The quest for happiness as an underlying motive for violent conflict in Africa

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The quest for happiness as an underlying motive for violent conflict in Africa

Mark Chingono

04 Apr 2018

15min min read
  • Economic development
  • Political development

Violent conflicts continue to be a major feature of much of Africa’s political landscape. Underlying these apparent causes of these conflicts is the undying desire for happiness, writes Mark Chingono. This is an edited extract from a research paper published by our content partner, the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). 

Political ideologies, revolutions and religions are all based on promises of happiness – on earth or in heaven. The state’s long, contested and convoluted history, about its nature and limits, centred on how best to structure it to promote stability and individual happiness. Similarly, commerce and capitalism flourish because of their promises of happiness, through the provision of desired goods and services.

Underscoring the importance of happiness, the United States Declaration of Independence, for example, stresses the pursuit of  happiness, together with liberty and private property, as a fundamental human right. Building on that tradition, the Gross National Happiness USA movement is campaigning for the signing of the Charter for Happiness, which obliges government to create conditions for happiness. In 2012, the United Nations (UN) Network for Sustainable Development published the first World Happiness Report and in 2013 the UN General Assembly, to its credit, endorsed the value of happiness as an important development goal by declaring 20 March International Day of Happiness. To avert violent conflict, Africa must follow suit in endorsing happiness as the ultimate goal of development and society itself.

The unhappiest continent

In Africa, the centrality of happiness to the lives of many people is expressed in folklore, literature, songs, names of people and places. For example, among the Shona of Zimbabwe, common names include farai (be happy), farisai (be very happy), tichafara (we shall be happy), and rufaro (happiness – the name of a stadium in Harare). Similarly, in siSwati of Swaziland, common names include jabulani (be happy) and jabulisa (make happy). In fact, at the heart of the independence struggles in Africa was the quest for freedom, which is a fundamental condition for happiness. As Chingaira (1980) sang at Zimbabwe’s first independence celebration, Africans ‘want to be very happy’. This demand for happiness and a ‘better life seems to be common to all world philosophies and religions: it is the search for the Kingdom of God on Earth’ (Nzongola-Ntalaja and Lee 1997:11).

Far from being happy, the sad reality is that far too many Africans are increasingly becoming unhappy. As shown in table 1 below, on a Cantril ladder question asking respondents to value their lives on a 0 to 10 scale, with the worst possible life as 0 and the best possible life as 10, Africa has the lowest mean of subjective well-being and happiness in the world (Helliwell et al. 2016:7). 


According to these figures, Africa is the world’s unhappiest continent. Happiness levels within the continent vary considerably. For example, as the opinion survey shows, South Africans are happier than Zimbabweans: the massive migration of Zimbabweans into SA is essentially in search of happiness. Even though it is the unhappiest continent, there is also happiness amidst hard times, and indeed not every unhappy African is pursuing happiness violently.

The political, economic and social conditions on the continent do not support popular happiness. Authoritarianism and brutal suppression of dissent has meant that freedom is reserved only for the lucky and happiness for the few. Economic stagnation and rising unemployment are forcing youth into crime, piracy, migration, violent extremism and rebellion. As Mkandawire (2002:102) notes, much of post-independent Africa has witnessed a sharp decline in income per capita, growth and development: ‘the number of the poor as measured by various indicators has increased both in absolute terms and relative to the size of the population’. There has been an ‘increase in social inequality in virtually every country, and the persistence of … egregious disparities’ (Mkandawire 2002:102). Rising inequalities in happiness have forced many to ‘fight for happiness’.  

As with the central character in Tolstoy’s epic, War and Peace (1988:33), who declared: ‘I am going to war because I am not happy with the life I am living’, many in Africa are apparently going to war because they are not happy. In pursuit of happiness some are fighting for control of the state, access to economic resources and for democracy as means to achieving happiness. Others are mobilising around ethnic and religious identity while still others are resisting globalisation. 

The apparent causes of violent conflict and their links to
unhappiness and conflict

Different scholars have identified different variables as the main causes of violent conflict in Africa. As shown below, these apparent causes are outward manifestations of the undying desire to be happy. This seems to be the case because, when happy, people from different economic, ethnic, religious and national groups can live together in peace, but when unhappy they quarrel and fight. 

