Africa’s Contribution to a Culture of Peace


It is not by accident that there is so much news from Africa for a culture of peace (see CPNN bulletin for August).  It reflects their cultural history.  Like people on other continents, the Africans always had culture of war at a tribal level, but with the exception of the Nile River Valley, they did not use war to create empires until the arrival of the Arabs and the Europeans.  And even then the division of Africa into warring nation-states was imposed by the Europeans.

Instead of the authority of empires, pre-colonial Africa was ordered by effective peace-making traditions of dialogue and mediation at the community level, often called the “palabre” (word).  They were based on respect for the elders (both men and women) and compromise among the many animist spiritual forces, unlike the supreme authority of monotheism imported by the Arabs and Europeans.

These traditions re-emerged during the freedom struggle in South Africa, both in the Peace Process involving local peace committees and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was presided over by Bishop Tutu.  And this month on CPNN, we see it re-emerging in the peace process in Somalia and the Gacaca commission in Rwanda, not to mention the work of the Elders, an initiative that was launched several years ago by Nelson Mandela in the African peace-making tradition.  We also see it in recent CPNN articles on a culture of peace featuring African women, artists, especially musicians, educators and journalists.  Wouldn’t it be great if the commercial media of the North could imitate the media in Africa that are dedicated to news for a culture of peace!

I say that the traditions are “re-emerging” because they were largely suppressed by the Europeans when the conquered Africa.   We came face to face with this when I was working at UNESCO and we started working on a National Culture of Peace Program for Burundi.  In pre-colonial times, there was a tradition of the Bashingantahe, elders who did mediation and  peace-making.  But they were systematically assassinated by the colonial power.   After all, peace-making is a kind of power since it unites people, and it is difficult to conquer a people that is united.  So what we did was to seek out a few Bashingantahe who were still functioning and help them to train a new generation.  As far as I know this initiative is still underway almost 20 years later.

I was at UNESCO during the years when the freedom movement of South Africa succeeded in creating a non-racist government, and we wanted to find financing to keep the Peace Process going, since it needed to be independent of the government.  Unfortunately, it was not possible to find money and the institutions lapsed.  However, the lessons gained at that time are still bearing fruit throughout Africa, and hopefully we will learn from them throughout the world.

In conclusion, we should recognize that the African people, with their unique peace-making traditions, can make a major contribution to the world historical transition to a culture of peace.   It remains to be seen how this may take place in the coming tumultuous years.  One thing seems certain to me – that it will not take place at the level of state power.  We have seen recently that the African elder, Kofi Annan, was unable to apply African peace-making methods to the situation in Syria.  He resigned because his advice was not heeded by the Europeans and Americans who preferred a military “solution.”  We have seen this before:  20 years ago Mohamed Sahnoun, the Algerian diplomat worked as the UN representative for the reconstruction of Somalia by involving elders, teachers and religious leaders in a true African peace-making approach.  His work was ruined by the American decision to “send in the marines.”  Like Kofi Annan, he resigned with a public denunciation of the military “solution.”

Once again, we cannot escape seeing that the transition to a culture of peace must involve new democratic structures instead of the nation-state with its “military solutions.”