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By Mahmood Mamdani

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

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

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

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

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”.