Sub-Saharan Africa

Renewed Violence in the Niger Delta

Few of Africa’s many insurgent groups receive much notice in the global media. One way they can get attention is to attack the infrastructure of oil production. Thus the Movement for The Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) found itself in headlines on January 30, 2010, after breaking its truce with the Nigerian government and sabotaging an oil pipeline. A day later, crude oil jumped 1.3 percent (95 cents a barrel)—after having declined by 8.3 percent in January.

The truce between MEND and the Nigerian government, dating only to October 2009, never seemed particularly secure. MEND leaders demanded quick action to address the needs of the poor but oil-rich Niger Delta. Rapid response, however, is not a hallmark of the Nigerian government—especially now, as president Umaru Yar’Adua is ill and missing from action. Before breaking the truce, a MEND leader expressed his frustration in clear terms: “General Abbe, the current defence minister and his cohorts, rather than encourage the government of Nigeria to address the core issues as demanded by true agitators for justice in the Niger Delta, are still inaugurating one dubious committee after another in a bid to continue stealing funds supposedly allocated for the development of the Niger Delta” (see “Niger Delta’s Endless Planning,” by Ifeatu Agbu. http://allafrica.com/stories/201001270657.html)

MEND is an amorphous umbrella organization for a number of insurgent groups operating in the Niger Delta. Nimble and decentralized, MEND has adopted “open-source” tactics relying on ad hoc recruitment from criminal gangs and local cults to conduct hit-and-run raids. MEND actions are brutal but its grievances are real. The Niger Delta, the main source of Nigeria’s wealth, is characterized by extreme poverty, political marginalization, and environmental despoliation. Earlier non-violent resistance movements were not successful. In 1995, the then-dictatorial Nigerian government hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa, a nationally noted author and television personality, after he organized a peaceful protest through the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. A peaceful resistance movement would have a better chance against today’s basically democratic government.

Nigerian culture and politics are sometimes portrayed too crudely as bifurcated between the Christian south and the Muslim north. To be sure, religious tensions are a major issue in much of the country, particularly in the central Jos region. But the situation in the Niger Delta is different. The Ijaw, who form the bulk of MEND’s support, are a primarily Christian group some 15 million strong, yet one of their heroes is the imprisoned and devoutly Muslim militant, Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo. Raised a Christian, Asari-Dokubo converted before founding another local insurgent group, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force.

In the delta, more important than religious conflict is the region’s intricate ethnic geography. The standard ethno-linguistic map of Nigeria, a portion of which is reproduced above, is highly simplified, concealing staggering ethno-linguistic diversity. According to Ethnologue, some 47 distinct language groups are found in the central delta area. Nigeria’s southeastern corner is more diverse still. (See http://www.ethnologue.com/show_map.asp?name=NG&seq=110). Rivalries here sometimes become violent. In the late 1990s, for example, the Ijaw and the Itsekiri fought a minor war, the “Warri Crisis.” Whether inter-ethnic violence will be reignited in the current crisis remains to be seen.

Violence in Cabinda

On January 8, 2010, a bus carrying Togo’s national soccer team to the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Angola was attacked as it traveled through Cabinda, an Angolan exclave separated from the rest of the country by territory belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After killing the driver, gunmen continued firing at the bus for 30 minutes while the players sought safety under the seats. The team’s assistant coach and its media officer were killed, and nine others were injured.

Responsibility for the act was claimed by an offshoot of the separatist group known as FLEC (the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, or, in Portuguese,Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda). FLEC spokesmen claimed that their fighters had intended to kill not the Togolese players but the Angolan security officers who were accompanying their convoy. Another insurgent group, the Armed Forces of Cabinda, also claimed responsibility.

Cabinda boasts massive oil deposits, especially in its near-shore waters (see map). It is believed to be inhabited by 357,000 people, although an estimated one third of the population has fled to other countries; some 20,000 languish in refugee camps in the DRC. Cabindan activists have long claimed that their region is victimized by the authoritarian Angolan state. The secession movement actually dates to the 1960s, well before Angola gained its independence from Portugal. According to Human Rights Watch, the Angolan Army has committed numerous crimes against the people of Cabinda in recent years. As Angola depends heavily on Cabinda’s oil, it has pushed hard to retain control. Until recently, it publicly claimed that FLEC had ceased to be a problem.

The recent massacre in Cabinda brought on several international controversies. Angolan authorities expressed outrage at France, which has reportedly given sanctuary to Cabindan rebels; officials associated with the self-proclaimed Republic of Cabinda are currently based in Paris. In South Africa, anger was directed at the international media for portraying the attack as a typically African incident, implying that all of Africa is insecure – and raising doubts about South Africa’s ability to pull off the 2010 football (soccer) World Cup (http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Opinion%20&%20Analysis/-/539548/841482/-/svqyk8z/-/). My own criticism of the media is quite different; most American outlets ignored the incident altogether, implying that terrorist attacks in Africa are only significant if they somehow threaten the United States.

