Saturday January 18 2014

What really ails African states?

By David F. K. Mpanga

The ongoing troubles in Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic have provoked a lot of horror and hand wringing in the region. In private exchanges people are wondering what the solution for these latest outbreaks of violence can be. Some people I have spoken to have decried the absence of bold, enlightened and ethical leadership. Some have decried the alleged African tendency to “tribalism”, sectarianism, nepotism and corruption.

Others suggested that these things should be left to play themselves out because, to quote one interlocutor, “state building is not like Lego”. According to the latter argument apparently South Sudan and the Central African Republic are simply experiencing growing pains that should be allowed to continue so as to let order prevail, eventually. One particular interlocutor, stridently told everybody off, for assuming that we know anything about Southern Sudan or the Central African Republic and attempting to recommend solutions based on information gleaned from the BBC.

Thinking over this matter brought three quotations to mind. The first quotation is by Jean Monnet, a French civil servant, who although hardly famous, was the person who came up with the idea of the European Coal and Steel Union, which eventually morphed into the European Union that we know today. Faced with the prospect of Europe returning to war in 1950, so soon after the end of World War II, Monnet came upon the idea that saw the establishment of supranational institutions to regulate the sharing of the essential resources – initially coal and steel – so as to avoid the sharp contestations that used to cause European nations to go to war.

Tasked with explaining how he came up with this obtuse but effective solution, Monsieur Monnet said, “I had come to see that it was often useless to make a frontal attack on problems, since they have not arisen by themselves, but are a product of circumstances. Only by modifying the circumstances – ‘lateral thinking’- can one disperse the difficulties that they create. So instead of wearing myself out on the hard core of resistance, I had become accustomed to seeking out and trying to change whatever element in its environment was causing the block.”

The second quotation is by the scientific genius, Albert Einstein who said, in relation to scientific thought that; “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” The third quotation is also by Einstein, “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Although Monnet and Einstein were speaking in completely different contexts they both came up with observations that are as simple as they are true. Problems are not solved by running head on into them and nor does a bad or ineffective solution become any better with repeated application. To solve a significant problem, you must think above, below or around it. This means that you must make an honest and unbiased assessment of the true nature and extent of the problem. Then to identify the right solution, you must be willing to learn the lessons of failed solutions.

So turning to the matter at hand, let us pause here to ask ourselves some searching questions. What ails Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic? Can it be that the people of those lands are genetically predisposed to senseless violence? Is it really just about Dinka versus Nuer in South Sudan or Christian versus Muslim in the Central African Republic? Can the violence and instability that we are witnessing in South Sudan and the Central African Republic be taken as an exception, geographically and historically speaking, or should we look at these two states as simply the latest manifestation of a wider and longer lasting pattern?

Do the problems of conflict in Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic have any factors in common with those of, say, Somalia, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Congo Brazzaville? Bearing in mind the saying that peace is more than just the absence of war, how do the other states of Africa compare to South Sudan and the Central African Republic?

Then turning to the proposed solutions, will the conflicts be meaningfully resolved by the deployment of peace keeping troops coupled with a power sharing deal between the contesting elites? Do power sharing arrangements and foreign backed peace deals ever create real peace or do they simply postpone the fighting to a later date? I do not ordinarily write this column in instalments but I wish to make an exception to that rule this week for an important reason. Lateral thinking, requires space and also takes some time.

We must all research, to avoid our discourse being a mere rearrangement and regurgitation of our prejudices. Research too takes time. So I propose to take some time out to ponder and to return next week to discuss the true nature of the problem as well as to posit a proposed solution.
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