How Ethnic Conflict Could Dominate This Century

Damian Thompson, Telegraph (London), January 3, 2014

Here is a vision of the future that freaked me out when I read it. The 21st century will witness “the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war”.

Living in the West will feel like travelling through a ghetto in a limousine; don’t dare open that door. “Outside would be a crowded planet of skinhead Cossacks and juju warriors, influenced by the worst refuse of Western pop culture and ancient tribal hatreds, and battling over scraps of overused earth in guerrilla conflicts that ripple across continents . . .

“War-making entities will no longer be restricted to a specific territory. Loose and shadowy organisms such as Islamic terrorist organisations suggest why borders will mean little and sedimentary layers of tribalistic identity and control will mean more.”

These quotes are taken from “The Coming Anarchy”, an essay by the foreign affairs analyst Robert D Kaplan, writing in The Atlantic magazine in February 1994. In places it is comically apocalyptic–the world still awaits the invasion of Mad Max-style “skinhead Cossacks”. Also, wonderful progress has been made in controlling infectious disease in Africa. In other respects, however, Kaplan is looking more prescient by the day.

This week, a “white army” of Nuer tribesman–so called because they smear their faces with white ash–is marching on forces loyal to the government of South Sudan, dominated by the Dinka tribe. Nearly 200,000 people have lost their homes; Juba, the capital, is surrounded by freshly dug graves. Sudanese civil wars between the Muslim North and Christian/animist South are nothing new; but this is civil war in the new, non-Muslim state of South Sudan, for which Nuer and Dinka shed so much blood and which has fallen apart in less than a month.

Meanwhile, 130,000 Syrians have perished during a civil war in which tribal and sectarian strands can’t be disentangled. “Sedimentary layers of tribalistic identity”, as Kaplan calls them, are wreaking havoc. And the West–still operating under simplistic notions of nationalism, racism and multiculturalism–can only wring its hands helplessly.

The problem isn’t just that we don’t understand religious/ethnic conflicts: it’s that we don’t know they’re going on. Politicians should be forced to read Fields of Fire: An Atlas of Ethnic Conflict by Stuart Notholt, a business analyst who provides maps and statistical analysis of hundreds of ethnic conflicts.

For example, Indonesia alone has 300 ethnic groups, many of which are being displaced by a government that favours “pure” Japanese over Dayaks, Melanesians and Chinese. “A disaster waiting to happen,” says Notholt. But he adds that Indonesia is far too important to be allowed to become a “failed state”–so Australia, the nearest Western power, could be forced to intervene.

Notholt’s key observation is that these ancient hatreds have been revived by globalisation and new technology. I’ve seen some pretty vicious scores settled on Twitter–but that’s nothing compared to the medieval butchery coordinated and carried out by tribesmen with mobile phones.

Here’s a question for you. How many countries are fighting each other at the beginning of 2014? The answer is none. “Battlefield deaths” have fallen dramatically. But that’s because battles are dying out; massacres, on the other hand, are back with a vengeance. In fact, there’s probably one going on as you read this, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Happy New Year.


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