22 January 2007

Charity in Poverty and Thoughts on Africa

It is well know that some of the most generous charitable givers, on a percentage of income basis, are the poor. This phenomena takes place on the international scene as well.

No one would fault the government of Southern Sudan for shirking its international obligations. This is the government of a genocide ridden semi-autonomous region (with a status simliar to Kosovo) oppressed by the more widely internationally recognized government of Sudan -- whom Andrew Romanoff, Speaker of the House in Colorado's General Assembly, and leaders in many other state governments, are seeking to divest themselves from economic associations with, due to their heinous disregard for their own citizens.

But, that isn't what is happening. Instead, the government of South Sudan is seeking to host peace negotiations between the government of Uganda, and Lord's Resistance Army rebels (a fundamentalist Christian movement known for its brutality that has operated mostly in Southern Sudan and Uganda).

He identified the countries as South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. "We asked for guarantors, so these countries will be external observers at the same time the guarantors of the peace talks," he said.

It makes sense, once you've been through the process of goverment-insurgency negotiations, you become a pro, and putting those skills to good use is one of the few assets you have and a way to build international stature and recognition.

Meanwhile, to the East, we see Ethiopia, another nation whom no one would fault for sitting out its international responsiblities as it licks its wounds after seemingly eternal civil war and strife (ultimately resulting in independence for Eritrea a few years ago), for bowing out from military involvement in international basketcase Somolia. But, rather than shirking its duty, Ethiopia has sent in large contingents of troops to dislodge Islamist forces who seek to displace the nominal government of the country. In part, this make sense, not because Ethiopia's legitimacy is at issue, but because Ethiopia has an excess of men (and women) under arms who need constructive missions to undertake, and because Somolia, with whom Ethiopia shares a long Eastern border, is a potential security threat.

Of course, in diplomacy, everything is more than it seems.

The genocidal wars in Sudan are to a great extent, religious wars, between a North African Islamic population that dominates the country politically, and a Christian-Animist population in the South (and it is likewise no surprise that the Christian West has taken the side of Southern Sudan).

Ethiopia was a nation with a large Christian community before Ireland was (in contrast, most of Africa's Christians are converts of Western missionaries), and it is thus no surprise that it would favor preventing the rise of a hard core Islamic state in Somolia (and it is likewise no surprise that the Bush Administration, which sees Islamists as the new communists, finds common cause with them in this action).

Back in Southern Sudan, "the peace talks that are being boycotted by the LRA on claims that Sudan is not a neutral country. They also claim Dr Machar, the chief mediator, is pro-Uganda government." Still, it is natural that a government of an insurgent people whose tendency towards Christianity is highlighted in Sudan, would see themselves as qualified to be honest brokers in a conflict between a neighboring government and insurgent Christian rebels in Uganda, a country with a religious make up similar to Canada (predominantly Catholic and Anglican).

Somolia and Sudan, by the way, are not the only flash points in a larger African Islamic/non-Islamic cultural, political and military struggle. Schismatic tendencies in Nigeria largely follow these lines. The imperfect peace that has been in place in Chad since 1982 has largely involved similar dividing lines.

It would oversimplify to boil it all down to religious conflict. Eritrea and Ethiopia's long civil war, for example, was one fought between two multi-cultural societies. Tribal affliations rival religious ones in modern conflicts, and the fact that most African nations have no one dominant ethic group or even native language, is often as relevant as the connections between groups in different regions. And, broad based impacts of dictatorial governments have muted expressions of real and demagogue created divisions between groups for much of the post-Colonial era.

But the themes of the use of African regional military and diplomatic efforts to address regional conflicts (largely because no one else is interested in getting involved), and of local conflicts taking on world dimensions in a struggle between Islamist and non-Islamist forces, is one that is likely to continue going forward. There are powerful outside forces to drive that dimension of the conflicts, that were almost inevitable at some point as the anemic Western style democracies in large states with artificial boundaries instituted when colonial powers left have floundered for a generation.

Military footnote:

It is easy to forget just how feeble the military efforts that are changing the face of Africa, both on government and insurgent sides of these conflicts can be. Consider one of the government responses to the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda in 1991:

As part of Operation North, Acholi Betty Oyella Bigombe, the Minister charged with ending the insurgency, created "Arrow Groups" mostly armed with bows and arrows, as a form of local defence. As the LRA was armed with modern weaponry, the bow-and-arrow groups were overpowered.

Here is what happened in the Rwandan genocide in 1994:

Most of the victims were killed in their villages or in towns, often by their neighbors and fellow villagers. The militia members mostly killed their victims by chopping them up with machetes, although some army units used rifles. The victims were often hiding in churches and school buildings, where Hutu extremist gangs massacred them. On 12 April 1994, more than 1,500 Tutsis sought refuge in a Catholic church in Kivumu. Local Interahamwe then used bulldozers to knock down the church building. People who tried to escape were hacked down with machetes or shot.

What was the revolutionary weapon introduced to local military tactics by Darfur rebels in Sudan in 2003?

The rebel tactic of hit-and-run raids using Toyota Land Cruisers to speed across the semi-desert region proved almost impossible for the army, untrained in desert operations, to counter.

These are some of the more extreme examples, but unlike the Cold War, the many late 20th century and early 21st century brush wars in the Third World, often with a religious dimension, have not primarily or even significantly about technological titans or economic power houses working to to develop superior stockpilies of military might. They have been widespread conflicts, fought at the grass roots level, with only vague strategies, with relatively primative weapons.


Anonymous said...

Just a brief point -

I know that you are not particularly sympathetic to religion, but I don't think it's very accurate to describe the Lord's Resistance Army as a "fundamentalist Christian movement", considering that the practices and beliefs of its leader run so obviously contrary to the basic tenets and guidance of Christianity.

Instead of pointing out the obvious and most reasonable fact - that organisations like the LRA cannot honestly claim in any way to be 'Christian' - I fear that mis-labelling like this will only contribute to the already widespread misunderstanding of a number of religions, including Christianity.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

In my book, if you say you are a Christian, you are a Christian.

None of the major denominations of Christianity hue particularly close to the injunctions of the New Testament, and refusing to call them Christian would be silly.

The LRA and a lot of other groups who some Christians say aren't Christian honestly believe that they are Christian. I don't see it as my place to distinguish.

If it is any consolation, I use the term Christianity to refer to the religion that exists in this world, and not to a particular set of idealized beliefs.