Africa: Peacebuilding Expertise Plays Role in COVID-19 Era

Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, Chancellor of the University of Pretoria.
30 June 2020

As South Africa prepared for its first democratic elections in 1994, political tensions and domestic conflict escalated. Two years earlier, Wiseman Nkuhlu, now Chancellor of the University of Pretoria, was a founding trustee of The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (Accord) and has remained on the board. The organisation works "throughout Africa to bring creative African solutions to the challenges posed by conflict". Its Peacebuilding Unit seeks to address the root causes of conflict through research and action. AllAfrica's Juanita Williams spoke to the chancellor about the peacebuilding work during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic. AllAfrica interviews are edited for length, clarity and flow.

Why is an organisation like Accord important for Africa?

In South Africa we were experiencing increasing cases of conflicts at a local level between political parties and tensions caused by uncertainty that comes with transitions. We realised that in addition to the political parties, we needed an entity that would focus on developing skills, on mediation and also do research to better understand dynamics behind conflicts - and try to get the most up-to-date information and expertise on mediation so that we can work with parties and bring them together and help them find solutions, peacefully.

Over time it became clear to us that there was a need for this kind of service in other African countries. So we found ourselves being invited by former President Nelson Mandela to work with him in Burundi. The rest is history.

We need research to better understand dynamics behind conflicts.

We continue to be relevant, and we are very pleased that our work still continues to be appreciated.

Which African countries are you working in at the moment?

We work in Burundi, although the situation there is still very uncertain. We have been working in South Sudan, as well as Somalia, and in the Central African Republic, as their situation continues to be unstable. We make sure that we are on the ground to understand the dynamics, so that when the African Union or the United Nations want to intervene, we can assist with information because of our research and contacts. Those are the countries that have conflicts proving very difficult to resolve.

Those who work on the ground and offer support, as you said – what exactly are their roles?

The main thing to be able to be effective in mediation is understanding the key players and the issues that drive the conflicts. We work with professionals from a number of Africa countries who identify people who are really close to the issues.

In DR Congo, for instance, there are researchers. We also work with other partners to understand those issues and to win the confidence of the key players in terms of understanding what the critical issues are in order for them to come to the table and be able to find the solution with their rivals.

It's that kind of work that goes beyond posturing. Usually there is a lot of posturing to say, 'Under no circumstance will I make peace with my opponent!'. To get through [to them], you have to use research and other methods to understand the things that are behind that kind of behavior. It's that kind of support that we offer. In most cases, the president [of a country] would not have that capacity to go and get the root causes behind the problems and understand what would convince the main protagonist to turn around.

There are quite a few conflict situations on the continent right now. What do you think is behind these consistent conflicts in some countries, and why do you think they have not been resolved?

One may think that we are using colonialism as an excuse, but the way that our borders were drawn up - they remain a big issue. If you look at a country like DRC, it's a huge country. To take someone who is in [the capital] Kinshasa, to be on top of the country's dynamics in the east can be really difficult. Also, [there is] the weakness of institutions and governments in terms of politicians being in touch and responding to the needs of the people on the ground. Especially in big countries like that, there are always tensions about where the leader comes from, is he only looking after the urban interest, or is he looking out for the interests of the people coming from his ethnic group, and so on.

Those are some of the dynamics. But [there are] huge challenges of infrastructure in Africa and availability of important services like water. Governments make promises, but they do not have the capacity; they do not have the finance.

Water, roads, jobs go a long way towards creating stability.

There are a lot of legitimate complaints about the inability of government to respond to people's needs. The challenges in Africa are vast - infrastructure, water, roads and jobs would go a long way in terms of creating stability, but as long as there are such high levels of inequality, deprivation, I am afraid these conflicts in Africa are going to stay with us.

After decades of peacebuilding, despite the continuing conflicts, is there a highlight of working with Accord?

For an NGO working in a contested space like conflict solution, to remain relevant and maintain credibility with major parties says a lot about its impartiality, level of expertise and the professionalism of its people. To me, that alone is an achievement.

In instances where our involvement really made a difference, I would highlight Burundi, right at the beginning when President Mandela was called upon to work there. We worked very closely with him; we gave him a lot of support. And when President [Thabo] Mbeki was working in the DRC, [he] called on Accord for assistance. We gave him support throughout, and in the end the elections were held. Even after the elections, when problems continued to arise, we continued to give him support. We are not the principals; we give support.

In terms of thought leadership, we have a number of peace leadership pieces that we publish. One is the African Journal on Conflict Resolution that is highly rated internationally. There we share ideas about our understanding of drivers of conflicts in a number of countries, which serves as a warning mechanism and identifies the major players in this region.

When the African Union Commission began their big programme initiative of "silencing of the guns", the chairman of the African Union Commission [called on us]. We hosted a number of workshops with commissioners.

I would say the credibility of the Centre is very important in terms of not being corrupt and being competent. The highlights of Accord are adapting and remaining relevant and giving professional support to major peace initiatives, which in some cases have been very successful.

I know that Covid-19 has complicated conflict resolution and peacebuilding. But are there any opportunities to get to some of these conflict-ridden countries and moving on from conflict? 

We have seen countries where you get a leadership that is serious about stability for the people, is not caught up in corruption, communicates very well and works hard to establish institutions to show delivery on the ground.  We begin to see changes in devolution of powers and accountability to municipalities, local authorities and empowerment of people on the ground to take ownership of their own development and be involved in activities that would improve their lives.

