Africa: Peacebuilding in the Sahel, Mozambique and South Sudan - Webinar Transcript

AllAfrica's series of webinars with African peacebuilders and researchers kicks off with a focus on three areas: a country pursuing stability after decades of war, and two areas in which conflict - rooted in local conditions but influenced by outside actors - has been escalating.
7 April 2021
broadcast transcript

This is the transcript of a webinar hosted by AllAfrica that drew upon the research of three scholars about peacebuilding in Africa: Dr. Shuvai Busuman Nyoni, executive director of the African Leadership Centre, based in Nairobi, Kenya, who discussed South Sudan; Dr. David Matsinhe, southern Africa researcher for Amnesty International, a global human rights movement, who explained the background to the conflict in northern Mozambique, and Dr. Ornella Moderan, head of the Sahel programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, who spoke on the situation in that part of western Africa. The session was led by Mantsadi Sepheka for AllAfrica.  

I would like to start with you, Shuvai, to speak on peace-building, but before we get there, I have to introduce you. You are the Woman, Peace and Security Practitioner and Executive Director of the African Leadership Centre (ALC), and you have been in the business of building peace on the continent for decades now. So, Shuvai, before we get into the area of South Sudan, could you explain to us exactly what a peace practitioner is?

I am currently the director of the African Leadership Centre and I also work in the area of Women, Peace, and Security. That is my research area and area of practice.

I wouldn't quite call myself a peace practitioner but more someone who has been working in the area of women, peace and security, both in a research capacity but also in practice, directly on the ground and working on issues that relate to women and conflict, how women are affected by conflict, and also women's participation in conflict. That is linked to the work that we do at the African Leadership Centre, which is a research and a training centre.

Anyone who works to further peace and stability is a peace practitioner.

Our focus is on young Africans who we see as the next generation of leaders on the continent and globally, dealing with issues that sit at the nexus of peace, security, and development. We do that in a number of ways. One of our flagship programs is specifically focused on young African women in peace and security. That program involves a year of academic and non-academic training in the field of peace, security, and development. Many of these young women are from conflict-affected settings or contexts, or they live in insecure contexts where there is violence or violent conflict.

Going back to your question of what it means to be a peace practitioner, I think that it is very broad and can be defined in a number of ways, but I think it is essentially anyone who is working or contributing to further peace or stability or well-being in a society, furthering freedom from the threat of violence, freedom from the insecurity of either the physical being or any other aspect of human life. It is people who are working together with others to ensure that, as we say in the African Leadership Centre, that people are able to make choices about how they live well and live long.

You mentioned the projects that you are currently doing. How has your work around the peace sector shaped what is happening in the continent right now?

That is a difficult question to answer -  because how do you attribute the small contribution you are making in a continent as diverse and as rapidly moving and changing as the African continent. That is especially true when we think about issues of peace and insecurity on our continent. Every day, at any point, something is changing. The contribution that our Centre has made - we have been around for about 10 to 13 years in different iterations - we have trained over 124 young Africans who sit across the globe in various institutions, be they academic, multilateral, government, civil society research, and scholarly institutions.

Many of these people are contributing - whether someone is working in the person of the ombudsperson at the World Bank, or is an ambassador for their country, or is in the military or a peacekeeping mission, which many of our alumni are at the moment. So they are contributing to the peace agenda, the security agenda across the globe. At the moment we have alumni who are involved in various ways in some of the peace agreement mechanisms in South Sudan, others who have been in peace missions in Darfur and other places. I think our work is to provide the foundation, and many of our alumni go on to do what they have been trained to do and that they apply at the various settings where they find themselves.

Let's move onto the topic of South Sudan. There was a recent agreement signed by President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar, saying that "peace is finally here". We know that past agreements have failed or have ended in a lot more conflict than peace. The one that triggered the civil war in 2013 led to about 400,000 people dead and millions displaced.  Do believe that peace is close for the South Sudanese people?

This question is interesting. I do not think that you can give a yes or no answer. As to how close or how far peace is, I think what we do know is that we are yet to be at a place where the South Sudanese can say with certainty that they know that they can live well and they can live long. I think while the revitalized peace agreement  ushered in a relative absence of big battles, large-scale battles, between what we could identify as government forces and the opposition. But there is still an absence of peace/ There is still no guarantee that the majority of South Sudanese are free from the threat of violence at any given time.

