Peacemaking in Africa
Posted by Mission Catalyst at 07:59 on 26th May 2010
BMS lawyer Jenny Riddell gives an insight into how justice and reconciliation are achieved by different communities in Africa.
Peacemaking in the wake of conflict requires justice – and justice is a slippery concept to define. It means different things in different cultures and for it to be accepted and lead to peace, it must be culturally relevant and understood.
While individualistic cultures, like our own, are usually happy to rely on formal justice systems to ensure individual rights are protected, communitarian cultures, found throughout Africa, place the emphasis on harmony within the community rather than on individual rights.
These cultures have a profound understanding of the traditional proverb “when elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets crushed”. (Photo: A commemorative cross overlooking Kigali, the capital of Rwanda)
The whole community is directly affected by whatever conflict is in its midst and so the whole community works together to find the solution.
This is often achieved through mediators, usually community elders, and culminates in a symbolic ritual of reconciliation celebrating the reintegration of the parties into the community.
The mediators use a range of techniques to bring about peace including negotiation, shaming and ridicule. The Mbuti tribe of north eastern Congo use mime and mockery to communally shame an offender into recognising his misconduct. This avoids direct condemnation and physical punishment of the guilty party and provides great entertainment for the community.
In the Bakonzo region of western Uganda, clan elders and symbolic rituals play a crucial role in conflict resolution. When a conflict arises, conflicting parties indicate their unhappiness with each other by stating that “they will no longer share the same cup”.
Clan elders may then be invited to intervene and once they have mediated a solution, a chicken or a goat is slaughtered by the guilty party. The shedding of blood indicates that the conflict is at an end and the parties then share in the chicken or goat together as a sign that they are once again willing to “share the same cup”.
Mato oput is a form of conflict resolution used by the Acholi people of northern Uganda following murder or manslaughter. It is a communal and sombre affair.
When the parties come together, the guilty party must first acknowledge and repent of his actions and pay the victim compensation, usually cattle or money.
A day is then set aside for the mato oput ceremony, which involves the whole community. First, the guilty party beats a stick and runs away to symbolise that he accepts guilt. A goat and sheep are killed by the parties and exchanged to signify unity and a willingness to reconcile.
The parties then share a drink made from oput (a bitter root). The bitter taste reminds the parties of the bitterness between them and signifies the end of this bitterness. Food is shared and all of it must be eaten to show that no bitterness remains between the parties.
There are calls for the mato oput ceremony to be used to judicially respond to the crimes committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda during their years of kidnapping, murdering and mutilating ordinary citizens. Yet, international human rights bodies are requiring that any judicial response must comply with international fair trial standards.
Mato oput falls far below these standards but it is also far from our conception of justice and so should it have to comply with international fair trial standards to provide justice? Can these traditional conflict resolution mechanisms really be utilised following a mass atrocity? The governments of Rwanda and South Africa have attempted just that.
In 1995, South Africa faced up to the thousands of human rights violations committed during apartheid by introducing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). A truth commission is a commission of inquiry exposing and recording human rights violations.
Testimonies from perpetrators and survivors are crucial to its success and the former are often provided when an amnesty is offered. The TRC was the result of a compromise providing an amnesty to those guilty of politically motivated crimes under the apartheid regime in return for them disclosing the truth of what took place. Victims also had an opportunity to share their story. In turn, this would silence any revisionists and contribute to restoring the dignity of the victims.
More than 20,000 statements were taken and 7,000 applications for amnesty received. At the heart of this process was the notion of ubuntu (togetherness) as South Africa tried to rebuild a country where black, white and coloured would live together peacefully.
Yet its failings were many: those who opposed the government were generally unwilling to confess to their crimes, those indirectly affected by the regime were not given the opportunity to testify, not every statement was heard and only the extremes of apartheid were investigated.
It was not a perfect process in any way but silence was not an option and political necessity ruled out using the normal court procedure. It was a pragmatic response to an impossible situation.
In the years following the horrific genocide of around 800,000 Tutsi Rwandans in 1994, there were 130,000 prisoners awaiting trial. Under Rwanda’s own judicial system, it would have taken up to 150 years to try all of the suspects.
In response, the government chose to adapt the traditional community courts (Gacaca) to try the most serious of crimes: genocide. Gacaca, meaning ‘on the grass’, is a traditional form of participative justice.
It consists of a public, participatory tribunal contextually responding to the needs of the Rwandan communitarian society.
This public setting provides for public condemnation of the perpetrators, encourages the truth to be told and retains the symbolic impact of a trial, using a method familiar to Rwandans. Yet while Gacaca’s strength lies in its participatory nature, its success is wholly dependent on active participation by the Rwandan public. (Photo:
Gacaca’s aims were ambitious and essential for Rwanda’s future but despite the lack of acceptance in some communities, in the communities where Gacaca is working, its success outstrips that which the ordinary courts could have had.
Gacaca is better than the alternative of the ordinary courts as it responds to the many other needs of Rwanda’s communities and is an indigenous response to a Rwandan problem.
It is clear that a narrow concept of justice does a disservice to the many indigenous conflict resolution techniques in Africa.
In many African communities, upholding an individual’s rights is not always as important as ensuring harmony within the communities and these techniques result in a much greater harmony than can be achieved by formal courts, and can often lead to peace.
Jenny Riddell is a BMS long-term worker in Uganda with her husband Graeme. Jenny is a solicitor, partnering with the Baptist Union of Uganda and the Ugandan Christian Lawyers’ Fraternity in the west of the country.
Click here to read more about the couple and download their latest prayer letters.
An edited version of Jenny’s article appeared in the printed issue of Mission Catalyst, issue 1/09.