Archive for February, 2009

Death toll comparisons

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , on 21 February, 2009 by Virgil

In a previous post, I presented some comparisons of conflict death tolls according to regions, and compared them with media coverage. Here is another set of comparisons to help keep the scale of conflicts throughout the world in perspective.


The death toll from the world’s deadliest conflict of our times – the DRC (5,400,000) – is compared to the death tolls of a number of other better-known conflicts – those in Israel-Palestine (5,000), Kosovo (10,000), Bosnia (60,000) and Darfur (300,000). The square area of each circle is proportionate to the death toll of each conflict.



Death toll comparison: DRC and Israel-Palestine



Death toll comparison: DRC and Kosovo



Death toll comparison: DRC and Bosnia



Death toll comparison: DRC and Darfur



(Death tolls are approximations (see this post) and are calculated as of 2007)

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World conflicts and complete idiots

Posted in academia and conflict, Africa, conflict analysis, Congo, DRC, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 21 February, 2009 by Virgil

I recently had the misfortune to flip through the pages of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Conflicts, by Steven D. Strauss (2nd edition, Penguin, 2006). I realize that the purpose of such a book is to keep things very simple and interesting so that those with little prior knowledge on the subject can understand and remain interested, but things really got out of hand in this book.


With a view to not getting out of hand myself, I will limit myself here to raising two major bones that I have pick with this book. (1) The content is so US/Western-centric that no semblance of proportionality in terms of conflict scale can be found – the ‘fashionable’ conflicts involving and affecting the white and affluent world are given much more space than infinitely larger and deadlier conflicts in the not-so-white and affluent world. And (2), in an effort to keep things interesting, the book goes overboard with references to conflicts as ‘crazy’ incomprehensible things, which seriously hinders understanding of the political and economic factors that are really at the root of these problems.


In terms of the first problem, the first lines of the book quickly lay out the focus of the book. “The world is a crazy place, and it seems to get crazier by the moment. If Islamic extremists aren’t attacking the United States, then the Serbs are attacking Kosovo, the Palestinians and Israelis are killing each other, or Protestants are blowing up Catholics…”. Note the strictly northern hemisphere/white/affluent focus, and note that, relatively speaking, these are all very small conflicts.


The structure of the book is also quite revealing. The opening three chapters set the tone for what is to come: ‘The World at War’, ‘East is East and West is West’, and ‘The War on Terror’. In the pages that follow, individual conflicts that are given their own whole chapter include: Iraq, Kurdistan, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, Russia, Indonesia, India-Pakistan, North-South Korea, China, Colombia, Haiti – anywhere but Africa. Never mind that African conflicts are responsible for almost 90 percent of the world’s conflict-related deaths; these conflicts have to share chapters – Angola (the world’s third deadliest conflict since the end of the Cold War), Rwanda (equal third), Burundi (eighth) and the DRC (the world’s deadliest) are lumped together in the chapter ‘Struggles in Central Africa’, for example.


How about numbers of pages? The Israel-Palestine conflict essentially is given two chapters – ‘The Middle East Mess’ and ‘Israel and Palestine Struggle for Peace’, totalling 26 pages. The chapter on Northern Ireland gets 11.5 pages. That’s roughly equal to the 12 pages that the whole of Central Africa gets (the DRC is given 4.5 pages). Let’s keep things in perspective here; conflict in Northern Ireland has killed fewer than 400 people since the end of the Cold War. Conflicts in central Africa since the end of the Cold war have killed almost 7 million people.


Interestingly, in the section on the DRC, the author mistakenly tells us that “…neither World War I nor II has anything on this war: An estimated four million people died during this five-year conflict. (Yes, you read that right.)” Now in fact, the World Wars were each far deadlier than is the conflict in the DRC (although conflict in the DRC has been called Africa’s First World War). But if the author knows that 4 million people have died in this conflict, and thinks that this makes it deadlier than the World Wars, why would he give 4.5 pages (part of a chapter) to this one and 11.5 (a whole chapter) to a relatively tiny conflict in Northern Ireland?