I think we have to look especially at the situation of women and children. We have high numbers of sexual violence cases that still continue, and also in certain parts of the country, localised conflicts or what is oftentimes called 'inter-communal violence', which has underlying political linkages to the bigger political conflict that has been going on since 2013. There are numerous reports from numerous organisations that point to this, and this is still an issue of concern on the agenda of the UN Security Council and the African Union's Peace and Security Council. So I think we cannot say that peace has finally come, especially if some South Sudanese people themselves cannot say that with confidence.

In your opinion what would be the best peace-building strategy for the South Sudanese people, what do you think is the way forward here?

One of the biggest challenges where the society is at war, in conflict with itself, is that there's always a rush to have mediators at a very high level from outside of the context. There's always a rush to create a peace table, a physical space around which those who wield the most power in the situation can sit around.

Now who are those who wield the most power? It is usually men, men with guns or men who have access to guns. It's rarely ever the people who are most affected by this violence, who are mostly affected by the conflict. And very rarely are those people ever asked what they want, what they desire. We call this establishing mutuality - being able to understand the people who you eventually lead, if you are a leader. What is it that they want, and how can we get to that common goal together?

People most affected by conflict are seldom represented in 'peace talks'.

In the case of South Sudan, my own opinion is that for many years there has not been a sustainable way of understanding and getting to know what it is that ordinary South Sudanese want and what they see as the best way to get to that place. There are many dialogues, there are many mediations, but when you look at who those involved, predominantly they involve men, it involves men with guns and men with access to power and businesses.

The UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan speaks of civilians that are under serious threat, mainly woman and girls who are abducted, raped, sexually assaulted or enslaved or forcibly married. What is the ALCs role in highlighting these atrocities?

We are a research and training institution, so we wouldn't so much be highlighting those atrocities as they happened. We do more of training the people who would go to perhaps undertake investigations or documentation, or participate in some of those mechanisms or processes where that kind of work is being done. However, on the research side of what we do, we house data that includes this kind of thing. We have what we call the African Leadership Centre data lab, which is a huge repository of data on peace and security on the African continent since 1960.

Any researcher or any African researcher doing work on this topic is able to access some of this data that we have in-house. We also work in collaboration with various institutions or mechanisms where research is concerned. Unlike Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, who put out press releases on this kind of atrocity, our work is more in the background. It is part of the link, or the chain, establishing facts - secondary data - that go into reports like that.

I know the situation appears bleak, but are there any positive outcomes in trying to build peace in the region?

Certainly there are. For me what is the most exciting is the way that communities, activists within the local context, have gained not only confidence but also how they innovate all the time. This is the kind of information that we as the African Leadership Centre try to excavate. We have tried to focus on the lived realities and lived experiences of the people who come through our doors, many of them coming from many of these contexts.

We should celebrate the experiences and innovations of local communities in conflict areas.

I think what we have not seen enough of, and what we need to build on, is the practices, the strategies, the approaches, the knowledge generation and knowledge production of local actors in conflict-affected contexts. For instance, in South Sudan at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, with lockdowns and many restrictions of movement, there were spikes - as in many parts of the world - in gender-based violence, violence against women. We saw how local activists came together to put pressure on the government to respond and to do something, but at the same time to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. They set up groups and networks where information could travel very quickly and assistance could quickly reach those who needed it. I think there is a huge gap in terms of our knowledge of many of these innovations and actions that are being taken at a local level and that need to be highlighted. But that is something I would definitely celebrate.

I would like to bring in David as on the conflict in Mozambique. As we have seen all the news agencies reporting, the number of displaced people who have fled the town of Palma - which has a large oil and gas installation - has approached three-quarters of a million people. Fighting has involved local rebels motivated by lack of food and jobs, government troops, and now international forces on both sides. David Matsinhe, welcome. You are a southern African researcher for Amnesty International, and you wrote a piece calling on leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SACD) to intervene. Why is there such brutal violence in Mozambique?

Thank you for this conversation. To answer that question I first need to give background of the province of Cabo Delgado itself, which informs what is happening now.

Mozambique became independent from Portugal in 1975. During the colonial era, the province of Cabo Delgado was a neglected space. This  continued after independence. The people of Cabo Delgado have been neglected by the current government. There has been little investment in social services such as education and construction of infrastructure such as roads and bridges, so that people can live their lives and trade with each other. There has been little investment in health services or water and sanitation.

