11 African Innovations in Peacebuilding

Nearly 40 African peacebuilding experts gathered at a recent conference on “Next Generation African Peacebuilding” convened by Wilton Park in partnership with the African Peacebuilding Network of the Social Science Research Council, New York and the African Leadership Centre, Nairobi, and supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It was an exceptionally rich and meaningful gathering. As one of a handful of white people at the conference, it struck me how different the conversation about Africa is when there are a majority of African people in the room leading the conversations.  Several years ago, I attended a panel on “Governance in Africa” at the World Bank. There were five white male panelists, the so-called “experts”.  It was unbelievable and unacceptable. There is no shortage of African scholars. There is sometimes an absence of a Western will to listen to them.

Liberal peacebuilding has tended to focus on elections and building state capacity for managing conflict. It is often built on the false assumption that “there is little or no local capacity” on the African continent. But this is a dangerous myth. African peacebuilding traditions are older and include a more diverse set of activities and actors than most Western leaders recognize.  Exploring “new approaches and actors” in “next generation” African peacebuilding creates an opportunity for reminding those leading the liberal peacebuilding agenda that they have underestimated and often failed to acknowledge African innovations in peacebuilding.

Liberal peacebuilding came after – not before – African peacebuilding. And it is liberal peacebuilding, with its overemphasis on the state, that needs to explore the powerful roles of the arts, youth, women, social movements, dialogue, transitional justice and other so-called “new” actors and approaches found on the African continent.

The African continent is often referred to as the cradle of humanity; all human beings carry a genetic tag indicating our ancestors were African. This tells us that all non-Africans today are migrants; our ancestors moved out of Africa.

It is not surprising then, that some of the most fundamental aspects of peacebuilding – a field of study and practice focused on addressing the root causes of conflict and fostering nonviolent social change – also have African roots. When I write and teach about peacebuilding, I almost always trace back to peacebuilding norms, ethics, practices, ideas  or examples that originated on the African continent.

There are African solutions to African problems. And we must also acknowledge that there are also African solutions to global problems. We have “amnesia of origin.” Westerners too often do not know, or forget, that many of the foundations in the field of peacebuilding are built on African innovations. Here are eleven examples:

  1. Ubuntu Ethics and Norms

Modern ethics and norms in the field of peacebuilding emerged out of religiously-motivated actors around the world, including in tribal African traditions. In southern Africa, the concept of Ubuntu translates as “I am because we are.” Ubuntu is the idea that people are human because they treat other people as humans. We lose our humanity when we act toward others in ways that are inhumane.

  1. African Palaver and Dialogue

Modern dialogue skills and peacebuilding processes draw on the tradition of the African palaver. The idea that listening is a skill, and that people can improve their relationships by talking with others with different ideas and experiences is not a modern intervention. The skills and process of dialogue are distilled from centuries of African tribal tradition.

  1. Reconciliation

Scholarly Western literature on reconciliation often begins with the writings of African scholar-practitioner Hizkias Assefa, author of  Peace and Reconciliation as a Paradigm: Implications on conflict, governance, and economic growth in Africa which traces the concept of reconciliation to its African origins. Desmond Tutu’s leadership in providing both a theology and practical route for reconciliation in South Africa is a cornerstone in every other Western book on reconciliation.

  1. Civil society networks for peacebuilding and local capacity for peace

The Nairobi Peace Initiative – Africa began in 1984 as one of the first examples of a civil society network of peace experts. Now led by Florence Mpaayai, NPI-African offers mediation and facilitation of conflicts across the continent. The West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) formed in 1998 and was one of the next generation of civil society networks devoted to local and regional peacebuilding. Sam Doe from Liberia and Emmanuel Habuka Bombande from Ghana translated the vision of WANEP into reality. Today both work at upper levels in the United Nations and are prime examples of how peacebuilding skills and ideas “trickle up” to international organizations. While Western elites often lament the “lack of local capacity” on the African continent, there has been an enormous blind spot for identifying the expertise and capacity emerging from communities across the continent.

