UNESCO study suggests universities should work harder at peacebuilding in East Africa

The study noted there is also a need for universities in the region to add African indigenous mechanisms of dispute resolution to their curricula as areas of study, as peace-building is not new in Africa and the continent has a rich history of diverse approaches to conflict resolution.

(Reposted from: University World News – Africa Edition, June 8, 2023)

By Wachira Kigotho

Universities in East Africa have been urged to become agents of peacebuilding and conflict resolution in the region, where many people are living in poverty and are confronted by extremist violence and ongoing ethnic conflicts. They can take up this role by introducing comprehensive peace education in their curricula.

The call was made by the UNESCO office in Nairobi and UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Science in Africa in a study, ‘Higher Education, Peace and Security in the Eastern Africa Region’, that stressed the urgency of higher education to produce knowledge that is relevant to address the root causes and challenges of peace-building in the region.

Read: ‘Higher Education, Peace and Security in the Eastern Africa Region’

The region covers countries of the Horn of Africa, namely, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan as well as Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

Sabiti Makara, a professor of political science at Makerere University in Uganda, and the study’s lead investigator, as well as his co-authors, Ngandeu Ngatta, the head of social and human sciences at the UNESCO office in Nairobi, and programme coordinators Dr Abdul Rahman Lamin, Hugue Charnie and Bader Alamri, faulted universities in the region for not coming up with robust and fresh ideas on diversity management, nation-building and conflict resolution.

Limited academic engagement

According to Makara and his associates, there has been very little academic engagement by the universities about the causes of conflicts that are characterised by weak states, fragile national institutions, a lack of democratic norms in terms of free and fair elections, competition for natural resources by different ethnic groups and the marginalisation of civil societies in conflict resolution.

Such vulnerabilities, according to the study, have triggered internal battles among groups trying to gain control of the state, or ethnic groups fighting, not just to control natural resources, but seeking greater autonomy from the state, or seeking the right to secede and establish their own state.

Conflicts in the region have also emerged in failed states where the authority of a national government has collapsed and armed groups struggle to seize control of the state. Hostilities are also common in the region in some of the impoverished states where citizens find socio-economic situations unbearable and flee to other countries or rebel against the government.

According to the study, the region’s huge mosaic of linguistic groups and their diverse identities and cultures have given rise to radical religious groups that have adopted extremist political, social or religious ideals that reject contemporary ideas of freedom of choice.

That type of extremism is associated with dissident groups such as the Al-Shabab in Somalia, Lord’s Resistance Army, and Allied Democratic Forces based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and western Uganda, and other extremist groups linked to them.

Whereas those groups usually use religion, though not for religious piety but for capture of power, Makara and his co-researchers noted that little is taught in the universities about the factors that give rise to such radical groups, their mode of recruitment or their real motives.

Specialised course units on peace-building

Lacking in most universities are specialised course units in peace-building as well as a broad knowledge on respect for diversity, human rights, gender equality, democratic participation and regional integration.

Makara and his associate researchers wondered as to how many universities were promoting a culture of peace in terms of engaging their students on values, attitudes and behaviour that reflect on respect for human life, human dignity and rejection of violence.

Lacking in most universities are specialised course units in peace-building as well as a broad knowledge on respect for diversity, human rights, gender equality, democratic participation and regional integration.

But researchers singled out the Uongozi Institute of East Africa, a leadership institute that is embedded at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania that brings together bright students from universities across eastern Africa for a six-week residential training course on leadership.

According to the study, the training focuses mainly on intellectual debates on African challenges, critical thinking, values of teamwork, pan-Africanism and regional cooperation.

Taking into account that universities in the region could be instrumental to advancing peace education, research on conflict resolution and studies on socio-economic cooperation, the study stressed the need for similar initiatives as that at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Highlighted were suggestions that the Uongozi academy could be empowered to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) or real-time virtual online learning.

“It is conceivable that a consortium of universities in the region can develop online courses on conflict management, violent extremism, terrorism, and global citizenship education,” stated the study.

Tapping into indigenous peace-building mechanisms

The study noted there is also a need for universities in the region to add African indigenous mechanisms of dispute resolution to their curricula as areas of study, as peace-building is not new in Africa and the continent has a rich history of diverse approaches to conflict resolution.

According to the study, most of the African traditional justice systems operate under ubuntu, a philosophical concept based on communal survival, solidarity, compassion, respect and dignity.

In this context, researchers argued that students of conflict resolution should understand how African indigenous institutions such as Gacaca in Rwanda, Akiriket among the Karamoja in Uganda, Abba Gada among the Oromo in Ethiopia, Sultans of Somalia, and Kaya elders among the coastal ethnic groups in Kenya, and so many others have settled disputes in the communities.

Unfortunately, despite a rich culture of peace-making in eastern Africa, most of the traditional systems of justice are currently ignored, or rarely used in most countries in the region, although the region is ravaged by almost endless conflicts. In this case, the long-term survival of those valuable institutions is under threat and probably the time is now for universities to save them.

To date, there are hardly any universities, or other tertiary institutions within eastern Africa, that have incorporated traditional systems of peacemaking in their curricula, according to the study.

Despite such omissions, scholars in the region are divided as to which academic disciplines, the humanities and physical sciences, have more impact in peace-building and conflict resolution.

A multidisciplinary approach

The study argues that peace-building and conflict avoidance in eastern Africa should take a multi-disciplinary approach by integrating varied knowledge and skills in peace education.

Even then, some of the weaknesses of universities in eastern Africa that were identified by researchers included the inability to facilitate research across countries, low levels of student exchange programmes and weak funding for research.

Quoting a study by Kenneth Omeje, ‘Strengthening Peace Research and Peace Education in African Universities’, Makara and his associates noted that African universities are partisan in their offerings of peace studies as, where they existed, such courses were mostly concentrated in the departments of social sciences and humanities, thereby excluding students in other disciplines.

Omeje is an expert on peace issues in Africa and he is currently a professor of development studies at the University of South Africa.

But Makara and his associates were quick to add that, whereas universities in eastern Africa and elsewhere on the continent have an opportunity to promote peace by creating awareness through conflict-resolution initiatives, democracy in eastern Africa too often ends at the ballot.

According to the study, most East African countries are plagued by elite corruption, state capture, repressive laws and policies and failure by governments to deliver services such as quality education, healthcare and infrastructure. Subsequently, people’s frustration with lack of services, human rights abuses and vote-rigging eventually develops into high-intensity conflicts.

The study also noted that, whereas critics may blame the universities for a paucity of peace studies, there is a need to understand that many political elites in eastern Africa exploit the situation of uneven development in their efforts to gain power.

In their recommendations, the researchers urged governments and universities to establish and to strengthen studies, research, workshops, seminars and documentation centres dedicated to the study and challenges of resolving local ethnic disputes and preventing regional conflicts.

A recommendation was made for governments in the region to work with the universities to build knowledge on climate change, as well as develop capacities of communities that depend on pastoralism and agriculture as their livelihood in order to reduce competition for resources.

But for those initiatives to succeed, governments and universities in the region would have to address causes and challenges of widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, failure of political institutions, conflicts over natural resources, religious extremism and social exclusion.

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