The Use of Sustained Dialogue as a Conflict Resolution Method: Essay Fountain

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In Africa, strained relations within and between communities can easily escalate to intense polarisation, including violence during election periods. Kenya and South Sudan are characterised by intense politicization along ethnic divisions. Dercon and Gutierrez-Romero (2010) observe that election-related violence in Kenya and Zimbabwe have been triggered by multiple factors, such as perceptions about rigging. This creates breeding ground for mistrust and competition over access to power between diverse political and/or ethnic groups. In Kenya and Nigeria, inter-community relations have been influenced and shaped by violence arising from the extreme interpretations of Islam and the use of violence by armed groups to further these interpretations. Vicencio, et al: (2016) note that some African countries where violent extremism and terrorism are flagged as a priority, their approaches to (in)security have increasingly stigmatised the Muslim communities through profiling, harassment and other abusive practices This triggers and fuels unnecessary tensions between ethno-religious groups. Worryingly, revisionists of the history of community relations are now mischievously obsessed with the current dominant narrative that the relationship between different faiths, although rarely violent, has always been characterised by a longstanding conflict, bolstered by fierce rivalry for symbolic power and access to resources, thereby weakening the social fabric that glues societies together. As such, SD is appropriate for people who are radically different, deeply divided, overtly suspicious and profoundly angry with each other that they would not naturally come together to talk.

In 2017 Kenya, intra and inter-communal relationships are marred by heightened suspicion and ethnic polarisation, with the potential to escalate to open violent conflicts. Local, national and regional political and security dynamics tend to reinforce dividers across communities and weaken prospects for positive sustainable peace in the country. Following the 2007 post-election violence, peacebuilding projects were identified to prevent renewed eruptions. Most of the projects have, however, had short-term goals of preventing electoral violence, instead of sustainable change that focuses on attitude and behaviours within and between communities. Based on these contextual observations, LPI’s Kenya programme has contributed to building sustainable peace in the country through strengthening community resilience to dividers. The programme focuses on (re)building relations of understanding, cultivating a culture of trust and collaboration between diverse social groups through diverse methodologies. It combines community-based work with issue-based policy engagement toward more conflict-sensitive methods among political and security sectors, and knowledge generation to inform peacebuilding research. Furthermore, LPI has implemented the SD in Ethiopia and Sudan universities since 2009 and 2013 respectively, and Nairobi’s informal settlements and marginalised urban and rural areas since 2016. According to the UNSC Resolution (UNSCR) 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) of 2015, youths can play a crucial role to promote sustainable peace. The UNSCR 2250 offers guidelines to ensure the full participation of youths who are traditionally excluded in peace processes. An LPI study about its experience, practice and analysis in working with youth across diverse set of contexts in the Horn of Africa revealed that youths were marginalised in the socio-political and economic processes. This, in turn, hindered them from meaningfully participating in decision-making processes, particularly in peace processes.

In 2016, the LPI and its partners implemented the first phase of the ‘Tubonge Mtaani’ (let’s talk in our communities)’ project using the SD tool. The project aimed to enhance the capacity of youths contributing in SD processes in Kamukunji and Mathare sub-counties and be change agents in their communities. SD was adopted to promote inclusion, equal participation and collaboration of diverse youth from varying geographical, ethnic, religious, gender and socio-economic background in a sustainable manner. One hundred and fifty youths from Eastleigh, Majengo and Mlango Kubwa neighbourhoods met twice a month for discussions on issues that negatively affect them and contribute to divisions. Participants developed three-peace and coexistence-promoting actions to address these issues in the broader communities. Targeted groups were accompanied in a seven-month long dialogue-to-action process to develop greater mutual understanding and trust, and nurture their confidence and ability to non-violently voice their needs, and initiate joint enterprises.

