Peace as the Norm: Sustaining Peace in Africa

Residents of Timbuktu take part in the maintenance of the Djingareyber Mosque, a World Heritage Site, applying traditional repair techniques. (UN Photo/Tiecoura N'daou)

For decades, the African continent has been the graveyard of short-term interventions driven by a seemingly well-intentioned but myopic international peacebuilding agenda bent on safeguarding a flawed state-centric international order. Whether it is the United Nations (UN) or the African Union (AU), efforts toward peace have largely focused on rebuilding the neo-colonial state, politics, and economy with its underlying, top-down logic of violence rather than on building a peaceful society. This is evidenced by the lackluster performance of some of the ongoing UN stabilization missions, particularly those serving in countries where foreign interests are at play.

More than the Absence of War and Violence

Until recently, normative peace scholarship and practice have mainly focused on the prevention of conflict, de-escalation or mitigation of aggression, peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding in the context of war. It was assumed that these interventions would lay the foundations for self-sustainable peace. Yet all that can be achieved through these efforts is negative peace or an absence of violence.

Some analysts have maintained that as long as Africa’s aspirations for peace continue to be depicted negatively as the absence of conflict, sustaining peace will remain an elusive goal. The goal is even more unattainable if state-building is equated with peacebuilding, particularly in contexts where the state has been captured by predatory elites concerned more with power than governance. In fact, various scholars have pointed out that before its co-optation by external actors, peacebuilding was at the core a grassroots, bottom-up activity rooted in societies’ cultures and identities.

This has prompted some African scholars and practitioners to challenge some of the dominant assumptions informing the peacebuilding enterprise and call for a shift toward a decolonial peace that puts the citizens and indigenous peace structures and processes at the center of building lasting peace.

For citizens living in countries under stress, the challenges they face would thus be framed not in terms of deficits but in terms of inadequate self-organizing capacity to anticipate, manage, mitigate, and resolve conflicts. Seen through this lens, the search for underlying causes of instability becomes the search for why this autochthonous capacity is inadequate, and how it can be reinforced. Focusing on what is still going strong and not only what is wrong provides a welcome opportunity to embrace a different challenge.

This requires a critical conceptual shift where peace is treated as the norm in human interactions rather than the exception. What is meant by peace here is everything societies do to deliberately preserve harmonious and trusting relations. It is collective actions to repair those relations when they are ruptured and nurture them when restored.

UN Sustaining Peace –A Missed Opportunity for a Normative Shift

In response to recommendations from a 2015 review of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture (PBC), the UN Security Council and General Assembly adopted identical landmark resolutions 2282 and 70/262 in 2016, ushering in the concept of “sustaining peace” as the overarching framework for revitalizing the UN’s peacebuilding work. The review had found that the predominant peacebuilding approach gave power and agency to external actors to define the problems and prescribe remedies. The PBC review contended that this approach sidelined existing national, local, endogenous efforts and aptitudes for building and sustaining peace.

The resolutions defined sustaining peace as “a goal and a process to build a common vision of a society, ensuring that the needs of all segments of the population are taken into account.” It emphasized that sustaining peace is a shared task and responsibility that needs to be fulfilled by the government and all other national stakeholders, and should flow through all three pillars of UN engagement—peace and security, human rights, and development—at all stages of conflict.

However, the policy and programmatic interpretations of the UN resolutions remain beholden to the liberal, top-down peacebuilding agenda and it is feared that rebranding existing peacebuilding activities under the new nomenclature of sustaining peace risks contributing to a conceptual muddle and possible confusion both for member states and practitioners.

In practice, not unlike peacebuilding, sustaining peace continues to be perceived as a package of interventions relevant solely to contexts where conflict is manifest, proximate, or threatens to return. It is still wedded to the predominant belief that if you analyze and address the root causes of conflict, peace will ensue. Thus, the factors associated with peace are understood to be the inverse of those leading to war and conflict, despite evidence to the contrary.

