22 January 2013

Africa: Do Wars in Mali, DRC Mean Return to Cold War Politics?

Photo: HCR/Y.Djigo
Displaced by conflict in Mali.


What do the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, and the two Sudans have in common? Many things, most of them obvious, and others less so.

Firstly, they are all embroiled in conflicts whose causes are similar, in nearly all cases, resulting from either the absence of government in some or all areas of the country, or where government reaches, mismanagement and marginalisation. In such cases, several things are likely to happen.

One, the marginalised people fight to win recognition and equal treatment. Often, this takes the form of force.

Two, some groups, both internal and external, take advantage of the absence of the state to advance particular interests.

In Mali, for instance, the two converged. The Tuareg of northern Mali felt they had been sidelined from the Malian state. They took up arms to force the government to correct the situation. Following the destruction of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, various groups allied to Al Qaeda fled south and took advantage of the vacuum and sought to use it to advance their agenda.

The latter has attracted more international attention, leading to French military intervention and internationalised the Malian problem. This was almost inevitable given the obvious incompetence of the government, the inability and incapacity of African countries to find or impose a solution and the French favoured policy of intervention in its former colonies.

While the situation in D R Congo is slightly different, there are some similarities. In various parts of the country, there have been armed reactions to the absence of the state and feeling of marginalisation. As in Mali, the incapacity or lack of will of the Congolese state to resolve these issues has led to ineffectual international intervention.

In both these countries, there has been a readiness to use military force to resolve internal political issues and impose a Western-ordered solution.

Sudan and South Sudan resolved their problems through separation after protracted war, although many other issues remain unresolved.

Secondly, all these countries are rich in minerals or oil, but remain dirt poor and badly governed. This situation is the result of a deliberate policy. Competition for, and unchecked exploitation of these countries' natural resources have affected them in several negative ways. Some former colonial powers have actively promoted an incapable state, fuelled conflict and created instability in these countries. They have prevented the formation of independent states. Ironically, they turn around and offer themselves as arbiters for peace and stability, but on their own terms.

The situation in some parts of Africa is similar to what it was in the 1970s and 80s - theatres of war where internal conflicts, stoked by external interests, are fought.

Are we returning to the Cold War situation where proxy wars between external players were fought on African soil, often exploiting existing internal conflicts? The situation may not be exactly the same, but there are uncanny resemblances.

Some of today's wars, as others in the past, are a result of rivalry among the powerful countries. They are fought to exclude one power or the other from areas of immense natural wealth or geo-strategic value.

In D R Congo, for instance, Western mining interests want to keep out the Chinese. South African, Angolan and mining concerns from a few other African countries want a piece of the action. All these are prepared to have troops in DRC - under the guise of MONUSCO or the Neutral International Force - to advance and protect their interests.

Northern Mali is reportedly rich in gold. Neighbouring Niger has huge deposits of uranium. There are probably wells of untold amounts of oil under the sands of the Sahel. These cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of rivals, let alone Al Qaeda.

Wars in the Sahel and in North Africa are reportedly fought to keep out Al Qaeda because it is a terrorist organisation. That may be so. But more importantly, they are meant to prevent it from gaining access to mineral wealth.

At a time of economic decline, when extreme nationalist feelings are bound to rise, show of force to prove to the population that the country is still strong is often necessary. President François Hollande has not yet come to grips with his country's teething economic problems and yet he wants to project himself and his country as strong.

For some time now, there have been concerns that France is losing its grasp on its former colonies and other areas of influence, starting with its support of a losing genocidal regime in Rwanda and its subsequent testy relations with the new Rwandan government.

Mali has provided Hollande with the pretext to both project strength and to maintain hold on its African "possessions" in order to assuage nationalist sentiments.

There is no doubt that there will be other conflicts in other countries over different reasons. There are those between assertive Africa and neo-colonial interests. Others will be over resources and markets between old and emerging economies. There will also be excuses like the protection of human rights to hide the naked appetite for power. And ordinary people will continue to suffer as they are doing in DRC and Mali.

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