East Africa is one of the most conflicted and poorly-governed areas of the world, and over the past 50 years the regions has been in all sorts of never ending conflict. Everybody probably know some of them, the Somali pirates, Al Shabaab, the Darfur conflict, Ethiopia- Eritrea conflict, to name just a few.
Over the years millions of people have died or have been displaced in conflicts in east Africa and the US has been a prime destination for East African refugees, a lot of them are either first generation or refugees in the US sanctuary cities.There are a large population of Ethiopians and Eritreans in the DMV area, and Minnesota has the largest Somali community in the US.I spend most of the weekend of the Muslim travel ban protests checking up on all my African friends who were affected by it!
Let’s get into some interesting things about these conflicts.
Reasons for conflict
The diversity of East Africa makes it difficult to generalize the root of different conflicts and instability across the region but generally the conflicts are drawn on tribal and religious lines and are largely about control of resources, as are all wars around the world. Amongst the myriad of factors that contribute to why the conflicts persist, I think two interesting ones stand out, the legacy of war and the economy of war. Since some of these conflicts are over 4 decades old, the legacy of war in the region has left unresolved animosities and militarization. In addition wars create their own systems of adaptation, economies and interests which can reinforce instability. This includes the rise of war economies in which powerful interests seek to perpetuate conditions of lawlessness and violence. The initial causes of the wars in East Africa are thus not always the same as the factors that perpetuate them and coupled with weak and ineffective governments across the region, conflicts in East Africa have been a never ending cycle of destruction.
Let’s talk about a few of these conflicts.
Somalia is considered a “failed state” having not had a stable government for the past 2 decades. The root of the current conflict in Somalia can be traced back to the resistance to a dictatorial government of Siad Barre regime during the 1980s. Several rebel groups emanated from it and eventually the Barre government was overthrown in 1991 and a power vacuum ensured that they have all been fighting over since then. The UN and Somalia’s neighbors have tried to intervene over the years to no avail. The most recent threats out of Somalia, are the rebel group Al Shabaab, that has been terrorizing the whole region, and have ties to Islamic terror groups in the middle east. 2 years ago, they slaughtered 148 students at Garissa University in a town close to the Kenya- Somalia border, terrible tragedy!
There is also the issue of piracy of the coast of Somalia, that has been in the international circuit for a while now; cue the “I am the captain now” line from the movie, Captain Phillips. I think what is interesting about this phenomenon is what is considered as the root cause of the rise of the pirates. The Somali pirates partly rose out of locals looking for ways to curb illegal fishing by foreign boats taking advantage of the war in Somalia and the absence of a government to enforce ownership of the waters that coastal city population lived off of. Their economic strife was compounded by the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters by foreign vessels that also severely constrained the ability of local fishermen to earn a living. In response, the fishermen began forming armed groups to stop the foreign ships and eventually turned to hijacking commercial vessels for ransom as an alternate source of income! They were being bullied and they defended themselves and now they are out of control violent. So much blame to go around here!
Also of note is the phenomenon of Somaliland, a self-declared state autonomous region of Somalia, that despite having its own government and everything, remains unrecognized by any country or international organization as its own country!
The Sudanese conflict is another war that keeps going on forever, even after the country was split into 2 to try and solve it. There are many versions of it, but the one most folks are familiar with is the Darfur crisis. This one began in 2003 and was started when some rebel groups from the south of Sudan began fighting the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab/black population. The government responded to attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the indictment of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
The Darfur crisis got a lot of international attention and organization called Save Darfur Coalition, based out of DC was formed to raise public awareness and mobilize a response to the crisis. It was comprised of more than 190 religious, political and human rights organization and was a major force behind engaging the United States Congress and President on the issue and pushing for divestment of US interests from Darfur. Another interesting fact is that after the west led by the US imposed sanctions on the Sudanese government, the country looked East for international support and in 2007, Amnesty International issued a report accusing China and Russia of supplying arms, ammunition and related equipment to Sudan, some of which the government may have transferred to Darfur in violation of a UN arms embargo. China especially is interesting because they are crawling all over the African continent pushing all sorts of interests, with a complete disregard for human rights violations of any of Africa’s dictators, but this is a discussion for another day :)! Also the new country South Sudan is fighting right now as well, so yeah.
Uganda and Kony 2012
So you all probably caught onto this a few years ago, the viral video/ documentary that was created by the organization Invisible Children to bring attention to the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army(LRA) led by Joseph Kony, a Ugandan cult and militia leader. The video got over 100 million views on YouTube and sparked a heated controversy regarding its merits, with very differing opinions being expressed by various NGOs workers, government and international officials, journalists, and other groups and individual. Here is my short analysis of the Kony phenomenon.
While it brought awareness to the issue of child soldiers in wars across Africa, it however oversimplified the events in the region and did not encourage viewers to learn about the situation beyond sharing the video and donating to Invisible Children. It was a poorly researched production with inaccuracies all over the places; painting Uganda as a war zone, that it is not, giving a misleading impression of Kony’s whereabouts and the size of his army, and barely covering what the Ugandan government has been doing about this. It was basically like omg these Africans cannot stop this guy, it’s up to us, the West to do it! There was a massive response from African twitter on all of these issues and it spurred activism across the continent around the tired narrative of the white savior that is peddled in Western media about us.
P.s. Africans have internet too now guys, it may not be as fast and not everyone has it, but African twitter is one of my favorite social media groups, that galvanizes Africans on African issues and is a master at calling out BS like this. Look at what happened to this lady who wrote a mostly false account of her time in Africa. Linton lies!
My hope is that with this African history writing series, I have an opposite effect on folks , than what Invisible children tried to do. I hope I help ya’ll to think of Africa in more than black and white terms, and engage with it in an informed and more nuanced capacity and respect our stories enough to see that.