Monday, March 6, 2017

Oiling the engine, fireproofing the engine.

I was honoured to attend a meeting last week of community stakeholders, where peace and conflict were discussed at length. The meeting was attended by 26 members, from RIC-NET, Bundibugyo district local government, the intelligence and security services, the OBB and OBR cultural institute, and religious institutions, as well as LCIII's and Foot Peace Ambassadors from various CBOs.

Since the education range in the room was broad, many speakers realized how important it was to express their ideas with clarity. Therefore, the discussion touched on various metaphors to understand approaches to peace-building and conflict management. A warning was made that when ridding fields of a virulent weed, one should not only remove the leaves, not only the stem, but also the roots. A similar argument was made that strategies should address diseases entirely, not merely their symptoms. These are all useful to frame ideas, but do not make long term strategy any clearer. ‘Conflict’, just like ‘peace’ is not an object or a single set of behaviors. It is the outcome of sets of other human behavior. People are not diseases or weeds, and though some parts of their actions might be seen as such, they can’t be poisoned, yanked from the soil, or otherwise without the threat of damage.

Discussions of bottom-up and top-down methods caught my attention, approaching the problem either through political power-centers or the broader population. How can this be expanded to a broader idea that is simple to understand?

One struck me during the meeting: of fire, fuel, and sparks. Violent conflict is fire. Sparks come from friction and collisions between hard materials: stone, wood, metal. These are manifest as instigation by groups and individuals who have specific disputes with other individuals. If the sparks fall on flammable material, all goes up in flames. Yet just like a great machine, Ugandan society is constantly in motion, and increasingly so. Traditional societies are like elegant wooden chairs, or wooden hand-carts. 

The machinery was not complex, the movement limited. Kings ruled ethnic constituencies, people farmed for their livelihoods, government was face-to-face and life generally predictable. The colonial and post-colonial states arrived with their organised economies, highly regulated legal systems, large armies, roads, vehicles, science. They are like their engines and machines, forged of metal, with many moving parts, though unlike real engines, constantly in a process of being built. But still, traditionalism remains in the fringes, and there are more sparks emerging from the machine: electoral politics, cultural institutions, patronage for state integration, and struggles for economic opportunity. These sparks fall on flammable material, and can burst into flames. Of course even the best-tuned engines can catch fire: violence occurs in all sorts of circumstances. Yet here we have two ways of governing life interacting and coexisting, and occasionally burning itself.

What therefore is to be done? Some want the furniture to be kept away from the engine: a separate kingdom state. Some want the furniture gone altogether: full modernisation and integration. The former will leave the furniture without motion. The latter is only possible piece by piece, the slow transformation from a wooden frame to a steel one. It is long term, and any conflagrations only set back the changes: the wooden pieces burn, some metal breaks, and the whole is left damaged.   

This metaphor gives us some key guiding principles for community peace building efforts. First, they should make the components less flammable. Peace narratives, the erosion of ethnic narratives and realisation of the consequences of violence make the people less likely to burst into flames when sparks arrive from above. The ideal goal is a fully fireproofed population, who will not respond violently either to their peers or their leaders. Second, interventions should reduce friction: engine oil is necessary between moving metal parts, and legal, peaceful dispute resolution and dialogue are essential for power holders not to clash. Third, some moving parts may need to be realigned. This is a careful and difficult process, like resetting a cog in motion. Movement in engines, just as interests in politics, is inevitable and desirable. But sometimes a part moves against others, and needs realignment. It will resist shifting back, but once in alignment should stay there, as its own motion will be smoother. It cannot be removed, nor should it. It cannot be stopped, nor should it. But shifting its movement back into alignment is essential for the running of the machine. Troublesome leaders will gain more from legal engagement, but must be allowed to do so, not blocked within legitimate channels. Fourth, neither metal nor wood is ‘wrong’. What is important is their means of interaction. I have often heard the argument that the traditional, magical or cultural elements in the equation should catch up with the 21st century. But this is a slow process, as I mentioned. One does not tear down a wooden house after placing a generator inside for fear of fire: you still need somewhere to live and sleep. 
BY Patrick Edmound
Student Intern