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Civil Society’s Role in Managing Conflicts in Africa
SADC Barometer Issue 4, Jan 2004, South African Institute of International Affairs
January 31, 2004
By Jason Ladnier and Patricia Taft of The Fund for Peace, Washington DC

While long seen as a crucial element in the struggle for increased respect for democratic rule and human rights within African countries, civil society actors are only slowly recognising their role in addressing conflicts that pose threats to regional and subregional peace and stability. In many ways, this recent emergence coincides with the increased attention that regional economic bodies pay to security issues. The Fund for Peace, a Washington DC research and advocacy organisation, recently convened a series of sub-regional workshops that brought together civil society representatives in West Africa, East and Central Africa, and Southern Africa. At the three meetings, participants took part in two full days of plenary discussions on the role that civil society should play in strengthening African capacity to manage conflicts. In the end, each workshop agreed that civil society indeed had an important role to play in such matters and the participants crafted recommendations tailored to the specific challenges of their own subregion.

Understanding civil society's role in managing conflict requires an initial assessment of what characterises civil society in each of the three sub regions under discussion. The relationship between civil society actors and governments is based on historical, political, and cultural precedents. In some regions, civil society has had a history of antagonistic interactions with local governments and is viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility. In this regard, the ability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to lobby effectively and advocate on behalf of local populations is challenged. In these regions, overcoming obstacles through repeatedly engaging government officials, improving the transparency and accountability of civil society, and networking across national boundaries has become a main focus. In other regions civil society actors acknowledged their responsibility in becoming more active in engaging governments, regional and sub-regional bodies. In several countries, although the relationship between civil society and national governments was not openly antagonistic, previous interaction and collaborative work had been limited. A focus on finding points of entry and opening channels of dialogue were viewed as a first step in creating a stronger relationship with regional and sub-regional bodies.

In West Africa, a candid recognition that the region's conflicts spill over borders and create instability in neighbouring countries has pushed CSOs to work together more closely across national boundaries. Similarly, the region's organisation, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has much more experience than other African bodies in confronting humanitarian crises and conflict. ECOWAS has intervened militarily in Côte D'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone and diplomatically in Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Principe. In a positive move, ECOWAS has undertaken a number of steps to institutionalise the channels of communication with the region's CSOs, including the recent creation of a Civil Society Liaison and the convening of a large conference in December 2003 in Ghana that brought together over one hundred organisations. Although it is too early to tell whether these initiatives will translate into actual sustained communication between ECOWAS and the region's CSOs, the Civil Society Liaison attended The Fund for Peace civil society workshop in October and the recommendations produced from that meeting were then taken to the December ECOWAS-sponsored meeting in Ghana.

One obstacle that West African civil society and ECOWAS must overcome is the tension created by Nigeria's regional dominance. While Nigeria's leadership and resources have enabled ECOWAS to mount military interventions to stop conflict, the country's own civil society, as well as that of the rest of the region, feels overwhelmingly alienated from these interventions and is ignored when they sound the signals of early warning of conflict. At the outset, governments and regional bodies should better explain the steps leading up to the decision to intervene militarily, in order to allow for public debate to take place in advance of the intervention. In addition, better co-ordination and inclusion of the region's civil society in the civilian components of peacekeeping operations will contribute to a greater sense of regional identity and co-operation. This coordination can take two forms. First, CSOs have already been brought in to provide general training to West African troops in humanitarian issues, particularly in regard to the impact of interventions on women and children. This should continue. Second, once a country has been identified as a possible case for intervention, intervention planners should utilise the knowledge and expertise of local CSOs in assessing the needs of affected populations. In not considering holistic and culturally appropriate methods to peacekeeping and peace building, an intervention has the potential of causing more harm than good. A failure to include civil society expertise in past interventions has further resulted in the loss of a valuable source of reference for 'lessons learned' from previous interventions. As one participant stated, without attempting to learn from the failures of past interventions, ECOWAS is constantly "reinventing the wheel" when it attempts to avert or halt a humanitarian emergency.

While civil society has flourished in certain countries in East Africa and the Greater Horn region, the political dynamics of the region - the ongoing Sudan conflict, the complete collapse of Somalia and the terrorist attacks in Kenya - have pushed non-governmental organisations to stay focused on national issues. The region also suffers from unresolved interstate disputes, such as the continued tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea. A number of overlapping regional bodies exist, such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development

(IGAD), the East African Community (EAC), and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern African (COMESA) but these have traditionally focused on development, trade and food security issues.

