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Interview with Ivan Navarro. Barcelona Ciutat Refugi. Barcelona City Council PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 25 January 2017 08:51

Iván Navarro, Researcher of the School for a Culture of Peace, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Iván Navarro Milián is a researcher on armed conflict and the construction of peace in sub-Saharan Africa. He is part of a research team from the School for a Culture of Peace at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), and the African Study Group at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM). He is also part of team for the blog On the same day we interviewed him, 19 January, The Gambia was about to embark on a civil war which could destabilise West Africa, the most peaceful region of the continent. The election in The Gambia toppled president Jammeh after 22 years in government, but he wouldn’t accept the results and was not prepared to give up the post. ECOWAS, West Africa’s regional organisation, threatened with military intervention in the country if Jammeh didn’t go. “Today’s the deadline”, explains Navarro. “Yesterday a state of exception was declared. The winner of the elections, who should be sworn in today, was elected president from Senegal and Nigerian and Senegalese troops are on the border with The Gambia waiting to see if they’re going in or not, waiting to see what happens. Anyhow, it won’t be on the TV. Anywhere else, other than Africa, it would make the headlines”.

If Africa is the forgotten continent, is the drama of sub-Saharan refugees even more so?

The media focuses on Syria, but we forget that millions of refugees are from sub-Saharan Africa. The number of Spanish correspondents in the region is ridiculous. The media has never really made an effort to cover this zone. For instance, Xavier Aldekoa, the correspondent for La Vanguardia, covers the entire continent, just one journalist for the whole of Africa.

There is a perverse belief that hunger is the only reason for the flow of African refugees.

Of course there’s hunger, but because there are wars. Forced migration is to be found where there is armed conflict, except for isolated cases in Eritrea, where there is no war but there is an authoritarian regime. They’re refugees of war.

What are the most serious conflicts in Africa at present?

The conflicts in South Sudan (since December 2013), the conflict in Somalia, those in Sudan (Darfur and South Kordofan), as well as the conflicts in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the west there’s the conflict in Nigeria, not just because of the problems with Boko Haram in the north, but also because of conflicts in the south: Lake Chad, the south of the Niger, the west of Chad and the north of Cameroon.

According to the UNHCR, on a global scale, there were 63,500,000 forced migrants in 2016. That’s the highest figure since the Second World War.

Where do refugees who can’t afford the trip to Europe go?

Out of these, 40 million are displaced internally, which means they haven’t left their home borders. Those who don’t come to Europe stay in countries which, in turn, have populations which flee to save their lives. Displaced people become invisible, obliged to leave their homes and not even able to leave their own countries. It’s also much more difficult to count displaced people than to count refugees, as refugees are counted by the UNHCR, but displaced people are not. It’s the countries themselves which give them a little help, although it’s hardly ever enough. It ends up being organisations that do the work.
In terms of displaced people, the worst figures are for Nigeria. Some 168,000 people have left the country, basically due to the conflict with Boko Haram. The problem is that at the same time, Nigeria has over two million internally displaced people. In Sudan, over half a million refugees have fled, nearly 200,000 of them are in South Sudan, an independent country since 2011 and gripped by civil war since 2013, where nearly 800,000 people have fled and over 2 million are internally displaced. A country in this situation is sheltering some 230,000 refugees from other countries.

How many people die along the way, far from home?

Countless people. It’s also perverse that people end up creating a mindset of first class, second class, third class refugees and so on. For example, Somalian refugees, who come from the country which generates the most refugees, have been in Kenya for fifteen years and won’t get anywhere else as they haven’t got the resources to progress. Many live in the biggest refugee camp in the world, in Dadaab, in Kenya, where there are half a million people.

According to figures from the UNHCR, the EU currently takes in the equivalent to Uganda, Chad and Kenya between them. These EU quotas are ridiculous.

The number of refugees arriving in Europe is minimal.

It’s unrealistic. Nine out of ten African refugees remain in other African countries and don’t go to Europe. According to figures from the UNHCR, the EU currently takes in the equivalent to Uganda, Chad and Kenya between them. These EU quotas are ridiculous, and those for Spain are dreadful. Of the 17,680 people the government pledged to take in, at the end of 2016 we’d only taken in 481 people. During that same period the conflict in South Sudan generated nearly 5,000 refugees a day, who mainly took refuge in Uganda. If Spain fulfilled the agreed quota, we’d only be taking in what Uganda takes in four days. Uganda, one of the worst faring countries in terms of human development but which rates mid-table among African countries.

You worked in Uganda for six years. What’s the situation there?

