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Human Rights Quarterly 23.1 (2001) 148-170

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Citizenship, Rights, and the Problem of Conflicts and Civil Wars in Africa

Said Adejumobi 1

I. Introduction

This article undertakes a reinterpretation of the problem of internal conflicts and civil wars in Africa, from the perspective of citizenship and rights. The central argument is that although the genealogy and dimensions of conflicts and civil wars in Africa are quite complex and varied; underlying most of these conflicts, especially those that erupted within the last decade, is the issue of citizenship and rights. The construction and nature of the state in Africa, which is rooted in the colonial pedigree, tend toward the institutionalization of ethnic entitlements, rights, and privileges, which create differentiated and unequal status of citizenship. This tendency de-individualizes citizenship and makes it more of a group phenomenon. Rather than the state providing a common bond for the people through the tie of citizenship, with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, both in precepts and practice, people's loyalties are bifurcated. The result is usually tension and contradictions in the public sphere as claims of marginalization, exclusion, and [End Page 148] domination among individuals and groups are rife. The consequence is mostly conflicts and civil wars in Africa.

After the eclipse of the Cold War, the site of political conflicts seems to have undergone a relocation from the international arena, with a large interstate concentration, to the local or national front. In most parts of the world, ethno-political conflicts are threatening to tear many states apart. From the former Soviet Union to Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, intra-state conflicts have shown a resurgence. Between 1989-1998, of 108 armed conflicts in the world, only seven were interstate. 2 The fallout of the Cold War and the democratization process in most parts of the Third World unleashed various local forces and reactions, which have implications for conflict and stability in those countries.

However, Africa is not a new victim of internal political conflicts and civil wars. Since 1970, no less than thirty wars have been fought in Africa, most of them intrastate in nature. 3 In contemporary times, Africa constitutes a major theater of political conflicts and civil wars in the world. For virtually all countries in the region, there is either a potential threat of violent political explosion, a raging civil war, a process of negotiated peace and political order, or an immediate post-war rehabilitation process going on. In 1994, out of a total of 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, no less than twelve countries were at war, while two were in the post-war phase, and fourteen had a recent or current experience of significantly high levels of political violence. During 1994, a total of twenty-eight countries--more than half of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa--were or had recently been afflicted by serious violent conflicts. 4 In 1996, twelve countries were engaged in armed conflicts; by 1999 the number had increased to eighteen, with no less than eleven countries under severe political crises. 5

The consequences of armed conflicts in Africa have been deleterious to the region's growth, stability, and security. In 1996, armed conflicts in Africa accounted for half of all war-related deaths worldwide, and resulted in more than 8 million refugees, returnees, and displaced persons. 6 In addition, economic growth continues to elude the continent; most of the least [End Page 149] developed and highly indebted nations are located in Africa. 7 Not surprisingly, countries engaged in war have dismal records for socioeconomic growth compared to nations at peace. 8 This grim scenario of development has given rise to a wave of Afro-pessimism that expresses profound cynicism about the prospect of any meaningful progress taking place in Africa in the immediate future. 9

There have been varying attempts to explain the high incidence of conflicts in Africa. This has been mainly at two levels: political and economic. The former emphasizes factors like the struggle for power, the weak nature of the African state, ethnicity, and militarization...


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