Chapter 8: Displacement and Disruption

Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.

Edmund Burke, 1790

Between 1957 and 1980, most of a continent which had been arbitrarily carved up between European powers in a dash for empire (sometimes commercially inspired, but often just a bewilderingly flippant imperial adventure) gained its independence. A multitude of new states emerged on the international scene. This was the last flick in the tail of formal colonialism. The manner of its going was such that it left a fragmented map of Africa where few states were viable entities. National boundaries played havoc with ethnic loyalties and created dozens of mini­ states, in terms of population if not always of land area, which are not viable economically let alone politically.

The reaction of the newly independent African governments to the poor political hand they have been dealt was to decide that for better or worse the national borders they inherited should remain sacrosanct. The greatest success of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has been its members ‘ respect for each other’s national borders. There have been countless ethnic imperatives for countries to grab at chunks of their neighbour’s territory just to reunite groups split by frontiers. These have, almost all, been resisted. If they had not, the new map of Africa might have quickly unravelled. The importance of this achievement cannot be over-emphasized.

However, the price has been instability within states because ethnic minorities have had inadequate political outlet. Those groups on a state’s periphery, which feel that they should have had a political entity of their own or been part of a neighbouring country’s territory because of their shared links of kin, have been left out. Now some such groups are seeking change through the gun and this has become bound up with the famine. A civil war does not provide the best environment for farming!

African governments are quick to point out the imperfections of the state framework they have inherited and rightly place the blame on colonial powers. But they then choose to live rigidly by the very principle, that of the formal state structure, whose imperfections they blame on others. Whatever the political justice for this, closer attention should be paid to the humanitarian con­ sequences.

Another consequence of the uncertain political climate is an African arms race. Africa’s spending is minute compared to the more than $2 billion a day that the world as a whole spends on armaments. But as figure II shows, spending is increasing, and given the low volume of public spending (a problem common to most developing countries) it occupies a disproportionately high place in government expenditure.

It might be added that many of the major aid donors are also arms suppliers. And although to some extent these activities are coincidental, arms and aid are seen as two aspects of building strategic alliances on the continent. Responsibility for the African arms race is not Africa’s alone.

Although development assistance is intended for non­military projects, there is the question of what is euphemistically termed ‘fungibility’. This is the tendency of aid, which is provided in the form of foreign currency, to drift away from the projects for which it was intended to ones the government itself ascribes a higher priority to, but cannot find external funds for. Top of the list is often arms purchases. The donor, once funds have been handed over to a government, can only monitor the progress of the actual project, not what happens to the actual funds transferred. The fate of the cash once it has passed into the national treasury is unclear. While arms remain such a pressing priority, it is not unreasonable to assume that some portion of aid ends up financing such purchases. Even when the aid is used on the intended non-military project, it may have the effect of enabling a government to free scarce resources of its own for arms which it would not otherwise have been able to afford.

So Africa, fragmented into states struggling to achieve viability, is overwhelmed partly as a consequence of this by massive migrations of people; and is shackled by governments which respond to the fragility of their authority by investing in guns.

Providing a protective shell against cross-border military actions should not allow the doctrine of national sovereignty to block the evolution of more meaningful forms of political association. Nor should it be a bar to humanitarian interventions across national borders. Men carrying grain rather than guns must be allowed across borders. Just as the Red Cross has had medical rights in war, there is now a need for a humanitarian right of access and’ protection where formal authority is so muddled. Where ancient ethnic rights go unprotected and unrepresented in very young nation states, humanitarian considerations should prevail over sovereign prerogatives and political considerations.

The present massive migratory movements in Africa have been triggered by crop failure, environmental deterioration, exclusion from what support the state can provide and, in some cases, active persecution. Add to this increased instability from local insurrections and the reasons for flight become pressing as well as multiple. The effects could be mitigated, as we have argued, if humanitarian intervention at source were possible before such factors come together and force large numbers of people to move.

In Sudan alone there are more than 100,000 Chadians, 700,000 Ethiopians and 250,000 Ugandans. There are also Ethiopians in Somalia, and Sudanese and Somalis in Ethiopia. There are massive migratory movements as lands fail to hold populations in the Sahel states as well as smaller inter-state movements in Southern Africa. And above all there are massive internal movements of people within states which are not reflected in any refugee statistics. The United Nations estimates that the present crisis has created some ten million migrants.

