Internal Displacement in Africa: Where does the Responsibility Lie?

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

May 26, 2004

Africa is the continent with the most underreported and neglected humanitarian emergencies. There are 3 to 4 million refugees in Africa and 13 million internally displaced persons, uprooted by civil war, internal violence, ethnic cleansing, genocide and other serious human rights abuses. Indeed, Africa has more IDPs – people forcibly displaced within their own countries — than any other part of the world, the worldwide total being 25 million. Of the 13 million IDPs, five million can be found in Sudan where the UN says that the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster is currently taking place in the western region of Darfur. Large numbers can also be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, with substantial numbers as well in Liberia, Ivory Coast, Burundi and Somalia – all countries that have experienced protracted and brutal conflicts.

Where does the responsibility lie? To begin with, the colonial powers’ artificially created states, with a multiplicity of ethnic groups with little sense of national identity, generated a great deal of conflict and displacement in Africa. This was later exacerbated by the Cold War with the two superpowers funneling arms to client governments with little regard for how these governments treated their own people. Today, however, it is African governments that must bear the responsibility. Whereas democratic and pluralistic governments could mitigate some of the problems afflicting their societies, many African states are under military rule or the rule of dominant ethnic groups that exclude or marginalize others. When it comes to internally displaced persons, African governments will rightfully insist that they have the primary responsibility, but they often prove unwilling or unable to exercise that responsibility. In Darfur right now, in western Sudan, we are seeing a good example of what national responsibility should not be. We are witnessing government blockage of international humanitarian aid from reaching three uprooted black African ethnic groups. Indeed, up to 400,000 deaths are predicted unless the government allows in food and medicine before June when the rainy season makes roads impassable.

This is not to suggest that governments that exercise their national responsibility and turn to the outside world for help always receive it. Take the case of Liberia in West Africa. The World Food Program reports that it has received less than half of the $77 million it requested to feed IDPs and other affected persons in the area. This means that WFP will soon have to start cutting food rations to already malnourished IDPs. Similarly, the World Food Program reports that it has received only $35 million of an appeal for $253 million for its operation in Angola aimed at resettling IDPs and returning refugees. As a result, returns will be less sustainable, which will undermine stability in the country.

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