Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.3 - Is Mediation Alien to Africa?

Is Mediation Alien to Africa?

By Bethuel Kiplagat

What is mediation but a process of restoring broken relationships, between individuals, communities, ethnic groups or nations? Conflicts often erupt when relationships break down. This is what Africa has witnessed for the greater part of this century -- --more so during the last 35 years, since the majority of African countries won their independence. Interstate conflicts dominated the first two decades, but in more recent years a mushrooming of intrastate conflicts has resulted in massive dislocation. According to UNHCR, there are 3.9 million refugees, 400,000 internally displaced persons and 1.7 million returnees in Africa, forming a total of 6 million Africans displaced by conflict. How has Africa coped with conflict? What methods or mechanisms have been used? To answer these questions, we will draw on examples depicting both indigenous and traditional and more western, classical approaches to mediation and peacemaking.

The Akobo Peace Conference (Upper Nile Province, Sudan)

Conflict erupted between the Lou and Jikany clans of the Nuer ethnic group in 1990, caused in part by competition over limited grazing land and livestock. Cattle raiding using sophisticated weapons became rampant, and many people lost their lives. Recognising the damage done by the escalating conflict, the local elders decided to call for a traditional peace conference, which took place from July through November 1994 at Akobo. The conference was attended by elders, religious leaders (Christian and traditional), young men, women and Nuer intellectuals from abroad. The whole community gathered together in Akobo with one common objective: to restore the broken relationship and bring about the process of healing among their people.

Each day the people would gather around the elders as a 'community in discussion' The conference was open-ended. At times there would be 'court' sessions woven into the conference, when individuals or groups would face the community and defend themselves against accusations levelled against them. What mattered was getting the truth out -- according to Nuer philosophy and religion, the only way to bring about reconciliation and healing.

Women played a key role as guardians of truth. If during a hearing a person omitted to tell the truth, the women would threaten to shame him by revealing what they knew. To create an atmosphere conducive to dialogue, stories, songs and proverbs were used. During the conference time was not considered a major constraint. When the elders felt that the whole truth had emerged, they then prepared for the sealing of the peace agreement.

The sealing started with prayers, offering the peace agreement to God. The signing ceremony was witnessed by the whole community. The paper agreement was only one phase, coupled with the traditional, binding aspect. The rituals of the binding agreement were conducted by the traditional elders. A bull was slaughtered and its blood collected and thrown into the air as a way of cleansing and binding the community to the peace covenant. As a symbol of reconciliation, the community ate the meat together. Thereafter feasting, dancing and rejoicing continued through the night. The peace process did not end there.

Arrangements were made for groups of elders and church leaders to take the peace covenant to the villages, where they explained it to those who were not able to attend the ceremony and joined them to the covenant. Another ritual process was used to widen the ownership of the covenant. A goat was slaughtered and a meal shared -- in this way the peace covenant became the property of the whole community. There remains in the community a strong belief that anyone violating the covenant will suffer for it.

Wajir (Northeastern Kenya)

Wajir is a district in northeastern Kenya bordering Somalia. The majority of the people are pastoralists. As in all pastoralist societies, in this region there is competition over the limited resources of water, grass and livestock. Livestock raiding is common, often resulting in death and heavy loss of the only means of livelihood.

Cattle raiding, robbery and general lawlessness became widespread in the district, with heavy loss of life and property. According to the report of Dekha Ibrahim and Janice Jenner, during 1993 approximately 1213 people died, and another 200 were injured; 1000 camels, 2500 cattle and 15,000 sheep and goats were stolen during this period. Economic losses were estimated to be around 900,000 dollars. Schools, houses and businesses were destroyed.

This situation required urgent action, and here, women came to the forefront. Resentment grew between different clans and/or ethnic groups -- particularly significant between the Ogaden and Ajuran clans. This is what prompted Dekha Ibrahim and others to take up the challenge. They approached the market women affected by what was happening in the district -- frequent fights and refusal even to sell goods to a member of another clan. It did not require a lot of persuasion for the women to see the senselessness of the prevailing situation.

The women formed themselves into an advocacy group for peace. Their first task was to convince the elders of the importance of putting a stop to the insecurity. They accepted the challenge and joined the women. The process of getting people on the peace bandwagon culminated in a peace conference which included all sectors of the community: elders, youth, women, religious leaders and businessmen. The conference came up with a peace declaration, a set of principles to guide the community in its search for peace. Civil servants, the police and the military joined the peace group, which became known as the Wajir Peace and Development Group. The peace group sent peace delegations to trouble spots.

By using traditional and administrative channels, they were not only able to diffuse and break the cycle of violence but to resolve the problem. The message of peace was carried from village to village, urging the different groups -- including chiefs, elders, police and women -- to work together. After a successful first year, a one-day peace festival was organised with participants coming from every part of the district. Lectures were given, poetry read; there was singing and dancing all with peace as the main theme. The chief with the most peaceful area got a cash prize.

The festival has become an annual event and now lasts longer. The efforts of the Wajir Peace and Development Group have borne fruit. Conflict and banditry have been drastically reduced, and a mechanism for dealing with tension and conflict is in place. People were encouraged to turn in guns and more than a 1000 have been handed over to the police. All guns have not been turned in, but progress has been made towards disarmament. The peace dividend is there for the whole

community to see. Schools and businesses have reopened and are flourishing. Development agencies are back. Insecurity has been reduced by the control of arms. Notably, most of the cost of this work has been borne by the community.

The Ugandan Peace Talks

This example shows an African mediation approach at national level. I had the privilege of being involved directly in the Ugandan Peace Talks in 1985. The talks were between the military government of Tito Okello and the National Resistance Army (NRA) of Yoweri Museveni, now President of Uganda.

