Dr Gérard Prunier recently visited GCSP to deliver lectures and participate as a panelist in the GCSP-Geneva Peacebuilding Platform public discussion, “What is happening in the Central African Republic?”. We had a chance to sit down with him to get his take on contemporary analysis of the African continent. The discussion quickly turned to the current situation in CAR and South Sudan.
1. As a historian specializing in Eastern and Central Africa, what do you think of contemporary analysis of the continent?
Africa is in the process of being born and birth is painful but the continent is growing and developing at an incredible speed.
One problem I see is that there is a flagrant lack of political analysis in the reporting and commentary on Africa. There have been terrible human rights abuses in Europe too and many volumes of books analysing what happened and why. But when it happens in Africa, we simply see them as ‘savages’.
Take South Sudan for instance. Much of the commentary focuses on a reductionist reading of the conflict, which states that the main cause is kleptocracy. I totally agree that South Sudan has been run by a bunch of kleptocrats since 2005; they stole all the money from oil. But that is not the only reason for the war; it is one of the reasons.
The argument is that the kleptocrats are fighting each other over the spoils. This argument is seductive at first sight but wrong if you dig deeper. They could share without having a war, plus, oil production restarted in September 2012, long before the war started in December 2013. We have to look at what the government stands for and the system they are working in.
The first thing is to understand that Africa as a whole does not exist; there are many ‘Africas’.
2. How do you anticipate the ongoing crisis in the Central African Republic to evolve now?
What has happened over the last two years is so unusual that the future developments are almost impossible to predict.
When [Seleka leader, Michel] Djotodia seized power in March 2013, people said that it was a ‘regime of change’, in fact, it was a group of foreigners who came from outside the country and overthrew the government in the name of a so-called rebellion that did not exist. Djotodia was a Central African, but most of his men were not and he was manipulated by the Sudanese secret service so it was a kind of imported crisis.
I have never before seen a case where a group of entirely foreign people come in and take over a country. They were not even ethnically related, and this aspect of the crisis has been given very little attention.
The problem – and it was huge – was that all of these men were Muslims, while the majority of the population are either Christians or Animists; Muslims represent maybe 20%, no more.
During the period when they were committing massacres and atrocities, all Muslims in the country were made responsible for their actions just because they were Muslim. Now, the people being killed by the so-called Christians are the local Muslims, not the people who are responsible for the crisis.
So, where are we going now? God knows.
3. What can the international community do to help consolidate peace in the CAR?
Not much. Because all the problems go back to colonisation in Oubangui Chari [the original name of the Central African Republic]. Colonisation is often seen as a homogenous phenomenon in Africa; this is totally wrong. You have places where it was good, places where it was neutral and places where it was a catastrophe. Usually, when the colonisers invested heavily, things were good; otherwise it was catastrophic. The latter was the case for the French in Oubangui Chari. As a consequence, there is no civil society in the Central African Republic, no political parties, no professional associations.
There are stains of blood and violence in the history of the country, going back to before WWI. This is some hard truth that we better look at squarely in the eye; otherwise we are just deluding ourselves. So how can the international community deal with this? How do you put a country back together that was hardly ever together? I don’t know.
I do not believe in conflict resolution. I believe in conflict solutions. Conflict resolution is the belief that something small went wrong and can be fixed, but if you hate each other to the point of killing each other, conflict resolution is not able to do much. Solutions to such problems can, however, work if you address the root causes. Conflict resolution wants to paper over the cracks to quickly get to some kind of result.