Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The nature of reconciliation

Al-Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips (a former BBC journalist) has an interesting blog on reconciliation in Africa. In it, he suggests that one of the things Africans do better than people in other parts of the world is to figure out how to live with each other after conflict. He cites the tension and difficulties in places like Bosnia and Northern Ireland following prolonged civil conflict. He notes that people in Africa would find it absurd to be fixated by the outcome of a 14th or 17th century battle.

He adds that in African countries from Mozambique, to Angola, to Sierra Leone, rebel and government forces that fought on opposite sides in brutal civil wars, marred by atrocities and massacres, are now united in national armies, and apparently oblivious to recent divisions.

He also cites post-conflict stability in places like Biafra/Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa. Philips concludes that the lessons Africans take from conflicts is that the price of disunity is too high to pay.

Yet that approach has its own flaws. Countless dictators, from Mobutu to Meles Zenawi, have exploited this very sentiment. The Rwandan dictatorship itself, praised by Phillips, uses the pretext of unity to crush all opposition... as the newly formed Rwandan Democratic Greens were the latest to learn first hand.

In the mid-90s, both Sierra Leone and Liberia were embroiled in savage civil wars, which sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries, including Guinea where I lived. Countless Guineans complained about the sclerotic, corrupt rule of Gen. Lansana Conté and his cabal. But few were willing to rise and challenge the dictatorship. When I asked why, I was told that Conté's regime was bad but at least the repressive stability was better than the alternatives they saw on the southern border, with women and children having their limbs chopped off by drugged boy soldiers.

But that forced unity has a price of its own. The forced unity didn't solve any of Guinea's myriad of problems; it simply delayed their explosion for a decade or so. When the problems finally did erupt, beginning with the general strike of 2007, it was not pretty. There were riots, at least one major massacre, mass rapes, reports of small scale ethnic cleansing and very real fears (expectations in some quarters) of a Liberia/Sierra Leone-style full scale civil war.

Thanks to the intervention and strong will of a sane military man, Gen. Sékouba Konaté, and to mobilization of the international community and especially of Guinean civil society, the country appears to have gotten past the worst of it. If not for a fortunate sequence of events (including an unmitigated disaster with an unexpected silver lining), things could have been much, much worse.

Phillips makes the valid point that honest dialogue is essential to move forward in post-conflict situations. But true reconciliation involves a voluntary partnership of equals not fake 'unity' imposed at the barrel of a gun.

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