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African civil society demands to play key role in keeping violence at bay

African civil society demands to play key role in keeping violence at bay

With peace agreements ending wars across Africa, local communities are embarking on rebuilding and revival. The course is daunting: not only to generate productive livelihoods in difficult economic times, but also to avoid new eruptions of violence.

African civil organizations are well placed for such efforts, notes Chukwuemeka Eze, programme director of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), a regional civil society group headquartered in Accra, Ghana. That is because they often have closer links to local communities than do either national governments or international agencies. “The best and most sustainable peacebuilding process should be locally generated, and externally supported,” he told Africa Renewal. Mr. Eze adds that programmes to consolidate peace must be “driven by African civil society organizations,” in close collaboration with African governments and regional organizations.

Various African civil society activists delivered a similar message at a brain-storming session on “peace, stability and development in Africa” held in Nairobi, Kenya, last December. Organized by the UN’s Office of the Special Advisor on Africa (OSAA), the meeting highlighted the central role of African actors, whether from civil society, governments, regional organizations or the African Union, the continent’s leading political body.

One aim of the get-together, says OSAA, was to “learn from African experiences,” so that the UN and other international agencies can better align their work with African priorities.

Viewed from strife-torn western Côte d’Ivoire, it is clear that external inter­ventions do not always match local needs, notes About Karno Ouattara, a coordinator for the non-governmental Search for Common Ground. When officials from donor agencies come to help vulnerable people, he told Africa Renewal, “They pick solutions that have worked more or less in another place, and try to apply it, not taking into account the reality of this place.”

Communi­ties in Côte d’Ivoire have been grappling with various disputes and tensions of their own, Mr. Ouattara points out. Some were worsened by the partisan warfare of the past decade, but have local causes that have not disappeared with the end of the war.

He and other trainers for Search for Common Ground typically are trying to help community members first identify their problems and then devise consensual solutions. Often they use film, radio skits and partici­patory theatre performances to train residents in problem-solving tech­niques.

Results may not be apparent within the short times allotted by many externally funded peacebuilding projects. “We come to stay with people for a long time,” Mr. Ouattara emphasizes. “Because peace is really a process, and it takes time.”

Many of the “micro-projects” that UN personnel designed for demobi­lized ex-fighters in Côte d’Ivoire have failed, Mr. Ouattara asserts, because they did not probe deeply enough to identify the former combat­ants’ varied problems and develop programmes tailored to their specific needs. It would have been more productive, he says, to first listen to them carefully. Thomas Jaye, a long-time rights activist from neighbouring Liberia, concurs. If peacebuilding efforts are to be effective, he told Africa Renewal, one must “listen to the local voices.”

Accurately identifying community problems and needs has been a major preoccupation in post-war Liberia. Beginning in Nimba County in 2008 and then extending to the rest of the country over the next two years, teams of researchers from eight civil society groups canvassed public perceptions of the most contentious problems in more than 270 urban and rural communities.

As part of the UN-supported Platform for Dialogue and Peace in Liberia project, the groups uncovered grievances, relating to land and property disputes, corruption and abuses by local authorities, weak­nesses in the judicial system, jobless­ness, gender violence, and competing ethnic, religious and citizenship claims.

Gender violence was another preva­lent complaint across Liberia, the civil society activists found. This is despite the fact that Liberia is led by Africa’s first elected female head of state, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The dialogue project has sought to redress this shortcoming, with women constituting 41 per cent of the nearly 10,000 Liberians involved in the consultations.

The limited progress achieved by women around Africa does not surprise Norah Matovu, a gender and human rights activist from Uganda who also took part in OSAA’s Nairobi meeting. Despite official recognition of the need to involve women in peacebuilding, many African leaders still have an attitude that women do not belong in such “hard-core business,” she told Africa Renewal.

It is important for civil society to mobilize to help capable women become more involved in political affairs, Ms. Matovu insists, so that they can engage not only with social issues, but also with economic matters, security reform and so on. In countries where women have succeeded in debating such issues, she adds, “more and more you see that attitude is slowly changing.”

In Kenya, the disputed election of December 2007 proved to be a catalyst of public engagement. Rachel Gichenga explains that she and a few friends watched as violence took hundreds of lives and displacing thousands of people. They formed Kuweni Serious, which used social media and other means to urge young people to vote in the 2010 referendum on a new constitution that expanded democratic rights and strengthened the electoral system.

While civil groups have long been active in Kenya, the electoral crisis opened the way for a “new wave” of organization and mobilization, Ms. Gichenga recalls. “I feel that civil society has kind of come into its own. People have really seen the power of everyone as a change-maker.”

In some countries, the scope for civil society influence is more limited. This is the case in Guinea-Bissau, where military interventions in political affairs have been frequent, notes Mamadu Quetta, vice-president of the Civil Society Movement for Peace, Democracy and Development.

But even in countries where the military has withdrawn from direct political life, as in Liberia, civil society needs to remain alert, according to Mr. Jaye, who is currently director of research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana. In Liberia, he reports, representatives of 11 civil society groups have formed a working group on security sector reform. One of the group’s activities has been to help train elected legislators to better perform their duties on parliamentary committees responsible for overseeing reforms of the military and police.

Mr. Jaye worries that not enough is being done in Liberia to create jobs for ex-combatants and other young people. Political reconciliation is vital, he says, but so is “closing the inequality gap” in Liberia. “You can preach your reconciliation, but if a person wakes up every morning and doesn’t know what they’re going to have that day, that reconciliation will have a little problem.”

Kwaku Asante-Darko, a senior expert on conflict prevention at the African Union, also believes that economic revival, especially job creation, is important for preserving peace in countries emerging from war. “When people are engaged in purposeful life,” he told Africa Renewal, “when people are earning their own living and have hope for the future, then any appeal for violence will not have much attraction.” To create such circumstances, he agrees that the African Union and other official institutions must find ways to better harness civil society abilities and energies.


By Ernest Harsch, Nairobi – Africa Renewal

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