I arrived in Burundi in 2010 during a tense election period when I was doing research involving Rwanda, Burundi, and the DRC. I interviewed top officials from different political parties, in power and in opposition, including those from FRODEBU, UPRONA, FNL, and CNDD-FDD. I also had discussions with church leaders. My main interest was to understand the key grievances in society in general, especially how they influence inter-state relations in particular. In the DRC, I spent quite some time between north and south Kivu, which then were the “epicentres” of violence in the region. I had just left Bukavu for Goma, through Kigali, when a contact I had made in Bukavu alerted me to an inter-ethnic conference taking place that day in Bukavu. I wouldn’t make it in time if I took the road, an eight-hour drive. Even though it was risky to use the Kivu waters at the time, I had to paythe $40 fare for the 45-minute “speed boat” ride on Lake Kivu from Goma to Bukavu.
I couldn’t miss the opportunity to get all the protagonists in one place to bear witness to the grievances they had against one another, and why peace in the Kivus and the sub-region has remained elusive. During my previous visit to Bukavu, I had interviewed perhaps the most radical voice I met, Sebineza Enoch Ruberangabo, who fashioned himself as a civil society member. I interviewed many members of the civil society as I did senior army officers. But the Bukavu conference had brought other important players together. The convener of the conference and mediator was the Woodrow Wilson Centre with headquarters in Washington DC. The event was well attended and all the major ethnic groups were well represented by their leaders: Seraphin Mirindi, Charles Maboko-Mulula, Pardone Kaliba, and many other representatives of Babembe, Bashi, Bafulero, Bahunde, Bavira, Bahunde, Nande, etc. Established names like Moise Nyarugabo, Bizima Karaha, and many others who became even more prominent with time as key movers and shakers in Eastern-DRC socio-political realities were present.
The protagonists traded grievances against other groups back and forth, which lasted for hours. During a coffee break, I asked another representative of the Babembe community, a man in his early 40s, who conceived himself an ethnic intellectual of the community, what grievances his group had and against whom. “You see, they don’t allow us to marry their girls, but for us we don’t mind if they marry ours,” he said of the Banyamulenge.
Even from listening to presentations in the conference, I looked forward to hear the kind of grievances that were absolutely non-negotiable, which are responsible for the incessant cycles of violence. However, all the grievances I heard were about perceptions of animosity. So, I asked myself the extent to which such a conference could address communal perceptions of animosity, and whether they would subside or even become invigorated as a result.
But the most difficult question I had in my mind throughout the conference was not about the Kivu region. It was about Washington DC, where the Woodrow Wilson Center and I were coming from.
Why hadn’t I heard of peacebuilding conferences in Washington DC over grievances between whites and blacks? Even when there were peacebuilding seminars in DC, many of which I had attended, they were about Africa. If this is how Americans were building peace for Africans, how were they building it for themselves, I wondered.
Transcending grievances to preserve society
I considered the gravity of the grievances between American whites and blacks. The slavery that has driven the deepest wedge between the two groups; the centuries of lynching, segregation and unequal distribution of opportunities; the guilt that whites carry with them that they see violence against Blacks as a pre-emptive means to self-preservation. Still, there is no platform to unearth these and other grievances that condition blacks and whites to perceive each other as adversaries in need of peacebuilding. Even when there are genuine reasons for agitation, Blacks and whites blame the president, the justice system, the corporations, the police, etc. At no time had they turned to each other as adversaries would. They are under no illusion that they don’t have differences. However, there are conditions to believe that these differences aren’t supposed to matter because “equal protection before the law” is supposedly guaranteed to all. But no right-thinking American can honestly say that all Americans enjoy equal protection before the law. Everyone knows that in theory all Americans are equal but in practice some Americans are more equal than others.
However, as compatriots, their differences are deemed too insignificant to affect their shared project of perfecting America. Crucially, Obama’s staunchest supporters love him for this. He was able to “bring American together” like no other president. On March 18, 2018, in Philadelphia Obama urged Americans not to give in to the cynicism that tears them apart as a result of historical grievances in order to invest together in building “a more perfectunion.” This is Obama’s legacy to America, appealing to their sense of unity to transcend their parochial grievances. Obama’s supporters hate President Trump for “sowing racial sentiments” by appealing to race-based grievances that the media prefers to call (white) “nationalistic” sentiments.
This shared “patriotic” quest for an indivisible America explains why despite the deep wedge between whites and blacks, racial quotas have never existed in the history of American politics. Otherwise, these divisions offer a perfect reason for one-third of cabinet positions to be set aside for blacks, for instance. On the contrary, all platforms are designed to discourage the framing of grievances in ways that bring confrontation between black and white communities. Indeed, anyone who emerges with such framing is made an outcast of society and pushed to the margins as part of a lunatic fringe.