  1. Women’s Networks for Peace

Local women’s networks for peace are prevalent across the African continent. In Liberia, women began organizing to bring an end to the civil war. The Liberia Women’s Mass Action for Peace is an inspiring story of Muslim and Christian women from different parts of society, including refugee women, working together to carry out a strategy that included a series of dialogues, nonviolent actions, and voter registration efforts that ended the war and elected the first female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Too often women’s peace networks have gone unrecognized, creating a perception that there is an absence of women’s leadership for peace. Increasingly there are African women also holding official positions, and using their political authority to make contributions to peace including Ethiopia’s new president Sahle-Work Zewde, UN deputy secretary general Amina Mohammed from Nigeria, Namibian Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, and many more.

  1. National Peace Councils, Infrastructure for Peace, and Civil-Military Coordination

Drawing on their civil society networks and expertise, Ghana and Kenya went on to play a key role in developing the idea of developing a national peace councils and “infrastructures for peace.” They set out to improve the state-society relationship so that governments, military, police and civil society actors like religious actors, tribal leaders, academics, local mediators and NGOs could create an “infrastructure” with a civilian “first resort” to respond to conflict that could help prevent a military “last resort” to intervention. This African innovation continues to be one of the most important elements of next-generation peacebuilding around the world. While liberal state-building initiatives have invested in expensive “train and equip” initiatives that boost African military power, relatively few African countries have done a “security sector reform” effort that has resulted in meaningful change in civil-military relations. Ghana’s innovative approach to civil-military relations offers a new paradigm for thinking about human security.

  1. Transitional Justice

The idea that the end of a civil war required a process for identifying methods of transitional justice that held offenders accountable, provided some sense of justice or reparation to victims and allowed for national reconciliation grew out of the early experience in South Africa’s National Truth and Justice process in 1995. Sierra Leone and Rwanda’s experiences in transitional justice have continued to inform the best and worst practices of transitional justice. And Rwanda’s “Gacaca Court” adapted a process of community justice or “justice among the grass” to the transition after the genocide. The African continent has innovated new methods and approaches to political transitions through these transitional justice processes.

  1. Nonviolent Action/Social Movements

The idea that social movements could use nonviolent action tactics to shift power and press for change that would translate to greater leverage for civilian power in the negotiating room is not a new idea. But some of the world’s best examples of the synergy between nonviolent action and peacebuilding came to life in South Africa, Liberia, and Tunisia. In each of these African countries, public protest and other nonviolent tactics enabled civilian actors to have greater leverage at the negotiation table to bring an end to violence and political conflict.

  1. Ritual, Arts and Culture to Address Trauma and Call for Change

The idea that arts and culture are tools for resisting injustice, calling for peace, and transcending and healing trauma has been widely popular across the African continent for decades if not centuries. Across the African continent, drumming, singing, poetry, and dancing are explicitly used as methods for social cohesion and healing. African artistic and cultural artistic traditions are found in every global analysis of the role of arts and culture in peacebuilding. Recent neuroscience research suggests that African drumming has a dramatic effect on the functioning of the brain, decreasing depression and increasing functioning in the frontal cortex responsible for advanced problem-solving. In Mozambique and other African countries that have gone through a post-war transition requiring reintegration of former soldiers, traditional cleansing rituals have been an important part of social cohesion and stabilization following war. The largest slave-trading center in West Africa has been turned into an artist’s colony on the Island of Goréeoff of the coast of Senegal. And African scholars such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’oand Okot p’Bitekoffer to the world some of the most compelling political philosophies of the role of the arts in political change.

  1. New Conceptions of Governance, the State, and Human Security

The idea that the state may not be the best way of organizing society and may in fact be increasing conflict is not specific to the African continent. But African scholars like Mahmoud Mamdani and Francis Deng have been clear and influential in their critique of the state as an obstacle to peace. When white western colonial governments divided up the continent of Africa, they drew arbitrary lines that divided tribes and set in motion centuries of colonial and post-colonial conflict. African scholars offer a sharp critique of liberal peacebuilding, with its emphasis on military solutions and state legitimacy stemming from a monopoly of force rather than the provision of public goods and human security. In 2017, a UNDP study on violent extremism in Africa offered new evidence that that corruption and problems with governance correlate with and fuel violent extremism.

