Clashes and conflicts: Are lessons to be drawn?

South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Western Sahara, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ukraine, the Middle East – all of these have been witnessing conflicts of different sorts.

It appears that the proportions assumed by some of them are so significant on occasion – e.g. the insidious Iran-Israel tension with nuclear weapon in the background – that they might trigger a larger war involving other nations with predictable consequences, especially for the world’s most economically vulnerable populations. In many parts of the world, they have caused profound institutional rupture which could have been addressed had there been a sense of dialogue between opposing factions and a capacity of the concerned governments to manage unrest.

In the past, many conflicts used to be mainly around territorial disputes like the ones we are seeing these days about the South China Sea. But there are more issues today than mere dispute about land. Sometimes it is dictatorial and autocratic political regimes which raise mass protests (Iraq, Egypt, etc.) by the way they govern. The absence of democratic governance has led to riots and prolonged popular demonstrations in so many places, many countries of our continent being no exception to this tendency.

Corruption is another factor contributing to group protests, ending up in clashes between authorities and political forces (e.g. in Pakistan last week). Religious intolerance has plagued several Middle East countries in past years and still does so, resulting in numerous killings of citizens amongst themselves or by the army/special forces. Social conflicts have also erupted from organised crimes, drug trafficking, pronounced poverty and inequality. Today, conflagrations of violence are helped by social media and by the ease of communications, making it easier for opposing groups to gather and fight it out.

In some places, it is the collective identity of the state which is called in question. Distinct groups within the state see themselves as having separate identities and unable therefore to share the political space with others. Behind the vindication of group identity as separate from the rest there are perceptions of unfairness, lopsided development of regions and an unjust sharing of the development process as well as the national cake. The claim is made that one could do better by being alone. Such a one is mirrored in the Scots’ desire for independence from Britain.

On 18th September 2014, a referendum will be held in Scotland to decide whether Scotland should become an independent country. The question may be asked as to why more than 300 years after Scotland and England united in 1707 to form Great Britain, Scotland should want to go it alone. The straightforward answer is that even after centuries of cohabitation under a common political arrangement, nearly half the Scots don’t feel fully integrated in British society. The Scottish National Party, which spearheads the current quest for separation, believes that Scots would do well by being left to themselves. While vindication of identity is surely at stake, there could no less be an economic case for “freeing” Scotland from the Union. Opinions are divided, of course, but the wave of support for an independent Scotland has never been so strong.

Opportunities for a better model of Social Integration

All through history, we’ve seen one group wanting to dominate another – due to differences in religious, tribal, racial, genetic, cultural or institutional differences. Any ground was good enough to make an incursion on the other, including loot and despoliation by waging war. In typically agrarian societies of the past operating outside the reach of modern technology, there were deliberate divisions within the population – the nobility, priests, merchants and farmers – which created distinct spaces for each with strict boundaries and protocols not to be trespassed.

There has taken place a sea change from this model at the global level. Societies are more closely integrated with each other at the international level, at least those which have opened up to receive the benefits of scientific advancement and the technology which has transformed the very methods of production. Everyone can potentially rise to a more comfortable status thanks to modern technology.

Vast swathes of population have already moved on from rural areas to urban areas as labour has been freed from agricultural occupations thanks to better farming technology associated with ever-rising food and raw material production. Countries which have adopted efficient methods of production have increased their GDP hundred fold from what it used to be in the strictly stratified agricultural society of the past. From this, fairer and more equitable distribution has been possible for decades. We should take it up.

Sharing of the national cake is therefore no longer the zero-sum game it used to be in the past, notably that if one part of the community appropriated a larger share of it to itself, the others would forcibly be deprived of their fair share. Each specialized part of the country’s labour force can now get a bigger amount from the national cake than what it enjoyed earlier since the cake has not remained static, as it used to be in the less dynamic agrarian society. The modern democratic government came into being (after the feudal society) principally to ensure social stability by administering a system of taxes (on the better off) and subsidies (in favour of the less well off).

Enhancing the scope of fair sharing in Mauritius

Mauritius has created tangible social cohesion. It is still listed, unfairly to my mind, among the countries having experienced conflicts due to stray events which happened in 1968 and 1999. One would have wished to wipe out the memory of such events and it is for the social and political forces not to rouse up sleeping dragons. Unfortunately, one has the sense from time to time that some leaders whip up differences for the sake of temporary political gain. Raking up the past from time to time may also contain the risk of inviting to an otherwise peaceful country the unmanageable tensions we see wreaking havoc in different parts of the world.

Social conflicts are generally sparked off when the state fails to make a just distribution of the country’s production and, sometimes, to make it grow as it should by taking the appropriate policy initiatives on time. Being in a position of oversight, the state is able to see when the balance starts tilting too much in the wrong direction to the point of causing pockets of deep poverty and disaffection among the population. The absence of constructive dialogue with the various stakeholders leads to skewed conditions characteristic of non-inclusive societies.

Mauritius could learn from the bad experience of the numerous societies shaken by all manner of violence due to variegated causes of disaffection. Since the government has the levers of control in its hands, it could direct all its efforts to construct firmly the all-inclusive society we need.

Everybody deserves to be given a fair chance to make it in life, irrespective of religion, race, skin colour, gender, etc. A strong government could impart this kind of serenity. The politics of division along ethnic lines will then become something of the past and forgotten. It is a platform worth the while for us to take on as a united nation in adversity and prosperity just the same.

* Published in print edition on 29 August 2014

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