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The Horn of Africa: Refugees, Famine, Conflicts

In Africa, Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations, World Law on July 31, 2011 at 11:24 PM


By René Wadlow


Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change.  When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.  That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, and to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

– Milton Friedman


Heavy fighting started again on July 28, 2011 in Mogadishu, the capital of what was once Somalia, in a battle between the African Union peacekeeping force (Amisom) and the Islamic insurgency al-Shahab. The fighting prevents aid from reaching the tens of thousands of refugees who have arrived in Mogadishu fleeing famine. The United Nations (UN) World Food Program says it cannot reach some two million people in need in areas controlled by al-Shahab which had expelled Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who were providing relief.

The Horn of Africa, in particular Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, faces a deep crisis, a combination of refugee flows, famine in part linked to drought, and persistent conflicts.  There is a broad consensus in the UN system that radical measures are needed to deal with the Horn of Africa crisis and that these measures will have to be taken in a holistic way with actions going from the local level of the individual farmer to the national level with new government policies, to measures to be undertaken by the African Union and the UN system, in particular the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome.

Combatants with Somalia's al-Shabab Islamist militia.

Today, cooperation is needed among the UN family of agencies, national governments, NGOs, and the millions of food producers. There is a need for swift, short-term measures to help people now suffering from lack of food, inadequate distribution and situations of violence. Such short-term action requires additional funding for the UN World Food Program and the release of national food stocks. However, it is the longer-range and structural issues on which world citizens have focused their attention. The world requires a World Food Policy and a clear Plan of Action.

While constant improvements in technology, mechanization, plant breeding and farm chemicals have steadily increased food production per acre in much of the world, African food production per acre has stagnated, and in some areas has gone down. Likewise, the portion of development assistance in Africa dedicated to agriculture has declined from 15 per cent in the 1980s to 4 per cent in 2006.

As a July 11, 2011 UNCTAD study Economic Development in Africa stresses “One of the major challenges which African countries currently face is to generate productive jobs and livelihoods for the 7-10 million young people entering the labor force each year. This is difficult to achieve simply through commodity exports but rather requires a complementary process of agricultural productivity growth and development of non-agricultural employment opportunities in both industry and services.”

Carcasses of dead sheep and goats in the drought-stricken region of Waridaad, Somaliland.

Thus, the first need in Africa is to develop the local economies: currently, poverty, lack of adapted technology, population pressure on ecologically fragile areas, a growth of urban slums due to rapid rural to urban migration is the lot of many Sub-Saharan African countries.

Increased action to improve rural life needs to be taken quickly.  As the recent UN-sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment warns “Human activity is putting such strains on the natural function of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystem to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. It is becoming ever more apparent that human society has a rapidly shrinking window of opportunity to alter its path.”

The Horn of Africa is an extreme case. The Horn possesses all the resources needed to make it one of Africa’s major economic centers, and yet there seems to be no halting the environmental decay and political insecurity it engenders. In fact, when one looks at the Horn’s problems, one must conclude that urgent and well-directed international action is needed to prevent a mega-disaster. Due to an often unenlightened management of the environment, its willful mismanagement to extract short-term economic gain, and confrontational rather than conciliatory policies, the squandering of the region’s resources has gathered speed.

A map of the ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa. The facts speak for themselves.

Environmental degradation is part of a cycle that upsets the traditional balance between people, their habitat and the socio-economic systems by which they live. Insecurity leads to strife; strife results in inter-clan feuding, civil war, cross-border raiding and military confrontation. Environmental degradation and insecurity continue to interact, swinging back and forth like a pendulum of destruction. A shrinking resource base breeds insecurity; insecurity spreads conflict, and conflict causes environmental destruction.

It is hard to know how to improve the situation. There is a long-term need for people to modify their living patterns to bring about a better quality of life, with increased security.  There is a need to break the cycle of chaos so that people can transform insecurity into confidence. Yet social change is slow, and the necessary limiting of the birth rate can take generations. Agricultural patterns also change slowly. There is no political leadership within the area, and there is no cooperation among the states of the Horn. The African Union’s conflict management structures do not function, and the UN has hoped that the African Union could take the lead in the area’s conflict resolution. This was a hope based on an unwillingness to get involved rather than a realistic evaluation of the situation.

The cycle of chaos is likely to speed up, and more refugees will be on the move.  However, as Milton Friedman noted only a crisis produces real change. Just as the “Arab Spring” brought a new generation of leadership into action — though not yet into power — the Horn of Africa might see a new generation of non-governmental leadership coming to the fore. The older political and clanic leadership has failed and is discredited. However, they have guns and plan to stay in control. Yet what is politically impossible today in the Horn may become politically inevitable.


René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

See also Somalia: Signs of Danger (

Will the UN be a Fairy Godmother for the Birth of South Sudan?

