How should we think of political violence in Africa? This is the question that I want to address.
When it comes to making sense of political violence in Africa, most of us take the cue from how the international community reports it. By the international community, I mean those who speak in the name of the international community: that is, the corporate media, the international NGOs and UN agencies.
For that international community, Congo is today the paradigm case of senseless violence. The proof is said to be two-fold: first, the sheer numbers of the dead; second, the evident lack of reason for the violence.
Let us begin with the astronomical numbers of those said to have died in the violence. Beginning in 2001, the prestigious New York-based International Rescue Committee carried out multiple surveys of war-related deaths in Congo since the start of the conflict in 1998. According to the IRC, there were 1.7 million war-related dead in Congo from 1998 to 2001. These estimates climbed to a staggering 5.4 million by January, 2008. If correct, these figures would represent about 8 percent of DRC’s current population. Thus the Congo war was termed “Africa’s First World War,” the title of Gerard Prunier’s recent book on the Congo wars.
But how correct is this comparison? About 8.5 million troops were killed in the actual First World War. In contrast, the estimate of those who died of direct violence in the Congo wars is less than a hundred thousand. The balance, over five million, were said to have died of “war-related” causes, such as infectious diseases, malnutrition, disruption in vital supplies, and so on.
Your count of “war-related deaths” depends on your estimate of those who died of the same causes – such as infectious diseases, malnutrition – before the war. In October 2008, two Belgian demographers, André Lambert and Louis Lohlé-Tart, were invited by the European Commission to assess the 2005-06 voter registration process in the DRC. They drew on the data they had gathered, and whatever else they could muster, and wrote a devastating critique of the IRC estimates: they concluded that the excess death toll between 1998 and 2004 was roughly 200,000—which is one-twentieth of the IRC’s 3.9 million excess death estimate for the same period.
Their findings triggered further reviews. WHO commissioned a peer review, which concluded that the IRC “estimates” had been based on “extrapolations” that were “speculative at best”. A WHO-affiliated unit, called Health and Nutrition Tracking Service (HNTS), said the IRC’s estimates of mortality rates before the war had been too low. Another reputable source, the Human Security Report, used a more realistic baseline rate for the period May 2001 to April 2007 and found the results led to a very different conclusion: “The best estimate of the excess death toll shrinks to less than one-third of the IRC’ s original figure––from 2.83 million to 0.86 million.”
At this point, then, we have several wildly divergent estimates of war-related dead in Congo: they range from the IRC’s sensational 5.4 million to the Belgian demographers subdued 200,000. Where does the truth lie?
Let me turn to Darfur, where there were equally divergent estimates of war- related deaths. In this context, an audit agency of the U S Government, called the Government Accountability Office (GAO), got together with another reputable U. S. institution, the U. S. Academy of Sciences, and put together a panel of experts. The GAO had compiled six different studies, which ranged from a high estimate of 400,000 dead, coming from Save Darfur-linked researchers, to a low of 50,000 to 70,000 dead, by the World Health Organization. The panel of experts agreed unanimously that Save Darfur estimates were the least reliable, because Save Darfur researchers had extrapolated the figures from a survey of refugees in camps in Chad and had generalized them to the whole of Darfur. The experts said that a more reliable estimate may be closer to 118,142, as calculated by CRED, a WHO- connected research unit in Europe, and not 400,000, a quarter of the Save Darfur figure.
As in Congo, there was a second distortion. WHO reports suggested that many of the deaths in Darfur may not be war-related as much as drought- related, for one reason. WHO estimated that 70-80% had died from the effects of drought and desertification; that these were mainly infants and children who had died mainly from diarrhea and dysentery. More importantly, the drought had preceded the war.
The GAO report was sent to the State Department which agreed with its findings. It then made its way to Congress and then to the GAO’s internet site. Just as the reassessment of the dead in Congo has had little effect on media reports, so did the GAO’s reassessment have little effect, either on media reports or on Save Darfur’s continuing claims, relayed in full page ads in New York Times as well as in subway and bus posters, on the numbers of the dead in Darfur.
We know that data collection is among the first of casualties in any social crisis. When international NGOs confidently continue to put forward figures even after their reliability has been expertly questioned, we have a right to question their motivation. I suggest that this practice reveals more about those making the projections than about the places they write about. Is the deliberate exaggeration of figures part of an NGO fund-raising strategy, or is the motivation more sinister, meaning more political? I frankly am not in a position to tell.
Please do not misunderstand me. My point is not that the numbers who have died from African conflicts are miniscule and not worthy of concern. The number who have died are too many by any yardstick, so much so that there should be no reason to exaggerate them.