For all these years, people have relied on the land, the natural ecosystem, to provide for themselves, for their livelihoods, for food, for water, for housing, medicinal plants, for fishing and even for their own cultural identity - because land isn't just a commodity. It is also a cultural element that bestows a sense of identity to people. So this is what has been happening in the 45 years after independence.

Discovery of resources in Cabo Delgado has stripped citizens of land and livlihoods. 

About 12 years ago, large reserves of natural resources were discovered in Cabo Delgado, including gold and rubies [and rare-earth minerals crucial to modern electronics], and there are also large reserves of natural gas. It attracted not only government interest but also multinational corporations hoping to exploit these resources.

The multinational corporations and the government work together to displace people, dislocate them from the land, in order to make room for these business ventures. In one of my trips, in district called Montepue, I spoke with local government authorities who were complaining that the entire district has been licensed to a mining company and other multinational corporations interested in mining rubies there. They said there is no more land left for people to live in, for people to grow food and for people to collect construction material for housing.

This is a serious problem. Local authorities were complaining that there isn't much that they can do about it, because the orders come from the central government to license these acres of land to multinational corporations. In fact, if you look at the map of Cabo Delgado, you will see that the entire province, except the national reserves, has been licensed to mining companies for projects and prospecting. There's absolutely nothing left for people to grow their food, to maintain their livelihoods.

A lack of investment in education for the past 45 years means that the people of Cabo Delgado, especially young people, were left without skills, which means not only are they unemployed but they are also unemployable in the growing mining and gas industry in the province. They are standing aside and looking at outsiders, those who come from elsewhere within and outside of the country, benefiting from the development of these mining and gas projects. That creates huge discontent, especially among young people.

Mind you it's not only Cabo Delgado. Other provinces in northern Mozambique, including Nyasa and Nampula, are facing the same issues. The insurgents have been able to recruit young people from within Cabo Delgado and also from Nampula and Nyasa.

International experts and the government of Mozambique have a tendency to emphasize the external elements of this conflict, arguing that it is external forces from ISIS that are invading and violating Mozambique's sovereignty and creating problems for the country - Islamic insurgents. Well, those insurgents are actually young people that have been recruited due to these local grievances from within these three provinces. They were are the overwhelming majority of the fighters in Cabo Delgado.

What would be the most effective intervention? What could SADC do, for example?

In my view exclusive reliance on military intervention is counterproductive. Violence only begets violence, death begets death. That is what is happening at the moment. The problem of economic and social exclusion of the region is deeply ingrained in Cabo Delgado. Rather than simply relying on militarism, it is very important to have a more comprehensive, a multidisciplinary approach that will bring development projects and programs to build education and infrastructure: health infrastructure, and roads and bridges for people to be able to move their goods and trade with others within the province and elsewhere in the country and beyond. These are the developments and projects that could contribute towards the restoration of peace and security in the region.

In addition, I think it is very important to open up the province and allow more access to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis in the region. The government does not want to issue visas for humanitarian organisations. We also believe that it is very important for the government to open up the province to human rights monitors like myself and others - to allow people to speak directly to  investigators, journalists and media and tell their own stories and their own trauma.

It is very important for us to be aware of what is happening in Cabo Delgado, because when you deny the victims of this conflict their rights to be known, by speaking, and the right of the public to know them, then you are actually killing them for the second time. Because death isn't only a physical death, death is also not being known, your story is not known, you can't reach out to others and speak to who might be sympathetic to your plight and provide assistance.

The Mozambican government is denying this. We believe that one of the ways in which an effective intervention could be put in place is to allow the people of Cabo Delgado to speak directly to the international community.

I might just add that the government of Mozambique should in principle make policy decisions on the basis of knowledge, on the basis of information. If researchers and human rights monitors and journalists are not allowed, then on what basis then is the Mozambican government making its decisions about Cabo Delgado? On what basis is the government of Mozambique designing policies and implementing them in Cabo Delgado, so that peace and security can be restored? So practically the people of Cabo Delgado, in terms of information about them, are invisible not only to the outside world but also to the Mozambican government. Let  the people feel visible, speak, and let all this information come out. In our view, that will be the most effective way of intervening in the direction of restoring peace and security in the region.

Why the denial of access to humanitarian organisations such as Amnesty International and journalists and whoever is trying to report on what is going on there in Cabo Delgado specifically?

