The case of Idjwi Island shows us how, when macro-politics fail, building micro-political solutions can be a source of inspiration for rethinking the classical security strategies of Northern countries.
by Arnaud Blin |
At the turn of the 21st century, the Peace Communities of Colombia symbolized the ability of some communities to resist the scourge of war in areas hit hard by organized violence. Today, in the heart of Africa, another community is serving as an example of war resistance in a region that has been hard hit by civil war.
For a quarter of a century, the Great Lakes region of Central Africa has witnessed some of the deadliest conflicts since the end of the Second World War. The Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country in the region, has seen several million people engulfed in the various conflicts that have affected the country since the 1990s. It is the eastern part of the country, especially the Kivu region and its main city, Goma, that have suffered the main toll of armed violence caused by the civil war, inter-ethnic tensions, the struggle for natural resources and various conflicts with neighboring countries. In the midst of this chaos where the power of the strongest reigns and the rule of law is non-existent, a small entity of about 260 000 individuals (over 310 km2) has organized itself to resist the violence.
Where all attempts, including those of the international community, to bring peace to the country have mostly failed, the island of Idjwi is a haven of tranquility. However, this exception no miracle, but rather the result of hard work and sustained efforts on the part of individuals and associations that have vowed to keep their communities out of conflict by advocating (as in Colombia) a genuine culture of peace. The peace that reigns in Idjwi has been achieved from the bottom up, through local actors who have been able to identify and grasp the elements that constitute peace in their area while preventing the escalation of violence. Certainly, the fact that Idjwi is an island has certainly contributed to the ability of this community to isolate itself from the violence that has swept the rest of the region away. But the fact remains that many of the elements that provoked the war elsewhere also exist on Idjwi. For those who advocate peace from below, such as the academic Séverine Autesserre, who has written extensively about Idjwi and has helped to raise awareness of it outside the Great Lakes region,1 many lessons can be learned from this unique experience, which highlights the relevance of local security initiatives. It is undeniable that while peace and security can be built in an environment that is extremely unfavorable and hostile to them, the lessons of this experience should also benefit areas where violence takes place at lower levels.
What makes this island special and how does it manage conflicts?
It should already be noted that Idjwi is confronted with problems specific to its geographical situation but also with problems typical of this area, such as inter-ethnic tensions. In order to strengthen its effective independence, Idjwi has become autonomous on several levels: electricity for example (it does not depend on the Congolese Snel); economy, with the production of coffee (small producers who work in cooperatives and export all over the world, including for the Starbucks company), cassava, pineapple and sweet potato. Support for local sustainable development, thanks in particular to the support of UNDP and the Japanese government, enables the island to maintain its autonomy. Previously the coffee industry was poorly organized, but since 2011, the Coopérative de Planteurs et Négociants de Café du Kivu, which brings together 372 coffee growers, including 317 women, has revived the industry: the purchase of a hulling machine has tripled the selling price of coffee. Around the Island Women’s Union, a cooperative organizes the sale of turkeys2.
The population, mainly Buhavu (95%), also includes a long-established Pygmy minority and 40,000 Rwandan (Hutu) refugees. Tensions between minorities and Buhavus are not absent and Pygmies have been displaced to territories far from their traditional habitat, where they lead a subsistence existence and are subject to the authority of local customary chiefs3. Nevertheless, in order to reduce tensions and avoid conflicts, attempts are being made to reintegrate this minority population, particularly around the fishing industry.
Isolation and opening up present both a boon and a challenge and the economic viability of the island depends on its ability to develop new industries, such as ecological tourism for example. 83% of the inhabitants now live on less than a dollar a day. In 2017, a Rapid Response Project for Social Cohesion and Economic Recovery will be launched, one of the priorities of which is to develop food security for the island’s population.
