This week the world marks the International Day of Peace, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This year’s theme, “The Right to Peace,” sounds like a plaintive wish that seven decades after the devastation of World War II, humanity has advanced far enough to make peace an inalienable right.
Regrettably however, the commemoration comes at time when violent conflict is on the rise globally after nearly three decades of relative decline. Conflict trends in Eastern and Central Africa reflect this reality.
The region has experienced increased internal conflicts over the last three decades, perpetrated by an increasingly complex array of conflict actors, ranging from the rebels and militias of yore to human traffickers, violent extremists and terrorist groups whose violent actions transcend the national borders of the regional states, with constantly shifting tactics and epicentres.
Another trend is the increasing internationalisation of intra-state conflicts, made easier by the cross-border sprawl of ethnicities, identities, and mass population movement in the region.
A relatively high incidence of poverty has also left populations vulnerable to manipulation, based on real or perceived grievance, identity, ideology, or economic exclusion.
Concerned by these trends, the UN and the World Bank recently called for a shift towards the prevention of violent conflict as the principal route to peace, postulating that a renewed focus on prevention could save millions of lives, as well as an estimated $70 billion spent annually on crisis response and post conflict reconstruction.
Interpeace strongly supports this call for a refocus towards prevention, in line with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 that promotes peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.
Preventive peacebuilding is particularly urgent for this region because it is at a critical juncture in its march into the future. Most regional countries are on a growth trajectory and are making unprecedented advances in infrastructural development.
The region is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies, and some countries have been upgraded into emerging markets by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This growth potential is however stifled by the existence of some form of conflict in almost each country.
UNHCR estimates that there are at least five million refugees spread across the region. It goes without saying that the countries must firmly secure the peace to fully spur their growth and development, by identifying looming risks early and acting proactively to prevent conflicts from turning violent.
Such an approach to peacebuilding would certainly prevent the loss of lives that violence brings and would preclude the costly and unpredictable burden of resolving conflicts that have already turned violent.
One weak link in regional peacebuilding is the distance that often exists between governments and their citizens.
Interpeace believes in a culture of sustained engagement between governments and citizens, which enables decision-makers to put into consideration the priorities and aspirations of ordinary citizens.
Such a culture gives the citizens a sense of ownership of the national peace project and an innate obligation to protect it.
Having effective local infrastructures for peace would be additionally useful, allowing grassroots communities to prevent conflict without always waiting for the centre to intervene.
Interpeace encourages the capacity building of local level governance structures to enable them use dialogue, mediation and traditional mechanisms to resolve conflicts non-violently.
This is particularly integral in war-wracked countries, more so in cases where the national government has little more than a tenuous grip on some territories. In such situations, these local infrastructures for peace could simultaneously constitute some of the building blocks for bottom-up state reconstruction.
Considering the complex, cross-border and often mutating nature of the conflicts in Eastern and Central Africa, it is imperative for the individual states to craft forward-looking strategies for peace in a concerted, regional approach.
One important facet is to deliberately focus on the youth, who have historically played a central role in regional conflicts either through coercion, manipulation or desperation for lack of economic opportunities.
All the countries have young populations, and unemployment is one of the most pressing development problems facing the region.
To transform the youth bulge into a future demographic dividend, the countries need to invest in the economic empowerment of the youth, through quality education as well as expanding employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.
Another important task is the mainstreaming of peace education across the region, for both schooling and non-schooling youth. This is a long-term investment towards the formation of future generations of peace agents for the region.
Finally, it is necessary to emphasise the importance of inclusion as a critical pillar for sustainable peace. From over two decades’ experience building peace, Interpeace has observed that the roots of many conflicts across the world can be traced to some form of exclusion.
Preventive peacebuilding therefore requires governments pay attention to the grievances of groups that feel excluded; to embrace pluralism; and to demonstrate tolerance for non-violent civic action.
Any country that adapts to these ideals will undoubtedly be much better placed to stem simmering conflicts before they boil over.
Jean-Paul Mugiraneza is Interpeace’s Regional Director for Eastern and Central Africa. Philip Emase is the organisation’s Regional Communication Officer.