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African Union

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The United States of Africa

3 July 2007

The United States of Africa

By Gwynne Dyer

“Before you put a roof on a house, you need to build the foundations,” South African President Thabo Mbeki reportedly told diplomats at the summit meeting of the African Union in Ghana last weekend. Others were just as quick to ridicule the summit’s declared goal of creating a unified African government by 2015, and it certainly isn’t going to happen fast. It may never happen at all — but it might, and it would be a very good idea.

“The emergence of such a mighty stabilising force in this strife-torn world should be regarded…not as a shadowy dream of a visionary,” declared Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, almost half a century ago, “but as a practical proposition which the peoples of Africa can and should translate into reality….We must act now. Tomorrow may be too late.”

Nkrumah was pleading for a pan-African government instead of the jigsaw-puzzle of ex-colonies that came into existence as the European imperial powers left Africa. He was asking for the Moon: the independence struggle was waged within the borders of each colony, and the leaders who emerged had their power bases within those borders. Wider unity would have dethroned most of those leaders, so it did not happen. But now the unity project is back.

The African Union was created five years ago out of the wreckage of the discredited Organisation of African Unity with the goal of making Africa’s rulers accountable. Now it is trying to revive the project for real African unity, and there is no shortage of Africans who argue that it is merely a distraction from urgent and concrete problems like Darfur and Zimbabwe. Maybe they are right, but what if those crises are just symptoms of a deeper African problem?

At the time most African countries gained their independence in the 1960s, they had higher average incomes and better public services than most Asian countries. Kenyans lived better than Malaysians; people in the Ivory Coast were richer than South Koreans; Zimbabweans were healthier, longer-lived and better-educated than Chinese. And there were more and worse wars in Asia than in Africa.

Now it’s all dramatically the other way round, but why? Individual Africans are no less intelligent, hard-working or ambitious than individual Asians, so the answer must lie in the system. And the most striking characteristic of that system is the sheer number of independent states within Africa: fifty-three of them, in a continent that has fewer people than either India or China.

This is where the discussion usually veers off into a condemnation of the arbitrary borders drawn by the old colonial powers, which paid little heed to the ethnic ties of the people within them, but that is not the point at all. The point is that at least half of the fifty-three African countries have greater ethnic diversity within their borders than all of China. A few, like Nigeria, approach India in the sheer range and diversity of their languages, religions and ethnic identities.

You CANNOT draw rational borders for Africa that give each ethnic group its own homeland. Even if you refused that privilege to groups of less than half a million people, you’d end up with over 200 countries. So the old Organisation of African Unity decreed that the colonial borders must remain untouchable, because the only alternative seemed to be several generations of separatist ethnic wars.

The problem is that quite a few of the separatist ethnic wars happened anyway, and many other African countries, to avoid that fate, became tyrannies where a “big man” from one of the dominant ethnic groups ruled over the rest by a combination of patronage and violence. Time was wasted, lives were lost, and things went backwards. It was nobody’s fault, but Africa needs to change this system.

There are over two hundred ethnic groups in Africa that have over half a million people, and NONE (except the Arabs of North Africa) that amount to even five percent of the continent’s population. Only three languages — Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Japanese — account for half the population of Asia. Even in Europe, eight languages account for 75 percent of the continent’s population. Africa is different, and maybe the national state (or, rather, the pseudo-national state) is not the answer there.

The African federalists imagine a solution that jumps right over that problem: a single African Union modelled on the European Union, but where no ethnic group is even five percent of the population. Then politics stops being a zero-sum ethnic competition (at least in theory) and starts being about the general welfare. And also, in theory, the continent starts to fulfil its potential.

We will all be a good deal older before the African Union, or whatever it will eventually be called, becomes more than a dream, but in the end it may. As Alpha Oumar Konare, former president of Mali and head of the African Union, said at the start of the summit: “The battle for the United States of Africa is the only one worth fighting for this generation — the only one that can provide the answers to the thousand-and-one problems faced by the populations of Africa.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“The emergence…back”)

No Genocide in Darfur

2 October 2006

No Genocide in Darfur

By Gwynne Dyer

On one issue, at least, George Bush and George Clooney are in perfect accord: what is happening in Darfur is a genocide, and Something Must Be Done. But it isn’t a genocide, and Nothing Will Be Done.

