American activists are using social media and other tactics to raise awareness about conflicts in Sudan and Uganda. But some observers worry those campaigns are oversimplifying complex situations: focusing on brutal tactics and war crimes, rather than thornier questions of why rebel groups took up arms in the first place. Kojo talks with scholar William Reno about the evolution of African conflicts and rebel forces over the last fifty years.


  • William Reno Associate Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University; Author, "Warfare in Independent Africa" (Cambridge University Press)


  • 13:25:02

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe first three dictators to fall in the Arab Spring were in Africa. But one year after upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt the rest of Africa seems curiously immune to the kind of protests and democracy movements seen to the north. It's not that the strongman rulers who continue to dominate Sudan or Uganda or Ethiopia are widely loved. They preside over systems that marginalize and often brutalize large numbers of people. They just seem to generate a different kind of violent politics, mostly missing from the American media spotlight.

  • 13:25:34

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis month activists used viral videos and celebrity arrests to bring attention to two long simmering conflicts in Sudan and Uganda. But some worry that those depictions are over simplifying complex stories. William Reno is a leading scholar of politics and conflict in Africa. He joins us from studios in Chicago. William Reno, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:25:58

    MR. WILLIAM RENOIt's my pleasure.

  • 13:25:59

    NNAMDIWilliam Reno is a professor of political science at Northwestern University. His newest book "Warfare in Independent Africa" explores the evolution of politics and conflict over the past 50 years. William Reno, it's been more than a year since the dictator of Tunisia was overthrown igniting a wave of political upheavals across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Some people thought these events would trigger a similar upheaval in Sub Saharan Africa. But for the most part those upheavals have not happened.

  • 13:26:28

    NNAMDIIn fact, you argue that political grievances on the continent are more apt to be channeled towards a different kind of armed politics. Why is that?

  • 13:26:40

    RENOI think it's largely a consequence of the political systems in which these people live. It's not that African people have some problem thinking about politics. I mean, they see what goes on in other parts of the world. They talk about it amongst themselves. You can hear this in music. You can hear it and see it in all sorts of expressions of popular culture. But it's the aggregation of these political discussions that does not create the kinds of movements that we see in parts of the Middle East, or people power in other parts of the world.

  • 13:27:16

    RENOAnd I think it's political systems that have done a very good job of demobilizing and fragmenting populations in Africa that causes this particular outcome.

  • 13:27:27

    NNAMDIWe should note that there were some popular protests, or at least attempts to mobilize mass protests after the first wave of the Arab Spring in Zimbabwe for example. Students were arrested for holding events to discuss the protest movements in Northern Africa. But it didn't seem to have a lasting impact. Why not?

  • 13:27:45

    RENOWell, across the continent these events attracted a lot of attention. And places like Cote d'Ivoire and Gabon, which gets almost no media attention in this country, they're also protesting Kampala, to some extent in Nairobi. What happens is people begin to mobilize in very old fashioned ways. It's students, it's other people who basically have the time and the position to become like professional activists.

  • 13:28:14

    RENOBut then these conflicts will devolve into communal conflicts or struggles over the control of land. And that this is something that the authoritarian governments have realized. And they've exploited this over years largely to keep themselves in power and to exercise some control over the population.

  • 13:28:36

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here. If you're having trouble grasping exactly what is happening in African countries feel free to call us, 800-433-8850. If on the other hand you are grasping exactly what is happening in African countries, do you think we are over simplifying these stories? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet at kojoshow, email to or go to our website and join the conversation there. We're talking with William Reno. He's a professor of political science at Northwestern University whose latest book is called "Warfare in Independent Africa."

  • 13:29:15

    NNAMDIAs a general rule, William Reno, African conflicts don't make it into the headlines in the U.S. But this month activists in this country succeeded in bringing two long simmering conflicts to the attention of American audiences, George Clooney being arrested in front of the Sudanese Embassy protesting that government treatment of refugees and its manipulation of food aid. But the really big story was the viral internet video called Kony 2012, which was created by the American nonprofit Invisible Children to draw attention to the brutality of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.

  • 13:29:48

    NNAMDIBoth of these campaigns were framed as attempts to raise awareness about violence being perpetrated in Africa. But some have wondered whether that really works or whether they're simplifying complex conflicts. What do you think?

  • 13:30:03

    RENOWell, I supposed one would expect the profession of political science to say, first of all, these conflicts are political and probably that these conflicts are complex. So, I mean, my main critique of the video is that it really had no context at all, that this is a conflict that is not actually unfolding in Uganda at present. It's part of a wider regional conflict and it doesn't talk about the politics of Uganda, the government that's been in power there for more than 25 years, or the situation in Northern Uganda, which has really moved well beyond Joseph Kony or the events that are discussed in the video.

