Chaos and African conflict
‘Chaos’ is a word frequently used to describe conflict in Africa, in particular, that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (see this article and this article, for example). But what does this term tell us about a conflict? What images does it conjure up? A look in any dictionary under “chaos” gives us the picture – “a state of utter confusion or disorder”, “a jumble”, “a gaping void”. But is it appropriate to describe any conflict it this way?
Conflicts are social activities – they happen for a reason (or more often, reasons) and they are organized. It doesn’t matter if there are 2 ‘sides’ or 22 ‘sides’ (at varying degrees of cohesion), each group and each actor has its own reasons and motives, be they based on grievance, greed, need, creed or any combination thereof. And each group has its own strategies and tactics. The agendas of many of the players in conflicts are certainly murky, and the more players there are, the more difficult a conflict can be to understand. But do murky agendas and multiple players mean that there is utter confusion and disorder? I think not. It simply means that the conflict is more complex – that the units for analysis are smaller than they might be with other state-on-state conflicts, for example. Labelling a conflict with the term chaos suggests that the conflict has not been understood. But more disturbingly, the term seems to serve as a licence to ignore the conflict in question – a very convenient way to help us wash our hands and turn away (another variation of the ‘chaos’ write-off is the ‘heart of darkness’ line, dealt with in this article).
But washing our hands and turning away is hardly an option when we face the deadliest conflict the world has seen in more than half a century. By this I don’t mean that I am going to proceed to lay down plans for military intervention or major humanitarian airlifts. But if we are capable of demonstrating humanitarian concern for the suffering of people affected by conflict in Israel-Palestine or in Darfur, then we should be capable also of doing so for those suffering in the DRC. That said, actions based on humanitarian concern need to be based on solid knowledge of the situation, otherwise they risk being ineffective, or worse, counterproductive. That is, we need to know more about the conflict and what is behind it.
It was quite disturbing to see the responses to a BBC website debate question asking “Can Congo be saved from crisis?” (issues with the term ‘saved’ can wait for another day). A recurring line of thinking in the comments in the debate (many of which ended up generalizing for the entire African continent, not the DRC) was something like this: Africa is a mess despite having been given their independence and despite having been given so much aid by the West – Africans should be sorting themselves out instead of begging for any more help from the West. It is difficult to know where to begin in a addressing this highly simplistic line of reasoning, but importantly here, the notion that Western actors are detached and disinterested observers that do no more than charitably offer assistance to the often ungrateful needy is something that needs to be addressed. It ignores an incredibly important point – powerful Western actors are key players in the conflict.
Many of the direct belligerents in the conflict in the DRC could be called warlords – controlling a certain geographic area and relying on force and the threat of force to enable the extraction of resources for their own benefit. But warlords need to export the resources they extract and import the weapons they use. Foreign corporations come in here. But foreign players are not merely facilitators. To ensure greater control over and greater profits from resources, foreign players (hiding behind the scenes) involve themselves in the manipulation of politics and the use of force. You might be surprised at how broad and deep the connections are between the plunder of resources, Western corporations, Western policymakers, and even NGOs. Take a look at the articles on the site All Things Pass by Keith Harmon Snow for some very hard-hitting and in-depth analysis on this subject. The notion of chaos serves as an effective smokescreen for this state of affairs.
Complexity also seems to sap us of our humanitarian strength. In an entry in his blog, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof responded to questions on why he chooses to focus more on the conflict in Darfur than on that in the DRC, despite the fact that the conflict in DRC is far deadlier, saying that:
“Congo is essentially a tale of chaos and poverty and civil war. Militias slaughter each other, but it’s not about an ethnic group in the government using its military force to kill other groups. And that is what Darfur has been about …We all have within us a moral compass, and that is moved partly by the level of human suffering. I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur”.
This argument is far from convincing. While it is clearly difficult to measure “human evil”, one wonders why killing because of so-called ethnicity is any worse than killing for any other reason. And how “chaos and poverty and civil war” serve as an explanation in this sense is a little perplexing. Reading between the lines, I would think the difference in response has much to do with the issue of simplicity versus complexity. Darfur came into the spotlight because it was painted with a simplistic brush: bad guys (Arabs) killing innocent victims (blacks) which constituted genocide (the fact that the conflict rose to prominence at the time of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide is no accident). Without such an easy-to-follow storyline, the conflict in the DRC loses its attraction, especially when the storyline has the word chaos attached to it.
But the victims of conflict and their suffering in the DRC are very real. Just because there are more than two groups involved; and just because we cannot easily distinguish groups based on their skin colour, so-called ‘ethnicity’ and/or religion, or come up with notions on how ‘evil’ or ‘good’ an entire group apparently is, this does not make the victims any less deserving.
Conflict in the DRC happens to be by the far the deadliest conflict of our times, so dismissing it as chaotic and writing it off is hardly an option. The conflict is not chaotic, it is complex. Let’s not let something like complexity get in the way of concern. Let us instead work towards getting a clearer picture of what is really going on there.