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close this bookWar and Famine in Africa (Oxfam, 1991, 36 p.)
close this folder5 Internal conflict
View the document5.1 Connecting local and internal conflict
View the document5.2 limitations of conventional understanding
View the document5.3 War as political economy

5.1 Connecting local and internal conflict

The example of the war between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden, mentioned in Chapter 4, indicates how local conflict between semi-subsistence groups can become linked to wider national conflictsn this case, between two sovereign states. More frequently, however, local conflict has been the vehicle through which internal or intra-state conflicts have been fought. Moreover, in most cases of inter-state wars, one side or the other has had links with internal forces in the opposing country. Examples of locally based internal conflict are legion. A few current ones include the enmity between Arab and Dinka people in Sudan; the Krahn, Mano and Gio configuration in Liberia (Africa Watch, 26/10/1990); the Isaac, Hawiya and Ogadeni confrontation in Somalia; the relationship between the MNR opposition and central Shona speakers in Mozambique (Hall, nd); in Angola, the association between UNITA and the Ovimbundu (Africa Watch, 1989); and SO on. Other present and past internal conflicts, in Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, and so forth, are similarly identified and structured. The strong association between local and internal conflicts is a normal and defining characteristic of modern warfare in Africa. In the past, commentators have tended to shy away from this fact, feeling awkward and embarrassed by the spectre of 'tribalism'. In so doing, not only has conflict not been accorded the policy relevance it clearly has, but its powerful significance in relation to the current instability of semi-subsistence has been neglected.

Clearly, the link between local and internal conflict is not a direct one. Political mediation is a crucial and complex element which pertains not only to how groups are linked to the state, but also to how they are subsumed and organised by political factions or rebel groups. In discussing the break between traditional African warfare and conditions today the idea of an increasing imbalance and loss of reciprocity has been introduced. So far this has been discussed only in relation to economic and environmental factors. By far the greatest source of imbalance, however, is that leap which occurs once local conflicts become politically integrated into wider internal wars. This scenario can be seen as beginning with struggle against colonialism and having continued ever since.

Political imbalance exists at two levels. In the first place, and often building upon colonial patterns, the material benefits resulting from the resolution of internal conflicts, such as roads, hospitals and education, have frequently been disproportionately channelled to those groups allied to the victorious party. Regional imbalances between core and peripheral groups have been maintained or created in terms of access to such fruits of development. Africa's shrinking resource-base has intensified these divisions.

Maintaining or extending such disparities, together with attempts to redress or resist this process by subordinate groups, has, more recently, become the source of the other major aspect of political imbalance: access to modern automatic weapons. Internal conflict has led African governments to spend staggering amounts of precious hard currency on armaments. In the case of Sudan, which is by no means untypical, 40 per cent of government expenditure is currently spent on arms. Such expenditure in otherwise poor countries has meant that many governments, and opposing groups, have entered into concessionary relations with superpowers and neighbouring states in order to secure arms supplies. Local conflicts have become linked to internal wars which, in turn, are the chess pieces of international rivalry. Once weapons reach the local context, the ferocious killing power that modern arms embody is more than sufficient to overwhelm any remaining semblance of balance or reciprocity that may exist. It is in this context that internal war in Africa has become synonymous with gross violations of human rights and deliberate attempts to destroy the assets and way of life of opposing groups.

5.2 limitations of conventional understanding

Most internal wars in Africa are not fought in a conventional manner, with pitched battles between prepared soldiers in which the safety of civilians is sacrosanct. Not only are methods different: even the terminology of conventional warfare (for example, the notions of'civilian' or 'soldier'), when used in an ethnically structured context, become problematic and even meaningless. A key difference between the conventional and the ethnically defined situations concerns the attitude of what could be called the 'combatants', including their political leaders, toward 'non-combatant' populations. Variations within this attitude indicate an important continuum, or even break, within Africa.

