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The transnational, frequently cyclical nature of many African conflicts, plus the rise of ‘new’ security threats such as drought, terrorism and piracy, have meant that the theory and practice of conflict resolution on the continent are of crucial importance. It has also acted as an impetus to the debate on how to bring about sustainable, positive peace and long-term, pragmatic solutions to violent conflict. Conflict resolution is not a modern phenomenon in Africa – the continent’s rich history points to a diverse abundance of indigenous peacebuilding mechanisms. Yet the imposition of external conflict resolution/peacebuilding initiatives has largely sidelined creative ‘home-grown’ solutions, which are based on consensus, reconciliation and communal unity. This asymmetry is arguably justified and sustained by the Western media, which feeds and exacerbates the image of a globally notorious Africa, where violence and famine rampage, engendering stereotyped emotions of fear and pity, yet ignoring the peacemaking potential inherent in many African societies. The perceived need to incorporate a more contextual, cultural approach to conflict resolution, together with the apparent ineffectuality and disempowerment of ‘Western/Euro-centric’ conflict resolution practices has led to an increased interest in indigenous knowledge. But are traditional forms of conflict resolution able to have a viable function in the modern conflict resolution ‘toolkit’? Or are they simply romanticised views of African traditions that are out-moded, out-dated and irrelevant to 21st century Africa?
This CAI paper suggests that such questions over-simplify the complex nature of conflict resolution in Africa. It first defines the terms indigenous/traditional knowledge, before looking at the current conflict environment and conflict resolution mechanisms dominant in Africa today. It then examines the relevancy the three areas of indigenous conflict resolution have on ‘mainstream’ conflict resolution: ubuntu; reconciliation and reintegration; and the emphasis placed on understanding the contextual framework in which conflict occurs. It concludes by suggesting that indigenous knowledge is relevant because it provides a more nuanced, long-term, community-based approach to conflict transformation in Africa where context, creativity and social agency are central. Fundamentally, it is argued that mainstream conflict resolution mechanisms need to merge and adapt to indigenous mechanisms, so that an increasingly symmetrical approach to the resolution of violent conflicts can be developed.
What is indigenous knowledge?
But first, what is meant by indigenous or traditional knowledge? Although originally development-focused, “...it is now recognised that research in less developed countries is not just a question of coming up with technological fixes to others’ problems ... it is increasingly acknowledged ... that other people have their own effective ‘science’ and resource-use practices.”(2) Thus, indigenous knowledge is used as the basis for local decision-making in a broad array of areas that include: agriculture (crop choice and rotation); health, as evidenced by the importance of traditional medicine in Uganda (3) and in providing relief from HIV/AIDS symptoms in Ghana and Zambia;(4) and the sustainable management of resources such as the significance of myths and rituals in mussel harvesting in Mozambique.(5) This paper, however, focuses on the realm of conflict resolution, where both indigenous and endogenous cultural and peacebuilding traditions fuse creatively to initiate long-range, sustained, communally-centred initiatives. Such mechanisms encourage reconciliation (like Uganda’s mato oput), bring about physical and psycho-social healing (Mozambique’s curandeiros) and facilitate restorative justice and the reconstruction of social unity (Rwanda’s gacaca). Indeed, indigenous traditions of conflict resolution place far greater value on forgiveness, reconciliation and restorative rather than punitive justice, than ‘liberal’ conflict resolution models.
Indigenous knowledge is often differentiated from other types of knowledge because it is unique to a particular society or culture and its practices, institutions, rituals, myths and relationships are necessarily specific. Yet this does not mean that it is static, but is instead a fluid, dynamic entity, constantly incorporating and reinterpreting new knowledge aspects. Its adaptive nature and inherent creativity makes it particularly relevant to conflict resolution, and as will be explored more fully below, frequently enables it to provide imaginative mechanisms that deal effectively with conflict even in the midst of warzones.
