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African Writing Archives

Current A.W.



Khumbulani Mpofu's Squatter Camp


...War has become the new administrative paradigm - a more efficient, post-slavery, post-colonial model for the exploitation of people and territory in Africa...


Detail from Khumbulani Mpofu's Squatter Camp

Peace will bless us once more with hearing the happy giggling of children and the enchanting ululation of women… 
John Garang de Mabior. (Sudan’s Painful Road to Peace by Arop Madut-Arop) 

This issue spotlights War and Peace. The linkage will bear explanation; after all, war like peace is substantial enough a subject to command an issue of its own in any journal. The truth is that the mind of man is too fragile to dwell long on the real tragedy of war. Of course we can live comfortably forever with war where it is garlanded with nationalism and served to us by the sensibilities that create the glorious war memorials. We can also live with war as a business: where it is ring-fenced into the day job, the making of bombs for detonation in faraway countries and continents. We can even live with war as religion: where it is practised as an essential toilet, the extermination for deity of vermin unworthy of life. Entire communities will live forever on the spoils of war, on the higher salaries and dividends, the cheaper commodities and labour of refuge seekers.

Yet, to look upon the raw, unembellished face of war (even as a spectator with no risk to life and limb)… that is the dram of depression for the cult of suicide.

Peace, free of such pathos, can of course safely fill its own edition. Yet, it is too intrinsically linked to its darker nemesis. The writerly – and hopefully, critical – eye will see the tension in every peace. There is such a thing as a ‘dirty’ peace; and if we look closely enough, we will usually see the blood beneath the beauty.

And so, war and peace. True peace is after all the most illustrious objective of war. The ANC and other resistance groups declared war on an invidious peace in Apartheid South Africa, in order to establish a more perfect one. Yet, peace is rarely perfect. In his article, Glock for Sale, Aryan Kaganof strains the quality of South Africa’s 21st century peace. Today’s South Africa, with one of the highest crime rates in the world, where two women are raped every minute, exemplifies the fact that peace is never quite as white as the flag of surrender. It is a mottled, speckled grey, and with internecine conflicts erupting continually across the breadth of continent we are forced to the wisdom that peace is a perpetual project, rather like the supposed painting of the Forth Bridge.

Types of War, Kinds of Peace

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. - Albert Einstein.

The conventional wisdom was that World War III – whenever it happened – would be a nuclear Armageddon that would blow humanity and the planet back into the Stone Ages. The lethalness and ferocity of today’s ‘conventional’ warfare puts a question mark behind that presumption. With the amount of damage that conventional arms can deliver, even in a Gaza fortnight, World War III may well be fought with sticks and stones after all.

There are as many types of war as there are kinds of warriors, but the most decorated wars in Africa have been the liberation wars. Unfortunately for Africa’s modern day rulers, the wars of self-rule did not end with the successful conclusion of the wars of ‘Independence’. Africa’s newly-minted states are seamed with the borders of older nations and every now and again the agitation for self-governance swells into conflict. Yet, the recipe for enduring peace is not to yield to every yearning for self-rule. Every human grouping is inherently unstable (just ask the married couple) and the children of the freedom fighters who fought for self-rule for their motherland may eventually hanker for a greater fatherland for themselves. Besides, neither Biafra nor Cabinda were ethnically homogenous entities and even if they had succeeded in breaking away, negotiations were always going to have to replace secession wars at some point in national dialogue. In this sense, peace is best assured by good governance coupled with a perpetual – and sincere – engagement between parties.

This will not satisfy most ‘freedom fighters’ for whom only outright victory is acceptable – or their opponents who will not ‘legitimise terrorists by negotiating with them’. That species of war is therefore not disappearing anytime soon.

The tragedy of civil wars underlines the opportunity cost of savvy leadership in Africa. Incompetent leaders exacerbate the mostly irrelevant differences among communities to catastrophic effect. The Nigerian-Biafran war was an indictment of leadership. Civil costs? Up to three million lives and unimaginable suffering. Similarly the Rwandan, the Liberian, the Sierra Leonean wars... Negotiating a peace is a fraught business, requiring a selflessness and an intelligence more nuanced than most warlords can muster.

The Weight of War

It is interesting that having made a call for writings on War and Peace, African Writing received submissions that were preponderantly on war. This may have something to do with the fact that any mixture of war and peace inevitably becomes a shade of war.

