Africa: Softening the Impact of Conflict Multiplier Covid-19

ACCORD Founder and Executive Director Vasu Gounden in a remote interview with allAfrica from Durban, South Africa.
30 September 2020

Cape Town / Durban — Since 1992, when the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (Accord) was established, the conflict management NGO has played an integral role in conflict resolution activities across Africa. This led to Accord becoming the first African NGO to address the UN Security Council, and after 28 years it continues to build the capacity of the continent's leaders to resolve conflict and address the underlying political barriers to growth and stability. AllAfrica's managing editor Juanita Williams asked Accord Founder and Executive Director Vasu Gounden to describe Accord's work. In this conversation, he begins with the early years and discusses prospects for the future - particularly addressing the challenge of a post-Covid-19 Africa.

When I started out in the field, it was a very small field, because conflict management as a practice was still in its fledgling state. Although it's been practised for centuries - people managed conflicts - this kind of professional way [was emerging]. I was really lucky at the time, in 1989, to receive the Fullbright Scholarship and attend Georgetown University in Washington where I did my Master's in Law, specializing in conflict management. I worked for a dispute resolution institution in Washington, the National Institute for Dispute Resolution, which is where I got the idea to set up Accord. At the time you could count on your fingertips the number of universities offering Master's and doctoral studies in conflict management, and you could even count the number of scholars that were qualified in this area.

Today there's an abundance of universities across the world who offer conflict management. Today when we are recruiting - and you know, we are recruiting all the time - it's not difficult to find a PhD in conflict management. There are many of them across the world, so the field has grown exponentially I would say. The field has also grown in terms of the nature of the field. That's probably why there's been this growth in the conflict management practitioners.

Prior to 1990, conflict resolution largely was the domain of nation states and conflicts were between states. As of 1990, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the whole era of multiparty democracy coming into being, and together with that the competitive political space opening up in countries, meant that there were many more political conflicts in countries - and internal conflicts involving not only states versus states but states with civilians.

As a result of that, people started to develop a practice in trying to resolve these conflicts. So I was very fortunate in that I grew with this field from its beginning. What we have today is a lot of people qualified theoretically but not many people have had the experience on the ground of mediating.

So there is still a dearth of people who have the qualifications on the one side and the experience on the other.

The Centre has been involved in trying to resolve several conflicts on the continent - for instance Burundi and the DR Congo...

We have the distinction as Accord of having prepared almost all the rebel groups, insurgency groups, across the continent who have been involved in negotiations - as well as government representatives. For example, in Madagascar, we worked with the ousted president. He was here many times in these offices (in Durban, South Africa) looking at negotiation and mediation. Last year we had five [government] ministers from the Central African Republic. They came to these officers for two five-day sessions where they were prepared in negotiation. And then the rebel groups in Burundi, including their former president Pierre Nkurunziza who died recently, trained at Accord. The current president, General Évariste Ndayishimiye, also trained at Accord. In the DR Congo and Somalia, the transitional government representatives were trained here.

Being trained to negotiate is harder than training to use a gun.

So what do we do? We train them in negotiations. When you go to be a rebel in the bush somewhere, you get trained to use a gun to prosecute your struggle.

Negotiation is just another terrain of struggle - where you now sit in a boardroom, and you have to be equipped, you have to be given training. Like you train to use a weapon, you're trained to negotiate. And that's what we do in preparing rebel groups and others. We give them the skill, because sometimes it's easier to learn how to use a gun. You can be trained in one day to use a gun.

To be trained to negotiate? This is much more complex. Very often you know rebel groups don't come to the negotiation table because they feel at a very distinct disadvantage in that governments have more capacity for negotiation. Giving them these skills empowers them with the confidence that they can also negotiate at that table.

How do the researchers at Accord contribute to peacebuilding on the continent?

You cannot [resolve] any situation of conflict without understanding the conflict itself. That means that you need evidence-based research. You need to have more than just a social media understanding or a CNN understanding of a situation.

I will give you an example. When I was going to Gaza to meet with Hamas and Fatah, together with our former deputy minister of foreign affairs Aziz Pahad, I had a CNN view of Gaza - people running around everywhere with guns and hiding behind walls and all of that.

The first time I went when the Palestinian Legislative Assembly was still in charge, we arrived in Gaza and were taken to a boardroom similar to the one I'm sitting in now, air-conditioned. We were given bottled water; we had long meetings. It was quite a revelation for me. Now if I had in my head what I was seeing on CNN,I was not going to expect [what we experienced] when we went to meet with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, at the time, in his offices. We had a formal meeting.

It was not that we met him somewhere behind some building while he was trying to hide from bullets or something! So you need contextual knowledge, you need to understand the situation. This is what our researchers do - they go and they get evidence. We need to understand the geography of the country. What's the demography of the country? What is the politics? How did the conflict start? What has been its trajectory. We need all that information.

How is research to end conflict and to encourage peacebuilding in Africa aligning with the novel coronavirus pandemic?

Well, Accord was one of the first NGOs - I think even globally - that immediately when the Covid-19 pandemic was identified on the continent, set up a research operation where we deployed 17 of our researchers to research all 55 countries in Africa on seven indicators every single day. We started to produce a weekly Covid-10 Conflict and Resilience Monitor every Wednesday. The 23rd edition will come out today. Our data capturers basically get their information every day. We have set up a technology instrument in which the information is inputted and then is analyzed, using the instrument, and we produce infographics which give the analysis.