Peacebuilding radicalizes African grievances
I contrasted the grievances in America with those I had been hearing in the peacebuilding conference and there was a little comparison in their gravity. I also got close to home, Burundi and Rwanda, to the grievances between the Hutu and the Tutsi. I also considered the fact that the Tutsi and the Hutu have to search for differences to the point that, in order to successfully implement the divide-and-rule policy in the 1930s, the colonizers had to use an anthropometric measurement tape (Vernier caliper) to try to create difference based on the length of the nose. There is no history of inter-ethnic violence between the Hutu and Tutsi prior to this pronouncement of difference in Rwanda and Burundi – whose ultimate logic is genocide. In “Ethnicity and Nationalism in Africa” Paris Yeros writes that the British had to create – and reinforce – differences between the Ndebele and Shona as a strategy for subjugating the Zimbabweans.
Besides the gravity of the grievances in America, the physical markers of difference between protagonists, race, is the strongest there is as a distinguishing feature in human beings, with the exception of gender. If it is easier to distinguish between friend and foe in America than it is in Africa where difference needs creating, then which society needs peacebuilding? Why were we preaching peace in the Kivu and not in DC? the question lingered.
From the foregoing, we can conclude that whereas Americans are encouraged to frame societal grievances in terms that preserve what they share in common, peacebuilding programmes provide platforms that encourage Africans to frame their grievances in terms that incite communal conflagration. Such seminars, though intended to advance peace, rarely engage the people on what they share in common; on the contrary, ample time is given to unearthing as many differences as possible, something akin to stoking up the fire. Where there are no grievances, the small differences are elevated in status, magnified, and repeated until they are etched in the consciousness of people as non-negotiable grievances that can only be addressed by separating into quotas of unrelenting antagonism rather than coming together as compatriots forever united under God.
Leadership’s intent for society
Europeans magnified the differences between Africans with the intent to plunder. After conditioning the African mind with this intent, Europeans understood that even if they left Africa, they would still have Africans who would reproduce this logic of plunder that magnifies differences and downplays commonalities, as they taught them to do. Such a seed, planted in the African mind, was sufficient to allow the European to withdraw to Europe well assured that the African mind was prepared to plunder Africa for the benefit of Europe. Until this condition is reversed, even if Europeans were to leave Africa alone, Africans would still find a way to take their resources to Europe for the benefit of Europeans.
And they are rewarded for it. During the closing of the Bukavu inter-ethnic conference, a young intern was moving about giving each of the participants a white envelope inside of which were dollars, an allowance for participation. The disgust on the face of the intern suggested she had contempt – and rightly so – for people insisting on being called “honourable” who were doing very dishonourable things like accepting to be paid for their own peace.
I asked one of the organizers whether a similar event had happened or would happen in Rwanda since it had previously taken place in Bujumbura. “We wrote to Kagame. But he won’t allow us,” the official told me rather annoyed by the fact that he was being denied an opportunity to transform the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda from a situation where “differences aren’t supposed to matter” to one where what divides them becomes their main preoccupation; to “reconcile” them to what divides them rather than focusing on what unites them in the pursuit of “a more perfect” society.
All societies have grievances. However, leaders with positive intent condition their people to believe that differences are negligible in light of their shared aim of “perfecting” their state – they are conditioned to transcend them. On the other hand, leaders with negative intent for society magnify differences and condition their people to perceive each other as adversaries rather than compatriots with a shared vision and future. This condition takes place on the platforms that repeat this intent at every possible turn. It is entirely up to the leadership whether the differences should be magnified or transcended. Peacebuilding programmes have been able to magnify the differences in Africa because a leadership with positive intent for society is, for the most part, yet to emerge. Worse still, without a counter force with positive intention for society, the corrosive influence that these programmes have over African consciousness has no commensurate counterpoint. If peacebuilding solved conflicts – rather than entrench them – then Africa would be the paradise of peace in the world because nowhere else in the world have peacebuilding organisations mushroomed as they do in Africa.
When Africans have felt the need for peacebuilding efforts after an egregious tragedy, these – like Gacaca in Rwanda and similar homegrown approaches elsewhere on the continent – have been restorative rather than adversarial. However, these are the exception rather than the rule. Being few and far in between, they can’t compete with the daily mushrooming of international peacebuilding organizations that, even if well-intentioned, commit Africans to the colonial logic of divide and rule.
An African leadership without clear positive intent for its society is incapable of acting as a counterpoint to the corrosive influence of these organizations and can only wait to put out the stoked-up fires.
It is, therefore, a treasonable dereliction of duty for African leaders to allow the double standard where those from places where differences aren’t supposed to matter in the pursuit of greater societal good are allowed to drum up differences in the guise of peacebuilding.