I did, from 2005 to 2010. Now things are calmer, but the conflict there goes back to 1986 when the Lord’s Resistance Army started to operate. It’s a terrorist group which calls itself Christian and aims to establish the Ten Commandments as a political constitution. Their leader, Joseph Kony, is believed to be in hiding in South Sudan. This conflict, silenced in mainstream media, perhaps because it involves Christian extremists, has generated thousands of displaced people and numerous child soldiers within the ranks of the LRA. One of them, Ongwen, is being judged for war crimes by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He joined as a kidnapped child and went on to become a commander.

What are the causes of war in Africa?

To explain African conflicts we always hear that the causes are rooted in ethnic hate, underdevelopment and the control of resources. One case is that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some accounts indicate it’s a war for the control of coltan and gold, but the war broke out long before coltan or gold were discovered there. It’s a war which came about due to the interference of Rwanda and Uganda, among other factors. These reasons are partly true, but limiting oneself to that in order to tell the whole story is risky, because it ignores other factors such as the geopolitical role. It also means losing sight of each country’s own history, beliefs, the needs of the population and common complaints between regions.
Our research aims to break down these narratives. How was the genocide in Rwanda sold? Ethnic hate between Hutus and Tutsis, as it’s in their blood. It’s as if we’re justifying it, normalising it, because as they’re Africans, it seems normal that they’re killing each other. That interpretation is what justifies non-intervention in the face of genocide. Six months of violence and almost a million people slaughtered, mostly with machetes.

Do we forget class awareness when we look at Africa from Europe?

There are currently rebellions in some areas against governments which have been in power for years. In Burkina Faso, some years ago, the population managed to quash a coup. In South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, movements which are similar to Spain’s 15M are springing up, but get no coverage either unless some journalist which is akin to them manages to get a news item out. We gave plenty of attention to the Arab springs, to the protest movements in Europe, but when the same thing happens years later in sub-Saharan Africa we don’t see it.

What role do foreign powers such as the USA, China and France play?

China is gaining an incredibly strong economic foothold in Africa, but not militarily. The first troops from China were in South Sudan, when the war broke out in 2013, as part of a UN force. The main oil company making contracts is the one operated by the Chinese government and so they had some interests to protect. China is planning to build an oil pipeline via Kenya, as the only crude oil route South Sudan has is via Sudan, which charges tax for the use of its territory. Production has dropped significantly since 2013, meaning a huge loss of income for the South Sudanese government and also for the Chinese companies.
For its part, the USA has a military command in Africa, the Africom, which operates out of Rota (Spain), Germany and Djibouti, as well as other locations which are not officially bases.
French participation is centred in Mali and the Central African Republic, both of them very important. There is an increasingly a stronger influence here with the need to contain armed Jihadist movements, which represent a serious threat to French interests in the region.

What influence has Jihadism had on African conflicts?

Fundamentalist groups have existed in Africa since the nineties, but they can’t be compared to the present. Jihadism is present in the Sahel (Mali, Nigeria and Chad), in Egypt, the Sinai, Somalia and Libya. To understand the resurgence of Jihadism in Africa the fall of the Gaddafi regime is a key event. At a given point it was justified by NATO and western countries as humanitarian intervention, even though it wasn’t about that and never had been. Paradoxically, the fall of the regime has led to a wave of violence across the entire Sahel. If there’s one thing Gaddafi did, it was to control Jihadism efficiently. His downfall opened up a can of worms. Since then, in the north of Mali we can find Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Masina Liberation Front, Al-Murabitun, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), Ansar Dine, all of them groups which didn’t exist until the fall of Gaddafi. In Nigeria it’s Boko haram, and in Libya itself it’s the Islamic State, practically the only place where they are to be found in Africa.

Besides opening up borders and tackling the causes of the conflicts, what other solutions are there?

More dialogue on an equal basis, which we have not had in Syria or Libya. The African Union’s voice has been minimised in the conflicts where it could have had more of a leading role. Policies cannot just be those of military intervention. In most places it should not be like that. Post-war rebuilding policies should also be shored up by the European Union and other organisations. In order for the causes of these conflicts not to spring up again, development and investment needs to be boosted and social movements need to have a voice in their countries and participate, opening up democracy and dialogue.
The problem is with the conflicts, with the generation of these crises and their becoming chronic. EU policy should be to take in as many people as possible and provide them with protection, as set out by international law, but that won’t solve the problem. If the conflicts are not solved in Syria, Libya, South Sudan, Mali etc., the flow of refugees will continue. The problems which cause the forced displacement of people need to be tackled at the roots, and we’re not doing that. In fact, many European and North American governments have contributed to many African dictatorial regimes becoming entrenched in power and have allowed systematic human rights violations. Now they’ve exploded they can’t find a way to stop them.
On the Sunday following this interview (22 January), the Spanish news channel TVE reported that former president Jammeh of The Gambia had finally accepted the electoral result. The news item lasted less than 30 seconds, around 23 minutes into the programme.

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