Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Our man in Africa

7. July 2008

Arne Perras, correspondent for the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s African office, spoke at length on Africa’s crisis zones and the role of the international community in a lecture titled “Extreme Experiences in War Zones – A Correspondent’s Observations”. His lecture was part of the series “Crisis and Intervention or Crisis of Interventionism?” hosted at the University of Konstanz between 10 June and 14 July 2008 by the Center of Excellence and the Department of Politics and Management.

Arne Perras has reported for the Süddeutsche Zeitung from its office in Kampala (Uganda) since 2006. He is one of the few correspondents that report to a major German newspaper from Africa. The Süddeutsche Zeitung strives to keep its readers informed on key issues in Africa and is one of the few German newspapers with an active presence on the African continent. In the eyes of most of the world Africa continues to be a largely unknown continent.

Perras’ assignment covers the African continent from the southern reaches of the Sahara to the Cape of Good Hope. His work is made all the more complicated by the lack of infrastructure and the violent crises that regularly rock the region. Often enough journalists are simply unable to reach the scene of events in time to report a story. Journalists wishing to report from conflict zones need reliable assistance on site to help them move through and leave these areas safely.

Arne Perras’ key concern when reporting on crises, civil wars and forced displacement is to explain the nature of the conflict. What role do economic interests – usually a significant factor) - play in these conflicts? And how does the international community react to crises? Does it intervene, and if so, how?

Perras’ appraisal of the role of the United Nations is not especially favorable. In his lecture Perras highlighted the Darfur Crisis as an example of a humanitarian disaster that an international intervention could well have prevented or, at least, brought an end. Why has the UN failed to intervene in spite of the estimated 400,000 killed and 2.5 million displaced persons? According to Perras this lack of action is not only due to China’s influence in Khartoum, but also to the inability of the West to develop an effective common policy on the crisis in Sudan. According to Perras it is unlikely that the conflict in Sudan will be resolved or the humanitarian crisis alleviated as long as the individual states continue to pursue their own policies towards Sudan.

Although the international community has occasionally resolved itself to intervene in humanitarian crises, Perras points out that the international community then either failed to achieve its aims or to even define those goals prior to the intervention. Somalia, now a UN “no-go area” that Perras is only able to visit in the most favorable circumstances, is one example of this failure. On the rare occasions that Perras is able to visit Somalia he is forced to adopt a “hit-and-run” strategy: entering Somalia by car, he remains hidden within the vehicle throughout the journey, never stays in one place for long and always travels with a trustworthy escort capable of returning him safely to his base. Clearly, these are less than ideal conditions for journalistic investigation. Our lack of knowledge about Somalia is a direct consequence of these unfortunate circumstances.

Since 1991 Somalia has been torn apart by civil war. The US-led and UN-backed military intervention “Operation Restore Hope” of 1992-93 failed to achieve its humanitarian goal (to provide aid to the innocent victims of the war and famine) and its political aim (to restore law and order). Critics claim that the United States’ primary interests were economic (oil) and military (the establishment of permanent bases), it has also been alleged that the USA intervention was partisan.

In mid-2006 the United States intervened in Somalia again following the capture of Mogadishu by Islamic forces. Under the pretence of combating terrorism the USA provided support to anti-Islamic warlords. Meanwhile the Somali population looked forward to period of peace under the rule of the Islamic forces. For a while the so-called “Union of Islamic Courts” succeeded in enforcing a limited degree of order in Mogadishu. This was no small feat in a country racked by civil war and years of violent conflict between rival militias. The rule of the UIC was ended in late 2006 by the US-backed Ethiopian invasion.

In his analysis Perras concludes that not only was this most recent intervention a failure, it also proved to be counterproductive by strengthening support for the Islamists. The negative experiences made by both parties have hardened the divisions between these rival groups. Indeed, Mogadishu’s transitional government is now entirely dependent on the support it receives from Ethiopia – a regional power much-maligned by the majority of Somalians. Meanwhile, the international community continues to disguise its impotence by deploying African troops to the crisis stricken country. An African peacekeeping force (AMISOM) composed of soldiers from Uganda and Burundi is now supposed to stabilize Somalia. Instead the troops are concerned for the most part with their own security – little or no peacekeeping is actually taking place according to Arne Perras. It is bitter irony that “Operation Restore Hope” has left a nation seemingly bereft of all hope.

The plight of Africa highlights the impotence of the international community and this trend is set to worsen in future, claims Perras. But the crises in Somalia and Darfur are just one aspect of Africa. Perras is equally fascinated by the intense solidarity and the common identity of the African peoples. Sadly, that side of Africa is seldom mentioned in newspapers.

Claudia Marion Amann