Comparative Perspectives on Societies in Transition – Sub-Saharan Africa between Conflict and Reconciliation: Lessons for Northern Ireland?

image I spent ten days last month at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, at a summer school titled ‘Societies in Transition: Sub-Saharan Africa between Conflict and Reconciliation.’

Between students and the plenary speakers there were about 30 people there, from, I think, 18 different countries. My presentation was on ‘Zimbabwe: Exploring Reconstruction and Reconciliation.’ Other speakers focused on South Africa, Namibia, the Great Lakes Region, Uganda, Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast, Darfur and the Niger Delta.

I don’t have anywhere near expert knowledge on most of those contexts, but was grateful for the opportunity to hear from people who do.

Comparing different contexts should ideally shake us out of any temptation towards navel-gazing, lethargy, or defeatism about the contexts with which we are most familiar or most immersed.

As readers of this blog will know, my research focuses mainly on Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe, the Republic of Ireland and South Africa. Living in Belfast means that I live in a place where many of the debates raised at this comparative summer school on Africa – such as how to deal with the past, or how to help victims of conflict recover from trauma – are very much alive.

At one level I find the comparative perspectives comforting. Seeing how difficult it is to come to terms with the past in so many different contexts, not just Northern Ireland, heightens my appreciation for how much healing and reconciliation really do tax and try the human spirit.

In I admit a rather sad way, it comforts me that other societies also find it so difficult to deal with their violent pasts. Northern Ireland is not alone in finding dealing with the past a massive challenge. In that, perhaps, we are ‘normal.’

I am also encouraged that other societies have been willing to make the difficult choice of establishing truth commissions. Of course, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the most touted example of this.

The South African TRC has had its critics. For example, questions have been raised about the genuineness of the ‘forgiveness’ offered at its public hearings, its offer of amnesty for perpetrators has been deemed ‘unjust’, and the failure of the Government to follow through on promised reparations has been devastating for the victims, many of whom continue to suffer psychological trauma.

But for me the most important aspect of the South African TRC was that it was a public platform on which the suffering of victims was acknowledged. National and international media reported on it extensively. People were able, in many cases, to find out exactly what happened to their loved ones.

In some ways it was like society saying to people: ‘what happened to you was wrong.’

Post-conflict societies are of course complex, and it takes more than ‘acknowledgement’ to progress towards what we here in Northern Ireland sometimes call a ‘shared future.’

My colleague on our Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Dr David Tombs, teaches a module called ‘Dynamics of Reconciliation.’ This module delves much more into the complexities of what happens ‘between conflict and transition,’ with sessions on (just to name a few):

  • Components of Reconciliation
  • Victims and Survivors
  • Combatants, Beneficiaries and Bystanders
  • Healing: Trauma and Trust
  • Justice: Retributive, Restorative, Distributive
  • Acknowledgement: Apology, Contrition, Forgiveness, Reparation

Speaking at the launch of our Master’s programme in October 2010, Dame Nuala O’Loan said that on average, peace agreements hold for about 15 years before significant violence resumes again. For there to be a sustainable transition to peace, the past must be ‘dealt with’ in sensitive and comprehensive way.

It has been more than 13 years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and Northern Ireland still has not begun to deal with its past in a sensitive and comprehensive way. Many options have been discussed, some of them even informed by the comparative perspectives and the nuanced scholarship (like that explored in Dr Tombs’ module) that I have mentioned so briefly in this post.

But for Northern Ireland or anywhere else, forgetting the past is not a realistic option. What I learned at the summer school reminded me of that once again.

Image: Trinity College-associated participants at the summer school (left to right): Franka Winter from Germany, doctoral candidate in the Irish School of Ecumenics (political sociology) TCD, Gavin Glynn from Ireland, graduate of the MPhil in Reconciliation Studies and a doctoral candidate in Global Health in TCD, Gladys Ganiel, Lecturer in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at TCD, and Joram Tarusarira from Zimbabwe, graduate of the MPhil in Reconciliation Studies and a doctoral candidate in African Studies at the University of Leipzig.

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