Embracing Civil War: The Illogical Option in Colombia

By Owei Lakemfa

There are communities who allegedly rejoice at the prospect of war. In Nigeria, the Ijesha people in the Western part are said to be one of such. But generally, nobody or group rejoice in fighting wars unless there are territorial or material benefits to gain, some point to be made or ego to massage.

Naturally, humans desire or want peace. Therefore the Sunday October 2, 2016 decision of Colombian voters to reject a peace deal ending 52 years of civil war was illogical. More so for an undeveloped country that lost 218,094 lives in the five-decade conflict and is facing economic challenges primarily due to fall in oil prices; a commodity that accounts for 45 percent of its income.

The Colombian situation is even more tragic because in an earlier 10-year insurgency from 1948, over 200,000 people were killed. Given the fact that the Colombian civil war has its origins in the 1920 peasants revolt, it means that the country has been at war for virtually 96 years with over half a million killed. It would be logical to conclude that war is part of the Colombian psyche. This however, does not explain why more people voted to reject the peace deal.

The war is directly linked to the April 1948 assassination of the 45-year old charismatic leader of the Liberal Party, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan Ayala an ex-Mayor of Bogota, and former Minister. The populace which claimed that he was killed for his pro-people programmes while campaigning for the Presidential elections, poured out in street protests. Over 4,000 people were killed in the protests which led to the ten year uprising. This was followed by a systematic repression by the Colombian armed forces. American special forces drawn from those who hunted down the rebels of the Hukbalahap (Huks) Rebellion in the Central Luzon Province of the Philippines joined the Colombian Army in hunting and exterminating the protest leaders. Following the 1964 military attack on the town of Marqutalia, the rebel leaders led by Dumar Aljure, united to establish the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia otherwise known as FARC.

The guerrilla organization said it decided to take to armed struggle to defend the populace against repression, protect the rights of the citizenry and establish a pro-poor government based on social justice. On the other hand, the government, backed by paramilitary death squads, says it is maintaining law and order. That was the beginning of the 52-year war.
Another guerrilla organization which took up arms like the FARC, is the National Liberation Army (ELN) This group produced one of the most charismatic and romantic guerrilla figures in the world, Father Camilo Torres. He was the Catholic priest who famously said “If Jesus were alive today, He would be a guerrilla.” Torres was killed on February 16, 1966 when his brigade ambushed a military patrol team.
The Colombian war has been a brutal one which included terrorism, death squads, kidnapping, disappearances, massacres and arson by both sides. One of the most famous cases of kidnapping was that of Colombia-French citizen, Senator Ingrid Betancourt who was married to a French diplomat. She was kidnapped by the FARC on February 23, 2002 while campaigning for the Presidential elections. Held for six and a half years before her rescue on July 2, 2008, Betancourt was freed along with fourteen others including three Americans and eleven Colombian policemen and soldiers.
Not a few Colombians would wonder why the 460,773-strong armed forces and police cannot defeat the guerrillas whose strength is put at less than 30,000. The answer maybe that the FARC has popular following in the areas it controls especially in rural Colombia. Secondly, it is a guerrilla movement which can hit and melt away like invisible forces. Thirdly, guerrilla movements are usually quite committed and highly motivated by the cause they fight for while the motivation of the state forces are usually the wages they collect and not necessarily patriotism.
Four years ago, the government and FARC began peace negotiations. President Juan Manuel Santos was interested in bringing peace to his homeland and he found a ready partner in FARC. On September 26, 2016 both sides signed a 297-Page Peace Agreement. The terms include the FARC handing its arms to United Nations inspectors, and transitioning into a political party with token seats in parliament. Rebel leaders who own up to their crimes during the war will not be jailed.
An enthusiastic President Santos who is a former Defence Minister said “What we sign today is a declaration from the Colombian people before the world that we are tired or war…that we don’t accept violence as the means of defending ideas.”
All present at the ceremony including United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and Cuban President Raul Castro were in white. The pens used to sign the Agreement were made from recycled bullets used during the war and they had an inscription on the side which read “Bullets wrote our past. Education, our future”
While the FARC had held its 10th Congress a week before the signing, and ratified the Agreement, the Colombian government conducted a referendum to ratify it a week later. To assist in the campaign for the Agreement, FARC made a public apology, invited the UN to oversee its destruction of over 620kg explosives and promised to use its liquidated war assets to assist victims of the war. The polls indicated that the Agreement would be passed by two thirds. But in a stunning defeat, those who rejected the Agreement won by 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent.
The reasons for the loss in my analysis include insufficient sensitization by an overconfident government. A poor voter-mobilization which saw only 13 million people or 40 percent voter-turnout. Complacency by pro- peace supporters who saw the vote as a mere formality. An underestimation of the mobilization powers of those who oppose the agreement including former Presidents Alvaro Uribe and Andreas Pastrana. Lots of misinformation which included presenting the rebels as criminals who are not just escaping justice, but also about being rewarded for their criminality.
The referendum loss is a serious setback, but it is not enough to deal a death blow on the peace process in the face of a willing government and a willing rebel group who in reaction to the vote agreed not to resume hostilities. Rebel leader, Rodrigo ‘Timochenko’ Londono said “The Farc reiterates its disposition to use only words as a weapon to build toward the future …To the Colombian people who dream of peace, count on us, peace will triumph.”
With five million internally displaced by the war, an international community in strong support and a war-weary citizenry, I think the Peace Agreement will eventually be ratified.

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