Exploring the Prerequisites of Peace in Africa

Exploring the Prerequisites of Peace in Africa

New York—25 September 2015

What social realities, from policies and political structures to values and patterns of thought, will need to change if peace is to become a near-term reality for the continent of Africa?

This was among the questions addressed at an event entitled “Ending All Conflicts in Africa: No Peace, No Development,” held in conjunction with the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit. 

Cosponsored by the Bahá'í International Community Addis Ababa Office and the South African Institute of International Affairs, the event responded in part to “Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want,” a development plan of the African Union that includes a call to “silence the guns by 2020.”

“The goal of ending all conflict in Africa within five years is highly ambitious, but speaks to the unparalleled role peace plays in development efforts,” said Techeste Ahderom, Resident Representative of the Addis Ababa Office. “This is a burning issue for the continent.”

Governance and the orderly progress of society

Participants at the event, which was held 25 September 2015 in the New York offices of the Bahá'í International Community, sought to identify root causes of violence and conflict. Prominent among the factors discussed was the functioning of elected institutions of society and relationships between those institutions and communities and individual citizens.

Dr. Tjiurimo Hengari of the South African Institute of International Affairs said a relatively small proportion of conflict in Africa today is due to interstate war. Rather, he said, “what’s emerging is a form of instability driven by leaders seeking extension of presidential terms.”

Such instability, he said, raises the broader question of the extent that democracy is truly being consolidated in Africa.

In group discussion on these and related issues, it was observed that conflict in Africa tends to coalesce around elections, and that these elections are typically structured as winner-take-all contests of power. This led some to question whether it might be time to reconsider the type of democracy Africa needs.

Others noted that the language on democracy in treaties is lofty and commendable, and suggested that issues of personal motivation, commitment, and integrity are factors in need of consideration. What incentives are there for leaders to transition out of office?  What qualities of character allow some leaders to withstand the temptations that come with elected office and refuse to allow the accumulation of power to become an end in itself?

Focus is sometimes placed on gaining a deeper understanding why particular leaders are unwilling to relinquish power at the end of their legal term. But it was suggested in this regard that an equally important question is why many do choose to transition to other paths of public service peacefully and constructively.

Education, values, and the learning of peace

The social and academic education of young people was another factor that was seen to be of central importance in building a culture of peace.

Ms. Saudamini Siegrist, Senior Advisor, Child Protection in Emergencies, at UNICEF, said that, across a range of indicators, recent years had been among the worst to be a child. Yet, she said, “there is, in children who come out of conflict, a burning desire for education.”

Such desire can benefit not just children themselves, but also society as a whole. This is particularly true in regards to patterns of thought and behavior related to social harmony. “Peace can be learned,” Ms. Siegrist said. “Children are full citizens that can take part meaningfully and realistically in society. And we need to build that active citizenship.”

Ms. Siegrist said the burden of peacebuilding should never be placed on the shoulders of children, adding however that children can be active partners, according to their evolving capacity, in breaking the cycle of conflict.

Such participation in the life of the community benefits the children themselves and society as a whole. “Education of this kind lays the foundation for stable government going forward,” she said.

Questions of the quality and content of education were explored further by participants. How, it was asked, are values being promoted from a young age? How is education helping children become principled leaders, and not simply preparing them for future employment? Where do kids get their role models and how are their inherent guiding values gradually strengthened and manifested? And what is the role of the African Union in efforts of this kind?

People as protagonists of development

The role that youth can play in the advancement of a community in the aftermath of violent conflict was another important theme that emerged from the discussions.

War affects every aspect of youth development, said Fred Nyabera of End Child Poverty, ARIGATOU International. Community reintegration efforts are therefore of vital importance, whether in regards to girls who often face the added burden of stigmatization on returning to their communities, or with former combatants dealing with the trauma of being recruited or forced into hostilities by militant groups.

But Mr. Nyabera said that with proper psychological, social, and vocational support, young people can not only find their place in society again, but take up their role in actively advancing it.

“The resilience that these affected children have can be remarkable,” said Mr. Nyabera. “They’re not completely shattered as some might assume. They can even come out of these experiences with strong leadership skills.”

Helping such children reintegrate into their home communities and finding means by which those communities can feel that some restorative justice has been had are therefore of central importance in moving a society forward after conflict.  

And while formal programs and projects have a role to play, participants also noted the need to “de-projectize” work of this kind. Building collective capacity to foster a culture of peace, it was suggested, will do much to refute the logic of extremism and ensure that young people are less likely to “turn to the gun” as an escape from poverty or a path to prestige.

The path ahead

As the United Nations embarks on a development agenda for the next 15 years, and the African Union works to realize a vision of progress for the next half-century, it is clear that concern for the common future of humanity is a shaping priorities at an unprecedented depth and scope.  

The practical results stemming from such thoughtful attention will become increasingly effective as they gradually integrate considerations that have often been separated into discreet discourses on “peace” and “development” into one coherent whole.

Peaceful, harmonious, and inclusive societies are vibrant, thriving, and prospering societies, and vice-versa. Efforts to learn about the practical steps toward peace in Africa therefore hold the potential of generating insights into human well-being  that can be of benefit not only across the continent, but around the world.