However, because indigenous knowledge is implicit, and experiential rather than theoretical, this makes it difficult to codify. Indeed, by attempting to codify it, ethnographers run the risk of framing it within their own individualised world-view, confining it in ways and words that perhaps run counter to, and distort, its very essence. This can also constitute a method of ‘othering’ traditional approaches, or as author and social activist Bell Hooks puts it: “No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice ... I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own.”(6)
Contemporary conflicts and conflict resolution mechanisms
Despite Kofi Annan acknowledging the significance and relevancy of traditional dispute resolution mechanisms,(7) and the importance the African Union (AU) places on ‘African solutions to African problems’, there continues to be an emphasis (and reliance) upon what outside organisations can do for Africa rather than looking internally and embracing the peace mechanisms indigenous to the continent. There is also a need for the West to cease looking at Africa – and its problems and solutions – through a lens of its own creation. Motivated by national political, economic and security needs, cloaked in altruism, and reliant on largely military solutions, liberal peace projects sustain Western economic and hegemonic interests – a contemporary reincarnation of colonialism’s “mission civilisatrice.”(8)Despite an increasing acceptance of the need to locate peacebuilding approaches at the community-level, a ‘top-down’ approach to conflict resolution in Africa still seems to dominate, with this not only perpetuating conflict but also hiding “... the contributions that traditional conflict management systems in Africa can make towards ensuring peace.”(9)
In Africa today (as in other conflict arenas), the differentiation between peace and war zones is blurred. In the post-Cold War era, intra-state conflicts have increased. They have also become regionalised and internationalised − with global arms-resources networks, for example, and with the plethora of peacekeeping organisations from the United Nations (UN) and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of varying sizes. Conflicts (and their resolutions) are fluid constructions and hence do not occur in fixed locations, but rather fluctuate across time and space. Resolution, therefore, needs to be long-term, sustainable and transformative. It needs to be, on the one hand, specific enough to deal with the twisted minutiae of war and its equally destructive aftermath, and yet, on the other hand, dynamic and inclusive enough to cut through geographical, political, social and economic boundaries.
This paper sees indigenous conflict resolution institutions and resources as being able to combine the specificity of localised conflict needs with the encompassing dynamism and overlapping practices relevant to an internationalised conflict environment. However, while it is perhaps tempting for both the ‘West’ (still gripped by post-colonial guilt and neo-liberal fervour) and for ‘Africa’ (arguably still on the quest for a proactive, cohesive identity not defined by colonialism and slavery) to see indigenous knowledge as a rose-tinted alternative to hegemonic discourses, this needs to be guarded against. Indigenous knowledge is not a panacea to the problems of modernity; it can be lengthy, patriarchal (10) and subject to the distortions and emasculations of colonialism and modernity.
Furthermore, indigenous methods of conflict resolution are essentially local in nature and not easily transferrable (the guurti of Somaliland being a case in point). They cannot be simply plucked from cultural context and parachuted elsewhere. Although some academics see its localised nature as a barrier to wider incorporation,(11) this paper views it as one of its strengths, especially in terms of post-conflict reconstruction. It is counter-productive, if not harmful, to apply a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to resolving conflicts – sustainable peacebuilding and reconciliation must be context-specific, taking into account the unique resources, actors, experiences and knowledge inherent in the conflict-dynamic. Yet, although traditional conflict management practices are exclusive to specific areas, the norms that can transcend the confines of localised knowledge bases provide conflict resolution with some useful lessons. These characteristics include the ethos of ubuntu; reconciliation and mediation and an emphasis placed on understanding the contextual framework of the conflict. These will each be looked at in more detail below.
Ubuntu is the African worldview of ‘humaness’/’togetherness’ that places communal interests over those of the individual. Relational interdependence is one of the key features of traditional forms of conflict resolution, often described as a ‘warp and weft’ approach.(12) The spiritual concept of ‘togetherness’ can be found throughout Africa. For example, although the Buems of the Togo-Ghana border call it kanye ndu bowi (the ingredients of harmony), it contains very similar ideas to East, Central and Southern Africa’s ubuntu. Both are ‘moral codes’, which see social harmony as being sustained through social systems.(13) Ubuntu is certainly not a historical anomaly in Africa today; instead it has often been innovatively incorporated into modern conflict resolution methods, especially in post-conflict reconciliation. An example of this is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a rehabilitative, restorative rather than punitive form of justice. By merging formal and informal procedures, the Commission also used the traditional methods of ‘truth telling’ to engender reconciliation. Similarly, so did Rwanda’s endogenous gacaca. This was born out of the desperate need to find creative solutions to bring about post-genocide justice and reconciliation – the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda being slow, cumbersome, expensive and inefficient, while Rwanda’s Courts were simply unable to cope with the sheer numbers of those awaiting trial. Founded on pre-colonial judicial traditions, yet modified to meet contemporary needs, it was a pragmatic solution to an overwhelming problem.
