Fellow at the BRICS Policy Center, Global South Unit of Mediation

It is with great honor and privilege that I am joining the BRICS Policy Center and its Global South Unit of Mediation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as a fellow.

Together with the program team, I will be in charge of research, publishing, providing knowledge and input to the GSUM program outputs. Apart from a winter school, held at the Unit, I will be engaging in high-level advisory and research activities that cover a range of issues linked to mediation initiatives in the Global South.

On this site, I shall keep you updated about the research and the progress of the fellowship.



Creative strategies in negotiations, part 3

Dear reader.

After a short hiatus, let us get back exploring some of the creative strategies to be used during protracted negotiations and in order to get the momentum going.

Strategy 5: Vary how things are involved

a) Change the institutions

(1) Unusual modification of existing institutions. At times, it is not necessary to rebuild institutions from scratch nor to reinvent the wheel. Institutions can be changed in creative and peaceful ways. Take a look at the European Economic Community back in 1967 and on how it took over the national prerogatives of making rules on worker immigration.

(2) Establishment of new institutions. In most cases, however, it is quite imperative to bring new institutions to life, especially in collapsed, fragile or frail states or non-governed spaces. This usually happens in the wake of peacekeeping operations, general elections and a first national peace accord leading to a transitional government (look at Somalia, or South Sudan, for instance).

(3) Alteration of the general system. The political, economic, or other system can be changed, not just the institutions within it. Again, the formation of the European Union is a good example for this process.

b) Remove violence from the contest, but the contest continues

(1) Weak-power nonviolence. A lesser power influences a greater one by non-military protest, non-cooperation, or intervention. Sharp (in Sharp, G. (1980). The politics of nonviolent action. Boston: Porter Agent) lists 198 forms of non violent tactics.

(2) Great-power non violence. A greater power uses nonviolent techniques to prevail over a lesser power in a situation where a traditional show of force would be inappropriate. This tactic is sometimes used by the US, the EU, a corporation over a supplier, etc.

c) Increase your credibility rather than the amount of our offer

The escrow system. Assure the adversary that he will get what you are offering. Had President Johnson put development money for the Mekong Delta into the Asian Development Bank instead of promising it to the North Vietnamese, they might have believed he meant to aid Vietnam.

d) Vary procedural and substantive approaches

(1) Avoidance of undesired precedents. Quid pro quo, with the intention of not setting a precedent for other situations. This strategy worked well in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but less so during the breach of UNSCR 1441 and the following invasion of Iraq by a US led coalition in 2003.

(2) Cake-splitting method. One side divides a scarce resource; the other side has the first choice so as to prevent the divider from distributing the resource unfairly. The Law of the Sea conference provided a good example proposing that sections of the bottom of the ocean be divided in two, with the World Bank choosing one for world use and private or national mining companies getting the remaining one.

(3) Agreement on procedures. Agreeable procedures can be established as a preface to agreeing on substantive issues. This is for the example the case in peace agreements, where the Comprehensive Agreement covers “anything, but…”, and the Implementation Agreement would cover the substantive part of the peace process.

(4) Agreement to violate an agreement. Contenders can establish an agreement they plan to violate in substance while holding on to the form. This approach is particularly useful if governments hold in common the willingness to break an agreement, but the public in each country involved does not. This is regularly the case in Civil Law, where a framework agreement will still hold even if a clause is deemed unlawful.

(5) Random division. When reasoning and bargaining seem unproductive, flipping a coin may be preferable. A random procedure was used to decide which of the elected members to the International Trade Law commission would have six terms and which would have three year terms.

(6) The moot. The parties to an issue discuss it until consensus is achieved or pay the penalty of having no decisions. Quaker consensus works this way as do UN Security Council discussions, because of members’ veto options.

(7) Single text negotiations. A mediator develops a single position that reflects the views of the parties to a negotiation. The mediator repeatedly shows the text to the parties and modifies it until a position acceptable to all sides is developed. This procedure contrasts with the standard approach of starting with the stated bargaining positions of the parties and arriving at a compromise. This procedure is used quite often in both the private and the public sector.

