Monday, 2 September 2013

What is “civil war”?

The oxymoron “civil war” is a strange beast indeed. It neither describes what, by any imagination, is “civil” about it nor does it elucidate on the salient features of the nature or character and range of its being. All that “civil war” connotes is that it is an “internal war” – occurring within a seemingly sovereign state, which, in the Africa case, would be a reference to its “Berlin state(s)”. Its opposite, supposedly, is the “inter-state war”.

Since the beginning of the presumed restoration-of-African independence epoch in the Sudan in January 1956, “inter-state wars” in Africa are in fact an exception – just a handful, not more than five! Even here, the genesis of the Ethiopia-Eritrea War (May 1998-June 2000), one of the five, is located in the “internal” wars of old Ethiopia. If one were therefore to follow this “internal war”/“external war” dichotomy-characterisation of armed conflicts in Africa during this epoch, the overwhelming majority of the 15 million Africans who have lost their lives, since the 1966-1970 Igbo genocide, the foundational genocide of post-(European)conquest Africa, would be designated as having died in “internal wars”.


Scholars and others who promote the “civil war” tag particularly in Africa have often done so merely to privilege the extant  “Berlin-state” configuration and its principal or “dominant” protagonist in the conflict (“state”, “government”, “central government”, “federal government”, etc., etc.) over oppositional or insurgent protagonists often cast as “regionalists”, “secessionists”, “rebels” or worse. The trend is to be restricted or trapped in a quaint juridical fidelity of discourse under the overarching, essentially sanitising banner of “civil war” without confronting the much more expansive turbulence of underlying history emplaced. 

If most of the 15 million Africans already referred to died in “internal wars”, then “civil war” proponents’ primary quest to preserve the “Berlin-state” status quo ironically problematises the latter’s existence as this “Berlin-state”, in Africa, is a murder-machine… The salutary lesson from this is obvious:  Rather than try to obfuscate or sanitise a human-made catastrophe, call it by its instantly, recognisable name!

Besides a reference to a territoriality and its constituent peoples in Africa, there is nothing else internal about “internal wars” in Africa. As the Igbo genocide demonstrates, this crime against humanity would probably not have occurred without the central role played by Britain, an external power – right from its conceptualisation to execution (

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