Graf, et al. (2006: 63), observe that the project provided youths with a continuous safe space that supported self-reflection, strengthened empathy, and awakened the creative potential for imagining a new reality and empower non-violent strategies through a dialogue. SD was also effectively used in Garissa County, Kenya, where youths lobbied the local authority to reopen Dujis Primary School, which had been closed due to inter sub-clan violence and occupied by the local police. At a Sudanese university, Muslim SD participants realised the difficulty faced by their Christian peers to find prayer space and helped to successfully advocate for a space to be avail ailed. SD participants from Sudan’s Dalanj University in South Kordofan returned to his village in West Kordofan and successfully advocated with the community elders for dialogue between conflicting community groups. SD embraces the inherent complexity and heterogeneity of youth groups and recognises their divisions, allowing for positive changes within and between youth and the broader society. While SD has made incredible progress, traditional values and cultural norms that associate authority and power with age are still deeply entrenched in the three countries. This falls within the global tendency to associate youth with immaturity.

ZANU PF’s Youth League is often led by plus 40-year olds. Manipulation of youths is widespread during elections. Their participation in political processes is channelled and controlled, in a top-down approach that believes that youths should only obey orders. Tightly regulated national political space and narrower civic space by older generations makes it difficult for youths across socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic groups and different political groupings to access resources, exercise their rights and generate the required legitimacy in public offices. Honwana (2013) adds that African youths also grapple with economic exclusion which leads to uneasiness and “waithood”. This creates uncertainty as unemployment increases, with graduates in South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe showing vulnerability. Most recent university graduates in Zimbabwe 2007 are street vendors. The exclusion breeds grounds for conflicts as they easily vent their frustrations at every opportunity. This could partly explain the involvement of youths in post-election violent demonstrations that gripped Harare in the aftermaths of the July 2018 harmonised elections.

Violent conflicts in the Horn of Africa, Great Lakes regions, South Sudan, Somalia and Libya re exacerbated by complex webs of governance issues, ‘militarisation’ of violence, regional conflict dynamics, socio-economic crises and inequitable development. Youths are viewed as key protagonists in conflicts can be easily recruited in military forces, militias, insurgent forces and as levies in communal conflicts. They are associated with other forms of insecurity in the region such as piracy, illegal migration and criminality. However, Bøås (2007) notes that a simple reductionist interpretation wrongly views youths as either perpetrators or victims of violent conflicts. Errors occur when youth issues are viewed from the government, donors, media and civil society views.

The multiple SD projects constitute practical examples of youths’ collaboration in dialogue and design shared actions to contribute towards reduction of mistrust and inter-group tensions that frequently result in violent conflict. LPI’s experiences demonstrate that, if supported, youths can transform violent conflict, and that their inclusion in both formal and informal processes leads to more sustainable peace outcomes. As youths are often largely affected by conflicts, many institutions including universities now engage them in SD to resolve conflicts According to Colby, et al (2003), education policy makers and university administrators want college graduates to be taught in the ‘arts of democracy’ in order to effectively engage in participatory democracy. This involves “inclusive and respectful dialogue, thoughtful reasoning, conflict transformation, collective decision-making and policy-making, and social action” across all differences in social identity, values, experiences, and perspectives.

SD was effective in changing behaviours and attitudes among students at the University of Addis Ababa. Svensson and Brounéus (2013) observe that the levels of trust among students from different ethnic backgrounds were markedly improved, as they became aware of the problems and engaged on pressing issues. Students spoke of SD as the reason for them to have developed friends across ethnic and religious lines. The youths in Ethiopia and Sudan identified ethnic intolerance, tribal differences, religious and political divisions among the most pressing issues. In Kenya, the problems identified include issues traditionally related to youth such as unemployment, drug abuse, education, gangsterism, police brutality and profiling, as well as broader societal issues, like insecurity, manipulation of ethnicity, religious identity, clannism, elections and resource-based conflict, among others. SD processes support diverse youth in overcoming the traditional barriers to their inclusion in peace processes, Involved youth are “given a stake” in their societies by participating in a transformative project, own the dialogue agenda and define topics for discussion, participating youth transform their understanding of other groups within an alternative safe space for engagement and through ongoing accompaniment. SD supports young women and men in enhancing the capacities, skills and knowledge needed to develop sustainable solutions to violent conflict. Given that SD is mostly applied in severely conflict situations, the ultimate benefit is peace and reconciliation.