(8) Avoidance of tactics. Sometimes it is wise to avoid using tactics in order to enhance creativity and to avoid antagonizing the opponent. One maintains a frame of mind of “jointly looking at problems in the most flexible way possible”.

e) Use an effective group dynamics system

(1) A neutral person chairs a meeting of adversaries. This person summarizes the sense of the meeting, accepts corrections or dissents, but never takes a vote.

(2) Controlled communication. Social scientists meet with adversaries, not, ostensibly, to settle the conflict but to find solutions with underlying problems behind it. Blaming is discouraged, misperception social psychological experiments are described, the conflict is treated abstractly, and similar historical conflicts are described. Better relations between parties in the Cyprus conflict developed after controlled communication was used with diplomats from the London embassies of Cyprus, Greece and Turkey.

(3) International Encounter or Contact Group. An encounter group among statesmen, political scientists, experts and CSOs from disputing nations can be formed to build trust and then to seek an agreeable solution to a dispute. Political scientists from both Ethiopia and Somalia decided upon the proposal to make the disputed territory into a temporary neutral zone until power in the competing countries was passed to new regimes that could more readily negotiate a permanent solution. But that was 1970! A similar contact group worked it out in the Philippines, spearheaded by the wonderful Emma Leslie from the peace center in Cambodia.

(4) The problem-solving workshop. To controlled communication, Kelman adds techniques to increase the trust needed for creative problem-solving and to increase the chances that solutions will be adopted by the authorities in the participants’ own nations. Kelman has worked on Israeli-Arab workshops.

(5) Mutually acceptable restatement of arguments. If each side in a conflict states the arguments of the other side so clearly and persuasively that the other side will accept the wording, conflicts over unnecessary disagreements are minimized. Although well-known and highly regarded, this approach is not illustrated by many historical examples. Maybe the Kampala Talks in 2013 would fit this example or the Nuba Mountains Peace Agreement in 2006.

(6) Feeling out procedures. These involve subtle discussion. Parties talk around the issue. They hint at their preferences offhandedly while showing considerable interest in other’s preferences. Clear-cut proposals are articulated only after feelings have been explored in indirect fashion. One reason for using feeling-out procedures is the perceived danger that the conflict inherent in negotiation will disturb the relationship between the parties. Such relationships are guided by a norm of mutual responsiveness whereby the parties are constrained to be attentive to one another’s needs. A vigorous defense of one’s own needs implies that these needs are genuinely strong and constrains the other party to agree if at all possible; Negotiation subverts this norm because it requires both parties to make an initial demand and defend it vigorously regardless of the true strength of the needs.

f) Make the request acceptable

The Yesable proposition. The request to the adversary is framed so that his or her constraints will not prevent the request from being accepted. Fisher reports that in his experience there is a widespread tendency not to consider what the other side can realistically be expected to accept (Fisher, R (1969). International Conflict for Beginners. New York: Harper & Row). In a conflict, each side tends to see itself as reasonable because it is reasonably rejecting some outrageous demand of the other side. The parties rarely try to formulate a proposition that is so reasonable that the other side would have a hard time rejecting it.

g) Make the request fair

Principled negotiation. Rather than focusing on their bargaining positions, negotiators focus on their interests and brainstorm proposals that meet objective criteria of fairness, legitimacy, practicality, and lack of pressure forcing acceptance.

h) Providing for face-saving

(1) Effective timing to save face. A time can be found for an opponent to take a desired action without losing face.

(2) Unilateral settlement after secret negotiations. If opponents’ bargaining positions are fairly close together, and if these opponents can informally find out what each other will settle for, sometimes each party can unilaterally perform its part of an agreeable settlement if open negotiations are embarrassing. If the opponents are governments that do not recognize each other, they can come to an agreeable settlement by secret negotiations handled by a third party, such as the Red Cross, and then simply carry out the settlement without signing a treaty that would require diplomatic recognition.

(3) The disownable concession. An exchange of concessions can be proposed through an intermediary whose statement can be disowned if the adversary is not interested in the proposal.

