Wars without news

So to last week’s big news: on Tuesday two thousand Chadian troops crossed the border into the Central African Republic (CAR) to help fight a new Centrafrican rebel coalition, Seleka, which for the last month has been seizing towns and territory across northern CAR, just over the border from South Sudan.

Who? Where?

Of course, this hasn’t been big news at all. Outside the Francophone African press, it’s barely surfaced save the odd wire report. The CAR army has been perennially clashing with rebel groups across diamond-rich northern CAR for nearly a decade – fighting which has scarcely registered on the international community’s agenda, despite having displaced perhaps 200,000 people, and despite the fact that this new rebel coalition has the potential to topple the CAR government in the next few days.

News of Seleka’s advance only rang a bell for me because this time last year I was in Raga, on the South Sudanese side of the CAR/South Sudan border, just east of the area where the Seleka rebel forces are now ensconced. It’s one of the most interesting places I’ve been, and when I wasn’t trying to figure out how to get home for Christmas, my brief stay in Raga helped me to understand a little better why we seem to care about some places and not others.

This sleepy corner of eastern/central Africa is perhaps one of the least understood parts of the continent. It’s liminal in every sense. Geographically, it’s where the Sahel meets the Great Lakes, on the cusp of the two great African watersheds – those of the Nile and the Congo. Culturally, it’s where many people imagine an ‘Arab’ northern Africa meets ‘black’ West Africa, although the reality is nothing like this clash-of-civilisations stereotype.

Raga market

And it also falls between the cracks of the international community’s mental map - located on the margins of Africa’s three best known, A-list wars:
  • Perhaps the most familiar of these – thanks mainly to Mia Farrow and other celebrity genocide activists - is Darfur, ninety miles to the northeast.  That’s mainly why I was there, trying to get up to the Darfur border to find out how Darfur’s ten-year conflict is spilling over into this forgotten corner of South Sudan.
  • We have George Clooney to thank for awareness of a second conflagration that has started since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011: an international stand-off resulting in a necklace of bombings and ground clashes along Sudan and South Sudan’s contested border - including (although barely publicised) here at the western end of that border.
  • Finally, serious Africa nerds (and Ben Affleck fans) may also be aware that this junction point between CAR, Sudan and South Sudan is also the forested no-man’s land where enthusiastic LRA-watchers believe that Joseph Kony and his Lords’ Resistance Army remnants are holed up (if indeed Kony is still alive and the LRA still exists in any meaningful sense, as a single identifiable force, beyond the priapic dreams of American campaigners).
And at that point we tend to reach most people’s limits of acceptable complexity – mine included. This is an interstitial region filled with too many small wars already. Those that register on the international community’s radar tend to have been fitted into two neat conceptual boxes: 

(i) intra-Sudanese wars, involving 
(ii) ‘Arabs’ killing ‘Africans’. 

In Darfur, a layer-cake of local ethnic disputes, land pressures, state counterinsurgency and proxy wars with neighbouring Chad and Libya have been compressed for advocacy purposes into a tale of a purely domestic conflict in which Sudanese government-backed ‘Arab’ Janjaweed militias kill ‘African’ villagers. The new Sudan/South Sudan border war has likewise been shoehorned into a conceptually-convenient ‘Arab’/’African’ conflict, a supposed replay of the north-south Sudanese Civil War that ended in 2005, although it too is in reality a daisy-chain of localised conflicts drawing in not just the two national armies but also southern-allied Nuba rebels; Khartoum-backed splinter groups from southern tribes; and, confusingly, Darfuri rebels now fighting alongside the Nuba and the southern army itself.  

The transnational exception to these convenient frames is the reported presence of Kony’s LRA, currently being hunted through this area’s forests by a lacklustre 4-nation contingent of Centrafrican, South Sudanese, Ugandan and Congolese troops ‘advised’ by 100 U.S. special forces. But the LRA ‘situation’ has its own unique lobby in Washington and New York that cuts through complexity all by itself.

