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.
In pre-colonial Africa, traditional rulers who were responsible for preserving customs, traditions and cultural heritage as well as serving as arbiters of justice, successfully resolved many conflicts within and between local communities.
Although traditional rulers transferred authority to local governments over time, they are still revered as figures of authority in many African communities and play a role in settling local disputes.
In Rwanda, traditional rulers played a key role in the gacaca court system that provided transitional justice to victims of the genocide. In Nigeria, traditional authorities have mediated between herders and farming communities in the northcentral states. And in Ethiopia, traditional authorities have resolved disputes over land and grazing routes.
Training traditional rulers in conflict mitigation can be our first line of defence against communal conflicts wreaking havoc in Africa.
Societies do not find themselves struggling with violence overnight. Rather, unaddressed disputes gradually transform into deeper and more complex conflicts and pave the way for widespread violence.
If we build the necessary capabilities to identify and address local conflicts at their early stages, we will have a better chance to resolve them before they escalate into humanitarian crises affecting entire nations or even regions.
Providing traditional rulers with the skills they need to resolve a conflict at its early stages could help us save countless lives and livelihoods.
Although traditional rulers are already working to resolve disputes in their communities, they are not equipped to deal with Africa’s modern conflicts, which are more complex and multifaceted than those seen in the past. To save lives and prevent large-scale atrocities, traditional rulers need more than the basic conflict resolution skills handed down to them from their forebears or those acquired through experience. In particular, training for traditional rulers should incorporate modern concepts such as the role of women in peace-building, restorative justice, understanding early warning signals, etc.
To be sure, training traditional rulers with conflict resolution skills isn’t the silver bullet for eradicating violent conflicts in Africa. There are other factors that contribute to violent conflicts including the proliferation of arms, human rights abuses, and structural violence.
However, empowering traditional rulers with the skills to effectively address the early stages of modern communal conflict will go a long way in preventing the rise of new conflicts while reducing the escalation of existing ones. In addition, it will also relieve pressure on overburdened African courts and overextended security agencies, while providing long-term solutions to conflicts that are agreeable to competing parties.
The African Union failed in its quest to “silence the guns by 2020” as evidenced by the many active conflicts in the Sahel region and other parts of Africa. Widespread economic hardship, food insecurity, and unchecked climate change, meanwhile, are exacerbating local tensions and laying the ground for new conflicts. In this context, the AU needs to use any tool and method available to it to try and end ongoing conflicts and prevent future crises, including traditional rulers.
Looking to our past and remembering how we used to successfully and peacefully resolve our disputes can bring us one step closer to securing our future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.