Author:Okeke-Ogbuafor, Nwamaka


The major causes of conflict in African communities include kidnapping, land disputes, resource competition, theft, debt, adultery, and allegations of witchcraft. It seems that as long as community residents interact, conflicts cannot be avoided. The recipe for a peaceful community is "not the absence of conflict, but the ability to manage it." (1) The problem is not how to eliminate conflict but how best to manage it. Scholars have established a contrast between western approaches to conflict resolution, which focus on litigation, and indigenous African conflict resolution strategies, which focus on reconciliation. (2) This study investigates the perceptions of the Ogonis in Nigeria's Niger Delta about the effectiveness of each of these two strategies in their communities.


Ronald Gardner and William Barcella argue that approaches to conflict resolution are dependent on the particular contexts of a society. (3) They claim that the western system of conflict resolution is rooted in the individualistic nature of western communities and indigenous African conflict resolution strategies is rooted in the holistic nature of African communities. (4) There is some truth in such links, but they may oversimplify these conflict resolution theories. Western approaches to conflict resolution are much more complex than a reflection of individualism and embrace a wide range of practices that encompass what might be defined as good governance. Good governance defuses tensions and deals with problems as they arise. In many western states, good governance entails democratization, maintaining law and order, accountability, transparency, responsiveness on the part of government toward conflict resolution, due process, checks and balances, credible opposition, and respect for human and minority rights, all of which directly help remove conflicts.

Many western conflicts are routinely resolved through adjudication in competent courts that have jurisdiction over the matter. Adjudication in courts of law and processes of arbitration, negotiation, and mediation are central to western approaches to conflict resolution. Adjudication succeeds in the West because of strong law enforcement institutions that implement legal judgments to resolve disputes. It follows codified processes that make judgments consistent and acceptable to the conflicting parties. Arbitration allows parties to select an arbiter they prefer to settle a conflict outside of the court. The arbiter, a neutral third party, hears the evidence from both parties in a conflict and renders a decision, usually called an award, that is binding on the parties. (5) Negotiation is the process whereby the parties in a conflict seek to settle and resolve their dispute through joint decision making. (6) The goal of negotiation is to reach agreement between parties. All of these modes of western approaches to conflict resolution depend on the presence of strong institutions that participate in conflict management. The proponents of western approaches to conflict resolution in Africa argue that traditional African approaches to conflict resolution have failed to manage conflicts on the continent and that African conflict managers often abandon the lengthy traditional approach, which seeks to get to the root of a conflict, and instead engage in the speedy adoption of western approaches.

However, while this approach may result in a superficial resolution of the dispute, it does not address the underlying causes and conflicts often fester. Western approaches to conflict resolution are problematic because they concentrate on punishing the offender without concern for the potential impact of this action on the offender or his/her relationship with the community, thus ignoring the need to reintegrate these people into their communities. The western system is exclusionary and based on a winner-takes-all approach, which aggravates conflicts and disputes over the longer term. This style of conflict management runs counter to the African indigenous principles of power sharing and reconciliation and therefore cannot be a basis for conflict resolution in the African cultural context. (7) The idea of winner takes all, a zero-sum-game orientation toward conflict management, is antithetical to the win-win game that many African societies practice in conflict resolution. Moreover, because western approaches are fundamentally rooted in the principles of good governance and the rule of law, in places where government authority is unstable and the rule of law is weak, as is the case in many African and Middle East states, it does not work well. (8)

Another weakness of western approaches to conflict resolution is that it does not involve every member of the conflicting parties. This is fundamental for the resolution of conflict in Africa. As Paul E. Salem notes, "building of peace is an activity in which all affected sectors of society have a responsibility to take part." (9) Another factor makes adjudication inadequate for resolving many conflicts in Africa: most conflicts on the continent are culturally or ethnically. Thus, when a party in conflict goes to court to obtain a favorable judgment, it is difficult (if not impossible) for government and law enforcement officers to implement the judgment. Conflicts between communities in Ezza North in Ebonyi State in Nigeria and their neighbors offer good examples of how court judgments were not implemented because of cultural resistance. (10)

All these considerations lead many commentators to claim that western approaches to conflict resolution approaches "are hardly in conformity with the traditions and values of African communities." (11) Other critics assert that western approaches to conflict resolution in Africa discredit the older African paradigms and values of conflict resolution, development, and modernization that worked well for centuries to deal with the African condition. (12)


African communities are not individualistic. They are naturally communal. Thus, they maintain reconciliatory mechanisms for conflict resolution. Indigenous African conflict reconciliatory strategies seek not only to put an end to hostility and conflict but also to reestablish harmonious relationships that lead to forgiveness and the psychical healing of individuals and groups. (13) Social harmony, not litigation that identifies who is right or wrong, is the focus of indigenous African conflict resolution systems and not litigation. Indigenous African conflict resolution systems processes are deliberative attempts to ensure that communities are peaceful. (14) One of the advantages of African conflict resolution systems over western approaches is that arbitrators involved in traditional conflict resolution are mostly community elders or chiefs. These figures are familiar with their communities' languages and cultures and are able to weigh and administer justice that not only corrects and reconciles the offender with the community but also avoids inflicting further strain on community structures. In addition, individuals and communities understand these processes and are quick to accept the verdict. The flexible nature of African conflict resolution systems is also an advantage because of its "willingness to incorporate new ideas." (15) African conflict resolution systems are also affordable, they are perceived as well organized and transparent, and they ensure the timely delivery of justice. (16) Also, indigenous African methods of conflict resolution are pro-development because the process ensures that the conflicting parties forgive each other, which places them on the true path of remorse and reconciliation thereby creating healthy conditions for social peace and development. (17)

Finally, this approach is holistic because when chiefs, elders, and other peace ambassadors who are responsible for conflict resolution are unable to resolve any conflict, they refer to spirits. The role of spirits in traditional African conflict resolution is often seen to involve the imposition of sanctions that are beyond the manipulation of humans, such as death or sickness. The possibility of such sanctions tends to orient the behavior of indigenous people toward peace as they live their day-to-day lives. Ritual oaths are widely used to identify disruptive parties in a conflict. Such oaths are administered in the holy altar (shrine) of many African spirits, which pass speedy sentence on an offending party who promotes conflict. The Kamba administer the Kithitu and Ndudu oaths; the Yoruba consult Ogun, god of iron; and the Igbo consult the Ibini Ukpabi (Long Juju of Arochukwu). (18)

Ancestors and their spirits are regarded as regulators of conflicts. They are powerful forces for stakeholders to reckon with in the drama of conflict resolution in African societies. This is because ancestors and their spirits, who see all human behavior, clearly identify the actions of people who fuel conflicts. (19) A study of the Sisala of Ghana reports that because the ancestors know the true path (wenbiing titi) to happiness because of their wisdom, they are in a position to enforce conformity to this lifestyle: they have the power of affliction and periodically use it to maintain social order. (20) This spirit element is a unique strength of indigenous African conflict resolution systems. (21)

The use of spirits and spirituality in conflict mediation is gradually gaining the interest of academic scholars. In a study entitled "The Role of Spirituality in the Mediation Process," Debra Jones reported on the experience of mediators who integrate spirituality in the mediation process using Asian American, African American, and Caucasian mediators who were educated to masters' degree and doctoral levels. She explained the new skills these mediators acquired: "As parties experience a...

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