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Blessed are the Peacemakers

If you take just a cursory glance at the headlines from Africa, it’s easy to get the impression that the continent is torn apart by wars, from Cote d’Ivoire to Darfur. Looking closely at the numbers, as the Uppsala Conflict Data Project does, a different story emerges. While Africa still hosts more major conflicts than any other continent (it shares this unhappy distinction with Asia), the number of these major conflicts is down from 11 in 1998 to 6 in 2004.

(The Uppsala project defines a “major” conflict as one – civil, or cross-border – that cause at least a thousand battlefield deaths over the life of the entire conflict. Some of the conflicts Uppsala lists as continuing have been largely quiet in recent years, though they’ve been bloody in the past.)

And even in the six major conflicts still taking place in 2004 – in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and two in Sudan – there have been major steps towards peace. And while international organizations like the UN can rightly take credit for peacekeeping efforts, much of the actual peacemaking has been the province of visionary Africans who’ve dedicated themselves to bringing conflicts to a close.

When I last saw Abraham McLaughlin in South Africa, he was ebullient about the project he was reporting, a set of profiles of African peacemakers. That series is featured in the Christian Science Monitor this week, and begins with a profile of Kenyan General Lazaro Sumbeiywo. Ordered by former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi to make peace in Sudan’s north/south civil war, Sumbeiywo did an astounding job of bringing both sides to the table… and ensuring that input from third parties was constructive rather than destructive. The series features Betty Bigombe’s efforts in Northern Uganda tomorrow, and Petronille Vaweka’s struggles in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday.

John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group contends that Sumbeiywo’s strategy for peacemaking might serve as a template for efforts across the continent: a strong, respected African leader backed up by senior envoys from relavent third party nations, plus lots and lots of face time, rather than brief visits from heads of state. Unfortunately, there are still opportunities to test this model, starting with the situation in Darfur.

I’ll be reading Abe’s series with interest this week and would invite other readers to comment about it here, if you’re so inclined, especially my East African readers…

2 thoughts on “Blessed are the Peacemakers”

  1. The New Republic ran a series last May titled “The End of War?”, reporting on a study recently conducted by Monty Marshall of George Mason University and Ted Gurr of the University of Maryland. Marshall and Gurr compiled statistics on global conflict through the 20th century and released a report in 2001 arguing that worldwide, conflicts had been declining since 1991. Their updated report (“Peace and Conflict”) was released in May 2005 shortly before the TNR article, and found that there were fewer than half as many wars globally in 2004 as in 1991. Furthermore, they suggested the intensity and severity of these conflicts in 2004 was also about half of what it was in 1991. I read this article with amazement, because of course anyone who picks up a newspaper in the US *knows* there are more wars now than ever before, since there are so many articles about massacres and beheadings and distant jungle battles and such.

    I draw three lessons from the TNR article (and hopefully they’ll be corroborated by the original study once I get around to reading it). The first is that war really is declining. That’s good news. It’s not ever going to go away, but in some global sense, we are making progress towards peace that should be an inspiration and an incentive to keep working. Second, media coverage is a really bad indicator of what’s going on in the world. Obviously as the cold war ended and western reporters could more freely move about parts of the world, they began reporting more on those areas, and so more conflicts got covered. But as the movie-gore-soaked US grows ever more immune to stories of violence in the rest of the world, western media responds by throwing more and more dramatic stories at us to capture our attention. We should, as always, read with skepticism. And third, the fact that global war and conflict are declining is a powerful countermessage to the Bush Administration assertion that global terror is on the rise, threatening an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. In fact, the psychology of fear that message is intended to evoke and perpetuate is precisely countered by the evidence that Marshall and Gurr are finding — war, violence, and far-flung conflict are not threatening the world and are not going to destroy civilization. It’s an important message, and one I wish had been more widely read and commented upon.

  2. I think there may be a fourth message, Colin. One of the reasons it seems like we’re seeing constant war coverage in American media is that there’s a great deal of coverage regarding conflicts where the US has taken a role, or where some parties believe the US should take a role. In other words, there’s less war, but the US is more involved with it, which makes it more prominent in US media…

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