Besides the destruction and mayhem that war creates, it must be stressed that it can also be the occasion of fundamental social change, including advances in the emancipation of marginal groups. From this perspective, there appear to be two extremes. At one end stand Eritrea and Tigray where, as numerous reports attest (for example, Tigray, 7/1 to 713/87; Emergencies Unit, March 1990), the non-combatant population not only fully supports the combatants, but the combatants view the active and free cooperation of noncombatants as vital for the war effort. This interdependence, moreover, has provided the impetus for noted organisation and institution building in which, among other things, the emancipation of women is said to have made great and lasting progress. In comparison, combatants in other arenas of conflict (including those on the Ethiopian side of the Eritrea/Tigray war) frequently view noncombatant populations in a more mercenary light: as a means to subsistence and/or conscription which have to be controlled or, if they happen to be in areas contested by opposing combatants, prevented from providing them with similar services. Although some parties to conflict in Africa frequently use the rhetoric of national liberation, their practice on the ground often challenges the conventional wisdom that in order to operate, a guerrilla movement needs the support of local people. An extreme case is represented by the MNR in Mozambique where, it would appear, the sole reciprocity between it and the non-combatants under MNR control is a precarious possibility of their remaining alive (Gersony, 1988).

The reasons for the difference between the situation in Eritrea/Tigray and other areas under conflict are beyond the scope of this report. The prevalence of the more mercenary attitude, however, must be sought in the politico-ideological inability to separate physical from political survival within a semi-subsistence ethos. If the survival of people as political beings depends upon the survival of their way of life, it then follows, quite logically but tragically, that if you wish to cow them politically, you must destroy or incapacitate their way of life. This logic hardens further if, due to declining resources, such dominance is necessary for the survival of the ethnic group concerned. The various and complex patterns of semi-subsistence, together with their related coping strategies, are both the front-line targets and defensive strongholds of internal conflict in Africa: there could be no other.

5.3 War as political economy

Besides standing armies which, although originating in an earlier era, now usually conform to the logic of internal warfare, the main institutional form which modern conflict assumes has recently been examined in terms of'war-lordism'. Briefly, the concept defines a situation of de-institutionalisation, central government decay, and the growth of regionalism. Within this context, reflecting the situation in China during the 1920s, a strong politico-military leadership is asserted over a locality or region, and by drawing upon the resources of this area, an attempt is made to expand its sphere of influence. The war-lord concept has been argued to have relevance in understanding, for example, the internal collapse of Chad (Charlton and May, 1989). Somalia may also be instructive in this respect. To attempt to apply an over-rigid, Chinese-based definition of war-lord in the context of Africa, however, may miss a vital point. The idea of local, ethnically structured groups assuming a politico military role in a period of decay in central governance and a shrinking resource base does have a utility. Moreover, expressed in more general terms, it allows for regional and country variations. There would appear to be two main forms of the war-lord structure: the 'group' and the 'movement' politico- military

Under the rubric of the local politio-military group one could include the government backed militia in Sudan, the various splinter movements in Northern Uganda (Uganda, 7/88 to 4/89) and, of interest because of its urban location, Inkatha in South Africa (International Commission of Jurists, 24/10/90). With regard to politico-military movements, while one ethnic group may dominate the leadership, the body of the organisation is composed of subsumed groups upon which the movement relies for its subsistence and conscripts. Compared to the local politico-military group, such movements control larger areas and may have national (as opposed to regional) political aspirations. There does, however, appear to be a connection between the two, since many movements have grown by a process of conquest and incorporation of local groups. The SPLA in South Sudan, the MNR in Mozambique, and UNITA in Angola, for example, can all be seen as variants of this type.

The emergence of politico-military groups, their development, and (in some places) amalgamation into movements is fought out on a terrain of semi-subsistence economies. One cannot therefore underestimate or emphasise enough the enormous price in dislocation and human suffering that this implies. Groups and movements not only require conscripts to fight; they need porters to carry weapons, supplies and booty; sappers to clear mines; informants to disclose enemy positions; and, crucially, a ready access to food and sustenance. How such goods and services are secured in the field is not something simply for quartermasters to worry about; on the contrary, it is the central dynamic of internal warfare. To appreciate this fact, one has to develop an appreciation of the political economy of violence. The idea of food as a weapon in internal conflict has become popular in recent years. What is less frequently recognised, however, is that food and sustenance are also a necessary goal of conflict.

The political economy of groups: the Baggara in West Sudan

Before the drought of the mid-1980s, the various Baggara Arab pastoralist groups living on the western borders between North and South Sudan had already felt the effects of marginalisation (see 3.5). The loss of stock during the drought served to compound these difficulties. The Baggara are the northern neighbours of Dinka pastoralist groups living in South Sudan. Due to their geographical position, Dinka cattle had been relatively protected from the effects of the drought. There had been periodic raiding between Baggara and Dinka for generations, but such conflict had been kept within limits by a wider system of reciprocity which linked the two (Howell, 1951). The present civil war began in 1983 with the formation of the SPLA in South Sudan. Its leadership is based upon the Dinka who, in any case, are the largest ethno-linguistic grouping in the South. The combination of a local material imbalance among the Baggara and the government's need to prosecute the war was to produce catastrophic results for the border Dinka.

