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Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

@Jean Nsonjiba Lokenga
The challenge of sustaining peace between communities in countries affected by armed conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Africa’s most recent history has been affected by internal and international armed conflicts over natural resources, political leadership and, to a lesser extent, religious supremacy, all fuelled by international armed transfer. Efforts were made, with success here and failure there, to make and build peace through negotiations between warring parties in Angola, Burundi, Mozambique, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia and Eritrea among other countries with a war experience. The power and resource sharing agreements usually referred to as “Peace Accord”, and the subsequent economic reconstruction programmes do not adequately address some key questions that determine the possibility of a continued dialogue as a condition for sustainable peace between communities affected by armed conflicts. The questions often left out in the reconstruction phase of war-torn countries are: how to rebuild trust and social cohesion weakened by violent armed conflicts? How to heal the wounds and rifts created by years of killings and atrocities? “The damage to a national’s social capital – the norms, values, and social relations that bond communities together, and the bridges between communal groups (civil society) and the state – impedes the ability of either communal groups or the state to recover after hostilities cease. Even if other forms of capital are replenished, economic and social development will be hindered unless social capital stocks are restored” . Therefore, efforts by civil society and church based institutions to foster dialogue between communities of different cultures and religions should be recognised and made part of the reconstruction agenda to ensure sustainable peace.


The challenge of sustaining peace between communities in countries affected by armed conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa.


I will start my presentation with a debate on the title of our congress and discuss the challenge of sustaining peace in post-conflict period based on the analysis of some specific African countries.

The general topic of this international congress reads “Inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, news challenges in a world longing for peace”. It is about how to manage the encounter of different cultures and religious beliefs or practices in a way that creates space for everyone and fosters mutual acceptance and respect of others, who do not share one’s traditions and religious beliefs. However, this does not mean that there is no need for intra-cultural dialogue or intra-religious dialogue for peace building. The title of the conference may lead us to an assumption that dialogue between communities sharing the same traditions and cultures, or the same religion is no longer an issue for peaceful coexistence. Evidence from some African countries demonstrates the opposite. Genocide, the worst violation of human rights, occurred in Rwanda, despite the fact that at least 90% of Rwandan communities, the Hutu and Tutsi share the same Christian faith. In Somalia, the state collapsed after decades of civil wars. The conflict in Somalia opposes sub-communities who belong to the same culture and who are all Muslims. Therefore, our search for peace should embrace both inter and intra-cultural dialogue, and inter and intra-religious dialogue.

Religion, culture and armed conflicts in Africa

The manipulation of religious and cultural differences for political gains has been one of the emerging features of armed conflicts in countries such as Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This fuels and creates a sentiment of exclusion where some communities feel excluded from the enjoyment of national resources and political power, and therefore feel the need to fight for power through what could be considered “liberation war”. When tensions develop to an armed conflict, it becomes clear that control over political power and economic resources is the premier motivation of the actors. Peace agreements will determine “equal” distribution of power and often resources as a condition to end the war. The debate shifts from peaceful coexistence of people of different cultures and religions to the need to share resources and political powers among warring parties. In instances where one party to the armed conflict wins the war (such as in Rwanda), the feeling of belonging to the same community or nation becomes a challenge.

Case studies


Sudan is a vast country, with an area of 2.5 million sq. km populated by Arab and Nubian, mainly Muslim peoples in the north, and Nilotic and Negro people in the south, generally Animist or Christian. The official language is Arabic and Islam is the state religion . A former British colony, Sudan is experiencing a war in the western region of the Darfur. However, its longest civil war (more than two decades) has been between Northern and Southern regions/communities. David Keen argues that “although ethnic and religious rivalries have played a significant role in fuelling conflict in Sudan, much of the violence can realistically be depicted as rational. Ethnic and religious tensions have been greatly exacerbated by government policy, as successive governments have attempted to prop up a highly inequitable political economy through a policy of divide and rule. Civil war in Sudan can more useful be seen as a deepening of exploitative processes that exist in “normal” times, a continuation and exaggeration of long –standing conflicts over resources (such as labour, cattle, grain, land, and oil). Sudan’s southern non-Muslim people have been used as slaves in some parts of northern Sudan. The Southerners have been denied most of their civil and political rights. As Keen noted, “in the years following independence, the Arabization of southern bureaucracy and education provoked resentment in the south. A new generation of Dinka increasingly favoured resistance to the north, which they saw as progressively oppressing non-Muslims. The Nuba too, suffered widespread discrimination in educational opportunities, and the resulting frustration was a reason that youths joined the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) founded in 1983 . SPLA with its political wing the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) fought with the Sudanese government for 21 years. The main agenda of the southern rebellion was the independence of the South.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed on 9 January 2005 in Nairobi, Kenya between the government of Khartoum and the south-based rebellion addresses mainly the question of sharing political power and economic resources between the south and the north. The assumption is that greater access to political institutions and economic resources will reduce the marginalisation and exclusion that black and Christian/Animist communities of the South were subjected to. The agreement does not make provisions regarding the relations between Muslims and Christians; Arabs and Black Africans divided by years of armed conflicts. The restoration of social and national cohesion through sincere horizontal and vertical ties among different religions and ethnic groups will remain a challenge for sustainable peace in Sudan.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was affected by armed conflict for eight years. In 1996, the Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération du Congo (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo – ADFL) led by Laurent Desire Kabila declared war on Mobutu regime. In May 1997, the ADFL, with the support of Rwanda, Uganda and Angola advanced towards Kinshasa the Capital city where Laurent Kabila declared himself the President of the Republic .

In August 1998, another armed conflict started: Uganda and Rwanda sent their troops to the eastern part of DRC in order to “fight their respective armed groups based in the Congo”. The crisis triggered the formation of regional coalitions. On the one hand, a number of Congolese armed groups fought along side Rwandan, Burundian and Ugandan forces. On the other hand, the Congolese Government invited armed forces from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and Chad to chase neighbouring forces that invaded the DRC.

The Inter-Congolese Dialogue concluded with a Peace Agreement in April 2003 in Sun City, South Africa put an end to the armed conflict. A Transitional Government was established and other institutions such as Parliament, Electoral Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were put in place.

A major consequence of the armed conflict in the Great Lakes Region is the breakdown in trust between communities coexisting for decades through cross border economic exchange, intermarriages, and ritualities. The Congolese people who suffered loss in human being, rape of women and girls, destruction of property have developed a discourse of the need to reshape their relations with neighbouring communities living across the border. Horizontal relations between Congolese and Rwandese communities for instance have been depleted by the armed conflict and are characterised by mistrust and suspicion. The Inter-Congolese dialogue remained within the limits of DRC and involved only Congolese actors in the conflict. Neighbouring countries did not play any role during the dialogue as it was a Congolese business. Numerous calls were made to express the need for inter-country dialogue between Great Lakes countries involved in the DRC conflict.

The on-going initiative by the international community to facilitate dialogue between Angola, Rwanda, DRC, Uganda, Burundi is a forum to address differences between the former enemies in order to reconcile their people through a regional cooperation and increased horizontal ties in the civil society between business people, scholars, church and community leaders, and above all the youths of the above mentioned countries.


Intra/inter-religious and intra/intercultural dialogue for sustainable peace can only be possible when there is mutual respect of each other’s individuality. Thus, knowledge of others in their cultural setting is essential. By recognising and accepting social, cultural and religious diversity, an exchange of mutual values will lead to a united humanity . The real challenge to and meaning of inter-religious dialogue should be discovered in the day-to-day live of people with different religious beliefs. I would add my voice to that of Pope John Paul II to stress that “The dialogue between ordinary believers, harmonious and constructive sharing in the situations of daily contacts is truly a basic form of dialogue, and the one which lays the foundation for more specialized encounters .

In the context of countries affected by and/or recovering from armed conflicts, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions become fashion. However, evidence shows that reconciliation between communities is not given the place it deserves in peace building processes. It is more a reconciliation between former warring parties than anything else. “The challenge of nation-building remains a pressing issue for the new millennium and reconciliation itself is a process of rebuilding social capital. It requires the creation of political space and social relationships for peaceful engagement across and within societal cleavages be they ethnic, religious, gender, age, income, or locality, and between national and local levels .

Jean Nsonjiba Lokenga Vice-President for Africa, Pax Romana ICMICA and Africa Human Rights Defenders Co-ordinator, Amnesty International. Box 23966, Kampala, Uganda

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