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Rebuilding Peace After War: Reflections from Africa

Speaker: Mark Barwick


The speaker works on Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding in Africa on behalf of Pax Christi International (based in Brussels), as programme director for reconciliation after conflicts in Africa.  He concentrated during his presentation on conflicts within the ‘Great Lakes’ region of Central Africa, which he knows well.


The ‘Great Lakes’ region includes DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi.  It is a crucible of conflicts, especially since the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  He returned recently from a regional consultation designed to strengthen the DDR – Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reinsertion – of former combatants into civil society.  The difficulty is that there is often little else for the combatants to do than fight.  They are usually poor.  War and the power of the gun is all they know.  Rwandan government sources say they have to go into Congo to root out ‘génocidaires’ but they are also involved in robbing the Congolese of its natural resources.  The national borders are very porous.  And there is much trafficking of arms, often from Europe (e.g. the former Balkan conflicts).  There are also plans to construct arms factories in the surrounding region (e.g. Tanzania). 


The states involved are mostly ‘failed’, having no effective courts or judicial system, no police, no security and often no roads, legislature, infrastructure or even a working government (as in Somalia and much of Sudan).  Cattle rustling is rife.  The task then is to build institutions and provide security, including a unified national army, sustainable livelihoods and economic / food security.


The speaker also talked about his experience in Liberia in the aftermath of Charles Taylor’s clever criminal activities, which exploited the differences between ethnic communities and life-styles (e.g. Muslim merchants v. Christian/animist farmers).  Many of these groups had relative peace until Taylor came.  Today the need is for sustained dialogue to rebuild trust – and this requires time.  


Sometimes the radicalisation of religion and other ideologies exacerbate conflicts. Overall there is need for genuine reconciliation, lest the same old conflicts begin again.  Pax Christi International (PCI) brings local groups together and provides opportunities for networking to stimulate effectiveness.   PCI is not a think tank but a working network of over a hundred Member Organisations.


Questions and discussion


Why is Africa such a mess? Is it simply a product of colonialism? 

Ans:  Colonialism is only part of the legacy.  African countries are working on greater political and economic integration, and the EU has provided somewhat of a model.  During the cold war many countries in Africa became pawns of the big powers.  Their governments are still often beholden to Western powers through heavy third-world debt.  So they suffer from poverty and absence of effective state institutions.  Tribalism rules over modern democracy, though it is clear that Africans need the freedom to develop their own democratic institutions. It could be, for instance that the ‘nation state’ model or multi-party elections are inappropriate for the African context.  The IMF and World Bank have likewise imposed inappropriate remedies.  The African Union is one institution that still needs to find its way – and that way is not an exact imitation of the EU.


What is the effect of China on all this?

Ans: The Chinese are very active in many African countries, building roads, bridges etc.  Many African governments welcome this, though it is clear that Chinese business interests have immediate and long-term benefits.  They also fill in a gap where Western actors tend to excuse themselves: the Chinese tend to not link ethical standards to business.


Given the fact of radicalisation, can Islam and Christianity work together benignly?  

Ans: Religion has a prominent role in African societies. Newer Pentecostalist movements are growing, which tend to favour more dichotomised and exclusivist thinking. The faith traditions with well-articulated social teachings (as in Roman Catholicism) tend to be more engaged. Sometimes religion has been a factor in conflict, e.g. in Nigeria, between the Arabised North and the so-called Christian South.


What about gender?

Ans: It is true that there is much to be done to improve the situation of women and gender in African societies. Some point to Rwanda as a leader in empowering women in the political arena – for example, about 55% of Rwandan parliamentarians are presently women, although one must look more closely before deciding whether this ratio indeed translates into genuine participation. Of course, much attention has been given to the prevalence of sexual violence perpetuated in many African societies, especially in times of war. The ICC defines rape in such instances as a war crime.


What about the arms trade? Can it be controlled? 

Ans:  A very complex matter. A Belgian campaign to close down plans to build an arms factory in Tanzania was successful.  The problem is often linked to guns being retained in homes and local communities in the absence of an effective police force, as in southern Sudan.  In post-war Sierra Leone disarmament efforts were inefficient and excluded women and small children who had no guns to trade in. One solution lies in effective early warning mechanisms for reporting on arms circulating in a given area.


What about indigenous organisations in Africa? 

Ans: There are several academic bodies, think-tanks and traditional leaders that are making an impact for peace on the continent. These efforts need to be coordinated and finds ways to express an authentically African approach to peace, security and democracy.


Why is there no effective government in Congo, given its riches?

Ans: It is a huge country with hardly any significant infrastructure or working institutions. Armed opposition forces can easily hide in the mountains and forests of eastern Congo. A united republican army is a critical need to secure the region.


Given the revival of Christianity, why is the result not more effective? 

Ans: It is the kind of Christianity that is in question here. Unfortunately, the churches have been collaborators with colonial powers and neo-colonial forces at work in Africa.  Until the church embraces the non-violence gospel of Jesus – and this begins with its leadership – this will not change.