In 1985, the Northern government began to arm the Baggara pastoralists with modern weaponry and encourage attacks upon the unarmed Dinka to the south. The attacks were led by a younger generation of political leaders who had emerged during the process of social transformation. An orgy of violence spread south of the border (Africa Watch, March 1990). Armed militia, sometimes several hundred strong, roamed the countryside looting, killing, raping, and enslaving. Thousands of people were killed and maimed, tens of thousands of cattle stolen and, by 1988, hundreds of thousands of Dinka had been displaced, leaving the region virtually depopulated. The move from conflict as a means of adaptation to conflict as an agent of destruction is starkly illustrated. These events were out of all proportion to local conflicts of the past. Terrible as this example is, similar events have all too frequently come to characterise internal conflict in Africa.

The political economy of movements: the SPLA in South Sudan

In South Sudan the SPLA has consolidated its presence in areas not previously under its influence, in a roughly three-stage process. The first stage involved the formation of tactical alliances with local groups and, where necessary, the military defeat of govermnent-sponsored militia. The fate of the Murle and Mundari militia is an example of the latter. The disturbed nature of the Sudan/Ethiopia/Kenya/Uganda border areas has already been referred to (see 4.3). During the mid-1980s, in order to secure a safe base and access to food, the SPLA strategy in South West Ethiopia was to play on the differences and traditional hostility between the two linguistically related branches of the Nilo-Saharans: the Chai and Mursi on one side, and the Nyangatom, Toposa and Turkana on the other (Alvarson, 1989). The selective arming of these groups by the SPLA not only helped to form alliances, but the increased scale and ferocity of attacks upon their relatively unarmed rivals provided, in the form of looted grain and cattle, a vital means of subsistence. In 1987, for example, the SPLA's arming of the Nyangatom allowed it to mount a devastating attack upon the Mursi (Turton, 1989). In this attack between 500 and 1,000 Mursi (10-20 per cent of the entire population) were killed. As in the Baggara/Dinka example, killing on this scale destroys the traditional system of checks and balances between groups.

As the SPLA has extended its influence in the Sudan/Kenya/Uganda border areas, a similar strategy of playing on group enmities, selective arming, and the formation of complex patterns of local alliance has been adopted. One consequence has been the widespread displacement of the losing populations throughout the area. In 1986, for example, in order to secure a base and provisions in South Sudan near the Uganda border, the SPLA made use of the long-standing hostility between the Acholi and the Madi (Allen, 1989). The Madi had been associated with the Amin regime, and following its collapse, Madi refugees were settled in international camps across the border in Sudanese Acholi territory. These camps were attacked and looted by local Acholi and SPLA, causing thousands of Madi to stream back into Uganda, and producing one more in a succession of population displacements.

Evolving from this process of alliance defeat, the second second of consolidation has involved attempting to cement the emerging structure by local conscription and the training of recruits in the SPLA's Ethiopian base camps. Using this local cadre, the final stage of consolidation, which corresponds to the present, involves establishing a systematic structure of internal taxation. The advent of the UN,s Operation Lifeline Sudan, in so far as significant amounts of relief food and seed have been appropriated by the SPLA (Sudan, September 1990), can be argued to have reduced tension in some areas by relieving SPLA pressure on non-combatant populations. In other words, the misappropriation of relief supplies has, ironically, made it easier for them to cope.

The SPLA has significantly transformed the socio-political system over large areas of South Sudan. It has done so, however, by increasing the imbalances within that system through the selective strengthening of some groups at the expense of others. In some cases, ethnic groups, in the sense of distinct socio-economic units, have ceased to exist. Just as the use of government-backed militia along the North/South border has driven ethic differences to new depths, the SPLA alliance is unstable and fractious.

