Breaking Africa’s cycle of forced displacement

2019-02-26

Children make up 59% of Africa’s refugees and 50% of its internally displaced people. And while forced displacement continues to steal the childhoods of millions of Africans, adults aren’t moving fast enough to resolve the continent’s ongoing conflicts.

Fifty years ago, the mass displacement of people due to liberation struggles led to the adoption of the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. At the time, there were 700 000 refugees in Africa. This is 58% of the 1.2 million refugees currently in Uganda alone.

Africa is home to at least 20.3 million forcibly displaced people – made up of 6.3 million refugees and 14 million internally displaced people. Forced displacement has soared over the past 50 years, driven largely by conflict. Current displacements have more to do with conflicts within states than between states, which was the case when the OAU convention came into being.

Children make up a huge portion of forcibly displaced people – this robs Africa of its future

To achieve the ‘Africa we want’ by 2063, tackling the root causes of forced displacement is critical. This is recognised by the African Union (AU), which debated the issue on the sidelines of its 32nd summit earlier this month. Five more events are planned this year to mark the AU’s 2019 focus on finding solutions to forced displacement. A humanitarian summit and advocacy for better implementation of the OAU refugee convention and internally displaced people convention are also intended.

In 2017, half of the world’s 20 violent conflicts were in Africa. Affected countries and regions included the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), across the Lake Chad Basin (due to Boko Haram), Ethiopia (inter-ethnic rivalry), Somalia and Kenya (due to al-Shabaab), South Sudan and Sudan. Drivers of these conflicts include poverty, economic hardship, poor governance, marginalisation of the youth, and election-related violence.  

Most forcibly displaced people are found in places experiencing violent conflicts. While the conflict in South Sudan has led to 2.4 million refugees and two million internally displaced people, over 800 000 refugees have fled the DRC and 4.5 million have become internally displaced. From Somalia, one million refugees have fled and 2.6 million are internally displaced.

Resolving Africa’s conflicts isn’t just about resources; political will is arguably more important

The conflict in Nigeria has created 230 000 refugees and 2.4 million internally displaced people. In October 2018, Ethiopia – a country hosting over 900 000 refugees including from South Sudan and Somalia – had 2.8 million internally displaced people of its own, although the Ethiopian government announced recently that one million had returned home.

The link between conflict and displacement is well established – but why has the continent failed to address its conflicts? For one, Africa hasn’t focused enough on conflict prevention and resolution. This is due to a lack of resources and political will, among other things. Most efforts have instead focused on conflict management – suppressing or eliminating overt violence to reduce suffering after a conflict has erupted.

The result is the deployment of peacekeeping operations. Seven of the world’s 14 UN peacekeeping missions are in Africa. Despite huge investment in these missions, their effectiveness is hard to measure.

So what needs to be done to address the root causes of conflicts and displacement? Conflict resolution and prevention efforts require national dialogues and related instruments of political settlement. This aligns with the fourth goal of Agenda 2063, which highlights the need for dialogue-centred conflict prevention and the management and resolution of existing conflicts. It also goes well with initiatives such as ‘silencing the guns by 2020’.

The roadmap for ‘silencing the guns’ recognises the importance of ‘addressing the plight of internally displaced people and refugees and eliminating the root causes of this phenomenon by fully implementing continental and universal frameworks’.

The AU’s 2019 focus on forced displacement could raise awareness and political will to prevent conflicts

Silencing the guns is an important step in ensuring that the burden of conflict isn’t transferred to Africa’s next generation. But despite its noble vision, the initiative faces enormous implementation challenges. These include a lack of democracy and human rights in many African countries, a lack of economic opportunities to enable especially the youth to earn a living, and the abundance of arms.  

The ongoing AU reform process may help address some of these problems, assuming the continental body becomes more effective and achieves its goals of institutional restructuring, self-financing, and reducing the number of summits. The self-financing scheme has already enabled the peace fund to raise US$84 million in Africa, and 75% of this funding will be used for mediation and preventive diplomacy.

Resolving Africa’s conflicts isn’t just about resources though. Political will is arguably more important. The unexpected resolution of the Ethiopia-Eritrean border conflict in 2018 illustrates this. Political transformation in Ethiopia and the related change of discourse and perception between the two governments significantly transformed the conflict. 

The 2019 AU theme, focusing on the plight of forcibly displaced Africans, can raise awareness about the need to address conflicts, which in turn can build political will.

The fact that children make up a huge portion of forcibly displaced people shows that Africa is being robbed of its future. When children are condemned to refugee camps instead of going to school, the conditions are ripe for creating a lost generation of Africans. They also provide fertile ground for the cycle of conflict and displacement to continue.

Tsion Tadesse Abebe, Senior Researcher, Migration, ISS Addis Ababa

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Picture: Christian Jepsen/NRC

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