Over the past five decades, the youth have played a central role in the numerous violent conflicts that have afflicted the African Great Lakes.
Young people have been conspicuously active participants in the hundreds of armed groups that have traversed the region since Independence in the 1960s, operating across sovereign borders with an unsettling ease and leaving great devastation in their wake.
The UN estimates that over six million civilians have lost their lives since the 1990s alone, and that the civil wars, genocides and cross-border conflicts in the region have produced the highest number of fatalities since the Second World War.
The existence of deeply entrenched stereotypes based on ethnicity or nationality has been a key impediment for the prospects of peace in the region.
These stereotypes, marinated over the decades, have long been internalised by local communities and have regrettably been handed down to successive generations, breeding hatred and leaving the region’s youth vulnerable to manipulation into violent conflict.
Many armed groups recruit youth into their ranks through manipulation and the promise of economic reward. Cases of outright coercion of youth have also been documented.
Numerous efforts have been undertaken over time and at different levels in an attempt to ameliorate this state of affairs, but significant change has not yet been achieved. It is understandable that much of these efforts place priority on post-conflict reconstruction.
The result has been that most interventions have overlooked the fact that the process of effectively countering hatred requires us to begin by planting the seed of peace.
Building sustainable peace is a long-term process that, considering the cross-border nature of the region’s conflicts, demands that we conceptualise our peacebuilding efforts at both the local and regional levels.
For any peacebuilding effort to stand a chance of success in the Great Lakes region, it must also target the emancipation of the youth from the ethnic or nationalistic encumbrances that make them easy targets for recruitment or mobilisation into conflict.
A study carried out in 2014 by the NGO Interpeace and six partner organisations in Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo found that the people in the region generally agreed that ethnic hatred is a fundamental problem in the Great Lakes region.
The research also found that people across the three bordering countries endorsed peace education as a priority intervention that would both strengthen existing peacebuilding efforts and more importantly help in the prevention of conflict among future generations.
The findings of this study resonate closely with the mandate of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region to promote a comprehensive approach to peace and stability in the region, a mandate that includes empowering the region’s youth to become agents of peace.
The ICGLR and Interpeace are partners in the promotion of peace in the Great Lakes region. In December 2015, the two organisations signed a memorandum of understanding, creating a powerful synergy in which the ICGLR brings its clout as an intergovernmental body tasked to facilitate the promotion of peace and stability in the Great Lakes region, and Interpeace contributes its unique experience and capacity to bridge between high level actors at the national and international levels, civil society organidations and local populations at the grassroots level.
We have a strong conviction that peace education offers the promise of turning a new generation of youth into a vanguard for peace in the Great Lakes. It is on this premise that the ICGLR and Interpeace will bring together key stakeholders from the region for a Peace Education Summit in Nairobi on March 3-4, focus on the promotion of a harmonised understanding of formal peace education in the region.
The Nairobi Summit is by no means a singular engagement. It is rather a pilot initiative that hopefully will be expanded across all ICGLR member states because peace education is an invaluable investment for the future peace, security and prosperity of all member states, as well as the entire African continent.
Building peace is a collective effort in which every citizen and every stakeholder in the Great Lakes region has a role to play. We therefore call upon all key actors, to embrace the idea of peace education as a preventive measure, to help us plant this seed for lasting peace in the region.
Professor Ntumba Luaba is the executive secretary of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR)