African Peacebuilding: Realities on the Ground

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The time has come to challenge received ideas about peacebuilding

“I have to say that there was a questioning,” Comfort Ero explained tentatively, “of whether we had learnt anything at all—internationally, regionally, or locally.” She was referring to a period of rethinking after a series of conflicts in Africa— notably in Central African Republic, Mali, and South Sudan—shook policymakers’ confidence that they had figured out how to preserve peace and to build peace. That period of rethinking continues today.

Ero directs the Africa program at International Crisis Group, a 21-year-old conflict prevention organization. She paused as a passing airplane made it impossible to hear her over Skype. (“The Dakar office is unfortunately next to a runway,” she said with a distant laugh.) Ero continued: “From 2012 through 2015, you’ve seen a reversal, or regression. I think that all of this is encapsulated in the increased inadequacies or dysfunctional nature of both regional architectures and international systems. Then you fast forward to the Islamic State and related developments, and you wonder whether the policy toolbox, as currently configured, is incapable of dealing with realities on the ground. You begin to question whether the mechanisms we have for so long nurtured and cherished, and refined since the end of the Cold War—peacekeeping, peacebuilding, international justice, conflict prevention—how relevant they really are.”


There is no doubt that peacebuilding needs to occur and that governments and civil society are vital to achieving it. But the disappointment and even despair brought on by the recent surge in conflicts are real and, arguably, are both eased and worsened by Africa’s successes in other realms.

African economic growth weathered the global recession of 2008–09 well. In the past ten years, the 11 largest sub-Saharan economies grew at more than twice the global average, even as inflation declined. Population growth and relative youthfulness—sub-Saharan under-15 population shares range from 28% to over 43% in major countries, against a global average of 25.8%—suggest that African economies will continue to expand.  In 1970, 2.5 million sub-Saharan Africans lived in a democracy; in 2013, the figure was 387 million. The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index improved between 1970 and 2013 in every African region except the Mediterranean littoral.

But that exception is telling, as it is largely due to the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Against a generally positive economic and social backdrop across the continent, in many cases political conflict worsened. North Africa saw chaos and coups; chronic conflicts in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo ground on; semi-failed states like Zimbabwe and Eritrea remained mired; a once-hailed new generation of leaders proved reluctant to give up power; states thought to be reasonably stable, like Mali, Burundi, and Central African Republic, slipped into violence; and South Sudan, the pearl of internationalism when it became independent from Sudan in 2013, took just three years to collapse into bloodletting.

While neither interreligious conflict nor Muslim militancy were at all new in Africa, the resilience of al-Shabab in Somalia and the rise of groups like Boko Haram and al-Qaeda across the Sahel were unexpected and even shocking. A revived African Union and strengthened regional economic groupings fed hopes for “African solutions to African problems.” Yet a more sophisticated continental security architecture was not quick to show results.

For Cyril Obi, a program director at the New York-based Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and director of the African Peacebuilding Network, “The time has come to challenge received ideas about peacebuilding.”


As a set of techniques, peacebuilding has a short history. The term is commonly traced back to the 1970s and the work of Johan Galtung, a Norwegian polymath whose academic contributions range from economics to theology to mathematics. Galtung’s vision was of a decentralized process of bottom-up reconstruction that identified and addressed the root causes of conflicts. This new focus redirected attention—away from warlords, armies, and the “will to power,” toward economic deprivation, resource competition, ethnic and sectarian disputes, and other factors that were often outside the direct purview of modern states.

The United Nations’ Agenda for Peace, released by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992, both ratified the importance of peacebuilding and brought it into a multilateral system constructed by and for nation states. In that early post-Cold War period, the concurrent rise of civil society, nongovernmental organizations, and academic disciplines devoted to the analysis of conflict and peace led to something like an international movement that brought together state and nonstate actors in the pursuit of peace. If not quite the end of history, this was perhaps a fundamental reorientation away from the dominant modern pattern of inter-state competitive conflict. The UN’s own peacekeeping efforts took on some of the mandates of peacebuilding while expanding dramatically: the Security Council authorized a total of 20 new operations between 1989 and 1994, raising the number of peacekeepers from 11,000 to 75,000.