The frightening thing is, while this book serves as an extreme example, this kind of Western-centric focus (with no regard at all for conflict scale) is by and large representative of what is written in books on the world and its history. Flick through the table of contents of any ‘world’ history book and you’ll get the picture…



In terms of the second problem (references to ‘craziness’), the book appears to be peppered with words and phrases reinforcing the notion that conflict is simply about insanity. The opening line of the book about the world being ‘crazy’ and getting ‘crazier’ is a case in point. It can also be seen in the title of a chapter – ‘Insanity in West Africa’. There are numerous other such references throughout the book. At the end of each chapter, there is a list containing “the least you need to know” about that conflict or set of conflicts. The section for Central Africa gives us such insightful points as: “The Rwandan genocide is unfathomable” (far from telling us something we should know, it seems to be telling us not to even bother trying); “Burundi Hutus and Tutsis also kill each other”; and “The DRC continues to be embroiled in turmoil”.



For a book that one can assume is intended to promote understanding (even in a simple way), it seems to be doing a lot of getting in the way of understanding.


Bookstore browsing

Posted in academia and conflict, Africa, conflict with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 14 February, 2009 by Virgil


I recently spent a considerable amount of time in a number of large bookstores in and around Sydney, Australia. I knew I was expecting too much, but I hoped I might be able to find a few books that would help me learn more about the state of conflict in the world and foreign affairs in general. Instead the exercise turned into another opportunity to learn just how far detached from reality our perspective of the world is.


The political sections of the bookstores I visited reflected an obsession with the issue of terrorism (but only the variety of terrorism that is seen as affecting the West, of course), and with US politics. In terms of the quantity of books, the history sections reflected a similar rather extreme Western-centric perspective. Accounts and analysis of the world’s deadliest conflicts of our time were virtually nowhere to be found, and the African continent was consistently marginalized. Furthermore, considering that in the African history section, so many of the books were either the personal memoirs of white people in Africa (The White Masai, Back from Africa and I dreamed of Africa, for example), the accounts of Western journalists, or the exploits of the Western explorers who ‘discovered’ Africa), there was precious little at all about the modern history of the African continent in any of the bookstores visited.


Here is just a taste of what I found in these bookstores:


In one Borders store, I found 3.5 shelves of books on African history. In the same store, I found 12 shelves on Middle Eastern history, 10 shelves on US history, and 9 shelves on UK history. Western military history was also a major section, with 4 shelves devoted to World War I, 11 shelves to World War II, and 3 shelves to the Vietnam War. That is, there is more information available in this bookstore on World War I alone than there is on the entire history of the African continent. It is also interesting to note that in addition to the large section on World War II, there was a section specifically set aside for the Holocaust – 2 shelves were devoted to books on this subject.


In one Dymocks store, 1.5 shelves were devoted to African history. In comparison, a section devoted specifically to Nazi Germany was given 4 shelves. The subject of Western military history was treated with particular importance in this store, with 4 shelves for World War I, 8 shelves for World War II, 8 shelves for Australian military, 8 more for military affairs in general, 4 shelves on weaponry, and 4 more shelves on the SAS. That is, this bookstore stocks twice as many books on the issue of Special Forces in the military than it does on the entire history of the African continent. The same store stocked more books on the Napoleonic Wars (14) than it did on all of Africa’s conflicts combined (12, including 3 books on Darfur and 3 on Rwanda). In another Dymocks store, there were more books in the Jewish history section than there were on the African history section (that’s before even looking at the Middle East history section).


Among Sydney’s bookstores, Abbey’s bookstore has probably the largest collection of history books, but the trends here were equally disturbing. I found less than 3 shelves on African history. A number of single Western countries each easily outclassed the number of books on Africa here, with 10 shelves on modern Britain alone (that’s apart from the 2 shelves on modern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), and 4 shelves each on modern France, modern Germany and modern Russia. Modern North America was given 12 shelves and the Middle East was given 6 shelves. Interestingly, in the rather limited Africa section, there was more than double the number of books (7) on the crisis in Darfur than those on Zaire/DRC (3, one of which was largely the account of a single person, rather than a history). This is despite the fact that the conflict in Darfur is far smaller in scale and broke out much later than conflict in Zaire/DRC.


Is this all the fault of the academics and writers who, heavily influenced by their Western-centric environment, are simply not writing on subjects that are seen from that perspective as being unimportant, however large in scale or geopolitically significant? Or is it the fault of the publishers and the bookstores which, in chasing sales, are not willing to venture outside the ‘established’ Western-centric perspectives of the world? Whatever the case, with the world’s deadliest conflicts marginalized in the media, in the education system and in the bookstores, the general public really stand little chance of seeing any semblance of balance in the world around them.

