Africa’s Internal Refugees

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

October 1, 1998

The U.S. government bends over backward to promote trade, investment and democracy in Africa while giving little attention to one of the continent’s most serious problems: How to help the 10 million people forced from their homes and displaced within their own countries by civil wars, ethnic strife and gross abuse of human rights. Unlike people who cross a border and have an international refugee system to turn to, those uprooted in their own countries have no assured source of protection or assistance. They may remain beset by hunger, disease and inadequate shelter, and subject to systematic abuse by their own government or insurgent forces.

The areas they flee often become depopulated. Farmland deteriorates. Their property may be seized by others and their communities destroyed. In the areas where they seek refuge, forests and grasslands are often stripped for housing and fuel. In urban centers, water supplies and sanitation facilities become overloaded, as do social services, bringing cities to a breaking point.

Whether in Africa’s Great Lakes region, Liberia, Sierra Leone or the Horn, displacement also disrupts neighboring states, leading to refugee flows and other economic and political consequences. Although more people are internally displaced in Africa than in any other continent, Africa is the least equipped to deal with the problem. Ten of the African countries with significant displaced populations are among the 30 poorest countries in the world. By far and away, the worst case is the Sudan, where some 4 million displaced people suffer recurrent famine. In Angola, the number is daily growing past the 1 million mark as the peace agreement between the government and the rebel force Unita breaks down. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, hundreds of thousands remain uprooted despite recent peace agreements. And in Burundi, Uganda, Congo Brazzaville, Somalia, Congo Kinshasa and Kenya, there are hundreds of thousands more.

Why is Africa afflicted by so much conflict and displacement? One reason is its multiplicity of ethnic groups, more than a thousand, divided among artificially created states that have little sense of national identity. Democratic and pluralistic government could mitigate this problem, but few African states enjoy democratic rule. Most are under military or ethnic rulers who exclude or marginalize people in groups different from their own. In the Sudan, an Arabized Muslim government seeks by force to impose an Islamic state on non-Arab, non-Muslim peoples in the south. In Rwanda and Burundi, the Tutsi and the Hutu regularly engage in bouts of killing, unable to achieve an equitable sharing of power. Cold War politics exacerbated Africa’s problems. The United States and the Soviet Union funneled arms to client governments in Congo Kinshasa, Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Liberia and Ethiopia with little regard for how these governments treated their own people. Intense poverty and fierce competition for resources have been other major causes of conflict and displacement.

What can be done to prevent and contain crises of internal displacement? First and foremost, political action is required. The United Nations and especially the major powers in the Security Council need to bring pressure on warring parties in Africa and insist on mediation of disputes. They must be ready to offer development aid, investment and debt relief to those who will work to bring conflicts under control.

Second, humanitarian organizations need to respond more consistently and more rapidly. No one international agency has a mandate to protect and assist people internally displaced. The new U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which in 1997 became the reference point for this group, must begin to assign responsibilities to Unicef and other agencies when they are endangered. Burundi, Congo Kinshasa and Angola are cases that need urgent attention.

Third, greater attention must be paid to human rights and protection issues. In Rwanda in 1995, several thousand internally displaced people received food and shelter but were massacred in full view of U.N. relief workers and peacekeepers. It is often forgotten that displaced people may need protection just as urgently as food.

Finally, Africans must play a stronger role in addressing the problems in their own region. The conflict-prevention machinery of the Organization of African Unity needs to be strengthened and an all-Africa military or police force set up to protect and gain access to uprooted populations. In 1990 in Liberia, the Economic Community of West African States intervened through its military arm and was able to set up a safe haven for the displaced, establish order in Monrovia and make possible the return of humanitarian agencies to the city. The Liberian example shows that Africans need not always look to the rest of the world for succor. Through national, regional and continent- wide cooperation they can begin to solve their own problems. The United States should give full support to strengthening their efforts.