In addition to these efforts to develop economic infrastructures, the island has managed to generate this culture of peace, according to Autesserre, thanks to a dense and active social network, where associations, networks but also beliefs combine to maintain social balance throughout the territory. As soon as a conflict breaks out, instead of turning to official authorities such as the police and the army or trying to resolve the crisis through violence, the inhabitants turn to networks: networks of women, young people, their religious congregation or their customary chief. In this way, each potential conflict can be quickly resolved4.
Traditional beliefs are, against all expectations, potentially also a factor of peace: for example, the ancestral belief that the island should be protected by sorcerers who would have the power to do harm to all those who would come to disturb the peace on the island (or who would try to invade it), beliefs that correspond to some of the doctrines found in most of the great religions but which, for the moment, have a real deterrent effect. While these beliefs are generally associated with obscurantism and violence, perhaps a more open approach should be taken and their positive effects highlighted.
But the maintenance of social peace requires above all that everyone be made responsible. Individual as well as collective responsibility is a value that the inhabitants of the island cherish and maintain, both through their culture and because they know how fragile peace is and how much it costs not to do everything possible to maintain it.
What can we learn from Idjwi?
Firstly, that in a context where the rule of law no longer exists, local actors are the only ones with the capacity to provide for the security needs of their communities; secondly, that the rule of law is not the sine qua non for security to be assured. Finally, this example, especially for comparative purposes, tends to demonstrate that the absence of a state may be better than a deficient but still present state, and that at least at the micro-political level, micro-political solutions may be superior to macro-political resolutions emanating from governments or agencies that do not enjoy the same trust among citizens as individuals or agencies that deal with people and are personally accountable.
The general approach underlying this type of strategy is that peace and security are first built at the local level before, eventually, spreading further. But how? For the time being, it is difficult to answer this question, and at a higher level – that of a region or a country – there is no evidence that this bottom-up approach to localism can extend beyond a limited and geo-physically protected space. But the fact is that in these areas of endless conflict, localism provides some solutions where traditional approaches are struggling to produce concrete results.
Could this very special experience serve as a model elsewhere? This example, like that of the peace communities in Colombia or that of Somaliland, is on a scale comparable to that of medium-sized cities, suburbs or neighborhoods in large metropolises, including those in northern countries. But why not consider that what makes Idjwi a success could be applied to these spaces that share many common features with this isolated community in Kivu: social, religious, linguistic or ethnic tensions; economic difficulties; deficient rule of law (weak, ineffective or reluctant police forces); more or less open conflicts between various communities?
The example of Idjwi shows how sustained consultation and dialogue initiatives can overcome many obstacles and rebuild the social and personal ties needed to renew the social contract within a country or society that no longer has a real social contract.
Obviously, for Northern countries, cultural barriers are difficult to overcome. In Asia, Europe and the Middle East, conflict resolution and the guarantee of the security of citizens have always been the prerogative of the state. And, with the kind of relationships established and reiterated during colonial, post-colonial and post-post colonial eras, it will take a major intellectual effort to concede that a small community in the heart of Africa may have something to teach us about how to manage our tensions, how to resolve our conflicts and how to live together harmoniously.
- Séverine Autesserre, Frontlines of Peace, à paraître; Peaceland, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
- Aude Rossignol, « L’île dIdjwi, pépinière du développement local au Sud-Kivu, » 9 juin 2017, Medium.com.
- Sarah Vernhes, « Avec les Pygmées de RDC, qui survivent et meurent méprisés de tous, » Le Monde Afrique, 25 septembre, 2017.
- “Ending Violence from War, » Tauck Ritzau Innovative Philantropy, June 5 2019.
Arnaud Blin is a French-American historian and political scientist specialized in conflicts history. He wrote around fifteen works, translated into ten languages. Ex-director of Beaumarchais Center for International Research (Washington), he coordinated for around 10 years the World New Governance Forum (Paris). His professional interests have centered in problems linked to good governance and security. Through the Forum, he led around forty projects on global governance with Gustavo Marin. Last published work : War and religion. Europe and the Mediterranean from the first through the 21st centuries (University of California Press, 2019).