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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 July, 2005, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Africans on Africa: Conflict
Cobus Claasens
Claasens left South Africa in 1995
Each day this week, the BBC is looking at African problems through African eyes.

Here, Cobus Claasens, a former South African mercenary now living in Sierra Leone, reflects on why Africa is ridden with conflict.

I served in the South African army and then in private military companies after that. I came to Sierra Leone in 1995, worked here and then formed my own business, and I'm still in Freetown after all these years.

All those horror stories you hear about Africa actually happened here. People burned alive in houses, girls taken into the cathedral and raped, beheadings.

The perpetrators were often kids, child soldiers.

Here in Freetown, the victims of the rebels are everywhere - orphaned streetkids, young girls having to work as prostitutes to keep their families.

I have my opinions about what causes war in Africa, what fans the flames of it.

One could easily say that war is the result of failures. Some failures in Africa don't lead to war and others do. Why do political systems fail? Why do military forces fail in their duty to protect the people? Why did they take over power? Why is there corruption? Poverty? Why is there famine?

Maybe if you ask those questions and you get answers to them then you'll move closer to why there is war in Africa.


Throughout Africa, there are people without work, without prospects for the future. Many young men find it hard to get a job, there is nothing to do. In the provinces it is worse. That is why the chances of them going to war are higher.

One Freetown engineer that I spoke to, Michael, told me that people are afraid, and blame the government, the politicians and the rich.

Studies have shown that when incomes double, the risk of a country falling into a war halves.

Mother who has had her hands amputated with her baby
Victims of the war are visible everywhere in Sierra Leone
But the irony is that war has often broken out in those countries with the best natural resources.

Too often, it just creates something worth fighting over, and then the money to keep the conflict going.

Okere Adams, a Sierra Leone government minister, explained to me that the country's agriculture industry was virtually abandoned by workers when diamonds were discovered. The net result was conflict over the diamond mining areas, and people from other countries joining in in the hope of winning access to the mines.

And look at Liberia, with its timber and diamonds, or DR Congo.

When the Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was killed, he'd built up a $4bn fortune on the back of that country's mineral wealth.

And there are other reasons behind wars in Africa. Look at the mess that was often left when colonial powers pulled out.

I fought in a counter-insurgency war in the north of Namibia and the south of Angola with various sideline operations in other Southern African countries.

Many people say the Angola war has its roots in tribalism. Angola was carved up like the other countries by the colonial powers - already the borders misrepresented the geopolitical status of some peoples.

You can take another step back and see how the colonial power had administered that country.

Imagine it had administered that country in an enlightened way. Let's say they could look into the future and appoint a consultant from the UN today to advise them on how to do it.

If this consultant had taught them not to mismanage the human and natural resources, to educate the people to the fullest extent, to govern in a humane and internationally recognisable way, and finally had taught them to reintegrate the people of that country into the government, imagine that path had been followed in Angola.

Maybe perhaps it would be a prosperous, peaceful country with very clever people, well educated and rich.

Role model

Politicians justifiably get a lot of blame for what's gone wrong on the continent. But democracy is slowly spreading.

In the 1960s and 1970s no black African leader south of the Sahara was voted out of power, and only one in the 1980s.

But from then to 2004, more than a dozen new leaders were arrived via the ballot box.

So are politicians making good the mistakes of the past?

Minister Okere Adams claims that "we have learned our lessons" and proudly points out that 17 parties contested the last election in Sierra Leone.

What about outside influences?

South Africans queuing to vote
Claasens hopes South Africa could provide a model for the continent
Here in Sierra Leone, I fought with Executive Outcomes - in effect a mercenary unit that was brought into fight the RUF. Later on, the British Army also got involved militarily.

Both were effective, stopped the rebels and saved thousands of lives.

But Africa has also seen powers from outside fight murderous proxy wars across the continent.

Simple diplomacy could have solved many of Africa's wars, but there has often been an unwillingness to intervene in other countries' affairs.

And often, a country's neighbours have their own interests in the war. Look at the number of countries with stakes in Congo's war.

A UN with a strong mandate to sort out problems, and an African Union with the willingness and funding to get involved in crises like Darfur, would be a big step in helping African countries to get their own houses in order.

The roots of conflict in Africa are complicated, but war costs this continent so much that some effort must be made to find a role model so that other countries can avoid what has happened here in Freetown.

Maybe that role model is my own country.

In the 1980s, it looked like it was heading for disaster, but there was strong leadership from Mandela and De Klerk, there was forgiveness from the black population for what had been done to them, and pragmatism and common sense from the whites.

There was also a long term view that reconciliation was the best way forward for everyone.

That I believe is why we succeeded where so many others have failed.


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