The Representation of African Civil Wars in Australian and New Zealand Refugee Scholarship.

Author:Majavu, Mandisi


This article aims to disrupt the grand-narrative about war between opposing groups within the same country/region in Africa in Australian, and New Zealand refugee scholarship. To that end, this work explores some of the recurring discursive themes in Australian and New Zealand research about African refugees who have been resettled in these two countries. It will explore and highlight the influence of the Africanist (a person specializing in the study of African affairs) discourse (Gruesser, 1990) on the way in which the Australian and the New Zealand refugee scholarship discusses African civil wars, hence, war between opposing groups within the same country/region.

The Africanist discourse refers to texts written about Africa by Western authors (Gruesser, 1990) that dates back to the 19th century. One of the defining features of the Africanist discourse before the 19th century was the 'guess-work' upon which knowledge about Africa was generated (Miller, 1985). This approach to knowledge creation saw information shaped "about itself rather than shaped by the inquiry, creating the illusion of a 'pre-existing essence'" (Miller, 1985, p. 21). This paper argues that Christopher Miller's (1985) 'Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French' "supplies a useful theoretical framework for understanding works about Africa by Western writers" (Gruesser, 1990, p. 6). It is worth noting that Miller's (1985) book builds on Michel Foucault's analyses of discursive systems, as well as Edward Said's Orientalism (Gruesser, 1990).

Building on Said, Miller (1985) claims that if the Orient is a reverse image in the mind of Europe, then Africa, as a third term in the equation, is nothing, less real than either the West or the East, and thus filled with a myriad of fantasies of the European imagination (Gruesser, 1990, p. 6).

There is a dearth of refugee literature in Australia and New Zealand that aims "to delineate both the distortions and the powerful influence of Africanist discourse" (Gruesser, 1990, p. 5) on the study of African civil wars that have produced millions of refugees, and continue to produce thousands of refugees. The political analyses of African civil conflicts and wars in Australian and New Zealand refugee scholarship largely focuses on issues such as "tribalism", ethnocentrism or African dictators, without highlighting the global historical context within which African political conflicts occur. Thus, this discursive approach to African civil wars is consistent with the Eurocentric framework that often portrays African civil wars "as a contest between brutes" (Mamdani, 2009, p. 19), or as "theatre of devastating armed conflicts" (Ratsimbaharison, 2011, p. 269).

This article deconstructs this Africanist discourse and challenges the Eurocentric meta-narrative on African civil wars by carefully documenting the ways in which European colonialism and the Cold War contributed to the conflicts and the civil wars that have produced millions of refugees in the Horn of Africa and in Sudan. This is achieved by critically and concisely exploring the history of the Horn of Africa and Sudan. The latter, as well as the countries in the Horn of Africa are regarded as the top refugee-producing countries on the continent.

Black people in Australia and New Zealand

The last three decades have seen a substantial number of African refugees being resettled in Australia and New Zealand. According to Ndhlovu (2014), the number of people born in Africa rose in Australia from about 250, 000 in 2006 to around 338, 000 in 2011. It is worth noting, however, that nearly half of all Australians of African origin are white South African migrants (Phillips, 2011).

There are around 13,464 Black people residing in New Zealand (Statistics New Zealand, 2013). Most Black people living in New Zealand came to the country via humanitarian efforts. Research about Black people in New Zealand and in Australia largely focuses on Africans who have come to these countries through humanitarian efforts. Thus, many research projects often use the grand narrative of refugee resettlement and refugee integration to research Black people in Australia and New Zealand. I have written in depth and critiqued the grand narrative of refugee resettlement and refugee integration somewhere else (see, Majavu 2017, Majavu 2015).

The refugee resettlement and refugee integration paradigm foregrounds, among other things, the trauma that African refugees have experienced pre-resettlement. Within this discursive framework, the pre-resettlement experiences of African refugees are discussed within a superficial understanding and analysis of African civil wars that have and continue to produce African refugees. Consequently, the Australian and New Zealand refugee literature tends to discuss war between opposing groups within the same country/region in Africa by highlighting local political phenomena such as ethnocentrism and African dictators without rigorously interrogating the ways in which these political phenomena relate to the global political economy.

Take for instance, Ann Beaglehole's book, which is entitled Refuge New Zealand: A Nation's Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers. In chapter four of her book, Beaglehole's (2013) writes about how New Zealand accepted Ugandan refugees in the 1970s. Beaglehole (2013, p. 64) explains that New Zealand accepted 244 Ugandan Asians who were "expelled in the course of President Idi Amin's 'Africanisation' policy." In the entire book, Beaglehole neither defines the "Africanisation policy" she refers to nor does she show insight about post-independent Ugandan politics. Beaglehole argues that Amin's predecessor, Milton Obote, introduced in 1969 legislation restricting further immigration from South Asia and the right of non-citizens to hold trade licences.

According to Beaglehole (2013), Obote also intended to force the departure of Asians who held British passports. Beaglehole further argues that when Amin came to power in 1971--1972, he announced that all Asians were sabotaging the country's economy and must therefore leave Uganda.

Mahmood Mamdani has written extensively on the topic and offers an informed, nuanced, and historically accurate perspective on this subject (Mamdani, 1993; Mamdani, 1975). Beaglehole neither utilises Mamdani's work, nor does she point out the historical fact that the Ugandan Asians were the only African refugees offered overseas resettlement by the UNHCR during the 1960s and 1970s--a volatile political period in Africa (Mamdani, 1993). To fully understand why the West took an exceptional interest in the plight of the Ugandan Asians, one has to locate the rise of Idi Amin to power within the historical context of global politics. Amin came to power with the full support of Britain and Israel. However, soon after taking over the control of the Ugandan state, Amin had a fall-out with his British and Israeli supporters. Consequently, Britain supported efforts to overthrow Amin (Bhagat, 1983). The fall-out between Amin and Britain partly led to the expulsion of Ugandan Asians. Bhagat (1983, 1614) argues that the "expulsion was a direct blow against Britain because most Asian businesses were compradorial extensions of British economic interests." Thus, Britain and its Western allies decided to embarrass Amin by widely publicising the expulsion of Ugandan Asians and offering them overseas resettlement. Beaglehole's book does not account for this history.

Similarly, in their study which is entitled 'It was the most beautiful country I have ever seen': The role of Somali narratives in adapting to a new country, Ramsden and Ridge (2012) write about the political conflict and civil wars in the Horn of Africa that have produced millions of refugees from an ahistorical perspective. They rightly point out that Somalia is one of the countries generating the highest number of refugees worldwide. According to Ramsden and Ridge (2012, p. 227), Somalis began to migrate to Australia in small numbers in the 1980s; the "largest migration of Somalis began in 1988 when the northern part of the country came under attack from Siad Barre's regime... " According to Ramsden and Ridge (2012) before May 1992, the root of displacement had to do with fighting and drought, whereas after May 1992 the basis of displacement was due to food scarcity. As far as Ramsden and Ridge (2012) are concerned, the ongoing conflict in Somalia, as well as poor seasonal rains and famine, continue to force Somalis to flee their home country. The authors neither touch on the recent involvement of the United States in Somalia nor how the creation of al-Shabaab has helped further destabilise Somalia.

Likewise, Hassan Ibrahim's (2012) PhD briefly explores the history of Somalia. Ibrahim's study which was completed in 2012 at the University of Canterbury, is entitled From Warzone to Godzone: Towards a new Model of Communication and collaboration Between schools and Refugee families. Presumably, the Warzone is the Horn of Africa and...

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