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close this bookWar and Famine in Africa (Oxfam, 1991, 36 p.)
close this folder4 Local conflict
View the document(introduction...)
View the document4.1 Conflict and resources
View the document4.2 Wars of subsistence
View the document4.3 Breaking the continuity

4.3 Breaking the continuity

Tracing the point in the history of Africa when warfare changed from being a means of adaptation to being an agent of destruction would be a complex and lengthy task - indeed, a new area of study. All that can be attempted here is an outline for future research.

Given that local conflict was common in pre-colonial Africa, colonialism, with varying degrees of success, attempted to police this situation. It did so by virtue of armed superiority and a monopoly of weapons. The decay of governance in many parts of Africa since the 1970s, and the spread of modern automatic weapons among peripheral groups, are important ingredients in the process of transformation. Other factors have been discussed in the previous chapter, concerning the increasing instability of semisubsistence. This instability is synonymous with a general decline in reciprocity. Many peripheral groups, for example, have become increasingly dependent upon agriculture at a time when, due to climate and adverse market conditions, it has become a marginal activity. In such circumstances exchange relations between groups, including agriculturalists and pastoralists, begin to break down (Almond, 1989). A shrinking resource-base, reinforced by core economic and social programmes, further undermines reciprocity. Under conditions of stress, ethnic identities can tend to harden and, with the transformation of family relations, especially between generations, traditional lines of authority are also weakened. It is as if, under present conditions, the threat to the way of life of peripheral groups has never been greater, yet at the same time, both the external (governance) and internal (reciprocity) means of resolving the inevitable violence are at their lowest ebb.

In order to indicate the nature of the background of local conflict from which many major internal confrontations appear to be constructed, a useful example is the fate of pastoralist groups across the Sudano-Sahelian belt. The upswing in the commercialisation of agriculture during the 1970s, together with the effects of drought, prompted both the loss of assets and a territorial push into the farming areas to the south. This instigated many violent disputes between farmers and pastoralists over access to land and water (Earthscan, 1984). Similar strife has also crossed boundaries. During the same period, enviro-economic movements of pastoralist groups embroiled the Sudan/Kenya/Ethiopia/Somalia border areas in fierce grazing disputes. The most spectacular of these conflicts led to the clash between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden in 1977. Instability in the area has continued with, among other things, more clashes over grazing in Southern Ethiopia during the mid-1980s (El-Hinnawi, 1985).

Attempting to chart the recent development of local conflict in Africa is no easy task. One is not dealing with an unchanging reality. The dynamics of conflict are generated by the changing and unstable nature of semi-subsistence. Just as asset-based coping strategies change, so too do the ability and fortunes of different groups in relation to conflict. In attempting to select examples of this process, the problem faced is not the lack of possible material. It is the opposite: instances of local conflict in Africa are rife. There are also many examples of the 'peaceful' resolution of internal conflict which, nevertheless, never seem able to quell continuing local insecurity and periodic outbreaks of group conflict. What is remarkable is that not only has this situation received little serious attention but, except as a short-term difficulty, it is seldom regarded as having relevance for the formulation of policy.