  • 13:30:47

    NNAMDII will like to get to that in a second but the Lord's Resistance Army has been very difficult to put into an ideological box since nobody's entirely sure what it's fighting for. But it didn't start that way. How should we understand the LRA? Contextualize this for us, if you will.

  • 13:31:03

    RENOWell, the LRA's about a lot of different things but I think one way to begin is to look at how it developed in the 1990s, that first of all the predecessor was largely a movement among people who may have felt that they lost in a change of power a rebel group that came to power in 1986. But then in the 1990s the LRA survived very much as a client of Sudan's government because Sudan was looking for ways to keep Uganda's government preoccupied basically in a tit-for-tat conflict in which the Ugandans then began to support a rebel group in Southern Sudan.

  • 13:31:49

    RENOSo this kept the LRA alive and the LRA, even into the 2000s, played this kind of role in regional politics. And I think that more than anything else this is what the LRA has served and this is what has kept the LRA around as long as it's been.

  • 13:32:11

    NNAMDIWell, 50 years ago -- well, let me go back to Kony for just one second. There're also some questions about how the LRA has managed to evade capture, especially Joseph Kony himself for so long. How do other neighboring governments view the LRA?

  • 13:32:27

    RENOWell, neighboring governments, they have different opinions about it. The Sudan's government used to do business with the LRA, I mean, political business. But more recently as they started to move towards Darfur, Sudan's government told them to get away. They don't have that much use for them right now. Congo's government doesn't see eye to eye with the Uganda's government and probably Congo doesn't control the area where the LRA's been in any event.

  • 13:32:57

    RENOAnd Central African Republic, if the LRA has moved there, probably sees advantage from the LRA because they can use the LRA's presence to try to draw in the United States as a provider of military assistance and political support for their very weak and very vulnerable government.

  • 13:33:15

    NNAMDIGonna get to weak and vulnerable government soon but first to the telephones. Here is Samuel in Prince George's County, Md. Samuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:33:25

    SAMUELHey, Kojo, how you doing? My question -- I'm still fairly young and my question I've always been asking since the Arab Spring started, is why does the United States always run to where the help of the Arab people in the continent -- I don't want to be racist -- or the lighter skinned people in the continent? Where if the darker skinned people were going through the same exact thing that happened in Libya or Egypt, it would've just been, oh, it's just a civil war and they will kill each other and nobody would go there to help them, especially from the West.

  • 13:33:54

    SAMUELBut if it happened on this side of the continent or even the world, the Arab people, the United States has to run down there. And these are people that don't like the United States regardless of what they do for them militarily or monetarily. And I don't know why we always go there. And I'm from (unintelligible) and I saw a lot of -- we had war a long time and we had a lot of stuff went on that was bad and nobody went there to help. But as soon as it happened in Libya, we were ready to go there. It happened in Egypt, we were ready to go there. I'm trying to find out what is it?

  • 13:34:23

    NNAMDIWell, you know, William Reno's previous books covered the conflicts in Sierra Leon so he's in a better position than I am to respond. William Reno.

  • 13:34:31

    RENOWell, I used to live in Sierra Leon in Freetown in the early 1990s. It was very frustrating the extent to which Sierra Leon just couldn't attract any attention from overseas during the terrible war. And I think that the caller points to a real problem, which is why does the United States deal with African governments the way it does. And what we see with the LRA in Uganda is that the U.S. has sent a hundred military advisors and trainers to help the government of Uganda. And this is to serve U.S. interests because they want the Ugandan military to participate in African Union peacekeeping forces, one of which is in Somalia right now fighting an enemy of the United States.

  • 13:35:16

    RENOSierra Leon in the 1990s and other places in a lot of conflicts, they haven't really had anything to offer the United States. And, well, I mean, it's sort of cynical to say, but they don't have any of our oil. Or the countries that do, they do receive attention, but a lot of times it's the people who control those countries that receive U.S. attention when it's south of the Sahara.

  • 13:35:43

    NNAMDIAnd you mentioned Uganda where you say the Ugandan government is fighting an enemy of the United States in Somalia. And I inferred from that that that means that we're not really looking at what's going on internally in Uganda. Allow me to frame the question more broadly. Many of the African heads of state today were once rebel leaders. In fact, three of the closest U.S. allies in East Africa came up as rebels steeped in ideology. Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. He was steeped in leftist pan Africanist theory in university where he was taught by Walter Rodney, who happens to be my own friend and mentor.

