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The Bad News From Africa
by James Dunnigan
December 10, 2008

Discussion Board on this DLS topic

U.S. intelligence analysis of the situation in Africa are grim. The basic problems are corruption, tribalism and raw materials (from oil to diamonds and minerals) that enable warlords to sustain themselves, and their gun toting followers, for years. Somalia and Congo are the worst examples of this sort of thing. Then there's Sudan, where the government actually supports much of the mayhem. Many countries are seemingly peaceful, but are actually ready to slip into anarchy.

The problems in Africa are pretty basic, but most Western leaders are unwilling to deal with them head on. For example, it's not considered politically correct to talk about tribes anymore. Instead these distinct cultural organizations are referred to as "ethnic groups" (which they often are) or "clans" (which are subsections of tribes). But much of the world's population still owes their primary allegiance to tribal organizations. Africa, South America and parts of Asia are largely tribal areas. Europe still has a few. But the Scots clans are largely just social organizations, although in Eastern Europe you can still find functioning clans.

Over the past few thousand years, tribes evolved (by more powerful tribes conquering weaker ones) into kingdoms, and then, with the addition of robust economies and a lot of bureaucrats, nations. So you tend to find tribes in less affluent parts of the world. The majority of our planet's population is poor. But a third of the world's population is in China and India, two places where the strong tribes long ago conquered all the weaker ones. Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands still have a lot of unconquered tribes.

Tribes tend to fight a lot. Most tribes are agrarian, and there always are disputes over land and crime. Tribes don't have the strong legal systems of kingdoms and nations, so justice is seen as a personal chore. Within tribes, there usually is a system of tribal elders who arbitrate these disputes. But when the disputes are between tribes, arbitration is difficult, usually impossible. Violence and endless blood feuds result.

Africa has the largest number of active tribes on the planet, over 500 at last count. The nations of Africa are artificial creations, put together by European colonial powers in the late 19th century. In the 1950s and 60s, most of these colonies were given their freedom. These new African nations still had their tribes, plus poverty and weak legal systems. The colonial powers enforced peace, often with guns, but also with thousands of bureaucrats imported from Europe. After independence, most of these bureaucrats went home.

The tribal animosities began to emerge very quickly after independence. Most of these nations soon found themselves run by military dictators. It was ugly, but it kept the peace. However, unlike the colonial bureaucrats, the locals were far more corrupt, often because they were intent on taking care of their tribe at the expense of everyone else. The corruption ruined the economy, as well as making most of the population increasingly angry over the poverty and injustice.

When democracy got it's chance again in the late 1990s, it was because Africans realized that, unlike everyone else in the world, their economies had been steadily shrinking through the 1980s. The end of the Cold War also eliminated the ability to play off the superpowers against one another, thus eliminating another source of income. They needed change, but democracy alone was not enough.

With the generals replaced by politicians, tribal violence is on the rise again. A good case in point is Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. Nigeria has some 250 "ethnic groups" (most organized as tribes around shared customs, language and culture) in a population of 122 million.

Pre-colonial tribal warfare is returning. In the past, the various kingdoms that existed before the colonial period had ethnic minorities that were oppressed, and they have not forgotten. It's fashionable to blame all this on the European colonial governments, but the one sub-Saharan nation that was not colonized, Ethiopia, also experiences frequent civil war and rebellion because of its dozen or so different ethnic groups.

No one has yet come up with a quick solution for this problem. Historically, the only thing that works is gradual absorption of many of the smaller groups into the larger ones. This has been going on more rapidly in the last few centuries, making it easier for many stable nations to form. Africans want to hold on to their colonial era borders, even if it means constant threat of unrest. This is preferable to the pre-colonial tribal warfare. But how do you keep the tribes from fighting?

Admitting there is a problem is the first step, and most African nations are doing that. They are stressing the need for national unity. But with corrupt police and civil servants, plus rampant poverty, too many people still have to fall back on the tribe for economic and judicial relief. History provides little comfort. Everywhere else, tribes only faded away after centuries of increasing prosperity and the development of honest and efficient government. Put more simply, the central government had to compete with the tribal organization to provide better living standards and legal systems. This works, it was working during the colonial period. But it only works long term if the locals themselves provide the judges, police, politicians and bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, the tribal violence increases. In the last decade, nearly ten million have died from tribal violence in Africa. Guns won't solve the problem. In fact, the end of the Cold War has brought millions of cheap AK-47s to Africa. This has increased the death toll, as assault rifles can kill a lot more people than the traditional spears and bows. Indeed, previously only the bravest tribal warriors went to war, because it was up close and personal. You had to be tough, experienced and brave. With AK-47s, any kid can become a bad ass, blasting away from a distance. Where in the past women and children generally were spared, now they are the first victims of the AK-47 armed teenagers.

Money alone won't solve the problem of tribal violence, Honest government will. But you can't easily buy that. The locals have to put aside centuries of custom to make government work. That won't happen fast, and when it does, it will take a long time to eliminate the tribal loyalties. Meanwhile, Africa is a grim example of survival of the fittest. Resourceful and ruthless men, abetted by cheap guns and natural resources to plunder, thrive, while proponents of civil society and honest government cower in the shadows.

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