In Africa, Current Events, United Nations, World Law on July 9, 2011 at 9:46 PM


By René Wadlow

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan became an independent State, six months after the January referendum in which the south Sudan population voted overwhelmingly for independence. However, Sudan is not really structured to be divided in two. There are no natural dividing lines, neither physical nor social. During much of the English colonial period, southern Sudan was administered from Uganda as road communications were easier than from Khartoum, the capital in the north of the country. In fact, ‘administered’ is too strong a term. South Sudan had no real crops for export or minerals to mine, and so there was very little administration. In place of any government development activities, the Colonial Office encouraged Christian missionaries, mostly Church of England and Roman Catholic to set up schools and clinics. Thus south Sudan was ‘Christianized’ in that the educated had gone to church schools and been treated in Christian clinics. However, most people continued also to practice traditional rituals as these were considered as part of tribal life and not as the rituals of a particular religion. Thus when considering Sudan, the often-used terms of ‘Muslim’, ‘Christian’, and ‘Animist’ cover a more complex reality.

In December 2010, no less than 98.83% of South Sudanese voters chose independence at the polls.

Complexity is a term which is true for all Sudanese life — political, economic, and geographic. The failure to deal creatively with complexity has led to fighting for nearly all of its history as an independent State since 1956. On the eve of Independence, with the makeup of a new national army being the spark which set the fire, civil war broke out, basically on a North-South basis. There have been two phases to the Sudan Civil War. The first phase (1954-1972) had ended with negotiations facilitated by the All-African Conference of Churches with back up help from the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

The 1972-1982 decade was one of relative peace, but it was not used to heal the divisions or to work out forms of government, administration, and legal systems that would be acceptable to all segments of Sudanese society. International attention on Sudan had diminished once the 1972 peace agreement was signed. The warning signals that all was not well were ignored internationally. Thus in 1982, southern soldiers who had been integrated into the national army revolted, and the second phase of the civil war continued from 1983 until the end of 2004.

As a North-South peace agreement was nearly set, groups in Darfur, western Sudan, who had not been part of the North-South conflict decided that violence was the only way to get attention and to get a ‘piece of the pie’ of the natural resources, especially the oil revenue. They hoped for a short war after which they would be invited to participate in the North-South negotiations. In practice, the Darfur conflict has not been short — starting in 2003 and continuing still today, and the Darfur factions have not been invited to the North-South negotiations.

The flag of the Republic of South Sudan, originally the flag of the Sudanese People's Army/Movement (SPLAM).

Darfur (the home of the Fur) was always marginal to the politics of modern Sudan. In the 19th century, Darfur, about the size of France, was an independent Sultanate loosely related to the Ottoman Empire. It was on a major trade route from West Africa to Egypt and so populations from what is now northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Chad joined the older ethnic groups of the area: the Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa and the Birgit. Nomads from Libya also moved south into Darfur. As the population density was low, a style of life with mutual interaction between pastoral herdsmen and settled agriculturalists with some livestock developed. Increasingly, however, there was ever-greater competition for water and forage made scarce by environmental degradation and the spread of the desert.

France and England left Darfur as a buffer zone between the French colonial holdings — what is now Chad — and the Anglo-Egyptian controlled Sudan. French-English rivalry in West Africa had nearly led earlier to a war — the Fashoda crisis of 1898. Thus a desert buffer was of more use than its low agricultural and livestock production would provide to either European colonial power. It was only in 1916 during the First World War when French-English colonial rivalry in Africa paled in front of the common German enemy that the English annexed Darfur to the Sudan without asking anyone in Darfur or the Sudan if such a ‘marriage’ was desirable.

Darfur continued its existence as an environmentally fragile area of Sudan. It was marginal in economics but largely self-sufficient. Once Sudan was granted its independence in 1956, Darfur became politically as well as economically marginal. Darfur’s people have received less education, less health care, less development assistance and fewer government posts than any other region.

The seal of the government of the new sovereign nation.

In 2000, Darfur’s political leadership had met and wrote the Black Book which detailed the region’s systematic under-representation in national government since independence. However, at the level of the central government, the Black Book led to no steps to increase the political and economic position of Darfur. This lack of reaction convinced some in Darfur that only violent action would bring recognition and compromise as the war with the South had done.

An armed insurgency began in 2003 led by the more secular but tribal Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Islamist-leaning Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Since then, there have been splits in the JEM and the SLA largely along tribal lines. These splits make negotiations with the government of Sudan all the more difficult. The interests of many people in Darfur are not represented by either the government or the insurgencies, but it is nearly impossible for other voices to be heard.

