In a speech at the fifth United Nations-African Union Annual Conference on 1 December 2021 in New York, Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres called for continued unity and a high standard of regional co-operation on the African continent. According to Guterres, examples of this high standard of cooperation can be seen in the joint missions and collaborative frameworks designed to overcome both new and old challenges around peace and security. However, since not only states play a vital role in this unity it is important to review the role of non-state actors in peace and security on the African continent.
Analyses of peace processes have shown that they are more successful if local actors and civil society organizations (CSOs) are included in the process, as there are ways in which civil society-driven approaches can effectively steer change on the ground. This inclusion happens, for example, in mediation practice, in work within communities, especially involving women and youth, as well as in workshops and educational projects. These vibrant activities of civil society and CSOs can be found in the areas of the African continent that are the focus of this blog series, for example the women in Liberia that are seen as the guardians for peace with to their campaigns and public gatherings. Ensuring durable peace and security means acknowledging and addressing the complexities of global security threats and the need for a multi-sectoral approach to peacebuilding. This includes reflections on colonial continuities in peacebuilding (underlying paradigms of war/ violence or the idea of a liberal development for post-conflict states) in order to pave the way for a more just, sustainable and decolonial peace.
(Non-)Cooperation between non-state actors and the African Union
At present, UN peacekeeping operations take place across the African continent, and within this larger process the number of CSOs active in peacebuilding is increasing. Over the past years, the number of local and international CSOs working in the context of conflict prevention and peace-making has increased on the African continent, as have cooperations with the eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Additionally, the African Union (AU) has highlighted the importance of local actors, especially CSOs, and aims to mainstream these contributions throughout all AU principles, policies and programs. Nonetheless, the inclusion of local actors and CSOs in the peacebuilding process is often not as smooth as it could be, for example due to structural or administrative challenges, such as long waiting times for application processes or the need for a formal registration.
Therefore, the need for a greater involvement of local actors in peacebuilding or mediation, a need for a stronger cooperation between civil and military actors in peacebuilding, and a more comprehensive and structured approach to share agency and foster cooperation (for example with guidelines or mandatory number of CSOs included in peacebuilding processes) are highlighted by various actors from research and practice around the globe. The inclusion of local actors—such as religious leaders, activists, or in a more formalized way, CSOs—still only remains a small part of the work of the AU in their peacebuilding activities and especially in mediation and training. This is despite the fact that the policies and protocols of the AU pay lip service to the notion of enabling the involvement of local actors in the implementation of AU’s program. There are various CSOs that carry out peacebuilding activities; some do this voluntarily on their own, some do it with the help of international funds or cooperation with international CSOs, and others do this by ensuring inter-African cooperation or under the umbrella of various UN or AU programs or funds.
Lack of Funding and Shrinking Civic Spaces
However, many CSOs face myriad challenges, such as limited or lack of funding that is often left for external donors, and this is especially the case for organisations that are locally-based. This is particularly challenging as not all national governments support CSOs in their work. In other countries, CSOs are facing shrinking spaces, i.e. the room for their actions is being limited and restricted, as well as political restrictions. Therefore CSOs often rely on international support through cooperation with organisations from the Global North, which can also be a challenge, for instance when it comes to program design or ownership. It gives actors from the Global North the chance to influence the work of the actors on the ground, bypassing local policies and ideas. Further, it can result in dependencies and concepts from the outside, which are then imposed on local actors without taking the agency that they already have into account. It is paradoxical: on one hand, local ownership that has already existed over years is not seen and taken into account by international CSOs. On the other hand, and at the same time, those international CSOs design their programs with the aim of increasing local ownership over time. Additionally, it should be mentioned that not only CSOs are dependent on external funding, but the AU as such also highly depends on external financial resources and also gets support for example by Germany for implementing APSA programs. Since external support favors some regions on the continent at the detriment of others, this can be perceived as unjust.
A path towards a decolonial peace?
Considering these institutional and organisational problems, it is important to critically discuss what roles colonial continuities and global power structures play in peacebuilding cooperation. Another question is whether involving local CSOs in AU peacebuilding efforts can increase African agency, and whether this is a step towards decolonial peace. Decolonial peace within the AU’s peace operations and cooperation with CSOs would mean that colonial continuities are reflected in all aspects of their work and in the analysis of conflicts, war and violence. Further, it means that euro-centric practices are challenged and not uncritically mainstreamed. Looking at the AU at the present moment, it can be said with regard to external involvement that colonial continuities and global power structures play a major role, especially in peace work. Therefore, it is highly recommend that all actors involved learn to deal with their colonial heritage in order to pave the way for decolonial peace. This kind of critical relfection increases agency for African actors, be it governments, regional and sub-regional organisations, civil society and others. To this end, CSOs can be identified as a driver for this process, as they can take a critical position in decolonizing the African peace and security architecture.
What is next?
While the above aimed to underline the gaps and opportunities in Africa’s proactiveness in terms of involving local actors in peace initiatives, and there are at present many good ideas and practices, much more needs to be done. In particular, it is important to include more civil society-driven approaches, to utilize the agency of the people that can effectively steer change at the grassroots level. This can be done, for example, by starting an outreach program before the deployment of a peacebuilding operation, in order to collect local ideas and voices and to ensure inclusion of all the relevant local actors on site; by combined mediation efforts by various actors; or by a continuous reporting between civil society and other actors in a peacebuilding situation. Additionally, with regard to colonial continuities, changes must be made in order to enhance local agency. To foster agency for African actors, be it governments, regional and sub-regional organisations, civil society and others, it is necessary for all involved to deal with the colonial heritage that is still inherent to peace processes. To this end, CSOs can be identified as a driver for this process, as they can take a critical stance towards certain topics and foster discussions amongst various actors.