Understanding contemporary violence in Central Africa: militarism, race, and gender

It is time to challenge the conventional explanations of gender based violence. Patricia Daley argues that it can only be understood in association with contemporary geo-economic forces and the Central African experience of modernity

Patricia Daley
20 September 2011

Reports of gender-based violence in sub-Saharan Africa are common in conflict and post-conflict settings. This type of violence has become almost a cause celebre in the West. Numerous human rights, development agencies and women’s organizations have produced reports on gender-based violence. Such reports tend to interpret sexual violence as a ‘weapon of war’ and, implicitly, the result of the barbarism of tribal people, the bestiality of African men, and exclusion from the liberal values and norms of western modernity. Such reports isolate the violence from its association with contemporary geo-economic forces and the Central African experience of modernity. Gender-based violence can only be understood through an analysis of the historical and social contexts in which it is situated. The example of genocide and civil warfare and associated gender-based violence that occurred in the Central African country of Burundi during the 1990s and 2000s, reveals that it is the outcome of the militaristic, patriarchal and racialised state form associated with the experience of modernity in the region. Gender based violence, along with genocidal violence, is part of a plethora of extremes acts of degradation against the human body/ the person that are associated with hierarchies of domination. Here, the work of the African-American feminist, Patricia Hill-Collins, is instructive. Her concept of ‘intersecting domains of oppression’ enables us to consider how social injustices practised at multiple spatial scales and sites intersect. My argument, therefore, is that the violence being experienced in Central Africa is a manifestation of how difference is constituted in the modern state according to hierarchies of domination based on social class, race, ethnic identity and gender.

My aim in writing  Gender and Genocide: the Search for Spaces of Peace in Central Africa is to demonstrate that we cannot make sense of contemporary violence in Central Africa without an understanding of its historical roots and its link with the form of the modern state that emerged during and after the period of colonial rule. Colonial authorities sort to create a social order that legitimated particular forms of violence as part of the ‘civilizing mission’. The foundation of the modern state in Central Africa was the organization of territory for the exploitation of resources. This form of capitalist exploitation which is termed ‘accumulation by dispossession’ by the geographer, David Harvey, required the use of force. Militarism thus became a central element of the modern state form.  For Central Africa, these have been well documented by scholars such as Adam Hochschild in the book King Leopold’s Ghost.

Bodies are not just physical and biological entities: they are constituted through dynamic socio-political practices. The role of the human body in western modernity is explored by numerous scholars: Marxists, feminists and post-structuralists. David Harvey (1996), drawing on the work of Karl Marx, shows how economic imperatives necessitated the control over the productive and reproductive capacity of the human body. In the colonial periphery the use of force in production, wars, mutilation, and the organization of the corporeal body for labour could be carried to the extreme.  Iris Marion Young’s (1990) use of the concept of the ‘scaling of bodies’ assist in my understanding of how the association of scientific and philosophical reasoning with white male bodies led to them being positioned as the norm and all other bodies considered degenerate. Finally, Michel Foucault’s exploration of how  the concept of ‘biopower’ – the exercise of state power through being able to control the human body – emerged in Europe from the  late 18th century,  as a disciplinary strategy of states.    These ideas were central to the development of modernity in western societies and were transplanted to areas of European domination.

In Central Africa, colonial authorities, informed by social Darwinism, used the concept of racial hierarchies to categorize African societies. Racial and ethnic identity formation was very much a state determined project. The civilising mission in the states of Rwanda and Burundi, under first German then Belgian colonial rule, led to the delineation and codification of African societies into tribal (primitive) groupings. Social boundaries that were fluid eventually became cemented according to hierarchies of race, ethnicity and gender. Mahmood Mandani (2001) calls these new groupings ‘political identities’, in as much as they formed part of the state project for the control of society. 

