Political and governance systems, investment and economic growth, and environmental conservation and stewardship in Africa are all at risk due to wars and other civil conflicts. War, and post-conflict situations, places stress on the environment, sometimes contributing to the overexploitation of natural resources. Environmental resources have been acknowledged as a factor in influencing or prolonging some conflicts in Africa (UN 1998). Despite being one of the richest regions, in terms of both human and natural resources, extreme poverty and hunger abound in the region.

Armed conflict has – along with large populations of displaced people and refugees and the HIV/AIDS pandemic – been identified as a major factor in slowing down the achievement of the MDGs (UN DPI 2004). The resources spent on warfare could, if redirected, make a significant contribution to addressing the MDGs and other development targets. For example, SSA has the lowest access globally to improved drinking water supply, with only 58 per cent of the population having such access in 2000 (UN DPI 2004).

Often, food production is drastically affected by armed conflict. According to some studies, areas affected by conflict suffer annual losses of more than 12 per cent of production, although the figure varies widely from country to country (Messer and others 1998). In the extreme case of Angola, for example, production was reduced by 44.5 per cent, and less than 4 per cent of arable land was under commercial or subsistence production in 2000 (Stites and Leaning 2002).

The root causes of conflict in Africa have been the subject of much debate. Unfortunately, the nature of violence has been poorly understood. In contrast to the stereotypes of “ethnic” conflict in Africa, evidence appears to show that Africa’s great ethnic diversity actually reduces, rather than increases, the chances of conflict occurring (Elbadawi and Sambanis 2000). However, in some cases it seems that where one ethnic group is numerically dominant (eg if the majority forms more than 45 per cent of the total population) this may increase the chances of conflict (Collier and Hoeffler 2004). Even in these cases power, and the manipulation of ethnic identity by elites, is a major driving force.

The sources of conflict in Africa reflect the diversity and complexity of Africa’s past and present. Some sources are purely internal, some reflect the dynamics of a particular sub-region, and some have important international dimensions (UN 1998). Despite these differences the sources of conflict in Africa are linked by a number of common themes and experiences (UN 1998). According to the Commission on Human Security (2003), causes of internal conflict include:

  • Competition over land and resources (see Box 4);
  • Sudden and deep political or economic transitions;
  • Growing inequity among people and communities;
  • Increasing crime, corruption and illegal activities;
  • Weak and unstable political regimes and institutions; and
  • Identity politics and historical legacies, such as colonialism.

In several places, economic motivations have been a critical factor (UN 1998):

  • The international arms trade is very high on the list of those who profit from conflict in Africa, and the protagonists themselves.
  • In Liberia, the control and exploitation of diamonds, timber and other raw materials was one of the principal objectives of the warring factions. Control over those resources financed the various factions and gave them the means to sustain the conflict.
  • In Angola, difficulties in the peace process owed much to the importance of control over the exploitation of the country’s lucrative diamond fields.
  • In Sierra Leone, the chance to plunder natural resources and loot Central Bank reserves was a key motivation of those who seized power from the elected Government in May 1997.
Box 4: Access to land and violent conflict in Africa

Land and conflict are closely linked. Historically, land has been seen as a “war prize,” with the victors seizing territorial control at the expense of losing groups, who would often be forced to flee, relinquishing their homes, fields and properties. More recently, however, increased interest in conflict analysis has revealed various complex relationships between control over land (and land-based resources) and conflict. Internal conflict – by far the most significant kind of conflict today – is often motivated by disputes around access to land, fairness and justice. Additionally, during conflict land access is affected. For example, entire communities, who become targets of violence due to the ethnicization of conflict, may be displaced and therefore lose entitlement to land and land resources.

In many countries, there are important issues around land, citizenship and migration, often stemming from events in the colonial era, which generate conflict. In Southern Africa, for example, these are often related to the economic dominance and control over prime land exerted by white settler communities. The land rights of migrant farm workers are also an increasingly important issue. In the GLR land disputes are often closely linked to migration (pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial) and the arbitrary delineation of borders by colonial powers, which resulted in forced displacement. In Eastern Africa too, land, in combination with inequitable resource access, resource degradation and demographic pressures, has been a key driver in violent conflict. This volatile issue of land rights is being addressed differently in the various countries, with varying rates of progress. Foreign support for land administration systems and reform, has often focused on ensuring maximum security of tenure for commercial activities in urban areas as well as large rural farms, and has neglected equity issues. While there is some justification in this approach – based on the assumption that improved tenure security will lead to increased domestic and foreign investment, and hence economic growth – it should not be pursued at the expense of the rights of the rural majority, as this has in many instances led to sustained conflict, sometimes with disastrous economic consequences.

A further problem is the mismatch between customary land tenure systems, which are undergoing changes related to modernization and globalization, and state systems based on western models. Reconciling these different normative frameworks is essential for improving NRM and establishing widely accepted land tenure systems. Governance systems, which value and recognize these multiple values, establish negotiation and mediation processes, and that are based on principles of transparency, accountability and a right-to-know can be an important tool for reducing potential conflict.

Land issues may also be “embedded” within other struggles, including those related to control over mining rights, protected areas, or hunting concessions. In many places control over natural resources defines the opportunities individuals and communities have. Conflict may be manifested at many levels, including over the individualization of rights previously held communally, which results in the loss of access, and opportunity, for some.

In post-conflict situations, the land and shelter needs of returning IDPs and refugees must be carefully managed to avoid further disputes and violence. Land problems are often compounded by the challenging structural nature of ownership and management – gross inequalities between and within communities, and inadequate land administration – demographic pressure, and different conceptions of land rights. Therefore, land policies in post-conflict contexts need to address these multiple factors.

A range of important questions remain about the nature of policy reforms necessary to address land issues in order to prevent violence, during and following conflict. The transition between “conflict” and “post-conflict” is never clear. In terms of the causes of violence, conflict may never be fully resolved; in terms of the violence itself, it may continue sporadically well past the official declaration of “peace”. Certain areas may be particularly affected, and indeed may not come under the control of the post-conflict government for months, or years. This is especially true where remote areas are inaccessible due to lack of infrastructure. In such cases, given the long-term nature of insecurity, land issues in remote areas should not be neglected until “peace” comes. Solutions, no matter how imperfect, should be found.

Sources: Gasana 2002, Huggins 2004, Juma and Ojwang 1996, Katerere and Hill 2002, Mohamed-Katerere and van der Zaag 2003, Moyo 2003