Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: To Break Escalating Cycles of Violence in Africa, Follow Mandela’s Example

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Neighboring African countries, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, are currently engaged in sectarian conflicts. Due to the proximity of these countries, and the relative instability the region even during peaceful times, these conflicts are likely to have “spillover effects”, leading to greater regional instability:

South Sudan

South Sudanese soldiers fired indiscriminately in highly populated areas and targeted people for their ethnicity during recent fighting in Juba, Human Rights Watch said today. The clashes in South Sudan’s capital, which broke out on December 15, 2013, saw scores of civilians killed and, according to witnesses and victims, soldiers specifically targeted people from the Nuer ethnic group.

The fighting followed deepening tensions between President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and the former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer. Victims and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that government soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and police questioned residents about their ethnicity and deliberately shot ethnic Nuer.

“The awful accounts of killings in Juba may only be the tip of the iceberg,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Government officials – whatever their politics – need to take urgent steps to prevent further abuses against civilians and quickly deescalate rising ethnic tensions.”

“We are deeply concerned that ethnically-based attacks on all sides will lead to revenge attacks and more violence,” Bekele said.

“South Sudanese leaders, especially President Kiir and Riek Machar, need to do all they can to stop soldiers under their control from committing abuses against people, particularly because of their ethnicity,” Bekele said. “The UN Mission should also ensure that it fully implements its mandate to protect civilians and proactively patrol Juba, and flashpoint areas like Bor.” 

Central African Republic:

Christian militias responding to rampant abuses by Muslim armed groups have committed atrocities against Muslim communities in northern Central African Republic, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Concerned countries should immediately bolster the African Union peacekeeping force in the country and support efforts by France to protect civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

The 43-page report, “‘They Came To Kill’: Escalating Atrocities in the Central African Republic,” based on weeks of field research in Ouham province, documents the surge in violence by Christian anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) militias since September 2013. The anti-balaka have killed several hundred Muslims, burned their homes, and stolen their cattle. So-called ex-Seleka forces, former members of the predominantly Muslim rebel alliance that overthrew the government in March, retaliated against Christians with the apparent knowledge of their commanders.

“The brutal killings in the Central African Republic are creating a cycle of murder and reprisal that threatens to spin out of control,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The UN Security Council needs to act quickly to bring this evolving catastrophe to a halt.”

While the anti-balaka describe themselves as self-defense forces aiming to protect their own villages, their actions and rhetoric are often violently anti-Muslim.

The Security Council should immediately authorize a UN peacekeeping mission under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Human Rights Watch said. It should have a robust mandate and the means to protect civilians, promote human rights, and create an environment conducive to the delivery of humanitarian aid.

“Urgent support for peacekeeping in the Central African Republic is crucial to bring stability to a tense situation, protect the population from abuses, and ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those at grave risk,” Bouckaert said. “The potential for further mass violence is shockingly high.”

Internal struggles, such as the ones facing South Sudan and the CAR, risk turning into full fledged “protracted social conflicts“. The “protracted” element of these conflicts, has yet to be realized, and therein lies the hope for reconciliation. The fact that these conflicts are still in their infancy gives hope for reconciliation over retribution. However, as fighting continues and more legitimate grievances build up on each side, this possible outcome becomes less likely.

It is not that each side does not have legitimate grievances; indiscriminate killings by all sides make continued violence in the name of “retribution” very likely. This would further escalates conflicts , perpetuating “cycles of violence” which over time would turn these new social conflicts into more-difficult-to-end “protracted social conflicts”.

It is up to leaders on both sides of these conflicts to call for ceasefires and try to work out their differences peacefully. To ensure ceasefires are observed–to give reconciliation a chance–the United Nations should strengthen peacekeeping operations in these countries. 

It is no coincidence that I have invoked the rhetoric of one of Africa’s greatest leaders, the late Nelson Mandela. If they possess enough political will (and with some outside peacekeeping support), political leaders can stress reconciliation over retribution, breaking otherwise escalating cycles of violence.  Seeing brother kill brother, Mandela is surely turning over in his grave. Hopefully, his recent death has strengthened his legacy throughout Africa, shaping leader’s responses to these conflicts.

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