Cindy Bither
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Complexity Daunting to Understand and Mitigate Conflict in Africa

FullTextImage/img/@altAnna-Linn Persson shows photographs of people in need in the Democratic Republic of China. -- Photo courtesy of the Center for Leadership and Ethics.

LEXINGTON, Va., Nov. 4, 2011 – The fourth panel in the conference “The Eagle and the Dragon in Africa,” touched on two U.S. government strategic goals in Africa, said retired U.S. ambassador to Chad Louis J. Nigro Jr., the panel chair: mitigation of the effects of conflict and prevention of conflict.

Addressing the first, Dr. Reuben Brigety, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in the U.S. Department of State, gave a broad overview of the population currently in need of care and the challenges the bureau faces and the strategies it employs in efforts to meet that need.

Though the number of refugees, those who cross international borders to find safety, has decreased over the last 15 years, the number of internally displaced people, also known as IDPs, who have left their homes to find safety but remain in their home countries, has doubled in that time.

“Which means that, broadly speaking, the number of IDPs that we are concerned about all around the world is increased dramatically largely as a result of an increase in non-international armed conflict or other sorts of disturbances,” said Brigety.

This kind of conflict is the dominant kind of war in Africa, said VMI’s own Col. Jim Hentz, professor of international studies, who followed Brigety on stage.

International wars, he said, are rare in Africa; civil wars, where a group challenges the government or attempts to secede, are also rare. But wars in Africa are not simply random inexplicable violence; they follow a pattern Hentz calls “wars across states”: they tend to take place on the periphery of weak states and spread across borders; they may or may not involve the government – participants may be militia groups and other hybrids; and there is no linear progression from war to state, as took place during the formation of the nations of Europe.

These wars across states may be prolonged, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which, Hentz said, has been at war since 1996 and is no closer to statehood than at the start of the fighting.

“Every refugee situation in the world is either precipitated or prolonged by armed conflict,” Brigety had pointed out.

And these wars generate, apparently, even greater numbers of internally displaced people than refugees.

“For IDPs, generally speaking, the host government still has responsibility for protecting them” – even if it is from the host government that they flee. And they aren’t protected by international law in the same way that refugees are, making the job of his bureau and other agencies seeking to mitigate the effects of these conflicts more difficult, said Brigety.

Even for refugees, durable solutions – return to safety in the home country, integration in the adopted country, or resettlement in a third country – are extremely difficult to achieve, Brigety said. The United States, he said, is the largest resettlement country in the world “by far,” but even so only a small percentage, the most vulnerable, are resettled.

Hentz and Brigety offered the audience an understanding of the big picture of war and peace in Africa, while discussant Anna-Linn Persson, brought the perspective of the situation on the ground in the DRC, where she works as senior civilian observer for MONUSCO – the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Showing slides of people she has met in her work, she asked the question, what do they need? And answered it.

What does the police officer need? He needs a salary, so he does not have to charge individuals for his services; he needs fuel, so he can use the vehicle parked out front to get to the scene of the looting before the looters get away or are killed by a mob taking law into their own hands.

What does the civil servant need? He needs electricity so he can use his computer.

What do the women need? They need their sons to come home to take their places in the household; they need to not live in fear of violence, of rape.

From the point of view of the individual citizen of DRC, said Persson, “He or she doesn’t really care that much where help comes from,” whether it comes from the United States or China or somewhere else.

And, she said, “What the people of the DRC need are leaders that care for the people and the resources and take the responsibility for protection for the civilians.”

–Sherri Tombarge