- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

Recent interventions by actor George Clooney and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel have brought renewed focus on Sudan’s Darfur region. Yet Darfur’s problem is far from being new or exceptional in Africa.

Since Sudan was decolonized in 1956 the country has hardly experienced a single year without conflict. Civil war has raged between non-Arab Christians and animists in the south and Arab-Muslims in the north, claiming more than 2 million lives; famine and disease have killed another 4 million.

More recently, ethnic violence in the country’s western and northern Darfur regions has, to date, claimed anywhere between 70,000 lives, according to the World Health Organization and, and 400,000, according to nongovernmental organizations. Another 1.5 million to 2 million people have been displaced, with entire villages wiped out, creating a colossal humanitarian crisis.

Human rights groups, the U.S. Congress and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have said genocide is taking place in Darfur. A United Nations Security Council commission report, however, has refrained from following suit, given that if it does accept that genocide is occurring, it would be legally bound to take appropriate action. It called the violence “crimes against humanity.”

As past experiences have demonstrated — the Rwanda genocide for example — heavy bureaucracy and conflicting political interests have traditionally slowed U.N. decisionmaking. While the U.N. may claim limited successes in its peacekeeping operations (Haiti), it grossly failed in others (Rwanda).

Accordingly, creating a special rapid intervention force established by the former colonial power, or powers, possibly with participation of the United States and of a regional force, would prove a far more efficient way to address conflicts and prevent their spreading. One clear advantage is the decisionmaking would be speeded up, allowing for quicker intervention. The result would be less loss of life and property. Great Britain’s military intervention in Sierra Leone and France’s in the Ivory Coast may be cited as successful precedents.

Despite its intensity, the violence in Darfur has generally failed to attract world attention, resulting in delayed intervention by mediators and humanitarians, which have met with little success and much opposition. Humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts have been hampered by bureaucratic red tape, purposely delaying peacekeeping and lifesaving missions to relieve suffering in Darfur.

Ethnic-based conflicts such as the one unfolding in Darfur are not unusual in postcolonial Africa, where decolonization and independence was aggressively sought, often with little regard to whether the country was politically mature and prepared for self-governance. In most cases, the level of social, economic and political readiness was ignored. In a number of instances, the newly founded countries were governed by military officers with no prior government experience.

The new leaders were found to lack the ability to manage the country’s natural resources, balance its economy and juggle its politics, further complicated by ethnic divisions and tribal mistrust dating back decades, if not centuries.

From the early 1950s to the late 1960s, many colonies sought, and at times fought, for their independence. As independence fever spread across the continent, self-rule became desirable at all costs. The results were bloody wars, commonly followed by even bloodier civil wars.

Those wars frequently were ignited by ethnic division. As outside mediators intervened, long-term solutions were overlooked in favor of quicker, albeit temporary, resolutions. Hence the problem never really disappeared. Antagonists readied for the next round of violence rather than concentrating on nation-building.

The level of social, political and economic standards of living constantly regressed as resources were diverted toward military ends, much to the detriment of social construction, development and education. Sudan is a prime example. The result was a breakdown of the social, economic and political structures, or a failure of the system. This lead to the coining of the term “failed state.”

Before detailing the makings of a failed state, it is helpful to outline what constitutes a “strong state.” In a report for the CIA’s National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project, Robert Rotberg submitted a paper titled “Nation-State Failures: A Recurring Problem,” in which he defines “strong” and “failed states” in great detail.

Mr. Rotberg notes strong states deliver the goods, including security, law, health care, education, an infrastructure and a working economy, including banking regulations. Mr. Rotberg says: “A failed state is a hollow polity that is no longer willing or able to perform the fundamental tasks of a nation-state in the modern world. Its institutions are flawed.” He adds that in a failed state, “democratic debate is absent,” and the central government is “unable to establish an atmosphere of security throughout the nation.”

To be sure, colonialism came with its share of ills. Yet the colonial powers, for the most part, provided security, a judicial system and other basic necessities as outlined by Mr. Rotberg’s definition of a strong state. The systemic change when colonies made the transition to independence created conflict, as change often does. In some countries, it took years for the conflict to percolate before erupting, but most former colonies suffered the same predicament.

As examples one may cite the civil wars that erupted in Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo (Kinshasa and Brazzaville), Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

African countries were not the only ones affected by postcolonial disorder emanating from ethno-political divisions which led to civil strife and/or partition. The following fall under that latter category: Cambodia, Cyprus, India/Pakistan, Laos, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel and Vietnam.

As Daniel Byman, senior fellow at Brookings Institute’s Saban Center, notes in his recount of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, “the British withdrawal led to immediate conflict.” Indeed, postcolonial successes (Malta, Singapore) are by far the exception, rather than the rule.

This sobering reality raises the following questions: What can be done to overcome the lethargic attitude and avoid repetition of violent conflict in the developing world, particularly Africa? To what extent are former colonial powers responsible for the state of affairs of their former domains? And, are the former colonial powers at fault for creating artificial borders, and in the process “bundling” multiple ethnicities as a single nationality, an experiment that rarely, if ever, has worked?

France and Great Britain, for example, divvied up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire, haphazardly creating international boundaries where none previously existed. The 1916 Anglo-French agreement negotiated by Sykes-Picot at the close of World War I, when the two men proceeded to redraw the Middle East’s borders by drawing straight lines in the sand, is a prime example. Much of the Middle East’s troubles today arise from leftover political failures of colonialism’s miscalculations. Regretfully, the U.S. is going down that same path in Iraq.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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