Why do Africans kill each other so easily? Atrocities abound, whether in Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, South Sudan or Zimbabwe. Even South Africans, in fits of xenophobia, attack outsiders.
Some of these episodes of murderous mayhem rise to the scale of genocide, as defined and prohibited by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide of 1948. Genocide is the “intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”
But many more such episodes are perceived as attempts to cleanse a country or a region of an ethnic group. Ethnic cleansing has no accepted legal definition, but it is widely regarded as a war crime that can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and as a crime against humanity. Large-scale massacres of a group or a classification of individuals constitute ethnic cleansing, and many of the civil wars in Africa have taken on the colour of that definition, with the ICC prosecuting some of the perpetrators and indicting others alleged to be responsible. In the aftermath of Kenya’s bitter 2007 election, for example, the Kikuyu people killed the Kalenjin and Luo and Kalenjin killed Kikuyu in the Rift Valley. The ICC attempted unsuccessfully to try Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto for their alleged fomenting of that fatal violence; both indictments had to be suspended when witnesses were induced to commit perjury by Kenyan authorities.
Americans also kill, especially in big cities such as Chicago and New Orleans, usually as a result of rivalry between criminalized drug-trafficking gangs. Warfare among gangs also drives much of the murderous violence in the key killing capitals of the world — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In Brazil, too, competition over control of cocaine distribution has led to brutal assassinations and dismemberment of rival gangs, especially within prisons. Almost everywhere one turns across the globe, people are murdering fellow countrymen. But little of the gang-perpetrated violence, or the urban deaths, can even remotely be considered ethnic cleansing.
Africa is different. There, much of the seemingly endemic mayhem in several countries stems less from gang-like competition and more from power and resource conflicts between ethnicities competing for whatever kinds of wealth-grabbing opportunities are capable of being corralled within national borders. That is why the discovery of oil, gas or mineral deposits often stimulates outbreaks of contention that turn into outright civil war.
The resultant conflicts, frequently bitter and ferocious, turn Africans of one identity against Africans of another identity. There is safety and trust in joining one’s own people when another “people” is threatening or attacking. That is natural. But conflict between ethnic groups is not an inevitable recrudescence of some ancient and immutable antagonism between tribes (as so many outsiders assert).
Rather it is easy for irresponsible, power-hungry leaders to mobilize an ethnic group or a sub-clan against an out-group. Leaders (as in Serbia after the breakup of Yugoslavia or Myanmar today) can too readily claim that the other group is after “our” land, or “our” opportunities, or “our” chance to amass wealth from newly discovered petroleum or iron ore deposits. “They,” the cry comes, are after “our” diamonds, “our” land, or “our” rights to live in a particular area or region.
The result of this artificially induced anxiety and antagonism is often massive assaults against out-groups by in-groups, and retaliation. Tit-for-tat killings lead to escalated bouts of violence. Sometimes, as in South Sudan now and the Central African Republic last year and before, the killing sprees amount to ethnic cleansing. Between 2003 and 2006, the Sudan clearly engaged in the targeting and extermination of non-Arab peoples in the western Sudanese province of Darfur, subcontracting their killing to Arabic-speaking bands from the northern part of the province. More recently, the Sudanese government has strafed and bombed non-Arabs in the southern provinces of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains.
Ethnic cleansing episodes occasionally become so intense and horrific that they constitute genocide. That is what happened within a few months in 1994 in Rwanda, when the more numerous Hutu (the locally dominant ethnic group) systematically massacred 800,000 Tutsi, Rwanda’s other, and rival, ethnic people. That genocide was organized and directed by Hutu leaders who were attempting once and for all to eliminate Tutsi pretensions to national power, and therefore to end ethnic contests for the spoils of governing.
In neighbouring Burundi, Hutu-inspired attacks on Tutsi have sometimes verged on episodes of ethnic cleansing, but all-out genocidal warfare would now be curtailed by African Union sanctions and military action and by forceful intervention by nearby Rwanda. President Paul Kagame, leader of the Tutsi and the liberator of post-genocidal Rwanda, would not permit another massacre of his kin, even across a sovereign border.
Instead, a civil conflict in Burundi that began when President Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu, declared himself elected to a constitutionally illegal third term in 2015, continues. But Nkurunziza’s opponents are not exclusively Tutsi. In several groups of Hutu and Tutsi opponents, they simply seek to end Nkurunziza’s usurpation of power, and to return to democracy.
In the Central African Republic, one of Africa’s most fractured and poor nations, the struggle in 2013-2016 to control whatever could be extracted from the country — mostly diamonds, some gold and uranium, and access to remittances — seemed to revolve around religious differences. The Séléka, a Muslim group from the north, took national power away from a largely Christian group of southerners. Then the Christians fought back and regained national sovereignty.