The best people to answer that question are at senior official government offices in Mozambique because they are the ones who have taken this decision. Our question is: what are they hiding, what are they trying to keep under the rug? Our research has shown that there are serious allegations of human rights violations and war crimes and mass graves. If you want to restore peace and security, let the truth come out. Otherwise there will be no reconciliation. Otherwise we will continue to have a conflict. When people don't see their pain, their truth recognised and dealt with, then the resentment will continue, the tendency to pick up arms and fight for recognition will always be there. So these questions are what we are asking ourselves - why are they preventing us from conducting investigations and monitoring human rights and document what is happening?

As Amnesty International, how does the organisation contribute to peace building in Mozambique?

Our contribution to peace and security is to raise the cost of violating peoples' rights. It has been proven again and again that countries that have a more equitable distribution of economic opportunities are more governable than the ones that are faced with inequalities.

Mozambique has extreme regional inequalities. The country is governed from the south in Maputo, and the mineral wealth concentrated in other regions tends to benefit the political elite based in the capitol. People can see this. They can see the south getting prosperous, in their view, and they can see themselves becoming impoverished, as they lose more and more of their land to multinational corporations - without even being informed or giving consent.

These are the kinds of rights that we highlight - and advise or admonish governments to respect, protect and promote. We see that the government of Mozambique is failing to do that, so this is how we see ourselves contributing to peacebuilding in the countries where we work.

Thank you so much David. I would like to shift our focus now to the Sahel region, so Ornella Moderan, it's your turn to speak on that. We are looking at five countries in the west African region, namely Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. We know that the region has been engulfed in violence that seems to be spiraling out of control. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than two million people have been displaced within the borders of their countries for the first time ever, which is quite extraordinary.

For some background, in 2014 the five Sahel Nations formed a group to promote security and development called the G5. Three years later the UN Security Council backed a French operation to establish and join forces to conduct anti-terrorist operations. And a recent study done in Chad called for a more effective coalition with France and the soldiers that are in the southern Sahara region fighting Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

Ornella, welcome. You are head of the ISS Sahel Programme in Bamoko, Mali and well versed on conflict issues plaguing Africa's Sahel region. So firstly how does the work that you do contribute to peacebuilding in the region?

Thank you for having me on this talk. As you mentioned I work for the Institute for Security Studies, which is a policy research institution created and based in South Africa but that also covers other areas of the continent. In the Sahel we have an office in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, from where we conduct research. We try and document, from a very empirical perspective, the various conflicts and insecurity affecting civilian populations in the Sahel. This includes mainly Niger and Burkina Faso, but of course it also extends to the two other countries that you mentioned,  which are Mauritania on one side and Chad on the other side.

The context in the Sahel is indeed extremely worrisome. My two predecessors in this discussion described some of the common trends that we see through various regions in Africa. The Sahel is very much marked by a multiplicity of crises and complex, interrelated  systems. The tip of the iceberg, the most visible part, is the terrorist threat. Attacks for the past nine to ten years have been conducted against state representatives and institutions but also against civilian populations.

There are two million internally displaced people and 300,000 who fled across borders in the Sahel.

This situation is also built in a context where local conflicts, age-old local tensions, have spiraled and worsened, while access to guns, depreciation of a state presence, a lack of basic access to social services, a lack of trust between communities - but also between civilian populations and authorities - have all worsened. You mentioned the humanitarian consequences of this crisis, where there are more than two million internally displaced at this stage, but also over 300,000 internationally displaced people – refugees and asylum seekers. Thousands of schools have closed due to insecurity in the region, leaving children out of the school system, deprived from access to education, but also leaving them more exposed to risks such as early marriage or child labour and so on.

The situation is serious and the contribution that the ISS brings is to support decision markers in trying to understand at a much more granular level how these dynamics work, how they fit together. Our approach is trying to improve the evidence base [on] which public policies are made – which means analysing context, in trying to understand better how stakeholder dynamics function, but also analysing state responses to see whether or not they are actually doing good or harm, how they can be improved. I would say, in a nutshell, that is the way in which we try and contribute.

Perhaps one last thing I would add is the dimension related to strategic convening. One of the challenges in advancing stabilization in the Sahel region is literally to get the right people around the same table. This issue of dialogue that has been discussed in this region at quite some length in terms of who should be talking to whom, what should the purpose of dialogue be? Should we be talking with the violent extremist groups, for example. These issues of dialogue have so many levels and folds in them, which should start with just listening to the people most affected by insecurity: communities, women, youth and so on. Our work and mission is also to create access for individuals and groups that are directly affected by violence and insecurity and don't have access to decision making to carry their own voice, and not necessarily have to go through various sponsors, filters and institutions.

