New African Conflicts are Predictable and Preventable

Image: Flickr, waf1on1
Image: Flickr, waf1on1

Recent history shows that proactive diplomacy can save lives, economies and continental reputation. Long-serving rulers bottle up political tensions and resist predictable power transfers, which means the death of aging autocrats ought to bring active African diplomacy to ensure stable elections and transfers of power.

Africa’s longest serving ruler, Omar Bongo is dead at 73. It is a moment not for sentimental retrospectives on a noble career, but time to brace for political instability, demands for external mediation, and disputed elections.

Africa and the world have long professed to want an early warning system to help head off crises. If the last six decades should have taught us anything it is that the death of long-serving rulers almost always brings crisis in Africa.

Bongo acceded to office in 1967 and has largely avoided instability since then. But the absence of conflict or even prosperity during a long reign is no guarantee of a stable transfer of power. Lest we forget, Ivory Coast had been hailed as the success story of West Africa during the three decade rule of Houphouët-Boigny, but his 1993 death led to an attempted coup, ethnic violence, crass political attempts to disenfranchise voters and candidates of supposed foreign origin, a successful coup and eventually a civil war that destroyed much of the country’s economic infrastructure and led to the exodus of business.

Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who seized power in a 1967 coup in Togo, died in 2005, sparking conflict over the appointment of his son as head of state. Succession sparked conflict in the Central African Republic, which has never recovered its stability. In Guinea, where Lansana Conté died in December 2008  after 24 years in power, a coup d’état was announced six hours after the president’s death. Neighbouring Guinea-Bissau has never mastered the art of the peaceful transition. Since its first multiparty elections in 1994, it has suffered a civil war (1998), a coup (2003), a military mutiny (2004), and in March the president was assassinated the day after the army chief was blown up.

In Democratic Republic of Congo, where Mobutu Sese Seko ruled for three decades and today the world spends billions to police the aftermath with peacekeeping forces. As he weakened with prostate cancer in his final years, chaos expanded into civil war that drew in armies from seven countries and further destabilised neighbouring Central African Republic. The same pattern played out in former Soviet republics and the former Yugoslavia, where the death of a strongman brought chaos, genocide and bloody battles of neighbour against neighbour.

What are the lessons in this? The longer heads of state serve, the more they bottle up the natural political ambition of those below. Allies of the president become more adept at manipulating the system and his need for loyalty to shift resources away from public purposes to private gains. Problems and resentments fester in proportion the leaders’ length in office. Thus it is fair to assume any time a long-serving leader dies, the political response will be like a dam breaking. Political pressures long held in check will vent, particularly when leaders have actively avoided settling the succession issue before their departure, as Mobutu, Houphouët-Boigny, Conté and Eyadéma all did.

Trying to settle conflict by rushing to elections is no guarantee of peace if the elections are disputed and underlying tensions are left unresolved. Half the wars on this continent are sparked by election related disputes. The best predictor of civil war is having had one in the recent past. Half of all conflicts recur within a decade. One major reason is the underlying problems are not solved.

African and international diplomats follow a familiar pattern. First they look at their shoes and try to avoid noticing the brewing disaster. When bloodshed comes, diplomats ask for a ceasefire, put forward a plan for elections, then as swiftly as possible withdraw, hoping or assuming that the holding of elections settles all. With every crisis there have been myriad warning signs but we choose to ignore them – like the attacks on politicians in Lesotho recently, or the large scale violence in the runup to elections in Kenya in 1992, 1997 and 2007. Each time the unresolved tension from the last round justifies or is utilised by political forces to stoke more violence.

The African Peer Review Mechanism predicted trouble for Kenya and recommended changes but the leaders of the APRM and heads of state did nothing in the face of the violence and what can only be described as a stolen election.

The APRM and the African Union Peace and Security Council have the authority to intervene and if they were wise and courageous they would use it now to immediately send a heavy-weight delegation to Gabon. It should not wait for the jockeying for position to turn nasty. Rather, Africa should send a team that spends intensive time with the prime minister, political parties, and the military. It should declare publicly its intention to supervise the transition and ensure that there is a fair, peaceful and constitutional transfer of power, with political overtures made to diffuse any tensions lingering in society. Such a pre-emptive strike might raise eyebrows but it can do a great deal reduce the risk of conflict. If it averts an armed struggle, it will be the best investment anyone could make.

The same pro-active diplomatic strategy needs to be applied now to Guinea-Bissau, to Madagascar (which narrowly avoided a wider conflict but remains riven by protest and unresolved grievance), to Lesotho and although it has fallen out of the headlines, to Kenya. Nothing is more certain than the fact that the crises in these spots will flare up again without thoughtful, forceful and activist pressure from the continent.

What other hot-spots seem likely to follow the pattern? Watch Cameroon, where Paul Biya has ruled one of the world’s most corrupt regimes since 1982; Equitorial Guinea, where Teodoro Obiang Nguema has ruled since 1979; Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak has ruled since 1981; and Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi is now the longest serving head of state, having seized power in 1969.

We don’t need expensive computers, databases and analysts to give ourselves early warning of crisis. We just have to use common sense and look at the patterns of recent history. Stock diplomatic and conflict resolution approaches are too timid. Every war that erupts because of a badly managed transition will carry on precipitating conflict, political instability and economic decline for years to come. Now is the time to learn that lesson.

9 Jun 2009
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