Although there have been major changes in the socioeconomic and geopolitical landscape of Africa, the need for land ownership or control of it has remained the only key constant. Today, as it was in pre-modern history, land is an indispensable commodity for socioeconomic independence and its control remains as contentious as it was back then.
In the past rival ethnic groups fought for territorial control as access to land and resources guaranteed survival. These wars are better understood within the context of the day when the survival of the group was closely tied with that group’s ability to fight and win wars. The absence of recognised boundaries and the nomadic nature of most population groups at the time meant that encroachments into territories inhabited by other groups were inevitable thus were a common source of clashes.
What has changed today? Not much besides that there are now recognised borders separating different countries and formal border controls to monitor the movement of people in and out of the countries. Today Africa boasts of the longest serving elected (used advisedly) leaders. Of the top 10 elected longest serving leaders in the world, 7 are in Africa. This gives an impression of political stability until one learns that Africa also boasts of 4 of the world’s top 10 dictators. Every few years these leaders stage elections whose objective is to justify their continuing reign; votes cast do not always determine political outcomes!
Africa remains a theatre of most civil wars in the world today. Ironically, independence from colonialism has not brought about the desired territorial security within the created modern states as evidenced in Nigeria, Niger, Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to mention but a few countries that have suffered civil war in the recent past or still experience civil war or internal clashes not necessarily amounting to war between rival ethnic groups.
Is it scarcity of resources or hatred that is causing current disputes? I often wonder why much of Africa is characterised by brutal politicians; miscreants who wilfully engage in divisive self-serving politics purposefully built on emotion arousal than reasoned policies. Political functions are dominated by emotionally charged singing and slogans; take the ‘Dubul’ ibhunu!’ (Shoot the Boer!) song by the ANC party members as an example. While the song could be excused during the apartheid context, its continued use now is meant to stir emotion against a specific population group in the country and divert attention from the ANC’s failure to address socioeconomic inequalities.
Hardly does one hear of cordial and constructive exchanges between political rivals; at every level of African politics political opponents are viewed no less than enemies who should be crushed. Is this problem down to bad politics or is it a social construct, a product of generational inward looking socialisation that creates insular communities or simply a genetic misfortune? Is it a problem of socialisation or it is a genetic manifestation? Arguably, Africa’s main source of conflict is (over and above limited resources, political and social injustices) the culture of intolerance. Intolerance manifests itself in many guises that include outright warfare, political violence, attacks on minority communities and ‘weaker’ groups within communities, selective (if not strategic) and unjustified conservatism among other social challenges.
It is particularly disturbing that religion and culture is manipulated to excuse intolerance that translates into bigoted behaviours and attitudes towards practices by a minority but that the majority of people do not wish to subscribe to. Highly significant is the tendency to invoke emotion at the expense of reason whenever sanctions against perceived socially unacceptable deviations from the norm can no longer be objectively justified or sustained. One wonders if most African communities are not only excessively conservative but also emotionally driven by an inherent resistance to negotiated change. Arguably, this portrayal of African society as being highly primitive is nonsensical and is certainly not representative of African people hence is not my perception of Africans.
Indeed the art of negotiation was well established in many African societies as far back as history of settled societies known to humans goes. The ‘indaba’ in the Ndebele society can be easily equated with the jury in the Western judiciary system today. Many major societal decisions were arrived at through a consensus; although dominated by men, the ‘indaba’ was by no means closed to women. This leads me to ask: at which point then did our society come to dispense of its tolerant and accommodating nature?
Strangely, even the idea of suppressing the media that pervades much of Africa today has perhaps no historical equivalent: imbongis (praise poets) who I consider to be an equivalent of modern day media did not necessarily engage on bland effusive praises for the King. The imbongi praised the king, conveyed public feelings towards the leadership, criticised and warned the King, albeit in cleverly coined rhyme.
I believe the invasion of African lands and the use of divisive policies by the manipulative, better armed white people might have further enhanced the already existing mistrust and intolerance among different ethnic groups. Some groups courted or were courted by settlers at the expense of other natives. Favours gained from settlers alienated some ethnic groups from the marginalised groups and the hatred between groups has continued even after the end of colonialism.
To cement their systems, the settler governments had to use pure brute and propaganda that was propagated by the state and willingly disseminated by the partisan media. Legislation and enforcement of repressive laws marked the political landscape of the day. Unsurprisingly, the current African leadership has embraced and perfected most, if not all, of the laws established by oppressive settler regimes. Settler governments were intolerant to dissent, so are current African leaders. In turn the natives vented their resentment to ill-treatment through destructive tendencies (such as destroying dip tanks and schools among other public facilities) and generalised disobedience.
There remains a semblance of mistrust between the state and citizens. Intolerance has remained embedded in African culture and marks people’s response to unpopular actions by both the state and other citizens. Most African states today are not averse to using violence against civilians while civilians see no virtue in restraint. Crucially, the easy availability of weapons, intolerance and the related impatience has substituted the well established traditional methods of conflict resolution.
Africa is by no means a lost cause the problem is that the current African black society still suffers from the famous ‘moral hazard’ phenomenon. Western powers, perhaps out of a sense of historical guilt, tend to accept liability for many social and economic injustices in Africa and throw money into the problems to appease leaders thereby accentuating state corruption and abuse of civilians. If everyone in Africa accepts their responsibility in the dirty politics afflicting the continent then lasting home grown solutions will not be a forlorn hope.