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The Role of Civil Society in
Preventing Conflict in Africa

Weakened states in Africa that have lost their legitimacy have also lost their capacity to ensure peace and security. Political and social vulnerability, which is at the origin of the conflicts, can be overcome by reforming institutions: by strengthening existing regional and continental institutions working in the field of prevention, management and resolution of conflicts, by strengthening political and administrative frameworks, by reforming the civil service and administration, by strengthening parliamentary control, by reforming the legal system, and by fighting against national corruption, etc. The objective is thus to refashion the capacity of African states for political governance so that they will be able to ensure, among other things, peace and security. While we subscribe to this project supported by NEPAD, we have differences with NEPAD on how to get there.

Is the strengthening of political institutions a matter of science and technology? Can recipes or models be applied? Can the institutions be reformed from above, without the participation of the people governed by those institutions? Some people seem to think so: the bilateral and multilateral projects based on this approach are so numerous that they are impossible to count, and NEPAD subscribes to this very same strategy.

Along with our African civil society colleagues, we would like to propose another avenue for refashioning the capacity of states for political governance, and thus their capacity to combat political and social vulnerability, which underlies conflicts. African civil society organizations must not replace the states; they do, however, have a crucial role to play in the democratic transformation of their society. Democratic transformation is a prerequisite for Africans to be able to genuinely participate in their own development.

The fundamental contribution of civil society to the prevention of conflict is on this level: it constitutes the very foundation on which democratic states can be built. Civil society's contribution is twofold. The first is civic education, carried out by its various components (church groups, women's groups, trade union groups, the independent press, professional associations, human-rights groups, etc.). The second is the transformation of political life by bringing about the emergence of networks with multiple and pluralist interests, which occupy an ever growing space and offer a counterweight to those networks characterized by a single-interest allegiance, such as along ethnic lines.

Initiatives are taking place in several African countries, often with ridiculously inadequate resources, to support citizen training programs, to create spaces where independent expression can take place, and to defend fundamental rights. They reflect a commitment to carry out a type of political work that has long been left derelict, in a field where the results are not spectacular, nor even measurable in the short term. It is a long-term job, and one that has risks.

Campaigns to combat tribalism, which has been exacerbated by foreign military occupation and the pillaging of resources in a country such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), can appear pathetically inadequate when compared to the millions of deaths caused by war. It is nonetheless true that it is these same organizations, who carried out civic education campaigns, which were the first to launch a peace agenda in the DRC, a process that at the end could not be ignored by any of the parties in the conflict. It was civil society in Sierra Leone that mobilized the population to denounce the "deal" that had brought Foday Sankoh to power and led the country into a dead end. Afterwards, they were able to begin a long process aimed at rebuilding the country and its institutions.

Civic education programs, which for the time being have limited resources, are managing to consolidate and broaden the spaces occupied by groups recognized for their commitment to promote rights and democracy. The messages are reaching new, larger publics and are slowly reaching the political, administrative, traditional and religious authorities. Communication media such as radio are becoming significant training tools. Use of the media enables the population to compare and contrast their own visions with those of other people and thus to escape from the seclusion in which the warlords are constantly trying to isolate them.

Resources at the disposal of civil society organizations enable them to enter into relations with different groups inside and outside the country. Information circulates more quickly and thus enables them to combat measures of intimidation and repression with which these groups are so often targeted. Networking and communication are becoming tools for prevention, with leaders increasingly being forced to think about the image they project outside the country.

On the local level, projects such as micro-credit that respond to survival needs can become places where people learn about democracy. In the medium- and long-term, these initiatives can influence the power structures and encourage the emergence of new leaders who focus on defending and promoting the interests of their constituents, and who are accountable to these constituents. They complement an educational process that is exposing the model that has been in place since the colonial period: for a long time, African leaders have built their legitimacy on their ties with the outside world rather than on their connections with their own population. Leaders were thus indebted first and foremost to outside powers and institutions that supported them rather than to their own people. NEPAD demonstrates that this unfortunate tendency still persists. One has only to look at the efforts expended by the African leaders to convince the G8 decision-makers to join a plan for a renaissance of Africa and compare that with the efforts they deployed to associate African populations with this same renaissance.

We are convinced that local initiatives must be developed and that these initiatives must come from the people and their organizations and be managed by them. In Africa, church groups, trade union groups, human-rights groups, solidarity groups of women and of young people, decentralized administrative bodies, places of instruction and research centres, can all be recognized as practitioners in the work of preventing conflicts and seeking peace. They are building democratic institutions, creating a better flow of information, providing goods and services in emergency situations that further the interests of small farmers and local expertise, including better access to financing, developing research, or conserving traditional knowledge. Capacity building in civil society groups is consistent with a strategy of participatory development in which institutional and political changes respond to the pressure of citizens and are rooted in the societies concerned.

Serge Blais, Africa Team Leader, Development and Peace, and Co-Chair, Africa Canada Forum, presentation to the Peacebuilding and Human Security Consultations, April 25, 2002








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