According to Max Weber, the liberal state was mirrored on the power of the father in the sites of marriage and the home. Consequently, patriarchy was a core element of the modern state. There is some debate among African archaeologists and feminists about the origin of patriarchy in Africa, some, such as Chiek Anta Diop (1989) and Ifi Amadiume (1997), note the transformation wrought by the arrival of Islam in West Africa.  Although militarised masculinity preceded colonialism in much of Africa, according to Amadiume, constraints on extreme masculinity were removed by the subjugation of these societies to colonialism and the promotion of Christianity. According to Amadiume, colonialism undermined the matricentric production unit and destroyed or pre-configured pre-existing mechanism for social control.  Colonialism was built on a hierarchy of race but also on hierarchies of masculinities.  The historian, Terence Ranger (1993 ) notes the construction of feudal-patriarchal ethics by European setters based on invented neo-traditional values of the nineteenth century.  Ann McClintock (1996) also claims that instituting a new system of patriarchy was central to the capture of the female labour by the colonial power.

There is no doubt that those Africans who occupied privileged positions in these hierarchies benefited from and supported the new dispensation. Independence struggles necessitated, in most cases, the adoption of militaristic values, whilst advocating a vision of society that was different from the dehumanization associated with the colonial era. However, the era of decolonization was complicated by imperialists’ search for Africans who could ensure the continuation of this mode of extraction. Military values became embedded in the new state form, as international aid budget involved the sales of weapon. African ‘strong men’ were legitimated by the international community because the western-trained military officers were seen by the international community as constituting a modernizing force. The occurrence of the Cold War at the precise moment that Africans were on the brink of an emancipatory future meant that African humanity was subsumed in the quest for global security. Some 40 years later, the end of the Cold War and the ‘war on terror’ have resulted in the reassertion of military might, just went Africans needed people-centred regimes to aid the recovery from structural adjustment.

Gender and Genocide charts the military regimes and their intersection with the racial, ethnic and gendered hierarchies that became embedded in the modern African state of the region, in Burundi, in particular. It documents how these hierarchies persist with minor changes over space and time, and how a discriminatory and violent state became the model of statecraft that is reproduced by each successive regime. This form of the state is  maintained by and through competition within a self-serving political elite and supported by an international community whose prioritises rest on the continuation of the processes of extraction in the region, especially sustained access to the mineral wealth of the Eastern DR Congo.  The process of liberalization has intensified the processes of accumulation by dispossession. State-retreat from service provisioning created a ‘protection gap’ that many international NGOs seek to fill. Decentralization of state functions and the disintegration of state responsibilities allow for the emergence of alternative purveyors of violence whether localized as in the formation of militias and paramilitary or international as in the privatised security of mercenaries or private military companies. This trend had led to the promotion of the misnomer ‘military humanitarianism’, as militarism can only reproduce humanitarian crises not cure them.

Women’s bodies as sites for warfare are not new phenomena in patriarchal states. In the context of Central Africa, control over women’s bodies is central to the struggle over resources.  It is here, in the quest for territory or resources, even basic foodstuffs, that genocidal rape is practised; also  in the quest for respect by the most marginalized in the military rank and file that opportunistic rape occurs.  Rescuing women’s bodies has become a rallying point for international military intervention. Such intervention to protect women, universally depicted as victims’, obfuscates the need to address underlying issues, such as global commodities trade, weapon sales, economic interests and external culpability. In this light, recent international efforts to engender peace processes appear to be cosmetic, primarily because of the inherent violence of the militaristic solutions that have been adopted through the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration programmes of the international community. Olonisakan and Okech (2011) call for a reform of African women’s organization in order to prevent the use of gender-identities (mothers, sisters, and wives) as tools to be mobilized by the masculinised states, elite women, and humanitarian actors.  Peace, as conceptualised in current conflict resolution models, equates to violence by other means. Failing to take account of the historical and contemporary manifestations of violence and its relationship with the state has enabled a perpetuation of the very factors that lead to genocidal violence. In conclusion, promoting a feminist conceptualisation of peace is discussed as critical, not just for tackling gender-based violence, but for providing the framework for emancipatory thinking about how to end the economics of exploitation in which contemporary gender-based violence is embedded.

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Patricia Daley's latest book is Gender and Genocide: the Search for Spaces of Peace in Central Africa. Oxford: James Currey; Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.


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