“What you’ll hear is, well, the government of Sudan must invite the United Nations in for us to act,” said President George W. Bush in mid-September. “Well, there are other alternatives, like passing a UN resolution saying we’re coming in with a UN force in order to save lives.” But for all Bush’s tough talk, he wasn’t really ready to fight his way into Darfur, so the actual UN resolution says that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir must approve the force. “Philanthropic imperialism” has a dwindling constituency in Washington.

Actor George Clooney is still up for it, though. If the proposed force of 20,000 UN troops was not in Darfur by the end of September, he told the United Nations Security Council three weeks ago, the scene will be set for “the first genocide of the 21st century.” There would be no point in sending UN troops later: “You will simply need men with shovels and bleached linen and headstones.” As if the UN could actually come up with 20,000 troops to send, and would authorise them to fight their way into Sudan against Bashir’s will.

The end-of-September deadline for putting a 20,000-strong force of United Nations troops into Darfur, including large numbers of soldiers drawn from NATO countries, was always a fantasy. The deadline has passed without any softening of the Sudanese government’s total rejection of the plan, and no Western troops are heading for Sudan any time soon. Instead, the existing force of 7,000 troops from African Union countries that tries to protect the refugee camps, under-equipped and poorly supplied though it is, will stay at least until the end of the year.

This is the best available outcome, and may even save some tens of thousands of lives — especially if the Western countries now give that African Union force the money, fuel, night-flying helicopters and other resources it needs to do the job. It will continue to be grim in Darfur, but at least the West has avoided a military intervention in Africa that would have made the Somalia debacle in 1992-93 look like a success story.

Darfur, the western region of Sudan, is as big as France, but it has only six million people. They are all black Africans and all Muslims, but some were Arabised long ago, while other groups, notably the Zaghawa and the Fur, have retained their original African languages and ethnic identities. (Darfur means “home of the Fur”.) Resources are scarce, and the various groups are often in conflict over them.

Nevertheless, Darfur remained relatively quiet during the dreadful war (two million dead in the past twenty years) between the African ethnic groups of southern Sudan, where most people are Christians or animists, and the Muslims of the Arabised north who dominated Sudan’s government, army and economy. It was the peace settlement between north and south in 2003 that triggered the revolt in Darfur.

That peace deal gave the southern rebels a share in the central government, a half-share of the oil revenues now pouring in from wells that are mostly located in “southern” territory, and the right to a referendum on independence from Sudan in six years’ time. So some leaders of the Zaghawa and the Fur decided to emulate the southerners: launch a revolt in Darfur, and try to cut a similar deal with Khartoum in return for ending it.

The regime in Khartoum used the same tactic that it had employed extensively in the war in the south: it armed and paid Arabised groups (the Janjaweed militia) to fight the rebels. And just as in the south, the bulk of the victims were innocent civilians. A great many people died, and almost half the population fled to refugee camps that sprang up inside Darfur and across the frontier in Chad.

International aid agencies try to care for the refugees and the African Union sent a 7,000-strong force to protect them, but none of the foreigners took sides in the fighting. At peace talks in Abuja last May Khartoum offered the rebels posts in the provincial government and a share of oil revenues, and one rebel group, Minni Minawi’s Sudan Liberation Army, accepted the deal. However, two rival groups didn’t — and even the SLA split, with breakaway factions joining the rejectionists to form the National Redemption Front.

In July fighting resumed, with Minnawi’s SLA now cooperating with government troops and the Janjaweed against the remaining rebels. What is needed is not outside military intervention against either side, but a return to the peace table. Alex de Waal, an advisor to the African Union mediation team at the talks, reckons that another $100 million on the table would probably have persuaded most of the rebel hold-outs to accept the deal.

Darfur is not another Rwanda, another Cambodia, another Holocaust in the making, as the “Never Again” slogans of protesters in the West suggest. It is a cruel war of a kind lamentably common in Africa, and the most useful thing non-Africans can do is to support the African Union’s mediators and its troops on the ground.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“What…will”)

Pandora’s Box in Sudan

13 January 2005

Pandora’s Box in Sudan

By Gwynne Dyer

If the peace agreement signed in Kenya on 10 January really ends the 21-year-old Sudanese civil war, the killing will stop and millions of refugees will be able to go home — but the deal carries a big risk for Africa. As “The Nation” put it in Nairobi: “One of the elements of the settlement is that the south has the right to secede after six years. This is the first time in Africa that a peace settlement has recognised the right to secession.”

