Being a paper presented at the
Debate “My Friend, My Enemy, My Society” organised by the Prince Claus Fund and
de Balie on the role of friendship in a repressive or conflictual context. 9th-13th
June 2013, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
When I was invited to this debate on the broad topic “My Friend, My Enemy, My Society”, I shared the thoughts with one of my academic friends, Dibussi Tande, and his immediate reaction was "why are you always invited to discuss esoteric topics?" I consoled him by saying that most esoteric topics are provide the discussant with various contours to navigate while holding firm to the topic’s compass. Moreover I am always invited more as a practical civil society actor than an abstract erudite philosopher.
I wish thank the organizers for having identified me as one who can make a seminal contribution to this debate and for allowing me to choose a topic from the broad theme which is “the centrality of friendship in conflict transformation- a reflection on our/my experiences in the conflict-prone Bakassi peninsula in Cameroon.
Friendship or the lack of it from Conflict
In 1991, I was among some students doing a course in Jordanhill College, Glasgow, Scotland. Two of my course mates distinguished themselves by their taciturn, shy, withdrawn and extremely distant position from other course mates in and out of classes. It turned out that these two were from the then repressive regime of Haille Miriam Mengistu of Ethiopia. They further explained that making friends with especially strangers was unheard of in the then Ethiopia because the regime had turned everyone into a spy or informant and so trust and confidence had become scarce commodities in the market of friendship. Yet the two were friends to each other-a kind of friendship borne out of shared victimhood or bondage.
In 2010, I was once again in the company of Senior Fellows on Conflict Resolution in the University of York (UK) and again two of my course mates from Sudan did not manifest the kind of body chemistry one would expect from citizens of the same country. It turned out that one of them was from the Christian South (now called South Sudan) and the other from the Muslim North (simply called Sudan). I happened to have been the closest friend to the Christian Southerner who later confessed that the oppression by the Muslims over the Christians in the then Sudan had put a permanent race rift between them. They trusted the outsider more and any manifestation of friendship between them was borne out of deep suspicion or mutual caution.
Compare the above two examples with Nelson Mandela’s legendary outreach to his apartheid proponents. While he was still a prisoner Mandela had begun talking with the apartheid enemy at a time when many of his comrades frowned upon the idea of doing so. In fact after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela visited Orania (a white-only enclave notorious for racial separatism) to have tea with Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd. Could Mandela’s commitment to friendship be based on a bigger interest (picture), innate cultural values, or sheer empathy?
These three examples not only inform us on how friendship or the lack of it can be constructed by individuals in times of conflict or repression but how friendship or conversely enemy values can be universal.
Friendship or enemy values are universal but their management or transformation can be influenced by cultural characteristics that are internally driven or externally negotiated.
Enmity in conflict or repressive contexts 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 enmity 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 enmity arising from unequal balance of power, poor governance, inequitable resource allocation 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 enemy values are cross-cutting and their points of transformation into friendship 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.
Conflict Prevention/Resolution through Culture
It was based on our organisation’s (AFRICAphonie) vision that culture or better still intrinsic cultural norms can not only solve conflicts but are embedded in the process of bonding-hence our project called the Peace Enhancement through Arts, Culture and Exercise (PEACE) that we carried out in the Bakassi peninsula of Cameroon in 2010 with the support of Prince Claus fund. You must have already been informed that the Bakassi peninsula has been a disputed area since the 1990s between Nigeria and Cameroon even after the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Cameroon’s ownership on 11th October 2002. 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. Our PEACE project was therefore a cultural project that brought together inhabitants from some of the villages in the peninsula through dance, music and sports. 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 friendship 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 belongs 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.
Therefore 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 – virtues that are recipes or products for friendship especially in conflict or repressive contexts.
- Friendship is universal but its management can be cultural-specific
- Friendship cannot be externally imposed even through Peace Agreements and Accords (legal frameworks for social cohesion).
- Friendship grows from within and comes on its own.
- Cultural practices to solving conflict should rhyme with the inner cultural traits and the traditional customs of the conflict affected people.
- Conflict is not all the time negative hence the need to be judicious in time and space with applying mechanisms aimed at effecting long term friendship..
- Biya Paul,1987, Communal Liberalism, London, Macmillan
- Blackman Rachel ,2003, Peace-building within our communities,, England, Tearfund Publishers
- 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