The achievements of these new “multidimensional” missions were mixed. In particular, the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994 prompted much official introspection, resulting in the 2000 “Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations,” usually known as the Brahimi Report (after Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who headed the panel). The UN Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Support Office began operations in 2005, followed the next year by the UN Peacebuilding Fund—elements of what became known as the UN’s “peacebuilding architecture.”

The integration of peacebuilding into an international system dominated by existing states brought with it funding, military resources, and a certain legitimacy. It also meant that peacebuilding efforts that were not congruent with existing state interests—or that might even run counter to those interests—were difficult to mount, at best.

That challenge is a universal one, but it is especially keen in Africa. Most African states were originally constructed in the course of European imperial competition and, ultimately, ratified in the process of decolonization, beginning in the 1950s. There is considerable artifice involved in the construction of most, if not all, modern nation states. This is the case whether, like the United States and other countries of the Americas, they grew out of the long dissolution of the British and Iberian empires or, as in the Middle East and the Balkans, they emerged from the rather more sudden collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Recent events have shown that even relatively stable modern and democratic states can face secessionist challenges and periods of significant reconfiguration. Nonetheless, the relationships between state and society in Africa—within the compressed post-colonial time frame of a few decades—have proved to be notably fraught. The wary embrace of peacebuilding by African states and state-led institutions has meant that peacebuilding in Africa is caught up in the rivalries of those states and hampered by their flaws and shortcomings. The dominance of what is called the “technical” approach to peacebuilding—engineering legal, electoral, and administrative structures aimed at solidifying  liberal, democratic states within existing borders—faces growing skepticism. The agony of South Sudan is seen by many as one instance of the failure of this broader, Western-inspired model.

“It was thought,” ’Funmi Olonisakin of King’s College, London, explains, “that you could impose a certain kind of state and conflict would be no more, it would become a thing of the past.”

Olonisakin was founding director of the African Leadership Centre, with its headquarters in Nairobi. Her experience includes working in the United Nations system and the leading regional organization ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), as well as in the academy and government. “At the time that many African states became independent,” she continues, “if you look at the 1960s, you begin to see nation states, or so-called nation states, that were not the product of the popular expressions of their people. These were the states that were handed over by the colonial system. And the new elite did not think to negotiate the terms by which the different groups in these states would live together. The bottom line—the narrative of an African state that has never really belonged to the people—has never really changed. Many, many countries did not negotiate the terms by which they would live post-independence with the ruling elite, and so they have stuttered in different ways: two steps forward, one step backward.”

African Peacebuilding Network director Cyril Obi agrees: “Africa has very sophisticated and beautiful mechanisms and frameworks, well thought out and well designed, some inspired by peace mechanisms developed elsewhere, some of African design. But the question is: do the political costs match up, between the political elites and those who are fighting? The existing mechanisms for peacebuilding tend to look at those costs that are bearable politically for those who wield power. But are they bearable for the society at large? What happens when the costs of leaders and the costs of society don’t align?”

What happens is chronic conflict. For Obi and others, African states simply do not reflect the needs and passions of their people. Citizens do not identify with their states. “The world already has a lot of knowledge about how to build the body of the state,” Obi says. “It has much less on how to build the soul of the state.”


Politics in Africa, as elsewhere, has long swung between exhilaration and pessimism, and disappointment at recent relapses into conflict can obscure the reality that organized, large-scale political violence has decreased on much of the continent as democratization, political coordination, and economic growth have advanced.

“I am optimistic,” Pierre Buyoya, former president of Burundi and current African Union high representative for Mali and the Sahel, said in an interview on the sidelines of a recent Wilton Park conference, “Peacebuilding in Africa: Developing African Approaches,” held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “Africa is making progress in promoting democracy, human rights. It is making progress in development. We still have conflicts. But generally I think the trend is positive. We have developed how to confront these conflicts.”

