Crimes in Africa

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Crimes in Africa

If a storm can be described as perfect, then the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in the second half of the 1990s was the “perfect war”. precipitated by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the fall of the West’s client kleptocrat, president Mobutu, and his rotten state, the war in DR Congo was dubbed Africa’s First world War. It directly involved the armed forces of six neighbouring states. It drew in reactions and rebel groups from other African wars, the remnant armies of defunct neighbouring regimes, and the usual crowd of international profiteers, would-be peacemakers and humanitarians. It was closely connected with armed conflicts in several neighbouring countries, including those in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, and Angola. According to one estimate published in 2003 the war may directly and indirectly have caused the deaths of over 4 million people in DR Congo since 1996. As has become increasingly common in Africa the victims were almost all civilians.

The war in DR Congo was but one demonstration of the emptiness of the promises of the post Cold War political and economic renaissance for Africa. There was, it is true, the remarkable transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa in 1994. there were also instances of handover to multiparty civilian rule in former one-party or military-ruled states like Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, Zambia, Malawi, and even Nigeria. But by the end of the 1990s, any political and economic progress since the end of the Cold War had been overshadowed by a series of old and new wars that now engulfed any parts of the continent and were tipping whole regions further into instability and poverty.

In West Africa another regional complex of conflicts, also driven by greed and political disintegration, was in full swing. The late 1990s saw the culmination of the diamond and corruption fuelled rebellion in Sierra Leone that had been going on for a decade. At the start of 2000 a recently signed peace agreement in Sierra Leone as on the brink of failure. Guinea was in danger of being dragged into the conflict. Liberia, nominally at peace after its own war in the first half of the decade but little more than a façade of a state benefiting no one but its gangster-like regime, was still omenting conflict in all of its neighbours (Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte D’Ivoire) and as itself edging towards a renewed civil war. Côte D’Ivoire too, once a beacon of prosperity and stability, was increasingly beset by its own internal political troubles what were to develop into armed conflict in 2002. Nigeria, the regional hegemon, was ruled for most of the 1990s by a repressive and corrupt military regime which thrived in part on fomenting ethnic and religious tensions.

In the Horn of Africa, Somalia was still without a central government almost a decade after the fall of the last one (the Siad Barre regime which had been backed and armed alternately by both sides in the Cold War). The vacuum of state Authority in Somalia left the country in a state of low level conflict and chronic economic weakness, on the one hand vulnerable to external interference and on the other a source of regional instability. To the north of Somalia, border skirmishes between Ethiopia and Eritrea developed into full scale war in 1999. Meanwhile in Sudan, the second phase of the post independence rebellion was well into its second decade and there were no signs of resolution. One peace initiative after another had failed.

At the other end of the continent, in Angola, another war that had in an earlier phase been fomented by Cold War rivalry was still raging. Now deprived of their superpower
ponsorship, but aided by international businesses which continued to buy the Angolans’ il and diamonds and sell them weapons, the leaders of both sides (MPLA government and UNITA rebels) were plundering the country to support their war efforts and to fill their foreign bank accounts. In a country fabulously rich in natural resources, including agriculture, the majority of the peasant population were living in desperate poverty, many of them living on food handouts from the international humanitarian relief system.

Africa’s wars in the 1990s were all very different in their specifics. But they hared a number of important characteristics. First, one of the main underlying causes of these wars was the weakness, the corruption, the high level of militarization, and in some cases the complete collapse, of the states involved. Secondly, they all involved multiple belligerents fighting for a multiplicity of often shifting economic and political motivations. Thirdly, they all had serious regional dimensions and regional implications. And fourthly they were all remarkable for the brutality of the tactics ranging from mass murder and ethnic cleansing, to amputation, starvation, forced labour
 rape and cannibalism) used by belligerents to secure their strategic objectives.


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