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An atlas of desperation and displacement

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A truck, carrying grains to Tigray and belonging to the World Food Programme (WFP), burns out near Semera, Ethiopia. The Afar region, the only passageway for humanitarian convoys bound for Tigray, is itself facing a serious food crisis, due to the combined effects of the conflict in northern Ethiopia and the drought in the Horn of Africa which have notably caused numerous population displacements. Dreams of a united, flourishing Continent have turned to dust as Africa’s vast planes of possibility have increasingly become zones of war. For millions of homeless and displaced people, Africa Day, on May 25, will brim with misery rather than merriment, the writer says. – Picture: Eduardo Soteras / AFP / Taken on June 10, 2022

By Kim Heller

Today, Africa is a topography of terror and turmoil. Its skyline is gloomy from the flares of war that have defaced the earth and risen up to usurp the sky. Dreams of a united, flourishing Continent have turned to dust as Africa’s vast planes of possibility have increasingly become zones of war. For millions of homeless and displaced people, Africa Day, on 25 May, will brim with misery rather than merriment.

Fierce conflicts and climate cataclysms have forced an exodus across Africa. But this is not a journey of salvation or redemption. It is a mass flight of people on the run from savage wars and environmental ravage.

The scattering of millions of internally displaced people across the Continent has turned Africa into an atlas of disaster. This at a time when the world-map is one of unprecedented internal displacement.

Globally, over the past five years, the number of internally displaced persons has increased by fifty percent, and now stands at 75.9 million. In 2023, conflict and wars were responsible for close to 90 percent of internal displacement (68.3 million) while climatic factors and crises, such as floods, storms and earthquakes accounted for the remaining ten percent (7.7 million). Almost half of the world’s internally displaced persons are in sub-Saharan Africa. These staggering statistics were released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre at the launch of its 2024 Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) on May 14, 2024.

The secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said: “Millions of families are having their lives torn apart by conflict and violence. We have never, ever recorded so many people forced away from their homes and communities”.

The United Nations defines internally displaced persons as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border.”

Sudan emerged as the country with the highest number of internally displaced persons (9.1 million), followed by the DRC (6.7million) and Palestine (1.7million). The report found that Sudan and DRC combined accounted for almost half of internal displacements across the globe in 2023.

The number of internally displaced persons in sub-Saharan Africa was 16.5 million in 2018. In 2023, this rose sharply to 34.8 million. This is 46 percent of the global total. Sub-Saharan Africa is a crisis zone, and this is not expected to abate in the near future. The 2024 GRID reported that the Greater Horn of Africa continued to experience widespread displacement as a consequence of both conflict and climate instability. In Nigeria, 291, 000 people were displaced primarily due to criminal and communal violence. In Ethiopia, conflict related displacement fell from two million in 2022 to 794,000 in 2023.

Internally displaced persons are part of the collateral damage of raging wars and conflicts. It will take years, if not decades, to rebuild the lives of those forced to flee their homes. The ongoing cycle of violence and conflict in Africa means that internal displacement becomes a prolonged plight rather than a fleeting crisis.

The African Union’s Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security, Bineta Diop has referred to forced displacement as “the worst kind of people’s movement as it means not only losing a home, but entails a disruption of one’s dreams, plans, identity and moving to unfamiliar territories with hopelessness and fear”.

Caught in a vicious spiral of desperation and hopelessness, internally displaced persons are a highly vulnerable group. With less rights and protections than refugees, they are the forsaken people. And hardly ever top of agenda for governments.

At the launch of the 2024 GRID, Robert Piper, the UN’s Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Solutions to Internal Displacement, spoke of the dehumanisation and lack of protection of internally displaced persons. He urged that the same human rights and recognition of refugees be extended to internally displaced persons.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council said, “The suffering and the displacement last far beyond the news cycle. Too often their fate ends up in silence and neglect. The lack of protection and assistance that millions endure cannot be allowed to continue.” Earlier this month, attacks at camps set up for internally displaced persons in eastern DRC resulted in the death and injury of many women and children.

Alongside the man-made wars, the wrath of Mother Nature has seen over 25 disasters in sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade. In the early part of 2023, Somalia, 331, 0000 people were displaced as a result of droughts, and later in the year, floods saw millions fleeing their homes. In Malawi and Mozambique, Cyclone Freddy, hit hard. In Kenya disaster displacements reached 641,000. Floods triggered 550,000 displacements in Ethiopia. Uganda reported over 50,000 disaster displacements.

Ngonidzashe Edward, a director at The Jesuit Centre for Ecology and Development estimates that the end of the century, weather anomalies in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to an annual migration of 11.8 million.

The high level of internal displacement in Africa is a sad indictment of the lack of political will to ensure peace and stability on the Continent. Although the African union has long committed to averting the indiscriminate displacement of persons and to espouse their rights and dignity, the organisation has failed to deal effectively with this epic pandemic. Preventive measures are lacking as are political remedies.

In many instances, conflict is exacerbated rather than expunged by governments who have failed to remedy endemic poverty, economic challenges, and security risks. Many governments in Africa have suppressed basic human rights, causing fright and flight among citizens.

On May 25, 2016, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who was serving as Chairperson of the African Union Commission commemorated Africa Day. In her address she said, “We all aspire for a well-governed and prosperous Africa under the basic tenets of democracy, rule of law and full respect of human and peoples’ rights”.

Eight years later, poor governance, war and conflict is not only devastating and dislodging the Continent’s citizens but its economies. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecast that in 2024 Africa will be the second fastest-growing economic region in the world. A growth of 4 percent was anticipated but war and conflict are putting economic recovery and growth at risk.

In October 2023, the African Development Bank, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the United Nations Refugee Agency, held a joint session on ‘Forced displacement, Fragility Mitigation, and Climate Resilience’. The meeting concluded that there was a need to form a regional platform to share experiences and information on forced displacement, fragility mitigation, and climate resilience. In addition, there was a pledge to develop a holistic and integrated SADC-led programme which could see the strengthening and financing of regional and national capacities for disaster risk management. This appears to be a step in the right direction.

Robert Piper the UN’s Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Solutions to Internal Displacement warned that without clear pathways to concrete solutions, we can expect a surge in displacement to continue for years to come. He has implored leaders across the globe to develop strong governments with “sectoral ministries mobilized to support solutions pathways for displacement anchored in the longer-term development plans and investments of the country.”

He ended on a sombre note, “And, we don’t have a moment to lose”.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.