Strategy 6: Vary the reasons why things happen

a) Convert the opponent

Persuasion to or acceptance of new, integrative values. Conversion can be based on an acceptance of new, more productive values, not simply on coercion or exchanges. When management accepted the rights of unions to exist in the United States, the resulting increases in wages raised profits rather than lowering them, as feared, because of the increase in the resources of the consumers who were also union members. The same principle might apply in relation to American corporations that currently pay low wages to labor in other countries.

b) Rationalize the opponent’s position

(1) Rationalization of a loss. A loss can be rationalized with reference to one’s fundamental principles – for example, one party’s material gain is granted because of the other party’s sense of justice.

(2) The “Donkey Beaten Over The Head” Interpretation. A victim interprets conflict-provoking behavior as an attempt by the protagonist to get attention for grievances. If granting attention to the grievances is acceptable to the victim, the protagonist may stop the negative behavior.

c) Give a new meaning to the object of the dispute

(1) Coupling. A new meaning or signal can be added to a diplomatic action to facilitate negotiation. The United States could interpret Soviet agreement to a routine trade treaty as an increase in detente politics. The image of the Soviet Union at that time would be damaged if it failed to live up to this peaceful invitation. This is still a preferred strategy in a range of hot spots, where a peace treaty follows the promise of a trade agreement. This is certainly France’s strategy in Francophone countries.

(2) Decoupling. A troublesome meaning or signal of a diplomatic action can be removed to facilitate agreement. One way this can occur is to establish conventions to easily decide the meaning that diplomatic actions will have and that formerly had to be negotiated. The order of precedence, or importance, of ambassadors for centuries was negotiated on the basis of the relative status of the ambassador’s sovereign, an ambiguous matter.

d) Accept a settlement for reasons different from the opponents

(1) Common means for different ends. When agreement cannot be secured on the criteria for a good program, an acceptable program can still be found that will use a common means to achieve different goals of the parties.

(2) Acceptance of new goals. Ways can be found in which intrinsic goals of one party can become extrinsic goals for another party. Under the sphere of influence system, country A gives up claims of hegemony over nations near its rival, country B. The rival, by developing and policing the nations in its sphere of influence, provides profitable trading partners for the first power.

End of part 3

Creative strategies in negotiations, pt. 2

Dear reader.

Good to see that you are coming back for more. And, as promised, the second part of my exploration of creative ways to unlock negotiations from being frozen. Here are a few more  innovative ways on how to deal with difficult parties, difficult topics, or difficult strategic decisions.

c) Change the realm in question

(1) switching from a political to a technical solution. A technical solution to a political problem can be sought. This is especially useful when dealing with issues around water ways, upstream and downstream issues, and general conflicts around water and environment.

(2) switching from a political to an economic solution. A free trade zone or agreement is the best way to address the issue.

(3) switching from the preconditions for negotiation to their implication. IF an adversary’s preconditions for negotiation are unacceptable to a party, that part or a mediator can get talks under way by arranging a meeting to examine the implications of the precondition. In smaller scale conflict, this can be done through caucus or shuttle diplomacy. On the international level, it is best to bring technical committees together in order to fashion the ground work for subsequent talks.

(4) conversion of intangible goals to tangible ones. As you may have heard on many occasions, it is never useful to negotiate intangibles, such as belief systems, values, ideologies or on the basis of religion. Sometimes the intangible can be changed to the tangible as when someone who has damaged another’s reputation agrees to make a monetary payment for the damage. This move may only be working in a few contexts.

d) Reveal new facts or meanings

(1) discovering the opponent’s domain of validity. Both Rapoport and Deutsch have debated this move. A possible step is for each side to find out on what grounds the other side could possibly be convinced of the truth of its own views. After one side has found out what views or pictures of reality its adversaries hold in their minds, they must try to discover the domain of validity of each such view. This is akin to be “putting yourself into someone else’s shoes’. However the range of cases where this move works is rather limited and bound to parties’s needs and preferred style to manage conflicts.

(2) the trollope ploy. One accepts an offer never clearly made. Based on perceived threats and benefits, leading a party to reject a second proposal for something that has never been proposed.

Strategy 3: Change up where things are involved

a) Integrate or assimilate

(1) formation of a security community, e.g. Regional Economic Communities, the European Union, Canadian-American Integration, the African Union.

