characterise domestic violent crime in contemporary post-industrial
societies. Older men in the community have generally been responsible for
socialising younger ones by ritualising their aggression, often by directing
it toward enemies outside the community... Channelling aggression outside
the community may not lower societies overall rate of violence, but it at
least offers them the possibility of domestic peace between wars."
Widespread societal conflict in Africa is often played out against the
backdrop of deep poverty, illiteracy and weak systems of governance.
Undermined by unfavourable terms of trade and indebtedness, administrative
failures to respond to social needs, underdeveloped infrastructure, low
levels of education and widespread corruption, governments are hard pressed
to also cope with ethnic, communal, religious and regional rivalries.
Liberia and Somalia represent examples of "failed",
"fragmented" states where conflicts were and are being prosecuted by
sub-state actors acting in a virtual power vacuum.
But the most horrendous violence in recent times did not take place in a
failing state. The Hutu-led regime in Rwanda can be seen as an example of a
government and its supporters who retained a monopoly on the means of
violence. Feeling under threat, it unleashed genocide against a large
segment of the country's population, while the international community
largely ignored the ethnically-motivated carnage.