By Samuel Kobia

Photo: Hugh McCullum - AACC/WCC
There are new types of violence in Africa to which we have yet to find adequate ways of responding. But from an historical perspective, political independence in Africa was achieved through violence in response to colonialism and imperialism.

Independence struggles and the cold war

Dating back to the time of the Mau Mau war in Kenya and the Algerian liberation struggles in the 1950s, liberation movements fought for and first achieved independence in the 1960s. Subsequent struggles against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique in the mid-1970s, and finally in Southern Africa, Namibia and South Africa closed the independence process. This violence was legitimised by the need to overthrow colonial domination in Africa.

The cold war produced a different kind of violence. For instance, it was superpower rivalry that led to civil wars in Angola and Mozambique. By and large, RENAMO was a creation of western powers, with the support of apartheid South Africa, to fight the marxist FRELIMO government in Mozambique. Similarly in Angola, South Africa and the western powers, especially the USA, not only armed UNITA, but even envisaged a way to deal with the marxist MPLA regime that they did not really want in Angola.

Ongoing civil wars are being fought not on ideological grounds but over who controls economic wealth Self-financing civil wars

But after the cold war, the USA and several European countries that had supported UNITA and RENAMO decided that this was no longer tenable. So having been built into a huge military force, UNITA in particular had to turn to mining diamonds to finance the war. At this point, we see the introduction into Africa of self-financing civil wars, a new kind of violence. Though a legacy of the cold war, the on-going civil war in Angola is no longer ideologically driven but a struggle for the control of mineral resources.

Fortunately, the international community is beginning to acknowledge that diamonds are being used to finance civil wars in Africa. The USA and Britain have criticised the presidents of Liberia and Burkina Faso, Charles Taylor and Blaise Compaore respectively, for helping "Sierra Leone rebels to continue fighting a brutal civil war".

This trend is being repeated in several other countries in Central and Western Africa where ongoing civil wars are being fought not on ideological grounds but over who controls economic wealth. I see this as a very dangerous development because people elsewhere in Africa may also start using any excuse to form a "liberation movement", carve out areas where gold, diamonds and minerals are found, and claim they are in a legitimate struggle. This has happened in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The legitimacy of any of these groups’ claims to be liberation movements needs to be questioned.

A very disturbing characteristic of contemporary civil wars in Africa is the violence against civilian communities. Next generation of political leadership

Another type of violence has come with competition for the second generation of political leadership in Africa. For example, in response to the despotism of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, Ugandans introduced a new style of liberation movement in the early 1980s. Ugandans in exile, joined by other Africans who also saw the need to struggle against despots in their own country, organised themselves to acquire military training.

That was how the Uganda/Rwanda connection started. The Ugandan National Resistance Movement (NRM) invited Rwandese refugees, most of whom were Tutsis, to join hands with them. Once Yuweri Museveni took power in 1986 he in turn helped the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) to take over Kigali in 1994. This methodology was repeated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Several factions led by Congolese in exile had been organising for a long time so that in 1996, with the support of Uganda and Rwanda, they were able to take over Kinshasa and put Laurent Kabila in power.

A similar trend is unfolding in West Africa. The Sierra Leone Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under the leadership of Foday Sankoh fought alongside Charles Taylor in Liberia, thus gaining military experience and organisational skills. Once Taylor came to power in Monrovia, he helped Sankoh to take over Freetown, replacing the democratically elected president Kabbah. Today the Sierra Leonian civil war rages on, financed by diamonds mined in the rebel-controlled areas of the country.

Children and civilians the main victims

When Kampala fell in 1986, the troops who spearheaded the takeover were mainly young boys. That was the first time we heard of child soldiers in Africa. Now it has become a pattern, with the same thing happening in Sierra Leone.

Another very disturbing characteristic of contemporary civil wars in Africa is the violence against civilian communities. Olara Otunnu, the UN under-secretary for Children and Armed Conflict, calls the killing of innocent civilians, particularly women, children and old people, the "abomination". This was unheard of in African traditions: you could never claim to be a warrior if you were killing women and children! It is a really new and very un-African phenomenon.

