Ubuntu is a South African principle that dictates an individual’s responsibility within a corporate sense of identity. The spirit of this principle governs communities throughout Africa and is the foundation on which indigenous methods of conflict resolution are structured.
People from all corners of the continent are united by the belief of humanity’s oneness — that the welfare of one affects the wellness of the whole, that one’s neighbor is a vital part of one’s own survival, that one’s behavior has universal impact. This ideal promotes peace, power sharing, fair distribution of resources, and quells uncivil ways of reacting to inevitable conflict, as it would be foolish for a man or woman to fight against his or herself.
There are many peacekeeping mechanisms across Africa that are just as diverse as its people. Generally speaking, the systems that maintain social solidarity on the government level are macrocosms of how African communities have peacefully co-existed for centuries.
Here are five examples of contemporary African resolution tactics that are deeply rooted in tradition.
Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice process that took place following apartheid in South Africa. Victims and offenders of human rights violations faced each other and shared statements about their experiences publicly to their shared community. The TRC was a platform that bypassed the traditional justice system and leaned towards community-based reconciliation practices that restored relationships between victims and offenders, and promoted community-wide healing.
This process was largely viewed as a success, setting the stage for similar processes in other countries.
In the years following the Rwandan genocide (1994) that ravaged the country, killing nearly one million people and crippling the societal infrastructure, the Justice and Reconciliation Process was created to peaceably reconstruct Rwanda’s identity and build trust between two ethnic groups (Tutsis and Hutus) who had been historically at war.
In Liberia, a country with a deep history of social and political unrest, that culminated to mass violence, military dictatorship, social corruption and wide-spread killings in the late 1970s, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia was formed to promote peace and support the foundation of a just government system.
To promote justice and reconciliation in Rwandan post genocide and combat the overwhelming number of individuals awaiting trial in the national courts, a traditional grassroots court system called Gacaca (pronounced GA-CHA-CHA) was revived in 2005.
In this system, local communities elected judges to hear the trials of genocide perpetrators. If these individuals showed remorse and sought to be reconciled with their communities, their sentences were lesser than those that weren’t repentant.
The Gacaca trials, like TRC served to promote truth telling and promote reconciliation between victims and offenders.
In Ethiopia there is a court system that is central to both the environment and the economy referred to as the Well Counsel. Because there is a scarcity of surface water, wells – or leas, as they are locally called – are extremely important, especially in pastoral communities.
Wells are a communal resource; so all members of the community have equal rights and access to them. But because water is scarce, there is a large potential for conflict. The Counsel, made of elected members of the community, is put in place to handle disputes if they arise. If the counsel is not able to handle them, community elders will step in. This system has been maintained for centuries without formal government involvement.
In the Mopti region of Mali rests the cliff of Bandiagara, informally known as the land of the Dogon people. This area is heavily steeped in rich cultural traditions of the people known for their mask dances and wooden sculptures.
This unique sandstone landscape cradles nearly 300 villages comprised of granaries, houses, sanctuaries, community meeting spaces and altars; in that respect, Dogon villages are like any collection of people, dwellings and communal edifices.
What separates Dogon villages from any other, is the intent of certain spaces to be occupied as a means of deflating conflict. For instance, men and women maintain separate spaces outside of the shared home to house their belongings and food, to hold meetings, and to have time separate from their mate.
Additionally, the Toguna, which is solely for males, is used for major decision making and to discuss affairs. Its architecture is such that one cannot stand upright. This is to avoid physical violence if debates within the Toguna become heated.
Councils of Elders
Elders hold a special meaning in African communities. They are repositories of history and are considered to be wise altruists who hold the community together.
When conflict arises, elders are seen as respected counsel, trusted to subdue discord.
In Somaliland, the Guurti people are the reconciliation practitioners who maintain the peace.
Hajj Abdi Hussein Yusuf, one of the oldest well-known traditional elders in Somaliland says, “Somaliland kept its own traditional conflict management mechanisms in place and these values and norms [have not been] disrupted. These have ultimately enabled us to reconcile our people and have nurtured mutual trust and dialogue.”
Similarly the people of Ethiopia observe Madda, as their counsel of elders, and the people of Uganda, Akiriket.
To resolve large intra-communal and inter-communal conflicts, peace conferences have been held across Africa. They convene elders, members of the community and involve thorough presentations addressing all points of contention.
The Akobo Peace Conference (1994) was called to address tribal fighting in the Neur region of Sudan.
The conference, which included 18 delegations of mediators, 500 official delegates, traditional courts and observers, sought to end qualms over distribution of land, water and other natural resources between the Luo and Jakany people.
When a series of inter-clan reconciliation conferences between elders in Somaliland commenced in 1991, two conferences in Boraama and Sanaag brought together the two communities and their leaders. This resulted in positive changes in national security, a constitutional structure and a peaceful government shift.