BBC Interview with Christopher Fomunyoh

Fall 2000


Civil order in Zimbabwe, renewed fighting on the boarder between Ethiopia and Eritrea, implosion in Sierra Leone and no end to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The new millennium has brought more disaster to Africa than hope, and a quandary for the international community. Should they be intervening to be restoring order? And if so with how much force? UN peacekeepers are being deployed in Sierra Leone with humiliating consequences, casting doubt on their proposed mission in the DRC. But Ethiopia and Eritrea have shown themselves impervious to international mediation, while Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe riles at any suggestions from the former colonial power Britain on how to settle the violent occupations of land. I spoke earlier to Ahmed Raja (AR), Editor of Africa Analysis, and Chris Fomunyoh (CF), Regional Director for Africa of the National Democratic Institute.

I asked him (Chris Fomunyoh) first if given that these conflicts were all African problems, they required African not international solutions.

CF: Of course they should. But on one level I think it's simplistic to talk of African solutions to African problems because that could be viewed as a cop out. Think that Africans and African leaders are genuinely interested in helping resolve their own crises. And we've seen in situations like Sierra Leone that ECOMOG or the West African Peacekeeping Force has been pretty active under the leadership of Nigeria. But at the same time, I think some of these African initiatives require some assistance from the international community, be they by logistical support, or support in training and communications equipment. And after all, we've also seen that with conflicts in other parts of the world, and there's an international effort to resolve those crises, a lot Africans would wonder why the same level of attention shouldn't be focused on African crises

Interviewer: Ahmed Rajap

AR: African solutions for African problems, yes! But to say the international community should not intervene is to deny them of their responsibility, because they have responsibility as well to intervene and in providing support. Essentially in the end, the solution will have to come from within Africa. There is no denying that is where the way forward lies, but the international community too has got a responsibility because some of the problems have been caused by the international community. And to say that Africans should solve their own problems is to take them off the hook. They should participate in solving some of these problems.

Interviewer: You use the phrase taking them off the hook, but again you used that expression a lot of the problems are of the West's making. How much longer can one keep on talking in those terms?

AR: Until these problems are solved. And I think with the conflicts in Africa, we have to go to the root cause of the problems. And the problem is not ethnicity per se, but the problem of poverty. And as long as Africa has got this debt overhang, it is going to take a very long time for us to get the wherewithal for solving these problems.

Interviewer: Chris Fomunyoh, do you agree with that, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone; is the root problem one of poverty?

CF: I would say that poverty is one of a number of problems. And the root problem in my opinion, and this is where I would differ slightly with Ahmed, is the problem of democracy and tolerance of diverse viewpoints. The fact is that we need to create political space in Africa, where citizens can feel that they can participate in the governance process without having to take up arms. Or where countries can see disputes between countries as we now see between Eritrea and Ethiopia can be resolved through diplomatic channels. And I think until we attain that level, whether countries are rich such as Angola which has got tremendous resources, or the DRC that has got tremendous minerals; if the political space doesn't exist, and if the political will and leadership doesn't exist, we're going to continue running into conflicts.

Interviewer: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ahmed Rajap is simply an irrational dispute about a boarder is it not?

AR: Yes but there are problems, and these problems are the problems of the ports, there was a problem about the currencies; all economic in the end. And there's not been much investment, lets remember, in Eritrea, since independence. Once these countries get their economic sectors going, I think we can see lots of reductions in tension in the areas.

Interviewer: You say the West and the international community has the responsibility to intervene, but could it not also be that that very intervention has the effect of protracting the problem, avoiding a resolution, even if its by conflict?

AR: Which is why they should intervene in concert with the African countries. That is very important that they go in there with a specific mandate, and not just go in there as someone suggested in one of the papers here recently, to take over the place of the state in Africa, that is definitely not on.

Interviewer: Chris Fomunyoh,

CF: I would add that they could intervene in the area of conflict prevention, because a number of these conflicts are predictable. People have watched the situation deteriorate in Sierra Leone, and there is something that the international community can do proactively to diffuse the tensions before they get to the point where there is armed conflict.

AR: On the specific question of Sierra Leone, for months now, the signs were there that this thing is going to erupt. That the so called armed fighters are not really disarming. That really, they are going to come back, but nobody has been paying attention.

CF: Exactly!

Interviewer: But could it not also be that the reasons why there are so many conflicts in Africa at the moment, is that democracy has not taken root and African leaders do not feel accountable to the people who have voted them into office? And can declare war without any kind of a mandate?

AR: That is part of the problem definitely! And it is interesting that here too the role of the international community, it talks about democracy, it talks about good governance, but once they go into a country and observe that the elections have taken place, they withdraw. There is no institutional backing, and there is no follow up to see how the structures are taking root in these countries.

Interviewer: Chris Fomunyoh,

CF: That's true, and I think in the last ten years we've seen the struggle to bring about more democratization on the African continent. And while it happens to cite some success stories as we've seen recently with good elections in Senegal, elections in Benin, Ghana, Mali; there have been some setbacks. Zimbabwe is not moving in the right direction, there is still the war going on in Angola. And I think it's going to take some time for the political leadership to change and for democratic principles to be enshrined in the daily practices of governance on the continent, and maybe that's going to help resolve conflict. But it will take a lot of work, and it will take commitment because you cannot just transform one party states, or former military regimes overnight. Its going to take some work and some commitment on the part of Africans.

Interviewer: Ahmed Rajap, it's a very fine balance, though, isn't it, between monitoring whether or not democracy is taking root in Africa and what might be construed as neo-colonial intervention?

AR: Not if you go in to support civil society which is in its infancy in most of the African countries, and with an over powering state with all its resources; and the civil society being weak without resources.