ROME – A longtime Africa watcher has argued that the continent is not as primal as often depicted in the West, but a modern and rapidly changing place whose many conflicts are rooted more in political and economic interests than ancient tribal and ethnic disputes.
Speaking during a May 18 media roundtable on the underlying causes of wars in Africa, expert Mario Giro said, “Contemporary African wars, in the light of globalization, in the light of international politics, shouldn’t be looked at with the ‘lazy’ perspective typical of the West.”
Under this perspective, “Africa is considered a continent where nothing ever changes, it’s static, so its wars are primal. They are savage, tribal, basic, which don’t have a lot to explain,” he said, cautioning, “This is not the case.”
With 30 years of experience in and around the African scene, Giro said the conflicts ravaging the continent “are very modern wars, very political like all others.”
Giro, a member of the Italian Sant’Egidio community who served as Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs under Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and former European Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, recently published a book on African conflicts titled, Black Wars: A Guide to the Conflicts in Contemporary Africa.
He spoke to the press about the status of Sub-Saharan African in light of several international incidents involving violence against foreigners, including the recent attack on the newly appointed bishop of Rumbek in South Sudan, Italian missionary Christian Carlassare, as well as the killing of the Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Luca Attanasio, and the murder of two Spanish journalists in Burkina Faso.
In his remarks, Giro said globalization and the changing international market have a lot to do with the rapid changes happening in Africa, changes which have upended traditional social norms and are transforming the continent, starting with the youth.
At a certain point, globalization led to a “divorce” between state and market which shifted global models. Currently, Giro said the market is now dominated by a form of authoritarian capitalism which favors the global south, rather than the west.
Africa, he said, “suffers the full impact of offensive” of the authoritarian market, because it is now “at the center of economic interests” in terms of exports and international trade routes thanks in large part to Chinese investments in the continent in the 1990s.
In this context, the wars in Africa have been “transformed,” Giro said, arguing that as globalization swept across the continent, it changed traditional structures due to a rupture between youth and older generations, and also a “de-ethnicizing” of young people who no longer identify themselves by ethnicity or tribe.
Youth have largely been put on the margins under the current market system, he said, noting that “Youth in Africa are 60 percent of the population,” and when a sector of society that large is marginalized, it becomes a major problem.
“The African leaders who make the wars, both institutional and rebels, know well that to explain a war to us in the West, the ethnic reason is the easiest,” Giro said, but insisted that the reality is very different, citing militias in Nigeria who swept through camps recruiting youth regardless of their ethnic background.
This is also the case in the Congo, he said, noting that in Goma, the area where Attanasio was killed, there are 120 different militias operating, “and they are no longer ethnic militias.” Conflict in that area has become a “middle class war” in which weaponizing is now “a craft,” he said.
Another factor in African conflicts is the practice of making deals with mercenaries. “We in the west called them contractors,” he said, noting that this is a common practice which has “legitimized” the use of mercenaries, empowering groups that can cause problems on the ground.
“There is a hybridization” of the causes of African conflicts. “What we see as one thing are multiple things at the same time,” Giro said, noting that jihadism is also a factor.
However, this is not the traditional radical Islamic jihadism of the past but is a form of modern jihadism which “is not a religious product that can implant anywhere, but it’s an antagonistic, revolutionary product…today they are jihadists, and it doesn’t matter if you are a Muslim originally,” he said.
Like a virus, jihadism has different variants and changes with time and place, “so, beyond the figure of the privatization of war, we have the figure of entrepreneurs of war, we have hybrid figures of warriors, traffickers, jihadists, etc. all mixed together.”
In terms of newer forms of jihadism that are emerging, “We don’t know what it will become…It’s mutating,” Giro said, noting that in Nigeria, the extremis group Boko Haram “is not the same as in the beginning.”
“The Boko Haram that we know has become a group inserted into a totally different world than that in which they were born, hybridized with other religions. For example, traditional African religions with whom they have to reckon,” he said, adding, “paradoxically, they look for the purest Islam and then they hybridize it with something else.”
Going back to the problem of youth, he said many have become secularized and discarded. Those who migrate are “more rational,” he said, because those who stay behind are typically recruited by warlords or jihadist groups.
With all of these changes, “the entire African system of resolving conflicts is overcome unfortunately,” he said, noting that conflicts in Africa, specifically those surrounding agriculture or land, are not unfamiliar, but “When you also mix other elements such as jihadism, etc., the lords of war, the result is that these systems no longer work.”
In the Ivory Coast, conflict is not ethnic but is largely rooted in land disputes and attempts to privatize land traditionally seen as belonging to the community. This can also be the case in places such as South Sudan, he said.
Youth are increasingly abandoning elderly relatives, which is a drastic change from the traditional societal structure in which family is at the center, and ties between young and old have always been close.
“This is a big anthropological change, and youth have become individualistic,” Giro said, adding, “The age of communitarian Africa is over, or it is ending. Now an age is born of a globalized Africa which assumes in itself the Western individualistic model but assumes it in a violent and brutal way.”
When looking at these changes, “we must understand that what’s happening is not due to historic ancient motives of a static and immobile Africa that we have in mind,” Giro said, adding, “Wars about cocoa, diamonds, water and petrol don’t exist.”
“Cocoa, diamonds, and petrol can serve to prolong them, but they are born for other reasons,” he said.
In this context, Giro said the Catholic Church can have a crucial role to play, particularly when it comes to dialogue with Islam.
“In Africa as in Europe, there is a neo-Pentecostal and Evangelical presence that’s very strong. They sprout like mushrooms, very rigid, very ideological, very anti-Islam,” whereas the Catholic Church “tries to dialogue with Islam and protect traditional Islam,” he said.
Giro said the role of laypeople in Africa, in particular, is an issue that has not been “resolved,” and as such, there is great room for growth in terms of lay movements.
Clericalism is still strong, he said, but insisted that lay movements, whether they are ecclesial, political, or social, can have a major impact on African society as laypeople themselves are more empowered.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen