Excerpted from African Media and Conflict By Abiodun Onadipe
and David Lord is available
online at http://www.c-r.org/occ_papers/af_media/contents.htm (Part
3 of 5)
Characteristics of Violent Conflict
Personal conflicts and all-out war can be seen as the two poles at either
end of the range of human conflicts that entail violence. Though personal
conflicts are beyond the scope of this paper, it should be noted that
aspects of individual personality have a direct relevance to group violence.
What we are more concerned with here are the beginnings of more general
social violence and the extreme cases of all-out war.
Spousal abuse, violence against children and youths, disputes between
neighbours over land, water and other resources, marital and extramarital
disputes, and violent criminal activity are commonplace in all societies. So
too are sporadic outbreaks of more organised violence -- clan, ethnic and
religious clashes, state-sanctioned or tolerated violence against ordinary
people, student riots, raiding for resources, to provide a small sample. The
key differences in this escalation of conflict is that group leaders emerge
to mobilise larger numbers of people to take part and human and material
At the far extreme of the spectrum of violent conflict is open warfare,
which Nigerian academic Emeka Nwokedi has suggested is characterised by
"sustainable military strategy, ideological unity, and organisational
coherence." British military historian John Keegan describes war as
"collective killing for some collective purpose, that is as far as I
go in attempting to describe it."
Africa's wars, as with other modern conflicts, consistently result in hugely
disproportionate numbers of civilian casualties to military casualties.
That, in part, is a result of the adoption of principles of total warfare by
most modern armies where there is little, if any, discrimination between
military and civilian targets, and the increased destructiveness of modern
weapons from fighter planes to land mines to increasingly sophisticated and
A number of observers, including Amos Sawyer, the former President of
Liberia's Interim Government of National Unity, have underscored the
increase in African wars being fought by irregular militias. Sawyer asserts
that this kind of warfare has "led to breakdown of African societies,
massive destruction of lives and property, and the creation of new political
"Until recently, the use of military power to effect change in Africa has
generally come from national armies or significant sections thereof,"
observes Sawyer. According to Sawyer, "in most such situations, the
of command and control and of the establishment of order under the control
of military principles and practices, have characterised the change. Indeed,
there are cases in which military rule degenerated into personal rule,
tyranny and organised plunder and pillage. There are very few cases in which
military rule has been so disruptive of the very fabric of African societies
to be compared with the condition of total breakdown and collapse brought
about as a result of the intervention of irregular militias."
British political scientist Christopher Clapham has set out four types of
African guerrilla insurgencies -- liberation insurgencies, such as in
Algeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique; separatist insurgencies like in
Eritrea and Casamance; reform insurgencies such as the overthrow of Milton
Obote in Uganda and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, and warlord insurgencies as
in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Clapham also points out that insurgencies are
distinguishable by their level of leadership and organisation, their
relationship with the local population, their international linkages and
their degrees of success or failure.
In general, warfare in Africa has seen increasing use of the tactics of
terrorism aimed at "soft" civilian targets, as well as people in
of authority or influence, and, increasingly, aid workers. In Rwanda, then
Zaire, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, mutilation, rape and forms of
ritualised violence have been used to kill and intimidate. Attacks on people
are coupled with massive destruction of infrastructure -- schools, clinics,
wells, bridges, telecommunications -- as well as homes and agricultural
The availability of more light weapons with greater killing power has
clearly had a significant impact on African warfare. Automatic weapons are
cheap, readily available and, sadly, child's play to learn how to use. Child
soldiers are often kidnapped and forced to remain with armies or violent
groups, but sometimes are drawn by the lure of ideology, economic gain,
training in warfare, or adventure. In states where educational or employment
opportunities are rare and the youth population high, armies, guerrilla
groups and civilian militias have found a vast pool of recruits or captives.
The unrestrained terror and destruction of contemporary warfare drives huge
numbers of refugees and internally displaced people toward where they think
they can find safety and relief. Local host governments and international
agencies often try to respond to these flows of humanity by providing
services, relief supplies and relief infrastructure, which, particularly
with internally displaced populations, become sources of revenue for
unscrupulous government and relief officials or attractive targets for armed
"High profile interventions from the outside obviously have a role to
in relieving immediate human suffering, but they also contain a very large
possibility of prolonging the conflict," according to Rakiya Omaar,
co-director of African Rights. "They can end up giving a helping hand to
or the other of the combatants."
Massive refugee flows are only one of the many international impacts of
internal conflicts. Peaceful regional economies are disrupted and
overshadowed by illicit trade in weapons, loot, drugs and other commodities.
Neighbouring states are destabilised by refugees and members of warring
factions seeking refuge, while regional and international actors are drawn
into backing sides or trying to broker peace.
Because communication is an integral part of conflict, it comes as no
surprise that those participating in organised violence often make use of
the media to attack opponents, spread disinformation or misinformation, or
to rally external and internal support. As David Keen has written, "the
for good information on political process is underlined by the fact that
interest groups who are manipulating crisis may also be manipulating the
information surrounding the crisis."
The gruesome side of communication in conflict has been described by
anthropologist Paul Richards, writing about Sierra Leone's Revolutionary
United Front (RUF):
"Driven out of Freetown and the main urban centres of Sierra Leone in
February-March 1998 by ECOMOG, the RUF settled once again into its forest
enclaves in the east of the country, from where it launched a new series of
attacks... In the course of these raids, RUF cadres attacked and destroyed
many villages, and killed, raped and mutilated thousands of defenceless
rural civilians. The pattern of atrocity shocked and utterly puzzled the
international community. The arbitrary wilfulness of the killing and maiming
beggars belief. Victims of something known as the RUF 'lottery of life'
describe being forced to draw lots to decide who would be killed, who might
be spared, and who would have what limb amputated."
Richards notes that the war in Sierra Leone is frequently described as
'apolitical... "mindless" violence practised by
"bandits"'. But based on
interviews with members of the RUF, he argues that they feel they have
rights, those have been infringed, that civilians rejected them in favour of
pro-government militias and that makes the civilians legitimate targets.
"Additionally, attacks and episodes of atrocity fall into clear patterns,
suggesting they are messages encoding statements about RUF objectives or
responses to what the RUF considers government dirty tricks." What the
government labels "banditry", the RUF sees as "political
the political message leads to escalation of the violence against civilians.
In Uganda, the brutal tactics of the Lord's Resistance Army -- mutilation
and amputation of arms, legs, noses, lips -- have also been seen as symbolic
acts of violence against alleged traitors, according to Heike Behrend.
However, she also argues that brutal tactics by government soldiers
prevented the LRA from becoming totally alienated from the Acholi populace
in northern Uganda.