Entries tagged with “civil war”.


Hey, I’m a geographer by training, inclination, whatever . . . so this story in the New York Times is very cool.  Think of it as a very early GIS (geographic information system) plotting social data (number of slaves) on a map so they can be read spatially.  Basically, it is an early choropleth map (odd the historian writing about this did not use this term*) where shading of different areas represents different concentrations of whatever is being measured (here, the percentage of the population of a given county that was enslaved).  You can see how this map presented information about slavery that made it easy to see that secession was about preserving a labor system (as opposed to more noble principles about State’s rights).

That said, the South was fighting for its life – it was already an agrarian, raw-material supplying cousin to the Northern states, dealing with massive income inequality and poverty issues.  Which should remind people of the situation in much of today’s developing world.  The Southerners who were wealthy needed slaves to stay that way . . . the entire South risked becoming, in effect, an underdeveloped area if slavery was abolished.  And if you look at post-civil war history, that is pretty much how it turned out.  Industry concentrated in the north until the Northeast moved on to biotech, education and other services, pushing the dirty production to the poorer South.  Now even that production is headed overseas.  That the Southern US is generally poorer and less educated (and therefore with fewer options) than much of the rest of the country is therefore not an accident, random or something inherent to Southerners themselves (my children are all Southerners, after all) – the South started off as a massively unequal raw material production zone, and it has been struggling with that legacy for the past 150 years.

And we expect countries that only emerged from colonialism 50 years ago to somehow do better?

*Geographers, why the hell is a historian writing our history, dammit?  We are better than this – surely we have covered a bunch of this already, but seriously, can we reclaim our disciplinary history from the people unclear on the concept of a choropleth map?

(h/t to Micah Snead)

Cote d’Ivoire gets a bit dicier, as the UN declares Ouattara the winner in the presidential election.  Russia was concerned about issues of sovereignty in this vote (of course they are – they have their own fairly entertaining electoral issues), but Gbagbo’s theft was so blatant, and so quickly condemned by the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), that it took remarkably little time to get everyone on board here.  Well, that and Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t yet have viable oil or other resources anyone absolutely must have, so this turns out to be fairly “low stakes” for the Security Council.  Not so much for the Ivorians, of course.

Why is this decision, so clearly rooted in facts, possibly problematic?  Well, the likelihood is that Gbagbo will try to use this decision to rally his support around the “meddling of foreigners in Ivorian affairs” (or something to that effect).  Nationalism can be an ugly tool, and in this case the subtle argument will be that to support Ouattara is to cave in to foreign pressure, to sell out the country.  Once you have set this argument in motion, it is pretty easy for the situation to turn violent, as the fight becomes about nationalism, not candidates.  Hopefully the UN and ECOWAS are prepared to move quickly here, as their statements will likely precipitate this sort of crisis.  If not, we could see a resumption of armed conflict with great potential for regional spread (Sierra Leone and Liberia are still recovering from an earlier civil war/cross-border conflict).  Public pronouncements only do half the job – but create an awful lot of responsibility to which we must live up.

Not that anyone is paying attention, but Ghana’s next door neighbor Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast to my less cultured peeps) had an election last Sunday. Which was blatantly stolen by the current president on Friday, when it became clear that he was going to lose (again).  History is repeating itself, but nobody seems to notice or care.

The seeds of the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire were planted by Henri Bedie, who took power in 1993 largely by fiat (he declared himself president when the only president the country had known since independence, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, died).  There was a brief power struggle between Bedie and Alassane Ouattara, then the prime minister.  Why is that name interesting?  Because he was the opposition candidate in last week’s election.  Bedie was obviously concerned about running against Ouattara, and in 1995 managed to exclude Ouattara from candidacy for the presidency by changing electoral rules, effectively changing the citizenship rules of Cote d’Ivoire by arguing that Ouattara’s parents were from Burkina Faso, and therefore Ouattara could not be an Ivorian citizen.  Of course, the fact that Ouattara had served as prime minister before was pushed to one side in this decision . . .  In any case, this more or less effective change in citizenship rules (both parents have to be from Cote d’Ivoire for a person to be a citizen) became law in a hasty referendum right before the 2000 election, once again blocking Ouattara and basically disenfranchising many living in the northern part of the country, where movement across borders to Burkina, Mali, Northern Ghana and Guinea is quite common.  Combine this with the fact that the north of the country is heavily Muslim, with a dominantly Christian and Animist south (a common situation across West Africa), and you have a perfect storm – religion, ethnicity and citizenship all aligning, with one group getting nothing and one group gaining everything.  Bedie was deposed in a coup in 1999, at least in part over ethnic tensions that played out into the military, but this did not seem to teach anyone anything.  In 2000, Laurent Gbagbo won election as president by continuing this exclusionary process.  Two years later, civil war broke out.

So, after three years of power-sharing under a unity government, and an election meant to reunify the country, what did Gbagbo’s people do this time?  Oh, the Constitutional Council (run by Gbagbo’s friends) just annulled ALL OF THE RESULTS from the seven regions in the north of the country, which was obviously going to vote heavily for Ouattara.  Gbagbo’s friends didn’t challenge a few ballots, or a few polling places, or demand a recount of the votes.  Nope.  They just voided the ENTIRE NORTH OF THE COUNTRY due to “irregularities” (read: voting for Ouattara).  You know what’s really funny, though?  Even after voiding Ouattara’s strongest supporters, Gbagbo’s people could only claim that their man won with 51% of the vote!  Holy crap, he is barely loved in his own electoral stronghold!