Poor governance

The state as the ultimate embodiment of power can be the most powerful weapon in the violent struggle for happiness, but may also be the most vital means for guaranteeing present and future security and happiness. Its legal monopoly of power allows those who control it to decide ‘who gets what, why and how’ of the scarce resources as well as what constitutes ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ happiness – abortion, sexuality, religion, and drugs. It is not surprising therefore, that in order to guarantee their present and future security and happiness, different economic, ethnic and religious groups in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan, among others, are engaged in viciousstruggles to capture and control the state. Almost invariably, and as typical examples of poor governance, Africa’s ruling elite has tried to use state power to promote its own happiness at the expense of the masses, who then expressed their dissent and resorted to rebellion.

Poor governance, typically manifested in the failure to provide security to citizens, deliver quality essential goods and services, solve economic problems, and promote popular happiness, ‘is the most important single cause of violent conflict in Africa’ (Hutchful and Aning 2004:143). More specifically, poor governance has led to increased unhappiness, a loss of the ‘incredibly stabilizing faith in the state’ (Wallerstein 1999:57), and  has dented the state’s legitimacy in the eyes of the ruled. As Gramsci (1971:23) warned, when this happens, ‘violent solutions can occur, and the traditional means of using the state to maintain dominant-class hegemony deteriorates’. Indeed in Africa, as hegemonic discourses disintegrate due to poor governance, corruption, cronyism, oppression, ethnic and religious marginalisation, attempts at ‘violent solutions’ are occurring at an alarming rate.

With some of the poorly governed, and unhappy, ready to fight for happiness, ‘poorly governed countries will remain the primary locale of present and future wars’ (Gomes Porto 2002:6). On the other hand, good governance is perhaps the single most important factor in preventing violent conflict and promoting development and happiness. In a nutshell, poor governance has compounded the state’s legitimacy crisis, which in turn has catalysed the degeneration of politics into warfare, and has led to increased calls for good governance and democratisation. 

Destabilising democracy

Democracy, as ‘rule by the people and for the people’, is for many ‘the political vehicle for decent livelihood, equal rights, a reasonable income, access to education and health’ (Wallerstein 1999:88). As a means towards majority happiness, calls for democratisation are calls for more happiness, which are triggered by rising poverty and unhappiness on the continent. In theory, democracy should promote popular happiness, its legitimate end. However, in reality, far from increasing popular happiness, struggles for democratisation have brought more violence and unhappiness in Africa. Part of the problem is that democratisation is seen by some African leaders as a threat to their power, oft ill-gotten wealth and happiness. To defend their privileges, they often suppress democratic forces through political violence, generating counter-violence and increasing unhappiness. 

In Burundi, the Central African Republic, Kenya and Gambia, for example, calls for democratisation have been destabilising, and indeed have led to the death of many. Even more disturbing, in Moslem Africa, and partly reflecting what Huntington (2011:1) calls ‘the clash of civilizations’, attempts at democratisation, which is deemed anti-Islam by Islamic Jihadists, have led to increased political instability and anti-west militancy. 

As Wallerstein (1999:18) rightly notes: 'Everyone speaks of it …. But democratization will not diminish, but add to, the great disorder.'

Democracy, by allowing many ideas about happiness and the good society to flourish, has led to increased political contestation, violence and unhappiness in Africa. 

The point is, as Barack Obama, the former US president (Al Jazeera 2016b) reasoned: ‘Democracy is simple when everyone has similar tastes, beliefs and values. It is more complex when people have different backgrounds’ and different ideas about happiness and the good society. The inherent challenges of pursuing happiness through democratisation in Africa have also been compounded by globalisation.

"Happiness and unhappiness are not solely individual problems. Instead, they are public policy issues, fundamentally because the intended and unintended consequences of individual unhappiness can be costly, and even catastrophic, to society."

Unwelcome globalisation

Globalisation, characterised by simultaneous economic integration and disintegration, convergence and clashes of cultures and civilizations, has led to a fascinating redefinition of the unhappiness-conflict dialectic in

Africa. While the increasing integration of Africa into the global economy offers numerous opportunities for increasing happiness levels, through, for  instance, easy access to quality goods and services, it also generates anxiety and tensions. Those disaffected by the impact of globalisation have depicted and violently resisted it as new forms of colonialism, westernisation  and imperialism, by which the West seeks to impose supposed universal truths and notions about happiness, human rights, good governance and democracy on the continent. As Wallerstein (1999:155) points out, western truths and ideas of happiness, which are being spread through globalisation, ‘are not universal truths and if there exist universal truths, they are complex, contradictory and plural’.