  • 13:36:17

    NNAMDIThe same goes for Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia and Paul Kagame in Rwanda. Today you don't hear these leaders talking about pan Africanism and socialism anymore. And the rebels and dissidents who are challenging them aren't really talking in terms of ideology either. What happened?

  • 13:36:34

    RENOWell, I think these rebel leaders who were steeped in pan African and socialist ideology, they became presidents of countries in very unstable parts of the world. And they became very interested in their country's interests, or at least the ruling group's interest in dealing with threats internally and internationally. So a lot of these threats, they could be dealt with if they turned to the United States, not that they just do what the U.S. tells them to do.

  • 13:37:08

    RENOBut I think what they've done is convince the U.S. government, for example Rwanda, that Rwanda's important as an island of stability next to Congo where it shares a border. Or that Uganda can play an important role participating in a peacekeeping force that actually fights in Somalia. And the Ethiopians, they don't join the peacekeeping force but they act in Somalia as well in ways that probably the U.S. sees as very beneficial to its interests.

  • 13:37:40

    RENOSo instead of being pan African rebels they've just become hardnosed and to varying extent authoritarian presidents of their countries. And I think there's a real danger in that because then they become more and more like what they overthrew. Although some of them govern better certainly than those that they overthrew. But people still have that complaint that they're not governing on behalf of all the people in the country and that these are governments that are not very accountable.

  • 13:38:12

    NNAMDIWell, 50 years ago a lot of those individuals were caught up in U.S. interests in the Cold War where the U.S. was accused of propping up dictators like Mobutu in Zaire because they were anticommunist. Is, in a way, the same thing happening now with a different U.S. enemy, a different U.S. objective?

  • 13:38:34

    RENOI think that that's a danger -- I mean, the United States in looking at policy towards Africa -- and this is one of my complaints about the video is that instead of asking what the United States can do to resolve conflicts in Africa, I think that the critical question to ask is what can the United States do to not contribute to conflicts in Africa. And it's part of the problem of being a very power country is that when we think that we're just going about protecting our interests or, you know, pursuing some sort of broader strategy, what we do is sometimes we create problems for people in this country or that country.

  • 13:39:18

    RENOAnd in the case of Uganda, I think a lot of Ugandans think that we support -- and we do in very significant ways support the government that's ruled there for a quarter of a century that a lot of people don't like very much. And when they don't like their government and they have that domestic problem, they think that part of their problem is caused by the United States. So they blame the U.S., not just their own government. So I think that this is part of the danger of these kinds of policies.

  • 13:39:50

    RENOAnd, I mean, I'm sure people in Washington in official offices they do think about this and they have to weigh this against their other objectives. But as somebody who works a lot in Africa on the ground and talks with people about politics, this is what I hear a lot is, is the United States becoming a friend of dictators, say in the case of Angola because they sell us a lot of their oil or other parts of the world just because we think that the dictator is a stabilizer.

  • 13:40:21

    NNAMDIHere is Daniel on the eastern shore in Maryland. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:40:27

    DANIELYes. All those countries in colonial times the effective management was divide and conquer, and then they were succeeded by winner-take-all democracy, which continues the polarization and does not address the issues. When issues aren't addressed in a changing world, precipitates also to problems that are never addressed and then they blow up. Is this part of the problem?

  • 13:40:54

    NNAMDIWilliam Reno?

  • 13:40:55

    RENOI think that's a big part of the problem, and in fact, part of the problem that colonial rulers had was that they couldn't really rule these places very effectively through institutions. So what they did was they found local people who they could basically turn to their cause and prop them up, and they said, okay, here, you guys, you rule on our behalf, sort of like in a patron-client system, and what these people at the local level did was they used their position a lot of times to become very corrupt and not really to serve people's interests, and after independence, a lot of countries in Africa, the new rulers they found the same problem.

  • 13:41:37

    RENOThey didn't have a lot of resources. They couldn't provide services to people. Maybe that would be something for the long term. But in the short term they fell into this pattern where they divide and rule and they use local conflicts essentially exacerbating them when they think that there's a danger, that people might unify against their government, and then play these local conflicts and then step in as an arbiter. So land conflicts all over Africa have become a serious problem in more recent years. But this is something that goes back to colonial administration and in a different style shows a lot of continuity to the present day in a lot of countries.

