Last week, the African Leadership Centre jointly hosted a three-day conference at Wilton Park.
Bringing together over 40 academics and policy practitioners from around the world, the conference, supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York, focused on peacebuilding in Africa.
There were participants from core institutions operating in the peace building terrain in Africa including academics from universities, research centres and practitioners from the AU, East African Community and the UN.
The discussion was rich, touching on conceptual questions around definition of peace building to empirical ones on the transformations in the terrain and how these are challenging old approaches to peace building.
The conference discussed innovations in African peacebuilding and alternative perspectives evident in peacebuilding interventions in Africa.
At issue from the first day was the question of the nature of peace building when perceived from an African perspective.
More often than not, mainstream thinking defines peace building work as a post-conflict issue. But peace building ought naturally to run the full gamut from pre-conflict to post-conflict. Participants argued that peace building ought to occur as the set of interventions that work to prevent the outbreak of conflict in situations where early warning mechanisms indicate cumulating danger of violent outbreak.
The conference problematised the role of the state in the peacebuilding process in Africa.
The question was posed, though not necessarily fully answered, whether it is possible to study peacebuilding in Africa without a proper understanding of the nature of the state, the character of the elite and the nature of the state-society contract.
This very question underscored the long term nature of the peacebuilding undertaking and process and provoked discussions about the role of key activities, like demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration, security sector reforms and elections that mark the political process following a peace settlement. Do this activities deal with the social justice questions that are often at the heart of violent conflicts?
These activities reduce peace building to a short term engagement. In some cases, the short term approach is the consequence of technocratic decisions taken by key actors in the peace making process, some of whom are mostly influenced by ideological considerations while others by budgetary constraints.
But while all this might be understandable, the ultimate issue is that such considerations and constraints do not deal with the key issue of restoration of peace and harmony among combatants for the long term.
The conference noted the enduring problem of relapse in conflict only a few years after peace settlement. Innovative engagements around peacebuilding were noted and discussed.
The role of regional players in the peacebuilding terrain was discussed as a conference participant from a regional organisation reminded participants to stop treating peace building as the exclusive province of the Executive arm of government and to see other players whose role in the terrain is perhaps even more consequential.
His comment brought home the tensions evident in peacebuilding initiatives between sovereignty-bound actors and the local and transnational actors.
This idea that peacebuilding initiatives go beyond Executive arm of government should of course be obvious as courts and national and regional legislatures have important roles.
So, too, is the role of partnerships between communities of thought and practice, academics and policy practitioners. The partnerships between the African Leadership Centre and East African Legislative Assembly which has seen the provision of evidence-based policy thinking for the Assembly was cited as an initiative that needs upscaling.
Conference participants also recommended that the AU, for instance, should partner with the range of existing academic institutions on the continent to provide solid research upon which it can base its policy engagements. A follow-up conference is planned for Addis Ababa.