New Clear Vision

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The Moment Is Now!

January 15, 2015 By: NCVeditor Category: Current Events, Matt Meyer, Politics

African Civil Resistance in 2015

by Matt Meyer

“I am younger than I was YEARS AGO!” proclaimed South African activist Zenzile Khoisan, known to many around the world as the exiled freedom fighter who spent many years in New York City as an intrepid reporter for Pacifica panpen2radio. A skilled journalist, he returned to his homeland as a lead investigator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Khoisan’s optimistic outlook in the face of increasingly bleak domestic conditions is not only a grand way to start the new year, or – as it were – to start the first morning plenary of the War Resisters’ International (WRI) conference held at Cape Town’s historic City Hall. It is also symptomatic of the hope still evident in the country with the current highest per capita rate of mass mobilizations, civil society protests, labor strikes, and general unrest. It is a fitting cry of exuberance and excitement from a continent bubbling over with grassroots initiatives and actions in every corner of its vast land mass, built by diverse people who are coming together with growing enthusiasm and a unified perspective that the power of the people – greater than any government or even transnational corporate giant – will be the determining factor in the years to come.

For Khoisan, now a leader of the Khoi and San native communities for whom he is a name-sake and elder, the key is getting “back to the garden” of people’s essential idealism: to understand, as Khoisan referenced and paraphrased Dr. Martin Luther King, that one cannot be what one wants to be until everyone can become what they wish to become. “For me,” Khoisan commented, “my essence is my indigeneity. We have to deal with all the contested narratives about our wounded-ness, and the foundational violence in our societies. But we also have to forge a unity not just in our diversity, but in our fusion into something new.” As a teenage militant throwing rocks at a City Hall which symbolized the apartheid regime before his exile, Khoisan recognizes the irony of his newfound “softness” and interest in a radical and militant nonviolence. “I was beaten into the anti-apartheid movement by seeing my friends shot outside City Hall, but now I’m being seduced into this new way of life: a gentleness which means more compassion and less judgment towards others working for liberation in their own ways.”

Khoisan is far from alone.

The Pan African Nonviolence and Peace-building Network (PANPEN), which was brought to life in 2012 as nonviolence trainers from a dozen African countries met in Johannesburg to prepare for the events which would become the 2014 Cape Town meetings, has grown substantially over the past six months with great plans for the year to come. The July 2014 City Hall convergence was centered around the WRI conference – the first of its kind on African soil – but also included related events and meetings of many groups looking for “new ways of life” and more effective tactics which connect the means and the ends. Most global peace groups were involved in some way in the proceedings, which convened with a blessing and greeting from Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who noted that we sometimes have to act a little crazy to make the changes we need to see in the world. The Women Peacemakers Program (formerly affiliated with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation), Africa World/Red Sea Press, EcoSocialist Horizons, and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict all held various pre-conference workshops, seminars and events; the International Peace Research Association (IPRA), Action Support Centre/Action for Conflict Transformation, the American Friends Service Committee (including their Secretary-General Shan Cretin), and other key regional groupings were deeply involved in workshops and theme groups held during the WRI conference, which was co-sponsored by South Africa’s Ceasefire Campaign.

Perhaps most significantly, however, representatives from thirty-three African nations and territories from every region attended various meetings of the Network, whose leaders and work informed and grounded the activities of all the other collaborative spaces. As local host of the week of events, PANPEN co-chair Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge helped convene numerous opportunities to bring together existing members of the Network and newly interested participants, and broaden the leadership to a current steering committee of sixteen. Along with newly elected co-chair Moses John Monday of the South Sudan’s Organization for Nonviolence and Development, Madlala-Routledge – director of the South African women’s anti-violence group Embrace Dignity and a former Parliamentarian and government Minister – plans to intensify Network activities in the coming two years with increased public statements, greater web presence, and several strategic conferences.

Liberian Trauma and Reconciliation Program representative B. Abel Learwellie returned to his country after the PANPEN meetings just as the Ebola epidemic was intensifying. Surrounded by the loss of dozens of friends and family members, and widespread panic and confusion throughout the affected West African countries, Abel developed an educational “Know the Facts” campaign which provided basic informational messages in various local languages to every neighborhood in need. Working on the international level primarily through the new PANPEN list-serve, Abel kept supporters around the world informed about the extent of the crisis, and the specific, on-the-ground needs of the communities most hit by the virus which the mainstream international medical community did so little to assist with at first. A former child soldier, Abel understands the many levels of the phrase which has been attributed to him in Waging Nonviolence and other publications: “Peace to us now means being safe.” PANPEN itself produced a strong Call to the African Union and other international bodies, warning against a militarization of the humanitarian assistance offered by outside governments. “With coordinated and international people-centered action,” PANPEN asserted, “we can heal the sick and build healthy, peaceful societies as well.”

