Conflict resolution or conflict management…that is the question. A many scholars have attempted to delineate the various conflict transformation strands in order to establish a typology of conflict resolution and intervention strategies. Let us try and apply some of the elaborate thinking onto the African context.
Stephen Ryan (Ethnic conflict and international relations. Aldershot, Dartmouth Publishing Company, 1990:50) has asserted that too often conflict resolution is used as a cover-all term that fails to face up to the different processes involved in the reduction or elimination of violence. This statement seems to be very evident of the African conflict situation especially when scholars and practitioners alike refer to the handling of conflict in Africa. Thus, it is necessary to explore the main features of conflict resolution and conflict management, two approaches in conflict scholarship, in order to better understand and assess the motivations and actions of intervening agencies or actors. The first major difference between the two approaches concerns the desire or not to raise the fundamental issues that divide the parties to a conflict. Proponents of the resolution approach favour the raising of fundamental issues because they believe that conflict can be resolved. As Christopher Mitchell (The structure of international conflict. London, Macmillan, 1989:9) pointed out, not merely will disruptive conflict behaviour cease and hostile attitudes and perceptions at least be ameliorated, but the ultimate source of conflict (that is, the situation of goal incompatibility) will also be removed so that no unsatisfied goals remain to plague the future.
Proponents of the management approach, on the other hand, believe that attempts to resolve conflicts are unrealistic, so rather than dealing with basic issues, attention should be concentrated on ameliorating the symptoms of the conflict, and in this way reducing suffering (Ryan, ibid, 1990:102). Scholars of the resolution approach argue that the unsolvable nature of a particular conflict is more apparent than real. They maintain that it may be incorrect to view conflicts management approach consisting of peace-keeping forces to reduce or eliminate violence rather than the desire to address the fundamental issues which divide the parties to the conflict. Stationing peace-keeping forces as in the Central African Republic (1996), Sudan (2004-2006, related to the Darfur conflict) or in Somalia (2007) can only be a temporary measure rather than a ‘conflict resolution’ approach. In other words, conflict management tends to ‘freeze’ conflict dynamics rather than to address the underlying causes of these dynamics.
Whatever the case, regional African intervention through peace-keeping has been seriously bogged down by three fundamental principles: namely, non- interference in the internal affairs of member states, territorial integrity, and inviolability of the boundaries inherited from colonization (Herman Cohen, Conflict management in Africa. CSIS Africa Notes, 181 (February), 1996:2-3). In addition to these fundamental problems of principle, other problems continue to be a challenge to AU peace-keeping missions. Some of these obstacles include inadequate trained troops, funding, and political willpower among AU nations to effectively intervene in all of Africa’s conflicts. From a conflict resolution standpoint, the critique by Feldman (Problems plaguing the African Union peacekeeping forces. In Defense and Security Analysis, 24 (3), pp. 267–279, 2008) that ‘without strong AU military forces capable of providing effective interventions, many African conflicts will either remain unresolved or depend on forces outside the continent to attempt to impose a non-African solution on them’ is misplaced because military forces do not ‘resolve conflict’; they only succeed in some cases to reduce the violence.
Conflict resolution is more than making or keeping peace.
While the consensus on intervention in African conflicts has mainly favoured the conflict management approach along the specific lines of power and military force through peace-keeping in different conflict locations, the language used also appeared to be colonially cavalier as in the concept known as ‘the development of conflict management approaches tailored to African circumstances …’. Although conflict situations are always specific, attempts to resolve the different conflicts ought to be about the desire to raise and address the fundamental issues that divide the parties to a conflict rather than the simple desire to reduce or eliminate violence as has been the case.
The foregoing are some of the complex and deep-rooted concerns which must be addressed in conflict resolution efforts in Africa. It will be difficult for the conflict resolution community to see its way around these concerns without a renewed openness to address Africa’s colonial past. If the conflict resolution community is to have any chance of reaching durable outcomes to the conflicts in Africa, it has to look beyond the narrow assumptions on which it has usually operated. The policy of the blind eye is just as inadequate as imposing an army of occupation on a given people or nation in conflict, as has been the case in several conflicts in Africa. Equally, the AU idea to set up an African Peace Keeping Force as outlined by the UN-organised Millennium Summit in September 2000 can only produce colonial-style repressive measures rather than provide durable outcomes to Africa’s conflicts. By envisaging peace-keeping forces in the 21st century, the AU leadership may be making the error of keeping Africa in the colonial mindset while the rest of the world advances in the democratic respect of dialogue and human and people’s rights in the resolution of conflicts. The question remains whether there is the political will at the African Union, the United Nations, and among former colonial powers to move beyond the colonial-style desire to merely suppress or perhaps eliminate overt violence.