When Milton Obote won Uganda's national elections in 1984, Museveni rejected the results and went to the bush and launched a rebellion against the central government. After the overthrow of the Obote government by the generals Tito Okello and Basilio Okello, the rebellion had spread to the western and central regions and had significantly weakened the central authority. The warring parties were ready to talk.

The Ugandan peace talks were started in the middle of 1985. Negotiations lasted for four months, culminating in the signing of a peace accord. The mediation was handled by Kenya. Parties chose their negotiating team.

The negotiations were done in secret and participation was restricted only to invited persons. The talks turned into a bargaining session where each party made every effort to score points. After four frustrating months, we came out with an agreement signed in the glare of the press and the public. After meeting with Museveni's commanders and explaining the agreement to them, however, I realised that their intention was not to accept it.

The agreement was never implemented. Museveni continued with his offensive and finally overthrew the Okellos, seizing power on January 26, 1986. It is more than ten years since the rejection of that agreement and the takeover of Kampala by the NRA. Today rebellions have sprung up in the West, the Northwest and the North.

It is not clear whether the failed mediation has any explanatory power for the current situation. The method used had no traditional input -- nor did it have any binding force. Perhaps, certain styles of mediation could be alien and thus ineffective in Africa.

The Yei Peace Conference (Southern Sudan)

This was an unusual peace conference -- unusual in that it was between a rebel group -- the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Church, representing civil society.

The Sudanese rebellion is now in its 15th year. The SPLA has made great advances in taking over and controlling large parts of Southern Sudan. The government controls only the towns, and its control even there is weakening. The SPLA carried out its war with the support of the population -- not always voluntary. SPLA commanders often used force to get recruits and food. Tension, frustration and anger began to build up between the soldiers and the civilian population. The Yei Peace Conference was called in July last year to address the underlying tension, which periodically resulted in conflict and loss of life and property.

Yei is a small town in Southern Sudan, close to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Delegates -- both military and civilian -- started gathering at the campsite from all over Southern Sudan and abroad. Some delegates had walked for more than a month to get to the conference. It was quite a feat to organise all the logistics -- to feed and lodge over 300 delegates plus observers.

The setting was unique. The meeting place was under the mango trees. Makeshift seats made from branches and natural twine from the nearby forest were laid out before the arrival of the delegates, and so was the dining area, also under the mango trees. Grass thatch and mud huts were the sleeping quarters, and the beds were made from local material. When all was ready the conference was launched.

Such an important event cannot be started without involving the spirits and God, so on the first day -- a Sunday -- the delegates and the community gathered under the mango tree with an improvised altar: the meeting place became a church. There were prayers said invoking the presence of God to guide the conference. There was singing and dancing -- it was indeed a time of great rejoicing that the delegates were there. With the prayers said, the conference started the next day.

The seating followed its own protocol: the church delegation sat on one side and the soldiers and leadership of the movement sat on the other. A neutral mediator had been chosen to facilitate the talks. He was intimately acquainted with the problem of Sudan and also knew most of the participants.

During the first session the parties were given uninterrupted time to list all the grievances against the other. The Church had the first go, and what had previously been spoken in whispers was loudly articulated. The soldiers were accused of abusing their power through recruiting young men by force, seizing food from the people, and raping the women. A dramatic moment came when a priest stood up and spoke of the torture he underwent in the hands of one of the commanders who had locked him up for 16 days. He ended his testimony by forgiving the commander.

When the turn of the soldiers came, they too had a litany of grievances against the Church and the civilian population. As they saw it, theirs was a sacrificial task fighting for the liberation of the people from oppression of the northerners, but the Church did not show any appreciation for the sacrifice they were making. If anything, they were collaborating with the enemy. The soldiers said they often had to go without food for days --where were the priests and pastors to comfort them when they were wounded or dying on the battlefield?

The truth that came out was both bitter and sweet. Resource persons were called in to give words of comfort and wisdom -- placing their struggle and suffering in the larger context of what has happened elsewhere, hut always underlining the fact that what they had done was unique and it is only they themselves who had to walk through it.

Each side was again given the right of reply. Arguments were not allowed. The conference broke into mixed groups to work towards a solution to the problems that had been listed. The spirit of creativity, of give and take, of forward-looking permeated the discussion. The results are contained in the "Yei Declaration" -- a policy guideline for future civil-military relations. In the spirit of African tradition everything was handed back to God, seeking his approval and blessing. Let us hope that the spirit of Yei lives on.

Lessons learned

We can affirm that the spirit of mediation is very much part of the African heritage. Unfortunately, due recognition has not being accorded to tested methods of conflict management.

In the three cases of Akobo, Wajir and Yei, common threads emerge:

· There is explicit involvement of the community. The boundaries between the delegates and the community do not exist. Participation is by all -- formally and informally.

· Music, dance, storytelling and poetry play an important part as vehicles for conveying the peace message.

· The process is transparent, enabling the community and even passers-by to participate. There are no surprises. Note also the context. These are not bargaining sessions but healing processes -- a re-establishment of relationship between people and also with their God. There is a holistic approach to the process, working with the community as a whole, invoking spiritual forces to be present and accompany the community towards peace.

· Whatever is agreed upon is seen as a blessing and a gift to be shared with the whole community. This came out most vividly in the cases of Akobo and Wajir. The peace-gift is owned by the community. The spiritual dimension weaves through the process -- confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and the sealing of the peace covenant are dimensions which formal peace processes do not take into account.

After saying all that, maybe the time has come for those of us involved in conflict management and peacebuilding to go forward to 'bush school' and humbly sit at the feet of the elders. Africa needs healing. We need to harness all our resources -- traditional, intellectual and spiritual -- for the building of peace in our troubled continent.

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