This series takes as its focus the complex and unusual dynamics of violence in Central Africa. Although sometimes unfairly written off as a region of intractable conflict, kleptocratic big men, and hopelessly poor levels of governance, many regional experts now argue that Central Africa is undergoing a period of profound transition. Are the ‘Illiberal Statebuilders’ of Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni heralds of a new period of robust and durable state formation? Or merely the newest generation of patrimonial caretakers for states in terminal decline? Is the defeat of the M23 mutiny in Eastern Congo the last rebellion, or just the latest? And how has their defeat reshaped the social and political map of the region? We wish to give space here to the emerging debates about the connections between violence and security, the economy, politics, conflict-resolution, gender dynamics, and local governance.

The important attention the Burundi crisis has received from the international media shows not only concerns with the safety and future of millions of Burundians but also fears of a regional contagion. Among the key questions are the regional support of president Nkurunziza, the likelihood of a foreign intervention, the lessons for the power-sharing model of peace-building Burundi incarnated, and possibilities for regional and national actors to solve the crisis.

The question of the constitutionality of a third term is absolutely central in the present crisis. The protesters have repeated their view that the constitution does not allow for a third term and expressed their fear of a carving up of the 2000 Arusha Peace agreement. The issues around the third term and Arusha have been widely discussed in the media and other essays. The roundtable tried to take a slightly different viewpoint and explored the key issues of the present crisis beyond the question of the third term: local grievances and post-war reconciliation and integration, the economy (and especially agriculture and aid), and whether the “ethnic factor” is still relevant.

When president Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term, serious unrest exploded in the streets of Bujumbura. In the last three weeks, violent clashes with the police have triggered fears of a new civil war and destabilisation of the entire African Great Lakes region. So far, the international community has been unable to calm the situation and 100,000 Burundians have already fled the country. The Oxford Central Africa Forum hosted a round-table on the 15th of May to examine the causes of the current situation and discuss the prospects for peace and democracy in Burundi and the region. It gathered six researchers who have conducted fieldwork in Burundi. We present some of their analysis and findings here in a short series of three articles. In this first post, we explore the forces present on the ground.

Rwanda has just completed its first Large Dam since the genocide (traditionally defined as one over 15 metres high). The Nyabarongo Dam will become the country’s primary power station and increase Rwanda’s power generation by a third. It is arguably the first singularly big development project to be completed by president Kagame’s government, and is set to be the first of many with a further four Large Dams in the immediate pipeline and the Bugasera Airport under construction. They form part of a wider effort to build large ‘modern’ infrastructures across the country, from road improvements and increased energy production to skyscrapers in the capital Kigali. So what does this drive towards big projects entail for Rwanda? Can it tell us something about the way in which the country is run and the values of its government? This article explores aspects of Rwanda’s flagship dam project that indicate the government’s wider approach to development politics.

Since 1998 I have been carrying out applied research with colleagues and African organisations with survivors of sexual violence and torture. This research argues that sexual violence perpetrated in conflict and post-conflict settings causes devastating effects to individuals as well as whole communities. It results in extensive damage to survivors’ psychological, reproductive and gynaecological health. Ongoing research reveals that more women and girl-children survive conflicts than are killed; yet with tremendous wounds to their bodies and minds; assaults on their dignity, their feelings of self-worth and their future. In contrast, there are rarely consequences for the perpetrators. Applied research carried out in Uganda, Liberia and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with colleagues and African organisations, argues that sexual violence is not solely a war crime and although extremely prevalent during conflicts, my research argues it has contaminated the post-conflict domestic sphere with high levels of community-perpetrated domestic violence and rape, particularly against young girls. Survivors’ shame and stigma is exacerbated by severe social rejection, particularly for women and girls who become pregnant from rape, former abductees and those with AIDS and HIV infection. Many resultant physical and mental health problems are not treatable by the grossly over-stretched and under-resourced health care systems. Capacity building within primary health care and justice services needs to address psychological trauma, increase resilience and recovery through support groups, trauma counselling and improvement to mental health policies. It is vitally important that service providers (who have also often experienced human rights abuses) are assisted to develop peer support and supervision groups and receive culturally sensitive training in supporting traumatised survivors and their children born from rape. In conjunction with greater protection for their work, and regular salaries this would assist to prevent ‘burn out’.

Ensuring soldiers have legal access to financial resources is crucial for the state to fulfil its primary mission: retain the monopoly of violence. As seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo, difficulties providing soldiers with adequate resources may result in deteriorating discipline, corruption, defection, and human rights abuses. Rwanda after the genocide faced the difficult task of paying its soldiers. The post-1994 situation made this challenge inescapable. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took power in a ruined country. The economy was entirely destroyed, and fleeing officials of the previous regime had emptied state coffers. The resources to pay soldiers were virtually non-existent. In addition, following the RPF victory, many families returned from exile to Rwanda. Consequently, soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA, the armed wing of the RPF) were not just guerrilla fighters anymore: they became fathers, husbands, or brothers again. This new financial burden on soldiers’ shoulders created a form of indiscipline largely unknown until then in the RPA’s ranks. In addition, the meagre salaries were made in cash, transported by intermediaries from the Ministry of Defence to soldiers, which multiplied the opportunities for embezzlement and the creation of ‘ghost soldiers’. Worse, the opportunities for soldiers to borrow money were extremely limited at the time. Many had no property in Rwanda and consequently no collateral to offer to the few banks still functioning.