Most of the world’s active conflicts are in Africa. This is a roll call, by no means exhaustive, of countries that have felt the weight of war and conflict in Africa’s recent history:

  •   Eritrea,
  •   Ethiopia,
  •   Somalia,
  •   Chad
  •   Sudan,
  •   Uganda
  •   Democratic Republic of Congo 
  •   Cote d'Ivoire,
  •   Guinea, 
  •   Liberia, 
  •   Burundi
  •   Nigeria,   
  •   Sierra Leone,
  •   Togo
  •   Rwanda
  •   Algeria 
  •   Angola 
  •   Zimbabwe
  •   Kenya 
  •   Mauritania
  •   Morocco

One of Khaled Al Khamissi's taxi drivers had a dream about driving from Cairo to South Africa for the World Cup. He was so fired up about it that Khamissi

didn’t want to tell him that there’s no paved road linking Abu Simbel, the last town in Egypt, with Sudan, and the road stemming from the Toshka road to Sudan is closed, and that there isn’t even a continuous railway line linking Egypt and Sudan, or that even if he reached Sudan then he wouldn’t be allowed to go to southern Sudan without security permits from the Khartoum authorities, which he would not be able to obtain. Or that Cairo taxis aren’t allowed to leave the country.

I forgot to tell him that the African continent is fragmented and disconnected, completely colonized, and that the only people who can still travel there are definitely not the indigenous Africans but rather the white lords, who make the African doors which swing open only for them.

Khamissi also forgot to mention that the poor driver would also have to negotiate half a dozen wars and conflict zones on the way. Africa’s wars come at a cost. The real cost is of course the millions that have died, and the casualties whose lives have been permanently blighted. Beyond that, over US$18 billion – by Oxfam’s conservative estimates – is lost annually to war. That is the amount by which Africa’s civil society is cheated — the roads and railways that are not built, the schools and factories. The result is the poverty that remains endemic across the continent. The anaemic landscape of Khumbulani Mpofu’s painting, Squatters Camp, reviewed in this issue, is a washed-out vision of drunken houses and carshells, drained of the vitality of the human. It is eerily reminiscent of Ando Yeva's No One Lives Here Anymore, which featured in 's debut:

on all the homes
that lie bereft
along the plains
that line Zambezi's shores...

we found the hands and feet and
decapitated heads...

and know for sure
that no one lives here anymore

That staggering cost of waging war makes it more difficult to build the peace. Some 95% of the arms that fuel the wars come from outside Africa. (Even the machete of the Rwandan pogrom was imported from China at the cost of several hundred thousand US dollars). Unfortunately, poverty is the greatest cause of the cannibalistic violence on Africa’s civilian street.

From Oxford, between 15th and 17th of May, Dobrota Pucherova and Elleke Boehmer will lead a worldwide celebration of the life and work of the African revolutionary, Dambudzo Marechera, whose writing, like the man himself, defied conformity. African Writing is supporting the tribute in honour of this iconic African, who like Christopher Okigbo (himself a victim of war), died in his thirties. The irreverence that anti-establishment writers like Marechera brings to the cuddly nepotism of faux democrats is to be prized, but from the sufferer's perspective, an anarchic, nihilistic world view whose end for visioner and public alike is immolation is no better than the system it condemns.

Readers and voters, crushed by the weight of war or the fear of it can be forgiven for desiring hope, for seeking peace. Readers can sicken of the reams of literature and art that paint despair, of life-long liberation wars in which the lines between oppressor and oppressed are irremediably blurred. If their reality is so dismal perhaps they will turn to literature, not so much for escapism as for a way to escape their fates.

So the colour of peace is relevant to its durability, to the avoidance of war. Africa cannot afford a peace whose price is oppression. True peace will be won only by a real engagement by cross sections of the population in the peace project. A plurality of moderating voices, from writers to barbers, from the Khamissis to their taxi drivers, is essential to mediate the extreme voices from the fringes.

There is also a false peace that comes from poverty, from a population too mired in the challenge of surviving from day-to-day to engage the palpable injustice of their African Condition. Communities in this situation merely store up wrath for the future. The street demonstration, however rude and crushing to the ego of leadership, is one of the critical voices of peace. It is a vital and legitimate vent. The ‘dirty’ peace that results from noisy streets is far preferable to the ominous silence of repression. The robust dissensions that exist in the public space are a critical ingredient of sustainable peace. No wonder Khamissi’s taxi driver mourned its ‘death’ in Egypt.