One reason for such progress might be that disinterested nonstate actors, supported by academic field research, are playing a somewhat greater role than they have in the past. Comfort Ero of International Crisis Group relates how official negotiators did not, at first, welcome arguments that their peace process in Mali was excluding important political forces from the northern part of the country. The suggestion was seen as interfering with the Malian state, which has its base in the south. But in the end, Ero believes, accommodation of a broad array of representatives from the north makes for a stronger peace, an outcome acknowledged even by the reluctant state. “Advocating this was seen as undermining the Malian state,” Ero says, “but it was probably necessary to preserve the existence of Mali.”

Pierre Buyoya sees the Sahel as a logical place for the African Union to play a dominant role because the 11 states with borders in the Sahel do not themselves have a regional organization comparable to ECOWAS. He emphasizes the value of intelligence and security coordination among Sahelian states, as well as joint border patrols in a vast region that is lightly populated and whose peoples have never placed much store in the delineation of territories by distant capitals.

Looking at the same set of facts, ’Funmi Olonisakin sees states spending money on a battle they cannot win. “Even in non-Sahelian states,” she says, “you see markets are often located next to borders, and borders are crisscrossed all the time. And yet you have an African Union regional agenda that is not based on people-to-people integration; rather it recognizes state-to-state movements, including the importance of borders.” Referring to the modern state model that emerged in Europe as a result of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, Olonisakin says that in Africa today, “The Westphalian state is a myth.”

“The conflicts we are seeing on the continent really are in large part a renegotiation of the existing states,” Olonisakin maintains. “African leaders and populations are moving in opposite directions, they are moving divergently.  Populations are learning to subsist, to creatively live their lives in spite of their governments. This is the story of a generation, unfolding slowly before our eyes.”

“The youth have been very ingenious,” Ero notes, “in particular with social media. It is a whole other sphere of influence for this generation, whether they’re militants, or just protesters, or gangs.” Africa’s younger generation lives within colonial-era boundaries, but they did not experience colonial reality. Nor have they lived through the hopes and expectations engendered by the anti-colonial movements and the nation-building of the early independence era. The younger generation’s chief experience has been tied to globalization. Apart from social media technologies like Facebook and Twitter—which, while popular, depend on very uneven Internet access and are subject to interruption by the state—young Africans communicate by mobile-phone text messaging. They build like-minded communities beyond the reach of both the state and their elders.


The wealth that has been accumulated in the course of economic expansion in Africa is visible in the growing cities; it is there on satellite television, to be admired, envied, and resented. “Globalization opens the door,” Cyril Obi says, “but it doesn’t bring you through.” Zachariah Mampilly, director of African studies at Vassar College and an expert on rebel movements, points to the “circular migration” of young people from villages to cities and back again. They are aware of globalization’s possibilities but are often unable to seize them. The rise in GDP conceals a reality of high youth unemployment or, hardly more appealing, low-paying jobs with little future.

This is the generation that is fueling the urban protests characteristic of the past several years. As Obi argues, “A lot of these young people have not received the kind of education that people two generations before enjoyed, and are living in an economic context where unemployment is high and young people have access to all forms of information through technology. Globalization is both a good and an evil. It opens up the doors for transforming societies, but at the same time, if the political organism that is supposed to express the totality of the people’s lives does not operate in a way that opens up more opportunities for them, then they don’t identify. They go to the wrong side of globalization. They take advantage of globalization to try to put at a disadvantage that political organism that they think is against them.”

And that organism is very often the existing state. “The conflicts we are seeing on the continent really are in large part a renegotiation of the existing states,” Olonisakin says. “We either allow them to be renegotiated according to the desires of the people on the ground, or we keep going back to those places to make peace again.” However and whenever this renegotiation takes place, it must be conceived, led, and implemented by Africans themselves. This notion may seem self-evident, but on a continent long subject to the imperatives of external actors, the need for eliciting and applying local knowledge—a centerpiece of Carnegie Corporation’s grantmaking on peacebuilding in Africa—cannot be overstated.