African governments’ collective attitude to the continent’s refugees has gone through three phases. In the first heady days of independence, the states producing refugees were still those in the grip of white colonialism. Providing sanctuary to refugees from South Africa or Namibia united rather than divided independent Africa. In fact on the crest of this wave in 1969, Africa adopted the OAU Refugee Convention which remains a model of enlightened commitment to refugee rights.

But by the early 1980s, after the repatriation of refugees to an independent Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, etc, refugees from white colonialism amounted to only about 5 per cent of Africa’s caseload. Instead, the most lasting colonial legacy showed up in a second generation of refugee flows; those caused by state borders and new governments trying to impose their authority. Now without the universally acceptable scapegoat of colonialism ­ refugees became a source of friction rather than unity. This was, and remains, particularly true in the Horn of Africa where the relations of Sudan and Somalia with Ethiopia have become bound up with the refugee flows.

By 1984, hardening attitudes, less generous asylum and even refoulements – the forced return of refugees against their will to their home countries – had become common­ place in some parts of Africa. Then the drought hit and political refugee flows became overlaid by the much larger migrations of drought victims. With this have returned more generous attitudes in the receiving countries towards the victims. A drought victim is a less contentious figure than a refugee.

But can the international community turn this to advantage, and demand, even where political and military factors are as much in the ascendant as is the case in several of the present migratory flows in Africa, that on humanitarian grounds it be allowed to intervene and bring in aid to affected populations? Where the land can support them, people can be best helped to get back on their feet and regain self-sufficiency if they are aided in the home area rather than in distant relief camps. If left to migrate to such camps they fall into total dependency on outside help.

A major force for migration is population growth. In an under-populated continent, too many people are crowded on to parched, deteriorating land. Our map V shows where population is crowded too tightly and where there is room for expansion. It is a not unreasonable guess that in time demographic pressures will cause a massive human break· out through the borders of the present state grid. The present uneven distribution cannot last.

But with their difficulty in managing the present migrations, the prospect of African governments and the international community responding effectively to much bigger flows is not promising.

Not only have new nation state frontiers disrupted traditional nomadic migration, but they now prevent much more major movements as a logical response to environmental reality. There are strong pressures for massive population relocation. The great rain forests of Zaire and the underpopulated Congo, Ivory Coast and Gabon offer space for the hard-pressed nomads and farmers perched on the ever-encroaching desert frontier of the Sahara. Gabon has the land to support a population twenty times its present size. No doubt such population movements will export their fair share of environmental ruin with them, as tropical forests are savaged by unplanned settlement by people unused to such a terrain and not understanding the fragility of the soil base.

Almost certainly it will be people who will take the initiative to move and governments and political structures will have to follow as best they can. Government-organized migrations have a mixed record. The two most well-known current examples are in Brazil and Indonesia. Both are expensive and have a high failure rate. People drift back to where they came from.

In the past in Africa settlement schemes for drought victims, such as in Somalia, have mostly been expensive failures. The only ambitious scheme to have come out of the present drought so far is in Ethiopia. The government plans to move 1.2 million people in the next few years. Yet, however sound their reasons for doing so on environmental grounds, they do not enjoy sufficient political trust amongst many of those they are moving to make it work. Nor is it likely that they can find the funds to organize adequate facilities at the new sites.

It is more probable that population movements away from the encroaching deserts will be spontaneous and not enjoy official support. They have already started. In Sudan several million people have moved away from the arid and semi-arid areas of the west. In Mali there has been massive migration. Where the movement of those in the Sahel states will stop is still unclear. But it is probable that they will continue to seek new homes away from the threat of the desert. A sudden burst of good rain would probably no longer reverse the trend. The migrants can only go back to pick up a precarious, and in the end unsustainable life, on the encroaching desert so many times before despair sets in. There are too many people scratching a living off poor lands while elsewhere virgin lands tempt immigration. Such movements of people will be one more pressure on Africa’s over-stretched governments. Unless the process is properly managed, it could cause many political and ecological problems.