“The Root Causes and Challenges of the Great Lakes Conflicts” is a wide and complex topic. First of all, let me say that conflict is not exclusively an African phenomenon, neither is it endemic in the Great Lakes Region. Although recent years have seen many regions of Africa involved in war and external or internal conflict, we should not accept the prevailing view that Africa is conflict-centric.
The conflicts experienced in our region are a manifestation of serious structural weaknesses. Their underlying causes have internal as well as external components. The interactions between the legacy of our colonial history and the post-independence models of governance, as well as the international political, social, and global economic milieu in which this interaction occurs, is the appropriate context in which to place the recurrent conflicts.
The structural causes of the conflicts include bad governance, the politics of exclusion, and widespread state sponsored or state condoned human rights violations. I would, however, like to dwell on some of the more fundamental causes that are hardly ever subjected to analysis by so-called experts on the region.
First , the artificial boundaries created by our former colonial masters had the effect of bringing together many different people within nations that were not prepared for the cultural and ethnic diversity. The leaders of these communities, instead of building on this diversity, sought to exploit it for their own ends. In the process they ruptured social cohesion, and dislocated social entities and culturally homogeneous groups of people. In other words, post-colonial ethnic conflicts in the Great Lakes Region, and in many parts of Africa, have their roots in the colonial policy of separating language, religious and ethnic communities. Where ethnic communities, scientifically speaking, did not exist, as in Rwanda, they created them.
Where language served as a uniting factor, they discouraged its use, and substituted it with their own. We ended up becoming Anglophone, Francophone and others, depending on the whims of the colonial master. So now, curiously, African leaders can talk to decision makers in Paris, London, or Washington more easily, than they can to their communities and prefer to be closer to decision makers from abroad.
Ancient African kingdoms and empires, were strong entities, with a well knit social fabric, sharing a strong sense of patriotism and a strong desire for nation building and social development. Even those kingdoms which were involved in expansionist wars, which some anthropologists have used to try and explain the current conflicts, never indulged in ethnic massacres, let alone genocide. This is not to say that they were without inherent weaknesses, which colonialists were able to exploit.
Second , we could cite the infamous divide-and-rule techniques that were used to weaken and subjugate the African people, and helped to implement policies that weakened indigenous power networks and institutions.
Third, was the emphasis on the exploitation of raw materials for export, and the generation of wealth for the colonial power, at the expense of a genuine desire to develop the basic infrastructure and to provide basic social services to the Region. The concentration on a few major cash crops and extraction of minerals left the countries in the Region vulnerable to fluctuations in the prices of these commodities on the world market. There was a deliberate effort to produce for markets of the metropolis while ignoring national and regional markets. As a result, our internal markets were destroyed; and our creative spirit subdued.
In Rwanda for example, while we were forced to grow and produce coffee for export, at the expense of subsistence crops that our populations needed then, the country saw the first waves of migrants fleeing recurrent episodes of famine. It is no wonder we have witnessed the increase of poverty levels among the ordinary people, and a heavy debt burden which has crippled the Region's ability to develop. Poverty, ignorance, and the feeling of marginalisation are some of the factors that fuel conflict in Africa.
Another factor that, in my view, contributed to the conflicts in the Region that we know today, is the weak states and the self-serving leaders who appeared on the scene as colonialists departed. These leaders did not have any interest in the socio-economic development of their countries, but rather supported the colonial type of policies and, in effect, continued the siphoning of the Region's wealth.
With few exceptions, the colonialists left behind African cadres who widened and deepened the social cleavages entrenched by brutal colonial policies. Although we need to take responsibility for the sorry state of affairs in the Region and the rest of Africa, and address the urgent and critical issues of corruption, mismanaged leadership and governance in our Region, we must also seek to reverse the legacy left by external actors, including the ideology of genocide, and the dire socio-economic performance during the last decades of the post-colonial era.
A critical review of the post-colonial era would show: failed institutions that undermined nation building; rulers who were conveyor belts of the worst policies initiated during the colonial era; massive poverty and a heavy debt burden; over-reliance on external charity as a strategy for long-term survival; exclusion of the majority of the population from participation in governance and formulation of policies, including in areas that critically affect them; and lack of political will on the part of the international community to take a hard look at the anatomy of conflicts-in-the-making.
Rebuilding and developing the Region from centuries of exploitation and destruction will not happen overnight. We should not expect the effects of the colonial legacy and decades of misrule that followed to be overcome in just a few short years. This is the great challenge of our time and we need to work together to reverse that legacy. In any case, we all recognize that our Region cannot develop while we continue to lose people in violent conflicts.
We cannot give hope to future generations if we destroy our infrastructure today, and the following day we out-compete each other in begging the rich countries to bear the cost of reconstruction. We cannot join and benefit from the international trading system if conflicts in the Region deter us from concentrating on our competitive advantage.
So, what have we learnt from our past experiences, and how can we prevent and manage conflicts in our Region in the future? First of all, we need to carry out a serious and rational enquiry into the root causes of any conflict if we are to avert conflicts in the future. This will enable us to make the right interventions in the right place, and at the right time. Not all conflicts are similar in nature and there cannot be a one-size-fits all solution to them.
Second, we in the Region, must own all conflict management and peace building processes. This is not to deny that the international community has a role to play, but that role can only be complementary to our own efforts. It is crucial that Regional and African problems find Regional and African solutions.
The way we have handled the conflicts in Burundi, Somalia, and on-going efforts in South Sudan and Darfour gives us hope that Africans are finally beginning to take charge of their own problems, and design appropriate remedies. In the Region, the Dar es Salaam declaration on Peace, Security and Development, signed by eleven Heads of State of core countries, is a reflection of the determination to turn our Region into a hub of peace and development, while addressing the root cause of conflict in the Region.
Besides, in the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development, we have the appropriate framework for preventing and solving conflicts.
We also need to build strong institutions that deter and prevent the scourge of corruption, that promote transparency and accountability in our Region.
Most importantly, the Region needs: leaders and institutions that unite and reconcile its peoples, especially after this turbulent history; embrace diversity; seek to improve the livelihood of all citizens without discrimination; embrace regional economic integration and work towards shared prosperity and sustainable peace.
We all have a role to play. We, in Rwanda, are working hard to realize that ideal.
Paul KagamePresident, Rwanda
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