Wedged between these three celebrity African conflicts, anything else happening in this ‘shatter zone’ simply never makes it onto the list of international priorities – those ‘situations’ on the agenda of the UN Security Council or the ICC, for example. The area’s remoteness and depopulation doesn’t help. It’s not particularly risky to get to, but it’s a bit trickier than journalists or researchers can afford to bother with in the absence of an urgent story: visitors must obtain the right travel permissions from military and civilian authorities in Juba, South Sudan’s capital; then fly on to Wau, the state capital; and then drive 200 miles on an occasionally difficult road towards the Central African Republic. The area’s population is lower than in the 19th century, thanks to late-Victorian slaving, colonial displacement and occupation, endemic tsetse-fly infestation, and post-colonial strife. The main Wau-Raga road, for example, remains largely an empty corridor today because villages along its route were cleared by the Sudanese army during the Ananya-1 civil war of the 1960s, and the thousands of residents forcibly moved to the state capital never returned.  

Wau-Raga road

But above all I think this corner is forgotten because of its stubborn refusal to fit the neat frames with which we're accustomed to read the 'celebrity wars' of eastern/central Africa. It refuses fit the narratives we've been told across four dimensions: actors, cause, geography and chronology.

Firstly, the ‘enemy’ looks different at ground level. To those fighting and being fought over, this region’s security threats don’t look anything like the neatly packaged ‘celebrity wars’ listed above. The LRA, for one thing, barely features. While Invisible Children and other high-profile American activists describe Kony as the greatest human security threat in Africa and this region as his last refuge, local authorities here barely mention the LRA as a security concern (alleged LRA attacks are, admittedly, more severe further south in DRC, but even these have been tailing off). Authorities here and in CAR occasionally blame the LRA for attacks and thefts of weapons and supplies from villages and police posts, but there’s generally little evidence about who the perpetrators actually are.** Narcotics and ivory abandoned during such raids are held up as evidence that they were the work of LRA-turned-criminals, although the whole region is wide open to all kinds of traffickers, smugglers and poachers. 

What local authorities say they worry about instead are groups and threats that don’t register on the international community’s agenda. They worry about Rizeigat ‘Arab’ militias coming southwards from South Darfur as far as CAR – movements sometimes conflated with the perennial (usually armed) migration of ordinary Rizeigat cattle-herders, but also sometimes backed by the Sudanese government as de-facto popular defence force (al-difa al-shabie) militia forces. They worry about Sudanese Armed Forces’ troops occupying the lost Kafia Kingi triangle between CAR, South Sudan and Darfur, and suspected of arming and backing those Rizeigat militias. They worry about an alphabet soup of CAR rebels manning roadblocks and occasionally skirmishing with wildlife militias and the CAR army. And they also worry, arguably out of all proportion, about the Mbororo – the reserved and self-enclosed group of Fellata cattle-herders, originally from West Africa, who travel in small groups through the DRC, CAR, Chad and the Sudans, who are suspected as outsiders of acting as spies and proxies for various enemies, and who are attacked and persecuted by militias and state authorities in South Sudan, CAR and DRC. 

These may seem like local tribal contexts to the region’s bigger security dynamics. But they are the region’s security dynamics, causing as much death and displacement the celebrity wars, and linking up those wars themselves. In the northern slice of DRC bordering South Sudan, for instance, the Congolese army – backed by UN forces – spends much of its time not chasing Joseph Kony but hunting down Mbororo herders accused of stealing crops and pasture from local populations. 50 were killed in a single clash with the Congolese army in Banda near Ango in February last year, according to local NGOs; around the same number of deaths as LRA-watchers have attributed (often with no on-the-ground verification) to ‘LRA’ attacks across all four countries in the whole of 2012

Equally, to the north, Rizeigat militias are a major source of attacks against the South Sudanese army and local populations. A Christmas Day attack three days ago by likely Rizeigat militias against South Sudanese military positions at Kiir Adem in the disputed ’14 Mile’ zone between South Sudan and South Darfur (backed later in the morning by a Sudanese aerial bombing raid) risks re-sparking the international north/south conflict in this part of the border, yet has gone virtually unreported. 

