Widespread societal conflict in Africa is often played out against the backdrop of deep poverty, illiteracy and weak systems of governance. Undermined by unfavorable terms of trade and indebtedness, administrative failures to respond to social needs, underdeveloped infrastructure, low levels of education and widespread corruption, governments are hard pressed to also cope with ethnic, communal, religious and regional rivalries. Liberia and Somalia represent examples of "failed", "collapsed" or "fragmented" states where conflicts were and are being prosecuted by sub-state actors acting in a virtual power vacuum. The variety of possible conflicts in any society allows different perspectives and frameworks -- political, economic, historical, social, cultural, and psychological -- for defining and describing them.
With Africa's global strategic importance, new conflicts have emerged, while older ones have mutated. Prominent among these post-Cold War conflicts have been Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The renewed battle for the Democratic Republic of Congo is no ordinary African war. At least five countries -- Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia -- have sent troops into the war that could split Africa's third largest country and much of the continent itself.
More than three decades after African countries gained their independence, there is a growing recognition among Africans themselves that the continent must look beyond its colonial past for the causes of current conflicts. Today more than ever, Africa must look at itself. The nature of political power in many African States, together with the real and perceived consequences of capturing and maintaining power, is a key source of conflict across the continent. It is frequently the case that political victory assumes a "winner-takes-all" form with respect to wealth and resources, patronage, and the prestige and prerogatives of office. A communal sense of advantage or disadvantage is often closely linked to this phenomenon, which is heightened in many cases by reliance on centralized and highly personalized forms of governance. Where there is insufficient accountability of leaders, lack of transparency in regimes, inadequate checks and balances, non-adherence to the rule of law, absence of peaceful means to change or replace leadership, or lack of respect for human rights, political control becomes excessively important, and the stakes become dangerously high. This situation is exacerbated when, as is often the case in Africa, the State is the major provider of employment and political parties are largely either regionally or ethnically based.
During the cold war, external efforts to bolster or undermine African Governments were a familiar feature of super-Power competition. With the end of the cold war, external intervention has diminished but has not disappeared. In the competition for oil and other precious resources in Africa, interests external to Africa continue to play a large and sometimes decisive role, both in suppressing conflict and in sustaining it. Foreign interventions are not limited, however, to sources beyond Africa. Neighbouring States, inevitably affected by conflicts taking place within other States, may also have other significant interests, not all of them necessarily benign.
Despite the devastation that armed conflicts bring, there are many who profit from chaos and lack of accountability, and who may have little or no interest in stopping a conflict and much interest in prolonging it. Very high on the list of those who profit from conflict in Africa are international arms merchants. Also high on the list, usually, are the protagonists themselves. In Liberia, the control and exploitation of diamonds, timber and other raw materials was one of the principal objectives of the warring factions. Control over those resources financed the various factions and gave them the means to sustain the conflict. Clearly, many of the protagonists had a strong financial interest in seeing the conflict prolonged. The same can be said of Angola and Sierra Leone.
Africa as a whole has begun to make significant economic and political progress in recent years, but in many parts of the continent progress remains threatened or impeded by conflict. Conflicts have seriously undermined Africa's efforts to ensure long-term stability, prosperity and peace for its peoples. It is a reality that must be confronted honestly and constructively by all concerned if the people of Africa are to enjoy the human security, sustainable development and economic opportunities they seek and deserve.
A good number of humble Africans have learnt inter- dependence and are busy creating wealth and exchanging goods with their neighbors, demonstrating that if security is assured and property rights respected, peace will prevail.
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