Toward a new African Agenda for Sustaining peace

The African continent has a rich and varied repertoire of formal and informal capacities, knowledge, and experiences to decolonize the study and practice of peace and develop an integrated African agenda for sustaining peace. Taking these into account in all their complex plurality, alongside global and regional understandings of peace and the findings of the sustaining peace research, there are several key pillars, including the AU’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, that could form the basis of a new African agenda for sustaining peace.

The first pillar of this agenda is conceptual: like a tree, peace would be conceived as growing from the bottom up. Unlike the rule of law and security, it cannot be enforced from the top. It must be woven into society from below by fostering systemic partnerships and incentives to maintain it. All societies possess attributes that contribute to sustaining peace, whether their institutions, their culture, their policies, or the quotidian and tacit norms of interaction between individuals and groups.

While there is still no clear understanding of how to effectively link bottom-up and top-down efforts, what is known is that only a combination of local, provincial, national, regional, and international efforts can lead to sustainable peace. Some international peacebuilding partners have called for an approach that builds peace from the inside-out, where the emphasis is more on the process than the outcome. It is up to local communities in partnership with intermediate and national governance structures to shape the outcome, as exemplified by the innovative, ground-up Fambul Tok process in Sierra Leone.

The second pillar is about process and practice: ask the citizens what the issues are and how to keep the peace. As mentioned, African scholars and practitioners have documented the rich repertoire of African formal and informal practices, approaches, and processes for building and sustaining peace. These include peacemaking processes as practiced by the Tiv community in Nigeria, the Guurti (elders) system in Somaliland, the Mato Oput in Northern Uganda, and the Ubuntu tradition in southern Africa.

Despite the limitations of some of these processes, including patriarchy and gender-based violence, these practices have helped build lasting peace. They are considered by scholars to have a value added, given that they are inclusive and draw upon local cultural assumptions, norms, and values as well as grassroots notions of justice. Other scholars have offered the traditional Gacaca system in post-genocide Rwanda that combines both punitive and restorative justice as a means to fast-track transitional justice and reconciliation processes.

The third pillar would aim at updating our approaches to peace and conflict analysis. There is indeed a need to look seriously at the drivers of conflict with a view to addressing their immediate destructive consequences. Alone, however, such an approach will not lay the foundation for self-sustainable peace. It should be complemented by a mapping of the resilient capacities of peace that are still at work and propose ways for strengthening them. Sustainable peace has a greater chance to take root if peacebuilders build on what people have and what they know. The development of a dedicated African positive peace index that measures peacefulness on the continent could help in this endeavor. In this regard, the global positive peace index could be a helpful reference.

Another priority for the agenda is peace education. Worldviews like that of Ubuntu—which says “I am because we are”—among other humanistic African traditions offer rich foundational principles and practices for a robust peace education program.

To be credible such an agenda needs to be supported by predictable and flexible financing. Without a dedicated financial facility, the proposed agenda would be unattainable. For so long, peace interventions in Africa have been funded by foreign nations and other donors, some of whom have agendas which do not necessarily allow for sustainable peace to take root on the continent. In order for the agenda to be African-led and owned, the majority of the funds should come from Africans themselves. This is all the more important for ongoing efforts to decolonize the powerful, Eurocentric epistemology that has for decades informed the peacebuilding enterprise on the continent, without much to show for it.

Finally, for the agenda to be realized leadership for peace is needed. This kind of leadership aims to create and nurture an empowering environment that unleashes the positive potential of people at all levels of society so they can resolve conflict non-violently and participate in co-charting a path toward everyday, positive peace. This leadership should not be entirely vested in an individual, rather it entails facilitating the exchange of ideas and establishing mutuality among various groups of people toward a consolidated vision of peace.

This article is based on the authors’ book chapter “Sustaining Peace in Africa,” from The Palgrave Handbook of Sustainable Peace and Security in Africa (2022).

Youssef Mahmoud is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute. Chimwemwe A. Fabiano is the Women’s Political Leadership Lead at Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA).