Traditional Rulers Can Help End Violence in Africa

BY: Nkasi Wodu –

On March 21, 137 civilians were killed in localities near Niger’s border with Mali, in what the Niger government described as attacks perpetrated by “armed bandits”. Sadly, the deadly attacks were not a standalone incident or an anomaly. Since January, four separate attacks by armed groups left at least 300 people dead in the land-locked West African country.

The problem is not limited to Niger either – countries across the African continent are suffering from violence perpetrated by numerous armed groups. According to the World Bank, 20 of the 39 countries most affected by conflict in the world are in Africa.

And most of these violent acts are not stemming from conflicts between nations, nor being directly perpetrated by international terror groups – they are rooted in disputes within local communities or between them.

According to experts, for example, the latest attacks in Niger were the result of ISIL-affiliated militants stoking long-existing tensions between roaming herders and farming communities.

Such communal tensions and conflicts are extremely widespread on the continent. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, as much as 81 percent of conflicts in Africa between 1989 and 2011 occurred at the community level and as many as 23 African countries experienced communal conflict between 1989 and 2014.

These local conflicts have had devastating consequences, including the destabilisation of entire countries and regions as well as the destruction of millions of lives and livelihoods.

In Kenya, in the aftermath of the 2007 election, violent clashes between the supporters of rival political parties resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and over 500,000 displacements. And once again, the conflict was rooted not only in the recently-emerged political disagreements, but also in the long-existing tensions and disputes between various ethnic groups and communities. Similar situations have also occurred in Nigeria, Burundi, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire in recent years.

Many African countries tried to contain the problem of inter-communal violence through state-sponsored measures. Governments sent their security forces to restive localities to enforce order, but time and time again failed to end the violence.

In Nigeria’s northwest region, attempts to stop banditry and end farmer-herder conflicts through military intervention repeatedly proved unsuccessful. Similarly, in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, more than 840,000 people fled their homes in 2019 as a result of violent conflicts despite these states’ efforts to resolve those issues militarily.

Another strategy adopted by African countries to curb the violence is the use of courts. But the judicial process is generally slow and unfair across the continent. Many Africans do not trust the system and before the issue can be resolved by the courts, violence between the warring groups often erupts again.

So what can be done? One option is to look to the past.