The vision of locally-based, indigenous actions supported by coordinated African and anti-imperialist non-African solidarity campaigners permeates the work of PANPEN and its leaders. Ghana’s Kesia-Onam Bijoue Togoh Birch, Program Office of the of West African Network for Peacebuilding and a PANPEN steering committee member, voiced the sentiments of many in the Network and the ideals of Pan African icon Kwame Nkrumah when she asserted that “peacebuilding must address all of Africa’s problems, building strong, activist civil society solutions which rely on African unity.” The one million young people who took to the streets in Burkina Faso late in 2014, wielding pots and pans and calling for an end to corrupt government and failing economics, certainly followed this basic precept. The two hundred Burundian students who meet weekly at an informal video-and-dialogue evening on nonviolence and political transformation – in anticipation and preparation for elections later this year – similarly adhere to the principles of grassroots, people-centered unarmed direct action. Though severely under-reported, resistance movements led by Sahrawi women in the colonial territory of Western Sahara (and represented in PANPEN by Abdeslam Omar Lahcen of the Association of the Families of Sahrawi Prisoners and Disappeared) have met with increased repression and continued fortitude over the past months. And in the African island nation of Mauritius, local political party Lalit and spokesperson Alain Ah-vee have long brought the issues of demilitarization and denuclearization of occupied Diego Garcia and the Indian Ocean to a global audience.

Yash Tandon of the South Centre, a respected elder political economist and author who presented at a plenary session in Cape Town, noted: “If ever there was a moment when we need to gather our forces that moment is now. The forces of destruction have gathered: the psychology of war has become more intense and there are intensified resource wars on and for the soil of Africa, for rare elements that we have in plenty.” Tandon, a Ugandan national who was a leader of armed movements against dictator Idi Amin and who has been a spokesperson for peace and nonviolence ever since, suggested that “change which is brought about through violence is not necessarily enduring. Social change is a complex process, and war manifests itself in many different forms. We have seen regime change at the top with no real regime change at the bottom. We need to look at our work more dialectically, more systemically, and more clearly.”

Some systemic analysis and action-planning for the future have occurred in PANPEN-related trainings and networking sessions, most especially of African leaders working outside of their own countries. A coalition of organizers and expatriates from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Africa, for example, have come together in meetings in Durban to share successful nonviolent techniques and plan for future cross-border collaborations. Peace studies doctoral student Gabriel Hertis of the African Diaspora Forum is one leading PANPEN member instrumental in maintaining ongoing dialogues across national and regional lines. Similarly regarding the Horn of Africa, Eritrean human rights activist Selam Kidane and Eritrean anti-militarist Abraham Mehreteab work to strengthen effective action-planning among colleagues in the Diaspora; nonviolence trainings of Eritreans and others effected by war in the Horn have taken place in Germany and are planned for the USA. Two recent additional gatherings – the Fourth International African Peace and Conflict Resolution Conference hosted by the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes and the 57th Annual Africa Studies Association Conference with the special theme of “Rethinking Violence, Reconstruction and Reconciliation” – included presentations by PANPEN representatives on the contemporary importance of grassroots nonviolent direct action.

By far the most ambitious and hopeful Pan African peace initiative, however – crossing generational, geographic, ideological and linguistic lines – is the forthcoming 13-15 April 2015 conference of the African Peace Research and Education Association (AFPREA). As major African affiliate of IPRA and a long-standing forum for scholars from across the continent, AFPREA decided to go beyond supporting the recently elected African co-Secretary General of IPRA, Sierra Leoneon journalist Ibrahim Seaga Shaw. As one of the first Africans ever to head a major international peace consortium, Seaga Shaw has pushed to host the next IPRA conference, scheduled for 2016 in his own home country. AFPREA, anxious to hold their own regional conference as an IPRA affiliate, has decided to support the 2016 IPRA conference but also go ahead – in conjunction with PANPEN and a number of other key UN-related and West African bodies – to host the 2015 Abuja convergence on “The Quest for Peace and Security in Africa: Socio-cultural, Economic, Political, and Legal Considerations.” AFPREA Chairman Olufemi Oluniyi is working hard with a local and international team to build broad support for the major April affair, even as his timely new book is released, on Muslim-Christian violence and the path towards greater cooperation. The AFPREA Abuja conference is the next major opportunity for face-to-face planning among leaders of PANPEN and others dedicated to building Pan African peace initiatives.

There can be little doubt that 2015 will be a year of intensified civil resistance, with African activists playing a major role in developing alternatives to unjust political and economic systems. With an upcoming World Social Forum to be held in Tunisia in March, and the activities of PANPEN, AFPREA, and the peoples of Burundi, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Western Sahara, South Africa, the Sudan and beyond, a key question will be how much unity can be maintained so that the successes of one locale or moment may have far-reaching reverberations. It is a year to feel hope and build opportunity out of crisis: to build wisely but with an energy more youthful than ever!

Matt Meyer is a New York City-based educator, author, and activist who serves as War Resisters International Africa Support Network Coordinator and as a UN/ECOSOC representative of the International Peace Research Association. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.

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