Thursday March 27 2014

Africa is searching for solutions in wrong places

By Bernard Butare

Over the past few decades, the African continent has had more than its share of civil wars and political conflicts. Peace in most of the countries has been fragile and short-lived.

Civil wars keep resuming, because of absence of strategies that address the root cause of the conflicts. This is because there is always a megalomania ego on the part of the political actors involved akin to what is happening in South Sudan between the current president Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar. And here is why.
In most of Africa right from the pre-colonial era, leadership in most societies was shrouded in a mythical notion of the divine power of the king. The king was above everything.

He owned the material resources and the people. Thus the king was the executive head, the legislator, the supreme judge, the commander-in chief of the army, the chief priest or supreme ritual head and even perhaps the principal capitalist of the whole community.

Why people would accept this kind of arrangement, well the simple answer is, because a heavy punishment awaited (read death) if one dared to question the king’s mode of operation.

This arrangement created a patrimonial system which generated rents that accrued to only those who belonged to ‘a small clan’ of leaders - the king’s cronies. The smaller the clan was, the bigger the individual share in rent. Therefore, the clan members got the incentives to erect barriers to the entry into the club.

This was the genesis of the politics of patrimonialism, exclusion and marginalisation that has prevailed even under the post-independence era. This ultimately is the cancer that has eaten up the political structure in Africa.

It is in Africa even today that you often find it hardly possible to separate even in thought, the political office from the ritual or religious office. Like the traditional kings, in most African countries, the president is the commander-in-chief of the army, the appointing authority to political offices, the chief judge, the lord mayor, and controls even the national budget.

This gives him the opportunity to use state power and resources to buy political support by favouring his own ethnic or sectarian groups with political offices, allocate resources to those areas and individuals that seem to favour him politically, use the military to suppress any opposition to the status quo.

Tell me why such a political structure would not be a breeding ground for political conflicts, which in most times escalate into civil wars.
The funny part is when these political wars break out. Politicians and warlords are running around in all the wrong places, searching for wrong solutions. Pointing accusing fingers and embarrassing themselves in front of the least interested people - the international community.

A case in point is the current crisis in South Sudan. Since the war broke out in December, 2013, here at London School of Economics, right in the heart of the city of London, we have had a series of meetings, seeking to ascertain what went wrong, and what could be the likely solution.

As a scholar for the programme for African Leadership, I took keen interest in the meetings and attended all of them religiously. At the back of my mind, however, I kept asking myself how we were going to find a South Sudan solution, in the comfort of Wolfson Lecture theatre at London School. I was right.

All of the three conferences held were no more than the usual comedy that grace your television screens. It was embarrassing to see these leaders tearing themselves apart, blaming each other, in front of a bunch of disinterested white students, twenty thousand miles away from where the problem was.

As always, alongside these South Sudan leaders, were other ‘experts’ on South Sudan, incidentally all of them were British. By the way when I asked one of the experts, when he was last in South Sudan, he told me, he had been in Khartoum in the early 90s, but he was quick to add how he has always followed events in South Sudan. Those are the experts on African issues.

The argument here is, the problem of South Sudan is neither Salva Kiir nor Riek Machar. The problem of Africa as a whole lies in political structures. Illegitimate unequal distribution of State resources and political monopolies are the underlying forces that fuel political violence.

Only by understanding these underlying forces can we construct government structures that sustain peace and political stability. This is all South Sudan needs, and it will not come from Washington, London or even Addis Ababa, the solution lies in Juba.

Mr Butare is a journalist/ scholar at London School of Economics and Political Science