In colonial and post-colonial Africa, the supposed western universal truths may actually constitute a form of violence against the ‘other’, and therefore a source of resistance and counter-violence. In Mali, Nigeria and Somalia, for example, the Islamist insurgents are violently rejecting ‘western truths’ and values of happiness, democracy and gender equality, which they deem anti-Islamic, and they seek instead to establish their own Islamic value systems based on Sharia Law.

Resource control 

Economic resources, such as oil, minerals, gas, water, timber, productive pastures and farming land, which could be a vital means towards attaining the ultimate goal of happiness, are now ‘the main drivers of conflict’ which are ‘central to the origins and continuance of many civil wars’ (Collier and Hoeffler 1999:3). As Gomes Porto (2002:2) notes, resources, ‘both scarce and abundant, together with other variables, now play an important role in the onset and escalation of violent conflicts’. 

In countries with abundant but inequitably distributed resources, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Nigeria, many are resorting to violence in order to have their share of ‘the national cake’, and be happy. In the unending conflict in the DRC, for example, extreme economic inequality, in a country with 130 Mark Chingono abundant diamond and other precious minerals, created unhappiness and hence conditions for violent conflict. Similarly, in Nigeria oil has sparked localised rebellion, while in Sudan control of oil and ecological resources fuelled the civil war.

As the fortune of one becomes another’s misfortune, resources, such as oil and minerals in the Sahal region, have attracted the US, France and China, leading to competition and militarisation of the region (Al Jazeera 2016a). The ‘war on terror’, which has seen the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) set up bases in the region, train local armies and introduce drones, is masking a far greater struggle for shrinking resources that are needed to oil the US military industrial complex (Al Jazeera 2016a). In Libya the US, France and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) intervened to depose Gaddafi primarily to access Africa’s largest oil reserves (Al Jazeera 2016a) – as captured in a people’s mural in Johannesburg, entitled ‘Multinationals are murderers’.

The point is, as Hobbes (2016:3) said, ‘hasty acquisition and aggression begets antagonism’.

Clearly, notes Gomes Porto (2002:14), a ‘new geography of conflict, a reconfigured cartography in which resource flows rather than political and ideological divisions constitute the major fault lines’ has emerged. Whether motivated by grievances or greed, struggles to access and control ecological resources as a means to achieving happiness, remain a major cause of conflicts in Africa (Gomes Porto 2002:2). As a violent expression of a distributional conflict, resource wars are about the perennial political questions of ‘who gets what, why and how’ of the resources necessary to achieve happiness – questions whose urgency have been amplified by stagnating development. 

Insufficient and/or unwanted development

Development, depending on context and situation, can promote or undermine happiness, while lack of development invariably causes unhappiness and conflict. According to Epicurus (2014:3), the first theoretician of pleasure, the ethical and legitimate end of science and development is happiness. This ‘belief in promoting happiness through development is an old one, and is indeed a recurrent theme in the history of moral philosophy’ (Veenhoven 1984:1). Development improves the quantity and quality of goods and services, raises the standards of living, and thus contributes to the ultimate goal of happiness. Development also capacitates individuals, communities and nations in their pursuit of happiness, and through science and technology, it makes production more and cost effective. From this standpoint, development is therefore a necessary condition for happiness. 

Yet, paradoxically, and as a manifestation of the fundamental ambivalencen of civilization, development has simultaneously undermined certain traditional forms of happiness while creating new ‘western’ ones. In particular, development and modernisation have brought new values of happiness which have led to conflict between traditionalists and modernists, rural dwellers and urbanites, the older and the younger generations, and feminists and patriarchs. 

For instance, issues like children’s, women’s, and gay and lesbian rights are dividing society: in the name of ‘culture’ and community happiness these vulnerable groups have been subjected to violence. Escobar (1995), critiquing western development discourses and practices, argues that development has increased unhappiness and entrenched post-colonial dependency on countries of North America and Europe. For Escobar (1995), development policies are nothing more than ‘mechanisms of control that were just as pervasive and effective as their colonial counterparts’, and ‘the struggle against developmentalism is nothing less than a struggle for reclaiming the dignity of cultures that have been turned into a set of experimental subjects, waiting to be sacrificed at the end of a defined set of operations…’. 