It is also interesting to note that when cultures of violence lead to a chaotic void of ‘nothingness’, when systems and institutions – both international and national – simply fail to cope with the immense scale of the crisis, communities look back to indigenous cultural mechanisms to find creative solutions. Arguably, it is by looking to and recognising the strengths and flexibility of such traditions that new initiatives emerge. Whilst there is certainly scope for ubuntu to be manipulated for political and economic means, it does provide valuable and inspiring insights for the field of conflict resolution. The notion of integrated humanity, which is the essence of ubuntu, encourages a peacemaking approach that is centred not on the Westernised concept of individualism, but on community involvement and morality − where unity and interdependence are embraced, not ignored, and where people participate in the peacemaking process. Furthermore, because ubuntu is based on principles of inclusivity and a shared vision of the future, it encourages the notion that conflicts can be resolved. This runs counter to mainstream, Western-centric theories of realism and behaviouralism that see conflict as an intrinsic ‘given’.
Reconciliation and mediation
Respected elders, who are seen as possessing wisdom and experience, often undertake mediation, adjudication and negotiation in traditional approaches to conflict resolution, which was the logic behind the creation of the African Union’s ‘Panel of the Wise’. The vital role of elders is very apparent amongst the Acholi of Northern Uganda through mato oput, a rite of reconciliation that brings victims and perpetrators together“...through the intercession of elders, leading to the acceptance of responsibility and an indication of repentance.”(14) Indeed, the 2007 Juba Peace Talks recommended using this time-honoured mechanism as a means to bring about reconciliation between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan Government. Furthermore, the role of elders in Somaliland illustrates not only the (relative) efficacy of indigenous reconciliation methods such as that of shir and guurti in preventing Somalia’s wider vortex of violence from impacting Somaliland, but also the absolute specificity of such knowledge contexts. Although the function of elders in African society has arguably been undermined (if not eradicated) by the onslaught of colonialism, politics, widespread violence and modernity, they are an enduring institution. For example, despite Burundi’s Bashingantahe (15) having lost some of its credibility and power, it is nevertheless still seen as “...the guardians of social cohesion.”(16)
Indigenous conflict resolution systems − unlike mainstream mechanisms − are frequently undertaken in the physical midst of chaos and conflict. In the absence of institutional frameworks, communities living in warzones create their own mechanisms for peace, such as Mozambique’s curandeiros working to remove the war from people through traditional rites and healing processes. This challenges the Hobbesian belief that still operates within global institutions today, that formal socio-political institutions are fundamental for ensuring order and morality. Research on peacemaking within warzones suggests that right in the heart of violence, there exist deep-rooted peace cultures where communities work together to re-imagine and recreate new worldviews.(17)
Not only does mainstream conflict resolution need to support traditional bodies of elders, it also (even in the absence of formalised indigenous institutions) needs to listen to and incorporate the views and knowledge of local people into its framework. In this way, conflict resolution and development processes can become centred on people and specific contexts enabling them (the people who have most to lose and gain) to become agents of change. Culture and context must be recognised and embraced and seen not as the problem but as part of the solution.
Unlocking the past
Understanding the background context of the conflict and examining past relationships is a crucial element in indigenous conflict resolution methods. Exploring the past “...without getting locked into a vicious cycle of mutual exclusiveness...”(18) so that a shared vision of the future can be created, is an essential component of reconciliation. Traditional approaches to conflict resolution, such as that of the Maasai and Pokot in Kenya, view reconciliation as a long-term process, rather than a quick-fix military solution as is the norm in mainstream methods. The Acholi’s Mato Oput, the jir of the Tiv in Nigeria and the moot system of Liberia’s Kpelle (19) seek consensus and take time to explore both parties’ narratives and arguments before reaching an agreement. The communally inclusive nature of such measures ensures that the cultural setting and the social network the conflict is situated in are both integrated into the solution and given the importance and relevancy they deserve so that conflict can be sustainably resolved. Rather than conflict being viewed as a fixed entity, indigenous conflict resolution mechanisms encourage it to be seen as part of a continuum, representing a way that deconstructs conflict to incorporate and channel it into new, positive relationships.