Then we bring expert writers and current decision makers, former presidents, ministers and others who are currently involved in conflict situations. What are we tracking? We are tracking the impact of Covid-19 on peace and security on the continent. I'm just coming off a discussion now with a consultant doing some research for the European Union, and he was complimenting Accord on the Covid-19 Conflict and Resilience Monitor, saying this is one of the few across the world that took specifically Covid-19 and looked at its impact. So long as there is the virus, we will continue to look at its impact.

The pandemic is a conflict multiplier.

Our current analysis is that the Covid-19 pandemic is acting as a conflict multiplier. We have already had problems on the continent, but once the pandemic arrived, governments had to shut down the place - rightly so - in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But that necessity led to huge economic dislocation.

Many people lost their jobs, other people were paid less, so you have financial constraints, etc. We know the statistics on gender-based violence and the rise in gender-based violence. There have been a number of unintended consequences, and we think the lockdowns have put a lid on conflict. That's why we are seeing our own research indicating that conflict actually subsided across the continent, largely because people are now stuck in their houses. They're not on the streets, and there are all of these curfews, etc.

But once the lockdowns are lifted, you know that lid is lifted, you are going to get many more people who are unemployed and we know that the key, underlying causes of conflict are poverty, unemployment and inequality. And we know that post-Covid-19, unemployment inequality and poverty will all have increased, which means that Covid-19 will have acted as a conflict multiplier. This is where our research is taking us currently and we are in discussions with the African Union, with regional organizations, with our own government, about how to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 and therefore our Monitor has been an important part of ensuring that we can have early warning and begin to have earlier responses.

Poverty, unemployment and inequality are underlying causes of conflict.

Dealing with the underlying causes of Covid-19, as we know very well in South Africa - poverty, unemployment, inequality - it is not easy. That takes a generation, two generations. That's 20 to 40 years.

So what do we do? What do I mean by mitigating? When I say mitigate, we're training people across the continent at NGOs on the ground, faith-based leaders, traditional leaders, all of whom can mediate in these local disputes.

You might remember 1993 when we had huge conflict in South Africa. There was the national peace accord, and there were the peace accord structures on the ground. Hundreds of people were trained by Accord. They mediated in those conflicts so that they could reduce those conflicts. That's what we are saying we sould be doing now as Accord. We will be training almost 10,000 people across Africa over the next 18 months or so to mitigate and manage conflicts that will come from the Covid-19 impact.

What would that training involve for presidents, NGOs and community leaders?

We are not training presidents but are orienting them in how to negotiate, how to calculate your balance of forces, how to calculate your power - because people sometimes overestimate their power, or underestimate it - and then having the skills. How do you negotiate? How do you come up with your negotiation position? And if you're the mediator, how do you bring parties to the table? How do you manage a dialogue on an ongoing basis?

We discuss what to look for when you are mediating, because mediation can take one day; it can take one year; it can take 10 years, depending on the complexity of the conflict.

We are going to train people on the ground in how to manage dialogue, how to bring people together. If it goes beyond dialogue, where trust levels are so low, how do you build trust? How do you build conciliation amongst parties? In South Africa, for example, we are more and more a divided society. Now do you work to build social cohesion in society? There are many, many strategies that we have learned over the last 28 years that can be employed and deployed in order to build conciliation, to facilitate dialogue, to engage in negotiations, to engage in mediation, to build social cohesion. These are the kinds of trainings that we will offer people.

We teach them to analyse conflicts and to strategize for how to intervene in a conflict. It's quite a complex area of technique. With NGOs, funding is an issue always - getting the resources to do the work we need to do. Accord is much better off than most NGOs, because we are 28 years in the game. Donors see the value in Accord and its networks and what it can do. Accord sits as a centre of excellence, not only in Africa but globally.

What would you say are the greatest challenges your organisation is facing right now?

We don't only employ South Africans. We recruit from across the continent, and during this pandemic, we are employing more people. But we cannot bring them here. We can work remotely, and that does help. Getting through the red tape of visas and all of that are technical issues for Accord.

Now come to the political problems. We see across the world a rise in populism, nationalism and authoritarianism. We think this will be new drivers of conflict and might close the space for mediation and dialogue. We are thinking of strategies of how to deal with that.

There is in Africa a race against time. Why? Our development, our population growth is exponential. People are rapidly urbanising, faster than governments can provide the services of housing, sanitation, water, education, healthcare etc. And if we don't find a formula where governments can adequately meet the needs of their people, as is the case today in most countries across the continent, then that is a recipe for increased conflict. We triy to mediate a conflict before it becomes an armed conflict.

There is in Africa a race against time

You know, as in the case of South Sudan now, you have both sides with militaries. It becomes extremely difficult to pull it back. Covid-19presented us with, unfortunately, an additional challenge. But we can't sit back and say "These are challenges; what do we do?"

We have to go out there and find solutions. I think we have enough expertise and experience in Africa, enough qualified people and enough people of goodwill, that will be prepared to come to the party and say, "How do we collectively look for solutions?" There are those, of course, who make our job much more difficult. Instead of assisting, they're engaging in corruption.

But there are still a lot of good people on the continent who I think can collectively come together to see how we meet these challenges.

AllAfrica's reporting on peacebuilding is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York

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