The International Community does not just tell us how many have died in African conflicts. The also interpret the violence behind these deaths.
Think of the reports on the violence in Congo. Even as responsible an organization as Human Rights Watch ascribes the deaths to “anarchy”. Anarchy evokes meaningless, gratuitous, repetitious violence. In Africa’s World Wars, Gerard Prunier describes Congo’s “rebels” as “first and foremost armed movements without ideology, without any large civilian constituency, and without any sort of unified cause … more akin to vampires than to soldiers.”
Read a human rights organisation report on violence in Congo or in Darfur, you will find that the structure of the report is basically the same. The report begins with a page or two on history. The bulk of the report is given to documenting atrocities. The real point of the report is to identify perpetrators. The technology of human rights activism is summed up in one phrase: “name and shame”. The report concludes with a set of recommendations. These inevitably call for the perpetrators to be punished.
Here is the problem: contemporary international human rights reports show hardly any interest in the issues that drive the violence. In situations where the violence is not a stand alone event but part of an ongoing cycle, where there is a history of violence in which victims and perpetrators have tended to change sides, it is more important to identify and address the issues that drive the violence than to demonize the latest group of perpetrators. If we are interested in bringing the violence to a stop, we should be interested not just in crime and punishment but, more so, in reform.
To make my point, I would like to focus on one event that seems to recur in African conflicts: ethnic cleansing. The political history of post-independence Congo is marked by ethnic cleansing: in Katanga and Kasai in 1961, and then again in Katanga three decades later, in 1991; and then, in Ituri and in Kivu. The political history of Darfur is also similarly chequered: ethnic cleansing first surfaces in the 1987-89 civil war between the sedentary Fur and nomadic ‘Arab’ tribes and then in the 2003-04 counter-insurgency that overlay the rekindled civil war. A look at the Rift Valley in Kenya or northern Ivory Coast is enough to tell us that Congo and Sudan are not exceptions. Ethnic cleansing has become a central part of political violence in post-colonial Africa.
The events in Congo and Sudan suggest that ethnic cleansing is not anarchical,but methodic. Nor is it the result of sheer conspiracy from above, for the simple reason that violence on such a scale requires the coming together of initiatives from both above and below. It requires joining elite conspiracies to popular organisation. The challenge is for us to understand the popular dimension of this process. We need to understand the historical processes and the institutional practices through which these agencies were shaped.
I would like to trace this historical development step by step through the colonial period. Colonial authorities claimed that Africans have always lived in tribal homelands. At the same time, they told us that Africans have always been on the move, whether as nomads on hoofs or as farmers practicing shifting cultivation – or just running away from perennial wars and slave raids. If even a little of that is true, then there must have been at least some places where ethnic groups were mixed up. How were these places turned into tribal homelands in the colonial period?
The answer is: administrative force. Take the example of Katanga, where King Leopold, and the Société Générale de Belgique, Belgium’s largest corporate concern, partnered with British interests to form Union Miniére du Haut-Katanga (UMHK) in 1906. Their object was to exploit Katanga’s mineral resources. For this, they needed to squeeze labor from hinterland populations. This required a firm administrative grip on rural populations.
I suggest that we distinguish an ethnic group – a group that speaks the same language – from a tribe, a group defined by a common territory. I am suggesting that we view “tribalization” as a colonial administrative project. In Katanga, a series of decrees were passed, in 1906, 1910, and then 1933, requiring that each ‘tribe’ be identified, separated, and resettled, each in its own ‘homeland,’ each supervised by its own Native Authority. One District Commissioner complained: “Batshioko, Lunda and even Baluba are totally jumbled and it will be very difficult to organize them into separate chefferies.” The separation was accomplished between 1925 and 1930. “Customary” chiefs were charged with supplying designated quotas of labor and food, at first to the mines and, later, to European farms and administrators.
Like Katanga, Ituri too was the site of lucrative gold mines, Kilo and Moto, to which King Leopold’s men were lured as early as 1903. As in Katanga and Kasai, so in Ituri, colonial pacification began with a policy they called “regroupement”. Over nearly two decades, from 1916-17 to 1930s, the authorities separated the predominantly pastoral (Hema) from the predominantly agricultural (Lendu) populations, herding each into its own homeland (territoire) supervised by its own tribal authority (chefferires).
A census tagged every villager as a tribesman or woman, as a ‘native’ of a particular tribal homeland. Those living far from their “natural” leaders were targeted as “runaways” from tribal homelands. When the Lendu moved away from drought struck areas in the mid-30s, one District Commissioner wrote that force would be necessary “to maintain the regroupement which was under threat”.