(2) “if you can’t beat them, join them”, e.g. the way the American Congress works. Or how in- and outgroups in companies behave.

b) Disintegrate or separate – separation of the unacceptable, i.e. actions that would be unacceptable to the parties if done together can be done separately. Sometimes, joint commissions in resolving water management issues are not working precisely because of a lack of institutional knowledge and capacity on both sides of a river-basin. Yet, parties could start with their own capacity-building and still share information under a bilateral agreement.

Strategy 4: Vary when things are involved

a) Propose a resolution of a dispute early

(1) the insurance principle. This hints to the establishment of rules to deal with conflicts before the power relations and the winners and losers are known. Rawls states that justice defined as fairness is more likely to prevail this way because free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. The Law of the Sea conference in Caracas produced remarkable unity, at least among the nonaligned nations, probably in part because they did not know much about the distances from their shores at which the greatest resource deposits in the ocean bed can be found.

(2) minor powers’ concerted appeal to major powers’ best intentions. Before major powers with aggressive programs have proposed a resolution, a coalition of minor powers with a peaceful program can sponsor a resolution at the U.N. or elsewhere. Then the major powers may be inclined to support peaceful resolution, lest their image be damaged. Creativity may be sacrificed to peacefulness in this approach.

b) Postpone the resolution of a dispute while trying to build trust

(1) identification and ignoring of intractable issues. Difficult issues can be left for future negotiations, allowing settlement of common interests right away. This is a typical approach for a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA between the Government of Sudan and the Government of South Sudan, leading to South Sudan’s secession and independence, didn’t deal with issues such as border or citizenship issues. This was left to subsequent implementation agreements.

(2) incremental change. Rather than defining objectives and then examining a range of possible options to fulfill them, an administrator or council can adopt a change that moves an organization forward by a small amount and avoids conflict because it is offensive to none of the constituencies. The assumption is that large changes would be too disruptive to the delicate balance of entrenched policies. Many of the U.N. actions are incremental, such as the progress of human rights in many steps.

(3) the seizing of opportunities to carry out secret policies. Top business operatives tend to tell no one their specific goals (contrary to what research on leadership suggests). They wait for opportunities to carry out those goals. Conflicts over these goals are thus minimized and acceptance of them is secured through careful selection of ripe opportunities – that is through support of actions by subordinates that move the organization toward the executive’s goals.

c) Postpone the resolution of a dispute while trying to build disgust of a cooling off of tension

(1) disgust-building. A dispute can be continued until one or both sides would rather liquidate it than gain a victory.

(2) holding action. Instead of responding militarily to a minor attack on or blockade of one’s territory, it can be fruitful simply to reinforce the territory and leave the initiative to the opponent to mount a full-scale attack on the territory – an attack the opponent may avoid. Not always conducive to peace.

d) Untie a double bind – simultaneous, interdependent actions, ie actions can be taken simultaneously that would otherwise not happen because each depends on the other’s having occurred.

End of part 2

Outlook for 2015

Dear readers.

A happy new year from the learned mediator. And thank you for being followers, supporters, and fellow explorers of my shared mediation experiences.

This year, I will try to offer a more nuanced understanding of mediation in complex settings. This shall be done through the following activities, initiatives and writings:

1. Sharing my lessons learned from current deployments (Darfur and Nigeria amongst many others);

2. Sharing my research on gender and mediation, specifically my research project on bringing top female mediators voices to the public fore;

3. Sharing of case studies for further exploration of mediation outcomes.

As we start off into a tumultuous 2015, let us explore on how to bridge the gaps, voicing stories, and establishing common ground between various interests through the use of mediated processes and mediation competence.

Looking forward to your comments and support.



Mediation is not a panacea for peace

It is often written and preached that through the use of mediation, we may be able to satisfy the needs of the parties. Or through its inclusive nature, the peace process may hold and thus become durable and sustainable.
While there is some logic to these hypotheses, it remains to be seen if all inclusive peace processes or a court-annexed mediated process really provide the kind of constructive outcome that parties and the communities in dispute are looking for.
This narrative is often used by those learned peers and scholars with a strong emphasis on the role of the mediator and his/her centrality to the conflict resolution process. Others also take into account the many supporters and negotiators that assist in the mediation process.
In almost all cases, we see a recurrence of violence within a 5 year period since the signing of a peace agreement. Why is that? What happened to the stakeholders? Was it a question of time, resources, political will? Or a lack of understanding of the the root causes of the conflict? Or an international community rushing in to find a solution to violence and unethical behavior of stakeholders.
There are many factors at play that need to be considered. Most likely, and in all cases, we may have to assume that a lack of governance structure, cohesiveness of policies and actions, and resilience of households to new conflicts are some of the deciding factors for recurrence of conflict.

