Archive for the history Category

Mauritius and the Chagos Islands

Posted in Africa, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 June, 2012 by Virgil

Live-fire training exercises by US sailors, Diego Garcia. Photo by Michael Thompson (US Pacific Fleet) under a CC Licence

The modern history of the Chagos islands is a thoroughly shameful one. This small archipelago, situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was originally part of what was then the self-governing British colony of Mauritius. Mauritius was convinced to sell these islands to the UK in 1965 under dubious circumstances: the sale was part of the independence negotiations (independence was achieved in 1968) and the prime minister of Mauritius who negotiated the deal was awarded a knighthood soon after the transfer.

The UK subsequently leased the largest island of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the US (who wanted it for a military base) in exchange for a discount on Polaris nuclear missiles. In preparation for the construction of the military base, the UK then proceeded to ethnically cleanse the islands, forcibly removing the entire population and dropping them off unceremoniously in the Seychelles and what was left of Mauritius.

Diego Garcia became an important base for the US, particularly so in the 2000s, when it served as a hub from which long-range bombers attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. The base has been used by the CIA for so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights, and may also have served as a CIA black site prison. In 2010, the UK established a ‘marine protected area’ (the world’s largest) around the archipelago. According to US diplomatic cables made public courtesy of WikiLeaks, this move was specifically designed to prevent former residents from returning (survival for the inhabitants would be difficult if they were prevented from fishing). For the UK, this clever ‘solution’ looked good from any angle: not only would the possibility of return be taken off the table, but US military activities could continue, and ‘points’ for environmental concern could also be scored.

Isolated and unpopulated (or conveniently depopulated) islands are, of course, the ideal springboards from which to project military power in this day and age. There are none of the hassles associated with holding or running a colony, for example, and not only do they make sense in pure military terms (especially if one has long-range bombers), but they also preclude witness or interference by any pesky civilians, journalists or human rights organizations. In the case of populated islands, the consent of inhabitants can, to a degree, be bought, but opposition can still be politically and financially costly, as the US and its generally willing collaborator (the Japanese government) have found, for example, in the use of Okinawa for military bases.

The lease of the Chagos islands to the US expires in 2016, and any possible extension has to be agreed on by December 2014 (the lease allows for a 20-year extension). Crucially, the original terms of purchase of the Chagos islands allow for their return to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for defence purposes. If there is a time for negotiating a return of the islands to Mauritius, it is now. Indeed, the prime ministers of the UK and Mauritius are set to meet next week, and the issue of the Chagos islands is on the agenda.

Mauritius has expressed its intention to have the islands returned, but interestingly, has also made it clear that it does not intend to challenge the continuation of US military activities there. Clearly, allowing the base to remain in Diego Garcia would serve as a considerable financial incentive for the government of Mauritius. But how receptive will the UK be to a call by Mauritius for the return of the islands? Will their response reveal anything about possible plans in the West to bomb Iran? Diego Garcia would undoubtedly serve as one of the key military hubs in the case of any such catastrophe.

There are other deals in play. Mauritius has recently agreed to offer its territory and services for the prosecution and imprisoning of Somali pirates. Was this designed to improve their bargaining position for the return of the Chagos islands? To what degree will any such deals benefit the people of Mauritius and the former (forcibly evicted) inhabitants who wish to return to the Chagos islands (as opposed to a few people holding political power at the top)? Will the end result of all of this simply be a continuation of the same old systems under new management? This is a good time for some hard-hitting media scrutiny on this issue – in the UK, US and Mauritius.

Whose world history?

Posted in academia and conflict, Africa, conflict analysis, Congo, dictators, DRC, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 1 March, 2009 by Virgil

The world’s deadliest conflict of our times – that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is not only being marginalized by the policymakers, the media and the public today, but it is also in danger of being marginalized by the history books of tomorrow. Keep in mind that the conflict in the DRC has involved nine countries over a battlefield the size of Western Europe, and has cost more than 5.4 million lives. Also keep in mind that an estimated 88 percent of the entire world’s conflict-related deaths since the end of the Cold War have occurred in Africa. Then pick up a ‘world’ history book (any will do) and see how much recent history of the DRC or Africa you find in its pages.

Here’s an example: Martin Gilbert’s History of the Twentieth Century. The chapter covering 1990 to 1999 (70 pages) contains 27 paragraphs on conflict and politics in Israel-Palestine, 15 on Kosovo and 11 on Northern Ireland, but only 1 paragraph each on Zaire and the DRC. Incredibly, the book mentions Angola (a conflict that cost as many as 800,000 lives in that period) only with a reference to the visit by Princess Diana of the UK to that country to support de-mining! The conflict itself apparently does not have any historical significance.

Another example is the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (revised and updated), edited by Geoffrey Parker. Looking inside the book reveals a subtitle for the book – The Triumph of the West – and this book indeed represents that very triumph. In the chronology provided in the book, the only African conflicts that have occurred since the end of World War II that can be found are the Algerian War of independence and Somalia’s conflict in the early 1990s. While the world’s deadliest conflicts (most notably those in the DRC, Sudan and Angola) are nowhere to be seen, there are entries instead for much smaller conflicts in Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, Kosovo, Chechnya and Iraq – conflicts involving or of interest to the West. The sudden large-scale invasion of the DRC in 1998 by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, and the counterattack by forces from the DRC, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Sudan and Chad is apparently not worthy of mention, yet the relocation of Osama Bin Laden in 1996 from Sudan to Afghanistan gets its own entry, as does Israel disabling the Syrian early warning defence system in 2007.

Similar Western-centric views of history can also be found in the highly subjective ‘selection’ of dictators. Diane Law’s The World’s Most Evil Dictators is a case in point. The two ‘most evil dictators’ selected for the period after the Cold War are Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe). The selection of Robert Mugabe as a key dictator of the world is an odd one indeed – especially as of 2006, when the book was published. While Mugabe has certainly put a considerable amount of effort into manipulating election results, he at least holds elections – even in the 2008 elections, Mugabe ‘allowed’ himself to lose the first round of the elections. The label ‘dictator’ in this case is stretching the interpretation of the word. There are many world leaders that are far ahead of him in the running for the title of worst dictator. Mugabe’s first major ‘crime’ – the one that set him on the path to high-priority Western target – was his eviction of white farmers. A far milder and low-key place in history is reserved for absolute ‘dictators’ that are Western friendly – in places like Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan, and in African countries with much more questionable democratic credentials than Zimbabwe, and who have sparked so much more violence (see this post).

In many cases it seems that the writers of world history use the term ‘world’ in the same way as Western policymakers use the term ‘international community’ – selectively referring to limited parts of the world in a way that best suits their purposes and subjective perspectives of what, where and who in the world are to be deemed ‘important’.

I invite you to go through other ‘world’ history books that you have (or have access to), count the pages, paragraphs and references devoted to certain world events and certain world leaders to see if the world’s deadliest conflicts are getting the attention they deserve, or if they are in danger of being left out of our accounts of history. Write ups of your findings are welcome at Stealth Conflicts Forum. See the Stealth Conflicts book for a more detailed handling of this subject.

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.


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