Linguistic Geography and the Nuba Mountains

The Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com/) is one of the best sites on the web for information about languages and linguistic geography. In the Ethnologue map shown above, a red dot is placed at the geographical center of each of the 6,906 languages listed in the organization’s database. One of the more interesting patterns visible in the map is the cluster of languages in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, one of the world’s most linguistically diverse locations. The region is noted in Sudan for its religious diversity as well. Many Nuba people follow traditional animist faiths, but others have converted to either Islam or Christianity

Unfortunately, very little information about the Nuba region reaches the world media. The area has virtually no roads, and access is further limited by the pervasive lack of security. What is known about the Nuba Mountains is not encouraging. During Sudan’s north-south civil war, many Nuba groups sided with the southern rebels; as a result, the region suffered bombing runs and other harsh reprisals by the central government. In the peace accord that ended (temporarily?) the war, no provisions were made for Nuba independence, much less autonomy. As a result, some experts think that the Nuba Mountains could become “the next Darfur.”

In the 1970s, the Nuba people came briefly to the attention of the wider world through Leni Riefenstahl’s bestselling work of photojournalism, The Last of the Nuba (original German title, Die Nuba). Riefenstahl, best known as Hitler’s cinematographer, was fascinated by the beauty of naked Nuba bodies at public ceremonies. According to Susan Sontag, The Last of the Nubawas “certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years” (from the Wikipedia article on The Last of the Nuba).

Troubled Eritrea

Ethiopia/Eritrea Border Dispute

On December 23, 2009, the United Nations voted to impose sanctions on Eritrea for supporting Islamist militants in Somalia. The next day, Eritrea denied the accusations, labeling the UN actions as “shameful.”

Regardless of whether Eritrea arms Somali rebels, it is clear that the country has one of the most repressive regimes in the world. In fact, Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea dead last in the world in regard to freedom of the press. As the organization’s website puts it, “Life may appear sweet in the floral streets of the capital Asmara, but is in fact nightmarish, particularly in the dark corridors of the all-powerful ministry of information” (http://www.rsf.org/en-rapport15-Eritrea.html).

Language map of Ethiopia and Eritrea from Muturzkin, border enhanced

Eritrea’s relations with its neighbors are not friendly. Its border with Sudan is not fully demarcated, it fought with Yemen over the Hanish islands in the Red Sea in the 1990s, and it remains locked in a bitter struggle with its main opponent, Ethiopia. The 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia may have resulted in as many as 200,000 casualties.

Proponents of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis have a difficult time dealing with the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict. Religion does not play a role, as both countries are roughly half Christian and half Muslim. As can be seen in the map above, linguistic lines as well cut across the political boundary. If anything, Eritrea and Ethiopia together form a single “civilizational” unit. Animosity instead is rooted largely in the two countries’ divergent political histories. In the colonial era, Eritrea was under the rule of Italy, while Ethiopia remained independent through most of the period. A post-colonial union failed as Eritrea resisted Ethiopian rule. As proved true elsewhere in Africa, colonially imposed political boundaries may have been violently and arbitrarily drawn, but they nonetheless remain firmly inscribed.

Southern Sudan

In its December 19, 2009 issue, The Economist magazine reported a rare bit of “good news” from Sudan: the country’s ruling party and the former rebels of the south had agreed upon provisions for the scheduled 2011 referendum that will supposedly allow the south to secede. According to the agreement, Southern Sudan will indeed become an independent country if a majority of its people so vote, providing that the turnout is at least 60 percent. Although the 2011 independence referendum has been planned ever since a 2005 autonomy accord ended the rebellion of the south, informed observers remain skeptical. Southern Sudan, after all, has huge oil reserves that the Khartoum government covets; independence for the south, moreover, could set a dangerous precedent for other restive Sudanese regions, such as Darfur and potentially even the Nuba Hills and the Red Sea coast.

Oil Concessions

Sure enough, several weeks later the mid-December accord began to fray as the government unilaterally declared that southern Sudanese living in the north (and hence generally assumed to be less supportive of independence) would be able to vote. Southern Sudan has also witnessed a recent surge of ethnic violence that has displaced some 250,000 in 2009 alone, as well as incursions by Uganda’s infamously destructive Lord’s Resistance Army. Some Southern Sudanese think that much of this violence has been instigated by the government in order to undermine the south’s bid for independence.

But regardless of the current troubles, the insistence on a 60 percent turnout in the referendum is problematic by itself, as no one knows how many people, let alone eligible voters, reside in Southern Sudan. A 2008 census pegged the region’s population at 8.26 million, a figure that was rejected as absurdly low by the Southern Sudanese parliament. Some sources place the region’s population as high as 15 million. All that is certain is how little is known about Southern Sudan; in 2007, for example, conservationists were staggered when aerial surveys revealed the existence of vast herds of antelopes and other animals (including some 8,000 elephants) in an area widely thought to be lacking in wildlife.

Regardless of any “good news” coming out of Southern Sudan, the referendum scheduled for 2011 is not likely to be a peaceful affair. Watch for continuing strife in Southern Sudan and elsewhere in the country.