Jeffrey Gettleman on "Africa’s Forever Wars" – Your Thoughts?

I don’t want to let Jeffrey Gettleman’s article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, “Africa’s Forever Wars: Why the Continent’s Conflicts Never End,” go by without comment, but I’m having a pretty crazy week, so I’m opening this one to the floor. (That would be you guys, dear readers.)

Points will be awarded for excellence in commenting, on the usual lucky-charms based system.

An excerpt:

“Even if you could coax these men out of their jungle lairs and get them to the negotiating table, there is very little to offer them. They don’t want ministries or tracts of land to govern. Their armies are often traumatized children, with experience and skills (if you can call them that) totally unsuited for civilian life. All they want is cash, guns, and a license to rampage. And they’ve already got all three. How do you negotiate with that?

The short answer is you don’t. The only way to stop today’s rebels for real is to capture or kill their leaders. Many are uniquely devious characters whose organizations would likely disappear as soon as they do. That’s what happened in Angola when the diamond-smuggling rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was shot, bringing a sudden end to one of the Cold War’s most intense conflicts. In Liberia, the moment that warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor was arrested in 2006 was the same moment that the curtain dropped on the gruesome circus of 10-year-old killers wearing Halloween masks. Countless dollars, hours, and lives have been wasted on fruitless rounds of talks that will never culminate in such clear-cut results. The same could be said of indictments of rebel leaders for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. With the prospect of prosecution looming, those fighting are sure never to give up.”

(I guess just saying “exterminate all the brutes” would have been plagiarism?)

Amanda Taub


  1. This is in no way meant to endorse the political claim described or to otherwise come off as sounding like an apologist, but:

    To take a conflict Gettleman has covered, and which anyone in their right mind should have center stage when thinking about "rebels" in Africa — is he kidding? The FDLR want only a license to loot and kill? Cuz their "jungle lairs" are so comfortable?

    The FDLR want to return to Rwanda with a power-sharing agreement. Rwanda says, "Fuck you, and please cross-reference 'Genocide — Rwanda, 1994.'" As one MONUC guy once put it to me (and I paraphrase), "The FDLR had their chance at a power sharing agreement. It was called the Arusha Accords. Look what happened. Is it any wonder Rwanda doesn't trust them?"

    I don't want to debate the merit or foolishness of negotiating the political demands of the FDLR. I merely want to point out that they have some, and that to assume they (or other rebel groups) don't, just because the violence looks intractable, is a naive. (On the other hand, it jives with the static and ahistorical frame "victims and perpetrators of violence" that NYT coverage takes in general on Congo.)

  2. Sigh.

    Another journalist who believes that "his" experience and understanding of what is happening in Africa (because Africa is a country, right?) are infallible truths. I will never understand this narrow perspective on things, as if only "Africans" are capable of horror. Almost every civilization – whether it still exists today, like the West, or is long gone, like ancient Egyptians – has experienced long periods of unspeakable violence. Of course, the (often irresponsible, over simplified, dangerously biased) mediatization of contemporary violence informs a large part of the intellectual framework we use to try and understand current events, and as long as people like Gettleman have access to mainstream platforms like FP to legitimize their views, it's a self-perpetuating cycle.

  3. I was a little reluctant to write a reply to the article in question because I’m not an expert when it comes to Africa (much like Jeffery Gettleman). But I thought, hey I have an opinion and people should hear it regardless of whether it has things like facts (much like Jeffery Gettleman).

    So here are some valuable things I learned from this article-

    1)Robert Kaplan has a new drinking buddy.
    2)All Africans are blood-thirsty savages who cannot be reasoned with. OK, there are some good “user-friendly” Africans. Well no, not really. Thanks for ruining everything Kenya.
    3)These ultraviolent bush warlords aren’t interested in becoming politicians. Which is probably why guys like Idriss Deby, Omar al-Bashir and Charles Taylor are just hanging out writing their memoirs
    4)Africa isn’t just the land of rape and lions, it’s the land of rape, child soldiers and lions! Oh my!
    5)Un-war, besides being unhelpful in finding a lasting solution to violent conflict which produces millions of deaths, is a stupid word. Let’s promise to never use it again.

