Cover Image
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.