Having analyzed wars between 1648 and 1989, Holsti concluded that in most cases peace treaties only achieve the objective of ending the war and do not envisage any possible future conflicts (Holsti, 1991). Thus, does peace become the father of war?

Hence the role that interventions play in the larger peace canon needs to be looked at with a critical eye and using narrative methods in order to explore which of the unheard and untellable stories are still underneath the radar of the mediators.

More to come …

Conflict management or conflict resolution

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.

A Culture of Intervention – towards a new debate

Since the end of the Cold War era, the international community has gained a bit more space to maneuver in the quite opaque realm of interventions in conflict environments. On the one hand, we find the most potent powers to assume and to exert military power in order to quench or to stop a local conflict (think Libya, think Somalia). But at the same time, realities and politics suggest that the international community does not just stop with ending a conflict but that there is much more external intervention into structures and contexts of societies to the extent that a recurrence to violence can be mitigated.

The issue is not the intervention into a conflict area itself – as a matter of protecting human rights, one needs to agree that intervening in order to stop and alleviate suffering is a sound proposition. Rather, the question should be to what extent does a culture of intervention transform the local societies being subjected to this intervention and what dynamics and complexities take place throughout the nation-building process, initiated by the intervention of the international community.

To this day, the impact of intervention in terms of the creation of democratic conditions to render peace sustainable remains unexplored and often times elusive. This is mainly due to the fact that research and practice is looking at two independent variables without a more systemic understanding of the linkages between the practice of a culture of intervention and the creation of a new society. But new societies change also the culture of the intervener and we need to get a better understanding of these dynamics if we want to move towards a new culture of intervention and reflect better on the responsibility to protect and international humanitarian law.

In the coming posts, I am opening the debate through a new series looking at understanding the dynamics taking place between the intervener and the intervened.

You comments and feedback are always welcome.



Conflict Resolution Styles

This is an excellent argument which I believe is crucial in understanding the context, the history and the cultural dimensions of a conflict and the ways to bring it to constructive resolution:

Peace talks won’t solve the crisis in South Sudan. Africa-style justice will.

After a power struggle between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, plunged the world’s newest state into crisis in mid-December, the international community dutifully mobilized to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. Right now, as South Sudan slides toward open civil war, representatives from both sides are engaged in direct, face-to-face talks in Addis Ababa. Unfortunately, however, the international community is misleading Africa yet again. The track record for face-to-face negotiation in post-colonial Africa — and in Sudan itself — is abysmal. Instead of trudging down the same, well-worn path toward failure, South Sudan should look to traditional modes of conflict resolution to end the current standoff.

More than 40 wars have been fought on the continent since 1970. Year after year, one African country after another has imploded with deafening staccato, scattering refugees in all directions: Sudan erupted in 1972, Angola and Mozambique in 1975, and Ethiopia in 1985. Then came Liberia (1992), Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1994), Zaire (1996), Sierra Leone (1997), Congo (1998), Ethiopia/Eritrea (1998), Guinea (1999, 2010), Ivory Coast (2001, 2005, 2010), Libya (2011), Mali (2012), and now the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Almost without exception, attempts to reach peace accords have ended in failure. The most common modality has been the direct, face-to-face negotiation between the warring factions — a Western approach often pushed by a well-intentioned international community. But this has seldom worked in Africa.

Face-to-face negotiations only succeed when factional leaders want peace or are forced to pay a price for the mayhem they wreak — conditions that have rarely been met in Africa. More often than not, conflict becomes profitable for warlords because it provides them with opportunities to rape, pillage, and plunder natural resources. For rebel soldiers, their weapons are often their livelihoods. Likewise, government soldiers sometimes live by looting, since they are routinely unpaid by their cash-strapped governments. Countless examples can be drawn from the wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict also gives national governments a ready-made excuse — “national security” — to suspend development projects, halt provision of social services, and keep their defense budgets secret, thereby shielding corrupt dealings from scrutiny.

