Each year, violent communal conflict between groups is witnessed in a number of African countries. It is often organised along identity lines. The fights are typically over local territory, natural resources or political power. Although they usually remain localised and aren’t directed against the central state, these conflicts are a major threat to human security and development.
In 2018, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program recorded 30 in Africa. The programme collects and distributes systematic information on violent conflicts worldwide. The affected states in Africa included Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia and Libya. In the most destructive, fighting between the Banunu and Batende communities in the Mai-Ndombe province of the DRC resulted in around 900 casualties.
In other cases, less intensive sporadic clashes resulted in lower death tolls but nevertheless destabilised large regions. The conflicts disrupted livelihoods and created acute insecurity for local residents.
Communal conflicts, such as pastoralist violence and conflicts between indigene and settler communities, are often portrayed as ‘traditional’ and associated with areas beyond the state’s control. But my research shows that in fact they tend to be deeply intertwined with national politics.
State policies and electoral campaigning politicise group identities and shape the incentives for violence. In addition, ethnic ties between executive politicians and groups in conflict affect how the central government responds when a conflict erupts. So do state interests in natural resources or other assets.
My research suggests that governments need to support legitimate local peace initiatives. They also need to ensure equal provision of security and other services to citizens to mitigate communal violence.
Governments and communal conflicts
Recent research has shed new light on how bad governance and political manoeuvring increases the risk of communal violence. For instance, politicians may exploit and provoke animosities along ethnic or other identity lines to mobilise political support. Or intergroup hatred is fuelled because certain groups gain preferential access to state resources and economic opportunities.
In other situations the failure to provide services, including security, to certain regions increases the risk that local communities take up arms to fight over control of scarce resources.
A common characteristic of communal conflicts is that ethnic or tribal identity is closely intertwined with land control as well as political power and access to rights and opportunities. These dynamics are not only present in rural areas, but also in Africa’s rapidly growing cities.
A case in point is the Nubian community in Kibera, Nairobi. Unlike most of Kenya’s recognised tribes, the Nubians lack a rural homeland.
As a result they have been seeking recognition as Kibera’s original settlers. But this has put them in conflict with other communities living in Kibera. During political campaigns, politicians have exacerbated these conflicts by appealing to one or the other side in order to gain votes.
In turn, the government’s role in relation to the conflict parties also affects prospects for addressing and resolving conflict. My research has focused on the effects of bias. These are cases where one of the groups in a conflict has close ties with those in power at the national level, or where the government for other strategic reasons favours one side in the conflict.
Such bias can, for instance, affect whether or not the government chooses to intervene. In a study covering sub-Saharan Africa from 1989 to 2010, I found that governments were more likely to deploy security forces to conflicts involving their ethnopolitical support base, and conflicts in areas of high economic importance.
A potential explanation is that intervention can be used to contain violence as well as to affect the power dynamics between the groups and to influence the outcome of the conflict.
In another study, focusing on four cases in Kenya, I found that bias makes it more difficult for the conflict parties to reach an agreement on how to resolve their conflict. That study suggests that the parties will find it difficult to trust each other if they believe that those in power have vested interests in the conflict. And even if they were able to agree on a solution, they would find it difficult to trust the government’s willingness to respect the agreement.
However, new opportunities for peacemaking can be opened up by political transitions that involve new national and local political leaders who are not perceived as biased.
Overall, my research suggests that governments can rarely function as a neutral arbiter in cases of communal conflict. When conflict erupts, political leaders can usually be implicated as part of the cause. This can be either directly through active bias or incitement or indirectly through bad policies and a failure to provide services equally to citizens.
This implies that, if possible, policymakers should try and identify and support conflict resolution mechanisms that have local legitimacy. This could include traditional leaders, community-based organisations and NGOs.
But policymakers should take care not to fuel a cynical ‘peace industry’. This happens when short-term funding goes to ‘briefcase NGOs’ and local leaders with varying degrees of legitimacy for peace workshops that have little connection to the conflict dynamics.
In addition, supporting customary actors may come at the cost of reinforcing patriarchal systems and excluding women. This is bad news for equality in general and peace in particular.
Finally, states should not scale back on their duty to protect their citizens from violence. They should support local peacemaking processes and strengthen state provision of security. This should include ensuring that security forces treat all citizens equally. They should also improve service delivery and decrease socioeconomic inequality. All can help reduce the risk of communal conflict and diminish the appeal of divisive political rhetoric.