East African countries should institutionalize national dialogues for sustainable peacebuilding
Under the first pillar of the United Nations principal of the responsibility to protect (R2P), the duty to protect citizens against mass atrocities lies primarily with states. Under the second pillar, the international community has a collective responsibility to support states in achieving this goal. It is only after pillars one and two have failed that pillar three would be triggered to supersede the principle of non-intervention and allow the international community to deploy other means including the use of force against a state that is unable or unwilling to implement R2P.
As a region, East Africa has witnessed many atrocities in the past and continues to struggle with containing tensions between ethnic groups within and between states. It is important for the sake of enhancing peace, that each state in the region consider investment in long-term inclusive national dialogue frameworks as peacebuilding mechanisms. Several scholars observe that many post-colonial states in Africa are not nations but rather groups of diverse nations forced to live together under the modern state structure within which they compete to control resources, including through violence. Institutionalized continuous dialogue would serve as an avenue for nation building between competing groups as states pursue critical economic and social development priorities with the limited resources available. Dialogue would continually absorb these tensions and lower ethnic based mistrust and the risk and costs of violent conflict, thereby freeing up more resources for development.
Rwanda is one country in the region, which has institutionalized a comprehensive national dialogue framework from which other neighbors could learn and adapt to their unique contexts. The framework has both horizontal and vertical levels for dialogue. At the horizontal level, dialogue and nation building activities occur between communities. One such activity is Umuganda, which is a form of unpaid community work introduced in 1998 as a way to rebuild the country after the 1994 genocide. It occurs every last Saturday of the month and lasts for three hours. Rwandan citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 years are obliged by law to take part in the activity. While the main organising principle under Umuganda is communal labour, it also offers a platform for citizens to discuss issues arising within their communities and to raise concerns with their leaders. These issues for discussion are identified at the level of the Mudugudu, a set of approximately 20 to 30 homes, and agreed upon with the village head. However, the village head also receives an agenda from the district level before the Umuganda. At the end of each discussion there may also be a conflict resolution space opened up for any conflict in the community.
At the vertical level, the Rwandan Constitution established a National Umushyikirano Council, which once a year brings together the President of Rwanda, citizens’ representatives and civil society to debate national issues and to promote national unity. The debate is broadcast live on television and radio, allowing citizens to participate with questions and comments by telephone on a toll-free number. The Umushyikirano results in resolutions that are referred to responsible Ministries for follow up and may eventually become law. Thus, this platform is critical for inclusive citizen participation and is a way for them to influence national laws and policies. It is also a way to cultivate a sense of belonging among Rwandans, to feel that they have a stake in the peace and stability of their country.
The implementation of this framework is by no means perfect and may indeed invite a host of criticisms surrounding exclusion and free speech among other issues. However, it is important not to obscure its significance for proactive nation building and Rwandans’ agency over their own peacebuilding processes. While the other countries in the region have national mechanisms to advance peace, these are mostly reactive in their operations. Uganda is currently holding consultations for a national dialogue to address several historically rooted national fault lines. However, it remains unknown whether this will be an isolated event or the Ugandan government will institutionalize it to ensure continuity.
Given the events currently unfolding in Venezuela and the recent history of intervention in Libya, it behooves East African states that are keen on preserving their sovereignty, to invest in long term dialogue frameworks as a way to exercise agency and institutionalize their own homegrown solutions for sustainable peacebuilding.