In a nutshell, by denigrating local cultures, beliefs and practices, western forms of development have contributed to unhappiness in Africa, and to that extent, constitute a form of violence, which in turn has led to counterviolence in the form of wars of self-determination and militant calls for Islamic states. 

While certain forms of development may generate unhappiness, lack of development or underdevelopment causes even greater unhappiness and violent conflict. As Gurr (cited in Gomes Porto 2002:14) notes, ‘for the last half century at least, societies at low levels of development have suffered much more from societal warfare than prosperous societies’. In a similar vein, Collier and Hoeffler (1999:7) observe: ‘Civil war is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of low income countries… [and] the higher the per capita income on an internationally comparable measure, the lower is the risk of civil war’. They add, ‘higher income per capita reduces the duration of civil war and the probability of its occurrence’ (Collier and Hoeffler  1999:7). As Azar (1990:155) concludes: ‘Reducing overt conflict requires reduction in levels of underdevelopment’. In short, the lack of development and the deteriorating economic conditions have contributed to increasing unhappiness and violent conflict. 

Population explosion 

With sex as one of the most easily accessible sources of happiness, especially to the poor, the African population is growing exponentially. As Bish (2016:1) notes, ‘while population growth slows in the rest of the world’, ‘it continues to rise in Africa’ – in spite of the HIV/AIDS pandemic – and its growth rates have far outstripped development rates. The problem is, while the population is growing, the resources necessary to guarantee its happiness are dwindling and governments’ capacities to deliver goods and services are overwhelmed. In other words, population explosion puts pressure on limited resources, and results in violent competition for declining economic resources. 

The sooner the continent adopts stringent population control policies, the better and happier it should become, for ‘involvement of governments in fertility management has positive influences in promoting peace, security and development’ (Kirk 1996:383). In a word, population explosion, in a context of dwindling resources and limited development, has intensified violent competition for resources, and reflecting the power of dominant ideologies, the competition has taken ethnic and religious forms.

Ethnic mobilisation

Ethnic identity, as a biological fact and/or social construct, provides the frameworks within which happiness is defined, experienced and pursued.

It influences happiness by providing a sense of belonging, giving cultural and moral guidance, defining power relationships, and articulating beliefs about common ancestry and destiny. Because of the distinct ethnic dialects, traditions, and body markings or ear piercing, ethnicity is easily used as a potent political tool for effectively mobilising groups in violent pursuit of collective and individual happiness, and as a weapon for denying some groups access to resources essential to achieve happiness. As Gomes Porto (2002:8) observes, ethnicity is ‘most likely to provide the basis for political mobilisation and conflict when it provides the basis for invidious distinctions among peoples … that are deliberately maintained through public policy and social practice’.

Ethnically based conflicts have erupted in Burundi, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, and in Mozambique, where in pursuit of happiness, ethnicity was ‘created or de-emphasized by power seeking political elites inhistorically determined economic and social arrangements’ (Sisk 1996:12). In conditions of economic inequities and injustices, as in these countries, ethnic – and religious – loyalties are exaggerated and hatred of strangers amplified, consequently making ethnicity a major source of violent conflict and unhappiness in Africa

Religious fanatacism

Unhappy with their lives, many in Africa have ‘discovered’ God as their source of eternal happiness and salvation. Remarkably, as political, economic and social conditions continue to deteriorate, and many become unhappier, there has been a tantalising religious resurgence of considerable proportions on the continent. In Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan where Jihad, a new militant religious ideology that seeks to establish Islamist states that promote Islamic conceptions of happiness, has emerged. In Somalia al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgent group which emerged from the ruins of the country’s civil war, and is linked to al-Qaeda, is waging a brutal insurgency against the African Union supported weak state. 

Similarly, in Nigeria, Boko Haram, which means ‘western education is forbidden’, is engaged in a bloody war against the central government and is trying to form its own state in northern Nigeria under strict interpretation of Islamic law. Boko Haram draws its ‘support from uneducated, unemployed and socio-economically disadvantaged Nigerian Northerners who are fed up with corruption, heavy-handed state security forces and neglect of the north’ (De Villiers 2015:3). By promising happiness and martyrdom to its adherents, Jihad has attracted youth who are ‘deeply discontented with their governments’ (Khouri, cited in Weekend Argus 2015). 