Humorous and pathetic though this result might be, this probably just cost Cote d’Ivoire three years of slow progress toward reconciliation, and could be the trigger for more conflict.  Looks like the French military is going to have to get back to work in there . . . ugh.

But there is an important lesson here – this is a conflict that has an ethnic component, but it is not an ancient ethnic conflict that is unresolvable.  Ethnicity was, by and large, a nonissue in Cote d’Ivoire from independence to 1993.  The same might be said of religion.  It was not until political leaders decided that these differences were useful political tools that they were mobilized into drivers of conflict.  There are clear villains in this story, and clear pathways to reconciliation and resolution – this conflict is only 17 years old, and it comes after three decades of coexistence without major issues.  This is not a quagmire – it is a place where these issues can be resolved, and where guilty parties can be identified and brought to justice.  There is plenty of hope for Cote d’Ivoire – just look at how the country could come together around its Soccer National Team (Les Éléphants – how I love that nickname), and how much power players like Didier Drogba have in the country.  That team was a major factor in the formation of a unity government in 2007, and even today people will listen to Drogba, a man who wants the conflict to end.  Someone please get him the tools he needs to make it end before it all turns bad again . . .

Given the stunning lack of serious coverage of the issue in American papers, readers can be forgiven if they are not up to speed on the situation in Sudan, where we might see the formation of a new country at the beginning of the new year – but probably not.  Southern Sudan is scheduled to hold a referendum on independence from Northern Sudan on January 9, 2011 – and most observers say that the southern Sudanese will vote for independence by a wide margin.  This is not good news for the Sudanese government in Khartoum, not least because most of the oil in Sudan is in the south.  So, we have seen various efforts to stall the referendum, which was promised in 2005 as part of a peace deal to end the Sudanese civil war, because of procedural or logistical issues.  This was worrying, as it showed a lack of commitment on the part of Khartoum . . . and the possibility they would not honor this deal.  Remember, the Sudanese government are the lovely people who brought us the Janjaweed militias in Darfur, so they have a history of, shall we say, problematic behavior.

Say what you will about these subtle hints that I think suggest this referendum will not play out, the signals of a coming disaster are starting to become too clear to ignore.  The BBC (among others) notes that the Sudanese government is blocking further UN presence along the buffer between North and South Sudan.  If you read between the lines, the dialogue here is chilling:

Officials at the UN said the decision had been made following an appeal from South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who was concerned the North was preparing for war.

But President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s security adviser, Salah Gosh, rejected the plan, saying troops could not be deployed without the consent of the government.

Ibrahim Ghandour, another leading politician in Mr Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), said any tension in the region could be sorted out between the two sides, so a buffer zone between North and South was not necessary.

First, Gosh is correct – the UN doesn’t really have a lot of good mechanisms for ordering countries around.  Unless the security council gets serious and orders a military action a la Kuwait in the early 1990s, UN Peacekeepers do operate at the will of the national government . . . which right now sits in Khartoum.  But for Gosh and for Ghandour to argue against more peacekeepers is worrying . . . peacekeepers are only meant to prevent violence.  Arguing against their presence makes sense only if . . . you are planning violence.  And when you hear the Southern Sudanese leader saying he fears the North is planning war, and he would love more peacekeepers . . . figure it out, people.  Things are about to go very, very badly in Sudan.

There are all sorts of reasons this matters.  First, the human suffering associated with war is never a good thing, and should be prevented whenever possible.  Second, this referendum is meant to be a democratic expression of the will of the people, and if we sit by and let this process fail or devolve into violence, we lose any high ground when discussing governance with other countries.  Further, they would lose confidence in our support for them – basically, we’d be saying that we really want to help, unless, of course, things get ugly.  In which case, we’ll just stand by and watch.  Not a real powerful stance.  Third, if this blows up, the likelihood of regional impacts is very, very high – the conflict in Northern Uganda is intimately linked to the long standing tensions between Northern and Southern Sudan.  A shooting war in Sudan will likely lead to greater violence in Northern Uganda.  Fourth, remember Darfur?  Also in Sudan, folks – and most of that violence started when the North-South civil war was settled, giving the government in Khartoum the time and resources to address what they saw as a threat to their authority in Darfur.  If a new North-South war starts, the impact on Darfur (and the people who fled to neighboring Chad) is difficult to predict.

And let’s not even wade into the large international interest in Sudanese oil.  I don’t even want to think about what might happen to the people in this region if international powers start picking sides.

If there were ever a moment where a forceful statement from the US and Europe could make a difference for a lot of people, this is it.  A real threat to intercede in this referendum before there is a conflict by a power or powers large enough to turn back the Sudanese Army could probably stop this before it starts . . . and earn us a lot of goodwill from the people of the region, even as it infuriates Khartoum.  Then again, who the hell cares what a government headed by an indicted war criminal thinks?  Has there ever been an easier choice for us?