  4. Anyone who was in Angola from 2002-2003 will remember that Savimbi's death was absolutely not at the time seen as an end to the conflict. In those early days, the speculation was that UNITA was reforming into factions and preparing to splinter into several armed groups, and in fact there were several movements in that direction. Gettleman clearly has no personal experience of the Angola war, and at best has read a summary conclusion that 'one bullet ended the conflict'. If you were there, you can't help but remember that rapid action to establish demilitarization camps and give UNITA space to come in from the bush, fast reaction to provide millions of people with humanitarian assistance, and most critically of all the 27-year fatigue of the soldiers and civilians themselves, led to the end of the conflict. In short, the Angolans wanted the war to end and so it did, but with support from the international community. As much as it would be convenient to compare the two situations, they have very little in common from the perspective of someone who spent a lot of time in both the altiplano and the kivus.

  5. Karl, I read Gettleman occasionally because he covers the same region as I do, and whether you agree with him or not, I wouldn't accuse him of just doing the grand 'Africa is a country' narrative. Neither does he just write big and bloody stories about conflict, but has a far wider range of issues. Which is also what I'd reply to Penelope: Of course long-running conflicts exist elsewhere, too, and of course Africa isn't just bloody conflicts.

    But the conflicts are there, and I thought it was interesting that he tried to take a more systematic look at the long-running ones and if/how they had changed compared to e.g. the Cold War years.

    At the danger of getting a massive bashing here, I actually liked his attempt to capture this element of war business that he sees developed to an extreme extent in Somalia. Obviously you can (and should) analyse each conflict with its own complexities, but I have often wondered how amenable such conflicts are to resolution.

    Jina, I see your point, but since a 'powersharing agreement' is extremely likely, isn't that factor that will perpetuate the FDLR's jungle war existence (to stick with the imagery)? I don't see any way of sensibly integrating the senior LRA members (nor should they be).

    Right, bash away at me 🙂

    By the way: Has anyone read Jane Bussmann's 'Worst Date Ever'?

  6. What a poor piece of journalism. Gettleman has picked the through the history of African conflicts selecting a handful of examples to reinforce his claim that all African conflicts are about raping and pillaging. He defends his claim by pointing out that in all these conflicts there is no political or military objective of the rebel groups, but he mentions only briefly the economic motivations of a rebel movement. Rebel movements are big business, especially where natural resources are involved. Where there is high unemployment and no realistic scenario of unemployment abating rebel movements represent a chance for future wealth among potential recruits. The movements have lasted so long because the economies in these countries have no improved (which is also due to the existence of the rebel movements). I'm still very much puzzled how Gettleman does not address such a crucial element to the formation and longevity of rebel movements. Guess saying Africans like to kill, rape, and pillage sells more subscriptions.

  7. @Anonymous Gettleman also seems to suggest that the Second Liberian Civil War ended with the arrest of Charles Taylor in 2006. He doesn't mention that Taylor had not been president at the time he was arrested and that a peace treaty had been signed at least three years prior. In fairness though Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief so Liberia and Angola probably aren't his strong points.

    @Andrea I'll admit I haven't really read anything else Gettleman has written. He may be a great writer. But it irks me to no end when people point out problems and offer no solutions.

  8. I would only make one addition to the article (but I'm drunk right now, so I reserve the right to make future changes).

    My addition would be lions – for example:

    "All they want is cash, guns, and a license to rampage" AND LIONS AS PETS.

    What is Africa without lions? Oh, and rape. I'd add that too. Maybe they could have rapist lions as pets?

    "All they want is cash, guns, a license to rampage, AND RAPIST LIONS AS PETS."

    I think that sentence would make Hemingway proud. Concise and to the point.

    One could become some what more direct and just say:

    "All they want is rich, heavily armed, rapist lions."

    I think that sums it up.

  9. See, this is why I love you all. Because you're awesome.

    So, the lucky charms so far:

    Jina: two orange stars for getting this party started right. Way to set a thoughtful tone. And a bonus yellow moon for the use of "ahistorical frame" in a blog's comments section.

    Penelope: one red balloon for making the excellent point that Africa hardly has a monopoly on long, drawn-out conflicts. And you get a yellow moon too, for "mediaization of contemporary violence."

    Karl: three blue diamonds for reading my mind. I believe my exact words to my husband, upon reading this article, were "damn, Danger Spouse, this is some off-brand Kaplan shit right here." You also get one pot of gold for correctly noting that Charles Taylor had been cooling his heels in Nigeria for almost three years by the time he was arrested. And one shooting star for making me laugh.

    To Anonymous: two red balloons awarded for speaking on the basis of actual experience and knowledge -what a novel, novel idea! (It would've been three, except that you're anonymous, so for all I know you're making it up.)