These manifestly religious wars are driven by the desire to access resources that are essential to satisfying that never ending quest for happiness. As De Villiers (2015:3) aptly observes, these conflicts are triggered by ‘local

grievances as a result of political and socio-economic marginalisation and the inequitable distribution of resources’. The irresistible attractiveness of religion in times of hardship and desperation subsists in its ability to offer simple answers to complex questions, which are beyond our comprehension. 

To sum up, the quest for happiness has motivated and justified violent political action in Africa. As Epicurus (2014:3) asserted, ‘all other things’, including war, ‘are desired as a means for producing happiness’. However,

partly because of the level of political awareness, and the power of dominant discourses, ideologies and propaganda, war, ‘as a means for producing happiness’ has often taken ethnic, religious, and nationalist forms. Groups competing for economic resources tend to find scapegoats in different ethnic, race and religious groups, who are blamed, stereotyped, vilified,  marginalised and attacked as the source of trouble and unhappiness.

Policy options 

In Africa, the world’s unhappiest continent, war is not just ‘a continuation of politics by other means’. Instead, as an anti-thesis to happiness, it is also simultaneously a consequence of bad policies, and a continuation of bad policies by other means. Bad policies, poor governance and the relegation to the margins by policy makers of the central notions of happiness have fermented bitterness, unhappiness, and violence. At the heart of violent conflict in Africa is the failure of development policies to satisfy the desires and expectations of a people whose socio-economic, cultural, and political life has been shaped by the quest for happiness. Contrary to popular beliefs, as captured in commonsensical clichés like ‘I choose to be happy’, ‘happiness starts with you’, ‘your happiness depends on you’, happiness and unhappiness are not solely individual problems. Instead, they are public policy issues, fundamentally because the intended and unintended consequences of individual unhappiness can be costly, and even catastrophic, to society. 

Ultimately, the questions of happiness, unhappiness and conflict are bound up with those of the political, economic and social organisation of society, for these can present either opportunities or constraints to individual and collective pursuit of happiness. The fundamental questions thus become: 

• What systems of political governance and economic organisation best meet people’s aspirations for happiness, the ultimate goal of individual action and final end of development? 

• What should be the nature, power and limits of the state? 

• How should individual happiness be related to the good of others? 

• How can people peacefully pursue happiness and effectively negotiate the multiple hazards of globalisation, cosmopolitanism, climate change, resource depletion and population explosion?

The honest answer to these important questions is that, there are no easy answers to them. All that can be said with some degree of certainty is that happiness, that ever important quest, never ceases to animate and motivate humankind into political action – peaceful or violent, depending on context. If happiness is the motivator of action and, ‘the greatest good’, then government should aim for the greatest happiness of the greatest majority. To promote popular happiness and avert violent conflict, Africa needs to adopt a Charter for Happiness based on a holistic policy framework and ‘a new economic model – one that makes happiness and wellbeing our new bottom line’ –and that supports the political, economic and social conditions of happiness, which include development and ‘economic, environmental, political and social justice’ (GNHUSA 2016). Development should be inclusive, aim at reducing the inequalities of happiness, and be measured by the extent to which it promotes individual and collective happiness. 

Similarly, business needs to a have a purpose beyond profit and to assume its social responsibility of giving back to community – capitalism with a human face? Equally important is sensitivity to local values and practices about happiness, respect for differences and minority rights; since tyranny of the majority is as bad as dictatorship in its consequences. The right to the pursuit of happiness comes with an ethical responsibility to exercise that right ‘in ways that honour and respect the richness and diversity of our planet, making it possible for all people to pursue happiness … while personal happiness is a worthy goal in itself, its greater value lies in its capacity to help us all be better citizens of this planet’ (GNHUSA 2016). In other words, to prevent violent conflict, policy should seek to promote the happiness of all as the ethical objective of development, the prime goal of good governance, and as a fundamental human right.

Read the full policy brief here.

(Main image: Children orphaned by Boko Haram Islamists play on a merry-go-round in an abandoned amusement park in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on 27 April 2017. In Maiduguri, where the population has doubled to over two million as a result of Boko Haram insurgency, thousands of children are homeless. - Florian Plaucheur/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.