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. 

Takeshi Kuno)
Rebel patrol in Eastern DRC (Photo: Takeshi Kuno)


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.

10 Responses to “Chaos and African conflict”

  1. Thank you for the tip-off Peter. It’s great to see this kind of real-time commentary on the LRA, especially at this time (I have added your page to my links). Can you believe how far off the media radar this issue is? 400 dead in Christmas massacres and it is brushed off, with all eyes focused on Israel-Palestine…

  2. Blog admin Says:

    Hello Virgil,
    Thanks for the thinking.
    Western public opinion is asleep on the role their countries, their businesses, their governments play on wars taking place far away from home. However I am optimistic. Take the Doha Round, for example. A few years ago no one knew how unfair the international trade system can be towards the economies of developing countries. Now, even though it is still a minority, more people know that trade shourld be fairer, that free trade should really be a right for developing countries in order to compete with products coming from developed countries, and that protectionism like the European Agrarian Policy should be buried once and for all. Oxfam has done a huge consciousness raising on this, and little by little we start to see results.
    My point is, little by little a message can pass. Now, little by little, people start talking about coltan, and some join the dots, and say: if they did a Kimberley process for diamonds, why not for coltan? The next step is talking about cassiterite.
    Things go extremely slow, but I try to be optimistic and think that they move (because people move them). The culture Corporate of Social Responsibility (thankfully born and growing) has definitely a big role to play in all this.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I am happy to see you are optimistic, and the Kimberley process does seem to offer some hope. But I fear that coltan and cassiterite will be much more difficult sells. Diamonds made it to the agenda because everybody knows what they are, and because the juxtaposition between diamonds as a symbol of love and the hatred associated with conflict made a strong match. But to get coltan and cassiterite on the radar, people first need to know what they are. Furthermore, because they make up only a component of products (only the solder on circuitboards, for example), and not a single product, public consciousness will be very difficult to mobilize. There were, admittedly, campaigns some years back about coltan (particularly in Belgium), like ‘No blood on my mobile phone’, or ‘Gorilla-friendly mobile phones’ (never mind the millions of humans!), and I think they had some effect. And as you mention, something is happening with corporate social responsibility. If people can spend less time watching TV news and reading newspapers, and get more news from a variety of sources from the internet, things might take hold…

  4. 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

    Nicholas Kristof is such a boob, I cannot stand his simple-minded nonsense. Apparently, Kristoff is entirely unaware that, like the DRC, southern Sudan and Dafur are repositories of vast mineral wealth — oil. The Chinese back Khartoum for access to oil coming out of Sudan. China receives 15% of its oil imports from Sudan, which is almost 60% of Sudan’s exports.

    Newly discovered oil fields, announced in 2004, were preceded by a drive to boot civilians off the new oil leases in Darfur, which China owned (see this map). The US backs rebel groups like the SPLA in support of their separatist ambitions for obvious reasons, much as the US is backing the Rwanda-led insurrection against Chinese influence in Congo.

    Kristof is a tool, perhaps unwitting, of the imperial imperative. That he doesn’t know these basic facts about Darfur ought to embarrass him to no end.

  5. I think Kristof is a salesman of humanitarian indignation. He looks for a ‘story’ that can be shaped into a pure and simple ‘good versus evil’ drama with only two characters: the evil villain and the innocent victim, with a third possibly in the wings (the Western hero). Any complexity (in terms of extra players and underlying issues) beyond that and the story will be difficult to sell. Getting into the dirty geopolitics, motives and connections behind the humanitarian tragedy are going to take the shine off his product (people will be turned off and their sympathy and fixation on the issue will wane), so they are best left out of the mix. I think he sees his role as simply whipping up mass support for humanitarian tragedies by evoking simple human sympathy, and the informed are not his target audience.

  6. the informed are not his target audience.

    Ha! Boy, you nailed that. Nor is it of the corporate media in general. “Informed” is not their mission and they certainly do not brook criticism of US foreign policy as a source of conflict. US corporate media maintains the bubble of ignorance within the mainland shores because if most Americans knew what was really going on, the jig might be up. The US is always the agent of freedom, despite a long and inglorious history to the contrary.

  7. With everyone so heavily indoctrinated with nationalism/patriotism, people get very uncomfortable at the notion that ‘we’ may be the ‘bad guy’ in something. Believing that ‘your’ nation is ‘good’ seems to be part of one’s self esteem. Keeping people believing in this notion is part of the corporate media’s role – patriotism sells, and attacks on this notion is a major turnoff (and source of anger) for believers (and because the media is in so tight with the corporations and governments involved in all of this dirty business). This chatting with you is leading me to write another post…

  8. the media is in so tight with the corporations and governments involved in all of this dirty business

    Let us never loose sight of the fact that the media are corporations themselves, whose profits — advertising — rely directly on the profitability of many other large corporations. Therefore, they have a vested interest in protecting the interests of their “clients.”

    Take a recent example: Disney/ABC recently refused to air an advertisement by the Alliance for Climate Protection — an ad for clean energy — which directly criticized oil companies:

    “… Big Oil spends hundreds of millions of dollars to block clean energy. Lobbyists, ads, even scandals, all to increase their profits, while America suffers. Breaking Big Oil’s lock on our government: now that’s change.”

    Big Oil (Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell) advertises heavily on the major television networks and ABC’s refusal to air the advertisement is clear evidence that they will not allow criticism of one of their revenue streams. The will be true for anyone wanting to buy airtime criticizing any other major corporation. They will even suppress news about criminal or even suspect corporate activity when it involves a paying customer. The Fox News – Monsanto scandal is prima facie evidence of this kind of corporate conspiracy.

    Furthermore, a Project Censored paper documented the fact that major DoD contractors have executives that sit on the boards of directors of many major media corporations. DoD contractor GE, of course, owns NBC.

    William Kennard: Carlyle Group — New York Times
    Douglas Warner III: Becthel — NBC
    John Bryson: Halliburton — Disney/ABC
    Douglas McCorkindale: Lockheed Martin — Gannett (USA Today)

    There is no separation here. The media are the corporations, and vice versa.

    If you have never seen the documentary, The Corporation, I highly recommend it; a devastating critique and must see tv.

  9. Thanks for the info, Ken. You are indeed correct – “There is no separation here. The media are the corporations, and vice versa”. Have you taken a look at the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)? They have an interesting page on interlocking directorates:

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