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Jakkie Cilliers - Institute for Security Studies

Paper presented at a SARPN conference held at the Human Sciences Research Council Pretoria

26 April 2001
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Contrary to popular belief, Africa’s conflicts do not primarily stem from ethnic diversity, despite the horrific levels of ethnic violence and genocide as witnessed in Rwanda and Burundi. In fact, comparative experience teaches that multi-ethnic societies are often more prosperous than the opposite. Rather, in a pattern found around the world, conflicts are driven by poverty, under-development, a lack of economic diversification, and by political systems that marginalise large parts of the population. These are often the real causes that lie behind social turbulence and allow the mobilisation of ethnic and religious differences for political gain by political elites.

The causes of conflict are also not always structural in nature. Much international development assistance has been based on the assumption that since economic, social or political exclusions are “root causes” of conflict, efforts to address these would lessen the impetus of the conflict, or the momentum towards violence. However, recent evidence would suggest that the focus within development co-operation on poverty alleviation and the reduction of intergroup disparities, although important in the long run, is not likely to be effective in the avoidance of violent conflict as would be more immediate efforts that addressed dynamic and/or strategic causes. In this manner the root causes are brought into focus through “aggravating factors” – which do not as such directly cause violent conflict, although they are likely to contribute further to a climate conducive to violent conflict or to the escalation of an existing conflict. In a recent study the European Union identified the following list of typical aggravating factors:
  • Manipulated elections;
  • Inflow of arms;
  • Excessive and increasing military spending;
  • Rise in political agitation, military training and criminality in refugee camps;
  • Migration flows into neighbouring provinces or countries;
  • Increase in intimidation, illegal arrests and disappearances;
  • Exploitation of political distrust by political entrepreneurs;
  • Generalisation of negative stereotypes;
  • Sudden deterioration of the capacity of public services to provide basic needs;
  • Transformation of civil society organisations into mobilising agents for violent activity;
  • Calls for the extermination of politicians and whole segments of the population by hate media; and
  • Large-scale disinvestments and capital flight.
Subsequent “triggering events” set off and escalate violent conflicts or perpetuate them. These are typically single key acts and events – or their anticipation – which happen relatively quickly and may provoke the use of violence or armed forces. Running as a common thread through all of this are leaders with organisational ability and elites that seek political or other profit.

International assistance cannot by itself prevent or end conflict, nor can it make peace. This is, ultimately, the responsibility of nationals themselves. Correctly, international donors regularly engage in policy discussions such as these to understand how best to prevent or mitigate conflict and poverty. As a contribution to this debate as it affects Southern Africa, this paper will explore poverty and regional trends and responses to conflict.

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