On March 21, 137 civilians were killed in localities close to the Niger-Mali border in what the Nigerien government described as attacks by “armed bandits”. Unfortunately, the deadly attacks were not a stand-alone incident or an anomaly. Since January, four separate attacks by armed groups have killed at least 300 people in the landlocked West African country.
The problem is not confined to Niger either – countries on the African continent suffer from violence perpetrated by numerous armed groups. According to the World Bank, 20 of the 39 countries most affected by conflict in the world are in Africa.
And most of these violent acts do not result from conflicts between nations, nor are they directly perpetrated by international terrorist groups – they are rooted in differences within or between local communities.
According to experts, for example, the latest attacks in Niger were the result of militants affiliated with ISIL who fueled long-standing tensions between itinerant pastoralists and farming communities.
These communal tensions and conflicts are extremely widespread on the continent. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, up to 81% of conflicts in Africa between 1989 and 2011 occurred at the community level and as many as 23 African countries experienced community conflicts between 1989 and 2014.
These local conflicts have had devastating consequences, including the destabilization of entire countries and regions as well as the destruction of millions of lives and livelihoods.
In Kenya, in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, violent clashes between supporters of rival political parties left more than 1,000 dead and more than 500,000 displaced. And again, the conflict is rooted not only in recent political disagreements, but also in long-standing tensions and differences between various ethnic groups and communities. Similar situations have also occurred in Nigeria, Burundi, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire in recent years.
Many African countries have attempted to contain the problem of inter-communal violence through state-sponsored measures. Governments have sent their security forces to turbulent localities to enforce order, but time and time again they have failed to end the violence.
In the northwestern region of Nigeria, attempts to stop banditry and end conflicts between farmers and herders through military intervention have repeatedly proved unsuccessful. Similarly, in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, more than 840,000 people fled their homes in 2019 as a result of violent conflict despite efforts by those states to resolve these issues militarily.
Another strategy adopted by African countries to curb violence is the use of courts. But the judicial process is generally slow and unfair across the continent. Many Africans do not trust the system and before the problem can be resolved by the courts, violence between warring groups often flares up again.
So what can be done? One option is to look to the past.
In pre-colonial Africa, traditional rulers who were responsible for the preservation of customs, traditions and cultural heritage as well as arbitrators of justice, successfully resolved many conflicts within and between local communities.
Although traditional rulers have transferred authority to local governments over time, they are still revered as authority figures in many African communities and play a role in resolving local disputes.
In Rwanda, traditional rulers played a key role in the gacaca court system that provided transitional justice to victims of the genocide. In Nigeria, traditional authorities have played an intermediary role between pastoralists and farming communities in north-central states. And in Ethiopia, traditional authorities have resolved disputes over land and grazing routes.
Training traditional leaders in conflict mitigation can be our first line of defense against the community conflicts that ravage Africa.
Societies do not find themselves grappling with violence overnight. On the contrary, unresolved disputes gradually turn into deeper and more complex conflicts and pave the way for widespread violence.
If we develop the capacities to identify and resolve local conflicts in their early stages, we will have a better chance of resolving them before they escalate into humanitarian crises affecting entire nations or even regions.
Providing traditional leaders with the skills they need to resolve early conflict could help us save countless lives and livelihoods.
Although traditional leaders are already working to resolve disputes in their communities, they are not equipped to deal with Africa’s modern conflicts, which are more complex and multifaceted than those seen in the past. To save lives and prevent large-scale atrocities, traditional leaders need more than basic conflict resolution skills passed down to them by their ancestors or those acquired through experience. In particular, the training of traditional leaders should incorporate modern concepts such as the role of women in peacebuilding, restorative justice, understanding early warning signals, etc.
Certainly, training traditional leaders with conflict resolution skills is not the silver bullet to eradicate violent conflict in Africa. There are other factors that contribute to violent conflict, including the proliferation of weapons, human rights violations and structural violence.
However, giving traditional leaders the skills to effectively address the early stages of modern community conflict will go a long way in preventing the rise of new conflicts while reducing the escalation of existing ones. In addition, it will also relieve the pressure on overburdened African courts and overburdened security agencies, while providing long-term solutions to conflicts that are suitable for competing parties.
The African Union has failed in its quest to “silence the guns by 2020”, as evidenced by the many active conflicts in the Sahel region and other parts of Africa. Widespread economic hardship, food insecurity and uncontrolled climate change exacerbate local tensions and pave the way for new conflicts. In this context, the AU should use any tool and method at its disposal to try to end ongoing conflicts and prevent future crises, including traditional leaders.
Looking at our past and remembering how we used to successfully and peacefully resolve our differences can bring us closer to securing our future.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.