In Africa, does prosperity bring peace? Lessons from Somalia to Mozambique

Tuesday, 5 November 2013
Richard Dowden

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Was Harry Lime, the evil anti-hero of Graham Greene’s novel The Third Man, right? Does human progress require violence and cruelty to drive it? Some argue that the two world wars generated a huge amount of scientific research that gave us the benefits far quicker than peace would have done.

I have always believed (with occasional lapses) that most of Africa’s wars and violent uprisings would produce something better: a more just society, a better understanding between peoples, or a sense of “Never Again” which would drive politicians and communities to make peace, compromise and work together.

Now I’m not so sure. As Egypt’s first-ever elected President goes on trial, the Arab Spring seems to be turning to winter with no summer between. The uprisings were generally  so peaceful that the slide into violence and repression is the most depressing news from Africa this year. Apart from Libya, it is hard to argue that life post-dictatorship has improved for the majority of North Africans.

The African wars of the 1990s were easily explained. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, western countries sought stability and backed pro-western governments almost irrespective of how badly they behaved. Dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko and General Abacha had to do something really evil to illicit criticism. After the Soviet Union collapsed, western countries demanded elections and respect for human rights. No longer protected by Moscow or Washington, one-by-one the dictators fell or fled. But decades of repression followed by vicious structural adjustment programmes led to the collapse of Africa’s economies and the outbreak of civil wars. Twenty-six African countries – impoverished by corruption and bad policy – went through war or violent uprising during that decade.

So what are these new violent outbursts about? I can find little correlation between the economic dynamism and political failure but in the list that follows I have put the latest GDP growth rates after each country. Somalia (growth rate unknown but probably doing better than anyone thinks), has had the first opportunity for peace since the late 1980s. But as soon as a government was established in Mogadishu it started to try to suppress all the other local administrations which were established when the country fell apart.

The Islamic fundamentalists of Al Shabaab have helped keep the country destabilised, but the government also attacks organisations which should be its allies. This week its police violently attacked Radio Shabelle which, over the years, has done a good and brave job keeping Somalis informed. The government claims the building the journalists have occupied for many years belongs to the state. The writers and broadcasters refused to vacate it immediately. The journalists argued that the building was secure and since 10 of their journalists have been killed in Somalia’s disintegration, security is their highest priority.

We are still waiting for the full story of the Westgate Mall terror attack in Kenya (6%) but it is clear that right from the start, key elements of Kenya’s security forces, believed to be among the best in Africa, were worse than useless. Kenya has never had a coup and has avoided foreign war. Unlike its corrupt and violent police force, the Kenyan army had remained generally well-respected. Even when the country exploded following the 2007 election and some 1200 people were killed, the soldiers did not step in.

But Westgate showed Kenya’s security forces were also leaderless as ministers and government spokesmen failed to give clear orders or even information during the siege. Here are some quotes from Joseph Ole Lenku, Kenya’s interior minister:

“All the terrorists were men, except about three women”
“No police officer looted anything from the Mall.  All the goods had been removed by the terrorists by the time we arrived”
“That tunnel was guarded by the police and no one would pass through it. However, we suspect those who were arrested at the airport used it to escape”

“I can’t confirm what I always say” – “No terrorist escaped from the mall, but we arrested some of them at the airport”
”We’re on the final assault. We want to confirm whether the attackers died or they are pretending”
“We’re in control of all the floors – It’s only on the 2nd floor that we’re facing resistance.”
“We managed to kill all the 5 terrorists, they were 15 in number “
“A few gun shots were heard but I confirm that those were popcorns being roasted by onlookers!”

Mr Lenku has held onto his job but 15 lowly immigration officers have been sacked for letting the attackers into Kenya. No minister has resigned. Meanwhile, CCTV footage from that was leaked to the Kenyan media, showed soldiers systematically looting (according to a government spokesman they were taking bottled water for their thirsty companions). The footage was leaked by the security services, the army’s rival, but it was offered at first to a Kenyan TV station for £5,000.

In Uganda (4%), after 27 years of rule President Yoweri Museveni, once regarded as Uganda’s saviour and rebuilder, has pushed through a law making it illegal for three or more people to meet and discuss politics. He also closed The Monitor newspaper for two weeks for accurately quoting one of the country’s former top generals as saying that the President was trying to install his son as his successor. The statement was not news to Ugandans – one of the president’s closest advisors spent a long time trying to persuade me it would be a good idea last year. But the general had to flee to Britain. Once considered another Mandela, Museveni is now more often compared to Idi Amin.

Continuing through East Africa, the politics of Tanzania (7%) are also heating up as the succession battle for the presidency approaches with President Jakaya Kikwete stepping down in 2015. Clashes, which would generally be considered to be most un-Tanzanian, have been taking place and opposition leaders are fearful. Tanzania is also tipped to become one of Africa’s richest states with identified gas deposits that will last decades. Earlier this year the main Swahili paper, Mwananchi, was closed down for 2 weeks for revealing civil servants’ salary scales.

Worst of all in Mozambique (8.4%), Renamo has returned to the bush. This was a pure terrorist movement set up in the 1980s and trained and supplied by the Apartheid Government in South Africa. Its aim: to spread terror and destabilise Mozambique and Zimbabwe’s route to the Indian Ocean. It had no intelligible political programme, but attacked key economic targets and spread panic by spectacular attacks on villages through the late 1980s and early 90s.

I witnessed one village only hours after it had been attacked. I wish I could forget it. Eventually Renamo was brought into the peace process and given seats in parliament. It may have been the only solution at the time but now they are back to their old game, killing random travellers in northern Mozambique to put pressure on the government to give them more perks.

So with the exception of Uganda, all the counties are doing pretty well at the moment and their rising economies should be lifting all boats. So why the violence?

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles published by Portobello Books.