Face-to-face negotiations often reinforce these wartime patterns by failing to dole out punishment for combatants. Often, militant leaders are actually rewarded at the negotiating table, gaining the respectability and influence that comes with international recognition. Back in 1993, the late Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed was transported in U.S. military aircraft to Addis Ababa to take part in peace negotiations. The spectacle raised Aideed’s stature and bolstered his confidence in becoming Somalia’s next president — only months before his forces killed 18 U.S. Rangers in Mogadishu. In a similarly outrageous arrangement brokered by the international community, the head of the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) — which chopped off the limbs of everyone, including women and children, who stood in their way — was made Sierra Leone’s minister of lands and mines in 1999.

A related problem with direct, face-to-face negotiations is that they often lead to the establishment of what are invariably termed “governments of national unity” — clumsy attempts to forge power-sharing agreements between warring factions that have only just agreed to put their weapons down. This, of course, defies common sense.

How are mortal enemies expected to cast all suspicion aside and blithely work together for the benefit of all?


How are mortal enemies expected to cast all suspicion aside and blithely work together for the benefit of all? Most of the time they don’t, and conflict breaks out again (See: Angola in 1992, Congo in 1999, Sierra Leone in 2000, and Ivory Coast in January 2003). But it’s not just that unity governments are destined to fail; it’s that when they succeed, they amount to blueprints for the joint-plunder of the state. Ministerial and governmental positions are divvied up between government and rebel leaders — invariably igniting bitter squabbles in the process — and then the rent-seeking begins.Making matters worse, African leaders seldom honor agreements they append their names to, much less implement them in good faith. During the Ivoirian crisis in 2003, for example, a peace accord was signed in Ghana establishing a power-sharing deal between the government of President Laurent Gbagbo, which controlled the southern half of the country, and rebel groups that controlled the north and much of the west. But conflict soon erupted over the distribution of cabinet posts, and Gbagbo flouted the accord by refusing to spell out the powers he would cede to the opposition and only funding the government ministries he controlled. Predictably, fighting broke out again, threatening to reignite the civil war.

A similar script played out in Liberia during the civil war that saw tens of thousands slaughtered, raped, and maimed between 1999 and 2003. At peace talks in Ghana in June 2003, President Charles Taylor, who had been indicted for war crimes by a U.N-Sierra Leone court, pledged to step down under a cease-fire his government signed with two of the rebel groups battling his regime. The agreement called for Taylor’s resignation and the formation of a transitional government, composed of the government, rebels, and political parties, among others. But within hours of signing the accord, Taylor’s government was backtracking on the question of his resignation. In the end, it was only after an intense bombardment of Monrovia — coupled with heightened international pressure and an offer of political asylum in Nigeria — that Taylor finally resigned in August 2003.

More than 30 such peace accords have been brokered in Africa since the 1970s — and the track record has been appalling. Only Mozambique’s 1991 peace accord has endured, and even now it appears shaky as clashes between the government and the rebel group Renamo have flared recently over implementation.

Elsewhere, peace accords were shredded like confetti even before the ink on them was dry.


Elsewhere, peace accords were shredded like confetti even before the ink on them was dry. The most spectacular failures occurred in Angola (1991 and 1994), Burundi (1993), Rwanda (1993), Sierra Leone (1999), Democratic Republic of Congo (1999), and Ivory Coast (2003). All collapsed because face-to-face talks were marred by brinkmanship and broken promises.Even where peace accords are successfully concluded and unity governments are established, they are almost always short-lived. Angola’s unity government failed after six months in 1992. Congo’s 2003 unity government created four vice presidents but did not bring peace to the eastern part of the country. Burundi’s civil war flared up again in August 2003, despite the establishment of a unity government brokered by former South African President Nelson Mandela and Ivory Coast’s 2003 unity government has proceeded in fits and starts. Kenya’s unity government has floundered since 2008; Zimbabwe’s since 2009.