  • 13:42:24

    NNAMDIWilliam Reno, he's a professor of political science at Northwestern University. His newest book is called "Warfare in Independent Africa." It explores the evolution of politics and conflict over the last 50 years, and that's what we're talking to him about, how conflict, if you will, has evolved in Africa. We've got take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll get to your call as soon as possible. The number is 800-433-8850. Do you grasp exactly what is happening in African countries, do you think we are offered an oversimplified version of these stories? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:47

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the evolution of conflict in Africa, and making sense of the headlines about conflict with William Reno, professor of political science at North Western University. He joins us from studios in Chicago. His newest book is called "Warfare in Independent Africa." It explores the evolution of politics and conflict over the past 50 years. William Reno, as we speak, the West African nation of Mali is facing political crisis reports today that the presidential palace has been sealed off after government soldiers began protesting against the government.

  • 13:45:20

    NNAMDIMali is dealing with its own rebellion in the country's north, being raged by Tuareqs who want to form their breakaway country, and apparently many government soldiers feel that the soldiers are being inadequately armed and this raises quite a few interesting elements that you discuss in your book. You would argue that those separate demands would be very unlikely to succeed even if Tuareqs were successful in their fight against the government.

  • 13:45:47

    RENOYeah. I think part of the problem is that a lot of times the people who fight these governments will have some sort of relationship, but they'll have some kind of stake with a faction in the government. So the problem is that the fighting a lot of times reflects the visions in the palace, or the vision in state house. And we don't see conflicts like we did in the 1960s or the 1970s where it's the colonial government or the apartheid government versus the rebels or, you know, versus the freedom fighters and that one fights and pushes the other out and then institutes some sort of new order or, you know, the separatist region separates and has its own politics.

  • 13:46:32

    RENOBut that it's so much linked to the domestic politics. So when the fighting begins, it also becomes a fight between the factions. A lot of times you see politicians that are doing business or have political arrangements with rebels. I mean, that's fairly common, and a lot of conflicts. So they end up being very messy and very protracted that there's not a sort of decisive moment where one side wins and then the conflict's over.

  • 13:47:04

    NNAMDII was about to ask about that because as you mentioned, 50, 60 years ago, rebel forces were apt to come forth with a list of demands overthrowing the state, imposing some sort of post-colonial system of socialism or maybe even a free market economy. Today these groups don't even seem to have an ideology or an ambition to take on the state head on. There seems to be much more practical issues involved.

  • 13:47:31

    RENOI think it's partly a sorting process that at the grass roots level, I mean, people a lot of times, I mean, in my own work I always talk about politics when I am working in Africa. That's what I do, and there are a lot of very well-developed or grass roots ideas about what the problem in the country is, or what sorts of issues to focus on, but these political systems, it seemed to be very weak from an institutional perspective. They're very strong in other ways.

  • 13:48:06

    RENOThey're very strong at cultivating alliances, patron-client relationships of buying off people, you know, giving them access to state office and corrupt opportunities that come along with this so that when the system becomes destabilized, a lot of these people will then turn into opposition figures because what they want to do it, they want to fight for those resources and those political positions and what this does is it tramples on the idea logs. It pushes aside a lot of the people who were marginal to begin with and articulate the old-fashioned type of rebel ideology.

  • 13:48:53

    RENOSo I don't think that it's a deficiency of ideology, I think it's a reflection of contemporary political systems, and it's not just a sub-Saharan African program. I think that the fragmentation that we see now in Libya, I mean, despite sort of efforts to present it as all done and everybody's made up, but I mean, we see in Tripoli, in Libya's capital, that we have these different militias that still haven't disarmed and sometimes oppose each other don't really follow the central government, and these are in many cases led by people who played major or minor roles in old patronage network of the old dictator, and this makes these conflicts very difficult to resolve, and it makes it very tough for the tradition or would-be rebels, the student organizers.

  • 13:49:49

    NNAMDII'll stick with the ideological issues for a second with Chris in Falls Church, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:49:57

    CHRISYeah. Thank you. I just wanted to bring us back to those early days of independence or just pre-independence even. The late '50s, the CIA had identified Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, who were the leading Pan Africanist voices in Lausanne and the Francophone communities there of nations, and even were working hard to overthrow either of them just before Kennedy was elected.

  • 13:50:30

    CHRISAnd after Kennedy was elected, he said that Patrice Lamumba should be returned to his position in the Congo, the parliament where he was the prime minister. And instead, over the last few weeks of Eisenhower period, he was turned over to his tribal enemies and was -- before Kennedy came in, three days before, and our CIA (word?) didn't even tell Kennedy for three weeks until the body was found. So we have both domestically Lamumba was a leader who crossed all the tribal boundaries in the Congo.

  • 13:51:13

    NNAMDISure did. We're running out of time very quickly. Is there a specific question, Chris, because I have a question that I have extrapolate for you.

  • 13:51:20

    CHRISWell, okay. Just that the (unintelligible) policies of that early period which were directed, of course, against our enemy the Soviet Union we feared, where do we stand on that now?

