Conflict Zones and Crossroads: Understanding Africa's Challenges

By Rotberg, Robert | Harvard International Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Conflict Zones and Crossroads: Understanding Africa's Challenges


Rotberg, Robert, Harvard International Review


What role did Africa play in Western conflicts such as World War I, World War II, and the Cold War?

In both World Wars, Sub-Saharan Africa contributed masses of troops to the winning war effort. For example, in World War I, African soldiers and porters helped the British effort to end German control of what is now Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. The role of African involvement expanded during World War II, where French and English-speaking African troops were critical to the eventual victory. They fought alongside the traditional Free French and British brigades in Europe, but were also central to campaigns in Fast Africa, in North Africa, and even in Asia. These troops helped the Allies push the Italians out of Ethiopia and Eritrea, defended Aden, and then went on to the Italian campaign.

During the Cold War, some African polities, such as that of the Congo, became pawns in the Soviet-Western battles for control of resources and political hegemony. Somalia and Ethiopia changed sides, while many remained Western. A few joined the Soviet camp or decided to remain "non-aligned," a euphemism for being friendly to, but not necessarily in, the Soviet camp. The West, especially the United States, was desperate to keep the then-new African nations from succumbing to Soviet overtures and blandishments.

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How has the legacy of European colonialism impacted Africa and the conflicts that are prevalent today?

European colonialism brought rails and roads to much of Africa, but it also cut the African continent up into numerous administrative units, thus creating a drag on development. However, though many attribute Africa's continuing ills to its colonial past, none of today's conflicts can be blamed on colonialism. Indeed, for the most part, they can be blamed on human agency--on the greed of specific African leaders like General Omar al-Bashir in the Sudan, President Siaka Stephens in Sierra Leone, and President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Leadership actions have been responsible for peace, stability, and prosperity in places like Botswana and Zambia, and for the outbreak of inter-communal conflicts in Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Mauritania, Somalia, and so on.

Why does the problem of underdevelopment continue in Africa as a whole?

This question cannot be answered briefly. It continues because of the raw geographical deal that Sub-Saharan Africa was served and also by the tropical penalty that is the lot of many of its countries. Many countries, which have not adopted canal and water-routing technologies, are dependent on rainfall for agriculture, and African farmers grow crops that have little export potential. Sub-Saharan African countries are also smaller and more numerous than on any other continent, which further adds to the difficulty of enlarging markets, forging effective arteries of commerce, and constructing effective transport links to the wider world.

But Africa's largest deficit is its paucity of committed, responsible leadership. Too many heads of state have been satisfied to enrich themselves, their cronies, and their families. Only a handful have ruled for the nation and not for personal profit. Corruption is rampant, another detriment to development. Since leaders have focused on themselves rather than their peoples, they crafted policies capable of extracting rents rather than developing agriculture or industry. The resource curse is alive and well in Africa, especially in the richest states. Note that the worst performers on the 2009 Index of African Governance, just released from the Kennedy School of Government, are all potentially wealthy second-rate performers such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea.

What do you see as possible solutions to these problems and where do you think the solutions should come from?

The solutions must be African. The critical two are strengthened leadership and governance, and only Africans themselves can reform their own countries.

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