In Darfur, there is a joint African Union-UN peacekeeping mission (UNAMID), but there is no peace to keep. Although the peacekeeping force has a mission to protect populations, it is unable to do so. As Mohammed Otham noted in his UN report (A/HRC/14/41) “In Darfur, notwithstanding the general improvement in the security situation, banditry, criminal activities and intermittent military activities by the parties to the conflict have continued. In some areas, aerial bombardment and troop mobilization by the Sudanese Armed Forces have been reported. In the context of this ongoing violence, United Nations and humanitarian personnel face significant risks to their lives. A significant number of UNAMID and humanitarian staff were deliberately attacked; some were abducted and held in captivity for long periods.” The level of suffering in Darfur — people killed and displaced, the agricultural infrastructure destroyed — has been very high. The reconciliation and reconstruction of Darfur will be difficult. We must be on the lookout for possibilities to help.

This is what the new country will look like in political and administrative terms. The AWC wishes South Sudan well and looks forward to working with its government toward the protection and promotion of world law.

The UN has had Special Representatives in Darfur responsible for facilitating negotiations, but they have made little progress. Darfur will continue as part of North Sudan and should be a priority of concern.

As there are no sharp natural or cultural dividing lines between North and South Sudan, there will be non-Muslim populations left in the North and Muslim populations in the South. We must hope that there will not be the massive transfer of populations as at the independence of India and Pakistan. There are possibilities of continued conflict in the northern non-Muslim areas such as the Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan provinces. There is also a mixed population on the frontier between North and South in Abyei. It is less the fact that the population is mixed than that the area is oil-rich that has attracted international attention. The UN Security Council in resolution 1990 of 29 June 2011 decided to establish the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA).

Thus, the United Nations is present as the Fairy Godmother at the birth of South Sudan. As in the folk tales, the Fairy Godmother has some presents for the newly born as well as certain conditions and demands. The UN brings few material goods, and peacekeeping forces have been largely unable to bring peace. However, the UN has brought the present of world attention, a willingness to help and high international standards to meet. We will have to watch closely as the newborn grows.

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Syria: Reforms and Mediation

In Current Events, Democracy, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, World Law on July 3, 2011 at 6:49 PM


By René Wadlow

Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.

Studs Terkel

The situation in Syria seems to have reached a critical turning point. There is a possibility that popular protests continue as they have since mid-March and that they continue to be met by military and police violence in violation of the spirit and letter of humanitarian international law. The Syrian army and militias have responded to unarmed nonviolent demonstrations with disproportionate force. Humanitarian international law has as its base the Martens Clause named after the legal advisor of the Russian Czar at the time of the Hague Peace Conferences. The clause is included in the Preamble to the 1899 Hague Convention. It is taken up again in Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949. The Martens Clause states that “the means that can be used to injure an enemy are not unlimited” but must meet the test of ‘proportionality’ meaning that every resort to armed force be limited to what is necessary for meeting military objectives. The shooting of unarmed demonstrators does not meet the test of proportionality.

For several months, the Syrian people have been sending a clear message to President Bashar al-Assad: The time has come for him to step aside.

However, there seems to be a real possibility of negotiations between the government led by President Bashar al-Assad and members of different opposition groups. President Assad, after two months of silence during which time demonstrations spread and repression increased on June 20 has called for a “national dialog” that could usher in changes. However, there were few specifics as to what topics such a national dialog would cover.

Many opposition leaders consider the proposal as a bid for more time during which arrests continue and over 1,000 persons have been killed in response to non-violent demonstrations. Moreover, it is not clear that the leaders of the longstanding but divided leadership of opposition groups are in control of the demonstrators. As in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian demonstrators are young, come from an increasingly educated middle class and are influenced by the spirit of the ‘Arab Spring’ rather than by the ideology of the historic opposition groups.

As a sign that the proposal for a national dialog was real, the government allowed a meeting on June 27 in Damascus of some opposition figures. Those who met stressed that they did not claim to speak for all the demonstrators, and not all open opposition figures attended. In addition there are opposition figures in exile, and those in hiding fearful of arrest. There are also, no doubt, those who are waiting to see which way the wind blows. President Assad has spoken of starting the national dialog on July 12, but it is not clear who will attend and how representative they will be.

The savagery of the Damascus regime in suppressing dissent knows no boundaries. President Assad will resort even to heavy military force to silence his own people.

Civil society participation — religious, education, labor, women, cultural and media — is crucial to build public support for a real national dialog and to broaden constituencies for peace. A national dialog is merely the beginning of a deep reordering of the political and economic structures and relationships among elements of the society. There is a need for continual adjustments to adapt to new developments. There also needs to be quick post-agreement benefits to give people a stake in the readjustment process and to reduce the capacity of spoilers.

In some conflict situations, external mediators from the United Nations, national governments or nongovernmental organizations have played a useful role. Currently, the situation seems to have reached a stalemate when neither the government nor the protesters can resolve the crisis on their own terms. There are few signs that the government is open to external mediators, but with refugees from Syria going to Turkey, there is a real danger that the conflict will take on trans-frontier dimensions. A real national dialog could set out a framework for reforms which have been promised in the past but which never came to birth. As a result, sentiments have hardened, and trust has been lost. As external but concerned parties, we should encourage a broadly-based national dialog as a first important step on the road to reform.

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

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