African Conflict Systems

Despite the gains made in the adoption of policy frameworks to manage peace and security in Africa, and 10 years since the establishment of the Peace and Security Council, several contexts across Africa continue to be characterised by residual conflicts and tension connected to poorly managed transitional processes. These include mismanaged demobilisation and integration programmes for combatants, ineffective reconciliation efforts and an insensitive handling of transitional justice issues. Piecemeal or issue focused approaches to managing conflict and preventing violence do not appear to be appropriate given the interconnections between the various systemic and structural elements that suggest that Africa is trapped in a conflict system in need of more fundamental transformation.

Recognising the fragility of state institutions and structures is central to understanding why so many mediated outcomes do not appear to be able to prevent communities and national contexts from slipping back into recurring cycles of violent crisis. Post-colonial states have for the most part been unable to transform weak, ineffective and partisan social, economic, political and judicial systems, inherited from a colonial era of domination. In some instances the systems that were designed to divide and rule have been adapted to be used in post-colonial contexts for the purposes of maintaining control.

The high level mediated outcomes of African wars that have sought to bring an end to violence at national and regional levels have often not been able to effectively contain the residual forms of tension that accompany political and economic periods of transition. The effect of change processes on communities inevitably leads to volatile contexts in which local level disputes can quickly spiral into widespread forms of escalated tension and violence.

With millions of people living in poverty on the continent, growing economic inequality that appears to be exacerbated by unequal economic development, and high levels of unemployment, the conditions are rife to make people, and youth in particular, vulnerable to external manipulation by stakeholders that benefit from instability and the lawlessness that often accompanies periods of violence. The devastating effect of war and violence on the webs of social relationships that enable human agency compounds the complexity of this challenge. The impact of violence has also had specific and different long-term debilitating effects on men and women.

The manipulation of sections of the population often seeks to take advantage of ethnic differences between groups or to use polarized party political systems to deepen the differences between groups and mobilise people around destructive agendas. Interest groups use these strategies to shift forms of ownership and control or to destabilize the situation in order to take economic advantage.

Within these conditions Africa has also been affected by a rise in other forms of extremism, including those developed around religious, faith based or identity related agendas. In an increasingly polarized world African conflicts are influenced by the use of large-scale military operations in response to acts of violence, and to the use of fear tactics and terror, that often deepen divisions and fan the flames of conflict. Conditions are ripe in Africa for increasingly violent forms of conflict, and a rise in extremism, that could take hold and become part of the strategies and tactics used by those who seek to undermine state institutions and structures.

The increased militarisation of Africa and the growing military presence of the United States, through the Africa Command Structure (AFRICOM), and direct military intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies in African conflicts, is also a source of major concern that feeds into and fuels violent forms of conflict. The accelerated scramble to control and exploit African mineral resources has also raised the stakes for affected communities. Seldom accruing much benefit from the resource related development that takes place communities are also often vulnerable to being relocated or to having natural resources such as forests and water, that are essential to their forms of livelihood, polluted or destroyed.

The phenomenon of rents and rent seeking in relation to natural resource exploitation, whereby related activities generate profits that are much higher than the minimum level of costs required to keep activities going, encourages the emergence of corrupt systems that undermine efforts to build stability. The mineral resource sector in particular creates the conditions for dysfunctional politics wherein instability becomes the self-serving paradigm of those who stand to gain economically from loose or non-existent regulatory mechanisms.

The high level mediated outcomes of African wars that have sought to bring an end to violence at national and regional levels have often not been able to effectively contain the residual forms of tension that accompany political and economic periods of transition.

In addition, natural resources provide an obvious source of financing for rebel groups who become trapped in war economies. These war economies are cycles of violence and instability in which stakeholders use illicit resource accumulation to finance armed groups that instigate armed conflict to secure access to and control over lucrative resource opportunities that are made more lucrative under unstable, unregulated conditions.

Shifts in power at the global geopolitical level, and in Africa, have also accelerated the scramble for resources. As China begins to assert a more aggressive economic presence in Africa the previous dominance of traditional colonial powers, including France, the United Kingdom and other member states of the European Union, has been challenged. The economic opportunities that accompany political influence and resource control and the incentive this provides to work outside of weak and ineffectual systems cannot be delinked from the forces driving instability, inter-state conflicts and undemocratic or unconstitutional changes in leadership at national and local levels.

Ownership transfers and the accumulation of large-scale land tracts as well as changes in land ownership systems are also a source of conflict and a contributing factor to the conflict landscape. The further economic and social marginalisation of vulnerable communities that often accompanies land transfers exacerbates the conditions for escalated tension.

The democratisation agenda, and the rapid introduction of polarizing forms of multi-party politics into systems that are not prepared to manage the resulting tensions also exacerbates levels of tension. The heightened politicisation of all spheres of government that accompanies polarised party politics is often compounded when the private sector is weak and the state dominates most forms of economic activity. Escalated tensions and conflicts related to economic control, as well as within the relationship between the state and organised labour, and within the relations between the state, the private sector and industry also appear to be on the rise.

Current electoral models, including those that encourage a winner-takes-all approach and those focused on a power politics that builds support around personalities and identity or ethnicity linked political parties often become flashpoints for violence. State failure to effectively deliver on social services also creates the conditions for violent forms of conflict linked to the mobilisation of a frustrated and dissatisfied citizenry. While this is often the result of a lack of capacity within the state, it is also sometimes a deliberate intention to marginalise the needs of specific groups of people. These conflicts are also connected to a lack of transparency over how and why decisions are made, and a breakdown or absence of inclusive and effective dialogue processes.

The resulting tensions and the forms of community organization that emerge around these structural and systemic failures, and the frustration and anger that accompanies the dominant unequal development trajectories of most African countries is an important emerging form of conflict that requires urgent attention. The relationship between the state and its citizens is central to this element. Economic migration and tensions connected to prejudice against migrant communities and tight competition for scarce resources and inadequate service delivery systems provides a further example of a rising conflict trend that needs to be more holistically addressed.

The recurring conflicts and cycles of violence that contribute to the vulnerability and fragility of the African context present a particular challenge to peace and conflict theorists and practitioners. The implementation of formal peace agreements that often form part of the cessation of widespread violence are at best only partly effective. A more integrated more systemic approach to managing and transforming conflict requires the intervention and long term involvement of mediators working actively at multiple levels and a better coordinated set of strategies that links multiple interventions working in multiple directions.

This more systemic way of engaging with conflict and preventing violence requires a shift in thinking that sees the interconnections between the elements of the conflict system and that then works collaboratively to try and influence the nature of this system. Until conflict actors find ways of partnering to this effect it appears unlikely that there will be peace in Africa anytime soon.

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