Mapping Reconciliation Processes in Africa: A Project Set to Fail or A Possible Gateway to Further Research?

Mapping Reconciliation Processes in Africa: A Project Set to Fail or A Possible Gateway to Further Research?

After a violent conflict, governments are under pressure from the international community and their own citizens to engage in processes that will lead to reconciliation. In recent years, clauses on reconciliation have been included in peace agreements and constitutions, and post-conflict policies and laws have been created to guide reconciliation processes, particularly in Africa. Reconciliation has become part of the national discourse, with commissions established to facilitate its progress, both institutionally and in communities. Yet what reconciliation actually refers to, how it should be implemented, and how to assess its level of effectiveness remains a challenge. One way to learn more is to map processes across the African continent to gain a sense of what various countries have attempted to achieve in terms of reconciliation.

Several related comparative databases exist. For example, the Uppsala Conflict Database describes the conflicts occurring in almost every country in the world. A group from Oxford University has developed a Transitional Justice Database, which describes the investigations, truth commissions, reparations, lustrations, and amnesties that have been implemented since the 1970s. Is it possible, building on these foundations, to create a similar database of reconciliation processes?

The answer, for many reasons, appears to be no, and a project of this nature is set to fail. Some reasons include the difficulty of defining what reconciliation is, particularly in a political context; identifying which processes contribute to reconciliation; and comparing one process with another. Working with such a nebulous term amplifies the challenges inherent in any comparative work. And yet, a database may be exactly what is needed to move forward in our ability to understand and work with the term. Although fraught with pitfalls, a comprehensive mapping of reconciliation processes across the continent will enable us to identify certain trends, patterns, and pointers for further research, and will perhaps lead to more robust conceptualizations and practices in the future.

A Project Set to Fail

According to Eric Doxtader, no two commissioners from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would define reconciliation the same way.1 One can understand why; the only constant across all the books, articles, handbooks, and policy briefs that talk about reconciliation seems to be the lack of a consistent definition. One could arrange all the definitions that have been put forward along a spectrum, from peaceful coexistence between antagonists, on the “thin” end, to a restored relationship, on the “thick.” Thin definitions are rarely accepted as sufficient, but neither do many embrace the thick definition that, for example, John Lederach describes in his model of reconciliation—that is, people on all sides of the conflict engaging each other as “humans-in-relationship.”2

Despite having a long history in the theological and philosophical traditions, the term reconciliation has been difficult to conceptualize in the political arena. Andrew Schaap believes a theological understanding includes a community’s process of restoration through the admission of guilt and the offering of forgiveness, while politically speaking, reconciliation has more to do with conflicting groups of people and their ability to imagine a shared collective identity and future together in a nation state.3 Similarly, Lydiah Bosire suggests political reconciliation is about citizens being able to trust each other as citizens and to have confidence in their ruling institutions.4

Some scholars have suggested differentiating between interpersonal and national reconciliation, or, rather, between interpersonal and institutional reconciliation. Here, interpersonal reconciliation refers to the restoring of relationships among individuals and within communities, while institutional reconciliation involves the institutions that ensure peaceful coexistence nationwide. Others would argue, however, that to use the word “reconciliation” in the political sphere is to abuse it, and that by doing so the overall process, which engages elite actors, becomes more of an effort to consolidate democracy, and very little to do with actual reconciliation per se.

The difficulty of defining reconciliation or understanding what it means in the political sphere therefore makes it almost impossible to say what might be included in a database of reconciliation processes.

Beyond defining the term, another essential question is whether reconciliation is a process or a goal. In the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s (IDEA) Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: A Handbook, David Bloomfield et al. argue it is both. While the goal of reconciliation is a future aspiration or ideal state, the process is “very much a present tense way of dealing with how things are.”5 One could add that the process is observable and consists of identifiable approaches and activities that one can then analyze. For example, the use of transitional justice mechanisms, the payment of reparations, the reintegration of ex-combatants, and projects that facilitate dialogue within communities could all be seen as activities that contribute to reconciliation.

But elite actors seem often to use the term reconciliation to mean something different than what is understood by individuals affected by the conflict. Elite actors may equate reconciliation with social cohesion or with nation building through the formation of a united national identity, while individuals and communities may be more interested in dialogue and the voicing of long-held wounds and resentment, resulting, perhaps, in healing, but not necessarily participating in a particular kind of national identity.

Even if one were able to develop a consistent and useful definition of reconciliation and could identify specific activities and approaches that allowed  elite actors to contribute to it, knowing how to include the activities of the countless civil society organizations, which have often been working toward reconciliation long before the conflict has come to an end, would be difficult.

A final pitfall to carrying out a project of this kind is generating enough desire to develop a database of reconciliation processes in Africa, when the diversity of the continent–and the arguably more obvious relationship of northern Africa with the Middle East than with the rest of Africa–brings doubt to its validity.

