Peace, conflicts and security in Africa: Afropessimism in decline?

Oscar Mateos
Lecturer at Ramon Llull University and ICIP collaborator
Oscar Mateos

Oscar Mateos

African societies have generally been interpreted in the light of discourses that have stigmatised the developments on the continent as a whole. In the construction of this account, analysis of armed conflicts, their causes and consequences, their workings and dynamics have played an extraordinarily central role, which has sometimes overshadowed the other factors and important events. This reductionist view of Africa, obsessed by the violence of wars, has also tended towards the diagnosis in which endogenous factors take priority over more complex analysis. The corruption of the elites ("neopatrimonialism"), factors vaguely linked to "African culture" and "traditions," and the failure to build a modern state in Africa in the context of decolonisation are some of the explanatory factors attributed to this image of Africa as a place that is violent, unstable and even anarchic.

Despite this, various arguments have been formulated against this discourse, which generally tend to emphasise external or exogenous factors. These include the dependence theories and work by authors such as Samir Amin, Frantz Fanon and Gunder Frank, since the 1960s. This Marxist-inspired school of thought suggests that the main explanatory factors are the damaging impact of foreign debt and the Structural Adjustment Plans, and the perverse role of the Western powers, their colonial legacy, the instrument of isolation in the bipolar context and the pillage of natural resources and the multinational companies' complicity. While this international and historical dimension provides us with many more clues than the discourse based on strictly endogenous factors, both frameworks share a tragic conclusion on the past, present and future of African societies: Africa is the great nightmare of western modernity, the territory of endless violence and underdevelopment for some, and pillage and exploitation of others.

These views have been broadly accepted by the majority of the media, which have ranged between an analysis focused on discussing the malevolent administration of the African elites, and the more sensitive and progressive views which blame the West for everything, or almost everything. The debates on the causes of African armed conflicts are good examples. In contrast to the reductionism of very influential works like the North American journalist Robert Kaplan's The coming anarchy (which analysed violence in west Africa in terms of a meaningless, "tribalist" violence, and which was heavily influenced by neo-Malthusian theories), articles, books and studies have attempted to explain African wars based on the equally simple idea of the multinational companies' greed for mineral resources for example and their complicity with local elites have proliferated in recent years.

Among other thinkers, the French economist Serge Latouche has coined the neologism of Afropessimism to describe these perspectives. In his book The other Africa, Latouche argues that only one perspective has been offered in an attempt to explain Africa, which has dominated the interpretations and – more seriously – the Western agenda and interventions. According to this perspective, it is a continent racked by violence, hunger, destruction, and corruption, desperately seeking western aid. The author considers that there are two key factors that should be considered in this discourse. First, if we accept the total failure of post-colonial Africa, should Afropessimism not consider whether in fact this failure is the result of its attempts at Westernisation? Latouche asks what the effects of centuries of colonisation and slave trafficking were and how much the discourse of "civilising" and "developmentalism" (free exchange, modernisation, etc.) is responsible. And he raises a question that is stating the obvious: is there not "another Africa" apart from the tragic and pathological image?

The questions are thought-provoking, as they at least force us to question our cliches about the continent and raise the possibility of a much more complex diagnosis, perhaps unattainable, but more balanced. In this respect, recent years have also shed light on a school of thought and analysis which suggests that things are changing. First, there is the view that armed conflict and violence are no longer – if they ever were exclusively – the most important and relevant phenomenon in Africa. The reduction in the number of conflicts since the late nineties would suggest that Africa has achieved some degree of political and institutional stability after the convulsive first few years of the post-cold war period. Second, this discourse also emphasises that during the 1990s, the regional African organisations (especially ECOWAS in west Africa), the civil societies, and the new African Union (a more and modernised version of the OAS) shows that Africa has become aware and has tried to implement the idea of "African solutions for African problems." With all limitations inherent in this situation, this current of thought aims to end the stereotyped image of Africa by highlighting that things could be changing.

By way of a conclusion, here are a few final questions. How far does the positivisation of the situation in Africa correspond to reality? Is this Afrooptimism just as naïve as the Afropessimism in terms of reality being much more complex? Is there a place for an Afropragmatic or Afrorealistic vision, as suggested by authors like David Francis from Sierra Leone, or Mbuyi Kabunda from the Congo, which are equidistant from the other two discourses and suggest a dynamic and changing Africa but which faces major and constant problems and complexities? All these questions at least lead us to a more profound and varied diagnosis that is not restricted to the Afropessimism that has placed Africa in a permanent state of emergency.