    Andrea: You get an orange star for taking a bold stance, even though you knew a lot of people would disagree with you, and an additional red balloon for responding thoughtfully to the substance of what other commenters had said. (And for saying "bashing," which I think is a funny word.)

    Matt and Texasinafrica: one red balloon each for pointing out the ridiculousness of assuming people fight for no reason. (Gettleman sort of gets that himself – he writes that "I've come to understand is how quickly legitimate grievances in these failed or failing African states deteriorate into rapacious, profit-oriented bloodshed. Congo today is home to a resource rebellion in which vague anti-government feelings become an excuse to steal public property." I s'pose that means Gettleman gets a purple horseshoe, for making sure to use the word "rapacious" when describing the DRC, even when talking about something other than rape.)

    And, finally, Alex Lloyd: two shooting stars for cracking me up, and an additional blue diamond for recognizing the importance of using clean, crisp language when stereotyping an entire continent. Adverbs are the devil's playthings. (As are Africans, if Gettleman is to be believed.)

  10. I'd like to jump on Alex's bandwagon and say that a lot of the Eastern Congo's problems could be solved by the return of one very special goat.

  11. I have nothing smart or articulate to add to the very cogent comments above – this is really just the written version of a good, loud scream: As an African, reading this kind of awful, Africa-as-one-big-tragic-undifferentiable-mush stuff, I feel a strong inclination towards getting into a bit of violence myself.

    And the phrase "jungle lairs"… I think I best not even get started on that one.

  12. I think that the changing nature of conflict in Africa is a topic well worth examining, and though there were some "gross oversimplifications," I agree with Andrea that Gettleman is above the Africa as country narrative. I don't think he painted the whole continent as bloodthirsty savages, either – just the people involved in the conflicts he mentioned (which… yeah, "Jungle lairs" gave me a cold chill as well).

    The idea that the leaders don't have any substantive goals is crap – however, I find it reasonable that he questions the military objective of ramming an assault rifle inside a woman. The extreme brutality used in the Congo is definitely a tactic to keep civilians fearful in a war with many other driving factors. But I can't believe that that's ALL it is.

    I thought his mention of how the child soldiers are unsuited for civilian life was the most compelling part of his analysis of why so many conflicts are going around in circles. That's not to say that given a chance at peace many of them couldn't get back to a better life, but as long as they grow up inside a conflict from child soldiers to young soldiers, it's entirely possible that some of the original "real" goals start to fall by the wayside because the business of war is all they know, and they start to relish it.

    I guess my point is that while Gettleman is oversimplifying, let's not oversimplify either by rejecting his point out of hand.

    (And just to put my perspective in perspective, I'm commenting with a keen journalistic interest in Africa but no experience on the ground in these conflict areas. I do, however, have some background in psych, and I tend to examine people in conflicts through that lens).

  13. The assertion that "They don't want ministries or tracts of land to govern" is perhaps one of the most empirically wrong statements in the history of facts.

    I don't have time to look it up but if I remember correctly from grad school, Hoady and Hartzell, Tull and Mehler, the Prio War Termination Database, as well anyone who has ever given any thought to how African wars end has observed the exact opposite — more wars end in power sharing and negotiation than ever before.

    If anything, the old timey-rebellions and revolutions got cold war support, and were fought by people who wanted to win the whole shebang (and sometimes did); they didn't want to negotiate, because the didn't need to. Nowadays, rebels are happy to negotiate a powersharing deal, which the international community also likes. The only exception I can think of is the LRA, but even Otti was negotiating.

    This cam out the same week that the JEM settled in Qatar, SPLM began campaign for land and power, Mai Mai Kifuafua were whining that they didn't get cabinet seats, CNDP were placated with payouts, FLEC in Angola want Cabinda, and al-Shabaab may not want to negotiate but definitely don't fit gettlemen's mould.

    Sometimes (often) wars need to be won on the battlefield, but not because rebels are insatiable nihilists who want nothing but chaos, but because governments shouldn't give them the concrete things that they want

  14. I read over my comment and feel like I didn't make it entirely clear that by "business of war," I was saying that the rebel movements are deeply motivated by wealth. The "real" motivations I referred to are the political ones.

