Why Violence in Africa Presents an Existential Threat

In Africa today, violence presents a monumental and potentially crippling challenge to the continent's future. Violence threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of ordinary people and their families. It threatens the future of legitimate and effective government, and the very existence of many African countries. Advocates seeking a more open and democratic society in Africa have mostly failed to grasp the extent of this threat.

To be sure, the question of how to contain violence is a defining challenge for neighbourhoods, communities, and countries around the world. For most people and policy makers, however, this is a law and order or crime and punishment proposition. In the worst cases, governments can be voted out if they can’t manage violence and protect their people.

Underlying this approach is the assumption that there is a capable state, able for the most part to deal with threats to its existence or protect its people. This assumption breaks down in much of Africa where Max Weber’s idea of a state with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence hardly exists and many governments seem unable or unwilling to protect their people.

In its 2011 World Development Report, the World Bank described violence as “a primary development challenge of our time.” In Africa, certainly, violence is more than merely a development issue; it has become the overriding political challenge of the early 21st century. For much of the continent, violence is thus a challenge of a radically different magnitude; it threatens the very existence of countries.

There are at least five dimensions to this challenge, in no particular order. One is piracy, especially in the waters of the Gulf of Aden in the East and Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Guinea in Equatorial Africa. Apart from threatening the states along these coasts, piracy also endangers some of the busiest maritime routes in world as well as global energy security.

Another is the growing manifestation of violent extremism, with some of it claiming sectarian inspiration in parts of east and Sahelian Africa. The full extent of the groups behind this and the nature and extent of relationships that underpin their operations is not yet fully understood by policy makers in most African countries.

There is a related challenge of trans-Sahelian mercenarism and the free flow across borders of light but deadly weaponry. Mercenaries in Africa are not necessarily new. In a previous era, they were infamously implicated in coups, in countries such as Comoros and also in some African civil wars from Biafra to Sierra Leone. Today, fighters from an alphabet-soup of insurgent or rebel movements are available for hire at knock down prices across the porous borders of the Sahel, after the disintegration of Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya and the collapse of rebel movements in parts of Sudan and Chad.

Reinforcing these trends is the growth of organized drug trafficking, invariably accompanied by trafficking in persons and involving, in some countries, political leaders at the highest levels.

Then, there is citizenship, inter-community and sectarian violence. Elections have become flashpoints for such violence in some countries—notably in Kenya after the elections of 2007 and in Nigeria in 2011.

Each one of these forms of violence would be difficult enough for any people. The combination of all these in a context of weak institutions, poor law enforcement, porous borders, enhanced currency mobility, and modern telecommunications capabilities constitutes an existential threat to many African states.

The scope of potentially affected countries stretches from the Horn of Africa in the east to Mauritania in the west and from Algeria in the north, through Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) around the Equator to arguably Zimbabwe in the south.

The result is that strategically significant countries such as the DRC, Mali, Nigeria, and Sudan could now face the threat of violent fragmentation.

For many, the answer is to strengthen civil liberties, reform law enforcement, and ensure more effective provision of the administration of “black letter” law through better prosecutions and respect for the rights of accused persons. These are important. Reinforcing this approach on a different scale, the international justice movement has made some gains in advocating for accountability for large scale violence in some cases of state incapacity or complicity in Africa.

However, when law enforcement is weak and institutions are corrupt, processes of legal accountability are sometimes seen as part of what might be called an architecture of impunity, paying more attention to the rights of the orchestrators of violence and neglecting their victims. As a result, this kind of response is increasingly unpopular in many African countries where a growing vigilante movement has become part of the narrative of violence.

As useful as traditional legal responses may seem, therefore, they miss the magnitude of the problem and lack the ambition to match the enormity of the challenge. So, how can groups working to advance the development of open and democratic societies address the challenges posed by violence?

The first thing must be to understand the scale of the problem. The violence problem in Africa is a political, developmental, and existential challenge. Responses must engage the highest levels of political leadership as well as diplomatic and strategic assets in the continent and not be content with merely technical prescriptions.

Second, responses to violence must similarly address the structural causes, including inequalities and injustices, real or imagined, that provide triggers for chronic violence. These include such issues as constitutional architecture, power sharing, the protection of minorities, and even economic policy, all of which lie traditionally outside the scope of anti-violence advocacy in many countries.

Third, we must recognize the trans-boundary nature of the challenge of violence in Africa and develop more effective mechanisms of regional co-operation and international support in dealing with them. In this connection, African countries must work harder to effectively implement the legal, institutional, and other co-operation arrangements they agreed to in the 1999 Algiers Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism in Africa.

Fourth, the nature of this problem requires advocates for a better continent to expand their thinking beyond their current, rather narrowly defined, issues. It is now essential also to address state capability issues, including the reform and monitoring of the security and intelligence sectors; migration and border security reform; monitoring of militias, vigilante movements, and other non-state actors; as well as livelihood issues, including reform of land tenure and guaranteeing food security.

Fifth, those who wish to set the continent on a path of secure territories and legitimate governance must design responses that reassure communities devastated by violence in countries in which victims have nowhere to go and perpetrators run government and its essential institutions, or are quasi-state actors controlling vast assets and instruments of violence. It is essential to do more than just focus on the rights of accused persons.  

Above all, the search for new and more effective ways to address violence in Africa must engage the attention of everyone interested in advancing the cause of open societies, where all people have the chance to prosper in freedom and safety, especially in Africa. The fate of millions depends on this.

4 Comments

This is compelling. I like the point you make about political dimensions of response and also monitoring militias. Are there groups or people that can do this or train others to do it? I can think of a few groups that will be interested in this. Thank you. Brilliant!

All what is written here is real.............no the solution is......

Thanks for raising the crucial point on the false assumption of state monopoly over legitimate use of force.

Aside from various rebel/non-state movements, there's also a significant role of state outsourcing of the use of force to private companies.

In Nigeria, for example, reporting indicates that there are more private security officers than state police officers (a stat which is also true in the US). And, "mercenaries, inc." have certainly played prominent roles in Equatorial Guinea, South Africa and Sierra Leone. Angolan diamond mining laws grant "security" providers the right to use potentially lethal force to "protect" mines.

There is currently a process under way to develop the previously agreed to International Code of Conduct for Private Security Companies. Unfortunately, the process has suffered from an extreme lack of civil society input, especially from civil society in Africa and MENA, or anywhere outside of US/Europe for that matter. The drafting process for this Code will continue next in a meeting in Montreaux, Switzerland next week.

Especially on the issue of third party complaint mechanisms, civil society from Africa should be included in the conversation.

Thank you Erica. Very important, the points you make about private security providers. In many ways, it illustrates the extent of the state incapacity problem. Security provisioning is probably the most important job the state exists to accomplish. In most African states, the private sector is now the dominant provider and the capacity to regulate them largely is non-existent. They are also into fighting wars as mercenaries. Remember Executive Outcomes (EO), for instance, in the Mano River countries? In many of our countries, these and their operatives can even bear small arms with little or no regulation or consequences. They are also the primary providers of security for many players in the extractives sector. This is why the points you make are quite essential and the capacity to bring these into better regulation is importnat.

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