Most of those who are dying in today’s civil wars in Africa are civilians and not soldiers. This is a tra-gic indictment of African political leaders who think little of their peoples’ lives. In the past two years, civil war has caused the death of more than 1.7 million people in eastern Congo alone. These were unnecessary deaths. In "non-war conditions", the average death rate in this five-province area of 18 million people would be 600,000. The actual number of deaths was 2.3 million. "Of the 1.7 million additional deaths reported in the survey, 200,000 were caused by acts of violence, with the rest attributed to the war-related collapse of health services and food supplies."

Child soldiers have now become a pattern in Africa.

Photo: Jonas Ekströmer, WCC

It is not for nothing that the present civil war in Congo has been referred to as Africa’s first world war. It involves about one dozen other African countries. What are they fighting for? There is no legitimate reason for them to be fighting today. What is worse is that resources that should be used for the benefit of the people are being used to acquire the weapons used to kill them.

Private armies, gang violence

A dangerous offshoot of the violence is the evolution of private armies - another a new phenomenon in Africa - as distinct from either liberation movements or national armies. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, there are now no less than five factions, each of which has developed its own "army". Individual powermongers are also said to be taking advantage of the situation in the DRC to develop private armies. These will obviously be used in future as bargaining chips in bids for control of the state.

Another type of violence that deserves attention are young people’s responses to societies that offer them no hope. In Kenya and South Africa among others, gangs of young people who dropped out of school because of poverty are "finding new ways to share the wealth of the society". They are mainly involved in "car-jacking" in broad daylight. They stop anybody. These gangs are well armed because small arms are readily available anywhere. The interesting thing is that gang members talk very openly. When they stop someone, they explain the reasons for their acts.

They say that society is organised in such a way that it forces them to drop out of school and therefore to lose hope. They say, "We cannot just sit back and wait for you people, with your good jobs and your good income to share with us. Since you don’t share with us willingly, we’re going to force you to share with us." They are saying that they are not criminal by nature, but that society has forced them to behave like criminals.

Other forms of violence

Harsh economic conditions created by the debt, debt servicing, IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), and the withdrawal of state subsidies for health account for millions of additional deaths even in countries where peace prevails. Research should be done to establish the levels of debt- and SAP-related deaths.

And finally, in the post-cold war democratisation process violence has been precipitated by the politicisation of ethnicity. Afraid to face free and fair elections, incumbents have promoted politically-motivated "ethnic" clashes. For example, in the run-up to Kenya’s 1992 general elections when multi-partyism became inevitable, ethnic groups which for years lived peacefully alongside each other suddenly began to fight.

There is a lot of talk about conflict resolution by groups inside and outside Africa but this type of social intervention has minimal impact. Dealing with all the different emerging facets of violence in Africa requires a deeper understanding of the problems than hurriedly-formed NGOs are capable of.

Photo: Sebastiao Salgado, Jr / WCC
Africa’s two faces

The media have projected an image of Africa as a continent in despair, a continent of famine, disease and tribal warfare. But the media hardly touch the way Africans look at life, Africa’s life-centered ethic, the communities in Africa in which the art of living and even of dying are well understood - the positive side of Africa.

During the WCC assembly in Harare in 1998, we said Africa had embarked on a journey of hope. There is still a lot of hope. But this article attempts to call attention to a new and dangerous reality: I think we now have a class of Africans with an immense thirst for power and who are largely responsible for new forms of violence.

With so much hardship to contend with, you wonder how ordinary Africans can survive at all. Africa is largely excluded from global trade because of globalisation, and the nation state is extremely weak. But the people are surviving. One strength is our institutions of affection - such as the family and the community - which represent a very positive and good side of Africa. The other is the resilience of our spirit that helps to hold together the soul of Africa.

Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, from Kenya, is presently director of the Cluster on Issues and Themes of the WCC, Geneva, Switzerland.

Back to table of contents