The political economy of movements: the MNR in Mozambique

In the past, the MNR has been regarded solely as a South African construction. It is only recently that attention has been directed to its internal characteristics and dynamism. Its leadership is dominated by Shona speakers from central Mozambique, and evidence exists to suggest that in certain areas it may enjoy a degree of local support resulting from the disruptions to daily life caused by the planned economy (Hall, nd). The relationship between the MNR and the non-combatant populations more generally, however, is extremely harsh and revolves around the forced extraction of food, labour and recruits. In some respects, the MNR is interesting by virtue of its abhorrent excesses. It clearly exposes the conventional idea that a successful guerrilla movement can survive only if it has the widespread support of the people. The MNR demonstrates that the instrumental use of violence and exemplary terror is a viable alternative. This has meant that the MNR has not needed to develop a defined political programme. Nor does it make any effort to communicate to non-combatants in the areas under MNR control the reasons why it is fighting. The political economy of violence is sufficient in itself.

Using the testimonies of refugee non-combatants formerly living in MNR areas, Gersony ( 1988) has given a good account of the political economy the MNR. In terms of territory, he describes three distinct areas: (a) tax areas, (b) control areas, and (c) destruction areas. Tax areas are regions of dispersed settlements which the MNR loosely controls. Within these areas food is taken from non-combatants on demand. Non-combatants are also used for short-term porterage duties, and women are expected to provide combatants with sex upon demand. Beatings and exemplary mutilation are common.

In control areas the population roughly divides into indigenous groups and captives. The conditions here, especially for the latter, are much harsher than in tax areas. Captives are used for a variety of purposes. They cultivate the MNR farms, usually on a full-time basis, and do not benefit from this labour. They are expected to feed themselves through the cultivation of their own plots in what little free time they may have. Women are expected to transfer from the fields to the MNR camps on demand for sex. Porterage duties are harsh, often involving long distances with little or no food. Murder and mutilation are frequently used to instil cooperation. The perimeters of control areas are policed, and this, together with exemplary punishments and executions, deters escape.

Destruction areas include a variety of targets. Villages set up by the government to house returning refugees have frequently been selected in the past. Some entire geographical areas have also been so designated. In other cases it has been the largest villages in a given location. In the last analysis, the aim has been to destroy the population centres in these areas. This process usually takes place in three stages. The first involves reconnaissance of the area and the collection of intelligence regarding the disposition of government troops, the homes of officials, teachers, and so. Depending upon the location, a political visit may then take place. Sometimes the villagers may be advised to disperse to their fields, and the locality becomes a tax area. The final stage is the attack and the devastation of the village and any infrastructure or installations that are present. The destruction is systematic and total. Non-combatants are killed indiscriminately. In cases where small children have been mistakenly left behind by fleeing parents, they are often subject to retributive mutilation. Other noncombatants are rounded up and taken to control areas to act either as captive labour or forced recruits. Forced recruitment is the usual method of conscription. Recruits are taken to control areas outside their own locality. It would appear that initially they are heavily guarded and fearful of the consequences of attempted escape. Violence itself, however, appears to be a little understood rite of passage. Some commentators have noted that once new conscripts have completed their first raid, the surveillance surrounding them decreases and they are integrated into the main body.

Destruction areas can be seen as vital to the MNR in two ways. Firstly, they are a source of replenishment, especially of labour and recruits. Secondly, given the association between physical and political survival, MNR destruction can also be seen as the main political expression of its existence. Its thoroughness in this respect, together with its widespread and systematic employment of mutilation and exemplary terror, reduces its need for a conventional political programme. Its acts speak volumes. Moreover, the fact that it can target whole areas for destruction, with little prospect of effective government protection or retaliation, exposes the political weakness of the centre.

The logic of food denial

Because both groups and movements need to secure or protect sources of food and sustenance in order to survive physically and politically, a counter-logic demands that those sources are themselves legitimate targets for the opposition. This is the classic field of counter-insurgency operations. There are two main forms of food denial. One of them rests upon the relocation or corralling of groups to prevent them from providing sustenance to opposing bodies. Government forces in Ethiopia, Uganda, Angola, and Mozambique, for example, have used these techniques. Such operations have not been noted for their sensitivity or observance of human rights. The other form of food denial is the actual withholding of food supplies to a given area or group. There are many examples of this in Africa. It is usually encountered in cases where an area or group deemed to belong to the enemy is already suffering the effects of war and/or enviro-economic stress. The attempts to prevent relief supplies from reaching South Sudan or Eritrea/Tigray by the Sudanese and Ethiopian governments respectively are examples. Movements, however, also attempt to interdict food supplies. The SPLA's attempt to blockade the government towns in South Sudan is a case in point.