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Root Causes of Displacement in Africa
University of North Texas Displacement in Africa Discussion Response
What is the Conference of Berlin, and how does it relate to contemporary processes of displacement in Africa?
Students will a) respond to the discussion prompt with one original response (250-350 words) and b) also respond to at least one original post from another student in a substantive manner (100-150 words). By substantive, I mean more than “I agree” or “that’s interesting.” I want you to elaborate: what do you agree with, and why? What specifically is interesting, and why do you think that?
Introduction to Displacement in Africa is the continent most affected by the tragedy of forced displacement. Africa has historically been a scene of forced migration as a result of the slave trade, forced labor under colonial rule, and violent conflict. But the types and severity of conflict varies. Causes of violence differ by regime and by specific national and regional characteristics.
According to UNHCR, Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26% of the world’s refugee population. While millions of refugees were able to return to Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and South Sudan over the last 15 years, the numbers of internally displaced people continued to grow. At the end of 2019, there were more than 18 million people of concern to the UNHCR in sub-Saharan Africa, due to ongoing conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), Nigeria, and southern Sudan, as well as recent upsurges in violence in Burundi and Yemen. Image: Gereida camp, Darfur, Sudan. An Australian Red Cross nurse and her team go around the camp checking children for malnutrition (by measuring the circumference of their arms).
According to watchdog sources, migration continues to be a serious, protracted, and in some areas, an expanding problem across Africa, particularly south of the Sahara. Protracted refugee situations occur when people live in refugee camps or settlements for more than five years. Over 50 percent of the world’s IDPs live in Africa. In Sudan alone, up to 6 million people are thought to be internally displaced, more than in any other country in the world. (Links to an external site.) In this lesson we introduce some of the characteristics of displacement in Africa, discuss root causes of displacement and present specific ethnographic cases to illustrate these integrated root causes.
It is important to note that while there are several shared commonalities associated with the root causes of displacement; Africa is composed of many countries with different colonial backgrounds, different ethnic and religious characteristics and different political issues which contribute to the continually changing and dynamic situation of displacement. These shared generalities are expressed differently in different geo-political contexts. Similar to displacement in Latin America, the local and regional socio-economic and political situation in one particular area has an impact on the international system and the global arena. For a good start on learning more information about human rights issues in specific African countries, check out the U.S. Department of State’s 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights (Links to an external site.).
Root Causes of Displacement in Africa Several of the root causes embedded in the cause of massive displacement movements in Africa include: colonial legacies, humanitarian crisis and environmental degradation, war and conflict, as well as, ethnic and religious rivalries, secessionist movements, human rights abuses, political enmity, and, authoritarian repression through clandestine foreign backing. Massive displacement strains already limited resources; resource scarcity is exacerbated by environmental factors such as droughts and famine. The multiple causes of displacement in Africa often occur simultaneously and aggravate the intensity of displacement. Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish between political, economic, and environmental causes for displacement.
The historical background and resulting socio-political and economic factors of the present are a product of a diverse colonial history. The Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French colonial powers were among the first to have an impact on Africa through the slave trade. After the slave trade ended in the 1870s, the colonial powers started infiltrating Africa’s interior. Map of the continent of Africa prior to being divided into states by colonial powers
A map of the Scramble for Africa and colonial division into states. (Note that Ethiopia is the only country that was never colonized) In 1884-5 at the Conference of Berlin colonial governments felt free to award vast portions of Africa to the various European powers. These Colonial powers controlled the structure of the economy. They forced the extraction of raw materials without developing industry, infrastructure, and/or local manufacturing. This left African nations 150 years behind the Industrial Revolution and with a severe disadvantage to compete in the global economy.
Colonial powers determined the price of raw materials and left African nations with little to no profits and depleted natural resources. Without capital, industry, infrastructure, or familiarity with a capitalist economy, when African nations did gain independence, they floundered economically. (Links to an external site.)
A map of Europe after the Congress of Berlin, 1878Furthermore, European colonialism has had a significant social and political impact on African cultural processes and institutions. European cultural forms, social hierarchies, language, and religions were imposed on people throughout the continent of Africa, though the area was composed largely of animist and ancestral traditional religions and Islam.