I think there is a tendency in African countries to centralize things and not allow people on the ground to take partnership. Then people become dependent on the centre to do things for the communities. Whereas if you can turn things around, instead of saying 'we are the central government, we are going to do things for you', say 'we are going to create the environment and give you support to be self-sufficient and self-reliant'. That model to me would be much more sustainable.

It's a long way of answering your question. But I am a great believer in the empowerment of communities at a village level –  giving them the means to take charge of their wellbeing and feel a sense of ownership for whatever challenges they have and whatever improvements they need and accept that it is their responsibility and within their powers to make sure that those improvements are achieved.

How has Covid-19 affected the work that you are doing? You have a conflict and resilience monitor.

I explained in the beginning that I am a trustee, so I am not an executive at Accord. But because I chair an executive committee that looks after the finances, I am in regular contact with the Executive Director Vasu Gounden. Even the training that we do, we should do that virtually.

I must say we have adapted extremely well. Regularly we have [remote] meetings, and the executive director has meetings of this kind with other partners that we work with on peacebuilding and conflict resolution. You mentioned the Covid-19 conflict and resilience monitor. Given that this is a big challenge, it is going to have its own risks, so the first thing is to check and analyse and get to understand what is really happening on the ground.

What are the possible conflicts that are going to arise from this, because as people get sick, there are going to be issues of how do families and communities deal with it? Are they getting discriminated against?

There is a clamour for water. Governments made promises, and they do not deliver, compromising trust between governments and communities. There will be issues around food as jobs are lost. There will be new tensions. Understanding those is going to be the first thing.  That is another dynamic on our side that we are trying to better understand through the monitor. Arising from that, we are going to be faced with playing a role of preventing conflicts and possibly proposing solutions through our research, when conflicts do arise.

The monitor covered how you are going to handle Covid-19 in terms of your conflict resolution and prevention, is that right?

Yes, the Covid-19 resilience monitor. As the name indicates, it's for Accord to monitor, to collect surveillance, to use its network in the continent to better understand the dynamics. How is Covid-19 impacting on communities? We track, analyze and try to detect where new conflicts are likely to arise and then share that information with leaders, and those who are concerned, so that preventive measures can be taken. The African Journal for Conflict Resolution and Conflict Trends would share observations and knowledge that we think is relevant in terms of promoting better understanding of the crisis and better understanding of what needs to be done to minimize the impact on the health of our people – and also the socio-economic consequences of the conflict.

Is there a timeline for the monitoring?

It's very difficult to say, but expects are saying the peak is still coming, and researchers are saying Covid-19 may still be with us for more than a year, so I cannot say exactly when we are going to stop. These analyses and monitoring and possible conflicts that may arise out of this and taking appropriate preventable measures is very important. The intelligence that we are able to gather through the monitor – and also use our network of experts to discuss and come up with suggestions – will be shared with the African Union and with other institutions that work in African countries to prevent conflict and propose more innovative solutions in dealing with consequences of Covid-19.

Earlier you mentioned that at the moment you are working in Burundi. Is that work ongoing?

We continue to monitor Burundi because they were going to have elections. As conflict resolution NGOs, sometimes your advise is not always accepted and acted upon. Burundi's situation has been improving and getting worse again. We still monitor Burundi, Somalia and so on.

Update - editor's note: We asked Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu about the implications of outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza's sudden death for the peacebuilding process in Burundi?

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the positive role that President Nkurunziza played in leading the CNDD-FF [armed rebel movement] towards the negotiations that ended the country's long-civil war. We must also remember that peacebuilding processes are by their very nature long term, and they outlive many leaders. Certainly Burundi still has a long way to go in terms of consolidating and sustaining its peace. While President Nkurunziza played his part, his death came when he had already passed the baton to a new president. Therefore we expect that the new leadership will work towards consolidating peace, forge new partnerships inside the country and with international partners for the sake of the country's socio-economic development.

There are a few elections coming on the continent, and usually that is the time that things get a little shaky. Do you focus on election monitoring as well?

Exactly, especially before the elections. As you know, there are lots of conflicts around elections; then after the elections, the results are contested. Helping with intelligence in those situations, identifies risks that are not properly addressed, that may undermine the credibility results, or may interfere with the elections even taking place. We monitor all those things and share them with the relevant authorities, the regional economic communities in Africa, as well as other NGOs that work in Africa, the African Union and organizations like the United Nations.

Peacebuilding thought leadership helps the African Union deal with the health and economic crisis.

I have been with Accord since 1992. I have had the privilege of working with great people, great Africans, who are committed on working on panAfrican issues.

Graça  Machel [founder of the  Graça Machel Trust and former first lady of both Mozambique and South Africa] is our current chairperson. She is very insightful in her own personal capacity, using her own networks. Through her we continue to be informed about dynamics in the continent and issues that need to addressed.

Going forward I believe that the knowledge and experience that Accord has accumulated is of great value to the African Union and the regional communities. Through the executive director, we have been able to work out scenarios of where the continent is likely to go. On the one hand, we have Covid-19. On the other hand, we have the unprecedented drop in oil price. What is that going to do to global growth? How is that going to affect African countries? This is a crisis that Africa has to face. Countries are going to close their borders. Possibly there is going to be less opportunity for us to export to developed countries, because they face their own challenges. They are going to be nationalistic and close down. Those kinds of scenarios are the bread and butter of Accord. Through those networks of top thinkers in the continent, we are able to provide thought leadership and make significant contributions to the thinking of the African Union and other players in the continent. We will continue to do that.

Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu - Chancellor of the University of Pretoria - is a founding trustee of The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) and has been on the board since 1992. He was South Africa's first qualified black chartered accountant and serves on the advisory board of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants.

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