Book Review: Can Africa escape the constraints of Global North peacebuilding?

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Friday, 11 November 2022 08:23

International peacebuilding strategies have been accused of trying to achieve too much too soon. REUTERS/Djaffar Sabiti

Peacebuilding strategies imposed by the Global North are often ill designed to meet local realities in the Global South and bespoke local solutions may have a better chance of lasting success.

That’s a central claim made in a new book, Alternative Perspectives on Peacebuilding: Theories and Case Studies, edited by Mark S. Cogan and Hidekazu Sakai at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan, and published by Palgrave MacMillan. The book includes sections on the history and theory of peacebuilding, case studies from Myanmar, the Philippines and Afghanistan, and Africa-focused chapters on Lesotho by Cogan and on Rwanda by Jonathan Beloff.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 led to high hopes in the West that global peace could be achieved through United Nations initiatives. That optimism quickly collided with reality. The academic Roland Paris examined each of the 14 peacebuilding missions that took place globally between 1989 and 1999, and found that none could be judged a success.

The main reason, Paris found, was the over-optimism of Western peacebuilding strategies that sought to achieve everything at once: democratization, respect for human rights and market-oriented reforms as well as building and maintaining peace.

Lesotho, Rwanda

This volume aims to build on that argument by highlighting positive local peacebuilding strategies. The disputed Lesotho election of 2007 provides an example. The election triggered a period of violent instability after the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) claimed to have won 61 out of 80 constituency seats being contested.

Cogan argues that the Christian Council of Lesotho (CCL) was critical to getting the political parties to see past their differences. The churches understood they had differing opinions on the dispute and sought to develop a consensus. They were successful in that all political parties agreed to participate in the mediation. This, the chapter argues, shows the value of “insider” as opposed to internationally imposed mediators. The insiders have pre-existing relationships with parties to a dispute and, unlike peacekeepers who are parachuted in,  will have to live with the consequences of their work.

Rwanda, writes Beloff, has distinguished itself since 1994 as a major contributor of military and police for African and global peacekeeping missions. This contribution, it is argued, has been made possible by Rwanda’s “Home Grown Solutions” to its own conflict, including the abolition of ethnic labels and the use of informal gacaca tribunals.

These hearings did not meet international legal standards, but researchers such as Phil Clark have stressed the role of the gacaca in promoting grassroots reconciliation. Rwanda’s government, Beloff writes, has shown that “there should not be a reliance on foreign concepts for domestic issues as localized practices have long existed prior to colonization.” The claim is that before the twentieth century there was a “social cohesion” which was only disrupted by German and Belgian colonialists.

Minimal Compliance

Of course, the extent to which these initiatives are genuinely homegrown can be exaggerated. As Cogan notes, Lesotho’s culture of institutionalised Christianity was possible because the religion was introduced by European missionaries in the nineteenth century. In Rwanda, the idea that the antagonism between Tutsis and Hutus was introduced by European colonialists is a political statement by the current government rather than a historical fact.

There is ample evidence of tension between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in the nineteenth century, and a major Hutu rebellion in the north of the country was put down by the Tutsi government with the help of the German colonialists in 1912. Of course, there is plenty of evidence that the conflict was instrumentalised by European colonialism, but the dispute cannot be said to have been started by Europeans.

Claims made for Rwanda’s gacaca should also be treated with caution. The Belgian missionary Guy Theunis was arrested and put before a gacaca in 2005 despite the lack of any evidence of genocide involvement against him. Theunis has argued that a rational strategy for some at the gacaca was to plead guilty to crimes that the accused did not commit, and incriminate as many others as possible, in order to avoid jail.

The prioritising of “local” strategies may also create the danger of accepting solutions which achieve minimal compliance in terms of avoiding further short-term conflict, but which contribute little social and economic progress. There seems a danger that aspects of conflict will be locked in by such minimally compliant solutions.

The absence of human rights, functioning democratic systems and free markets have often been seen as among the factors which contributed to conflicts in the Global South in the first place. There seems to be a danger in shelving these as goals simply because they might not be quickly achieved. People who want guaranteed success should, perhaps, work in less ambitious fields.

Despite these qualifications, the peacebuilding strategies examined here have proved resilient, at least on their own terms. The book is a timely reminder that Africa and the Global South can and should turn to their own political resources as well as looking to the international community for peacebuilding solutions.

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