Why do we continually misunderstand conflict in Africa? – By Lucy Hovil


In South Sudan, as in other contexts, negotiated solutions for conflict favour the country’s political elites.

Violence in Africa seems particularly prone to the scourge of one-dimensional descriptions. Often described as ethnic or tribal, and sometimes as sectarian, the media prescribes an adjective that quickly becomes accepted as gospel and this explanation is then hard to shift. Thus we are told that the recent outbreak of violence in South Sudan is ethnic (Nuer against Dinka); and fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) is sectarian (Christians against Muslims). It is seldom described in political terms.

The problem here is not just semantics or the irritation caused by inadequate descriptions of complex issues. The real problem lies in the fact that misdiagnosis is a dangerous business. Once a label is fixed to a conflict it can become an exclusive explanation for that conflict (normally expounded by some form of argument that animosities derive from a primordial source), and can dictate resolution to that conflict. As the logic usually goes, if the two “˜groups’ or warring factions can sign a ceasefire followed by a peace agreement then the conflict is resolved. Yet time and time again, ceasefires, peace agreements and externally enforced power sharing arrangements based on reductive understandings of the causes of conflict prove to be quick fixes, little more than holding exercises until conflict breaks out again.

For decades the war in Sudan was portrayed as being between the Muslim north and the Christian/animist south, which became accepted as an accurate analysis of what was taking place. Yet there is little in this binary representation of conflict that allows for an accurate understanding of the multiple complex factors driving a war that was, in fact, between a centralised state and multiple sites of marginalisation across the country. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was signed in 2005 was eventually whittled down to only one of its elements – the referendum on the independence of the south. The referendum neither resolved conflict in the reduced state of Sudan (as evidenced by renewed conflict in Darfur and, more recently, in South Kordofan and Blue Nile), nor led to consolidated peace in the newly-created state of South Sudan (now graduated to the label of “˜ethnic’ conflict). The misdiagnosis of the problem enabled those with short term political agendas to scrap the democratic transformation agenda that had been included in the CPA, and consequently the secession of the South has failed to generate peace in either Sudan or the new South Sudan.

In the same way, the prevalent interpretation of past violence in Rwanda – and, therefore, the response to that violence – has been reduced to ethnic genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in 1994. There is seldom mention of the broader context of violence in which the genocide took place – and, therefore, of the need to engage with broader issues of post-conflict (as opposed to exclusively post-genocide) recovery. This oversimplification has enabled the post-genocide government to avoid scrutiny for its own actions. Once again, therefore, it is unsurprising that individuals continue to flee Rwanda in fear for their lives as a repressive state feeds off its genocide credit; and that the lack of honest appraisal of what took place during and after the genocide continues to haunt the region not least in the form of cornered militias in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo trying to fight their way out of an alleged “˜génocidaire’ cul-de-sac.

Yet we never seem to learn the lesson. Right now, the potential impact of these oversimplifications can be seen clearly in South Sudan, one of the most recent outbreaks of violence on the continent. Although there is much rhetoric about the need for a comprehensive national process, there has been little talk about how and when this will happen. Most energy so far has gone into persuading two small groups of powerful individuals who allegedly represent two ethnic constituencies to sign a ceasefire. This energy is now going into discussions on monitoring of that ceasefire. A ceasefire is an important first step, but unless regional and international actors insist unequivocally on the need for a broader national process, little will change.

By reducing conflict to ethnic antagonism, (with its dangerous bedfellow, genocide, lurking just around the corner) there is an assumption that people position themselves in one-dimensional categories. This approach ignores local realities in which people create and maintain multiple forms of belonging not least in order to ensure multiple forms of legitimacy and access to resources. While not denying that people might identify themselves along ethnic and/or sectarian lines – just as they identify themselves, for instance, along gender or economic lines – in a context of multiple forms and expressions of belonging, the reduction of conflict to simple binaries inevitably falls wide of the mark.

Ultimately, therefore, this continual cycle of misdiagnosis fails to engage with broader issues, not least the key areas of poor governance that leave a small minority perched in their feathered nests, ignoring the needs and demands of the majority of people whose lives are impacted by violence and who so desperately want peace. For as long as those holding the weapons are the only ones heard, any resolution of conflict is going to fail: negotiations simply re-define and reallocate power within the circles of this increasingly unattractive minority. Instead we need to be far more nuanced in the way in which we talk about conflict, resisting the temptation to distil complexity into formulae that history has proved fail to work. We need to ask different questions in order to prioritise an understanding of the broader context of the social fabric in which conflicts take place so that in the midst of conflict, when the situation is raw and quick fixes are undeniably attractive, we force ourselves to be multidimensional in our thinking.