How do you navigate trying to get information out of the region? 

I would say we definitely support a human rights and human security agenda, but being a scientific research organisation, we do have access to a network of formal and informal actors as well as research practices that facilitate our access to information most of the time. Of course this is not any guarantee, so we are very careful. This at times can be frustrating for our interlocutors, who typically expect a research intuition to know it all. This is simply not something that is possible in as complex a situation as this one, so it is a lot about managing expectations in terms of what is and is not possible or how best to approach complex and sensitive issues in a way that will respect and promote the rights of individuals and groups, while remaining true to our own mission, which is the promotion of human security for all.

The newly-elected Niger President Mohamed Bazoum, is he the kind of president to help in contributing to peace specifically in Niger and that part of the Sahel?

This is a very interesting question, because I think it takes us back to the broader issue of the role of political leaders in addressing a situation like the one we have in the Sahel. What happened last year in Mali in August, demonstrated how broader governance issues could lead to such a high level of social and citizen frustration – that while the country is facing insecurity and conflict, essentially a war, there could still also be other social grievances leading to a coup.

I think one advantage that Niger does have has been political stability. For the past ten years, the country has known the same president with a very stable government framework and some quite effective or voluntary policy-making in terms of security and peacebuilding and peace consolidation. Niger is the only country in the Sahel that has a specific national institution dedicated to the consolidation for peace. This is definitely a positive heritage now.

While the transition to a new president can be a challenge in terms of maintaining either continuity or introducing some levels of adjustment, the newly-elected president, President-elect Mohamad Bazoum, is someone who has been working on security issues for quite a while. He has led for several years the ministry of security in that country, and he has very good knowledge of what the challenges are, what the state of the machinery and operators is, and how to leverage the advantages he has. That kind of background is an advantage - but he also comes at a time when the situation is spiraling out of control.

Over the first few months of this year, Niger has had three major attacks against civilians that have killed a total of over 200 people. This is something that is new in this country. It is, sadly, something that has happened before in other Sahel countries - in 2019 in Mali for instance. Niger has had severe attacks, but mainly targeted at security forces and not so much at civilians, so this is an evolution that is extremely concerning and that makes the challenge that President-elect Bazoum will have to face even harsher.

MS: Our time is almost up but before I let you all go I want to ask for final comments.


Thank you so much, Mantsadi, and thank you also to David and Ornella. It has been enriching to be on this conversation with you both and to see some of the similarities and differences in the context. One of the common threads that I have picked up from our conversation is that of the next generation and thinking about the future. What is potentially missing from the approaches- especially the kind of state and international responses to these various contexts - is the focus on the next generation. A lot of the focus in trying to establish peace or trying to change the situation on the ground, as David mentioned, is focused on military intervention, is focused, as Onela has said, in trying to deal with terrorists and insurgents.

But I think very little focus is on understanding the needs of those who feel left out, including women. How do we actually secure the future in a way that is free of violent conflicts? As David so eloquently put it, we must put young people at the centre, not only as those who are involved in conflict or violence but also young people who are thinking, who are researching, who are activists, who are on the frontline as peacebuilders or just citizens of these places that we have been talking about.


It is impossible to have genuine and lasting peace without social justice, in which people feel treated with fairness and respect. It is also impossible to have it without human rights and human dignity - a sense of being valued, of respect and honour. What we have seen happening is that these conflicts are pretty much driven by people who feel that there is no justice and no human rights or respect in their countries. That is why we do this work. It is very important, because these elements are the founding elements of peace and security. Finally I just want to say to Shuvai and Ornella that I am pleased to hear about the magnificent work that you are doing to promote peace in this continent, and I would like to thank Mantsadi and [AllAfrica managing editor] Juanita [Williams] for bringing us together to discuss this. Thank you very much.


Perhaps just adding on what David and Shuvai have already mentioned – the one thing I would insist on further is the need for our solutions and practices to be empirically based. One of the challenges I have seen I think in the peacebuilding world in general, and peace-related policy in particular, is the tendency to think that good ideas are necessarily good practices, which isn't the case. Very theoretical ideas can turn into terrible practice, if they are disconnected from context, disconnected from local realities. We really need to challenge ourselves on the assumptions on which we work. We need to include others; we need to include local actors; we need to include research; we need to include the people whose work will challenge us. This is something that most organisations are reluctant to do, but it is definitely the way we should be going.

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