Yet, in the end, there is no peace so credentialled, so lily-white that its owners can go to sleep. When the Biafran war ended, Nigeria discovered that the real war to unite the country would start during the peace that ensued. That struggle continues, with failures highlighted in outbreaks of violence in the Moslem north, in the once placid middle-belt, and in the plundered creeks of the Niger delta. The spate of crimes and lately, xenophobic violence in post-apartheid South Africa underlines this truth. Peace is a project, and the burden of literature, of community, must be to increase the weight of peace.

Increasingly, we will come to understand that this project project is not one that any nation, however large or rich, can pursue alone. Every African remotely interested in peace will be essentially a neo-pan-Africanist. In his interview with , Firoze Manji observes:

..look at the way in which [the ruling elite] thieve even from each other: Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and others are each vying to carve up the wealth of the DRC. Ethiopia, as client to the USA, has been invading Somalia... Building regional solidarity is but a step towards building pan Africanism

Institutionalising Peace in place of War

A worrying trait of many African wars is their duration some chronic conflicts are 40 years old. To last that long, it is clear that the elites that prosecute the wars, and their trading partners, prosper apace. War has become the new administrative paradigm a more efficient, post-slavery, post-colonial model for the exploitation of people and territory in Africa.

Sudan makes for an interesting example of a peculiarly African phenomenon. War historian, Arop Madut-Arop, in his Sudan’s Painful Road to Peace, documents the anatomy of a country that started its war right from its independence from Britain in 1956. Some independence it was, too. Structurally, Sudan as a British colony was ruled as two separate entities: the northern Islamic north where Arabic was the lingua franca and Friday the day of rest, and the southern Christian/Animist south where English was the lingua and Sunday the day of rest. (Nigeria was similarly administered as a Northern and Southern Protectorate.) The two Sudanese entities were already vast territories. Together, they created Africa’s largest ‘country’; and one of its most fissile.

The first beneficiaries of a war are the arms manufacturers and dealers who sometimes midwife the war, and who are often the main beneficiaries of the skewed trade by barter of war gems and other tainted commodities. In Bloody Rocks, the Ivorien, Noelle Bolou writes about the blood-stained diamonds

hanging loud on ... necks and ears…
somewhere on a blood-colored red carpet.

The profits of multinationals nourished by African conflict are obscene. The peace in communities whose prosperity is anchored on institutionalised war abroad is immoral. As world citizens, we must become more discriminating of the decisions of our leadership. No sustainable peace can be built on the wretchedness of others.

It is the responsibility of this generation to roll back war and institutionalise peace (and not just in Africa right across the world). To expose the black marketers who prefer not to deal with legitimate governments. Our great challenge is to help minds that have expanded to survive the atrocity of war to contract into an ordinary peace. Domi Chirongo writes from Mozambique, a country that has seen more than its share of conflict. His fiction, Warning Shots, balances the grisly and the comic as the child narrator struggles to adjust to the brittle aftermath of war.

The Ideology of War v. The Peace Project

The ideology of war is a self-fulfilling prophecy: since conflict is inevitable, the duty of government (…and rebels … and communities) is to stockpile arms, and to prime their population with a propaganda of hatred, so that when the conflict does begin they are ready. A similar idea inspires the pre-nuptial contract: the inevitability of divorce. Every country that practices the ideology of war, will war.

However if we accept the ‘dirty’ nature of peace, rather than building arsenals as a bulwark against war, we can invest energy and foresight in the reconciliation of communities. The re-emergence of the ‘Genocide Ideology’ in Rwanda is instructive. Despite the government’s game efforts to heal the chasms left by 1994, reports from that scarred country suggest that mind-boggling though its recent history of devastation may be the groundwork for future genocide continues to be laid: children too young to have witnessed the tragedy of 1994 are mouthing the obscenities that presaged the killings, which have most likely been learnt from unrepentant parents. It seems that no single public service object not education, not health, not the most outrageously misnamed ministry of 'defence' is as critical as uprooting the ideology of war. When war breaks out, win or lose, no single fibre of the country survives unscathed. For that reason, the peace, however patchy, dirty or flawed it may be, is well worth the investment.