A Possible Gateway to Further Research

Even in the face of all these challenges, a database of reconciliation processes in the African context nevertheless has the potential to create a common starting point for talking about reconciliation in the political sphere, and it may bring attention to trends and patterns that in-depth case studies cannot reveal on their own.

One way of imagining this database is to identify all the processes intended to contribute to reconciliation along a spectrum, and arrange them from those likely to contribute to thin reconciliation to those contributing to thick reconciliation. For example, peace agreements, constitutions, policies, and laws related to reconciliation are intended to ensure peaceful coexistence between former antagonists, while dialogue in communities is intended to facilitate community healing and the restoring of relationships.

Using this method, one can begin to identify to what extent different countries have or have not implemented processes intended to contribute to reconciliation. For example, elite actors in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Kenya have implemented many such processes, whereas those in Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, and Eritrea have not initiated many at all. Although the database would not allow us to say much about the quality of the reconciliation process, we could use it to begin identifying interesting trends. For example, no southern African country apart from South Africa has engaged in an intensive national reconciliation process. Although influential in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa’s approach to national reconciliation has had little impact on its neighbors. This is worth exploring further. By identifying countries that have had many elite-driven processes and comparing them to those with few in number, we can begin to ask important questions, such as whether or not all the attempts made by elite actors to facilitate reconciliation have actually resulted in greater peace and stability. For instance, is Mozambique, which has had little “top-down” reconciliation but a lot of community-initiated healing, worse off than some of the countries with very visible national reconciliation processes?

A more nuanced approach to a large-sample study such as this one is to undertake a discourse analysis, examining when the term reconciliation is used, how it is used, and whether its use changes during the transition period. Particularly with regard to the discourse of elite actors, it would be interesting to follow the trajectory of the use of the word “reconciliation,” from the peace agreement through to the transitional justice mechanisms implemented and then fifteen or twenty years afterward, to see if the meaning has shifted. In the emerging cases of Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, and Burundi, for example, the way the term has been used has changed considerably as the countries have moved through different stages of transition.

What would make an African database of particularly interesting is the unique trajectory of reconciliation across the continent’s political sphere. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in South Africa in the late 1990s has been influential, particularly with South Africans acting as mediators in several African conflicts since then, bringing a distinctly South African flavor to the kind of reconciliation discourse that finds its way into peace agreements and transitional justice mechanisms. But other issues, such as the history of colonialism, the (albeit contentious) existence of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, and the tendency toward restorative justice across the continent, make the African context distinct. Unlike in South America and Eastern Europe, many conflicts in Africa have been resolved through power-sharing agreements and governments of national unity, which have had a unique impact on national reconciliation processes. Beyond that, there is the ongoing debate as to whether “liberal democracy,” with its assumptions about the nation state, nation building, state building, and citizenship has the same traction in Africa as in other contexts. Since reconciliation at a political level is often equated with nation building through forming a united national identity, the ways in which issues of state, nation, and citizenship are imagined has an impact on how it is conceptualized.

There are, then, some good reasons to pursue the creation of a database of reconciliation processes in the African context. However, challenges to the conceptualization of reconciliation, particularly in the political sphere, remain. A starting point then may be to challenge conceptions of reconciliation as they appear in political discourse, particularly when references to reconciliation made by political elites are used as mere instrumentalization,6 or when it is assumed that there is a shared understanding of what the term means.7 How reconciliation is conceptualized ultimately has implications for the policy frameworks currently being developed in the African Union and United Nations, as well as for the way reconciliation is being facilitated by governments after violent conflict.

  1. Doxtader, E. 2003. Reconciliation—a rhetorical concept/ion. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 89(4): 267-292.
  2. Lederach, J. 1997. Building peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington, D.C. United States Institute of Peace Press: 26.
  3. Schaap, A. 2003. The time of reconciliation and the space of politics. The University of Melbourne, Australia Working Paper 2003/8 Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE): 4.
  4. Bosire, L. 2006. Overpromised, underdelivered: Transitional Justice in Sub-Saharan Africa. International Center for Transitional Justice Occasional Paper Series: 143.
  5. Bloomfield, D., Barnes, T. & Huyse, L. 2003. Reconciliation after violent conflict: A handbook. Stockholm: IDEA International: 12.
  6. See for example Wilson, R.A. 2001. The politics of truth and reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 13–18 and Zorbas, E. 2009. What does reconciliation after genocide mean? Public transcripts and hidden transcripts in post-genocide Rwanda. Journal of Genocide Research 11(1): 127-147.
  7. Hugo Van der Merwe describes this in his thesis where he compares conceptualizations of reconciliation between political elites and communities: Van der Merwe, H. 1999. Reconciliation commission and community reconciliation: An analysis of competing strategies and conceptualizations. A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Ph.D. at George Mason University.
About the Author

Cori Wielenga is a research fellow in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Her research interests include reconciliation and post-conflict recovery on the African continent. She has undertaken extensive ethnographic research in Rwanda and Burundi.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
comments powered by Disqus