Mbororo women in Deim Zubeir, on the Wau-Raga road

Secondly, causes and drivers don’t stack neatly. This region’s overlapping conflicts are in many cases fuelled by dynamics that have little to do with the international bogeymen that we’re told have caused this region’s ‘A-list’ wars: the irrational blood-thirst of Joseph Kony; or the genocidal counterinsurgency of Omar al-Bashir. For example, regional researchers allege that one reason why Gula rebels in northern CAR - whose UFDR dissident members make up one of the three Seleka factions now marching on Bangui - have become so militarily capable is that many of their members have drawn weapons and training from a major EU-funded anti-wildlife poaching initiative, ECOFAC, which for nearly 25 years has quietly operated their own Gula-dominated armed militias in CAR, led by Russian and French mercenaries serving as EU ‘technical assistants’ (a story documented single-handedly by US anthropologist Louisa Lombard). Lombard reports that members of these militias, equipped both with EU-funded equipment and heavier weapons (including ‘light-aircraft-mounted mortars’ allegedly procured through contact with Russian oligarch safari hunters), have massacred alleged poachers, fought other armed groups from Chad and Sudan, and then drifted off to join formal armed rebellion against the CAR government. This is not to argue that the EU’s militarized conservation efforts have caused the CAR civil war; but certainly the EU project has provided material resources to armed actors in an already over-militarised region, and has itself been the source of considerable military combat and civilian deaths.

Thirdly, the geography’s all mixed up. Distinctions between the region’s different conflicts don’t make very much political, military or geographical sense to their combatants. This is a place where borders matter too much, and simultaneously not at all. Or rather, territory matters rather than borders. Tribal access to disputed territory is the pretext for both militia attacks and formal military occupation at the CAR/Sudan/Chad junction. Yet armed groups also conceive of this whole region as their area of operations, and national borders as almost irrelevant. A hundred miles outside desertified Darfur, for example, there are pockets of Darfur rebels in the forests here, both on the South Sudanese side of the border and further south into northeastern CAR (including near to a Darfuri refugee camp in Sam Ouandja, which the Seleka alliance took two weeks ago).  We sat with one of their commanders – last encountered earlier in the year in the lobby of a 6-star hotel in Qatar on the margins of the Darfur peace negotiations – as he described how his forces in CAR exchange weapons with CAR rebel factions, and fight LRA groupuscules and Rizeigat militias alongside the CAR rebels. Indeed, he told us that his group was so ensconced in the area that they were seeking to mediate a reconciliation between two of the CAR rebel groups – the Gula- dominated UFDR led by Zachariah Daman, and a faction of the Runga-dominated CPJP led by one Issa Abdallah. Perhaps significantly, splinter factions of each of these groups have now reconciled to form two-thirds of the new Seleka alliance marching on the CAR capital this Christmas.

Finally, conflict motives run back longer than the tour of duty of a UN ambassador. The presence of Darfur rebels here, for instance, is conventionally depicted as a straightforward spillover of the Darfur war since 2003, with allegations that the South Sudanese have established a rebel safe haven at this junction box just south of the Darfur border, to train and resupply Darfur rebels fighting against Sudanese forces inside Darfur. This is what I suspected too before I visited Raga. In fact, the South Sudanese government’s attitude towards the Darfur rebels in this corner of their new country is fairly ambivalent, and the Darfuris are here not least because of their much older connections to this  slice of central Africa. The Darfuri rebel commander mentioned above said that he drew forces and support in part from members of a marginalised Darfuri tribe, the Masalit, who have been here for nearly a hundred years. Originally from eastern Chad, with their official Sudanese ‘homeland’ (Dar Masalit) in desertified West Darfur some five hundred miles to the north, many Masalit moved down into these southern forests in successive waves of drought migration and colonial displacement from the 19th century onwards:

“A Masalit community was already present [here in Raga county] in the 1920s. At that time Masalit from El Geneina area [near the border with eastern Chad] first moved to Gereida and then to Raga. The British colonial administration refused to host all the Masalit in El Geneina and so the [British] Darfur Administrator came to visit the Dongo leaders to see whether some Masalit could be hosted in this area.”

