Reconsidering the crisis of confidence in indigenous African conflict resolution approaches: a postcolonial critique.

Author:Run, Peter

Introduction and Method

Three distinct but coalescing developments currently drive the debate on indigenous African approaches to conflict resolution. The first is the tendency to seek "African solutions to African problems" that developed out of colonial era struggle for self-determination (Derso 2012). The second is the perceived failure of Western interventions to effectively end African conflicts (Zartman 2000). The third is the inspiring role indigenous African methods of conflict management and resolution are gaining from reconciliation processes such as the role of Ubuntu in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Rwanda's gacaca to successful application of a mediation style that Tim Murithi and Murphy Ives (2011: 76) have called "under the acacia tree" approach to resolving major conflicts such as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in the Sudan (Waihenya 2006).

These themes carry a strong appeal for advocates of African renaissance (Hagg and Kagwanja 2007). Yet, advocacy for indigenous African approaches to conflict resolution, as part of "African solutions to African problems," is still met with resistance in policy, academic and public discourses (Zartman 2000; De Jong 2005). What is the source of this resistance? This article explores, as part of a larger study, the role of what Phillip Darby (2006: 1) has called "inherited categories of thought about the relationships between different people ..." by using V. Y. Mudimbe's (1988) classification of the discursive traditions of missionaries and explorer, anthropologists and colonial officials as potential sources of present marginalisation of African approaches to conflict resolution.

Mudimbe's methodology grows out of Foucault's archaeology of knowledge. By analogy:

"The archaeologist may treat every discourse as a 'monument' and may emphasize the differential analysis of their modalities and the silent norms presiding over discursive practice" (Mudimbe 1988: 27).

Through this approach, it is possible to understand how knowledge of African approaches to conflict resolution has metamorphosed at various stages of epistemological mutations--that is earlier literature, missionary and colonial writing and anthropological scholarship to affect modern perceptions.

Earlier Literature

There is an often quoted passage from Herodotus's The Histories that narrates the story of some wild young Nasamonian or Libyan:

"... sons of chieftains in their country, [who] had on coming to manhood planned amongst themselves all sorts of extravagant adventures, one of which was to draw lots for five of their number to explore the Libyan desert and try to penetrate further than had ever been done before" (Herodotus 2003:107-8).

The story goes that these five young men utilised their food and water supply well enough to cross the Sahara Desert and made the first historically recorded (by virtue of Herodotus having heard it) encounter between the black Africans and the Mediterranean races. The five adventurers reported on their return that they "were attacked by some little men--of less than middle height--who seized them and carried them off" (Herodotus 2003:108). They further noted that the "speech of these dwarfs was unintelligible" but somehow deduced the black dwarfs belonged to "a nation of wizards" (Herodotus 2003:108). Here begins the European representation of Africa. Robin Hallet (1965) noted that these descriptions along with other hearsays about the interior of Africa fuelled a construction of imagined sub-humans who could not be viewed as possessing reason and, therefore--I might add--conflict resolution capabilities.

The European explorers who later recorded their encounters with African peoples drew on this perception. For example, French explorer, Francois Le Vaillant (1796:32) writing in southern Africa, referred to the death of Captain James Cook to caution Afro-enthusiasts about venturing deep into the continent where indigenous people were still living in the "state of nature." The state of nature, according to Enlightenment scholarship, is devoid of order and reason and by consequence, people who live in it, must lack the means to resolve their differences. (1) Even in the cases where certain African societies had a form of social organisation that was recognisable to the Europeans, their supposed lack of "civilisation" still meant that they could not develop sophisticated customs for living in peace (Davidson 1969). As Smith (1926) pointed out in his book on the Ashanti people in present-day Ghana, the Europeans saw African socio-political systems as based on superstitions and therefore could not be seen as having rational foundations. These writers, Boaduo and Gumbi (2010:47) have remarked, based their claims to know Africa on "books written by their forefathers from a deficit perspective, ceaselessly comparing Africa to Europe."

Like explorers, the missionaries participated in the disempowering construction of the Africans as the irrational or depraved other. For example, Albert Bushnell Lloyd's (1899) book--reminiscent of Herodotus's account--was titled In Dwarf Land and Cannibal Country: A Record of Travel and Discovery in Central Africa, although the author had no real knowledge of dwarfs and cannibals. A review of the book in the journal, Nature in 1900 mocked the book as "missionary anthropology" with a misleading title and content that "add[ed] practically nothing to our knowledge" (Nature 1900:314). Yet the book went on to become one of the most cited texts in positioning Africans and their beliefs in justifying the guardianship of Christianity and colonial rule (Jarosz 1992). European missionaries framed African beliefs and practices as harmful to spirituality and set about eradicating them. More than that, the language of Africa as the Dark Continent, first used by Henry Morton Stanley in 1878, became increasingly loaded with moral connotations (Stanley 1878). In its earlier usage, the name Dark Continent signified uncertainty; however, this quickly changed when Europeans had penetrated Africa (Jarosz 1992). As Jarosz (1992) explained, missionaries, explorers and travel writers used the Dark Continent metaphor in three main ways.

First, Africa's representation as a place was that of a hostile, disease-ridden, hot, unforgiving and merciless jungle or desert. Second, the name "Dark Continent" fitted the biblical representation of darkness as the enemy of light. This perceived darkness, Christian missionaries and colonialists argued, needed "Christianity and righteous government" to dispel it (Lloyd 1899 cited in Jarosz 1992:107). As Jarosz (1992:107) noted, darkness here refers to "non-Christian beliefs and indigenous forms of government." Third and lastly, the hostility of Africa and the darkness therein presented a barrier and it was up to the European--who had the power and the responsibility--to tame the environment and civilise the indigenous inhabitants (Jarosz 1992). This assumed responsibility was seen as a burden--a white man's burden. Writing an introduction to In Dwarf Land and Cannibal Country, Kenneway (1899:8) declared Lloyd a good Christian who had "been bearing his share of the 'white man's burden' of ruling, civilising and Christianising the 'silent peoples' ..."

These earlier accounts laid the foundation for the kind of discourse that sought to silence African thought...

To continue reading