That’s not strictly true, since the almost equally long war in Ethiopia ended in the early 90s with independence for Eritrea. But Eritrea could be treated as an exception because it had already been a separate entity in colonial times; the Sudan deal is different. The basic rule that Africa’s old colonial borders must never be changed, adopted by the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) at the dawn of independent Africa, is starting to break down.

The OAU declared Africa’s borders sacrosanct not because they made good sense, but precisely because they didn’t. They were arbitrary lines on maps that bundled peoples of different languages, cultures and religions within the borders of a single state, and divided others between several states. If you let anybody get away with changing just one of those borders, you would be opening Pandora’s Box — because there’s hardly a border anywhere in Africa that somebody couldn’t make a good argument for changing.

Fifty-one African countries (or fifty-two, or fifty-three — it depends how you feel about Somaliland and Western Sahara); around two hundred separate ethno-linguistic groups of more than half a million people each; no more than five or six groups south of the Sahara that number over ten million: Africa is the last place in the world to start trying to draw rational borders. Leave them alone!

That was the rule from the start, and it probably saved millions of African lives over the decades, in wars that were not fought because even if you won them you couldn’t change the borders. Yet the wiser men among the OAU’s founders probably secretly knew that the rule couldn’t last forever. Never mind. It would keep big inter-African wars at bay for at least a generation, and by that time surely economic growth and education would have eroded the old ethnic divisions. With luck, African borders would matter no more than Scandinavian borders by then.

It seemed a plausible hope at the time. Africa’s living standards and education levels were much higher than Asia’s in the 60s, and most people expected the kind of rapid development in Africa that subsequently did happen in Asia. If that had actually come to pass, African borders really wouldn’t matter much by now. But it didn’t happen, so they matter a lot.

The Sudanese peace deal makes good sense from the point of view of the Sudanese. Neither side can win the war, which has killed two million people and displaced another four million in the past two decades, and the country’s oil reserves can only be developed if the two sides stop shooting and share the profits. So President Omar al-Bashir’s regime, which controls the Arabic-speaking, mostly Muslim north of the country, has agreed to share power with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which runs much of the black African, mostly Christian and animist south.

SPLA leader John Garang will become First Vice-President to President Bashir, the two armies will be integrated (in theory, though probably not in practice), and oil revenues, mostly generated in the south, will be evenly shared between north and south. There is even hope that the new, integrated government in Khartoum will take a saner approach to the rebellion in the western region of Darfur.

Khartoum’s current approach, which has been to unleash a brutal militia called the Janjaweed, recruited from Arabic-speaking pastoral tribes in the north of Darfur, to terrorise the more “African” farming communities of southern Darfur from whom the rebels are drawn, has been as vicious as it was ineffective. It has cost 70,000 lives in the past year and made almost 2 million people refugees, and still the rebels have not been defeated.

The rebels in Darfur are trying to emulate the success of the SPLA, but without either oil or religion to strengthen their hand — everybody on both sides in Darfur is Muslim — they stand little chance of success. A less violent approach from Khartoum and some oil money to lubricate a peace deal there could cut the ground right out from under them.

But the price of all this has been that the non-Muslim southerners (around a third of Sudan’s thirty million people) will be able to secede legally in six years’ time if they still want out. The hope is that a share of the oil money will reconcile everybody to a more or less united Sudan, but it’s unlikely that there will be enough money, fairly enough distributed, to transform opinion in the south (which has been separatist since before independence) in only six years.

If the south chooses to become a separate country in 2010, under an agreement and procedures that have the official approval of the African Union, then the rules in Africa would well and truly have changed, and Pandora’s Box would be open at last. This is a very big gamble.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Khartoum’s…them”)

The Next Genocide

8 May 2003

The Next Genocide

By Gwynne Dyer

There may be another genocide coming in Africa, this time in Burundi, and the most frustrating thing about it is that you can’t even pin the blame for it on some monster of wickedness. It’s just the situation.

