(A reflection on our/my experiences in the conflict-prone Bakassi peninsula in Cameroon)
By George Ngwane
Being a discussion
presented at an Exploratory Roundtable organised by the International Institute
for Asian studies, Leiden,the Stitching Savan/Beeld voor Beeld, Amsterdam and
the Tropenmuseum with the collaboration of the Prince Claus Fund and UNESCO
Nederland. 13th -14th
June 2013, Amsterdam, Netherlands
General Root Causes of conflict
Conflict can be interpersonal arising from individual character and manifested through intolerance, ego, inability to forgive, forget, and reconcile and the lack of fellow-feeling. Interpersonal enmity generally feeds on the binary vision of me vs. him/her or self vs. the other.
Second there is the inter-communal conflict arising from past real or perceived bad experiences, prejudice, ignorance, incompatible interest and values etc. It emanates from the polarised vision of them vs. us or us against them.
Finally there is the intra and interstate conflict arising from unequal balance of power, injustice, poor governance, resources etc and which is generally manifested in a fissured vision of the oppressor vs. the oppressed or the perpetrator vs. the victim.
Of course these three root causes are cross-cutting and their points of transformation into social cohesion converge when the binary, the polarised and the fissured visions develop into a shared vision; when there is a shift from relationship to goals, from friendship to partnership; from victimhood to survivorhood; from bondage to bonding and from vs. to with.
In the case of the Bakassi peninsula, it is an inter-state conflict pitting Nigeria and Cameroon since the early 1990s until 11th October 2002 when the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Cameroon’s ownership. There are still ethnic distrust, pirate attacks and arguments over the validity and legitimacy of the ICJ ruling. This makes Bakassi still relatively unsafe and obviously conflict-prone especially as it is also endowed with mineral and maritime resources.
Social Cohesion through Culture
When our organisation (AFRICAphonie) therefore got a grant from Prince Claus Fund Netherlands to implement the Peace Enhancement through Arts, Culture and Exercise (PEACE) project (social cohesion through culture) in the Bakassi peninsula in 2010 our first task was to study through an Action Planning Meeting with the beneficiaries (Bakassi inhabitants) the history, sociology, beliefs, needs, interest, customs, indeed their indigenous cultural knowledge so that our project should synchronise with their innate cultural values-cultural values which by themselves enhance social cohesion. Our PEACE project was a cultural project that brought together inhabitants from some of the villages in the peninsula through dance, music and sports.
Innate cultural traits
Our job was a little cut out for us because in spite of the conflict situation, we met inhabitants who both from their Cameroonian and African wealth of indigenous cultural knowledge had been using intrinsic cultural traits that militated favourably to our external cultural-conflict transformation project. These innate cultural traits that provided an enabling environment for our project and for social cohesion through culture included:
- M’bangsuma- a practice that enables people to pledge never to eat anything without sharing out with the others. As a predominantly fishing population the men believe that whatever catch they have as individuals belong to all fishermen and is shared equitably but marketed individually. The emphasis here is sharing or solidarity which leads to general poverty reduction and economic expansion.
- YUM- a practice that groups young people desirous of working together for collective prosperity and individual advancement. It is like the South African ‘ubuntu’ philosophy which says a human being is a human being through another human being. Most of the Bakassi inhabitants especially around the creeks live in makeshift homes that are constructed collectively in song, dance and drinks. This promotes dialogue and trust.
- Njangi- a practice where women engage in collective farming, trade by barter and loan and thrift. A practice akin to the ujamaa policy propagated by Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. This promotes gender empowerment where everything is about our not mine.
- Palaver- a practice akin to the Town Hall Meeting which is done at the end of each month by family heads. Here they discuss the problems of their community and keep inventory of newcomers. This promotes familyhood, expands indigenous democracy, and enhances collective security as each inhabitant turns out to be the early warning signal from outside attack. We have actually written a project called “Expanding democratic space and deepening democratic content in Bakassi” ahead of the first ever multiparty local governance election in Bakassi to be held by the end of 2013 and aimed at complementing municipal development to indigenous democratic practice.
Spaces for Social Cohesion
- Mutual language intelligibility
Even though the Bakassi inhabitants are from different ethnic groups, their dialects enjoy mutual intelligibility thereby helping in providing a common tool of communication and understanding.
- Common belief system
A cross-section of the Bakassi population worships in the Catholic Church with a few still holding to their ancestral worship. The common thread in worship is spiritual salvation and protection needed to save them from their conflict situation.
