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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

5.2 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.