Peace and Conflict in Africa: Reflections From an African Peacebuilder

Part II: Patterns of Peace and Peace Building: Lessons and Reflections

The following remarks were delivered by Ethiopian-born conflict mediator Hizkias Assefa, who was in residence at Brandeis University for a week during the 1999-2000 academic year, where he led faculty seminars on reconciliation, forgiveness and impunity.

Today I will talk about emerging patterns in conflict and peace in current-day Africa, and illustrate what I mean by telling you a story about a process of peace-building that I have been engaged in for the past six years. And then we can see what kinds of generalizations might be drawn from that experience. When we talk about conflict and peace in Africa, we can see about four patterns emerge. There are a group of countries, like Somalia and Sudan, which have been in crisis for decades and where there still seems to be no discernable signs for peace. Then, there are others like Mozambique and South Africa that have overcome conflicts and are now trying to build sustainable peace. In these countries, it might be a bit too early to talk about reconciliation, but they are working on it. Then there is a third category of countries that have begun building stable peace, but are recidivists. They are addicted to conflict and are slipping back into it. These are countries like Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda. A fourth pattern that is that of international wars. After the fall of the Soviet Union, we thought that there were primarily going to be internal wars. But in Africa, we have seen the resurgence of international wars. For example in the Congo, many countries, including non-African countries, are drawn into a conflict that revolves around the exploitation of resources in the Congo area. On one side you have Rwanda and Uganda fighting against the government of the Congo. Some people say the United States government is assisting them against the Congo. And on the other side are Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad and Sudan that have come to the aid of the Congo.

And what are the responses for resolving conflict? We can identify a number of categories. One is direct negotiation between conflicting parties, such as what happened in South Africa between the white minority regime and the African National Congress. But the difficulty with direct negotiations is trying to get the parties to the table. The moment one side signifies that they want to talk, the other side takes this as a signal of weakness and tries to intensify its offenses. And neither side is willing to be the first to ask for negotiation. Therefore, an unmediated negotiation has been quite difficult in the African context.

There have also been a number of different kinds of mediation efforts made both by African states and outside states. Examples are the British mediation in Zimbabwe, the United States’ attempt in the Ethiopian conflict, and the Tanzanian mediation in Burundi and Rwanda. And then there are regional responses to conflict in Africa such as the Organization of East African States that is trying to intervene in Liberia and Sierra Leone by employing negotiation and military means to bring peace.

When we look at all these responses there is a certain pattern about them — they are undertaken by state actors: single states, international bodies or a group of states. Secondly, they are done at the top political level. They are what we call ‘top-down’ or
‘trickle-down’ approaches. The assumption is that if there is an agreement made at the political level, it will somehow percolate down to the rest of the society. But this assumption hasn’t held true in many instances. In international conflicts, if you negotiate between state leaders and they agree, to a very large extent you can expect this to hold for the rest of the society because nation-states are separated by boundaries. But when you talk about civil wars in which communities have turned against communities, just to have an agreement between leaders without involving the community in the reconciliation process is futile. Here peoples lives are so intertwined with each other that just signing a peace accord cannot dismiss the animosity and hostility that exists between them. So, in one way or another, communities must be part and parcel of this peace-building process.

We can identify two kinds of top-down processes. One is what we call “first track” which is highly visible, political and driven by power considerations. The mediation process that Richard Holbrook used in Kosovo and Bosnia is a good example of that kind of an approach. There is also what we call a “second-track” approach, which is quiet, behind-the-scenes, away from the media, aimed at developing trust and confidence and helping conflict parties work out their problems in a satisfactory way. This could be done by state actors, but in most instances no state actors are involved. A good example of this could be the Oslo accord, which got the Palestinians and the Israelis together. Among these various approaches, the power-based first-track one is considered efficient since that it can forge agreement quickly by either trying to punish those that are unwilling to agree, or by trying to provide economic inducement for those that cooperate. In this way, it can get to an agreement quicker than the alternative process of second track. But because the agreement does not take care of the deep interests and needs of the parties, it will collapse sooner or later. And we have seen a number of such agreements that have been signed and not respected later on. A good example of this is the Arusha accord of 1993 which was mediated by a lot of international actors including France, the United States and Britain and that ended the war between the insurgency of Rwanda and the government of Rwanda at that time. But, before the ink dried, the agreement collapsed and it led to one of the worst genocides in human history: the genocide of 1994.

Alternatively, the second track trust-based approaches are relatively inefficient since they take a long time to reach agreement. But the result of the agreement is more likely to stick. In fact, in Rwanda there were a number of attempts to get the rebels — the insurgency — to dialogue with the government in power, and there were many promising possibilities. However, the French government overtook this initiative and the whole methodology changed from trust to coercion and arm-twisting, which eventually led to the accord that ended up collapsing.

And increasingly, there is an emerging approach to peace building which is coming from the ground up. Comparatively, this approach is new and its methodology is not yet very well developed or understood. And what I will try to do is to illustrate this method by giving an example of a process that I have been engaged in for the past six years in the northern region of Ghana.

The conflict I am talking about happened in February 1994. It was called the Guinea Fowl War and how it came about is rather interesting.

In conclusion, it was the reconciliation process that challenged people to think of
a greater inter-ethnic regional identity. And recently we are increasingly discussing pan-Africanism. Of course, African identity is not an end in itself. We should be challenged to have an even greater identity — our human identity. Thank you.

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