Africa: Why Do We Continually Misunderstand Conflict in Africa?


Violence in Africa seems particularly prone to the scourge of one-dimensional descriptions. Often described as ethnic or tribal, and sometimes as sectarian, the media prescribes an adjective that quickly becomes accepted as gospel and this explanation is then hard to shift.

Thus we are told that the recent outbreak of violence in South Sudan is ethnic (Nuer against Dinka); and fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) is sectarian (Christians against Muslims). It is seldom described in political terms.

The problem here is not just semantics or the irritation caused by inadequate descriptions of complex issues.

The real problem lies in the fact that misdiagnosis is a dangerous business.

Once a label is fixed to a conflict it can become an exclusive explanation for that conflict (normally expounded by some form of argument that animosities derive from a primordial source), and can dictate resolution to that conflict.

As the logic usually goes, if the two ‘groups’ or warring factions can sign a ceasefire followed by a peace agreement then the conflict is resolved.

Yet time and time again, ceasefires, peace agreements and externally enforced power sharing arrangements based on reductive understandings of the causes of conflict prove to be quick fixes, little more than holding exercises until conflict breaks out again.

For decades the war in Sudan was portrayed as being between the Muslim north and the Christian/animist south, which became accepted as an accurate analysis of what was taking place.

Yet there is little in this binary representation of conflict that allows for an accurate understanding of the multiple complex factors driving a war that was, in fact, between a centralised state and multiple sites of marginalisation across the country.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Consolidated Peace Agreement (CPA) that was signed in 2005 was eventually whittled down to only one of its elements – the referendum on the independence of the south.

The referendum neither resolved conflict in the reduced state of Sudan (as evidenced by renewed conflict in Darfur and, more recently, in South Kordofan and Blue Nile), nor led to consolidated peace in the newly-created state of South Sudan (now graduated to the label of ‘ethnic’ conflict).


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