Short history lessons like this, with which big men in this part of the world commonly start political explanations, are not just preambulatory antiquarianism. They are entirely current explanations for why people are where they are, and why they care enough about the place to fight others for it. These 'Darfuri' Masalit have a history of fighting Sudanese encroachment into their new homeland: a number fought in Raga county with the (then rebel) South Sudanese army during the second Sudanese civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

In other words, this Centrafrican junction point is not just an external rear base for the Darfur rebellion – it is the ground that some long-displaced Darfuris may ultimately defend from encroachment by Sudan to the north (as the Darfuri commander said, “Masalit do not fight for [military] positions, they only fight for land”). If our political maps say they should be fighting five hundred miles further north, neatly within Darfur’s boundaries, then our political maps are wrong. 

Nor does this mean that the fighting in this region are simply ‘primitive’ tribal skirmishes: in some (though not all) cases they are modern, networked techno-conflicts, fought with diaspora fundraising from the Gulf and London; by armed groups whose personnel have been trained everywhere from N’Djamena to Asmara; using new Chinese weapons captured from state forces to use against Chad’s new Ukrainian Sukhois or Sudan’s Iranian surveillance drones. But these globalised techno-wars are grounded in a weft of place, territory, entitlement and allegiance that drive conflict across the region, and which – for their combatants - have as much to do with this region’s slaving displacements during the Turko-Egyptian regime of the mid-19th century as they do with the corruption and predation of their current governments.


It is, of course, easy to criticize activists and securocrats trying to tackle conflicts with the haughty response that “things are complicated”. Darfur, Sudan’s border war, the LRA – these are real wars, involving real crimes, whose perpetrators should indeed be brought to justice in the way that celebrity activists suggest. But as we fit these celebrity African wars into the kind of neat explanatory frames we undoubtedly need to mobilise diplomats and aid efforts, we miss connections, misunderstand causes, ignore bigger problems outside our fields of vision. I submit humbly that perhaps we can sometimes learn about conflicts by looking at the spaces in-between them. From these spaces – empty, complicated, forgotten - we find that the actors, geography, chronology and causes of familiar conflicts look completely different; sometimes more intractable; but at least a more accurate picture to help avoid messing up.  


This post, and the navigation of my brief stay in Raga – though not my undoubtedly numerous mistakes here - owe much to the single stand-out study of the CAR/Sudan/South Sudan junction point, Eddie Thomas’ extraordinary mix of history and ethnography in his 2010 book on the Kafia Kingi triangle. 

Photographs made in Raga county, South Sudan, in December 2011.
**The SPLA did indeed capture two self-confessed LRA members last year – youths in Deim Jalab, near the border of the Kafia Kingi triangle – who claimed they had been commanded by a former LRA commander Caesar Achellam, who was indeed captured in CAR in May 2012, and a Col. Atoh Aguen. No mention of Joseph Kony.


Cotton, slavery and UK trade missions

A straightforward question: why is a UK government department helping promote foreign cotton harvested by slave labour?

The Observer reported this weekend that high-street clothing chain H&M is being accused of buying from clothing suppliers that may be using Uzbek cotton. Cotton in Uzbekistan is notorious for being produced under a government-organised labour programme which reportedly sees children taken from school and forced to pick cotton for months at a time. H&M says it bans Uzbek cotton from its supply chain.

 There's an odd paragraph at the end:

"Concerns about the use of Uzbek cotton have led to questions being asked of Peter Lilley, the former Tory trade secretary who heads the Uzbek-British Trade and Industry Council, which promotes the Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair....In an emailed reply, Lilley said the council followed Foreign Office guidelines and its main role was "to broaden trade and investment between the UK and Uzbekistan", not promote cotton."