Only recently, with the increased attention given by IGAD to the Sudan and Somalia peace processes have civil society actors sought to engage regional bodies on peace building and security matters. Kenya's lead in reviving the failed Somalia peace process in October of 2002 under IGAD's auspices was characterised by the creation of technical committees to address concerns specific to civil society. The creation of a civil society committee tasked with dealing with issues of education and health care and a separate committee to address the needs of women and children were bold new initiatives. Additionally, women and village elders were brought into the consultative process on issues of disarmament, reintegration of combatants, and the creation of a reconciliation council. The collaboration was the result of strong lobbying on the part of several civil society groups and the recognition by IGAD that without the inclusion of local actors experiencing the effects of failed or collapsing states, comprehensive peace and security in the region would remain elusive. Furthermore, in its attempt to stem pastoral conflicts, IGAD has developed CEWARN, an early warning mechanism to determine signs of conflict along members' borders. This is a fledgling initiative but shows promise as it connects the regional body directly to actors on the ground who report on a comprehensive set of events and conflict indicators.

In Southern Africa, civil society has a history of cooperation as Front Line States struggled to help South Africans overcome the scourge of apartheid. With the events of 1994, the regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and its members had to re-examine the organisation's mandate. In a series of protocols and public statements, the organisation conveyed its commitment to ensuring the human security of its populations. To date, however, SADC has not involved the region's civil society in regional processes of preventive diplomacy, early warning, and peace building. As in other regions - and some would argue to an even greater degree - there exists a pervasive lack of knowledge about the organisation, its components, and its protocols amongst CSOs. Civil society in Southern Africa, however, has undertaken on several instances to push for involvement in peace building processes on their own. Examples from Mozambique and Zambia, demonstrate civil society's effective partnership with government based on a mutual appreciation of the necessary roles played by each. South African organisations with regional links have contributed to peace negotiations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and education and research institutions have employed their peace-building expertise to train populations in post-conflict societies.

Critics argue that the failure of governments and SADC to more fully integrate civil society into diplomatic and conflict management initiatives reflects the organisation's tendency to place a higher value on protecting the sovereignty of its member states and their leaders than on addressing violence and conflict in the region. South Africa now holds an extremely influential position in the region. Civil society in neighbouring countries, however, expressed concern that South Africa, as a whole has been reluctant to take the lead in a number of regional crises, particularly the political instability in Zimbabwe. For Southern Africa to achieve the goals laid out by SADC, South African civil society should be more active in working with its partners throughout the region and in pressuring its own government to fulfil the leadership role bestowed on it by its political history and resources.

When asked about the African Union (AU), civil society representatives across Africa said that it was clearly too soon to assess the impact of the newly transformed organisation. Some voiced concern that the sheer size of its members - 53 countries - makes it unable to react swiftly and decisively when crisis threatens or is occurring. Most importantly, the AU needs to do a better job of communicating its mission and instruments to Africans at all levels of society if it is to avoid being dismissed as nothing more than another social club for the continent's "big men." Civil society representatives throughout the continent acknowledged, however, that responsibility also falls to them to publicise the work being done by regional bodies and to provide serious analysis of these efforts.

If Africa's regional and sub-regional bodies are to succeed in reducing the continent's level of violence and political instability, civil society has a vital role to play. Below are recommendations made by African participants at The Fund for Peace's workshops and meetings with over one hundred African civil society representatives from more than 45 African countries in October and November 2003.

  • First, CSOs should serve as interlocutors and educators, together with national governments, to local populations to communicate the guiding principles and functions of Africa's political organisations. If most Africans feel no connection to these bodies then their national leaders will have no homegrown incentive to abide by their principles and norms. Outside pressure can only go so far in creating the changes that Africa's visionaries imagine.
  • Second, CSOs, where possible, should continue to recognise that the newly created political space for civil society actors in many democratising African countries places upon them a new responsibility to constructively engage African policymakers on issues of conflict management and crisis prevention. No longer are civil society and national governments solely adversaries. But in playing a more assertive role in the policymaking process, CSOs must acquire new skills, expertise, and analytical tools.
  • Third, CSOs should continue to form linkages across national borders and along overlapping issues of concern. Civil society representatives from across the continent lamented the limitations associated with over-dependence on donor funding from the West, which often leads to competition and precludes collaboration. While recent donor initiatives have sought to encourage partnerships among funding recipients and to maintain transparency about donor activities, these developments do not obviate the need for increased leveraging of local capacity. Pooling skills, resources, and knowledge will allow African civil society to begin to maximise their existing assets and establish a base from which to increase local and national investment in their work.
  • Lastly, governments, regional and subregional bodies should recognise the wealth of value that civil society actors have in contributing to conflict prevention and management. Two areas specifically call for input from civil society:
    1. the accumulation and communication of information for more effective early warning mechanisms, and
    2. the training and participation of civil society in the planning and implementation of civilmilitary co-ordination in responding to humanitarian emergencies.

In order for these inputs to translate into real action by policy-makers, the relationship between civil society and African's political organisations must become more formalised and more focused on collaborative policy-making.

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