When asked about issues they wanted addressed prior to the project, Kenyan participants identified tangible, individual interest-based and handout-focused issues such as scholarships and bursaries. Interestingly, at the end of the seven-month long participation in SD, they mentioned broader issues like insecurity, corruption or access to devolved funds. This shows an evolution of their agenda and an increased confidence in their ability to influence change at a broader scale. SD can also be integral to peace-building in the post-conflict phase, and to transform the dysfunctional relations that prevent communities from working effectively. It is only through the transformation of perceptions, attitudes and relationships that parties themselves become capable of constructively dealing with economic, social and political issues in the conflict.

Worth noting is the number of lessons learnt from the SD process. Participants learn that the instrument for change is not a series of meetings but a continuous process in which change is happening within them and among them wherever they are. They learn to talk analytically and empathetically in dialogue rather than argumentatively in debate. They learn to collaborate and think together rather than being confrontational, thus creating a common body of knowledge. This goes beyond simply learning what others think and what their positions are to learning what the other considers really important and why. This kind of knowledge opens new doors to solving problems because it opens doors to transforming relationships. Individuals develop capacities to become boundary spanners in communities, internalizing both practical skills as agenda setters, speakers, and analysers and relational skills in bridging deep human divides.

Furthermore all members and participants learn to design change together with the particular purpose of reaching outside their dialogue space to engage necessary elements of the larger community. In engaging the community, they build networks. Participants in SD take their design for change to a larger scale. In doing so, they recognize that they have learned to work change in their own group and that in order to influence the larger environment that constrains them or could open doors to new opportunities, they need to connect with other likeminded groups and engage elements of the larger community. They move from their dialogue space back into the community. In doing so, they may create new spaces. Training can be an integral part of engaging the community. Training can create spaces where much of the thinking and planning for collective action can take place.

Throughout the process, there is an important insight in the application of the concept of relationship as an operational tool that recognises that in each situation where SD may be used, different components of relationship may be uppermost among the causes of conflict. Sometimes the most significant distinguishing feature between one issue area and another is the relative importance of specific elements of the relationships being discussed. Different kinds of relationships require different techniques of moderating and are likely to yield different types of results from dialogue processes. For example, a major focus of dialogues on university and college campuses surrounds identity, perceptions/misperceptions and stereotypes, and the sharing and exploration of one’s racial identity. There is less focus on the parties’ “interests, ” per se. Just like any other conflict resolution method, there are a number of challenges that SD faces in practice, especially on when to diagnose SD as the most appropriate instrument. Could this tool be useful in the midst current violent conflicts like in Central African Republic, Libya, the DRC, Somalia and South Sudan or when dealing with terrorist and extremist organisations like al-Shabab, al-Qaeda, Isis, the Taliban and Boko Haram. Could the process have been used during the Rwanda genocide and the Gukurahundi era? In most cases SD is thus a combination of many other methods but with much emphasis on human relationship unlike negotiation and mediation which mainly focuses on issues. Furthermore participants, particularly leaders, resist engaging with other groups for fear of being viewed as compromised by their own supporters. In Africa the process has only been applied to smaller settings like universities and villages that have little bearing on national issues. The process should, instead, be applied to political leaders who are usually the beneficiaries of most of the violent conflicts on the continent.

Conclusively, the assignment is of the view that sustained dialogue is an extension of other conflict resolution methods, with much emphasis on human relations. Despite the above-noted questions SD, could be the antidote for resolving most of the continent’s intractable conflicts that are usually based on mere unquantifiable values and beliefs like ethnic, tribal and religion. This tool could be the answer to ethnic problems in the Great Lakes region, ethnic and militia problems in South Sudan, clan clashes in Somalia and Libya, political violence in Zimbabwe and Kenya, as well as drug-related violence in South Africa. It could be the only available tool that effectively and permanently deals with the roots of violent conflicts in Africa and allow the continent to take the next great leap forward on its development agenda.

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