The year regionalism reared its head in Africa

TW: civil war, colonialism, exploitation

In recent history, the primary boundaries that defined politics in many African countries were ethnic or religious. For much of the past half-century, the driving questions concerned who would rule whom, originally in response to colonial occupation by successive foreign powers across almost the entire continent and then in relation to the local hierarchies colonial powers had twisted to their own ends. Where a given person lived took something of a backseat to what kind a person they were. Or at the least, the political and academic perception was that most conflicts in Africa related to ethnicity, race, or religion. To the extent that region was discussed, it was framed as a distraction that needed to be viewed in the light of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial migrations.

But in 2012, especially the later half of it, a series of unconnected political events in various African states made it clear that regional identities had power – whether as proxies for ethnic distinctions or as political divides in their own right. A backdrop of significant if decreasing poverty and newly discovered resources concentrated in certain areas has only heightened the stakes in many countries. With such long odds, what are essentially civil wars have broken out in more than a few cases.

For the US, the most pressing instance of the growing presence of regionalism in many African states this year was likely that in Libya, after the attack on the Benghazi consulate which killed several Foreign Service members and the US ambassador to Libya. The fact that many Libyans were appreciative of his prior assistance in the overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime while many others remain deeply threatened by the American power he represented is at least in part reflective of the regionally divided nature of Libya at the moment. In fact, since the earliest days of the revolution, some Libyans argued that the potential power of regionalism in Libya shouldn’t be overlooked.

More optimistically, the extremely tight presidential elections in Ghana hinged on distinctly regional visions of how the nation should spend its accruing oil profits. Perhaps because the separate ideas are only mutually exclusive to the extent that Ghana’s resources are limited, the conflict has been decidedly peaceful so far. The election was less of a referendum on whether the population was interested in financing education or infrastructure, so much as which was a clearer priority. Hopefully the various regional identities in Ghana can continue negotiating through the continuing difficulties of how to manage its resources and solve its people’s problems.

Ghana’s fortunate solution was sadly something of an outlier, however. In Mali, what’s often described as a military conflict between Al Qaeda-allied islamists and a somewhat secular government, in fact has a clear ethnic and what’s more regional component. The fact that ethnically distinct parts of the country have until recently held respective monopolies on the country’s mineral wealth and political power, respectively, makes it remarkable that a civil war took this long to develop and is still largely unrecognized as having a hugely regional dimension. While the conflict in Mali began over the summer, tensions built up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where resources are concentrated in a thinly populated interior, which two ethnically distinct regions ring. That the one historically without political power has seen yet another outbreak of anti-government militias this November is again unsurprising.

And at the end of the year, there’s been a regional uprising in the Central African Republic (CAR), which as of New Year’s Eve threatened the stability of the prior government (French only, sorry). There’s already been much violence, but it’s hard not to hope for the current negotiations to work something out between the Northern rebels and the Southwestern government that spares the common people from having to live through further conflict.


(South Sudan gained independence in 2011 and has since maintained its sovereignty through 2012 in spite of local regional forces and continuing conflicts with the government of Sudan. Image from here.)

The newly independent South Sudan not only survived this year, but was proven to be anything but a fluke. Regional conflicts have already begun redrawing the map in Africa and clearly hold the potential to do so further.

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