Africa / CONFLICT
Seven years ago, on a small plot of land less than a hectare in size, approximately 250 people were crowded together in makeshift shelters of grass thatch, twigs and the occasional plastic sheet with the emblem of the UN High Commission for Refugees in brilliant white against the blue background. These were Burundian refugees on the hills of western Tanzania near a small town called Kibondo. For many this was not the first time they had fled for their lives into Tanzania. This time it was a few days after members of the Burundian military had assassinated the President, Melchior Ndadaye. The land on which they had been allowed to camp belonged to a Tanzanian peasant named Deo. The livelihood of Deo's family was dependent upon the same small piece of land that was now overcrowded with asylum seekers.
Official camps had not yet been established and many of the people fleeing into Tanzania were camping in banana plantations, on freshly cultivated fields, in schools and churches. As in most cases in Africa, before the international agencies arrive, the refugees received succour and refuge from the local population within the country of
In this particular instance, it was the time of the short rains and the land that had become a settlement was intended to have been bean and maize fields. I interviewed Deo, as part of an emergency needs assessment of vulnerable groups amongst the refugees. I asked him why he had allowed the people to settle on his land since it meant that he would not have a place to grow food. He replied with a question: 'What could I do? They were in trouble and they were in need.' I then asked if he had any food reserves. No, he did not. He had shared out all he had with the refugees. I was a bit perplexed and asked why he had done so when now he did not have enough food for himself. The reply was again simple and direct. 'They are human beings, what else could I do? Besides, my wife's mother is from the same soil.'
I stood up, humbled and inspired by this display of human solidarity. Turning 180 degrees I could look over the hills into Burundi and in the distance see faint trails of smoke rising into the sky in scattered places across the horizon. In the days to come as I interviewed more refugees crossing into Tanzania, I was told that the smoke came from houses and schools: children had taken refuge inside schools and the soldiers were setting the buildings on fire and shooting the students as they ran out of the flaming structures.
The best and the worst of humanity, in a 180-degree panorama separated literally by a few kilometres. On the one hand, the actions of the Tanzanian peasants in sharing the little they had reflected the essence of Pan-African identity and humanitarian solidarity. On the other hand, the actions of their neighbours who constituted the dictatorship of the lumpen-militariate: the post-colonial state killing and burning its own children.
This is the promise and the curse. This is the dilemma of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century. There is a forced unity rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of destruction.
The first intra-state Pan-African war of modern times is being waged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Simultaneously the civil war in Burundi, which seems to have all the hallmarks of an ethnic conflict, is in fact a very complex struggle between forces for democratic change and those who would rather maintain the existing system. It also has cross-border dimensions as Burundian troops and armed political movements fight each other in the DRC and interact with other forces fighting common 'enemies'.
Parallel to this we are also witnessing something historically unprecedented: co-ordinated Pan-African Peace Initiatives.
Understanding the linkages and complementarity of these conflicts and the prospects of the peaceful and united future that they represent may require mental gymnastics but, with a diligent effort, it can be done. Our starting-point is to grasp the fact that the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a defining event in the modern history of Africa. The response of Africa to Burundi is directly related to what happened in Rwanda. Likewise, the UN response to the war in the DRC and elsewhere in Africa is haunted by the spectre of its mistakes in Rwanda.
There are wars and rumours of war, yet in the midst of this, a united Africa is emerging. It is not happening, nor will it ever happen, by presidential decree and by politicians getting together to produce diplomatic communiqués. Rather it is happening by way of wars and peacemaking efforts.
The Regional Burundi Peace Initiative, in which I have been involved for the last four years, is a vital development in this respect. Led first by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, and now by Madiba Nelson Mandela, from their inception the talks have been Pan-African in scope and purpose. While he was facilitator, Mwalimu Nyerere emphasized the need for African self-determination in all spheres of the process.
It has been painstaking work. Our team has tried to include in the talks all parties involved in the conflict. The process has slowly but surely sought to identify and redress the endemic social, economic and cultural roots of the crisis in Burundi. The solutions proposed try to address the issues of genocide and exclusion - and deliver security for all - by helping to set up a system that will guarantee equal access to education, economic prosperity and political power-sharing.
The succession of Madiba (the term of respect for Mandela widely used in Africa) as facilitator was in itself a triumph for Pan-African co-operation and unity of purpose; it took the co-ordinated effort of several African leaders and the OAU to make it happen. Mandela and Nyerere contrast in styles but have been very similar and consistent in substance and character as African elders and defenders of justice.
The transition to Madiba's facilitation has been as smooth as if the two of them planned it as the second phase of the process. Nyerere would literally spend hours listening to all of the parties and individuals involved in the conflict. He let them vent their anger and hostilities and gradually moved them to a position of consensus. Mwalimu would brief Mandela after each session and Madiba often contributed both materially and politically. But by the time of Mwalimu's death last year there was no more to discuss: it was time for movement and compromise on concrete issues.
When the region appointed Madiba as facilitator, he came not as the patient Mwalimu ('teacher') but as a freedom fighter with the moral authority bought with 27 years in prison to demand that the military relinquish power and that the minority share with the majority. He was uncompromising on issues of justice and morality. On one occasion, President Buyoya invited Mandela to Burundi. Throwing diplomatic protocol aside, Madiba turned to him and explained that it would be difficult for him to accept the invitation because there were political prisoners in Burundi. He said it would be intolerable for him, as a person who had spent 27 years in prison fighting injustice, to visit while there were people that Buyoya had put in prison just because they did not agree with him. When he did finally visit Burundi, he went to the prisons and delivered the same message. Political prisoners have to be released, he said, and he cautioned the army that the military's time in politics is finished.
The peace process has used a unique blend of modern diplomacy and traditional African consensus-building methods of social governance and conflict management. It is also unique in that it is being facilitated by a non-governmental organization (the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation); the majority of the team are private citizens, drawn from several countries in Africa as well as Canada and Europe. This is exceptional and sets a precedent: no other African civil-society organization has ever attempted to facilitate and mediate in a civil war. It offers distinct opportunities, not least to ensure that there is a broad-based grassroots and popular ownership of the peace. However, it should be said that it is also seen as a competitive threat by all kinds of vested interests - by African foreign ministries and by international conflict-resolution institutions.
The precedent it is setting will have a far-reaching impact on future relations in the region between states and peoples and especially on conflict-resolution methods. A successful conclusion to the peace process would mark an historic turning point not only for Burundi but for Africa as well.
The task of reconciling peoples in a region that, over the years, has been torn apart by cycles of conflict and violence, is certainly a formidable one. Transforming mindsets so that Africans can tolerate one another despite their differences and live together in harmony and equality in order to build a united Africa will unquestionably be a major challenge for the region - yet we cannot afford to fail.
In all of our efforts to create peace and security for the long-suffering people of Africa, there is a need for creative Pan-African solutions rooted in the very same cultural values that informed the decision and actions of the farmer, Deo, who had attached his fate to that of his neighbours and wife's extended family by sharing what little he had so that they could survive.
is part of the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation team working for peace in Burundi.
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