  15. And I shall clutch my star in my sweaty little paws and never ever let go of it!

    Right, here's another try: My regional concentration is East Africa – I've spent quite a bit of time on Southern Sudan and Uganda, I know enough of the complexity of DRC to not claim to have any really substantial knowledge of it (I know thatI don't know). I think to accuse Gettleman of doing the Africa-is-a-country story is unfair, and so the Africa-lions-guns-rape thing doesn't work. It's legitimate to attempt an analysis whether there is a common thread to current African conflicts (independently of whether you think this is true or not), and that necessarily involves the concepts of, well, conflict and Africa. If he wrote about the banana industry, he'd be mentioning bananas a lot, and you probably wouldn't accuse him of saying that all of Africa is bananas. Emily actually expresses the counter-over-simplification better. If this were Bono or Geldof, I'd be leading the Africa-is-not-a-single-country hate mail campaign.

    I found this article interesting because I do see it happen that conflicts may start out with a (legitimate) political agenda, but then other interests continue to drive it. LRA in UG: Yes, they may have asked for several minister positions, but that's not a realistic demand, nor do I think it's legitimate – and I also doubt that it really is an honest demand.

    Child soldiers: I do come from a bleeding-heart liberal corner, but I'm often struck by all the effort devoted to former child soldiers – and comparatively little to their victims. I wonder: even if someone was a child when forced to become a soldier – isn't that person, after butchering and killing, not perhaps beyond redemption? I don't want to sound flippant, and I have no answers for this. I do see the point that ex-child soldiers need to be addressed since they'll otherwise remain a risk to safety and stability.

    In conclusion: Conflicts persist because they work for some.

    Also in conclusion: What Emily said.

  16. No-one has yet pointed out that the article is illustrated with a picture of what looks like JEM or SLA troops.

    And we can all agree that neither of those movements have "clear goals" and definitely "don't want ministries or tracts of land to govern".

    To be fair to Gettleman, he does note, towards the end of the article, that their commanders "seem legitimately motivated", but this does only seem to apply to their commanders.

    This is another disturbing motif in the article. The only people with any agency are the commanders – and these are either noble rebels (pre-1990) or rapacious crooks (post-1990). What about the rest of their movements? The only role they are assigned is blind followers inspired by charismatic freedom fighters or committing atrocities for cruel madmen. In simply ignoring the lives and struggles of the masses, Gettleman proves is he on a level with so much other poor reportage from Africa.

    Can we assign him punishment of 10,000 lines of "I must read Chris Blattman's research on child soldiers"?

  17. But Wait! What’s this?

    "All this might seem a gross simplification, and indeed, not all of Africa’s conflicts fit this new paradigm."

    Yes Jeff. It might just be a gross simplification. You twat.

  18. You people are hilarious. And I like your point about the denial of agency on the part of anyone but the commanders, Tom.

    Although I'm not too sure how Chris is going to feel about having his work assigned punitively…

  19. Why would anyone buy this "some people just want to watch the world burn" pile of tripe? Its facetious and offensive given that almost every civil conflagration that we are currently seeing wherever whenever by whomever in the "country of Africa" is, like everywhere else in the world, all a proxy war about power and wealth, albeit with many a couple of orders of magnitude of brutality tossed in for good measure.

    If you want to study brutality, great, go ahead and do it. Be sure though to make it clear that thats all you are a student of. And more important, don't claim that it is the only defining characteristic of whats going on in "Africa" and that it is the only thing that matters.

  20. Several comments have offered the LRA as the one example that might fit Gettleman's analysis. Joseph Kony, he says, “just gives orders to burn.”

    Much writing about the LRA displays the overpowering temptation to paint his brutality in senseless terms. Serious analysis and attempts to explain might appear to excuse him, and invite accusations of being an apologist for horrifying violence. But writing him off as a psychopathic monster is counter-productive. Everyone I have ever talked to that supports or is part of the LRA seems to scream with every fiber of their being, “listen to me!” Many of the atrocities we abhor are violent messages saying the same thing.

    Speeches, interviews, and reports of sermons delivered by Joseph Kony by people who have spent time in the LRA articulate the substance of spiritual, ideological and political motivations. Whether we accept them as “reasonable” or not does not negate their existence. (Also, before letting the big man YM off the hook too much, Gettleman should do a bit more research on the NRA’s track record with attacks on civilians and use of child soldiers. The word “noble” doesn’t really spring to mind.)

  21. This reminds me of a well-established tradition of "I've got a new job so what-evs" articles by foreign journalists soon to leave Nairobi.

  22. Arguments for motivation and for 'watching the world burn' are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as Gettleman fails to recognise. It is quite possible that you can watch the world burn, enrich yourself and bitch-slap someone you don't like all while pursuing a legit political goal (even if the means are illegitimate).

    Excellent point about Commanders being the only people ascribed agency.

    This is not my field so I cannot offer you an alternative 'truth', but this analysis seems to be remarkable in that it neither ascribes sufficient agency to individuals or understands the mechanics and complexities of group motivation.

    In otherwords, it's crap. And the writer sounds like a tool. Did that lower the tone a bit too much? sorry.

  23. "It is quite possible that you can watch the world burn, enrich yourself and bitch-slap someone you don't like all while pursuing a legit political goal (even if the means are illegitimate)."

    Dude… Ranil, I think you nailed it.

    I'd love to see someone attempt an analysis of the same topic that takes all those things, and the individual motivations, into account.

  24. It's worth pointing out, at this point, that Gettleman is not the only one guilty of the sins ascribed to him — ignoring the agency of non-commanders, ignoring the fact that fighters have motives and/or political objectives, etc. (The only thing that maybe unique to him is overlooking the lions.) Most people writing big sweeping essays about Africa do this.

    Also, as someone reads FP regularly, it's also worth noting that this isn't that different than their other major magazine pieces — about Africa or not. In print, they have always tended (in my view) toward simplified frames in major articles which are then filled with general examples that support the picture. It's a little bit like a bank commissioning a portrait of its founder in pointilism — big production, the subject of which is the biggest guy they can think of, that looks reasonable enough if you stand far enough away. Which most of FP readers must, because this has been going on for a long time. (Oddly, their website doesn't seem to me to engage in the same practice.)

    I'm not saying this is a bad thing per se. I get impatient with media-of-Africa critiques that say, "This sucked and you should never write this way ever about anything, Love, someone who probably isn't a journalist." FP must see a value in it; clearly its readers do, cuz it's been around awhile. It also doesn't mean all the stories that follow the same framework are as bad as everyone thinks Gettleman's is. It just means this is the thing FP does. That's probably why Gettleman's piece is there and not, say, Foreign Affairs.

  25. Anon – re: what you say about how we deal with the media, I totally agree. I blogged about why the media is like it is, and why we don't really have realistic expectations for it just last week.

  26. I've decided neither Gettleman or Kristof is deserving of any comment. They're beyond the pale.

  27. “Most of today's African fighters are not rebels with a cause; they're predators.”
    Yeay! Old School vs. New School is no longer limited to Hip Hop but now also applicable to African fighters.

    Ah the Old School gang, don’t you miss the days were the rebels fought for political power. I mean they had a real agenda, like, you know, a nationalist programme, nothing like these wannabes of the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire. Just because you transform yourself into a political party doesn’t mean you qualify. Amateurs! And what about these Cabinda guys, shooting at footballers in a bus just because you want separation, Pfff! anyone could do that back in the days.
    No! We shouldn’t insult the Old School fighters by associating them with the current rebels without a cause. I mean, nowadays, which African fighter in their right mind would start fighting because of (perceived) ethnic oppression? (This was a rhetorical question, JEM, CNDP and FDLR you can all lower your hands). And seriously in this post-9/11 area who does fight for religious motives? People please! (Yes, Al-Shabab and Hizbu Al-Islam we understand it’s time for prayer, you are excused, AQMI you want to join them as well?). Today is nothing like the old days. I remember the time when we had rebels in our backyards just to piss off the neighbours (Chad, Sudan you’re becoming annoying, can’t you just take it outside? You too Ethiopia and Eritrea, you just can’t leave the poor kid alone and you know how Somalia has a fragile constitution).

    Yes definitely, the New School will never be able to rise to the standards of the Old School. Back then, in the wise words of Old School rapper Afrika Bambataa and the Zulu Nation, we had “Peace, Unity, Love and Having Fun!” Ah, the good times we had!

  28. I love the content on this blog as well as the many others we all read, but it's got me to wondering, is it possible that there will be an emerging field in academia in which people analyze the way people analyze African issues?

  29. What a poor piece of journalism. Gettleman has picked the through the history of African conflicts selecting a handful of examples to reinforce his claim that all African conflicts are about raping and pillaging. He defends his claim by pointing out that in all these conflicts there is no political or military objective of the rebel groups, but he mentions only briefly the economic motivations of a rebel movement. Rebel movements are big business, especially where natural resources are involved. Where there is high unemployment and no realistic scenario of unemployment abating rebel movements represent a chance for future wealth among potential recruits. The movements have lasted so long because the economies in these countries have no improved (which is also due to the existence of the rebel movements). I'm still very much puzzled how Gettleman does not address such a crucial element to the formation and longevity of rebel movements. Guess saying Africans like to kill, rape, and pillage sells more subscriptions.
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