- Common professional interest
Most of the men indulge in fishing and the women in farming
- Other spaces of social cohesion include inter-marriages between ethnic groups, ritual ceremonies (birth, marriage, death, initiations etc).
- Our organisation has written two separate projects on how education can help in peace building and trust in the Bakassi. This education project called “Mobile library project in Bakassi peninsula” aims at building the fragile literacy level of young people, encouraging exposure and dialogue through book, and providing spaces for the exchange of knowledge among the communities. The other project is on the role of community theatre in restoring the storytelling culture.
Our PEACE project
Through the carnival canoe race among men, football competition among the boys, choral music display among the girls and women and traditional dance exhibition among both men and women our PEACE project added cultural value needed to unlock and harness the creative power of the inhabitants. Through the project we sought to enhance intercommunity dialogue and solidarity that would lay a solid foundation for trust, harmony and confidence-building.
I am aware that a Peace and Culture Festival was organised in Liberia in 2008 by the Ministry of Culture and hosted by International Alert comprising dance, drama, storytelling, acrobatics and music and bringing together participants from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Guinea with the aim of promoting reconciliation in the region through these forms of traditional and modern art.
In Sierra Leone, the Christian Health Association of Sierra Leone builds trust among conflictual groups by using games like draughts, board games and musical instruments.
I was privileged to be requested by the Prince Claus Fund to give my opinion on a Project proposal submitted by Karame Muco Nyarwanda on Peace and culture from Rwanda and Burundi in December 2011. The main activities of the project were traditional sports and games in the countryside; screening of documentary films on Rwanda culture, traditional cuisine, fashion, drumming, dancing, poetry and art. The aim was for the young participants to get to know and discuss the background and cultural values conveyed traditionally by those cultural activities and how they helped to maintain social cohesion as well as prevent conflict.
It is worthy of note that all societies possess a wealth of indigenous cultural knowledge, norms, skills and practices which are relevant to establishing and maintaining peaceful relationships between individuals and groups. External cultural activities only add value to existent intrinsic cultural behavior of the inhabitants. This is not an attempt to establish a conflict-proof society where every one agrees with each other but one where unity in diversity and not uniformity prevails. This is guided by what Professor Jan Malan calls the relational orientation of human togetherness. According to Jan Malan this relational orientations have general effects of improving life relationship which may prevent many conflicts from occurring at all but also a specific effect of helping to resolve conflicts where they have erupted and where they driving human beings apart.
In the end, by building social cohesion through culture in conflict contexts, five major outcomes emerge which can be used for policy formulation.
i) Awareness is raised among the conflictual population on the values of arts, culture and exercise as a foundation for trust, harmony and confidence building within their communities. (cultural streaming in local governance policy)
ii) The population ends up appreciating the virtues of creativity and the power of culture as a wealth creation activity and fundamental tenet of humanism. ( creative economy)
iii) The population unconsciously discovers within it the various modes of arts and culture that has been eclipsed by the protracted signals of conflict.
iv) The civil society is empowered with a complementary voice in cultural paradigms and peace building thereby promoting unofficial (Track II) dialogue on contentious issues.
v) Track I (government action) and Track II (civil society action) become complementary with government action in the areas of reconstruction and development and civil society in the areas of intercultural dialogue and reconciliation.
It is in this regard that governments need to ratify and implement the 2005 UNESCO Convention on implementing cultural policies, craft cultural policies in collaboration with civil society organisations, which cultural policies must incorporate indigenous knowledge systems, and seek to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions. This way culture can arguably offer a safer space for reflection and critique particularly when political spaces are under attack, while transforming conflictual parties into agents of social change.
- Biya Paul,1987, Communal Liberalism, London, Macmillan
- Blackman Rachel ,2003, Peace-building within our communities,, England, Tearfund Publishers
- Commonwealth Foundation, Commonwealth Statement on Culture and Development, London (UK)
- Commonwealth Foundation, 2008,Putting Culture First, London (UK)
- Malan Jannie, 1997,Conflict Resolution Wisdom from Africa,Durban,South Africa, ACCORD
- Ngwane George,2013, Way Forward for Africa, Kansas (America), Miraclaire Publishers
- Ngwane George,2000,Settling Disputes in Africa, Colorado (America), International Academic Publishers
- Nyerere Julius, 1968, Freedom and Socialism, DAR ES SALAAM, Oxford University Press
- Voices of the People 2013, www.britishcouncil.org/about publications
- Zapiro, 2009, The Mandela Files, Cape Town, Double Storey Books