Given this record, it is difficult to be optimistic about South Sudan’s current peace talks in Addis Ababa. Add to this the fact that the South’s 2005 power-sharing agreement with Sudanese President Omar Bashir failed miserably and that Kiir and Machar have already tried a unity government, and the third time looks even less likely to be the charm. Another unity government simply doesn’t make sense. Rebel leader Machar almost certainly won’t agree to a deal in which Kiir remains president, and Kiir is unlikely to resign. Nor is there a clear military solution — a bitter lesson from the post-colonial era is that no African government has successfully put down a rebel insurgency.

But perhaps Africa’s own indigenous conflict resolution mechanism can offer a way out of the conundrum. The key ingredient in the African method — missing in the Western approach — is engagement with civil society. “When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled upon and hurt,” goes the African proverb. African conflict resolution, then, requires four parties: the two elephants, an arbiter, and the “grass” (composed of all those affected by the conflict.) Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so too does it take one to resolve a conflict.

In most traditional African societies, when two people cannot resolve their differences by themselves, their case is taken to a village chief’s court for adjudication. The court is open and anyone affected by the dispute can participate. Both parties are invited to make their case. Next, anybody else who has something to say may do so. After all the arguments have been heard, the chief renders a decision. The guilty party may be fined, say, three goats. By default, his or her family is held liable. The injured party receives one goat, the chief is given a goat for his services, and the final goat is slaughtered for a village feast for all to enjoy.

The latter social event is derived from the African belief that frayed social relations need to be healed — the “grass” restored. More importantly, the interests of the community supersede those of the disputants. If they adopt intransigent positions, they can be sidelined by the will of the community and fined for disturbing social peace. In extreme cases, they can be expelled from the village. In other words, there is a price to be paid for intransigence and for wreaking social mayhem — a price exacted by the victims. The current system of internationally-mediated peace talks, by contrast, imposes no such punishment on the combatants.

Already, there is limited evidence that traditional dispute-resolution mechanisms can work on a much larger scale. Indeed, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989, African traditional methods were revived to sweep dictators out of power and transition to a democratic order. In 1989, after unpaid civil servants went on strike and demanded the resignation of Benin’s military dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, a sovereign national conference was called representing various political, religious, trade union, and other groups encompassing the broad spectrum of Beninois society. The conference, chaired by Father Isidore de Souza, held sovereign power and its decisions were binding on all, including the government. It stripped Kerekou of power and scheduled multiparty elections that ended 17 years of autocratic Marxist rule. Similar inclusive national conferences in Congo and Niger (both in 1991) brought dictatorships to an end and set the stage for free and fair elections.

In South Africa, the vehicle used to make the difficult but peaceful transition to a multiracial democratic society was the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). It began deliberations in July 1991, with 228 delegates drawn from about 25 political parties and various anti-apartheid groups. The government of F.W. de Klerk made no effort to control the composition of CODESA. Political parties were not excluded, not even ultra right-wing political groups, although they chose to boycott its deliberations. CODESA strove to reach a “working consensus” on an interim constitution and set a date for the 1994 elections. It established the composition of an interim or transitional government that would rule until the elections were held. Most importantly, CODESA’s decisions were binding. De Klerk could not abrogate any decision made by the convention — just as the African chief could not disregard any decision arrived at the village meeting.

Instead of facilitating direct negotiations in Addis Ababa, the African Union should serve as an arbiter between South Sudanese civil society organizations, and political and religious groups. An interim government should be set up — headed by neither Kiir nor Machar — and a date set for elections. If the two leaders remain recalcitrant, they should be fined proverbial goats for disturbing the social peace. By default, they should be expelled from the “village” and handed over to the ICC for prosecution for crimes against humanity. And just as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) did to Mali when Gen. Amadou Sanogo seized power in March 2012, the African Union should close all borders with South Sudan and impose an economic blockade. When elephants have trampled the grass, they should not be rewarded with additional stomping grounds.

Francesca Tosarelli Photos

When exploring the Congo, one does stumble open women fighters, fighting for the same cause along their male rebel fighters, albeit the reasons for the fights may at times be questionable. Telling the story through her camera, the italian photographer is able to provide story, context, and structure to the phenomenon of women fighters in the Congo.

Francesca Tosarelli Photos.