This paper has attempted to demonstrate that indigenous knowledge can provide valuable insights into how sustainable, proactive conflict resolution in Africa can be developed. Centred on communal involvement, grass-roots participation, unity and morality, traditional conflict resolution practices counter and question the prevalent hegemonic discourses that view conflict as intrinsically irresolvable and manageable only if liberal socio-political structures are in place. Although community-generated solutions may contradict those generated and enforced through ‘formal’ institutions, their genesis from the ashes of the conflict itself may very well imbue them with greater relevancy, understanding and agency. Local approaches must be factored into mainstream conflict resolution practices.(20) Peace cannot be a quick-fix, external imposition but part of a long-term strategy. Fundamentally, mainstream conflict resolution practices need to understand the socio-cultural contexts that give rise to conflicts. Local knowledge, traditions and healing practices need to be incorporated not marginalised in order that the differentiation between ‘mainstream’ and ‘indigenous’ practices becomes blurred, thus creating a more symmetrical, sustainable and effective approach to building peace in Africa.
Written by Alison Brettle (1)
(1) Contact Alison Brettle through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( email@example.com).
(2) Sillitoe, P., 1998. The development of indigenous knowledge: a new applied anthropology. Current Anthropology, 39(2), pp. 223-252.
(3) ‘Traditional Medicine Practice in Contemporary Uganda’, World Bank IK Notes, No. 54, March 2003, http://www.worldbank.org.
(4) ‘Indigenous Knowledge and HIV/AIDS: Ghana and Zambia’, World Bank IK Notes, No. 30, March 2001, http://www.worldbank.org.
(5) ‘Managing Natural Resources along the Mozambican Shoreline: The Role of Myths and Rites’, World Bank IK Notes, No. 46, July 2002, http://www.worldbank.org.
(6) Hooks, B., 1991. Yearning: Race, gender and cultural politics. Turnaround: London.
(7) ‘The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies: Report of the Secretary-General’, United Nations document S/2004/616, 23 August 2004.
(8) Paris, R., 2002. International peacebuilding and the ‘mission civilisatrice’. Review of International Studies, 28, pp. 637–656.
(9) Albert, I., 2008. “Understanding peace in Africa”, in Francis, D. (ed.). Peace and Conflict in Africa, Zed Books: London.
(10) Murithi, T., 2008. “African indigenous and endogenous approaches to peace and conflict resolution”, in Francis, D. (ed.). Peace and Conflict in Africa, Zed Books: London.
(11) See for example Sillitoe, P., 1998. The development of indigenous knowledge: a new applied anthropology. Current Anthropology, 39(2), pp. 223-252; Zartman, I., 2000. Traditional Cures for Modern Conflicts: African Conflict Medicine. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
(12) Malan, J., 1997. Conflict Resolution Wisdom from Africa. African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD).
(13) Fred-Mensah, B., 2000. “Bases of Traditional Conflict Management Among the Buems of the Ghana-Togo Border”, in Zartman, I.W. (ed.). Traditional Cures for Modern Conflicts: African Conflict “Medicine”. Lynne Rienner: Boulder, Colorado.
(14) Ojera Latigo, J., 2008. “Northern Uganda: tradition-based practices in the Acholi region”, in Huyse, L. and Salter, M. (eds.). Traditional Justice and Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: Learning from African Experiences. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance: Stockholm.
(15) A traditional tribunal tasked with reconciliation and justice.
(16) Naniwe-Kaburahe, A., 2008. “The institution of bashingantahe in Burundi”, in Huyse, L. and Salter, M. (eds.). Traditional Justice and Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: Learning from African Experiences. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance: Stockholm.
(17) Boulding, E., 2000. Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York.
(18) Lederach, J.P., 1997. Building Peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. United States Institute of Peace: Washington DC.
(19) Omeje, K., 2008. “Understanding conflict resolution in Africa”, in Francis, D. (ed.). Peace and Conflict in Africa. Zed Books: London.
(20) Albert, I., 2008. “Understanding peace in Africa”, in Francis, D. (ed.). Peace and Conflict in Africa, Zed Books: London.