Open letter to Stratfor

Posted in conflict, conflict analysis, Congo, DRC, natural resource exploitation with tags , , , , , , , , , on 5 February, 2009 by Virgil

The following is a letter I have just sent to Stratfor, a US-based intelligence corporation that provides analysis on world affairs. Stratfor calls itself “the world leader in global intelligence”. As a paying (although often dissatisfied) customer, I have felt it important to point out what I feel are the problems in Stratfor’s services. My problem is not so much with the quality of the analysis, but more with their choice of issues for analysis. The most obvious problem is obsessive analysis of some popular issues and the marginalization of others that should carry considerable geopolitical value. It is quite disturbing to see that this corporation seems to produce more analysis on Israel-Palestine than it does on the entire African continent, for example. This raises serious doubts about how ‘global’ it is. My previous two letters on similar subjects have gone unanswered, but I thought I’d give it another go. Here is the letter:

To the Africa Experts at Stratfor,

I would like to firstly welcome you all back from your long vacations. I am assuming that you are all on long vacations because of the level of work that is been produced by Stratfor about the African continent.

Unfortunately, the people filling in for you haven’t done a very good job of keeping on top of things. In January, they have managed to come up with a total of just six area-specific analysis articles covering all of Africa. Your colleagues in the Middle East department are blazing ahead – they have come up with 26 analysis articles in January on the Israel-Palestine conflict alone! That’s four times the number of analysis articles on the entire African continent.

To make matters worse, they have completely ignored the dramatic developments in the Great Lakes region of Africa, the hands-down deadliest region of the world, and the source of vast amounts of mineral wealth. The last time Stratfor took the trouble to do an analysis of the DRC was 24 November 2008. Since that time, Uganda and South Sudan have entered the DRC in a joint operation with the Congolese troops against the LRA. A secret deal between the heads of state of the DRC and Rwanda has seen a dramatic turnaround between these former enemies. The CNDP rebels have split, and their leader has been arrested in Rwanda. Their major joint military operation against FDLR rebels is underway, and they are shutting out the UN peacekeepers and humanitarian organizations in the process. This represents a dramatic change in the state of this conflict, and of the geopolitical dynamics of the region. We are seeing alliances that would have been until recently unthinkable. What is really going on there? We continue to await your wise analysis.

One of the few analysis articles written on Africa is on the better-known (more popular) situation in Zimbabwe. To write on Zimbabwe while ignoring the Great Lakes region (especially at a time when there are so many major developments taking place), suggests a serious lack of understanding of the geopolitical significance of the continent. Zimbabwe’s greatest geopolitical asset (what makes it important to the outside world) is really its nuisance value. It has a leader that likes to speak out in English against the West – someone who won’t play ball. He is a leader that people seem to love to hate. But he has little grip over valuable natural resources, or economic and political clout. There is far more at stake in the Great Lakes region. Zimbabwe is a popular choice, but not a very shrewd geopolitical one.

You really do need to get back to your posts, and get up to speed on these and other important issues, and give your customers some serious analysis on what is going on. I realize that everyone needs a break from the daily grind, but I really wonder how long your employer can turn a blind eye to such neglect of this part of the world, particularly given its rising importance to the rest of the world. Just look at your friends in the Middle East department, who seem to be so industrious and motivated. I hope your jobs are not at stake. Your employer certainly is very understanding.

If things keep up like this, though, it will be hard to shake the appearance that Stratfor is really following the ‘fashionable’ crises, rather like the regular mainstream media does. Such an extremely disproportionate view of the geopolitical scene is hardly befitting a supposedly detached and objective intelligence organization. Israel-Palestine certainly has political significance, but to suggest that this very small part of the world is a few times more important than the entire African continent is really stretching things, and cannot be taken seriously.

There are those who would think (even if they don’t admit it) that Africa is just a poor continent full of black people who really don’t matter much in the scheme of things. We know of their resource riches, but as long as their problems don’t adversely affect those of us in the whiter and richer world drilling or mining for them, or buying them at literally give-away prices, then it doesn’t really matter what else goes on there (their problems often conveniently help us to get hold of those resources).

You and I know better, though. Humanitarian notions aside, the USA imports more oil from Africa than it does from the Persian Gulf, and that’s before we even start talking about diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, cassiterite, coltan and all the other treasures there that the rest of the world relies on. I apologize for taking up your valuable time on reading this letter, time that could be spent getting up to speed. I do wish you all the best and look forward to the reinvigoration of the Africa department at Stratfor.


Virgil Hawkins

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