It's a weird quote, and a not-quite denial. But whatever Mr Lilley may have said to the Observer, his Uzbek-British Trade and Industry Council (UBTIC) has definitely promoted Uzbek cotton.  Over the summer I was passed an email sent out by UBTIC to its members - including prospective UK investors in Uzbekistan - carrying Peter Lilley's signature, and inviting them to come to Uzbekistan and, um, sign cotton contracts. Back to that in a minute.

Why all the fuss? We all basically know that a lot of unpleasant things go on in the rag trade. Across the textile industry, child and sweated labour remains far too prevalent. But there are fairly few instances of textiles actually being made using child slave labour.

One exception is Uzbekistan's cotton industry, where an export-hungry government issues ever-growing cotton production quotas each year, and then fills them by forcing both adults - from teachers to factory workers - and children, reportedly as young as 10, to leave their schools and workplaces to work in the fields during the cotton harvest. ILO observers are banned from the country during the cotton harvest, and activists seeking to expose forced child labour have been arrested and detained. The 2012 harvest has just finished, and Uzbek activists report that international pressure has led to the youngest children being removed from the fields - but allege that teenagers are still being sent out and required to pick 60kg of cotton a day. Even the U.S. government, sometimes conservative in calling out Central Asian states on their human rights records, has said it's getting worse:

"Domestic labor trafficking remains prevalent during the annual cotton harvest, when many school-age children as young as 10 years old, college students, and adults are victims of government-organized forced labor. There were reports that, during the cotton harvest, working conditions included long hours, insufficient food and water, exposure to harmful pesticides, verbal abuse and inadequate shelter. The use of forced mobilization of adult laborers and child laborers (over 15 years of age) during the cotton harvest was higher than in the previous years."
Girl harvesting cotton in Kashkadarya, Uzbekistan, October 2011 (Anti-Slavery International)

That's why dozens of usually unsqeamish high-street clothing chains, from Wal-Mart to Zara, refuse to source Uzbek cotton. The French contact point of the OECD says that clothing companies that buy Uzbek cotton picked by forced labour and children may be violating OECD rules on business and human rights.

So: everyone happily agrees that we shouldn't buy Uzbek cotton until they stop using child slaves to pick it.

Everyone, that is, except UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a British government body under the joint aegis of the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. UKTI is tasked with promoting British business overseas. By and large, this seems like a good thing. But UKTI also works to promote overseas business to the UK - including its cheerful sponsorship of the Uzbek-British Trade & Industry Council (UBTIC), a trade promotion outfit chaired jointly by Peter Lilley MP and the Uzbek Trade Minister. Mr Lilley told me he is unpaid for his UBTIC work, but has "a part-time assistant". Despite UBTIC falling under the auspices of UKTI - a government body - Mr Lilley also said that it did not have to get UKTI's approval for any activities or communications; although he "now refer[s] anything likely to be contentious".

And so to Mr Lilley's email to UBTIC members, which I've reproduced below. As you can see, it invites them to register for the 8th International Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent, where

"participants will enjoy an opportunity to sign contracts for Uzbek cotton, set up long-term cooperation in cotton trading, as well as to be familiar with the quality of Uzbek cotton and the latest innovations in trade and logistics. Moreover, during the Cotton Fair “round tables” and bilateral negotiations between Uzbek cotton exporters and consumers will be organized."

I asked Mr Lilley, in the light of this email, whether UBTIC is involved in promoting Uzbek cotton. He replied "No - as explained" [in his quote to the Observer]. I'm not really certain how this is explained, since his email is pretty clear. It carries the logo of UKTI, and also handily attaches an invite and registration form for the Tashkent Cotton Fair. That'll be for cotton that is harvested with forced child labour, according to the U.S. government; and which a large chunk of the clothing industry has banned from its supply chains.

Nice work if you can get it. And if you can't, you can always force schoolchildren to do it.

Top image: 'In the Cotton Field' (Civil War collecting card c. 1863), Library Company of Philadelphia/Flickr/Creative Commons