Could Africa’s peacebuilding initiative be right?

Four countries in Africa – Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sierra Leone and South Sudan – were selected by the UN in 2005 to be guinea pigs for its Peacebuilding Architecture that was supposed to usher these war-ravaged nations into a period of peace and stability that would, hopefully, aid development.

United Nations
United Nations

But Burundi, the CAR and South Sudan have over the years fallen back into violent conflict while in Sierra Leone the underlying tensions that led to its conflict in the first place appear to still be in the air.

United Nations
United Nations
There is no gainsaying that since the end of the Cold War, Africa has become a huge laboratory for peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations.

It has not been an easy exercise, despite the upbeat messages that emanate now and again from UN headquarters in New York

The major question that the UN’s peace operations has to answer is: on whose say so are peace agreements in Africa formulated?

When the UN itself commissioned a review of its Peacebuilding Architecture in 2014, the seven members of the review committee in their 2015 report told the world body in no uncertain terms that “sustaining peace is, in essence, about individuals and different groups learning to live together without resorting to violence to resolve conflicts and disputes”.

The report added: “It must be people-centred and provide a vision of a common future to domestic stakeholders, public and private.

“External actors, including the UN, can accompany and facilitate, but they cannot impose peace.

“To this end, the UN’s approach to sustaining peace, in all phases, must be underpinned by a deep commitment to broadening inclusion and ownership on the part of all stakeholders across the society where it works.

“Neither peace agreements nor the implementation processes that follow them will likely prosper unless they look beyond the narrow interests of belligerents to a framework that can engage a society’s broad and emergent vision of itself,” the report added.

As we can see from the failure of peacebuilding in Burundi, the CAR and South Sudan, it was because the belligerents took centre stage in trying to resolve the conflicts that these countries were allowed to backslide.

In the case of Sierra Leone, although the country has not descended into violence since the peace agreement that ended the country’s civil war in 2002, there is still a sense of mistrust between the two major political parties: the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) and opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

The underlying tensions are being ratcheted up by two parties that have traditionally been viscerally opposed to each other as the country prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2018.

The issue of peacebuilding in Africa is being revisited by institutions such as Wilton Park, the UK government agency that provides a global forum for strategic discussion.

It has convened two conferences on the matter in the UK and Addis Ababa where experts focused on dealing with the dramatic shift in response to conflict in Africa.

Wilton Park rightly pointed out that the new conflicts that are erupting in Africa today have “thrown up challenges that exceed the initial scope of provisions of existing peacebuilding norms and frameworks”.

It added: “These changes have exacerbated the peacebuilding dilemma in a context where post-war peace tends to unravel within the first decade of the signing of a peace agreement/cessation of hostilities and conflict.”

The overarching message from these gathering was that in Africa, although socio-economic systems were changing, elite thinking has not changed.

In short, while populations have been organising for change, the continent’s leaders appear to be retreating from the democratic process that the continent witnessed in the 1990s and entrenching themselves in power.

In South Sudan, the cause of the instability has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the country’s protagonists.

For instance, the warring parties agree on 10 out of 12 issues and to meet in a few weeks to resolve the outstanding two issues.

But when they meet again, they discover they have already reneged on eight of the 12 points that had been initially agreed.

In the meantime, while they haggle again innocent civilians are getting killed.

South Sudan’s dramatic collapse can be linked to the way in which the country’s leaders have been focusing on issues that are not relevant to the people who just want peace, stability and development.

“The struggle [for South Sudan’s independence] was elite-based and ignoring the wishes of the people,” one delegate told the Wilton Park conference in Addis Ababa.

Relapse into conflict and how to deal with this is now a major problem for Africa – something that was highlighted at the 5th Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia in April.

The focus of the gathering was on the continent’s role within the global security agenda and the need for Africa to now take charge of dealing with its peace and security problems.

The Forum’s Concept Paper noted: “While Africa is seeking to reposition itself in the global security arena, several legitimate questions linger: for instance, in relation to who legitimately represents the continent; but also on ownership, authenticity and sustainability of the concept of African solutions to African problems in its peace and security affairs.”

The problem is that those who are supposed to keep watch on the continent’s peace architecture occasionally take their eyes off the ball and when things explode they are not ready to deal with the aftershocks.

For example, it was clear that South Sudan was fractured when it gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 but nothing was done to rectify this until it was too late.

In Liberia, the UN has withdrawn the bulk of its 15,000 peacekeepers but many Liberians are wondering whether peace and security will hold in the run-up to presidential and legislative elections.

The continent has come a long way since the end of the Cold War and it is now part and parcel of the global security network.

In this regard it would make sense for more commitment from the continent’s leaders to take the lead in fashioning a peacebuilding architecture that will make Africa less prone to relapse into conflict.

*( Desmond Davies is a Regional Fellow of the Tana Forum).


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