  • 13:51:34

    NNAMDIHindsight as they say, William Reno, is 20/20 vision, and one ones wants to say is Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and Patrice Lamumba had all both stayed in power, well, of course, Sekou Toure did for a long time, but all both stayed in power and pursued their goals, we might be looking at a different continent today.

  • 13:51:51

    RENOWell, I mean, this is part of the problem of the argument is that people like Sekou Toure who did stayed in power didn't exactly turn out to be sort of ideal.

  • 13:52:00

    NNAMDIOh, Mugabe comes to mind.

  • 13:52:02

    RENOCertainly, but I think that more generally, looking at Africa in the long term like this, that Africa in a lot of ways, it's sort of like being in China, I think in the 1930s, that for somebody from that vantage point, it would seem as if the last century in China had been a disaster, but then, you know, looks 60, 70 years forward and China looks quite different, that that disaster period looks like parenthesis in their long history.

  • 13:52:35

    RENOSo I think that these events surrounding independence and authoritarian governments and other problems, you know, could be that it's just a very long period of major change in Africa sorting out all sorts of problems. But certainly Cold War competition and the removal of people who might have been more unifying figures who could have been strong nationalists but a lot of times in the '50s and '60s socialism came with that nationalist stance and, you know, I think that Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, he had his problems, but this is somebody who I think is very important in terms of creating Tanzanian national identity and possibly for also creating more political stability in Zambia for all of its problems as well.

  • 13:53:28

    RENOI think that it had an independence leader who under the circumstances didn't do such a bad job and history may look more kindly on some of these people and maybe if there had been other alternatives.

  • 13:53:43

    NNAMDIWhat do you think about American domestic movements to raise awareness about human rights violations and war crimes in Africa? Do they create new constituencies that can help us make a positive impact in those countries, or are we indulging in a kind of new neocolonialism?

  • 13:54:00

    RENOWell, again, I think that the watch word is, instead of asking how can we interfere in Africa to make things better. What we should do is, we should try to figure out how we can behave in ways that don't exacerbate these conflicts. I mean, that's the question to ask. So if we're gonna support human rights, which I think is a great thing to support, or, you know, maybe the international criminal court targets people for prosecution, to think well, how does this affect these conflicts?

  • 13:54:30

    RENODoes targeting somebody for prosecution rather than trying to lure them into negotiations push them against a wall and maybe they figure that they have nothing to lose and just fight harder, or does it send a signal that if you don't get prosecuted, but if you lose, you're weak and human rights activists are going to target you. So I think that, in general, this is a good thing. But, well, I mean, being the professor again, I'll say that yeah, it's complicated and you have to know something about particular conflicts and you have to talk to people there who know what they are talking about and have their own analyses and really engage them to help figure out what to do or how to address these kinds of problems.

  • 13:55:17

    NNAMDIHere's Nicholas in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Nicholas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:22

    NICHOLASYes, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I would like to ask you guest about the argument about those who say that the situation in sub-Saharan Africa was not as bad as let's say in Libya, because we have country like that's in Zimbabwe where you have a prime minister for the opposition and other countries like the Congo -- we have had elections twice already, so some say that, you know, people don't demonstrate because the situation was not in Libya where you have an absolute ruler.

  • 13:56:02

    NNAMDIWhat do you say to that William Reno, especially about the situation in the Congo?

  • 13:56:06

    RENOWell, Congo had elections, but, looking at the quality of these elections, and particularly the period in the run up to the elections, it's, I mean, just holding an election doesn't necessarily mean that political system is more accommodative and, I mean, Kenya had elections couple years back and this was accompanied by a great amount of violence and a lot of concern I think that the whole Kenyan political system might topple over and this would drag the society down in violence.

  • 13:56:39

    RENOSo a lot of governments have learned that they can manipulate elections very adroitly in order to show the outside world that they are Democrats in some sense, but in fact the politics behind the elections doesn't necessarily change a great deal. So it's a little bit of moderation, but not a fundamental change in a lot of these political systems.

  • 13:57:05

    NNAMDINicholas, thank you very much for your call. William Reno is a professor of political science at Northwestern University. His newest book, "Warfare in Independent Africa" explores the evolution of politics and conflict over the past 50 years. William, Reno, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:20

    RENOOh, it's been a pleasure.

  • 13:57:22

    NNAMDIWe got an email that said, "The political unrest in Ethiopia may not be on the spotlight here in the U.S., but it is clear that the USA is not interested in changing the regime. The west simply wants a stable state. But the fact that the Prime Minister has detained millions if not even killed is true. The Nazari regime has too many blood on its hands, far more than Dictator (unintelligible) " Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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