Burundi got a new president recently. On 30 April Domitien Nzayizeye, a member of the Hutu majority, accepted the presidency from Pierre Buyoya, the Tutsi army officer who has ruled the country since 1996. Former South African president Nelson Mandela showed up in person to bless the transfer of power, and a 3,000-strong force is being sent by the African Union to keep the peace. But there is no peace to keep: last month a hundred rockets rained down on the lakeside capital, Bujumbura, from the hills behind, and the massacres out in the villages continued at about the usual rate.

Burundi has a past only slightly less bloody than its twin to the north, Rwanda, where 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority and Hutus thought to be friendly towards them were slaughtered by a Hutu-led extremist government in 1994. It has exactly the same population mix, and just as in Rwanda the Belgian colonial authorities played a game of divide-and-rule, transforming the traditional patron-client relationship between the pastoral Tutsis and the Hutu farmers into a modern and far nastier system of ethnic privilege. Then they departed, leaving the 15 percent minority of Tutsis in charge of both countries.

There were Hutu rebellions in both countries, but in Burundi the Tutsi, who have a stranglehold on the army, managed to hang onto power. In 1972 Tutsi extremists massacred up to 250,000 Hutus in an attempt to wipe out the entire educated Hutu elite in Burundi, and since then guerilla war has been almost constant in the countryside. The Hutu are filled with mistrust and bitterness, which makes the Tutsi minority all the more reluctant to relinquish power, and even clever people with good intentions cannot break the vicious circle.

Major Pierre Buyoya is such a person, and the coup he carried out in 1987 was meant to solve the problem. He actually gave the country multi-party democracy for a little while, and a Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected president in 1992. But the Hutu guerillas never came in from the hills, the Tutsis never let go of the army — and in 1993 Ndadaye was assassinated by a rebel group of Tutsi paratroopers.

Buyoya managed to stabilise the situation, and another Hutu was elected president of Burundi — but he was almost immediately killed in Rwanda, shot down together with the Rwandan president by a surface-to-air missile. The Rwandan regime blamed the downing of the presidential aircraft on Tutsi rebels and began the great genocide of 1994, but the missile was almost certainly fired by Hutu extremists in the Rwandan army precisely in order to provide a pretext for a massacre of the Tutsis in the country.

Another Hutu, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, became president of Burundi in 1994, but the Hutu guerillas out in the hills saw him as just a Tutsi puppet and escalated their attacks. The Tutsi-run army retaliated with counter-massacres of Hutu villagers, and by 1996 the UN special rapporteur for human rights was talking about a “genocide by attrition” in Burundi — so Buyoya seized power again. He never fully got the army back under control (there were two coup attempts against him in 2001, and village massacres are still commonplace), but he is trying once again to hand over power to the majority.

Buyoya understands that Burundi’s future, and the safety of his own Tutsi people, can only be assured in the long run by a democratic system that grants the majority full rights. His problem with the Hutu presidents he boosted into office in the mid-90s was that he had to choose people moderate enough to escape a veto by the Tutsi army officers, who see themselves as the final bulwark against the kind of genocide that their fellow-Tutsi suffered in Rwanda. Unfortunately, he has the same problem again with Nzayizeye.

Pierre Nkurunziza, leader of the Forces for the Defence of Democracy, the biggest Hutu rebel group, rejects Nzayizeye as a mere Tutsi puppet: “This change is purely cosmetic. How do you expect us to give up ten years of effort for nothing?” The FDD is no longer observing the ceasefire that it signed last December, and insists that it will only suspend its attacks if the Tutsi-dominated army disarms. Given what happened to the Tutsis in Rwanda, that is not going to happen.

Nobody is being unreasonable here. Buyoya is right to keep trying to hand over power to Hutus, and Nkurunziza is right to say that the change is cosmetic so long as the army remains Tutsi. Even the Tutsi army officers are just trying to protect their own people in a terrifying situation they did not create. The new African Union is meeting its first challenge well — but it may all be in vain.

Most rural people in Burundi live in perpetual fear and misery, and the FDD is rapidly re-arming. It may soon be a match for the army in both firepower and discipline. “If the rebels launch a total assault (the Tutsi elite) would be completely cut off from Rwanda and Tanzania,” said a Western analyst based in Bujumbura. “This is the plan. It is a genocidal agenda.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Buyoya…country”;and “Nobody…vain”)