Cancer In African Politics

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[Issues Of Principle]

Publisher’s note:
Dr. Omara-Otunnu’s column "Issues of Principle," will appear bi-weekly in The Black Star News and on In this inaugural column, the author intends to direct searchlight onto some of the fundamental issues and factors that affect the quality of life, politics and economics of African people, in the context of an interdependent world.
The inaugural piece focuses on what he considers collectively “the cancer of African politics.” These are the twin phenomena of militarization and personalization of state power in African countries. The two are reliable barometers to gauge the good or ill health of African politics and welfare, he argues. He starts of with an analysis of existing conditions in Africa.

Consider the following facts: the average person in Africa is poorer now than in 1968; 54 per cent of the total population of sub Saharan Africa live in extreme poverty (on less than one US dollar a day); the number of people living in absolute poverty increased from 217 million in 1990 to 290 million in 2000; and there are more than 6 million refugees and 20 million internally displaced people in the continent.

In the Great Lakes region of Africa alone, in the past decade or so, more than four million people have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Uganda, close to 90% of people placed in concentration camps in the north of the country.

A recent publication by the United Nations notes that over the last decade, more than a third of armed conflicts worldwide were in Africa, producing more than six million refugees and 20 million internally displaced people. The wars have destroyed infrastructure, stalled development and exposed women in particular to rape and abuse.

In fact, in the last three decades of the twentieth century, at least one-fifths of the people in Africa lived in countries affected by violent armed conflict. The data indicates that about half of the continent experienced some form of civil strife and about a quarter were convulsed by violent political crises in the decade of the 1980s and 1990s. 

Interestingly, the evidence shows that whereas prevalence of civil wars increased in Africa during the period, it fell or remained stagnant in other regions of the world. The various civil conflicts claimed the lives of millions of innocent civilians and destroyed the livelihoods of tens of millions more across entire sub-regions and created more internally displaced people in Africa than in any other region of the world.

The statistics from Africa are thrown into sharp relief when compared with those from other developing countries where people’s incomes quadrupled from what they were in 1965. An example of the latter is the so-called tiger economies of East Asia and the Pacific, where incomes multiplied five times between 1965 and 2000. Although statistics (some of which are cited above) demonstrate the sorry state of affairs in the continent, they do not poignantly capture the depth of human deprivation and suffering of the majority of the people.

What made the situation in Africa especially devastating was the impact of the malignant militarism. The militarism has been indexed by glorification of violence and the use of the military and military symbols as means of upward social mobility, and disproportionate expenditures on the military. In Africa, the militarism has been manifested in the rise of child soldiers, war-lordism and increased civil-wars.

During the period, wars acquired new symbolic, psychological and material meanings. For one, it was through violence or wars that those who possessed and utilized the means of destruction acquired livelihood and prestige. In some cases, combatants exacted much more in a month than most people would earn in a year.

The instability spurned a new value system, which in turn yielded a vicious cycle that made most people gravitate back to some form of parochial or primeval patriotism. It was the state of confused flax in the value system that unscrupulous politico-military elites, through dysfunctional use of violence, exploited for their own ends to keep the population in a state of semi-permanent siege and fear, as a mode of control.

The pervasive violence created forbidding conditions in those parts of the continent such as Burundi, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Southern Sudan, Northern Uganda, Mozambique, Angola, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, etc, to the extent that virtually no meaningful productive activities could be engaged in by the people.

When the various facts about Africa are considered, the human tragedy in the Darfur, which has attracted attention in the Western media and political circles, should be seen for what it is: one of so many symptoms of deeper political pathologies in the continent. At the root of the pathologies is militarism. This is a value system that glorifies violence, military symbols and means to mediate essentially socio-political problems. It is this phenomenon, which when grafted onto the feudalistic tendency among African rulers to consider the state their personal fiefdom that makes for a sort of medieval lethal cocktail.

Tragically, the big powers have taken advantage of the feudalistic mentality among African rulers to manipulate and fuel the politics of violence in the continent, to the detriment of the great majority of African people. During the Cold War era, for example, whereas the US backed unscrupulous and dictatorial rulers such as Joseph Mobuto of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jonas Savimbi — leader of the terrorist UNITA organization in Angola, and the odious apartheid regime of South Africa, the Soviet Union patronized militarist rulers such as Mengistu Haille Mariam of Ethiopia and later Muhammad Siad Barre of Somalia.

In the post-Cold War period, the US has continued the practice by backing militarist rulers such as Yoweri K. Museveni of Uganda; Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia; and Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea. All the three rulers whom the US has dubbed “new breed of African leaders” have recklessly violated both domestic and international rule of law by undermining the independence of the judiciary at home and invading and committing gross violations of human rights in neighboring countries.

In addition, they have dealt brutally with democratic opponents, and engaged in sordid corruption. Because the military and US patronage are the mainstays of these rulers, they care less about internal legitimacy and the welfare of the people than appeasing the military and dancing to US tunes.

The militarization and personalization of politics have not only dealt devastating blows to the rule of law, democratic pluralism and stability but also exacerbated the diminishing quality of life recorded in most African countries. This is a travesty, as the continent is so well endowed with strategic resources.

What is the alternative approach that would help reverse the misery indices and improve the quality of life, politics and economic in Africa? There is a two-fold formula that is straight forward yet profound. First, although the primary task of transforming African societies rests with African people, in the current interdependent world, the big powers should support leaders and groups that are committed to the dual tasks of demilitarization and depersonalization of politics and the establishment of robust rule of law and democratic pluralism.

And second, the big powers must impose a moratorium on arms sales to Africa. This should be done because the military in Africa obtain the lethal weapons with which they destroy the lives and livelihood of African people from outside powers.

The fact of the matter is that the military in Africa have served as means to siphon off valuable resources, as well as to ruthlessly oppress their own people. Refusal to impose moratorium of arms sales to Africa by the big powers should be construes as, and make them complicit in, the unfolding human tragedies in the continent.

In the final analysis, as indicated above, the task of expunging the cancer from the body politics of Africa cannot, however, be left to the big powers who have their own national and racial interests to protect and advance. African people, wherever they might be, should mobilize to demand the demilitarization and personalization of politics in the continent.

It is only when militarism and feudalistic politics are renounced and discarded in Africa can the rule of law and democratic pluralism flower to inspire people in the continent to engage in self-fulfilling and productive activities that would improve the quality of life, politics and economics of the great majority of people.

Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.


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