As Europeans settled on the best, most productive land, native Africans were forced onto poor agricultural land where they were densely dispersed over areas on which they were required to produce cash crops for export to Europe. European colonizing powers also forged alliances with ethnic and political groups who, out of desperation and necessity, supported the colonial regime. This encouraged enmity between various ethnic, social, religious, etc. groups, which increased exponentially in the power struggles of the post-independence years. Thus, today within the borders of contemporary African nations, there are ongoing competitions and conflicts between groups due to colonial processes.
Check out this PBS video and associated links to learn more about the Berlin Conference and the division of Africa. Ethnographic Case: Sudan (Links to an external site.) Sudan’s vast geography, the largest in Africa, has been influenced by the ancient Kingdoms of Kush, Darfur, and Nuba, the Ottomans, and the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. Sudan’s long history of slavery has had a destabilizing impact on Sudanese identity. Northern Arabs enslaved Southern Africans and the generations of enslaved began to identify with “Arab” patrilineal traditions while denying or suppressing their “African” matrilineal heritage.
In an attempt to safeguard the Southern Sudanese from Northern slave traders, the British powers established “Closed Districts” and essentially severed Southern connections with the North in the 1920’s. When the ordinance was removed decades later, the North was more advanced economically and politically and easily dominated the South. Image of a young SPLA fighter
Click here to see a timeline from the BBC of Sudan’s history and conflict from 1881-2019 (Links to an external site.). Since Sudan gained independence in 1956, it has experienced varying degrees of warfare. The first civil war (1955-1972) created millions of forced migrations when the South attempted secession. Periodic massacres, which sparked waves of displacement and escalated war, kept the South below subsistence level and politically fragile. In 1983, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) revived the war and took control of most of Southern Sudan. In 1991 contending commanders created rival factions in the SPLA, and war broke between the groups, displacing and killing civilians. Since then, conflicts in the North and South between government forces, militias, and insurgent reactionary groups have fragmented alliances beyond distinction.
Image of a contingent of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) marching with mosquito nets in hand to help fight malaria. Conflict in Sudan is not reducible to a simple dichotomy between North and South, or between Muslims and Southern Christians/Animist worshipers. In Darfur, disputes between Arab nomads and African farmers have long existed. In recent decades the conflict has escalated because of disproportionate government or militia support, the influx of arms, turning political competition into ethnic divisions, land seizures, systematic rape used as a means of terrorizing populations, reactionary insurgent forces, external armed forces, and the formation of the Janjaweed in 2003. The ruthless volatility of the Janjaweed displaced over 2 million people and left refugees with a life of violence, rape, hostility, torture, and a new generation without hope, opportunity, or community.
The Sudanese government and the Janjaweed are responsible for attacking civilian populations. Refugee children witness their homes and villages burned, violence against their families, livestock and food destroyed, mosques, hospitals, and schools demolished, women sexually assaulted, and the despair of refugee camps.
In addition, profit and capital accumulation are powerful motivators of the conflict. The discovery of oil has caused political and social conflict between poor minorities and elite central, forceful powers. War and conflict have also generated enough profits to encourage an elite minority to perpetuate conflict and displacement for personal gain. Displacement itself has recently become used a method of conducting war. Populations are displaced, and then attacked by terrestrial and areal militias who burn, loot, and pillage villages, and rape or abduct women.
Violence Against Women in DarfurIn May 2004, an Amnesty International traveled to Chad to speak with refugees about violence perpetrated against women in the Darfur region of Sudan. The findings of these interviews are horrific: rape and other forms of sexual violence in Darfur are not just isolated consequences of the conflict or the result of a few undisciplined troops. Accounts relayed by Sudanese women demonstrate that rape and other forms of sexual violence are being used as a systematic weapon of war. Militia forces are using sexual violence to humiliate, punish, control, inflict fear and displace women and their communities. These women’s testimonies also illustrate the painful mental and physical after-effects of such suffering, including health problems, unwanted pregnancies, social stigmatization, and economic adversity.
