The Business of War

A new book argues that in the Horn of Africa, politicians, generals and insurgents are driven by money and power, not ideology

For the past 30 years, the Horn of Africa has seen famine, brutal civil wars and floods of refugees fleeing violence. But the upheaval is not senseless—it has its own inexorable market logic, driven by politicians, generals and insurgents seeking power. That’s the argument that Alex de Waal makes in his book The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power (Polity Press, 2015).

De Waal, a research professor at the Fletcher School and a leading expert on Sudan and the Horn of Africa, argues that the region’s political and military leaders operate on what is fundamentally a business model. Money and power are the common currency, and violence is used to achieve specific goals.

As a member of the African Union mediation team for Darfur from 2005 to 2006 and as a senior advisor to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan from 2009 to 2012, de Waal had a seat at the table during complex negotiations between presidents, warlords, war criminals and diplomats. Mediators were attempting to broker an end to the long and deadly conflict in Sudan that has raged intermittently since the 1980s, claiming more than 2 million lives and displacing some 4.5 million people. The negotiations ultimately led to independence for South Sudan in 2011, but conflict continues to dominate the region.

First-hand experience negotiating with warring parties leads de Waal to make some surprising assertions. For example, he argues that armed opponents are not as ideologically committed to their cause as one might imagine. “Men who belong in different political camps, or who organize lethal violence against each other’s followers, do not hate each other,” writes de Waal, who has spent years cajoling truces out of such adversaries. “Human allegiance is tradable: individuals will serve others for reward.”

De Waal, who is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation, shows how the behavior of political and military elites is governed by what he calls market logic. “Political entrepreneurs operate in the political marketplace using money and violence,” he writes. “A politician needs money that he can use at his discretion without having to report or account for it—a ‘political budget.’ . . . Most of this fund will be spent on buying (or renting) other politicians, especially those with armed followers. The public budget is the sideshow.”

The arguments in The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa are backed by colorful anecdotes. One vignette from the Darfur peace negotiations concerns Abdel Wahid al-Nur, leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement. De Waal recounts sitting in the back of a car with Abdel Wahid in 2006, on the final day of negotiations. Abdel Wahid was livid. He was being offered $30 million to compensate war victims. He wanted $100 million. The money would be his to allocate. Abdel Wahid was confronted by a furious Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo. “You let me down, boy!” Obasanjo shouted, his fists raised. The rebel leader would not budge, and ultimately the talks derailed.

“Politics is intrinsically unpredictable, but it is all about staying on top,” de Waal says. “So the political market is simply the rules of this game and how it operates. It’s about who has money, the going price for loyalty, and their political skills.”

This political marketplace, shored up by violence, is eroding the institutions of government and undermining nation building. But it is essential to understand if one is trying to mediate the extraordinary challenges of the region, de Waal says.

He dismisses the notion that participants in armed conflicts in the Horn of Africa are driven by moral motives. The attempt to portray the conflict in Darfur “in black-and-white terms—evil government and virtuous rebels—was complete nonsense,” he says. “So a lot of campaigning around Sudan, especially the South Sudan campaign, was giving the political operators a moral profile that they didn’t warrant.”

In his book, de Waal offers a fascinating insider’s view of how the political marketplace works. Behind the scenes, “even while subordinates are killing one another, the elites are always talking.”

Years of mediating in one of the world’s most intractable conflict zones leaves de Waal cautiously hopeful. “What gives me hope is that as communication and education levels improve, there is a push for more inclusivity in political systems, which makes them less violent.”

Ultimately, the opportunity lies in engaging with the political marketplace. “If the political financiers can come together,” he predicts, “they can change the rules of the game.”

David Goodman is a Vermont-based freelance writer.

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