14
Mar
10

jeffrey gettleman’s article about conflict in africa

Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote this article in the March/April issue of ‘Foreign Policy’ (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/02/22/africas_forever_wars?page=0,0) about the trajectory of conflict in Africa.

I have so many problems with this article, least of all because it is irresponsible to portray Africa as an endless and lawless battlefield. The article seems to rest on a primary assumption about the connection between soldiers and statesmen that renders it immediately untenable. Gettleman seems to be saying that because today’s soldiers are no longer interested in becoming presidents and ministers, conflict will continue, as long as the rebels do not formulate longer-term military and political objectives. Is it really possible to stretch a link from field-based military objectives (or lack of) to ideas about post-conflict governance? Meaning rebels of our nostalgic yesteryears with more “class” are supposedly better administrators because they were fighting for clear ideas, like independence?  The Zimbabwean independence movement sounded pretty classy, but how did that work out? The Zimbabwe situation may not involve “forever” conflict, but it has been a pretty long history of oppression and suffering.

The examples Gettleman cites to support his claims don’t add up for me. The photo at the top of the article, for all I know, could be of rebels from eastern Chad. In the last five years, they have made at least two attempts in jeeps to cross the width of Chad to sack the capital. Burundi, where I am based, just saw the last rebel group come into the fold after negotiating for ministry slots and a place in this summer’s upcoming elections. What the heck is Gettelman talking about? And what does he mean by “un-war”?? Wouldn’t that be peace? He may be better off defining ‘war’ first before he un-does anything.

I liked that he mentioned the “well-educated” John Garang though. Garang attended Grinnell College for a while before returning to South Sudan. It’s enriching to know my alma mater produces clear-headed charismatic rebel leaders with ideas!

Let’s take an example closer to Gettleman’s purview. He covered the Nkunda story personally. I thought his articles highlighted Nkunda’s well-structured political vision of governance, the CNDP’s attempts to win over the populace in order to consolidate their control over vast swathes of territory. Isn’t that a clear sign of a political agenda? At the least, it’s a first step to destabilizing a national government that sits on the other coast. Who knows where Nkunda was headed? So is Gettleman really saying that rebel leaders are not politically-motivated or not politically ambitious?

One other Congo-related point – is he equating Mobutu with a functional state? Does Mobutu fall into his category of “classy” leaders who knew how to govern?

The golden era of Congolese statehood that Gettleman alludes to never existed. Mobutu’s ascension was framed by the U.N.’s first peacekeeping mission in the Congo (50+ years!), a secession of an entire province, the murder of a legitimately elected leader and international actors playing out a proxy war with boatloads of foreign currencies.

This article is just not very well reasoned and each case example is underpinned by Gettleman’s own intervention, whether meeting Nkunda or olive oil merchants in Somalia. I take especial issue with his thought that conflict in Africa is moving toward the intractable fighting we see in Somalia. All over Africa, regional alliances are being created that increase cross-border investment in both the politics and the economics of neighboring countries. It is in this context that Burundi was able to achieve a peace accord with support (and pressure) from its east African neighbors. Somalia only has neighbors that aggravate the situation and little political will from within. It appears to be an isolated case, on several levels, rather than a harbinger of Africa’s future.

I think what Gettleman dances around but can’t outright say is that while creating a state is a legitimate goal, there are some really awful governments out there right now that were created by more structured independence movements. State institutions and the structures for good governance are not yet strong enough in the countries he’s named, and war is one of those things that would be somewhat regulated by a functional state. How the U.S. prosecutes its wars in Iraq or in Afghanistan and how it deals with their consequences in being able to demand accountability is an indication of its government’s institutional health.

It is not that this generation of rebels (god, I feel like I’m talking about disaffected ruffian youths of the newest generation of whatever era – very paternalistic) is aimless or moribund or not goal-driven – it’s that they probably recognize that existing state structures are not worth their effort. The decision to not control all the functions of government but only those nodes of power that distribute resources and benefits – that seems like a very calculated political move to me. The groups named may not be rebelling against current governments, but they are rebelling against the establishment with the caveat that in this case, the establishment can’t even provide clean water, reliable electricity or basic medical services. Who would want to take over something like that? The best rebellion in this case would be to stay out of the mess. Government is not considered a “necessary evil” here but an unnecessary good in the pursuit of happiness.

This article reads like another desperate effort of someone who’s been too close up to the violence to make sense in the face of a rationality that is not based on Western traditions or assumptions. Gettleman is the New York Times bureau chief for 12 countries. Are there any 12 countries in any region of the world where one can reliably extrapolate overall trends about political motivations, demographics, resource management, etc etc?

Perhaps Gettleman’s own coverage that is heavy on sensation and anecdotes gives greater impetus to these rebel leaders to grab the spotlight. Maybe his hypermedia coverage narrows his vision and he doesn’t see that political objectives take years, even decades to formulate, modify and achieve. Just because he didn’t understand each groups’ motivations in a couple weeks for what they might want to do with a territory as large as the Congo doesn’t mean clear objectives don’t exist. I don’t mean to berate Gettleman’s efforts to provide informative coverage of Africa, especially in the Great Lakes region where I am based. He is at least doing his part to learn more and to be informative. Having been here for a speck of two years, I can certainly appreciate the challenge of obtaining reliable data and constructing straightforward political narratives. This blog avoids more in-depth discussions for that very reason – the information would not be reliable or theoretically sound (and I’m strongly considering journalism school!). But this article does not really address endless conflict in Africa, it only follows an endless line of irresponsible journalism about “Africa”, not African nations.

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