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The long (and exhausting) road to peace in Africa

Amidst recent security setbacks in the continent of Africa, one forum attempts to find homemade solutions

Selahadin Eshetu

In connection with the celebration of the first anniversary of the building of the Grand Millennium Dam over the Blue Nile, Ethiopians were given a rare opportunity to phone in and ask questions of their likings to their Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. One caller asked the Prime Minister if he knew the exact source of the Nile River, a river that continued to be a source of tense political tone between riparian countries. The Prime Minister replied “yes, but since there are several claims of places as a source of Nile river, it is better to consider Lake Tana as a source of the [Blue] Nile River.”

Not unusual

A few weeks later the city of Bahir Dar, lying on the shores of LakeTana, hosted the first High Level Security Forum in Africa from 14-15 April 2012.

Two fiery security issues dominated the two days discussions attended by both living and former head of states of troubled countries in Africa: state fragility and the prospects for peace in Africa, and managing diversity to promote peace and stability. The organizers of the event, Institute of Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University (IPSS), made a smart move in inviting head of states that have a problem of either one of the two major security threats in Africa. Professor Andreas Eshete, Special Advisor to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, is the Forum’s CEO, and Former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, is the Forum’s Chairperson.

Invited were head of states from South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda. While the leaders of the first two were conspicuously absent, the others took their invitation serious to show their faces and share their side of the story while Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa had a towering presence of theirs throughout the forum.

When diversity is a threat to security

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Africa is unique in many aspects. One of the peculiar features of the continent is that it is predominantly inhabited by peoples of African origin.

More than 2000 languages and hundreds of different ethnic groups exist in the continent. But all of its population live fenced behind artificial colonial borders that divide people of similar culture and values widely. Owing to that – albeit  partially – post -colonial leaders of Africa have awfully failed – and continued to fail – to utilize this otherwise resourceful diversity to the good of the one billion indigenous inhabitants of the continent. In today’s politics therefore Africa’s diversity is the source of many of its ugly conflicts and a threat to its security.

“As is widely known”, say the organizers, “under white supremacist regimes – colonial, apartheid and the like – cultural diversity was cynically and effectively deployed as a divisive means of repressive rule.” This has become a device for a systematic repression in the post colonial Africa. “Africans paid an exacting cost in loss of peace and other essential public goods because African states were prone to be in denial about cultural diversity, and widespread cultural cleavage, rivalry and subordination – a crippling legacy of empire”. They are right. Yuweri Musseveni, the president of Uganda, identified three daunting challenges of his belief to integration in Africa: chauvinism, opportunism and marginalization. He too is right.

Counting the cost

Significant proportion of the post-colonial African states paid dearly to mitigate conflicts emanating from lack of management of diversity. Ethiopia, plus or minus Eritrea, Comoros Islands (Anjouan), Nigeria (Biafra), Niger (the Tuareg), Sudan (South Sudan and Darfur), Senegal (Casamance), Kenya (manifested during the 2008 election), Rwanda, post-revolutionary Egypt, Libya and many more are victims – to one extent or another – of  the ill management of diversity be it religious, ethnic or cultural.

The forum considers federalism as one of the mechanisms to deal with the trouble. However, the Nigerian experiment shows it aggravates ethnic and religious conflicts than creating lasting peace. The case of the Ethiopian experiment in granting, through article 39 of the constitution, “the right to secession” as an input to manage diversity was also mentioned as another example. But that too is marred by countless setbacks of its own.

The option of secession in a continent like that of Africa is the most difficult political decision to manage. Say, if all African states were to grant secession to their diverse society the result will undeniably be a continent torn in pieces and at war with itself.

But the one point many in the forum agreed is post-colonial African states can still be better off to consider a properly functioning federal state to accommodate diversity first within their own independent states.

Fragile Africa  

Needless to say Africa is home for several fragile states where institutions are “subordinated to tactical political bargaining among the national elite”, in the words of the organizers of the ForumIn many African states institutions are mere gadgets to secure interests of the few who are at or near state apparatus.

Lost in this state of affair is that the marginalized majority cannot be silenced by a few protected group. Predictably, the majority of Africans join politics for nothing but self protection. The result is a chronic poor governance and lack of state capabilities to secure peace both within and outside, which were manifested in recent coups in Mali and Guinea Bissau and the looming conflict between South and North Sudan. Not to mention the disaster in post revolution Egypt and Libya.

The forum insists giving emphasis on African values is one of the solutions. “Peace building should prioritize brokering inclusive bargains among elites, rather than the establishment of formal institutions”, it says. It is a very complicated and time taking process that needs the political will from the current leaders of Africa, majority of whom – regrettably – are known to give peace from zero to little chance.

One of the unique features of the Forum is that it is planned to impose no binding declarations on politicians or policy makers. But what has now started as a simple discussion needs peace oriented political ground to grow. It was a forum that provided Africa with a formidable opportunity to look in to African born solutions to its multi-faceted troubles. What will its leaders learn from a gathering of peace-loving individuals at a lake shore of one of the most disputed rivers in the continent is anyone’s guess.

Selahadin Eshetu is Managing Director of Empower Africa Research and Social Development Organization. He can be reached at

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