African leaders must wage peace as single-mindedly as they waged war – because the consequences of losing the peace are just as devastating. In the aftermath of every war, the incidence of casual cruelty  among the population rockets - sneak burglars become armed robbers, for instance, Proactive initiatives are required. After the Nigerian Civil War, Federal Government boarding colleges were established that selected the best students from across Nigeria’s five hundred ethnic groups. The anecdotal evidence is that inter-ethnic marriages are more frequent among alumni of the Federal Government colleges. Each such marriage is another bridge for peace, and every poly-ethnic child is a crossing. Wars are won by a consistent series of successful campaigns and strategies. Our peace requires no less. The best way to ensure war, is to fail to plan peace.

Nii Parkes’ story, La Bodega, ends just as a fight threatens. Two black brothers have just been refused entry into a Paris club on account of their colour. The path of peace lay in walking away, but the brothers make a decision to stay, and fight for their rights.

They had weighed the pros and cons in conversation and decided they would fight. If it meant bleeding, they were ready. If it meant arrest and jail, they were ready. Even if it meant death.’

We never know what happens next, because Nii chooses to end La Bodega at this precipice of decision. Sometimes peace is a ripe boil that must be pricked. Even if it meant death! At other times, the brothers’ iron resolution is present at both, well-resourced, sides to an intransigence. The result is a conflict that can escalate into war.

Imagining the Unthinkable

The election of Barrack Obama is at its most symbolic, a step back from war. He campaigned on a platform that opposed the Iraq war and has pledged to end that war. However, he has no magic bullet for Afghanistan. He also presides over the largest military in the world and his country is the world’s largest arms manufacturer and exporter. Sooner than later, he will also be called upon to draw a military line in the sand. He will have to turn down the funding spigots for the War Machine so that he better feed his hungry, cure his sick, to say nothing of the world’s. If that happens, perhaps we will see a reduction of the subsidy of mayhem across the world. Even the serfs of feudal Europe were not taxed quite as mercilessly as the Western worker of the 21st century, to the end that ruinously expensive nuclear submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers might cruise the seas, seeking, and creating enemies and justification for the industry of war.

The province of literature is in the articulation of the improbable in such a way that it begins to sound quite practicable. Akin Adesokan, novelist and teacher, in his essay, Ti Jean beats the Devil, borrows from Derek Walcott to lay out a plan to help Obama outwit the devil. He continues:

in 1938, [C.L.R. James] went to New York and Los Angeles, debating, lecturing, and organizing… he stood in the street in New Orleans, trying to get a taxi. A tall black man in an excellent suit, hand raised to hail a cab. It took a young black boy to show him that he was more likely to be knocked down flat than get a ride. The racist taxi-driver in New Orleans didn’t care whether James’s blackness was the Indian, African, Southern, or Australian variety: he simply saw a black man in the US South.

In the 1930s it was useful for all ‘blacks’ to see themselves as one. Today, the world has flattened further and it is useful for all humans to see themselves as one, and to practice one morality of peace. The American weapons delivered to the Mujahideen for the killing of Russian troops were, in the fullness of time, turned by the successor Taliban on American soldiers. American armaments are just as undiscriminating as the 1930s New Orleans taxi-driver.

The Future of War

Finally we need to ask if it is possible to theorise a future in which the ideology of war gradually become extinct. This is a line of enquiry that will probably have cynics chuckling into their port. Yet, it is an important exercise, because it keys into the critical opportunity cost of war: the vast resources of humanity diverted from building new lives to rebuilding shattered ones; the trillions of dollars diverted from building peace to courting and waging war, from building ferries and liners to warships, from researching malaria to engineering the military successor to the AIDS virus. For all these reasons, war is anathema to Sustainability. As soldiers who return in body bags mutely testify, war may make a good living for some, but it doesn’t do too badly in the killing department either.

In a sense, peace is not the absence of dissension. It is the absence of war. Dissensions will arise every time diametrically opposed interests meet, and peace will endure until the parties roll out the tanks. A good writer on war takes us to the frontiers of the worst tragedy man is capable of – in our armchairs, so that we don’t have to flee there through gunfire and shells, through mined countryside. That is the true province of literature.

Welcome to African Writing’s special issue on War and Peace.

Chuma Nwokolo
African Writing


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