Quotes from Darfur survivors “They raped women; I saw many cases of Janjawid raping women and girls. They are happy when they rape. They sing when they rape and they tell that we are just slaves and that they can do with us how they wish.”A., aged 37, from Mukjar camp “A young single girl aged 17: M. was raped by six men in front of her house in front of her mother. M’s brother, S., was then tied up and thrown into fire.”H., a 35 year old Fur man from Mukjar“In July 2003, the Arabs raped M, 14, on the market square and threatened to shoot on the witnesses if they tried to intervene. They also raped other girls in the bush.”S., a 28 year old Zaghawa woman from Habila region“I was with another woman, Aziza, aged 18, who had her stomach slit on the night we were abducted. She was pregnant and was killed as they said: “it is the child of an enemy.”
A woman of Irenga ethnicity from the village of Bersila“The attack took place at 8am on 29 February 2004 when soldiers arrived by car, camels and horses. The Janjawid were inside the houses and the soldiers outside. Some 15 women and girls who had not fled quickly enough were raped in different huts in the village. The Janjawid broke the limbs (arms or legs) of some women and girls to prevent them from escaping. The Janjawid remained in the village for six or seven days.
After the rapes, the Janjawid looted the houses.”N., a 30-year-old woman from Um Baru, Konoungou camp“They took K.M., who is 12 years old in the open air. Her father was killed by the Janjawid in Um Baro… More than six people used her as a wife; she stayed with the Janjawid and the military more than 10 days. K, another woman who is married, aged 18, ran away but was captured by the Janjawid who slept with her in the open place, all of them slept with her. She is still with them. A, a teacher, told me that they broke her leg after raping her.”“After six days some of the girls were released.
But the others, as young as eight years old were kept there. Five to six men would rape us in rounds, one after the other for hours during six days, every night. My husband could not forgive me after this, he disowned me.”S. from Silaya, near KulbusThe NubaThe Nuba live north of the north-south dividing line, and their culture embraces both Islam and Christianity. Because they allied more with southern rebels and resisted attacks by government militias, the government declared a jihad against the Nuba and devastated their homeland.
Soldiers killed Nuba cattle, burned their villages, and seized their land for profitable agricultural production. The 1.5 million Nuba were reduced to 400,000. Sixty thousand orphaned children were placed in “Peace Camps,” where they experienced pressure to convert to Islam, and boys above the age of twelve were co-opted into the Sudanese Army. The Nuba were forced to leave their once fertile plains and head to the mountains because neither rebels nor the government would permit aid workers to enter.Image of a wrestling match. Nuba Mountains, Sudan. January 2001.Discovery of OilThe discovery of oil in the northwest and southern regions brought displacement and conflict. Government armed militias and warlords forced local populations to leave and prevented resettlement by burning crops, land, homes, and stores, denying the people aid, and enslaving some. When foreign oil companies invested in pipelines in 1991, the government was motivated to clear larger areas of land for potential drilling through the help of destructive government militia forces.
According to Human Rights Watch, the government encouraged divisions in Nuer SPLA groups so the government could maintain control of the oil fields and dismiss Nuer fighting as “tribal clashes”. (Links to an external site.) Image of a Darfur refugee camp in Chad. Discussion Causes of mass population movements include: wars, ethnic rivalries, religious conflicts, secessionist movements, human rights abuses, political repression and environmental causes. Most of these factors occur simultaneously, making it difficult to separate out political, economic and environmental causes. Decentralized government powers can provide little coordination efforts with foreign aid groups, and can provide meager assistance for their own people.
Disjunctive assistance efforts do not alleviate many of the issues of displacement. Without follow-through, maintenance, and consistency, aid organizations cannot provide substantial relief or impact the future of the most vulnerable displaced. Camps, refugees, and IDPs are widespread. Thus, it is difficult to establish who needs help in which area and make a detailed survey of what is needed where.
As drought continues to impact camps and communities, people will relocate and migrate to new areas where they can hope to fare better. This continual movement makes rehabilitation and aid efforts difficult to coordinate. Although rebuilding and reconstruction efforts are desirable to the residents of Africa, the programs must work within the local frameworks, with local institutions, and align with ethos of many local groups. Establishing health, educational, utilities, and other facilities requires more than construction. These facilities require maintenance, educated staff, supplies, and knowledgeable facilities coordinators.