  1. Social media and peacebuilding

Technology is playing new roles in both tearing down and building up social cohesion. During Kenya’s 2008 election, a new form of “peacetech” helped to quell public electoral violent. The Ushahidi platform allowed citizens in the country to report on the outbreak of violence. The story of Ushahidi positive impact in preventing violence is recorded as one of the earliest examples of the positive role social media technology could play in peacebuilding.


Africa faces new opportunities and challenges.  There is a new scramble for Africa that brings a danger of more “divide and conquer” strategies and exploitation, but also the possibility of new partnerships and growth based on the tremendous local capacities, approaches, and actors working for change. 

With immense gratitude to many African colleagues who have challenged me, taught me, and generously provided patience to me and others as we learned from them:

 Sam Gbaydee Doe, Emmanuel Habuka Bombande, Babu Ayindo, Florence Mpayai, Hizkias Assefa, Anne Nyambura, Gopar Tapkida, Mawuli Dake, Millicent Otieno, Mary Walala, Fabrice J. Guerrier, Karimi Kinoti, Patience Kamau, Leymah Gbowee, Thelma Ekiyor, Suifon Takwa, Judith Mandillah, Rachel Mutai-C,  Taziwa Machiwana, Jacinta Makokha, Wore Ndiahye, Jean Claude Nkundwa, Frank B Msambya, Opata Paul, Jean Esdrace-Charles, Mawuli Dake, Bijoue Togoh Birch, Boniface Cheembe, Florence Batoni, Janine Gemay Aberg, Fabrice J Guerrier, Levinia Addae-Mensah, Alfiado Zunguza, Emmanuel Adeboa, Waswa Wakwabubi, Tony Karbo, Colins Edozie Imoh, John Chol Daau, Wafula Okumu, Emmanuel Ole Sayiorry

And in memoriam to three exceptional women peacebuilders who left this world too soon, but made their mark on it:

Rose Barmasai, Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, Doreen Ruto Jemutai


  1. Dear Lisa,

    Glad to read more on the presentation you made at Wilton Park. Was honoured to meet you. All the best!

  2. Dear Lisa.. am gland to have read and understand the good work your doing. To african couties. Am so happy. Again Lisa am also a peace activist in kenya and i have done Several Peace activities and projects… am also willing to tender ma request to you. If i can join you. To trasform peace. In the world. Lisa kindly my link is https://www.facebook.com/876443825705524/posts/1651858031497429/?app=fbl and see some of my vew activities.

    Thanks in advance

  3. Hi Lisa, enjoyed very much this blog. After reading your first two AFR contributions – Ubuntu and Dialog, with which I agree, I decided to write down my top nine. We find lots of overlap. Here they are: 3) Forgiveness; 4) Reconciliation; 5) Restorative Justice; 6) Consensus; 7) Group-Community Ownership; 8) Art forms including theater, dance, and music; 9) Cultural forms including sports competitions, story-telling, spirituality; 10) Unity – unity governments, inter-faith platforms, inter-communal associations; 11) Celebrations. Thanks for the sharing.

  4. Hi Lisa,

    Another nice piece of work, and a great “tour d’horizon” for non-Africanists.

    Another important institution to look at, according to Chebani Coulibaly, of the University of Mande in Mali, is “Kafo,” or peer-based solidarity groups. They figure primarily in “bonding” social capital and often form the basis of larger affinity-based socioeconomic, governance and peacebuilding structures. If you’d like Chebani’s contact information, let me know. N.B. He’s a Francophone with limited English speaking.

  5. Great to read all these important and impressive information!!
    Du courage a vous!!!!

  6. Thank you Lisa. The spectre of African initiatives that you have captured, is amazing and i am so glad, to be part of your co-learning and sharing team from Africa.

    Best wishes,


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