Along the way, thousands (precise numbers are debated) were killed in all-out campaigns that amounted to ethnic cleansing. Yet, though this conflict was ostensibly religious, it was also ethnic. The Muslims, supported by neighbouring Chad, were linguistically and ethnically distinct from the Bantu-speaking southerners (who happened to be Christians) who had always run the Republic under the French and after independence in 1960.
Ethnic cleansing ignored
In the 1980s, President Robert Mugabe’s then newly independent, Shona-dominated government of Zimbabwe slaughtered 20,000 to 30,000 Ndebele from the southwestern corner of the country because they were supposedly a threat to the Shona — traditional rivals of the Ndebele. This bout of ethnic cleansing was largely ignored by Britain, the departed colonial power, and by the UN. And the man that Mugabe put in charge of the all-out ethnic cleansing was Emerson Mnangagwa, now poised to become Mugabe’s successor.
Ethnic cleansing continues today, despite ineffective efforts to hinder it by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) and the regular national army in the eastern districts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, especially in the provinces of North and South Kivu, near Rwanda and Uganda, non-state actors run local militias targeting civilians who are sometimes just “in the way,” or who sometimes belong to or support other local warlords. The drive in this region is to gain or keep control over natural resources, especially coltan, a combination of rare metals (columbite and tantalite) used in cellphones and high-performance aircraft. So far, since about 1988, more than 5.5 million people have been extirpated in this region.
All of these ethnic cleansing zones of contention simmer in 2017. But the major cause of concern, and of potential genocide, is in South Sudan, a nation carved out of the southern reaches of the Sudan in 2011. After 30 years of war between the Arab-speaking army of the Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of South Sudan, peace was brokered by the United States and Norway, and — with much fanfare and great hope — South Sudan was admitted into the United Nations.
But just as the discovery of oil inside the Sudan (and what subsequently became South Sudan) in the 1970s stimulated a civil war between Sudan and what is now South Sudan, so the possibility of untold riches from oil (largely exported to China and Malaysia) turned the infant South Sudan into a cauldron of enmity. President Salva Kiir, a Dinka and one of the leaders of the SPLA, became the country’s first and only president. Riek Machar, a Nuer, and a sometime fighter in the SPLA and a sometime collaborator with Sudan, became vice-president. The Dinka are South Sudan’s largest ethnic group (36 per cent of the total population) and the Nuer the next largest (16 per cent).
Before long, a major falling out between Kiir and Machar over “rents” — over the distribution of largesse from oil exports and other revenues — led to an open civil war in 2013 between their supporters. Kiir’s Dinka-led South Sudanese army and the Nuer components of the same army battled each other. Despite partial ceasefires in 2016, the war continues. Machar has directed his side of the war from the neighbouring Congo and sometimes from Sudan. Kiir and his military commanders target anyone who is Nuer and therefore anyone who is a possible or a real supporter of Machar. The other side does the same to Dinka. From 2013 through 2016, at least 60,000 Sudanese, mostly civilians, lost their lives either in combat or, more likely, as “collateral’ damage. Disease and malnutrition have also taken their tolls. With all the fighting and the ineffectual nature of the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) that has attempted to stand between the warring parties, starvation has also contributed to ethnic cleansing.
Africa is hardly at peace. So long as greed, kleptocratically-driven corruption and disdain by leaders of any peoples who stand in their way fuels war, some Africans will be driven to kill other Africans whom they have been led to believe are “out to get” them. Tribalism and ethnic cleansing thus become constructed, that is, created externally, always by leaders who whip up hatreds to mobilize followers. This hate cannot be considered primordial.
Africans in the Democratic Republic of Congo, say, kill people who are different from them. But just across the border in Zambia, the same people, speaking the same disparate languages, go about their business peacefully, and even intermarry. Likewise, in Uganda, as opposed to South Sudan, or in Botswana versus Zimbabwe there is peace and intermarriage while the same peoples just across borders battle and kill.
Africans therefore assault fellow Africans, and even try to cleanse them ethnically, when they are driven to kill by false witness or because of fears aroused by self-aggrandizing leaders. Until there is better leadership, leading to better governance, strengthened rules of law, reduced corruption and collegial comity and consensus-building — as mostly in today’s Benin, Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Ghana, Liberia and Senegal — other Africans will continue to kill their neighbours out of fear and greed. Women and children suffer most of all from starvation, avoidable diseases and massive, sometimes intentional, attacks on civilians of the “wrong” ethnicity,
Ethnic cleansing opportunities are always around the next corner unless the forces of order in the African Union, the United Nations and former colonial powers, such as France, intervene, occasionally with effect, as in the Central African Republic and Mali, but sometimes weakly and tragically, as in the eastern Congo and Somalia, and sometimes simply too late.
Robert I. Rotberg is a fellow at the Wood- row Wilson International Center, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and founding director of Harvard’s Kennedy School program on intrastate development.