Dr Lucy Hovil is senior researcher, International Refugee Rights Initiative.

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8 thoughts on “Why do we continually misunderstand conflict in Africa? – By Lucy Hovil

  1. Thanks Lucy. These simplified narratives persist because they serve the interests of all those with actual power – the media, because reporting becomes easy when it is a matter of labelling; local elites, because they can argue that societies that are intrinsically divided can be ruled only by force; and international elites, because such divisions provide a pretext for ongoing and escalating foreign intervention.

  2. Well said Lucy. The misleading diagnosis begins mostly with the Western meda. I remermber one commentator from France 24 reporting by labelling the victim a “Christian” instead of a “Central african ” or simply a “man” in CAR. You can see here the hidden agenda of the West at work through its media.

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  4. But what if the people themselves relate to their conflicts in a binary fashion.Long before the bloodshed in Rwanda people were referring to themselves as Hutus & Tutsis. No help from any media needed.

  5. Greetings Lucy. Absolutely agree. Lazy labeling = mis-diagnosis and mis-diagnosis leads to mis-prescription. Strikes me that in places like S Sudan there are elements of the narrative that are accurate and yet simple enough for politicians and journalists to use, so there is no excuse. For example, one useful way to think about the situation in S Sudan is in terms of institutions. National institutions are not surprisingly few in this new nation: the strongest ones probably being the churches and the SPLM. Given the SPLM has shown itself inadequate to deal with the political split which has occurred, and the churches too, it is hardly surprising that people fall back on (and of course instrumentalise) institutions linked to their ethnicity, which are still functional and in some respects robust. Thus, ethnicity does play a role in the conflict, but an intelligent analysis links it to governance and institutions, not to some kind picture of innate or unavoidable “tribal emnity”. International Alert’s 2012 Peace & Conflict Assessent of S Sudan explored this http://www.international-alert.org/resources/publications/peace-and-conflict-assessment-south-sudan-2012

  6. Liz Geare of the U.S.-based group Conflicts Dynamic International believes the outbreak of violence in South Sudan is undermining the progress of building a constructive relationship between the two nations.

  7. Conflict in many African States is propelled by power and avarice. Conflict follows from nation state failure. Leaders and prescriptive leadership is important and does make a positive difference in enhancing civil order. The failed states of Africa never failed by themselves or on their own—-these states were driven to failure and conflict by negative purposeful action. Thus it is the strengthening of the state—-improving governance—-and the building of the nation entailing the creation of a strong rubust pluralistic democratic political culture vibrant in social voice that prevents and does exhert a positive force preventing the slide into weak state towards failure of civil society which is promulgated into internal strife and conflict. For me this is all too familiar and sad.

  8. The Abduction of Innocent young students and Boko Haram and the Cult of Gangsterism

    The ‘Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad’—better known by its Hausa name ‘Boko Haram’ meaning ‘Western education is sinful’—is an Islamic jihadist and takfiri militant and terrorist organization governed by the gangsterism ethos without any credence to the serene intellectualism of the Islam Religion advanced by the Prophet Muhammad. Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, the Boko Haram organisation seeks to establish a “pure” Islamic state ruled by sharia law, putting a stop to what it deems ‘westernization sustained by crass colonialism’.
    This Boko Haram cult of gangsterism evidenced in the violent abduction of young women from their schools must/ought be considered and regarded by all who value social order as being gangsterism in promotion of fear coupled with disregard for rule of law within society.. This abduction of innocent women reflects/refracts in the strongest lack of governance dialectic. These school girl abductions reinforce the gross lack of civil civic social order in Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan and his administration of governance must be held to strict account. These innocent young women were seeking only to improve their intellectual social standing grounded in learning in acquiring both academic and practical knowledge so as to enhance their personal lives along with enhancing and strengthening their society and culture in terms of prescriptive social civic civil cohesion.
    The government of Nigeria has a fundamental obligation to eradicate this element of gangsterism shrouded within the veil of Islam using every and all national resources. Anything less must be considered as tacit compliance in accepting this pernicious cult of gangsterism who regard themselves as ‘law’.

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