Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Given that the roots of so much intra-state conflict is lack of social justice, inequality and marginalisation suffered by different groups, strategies on removing these obstacles and building intra-group solidarity should be the key peace-building pan-African project of the next 50 years


African leaders at independence set out to create new countries where the issues of development and social justice were to replace the marginalisation and core violence of the colonial order. A peaceful internal and external environment was critical to ushering in development.

The leaders came together collectively to guarantee this peaceful environment – their most imaginative tool was the setting up of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. The OAU rejected Nkrumah’s call to unity and collective security – but instead adopted three core principles, each of which was intended to lead to peace and justice but each of which, paradoxically, produced its own share of conflict.

First, the OAU guaranteed the existing colonial borders, the rejection of which was identified by the leaders as the greatest potential source of external instability to their fledging countries and intra-African conflict on the continent.

Second, it accepted the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, leading to a race to the bottom in terms of human rights and undermining the search for justice, equality and peaceful approaches to conflict resolution amongst aggrieved minorities, ethnic and religious groups.

Third, through its Liberation Committee it endorsed and legitimised the armed struggle as part of the decolonisation process.

These three policy choices have been in turn considered controversial, but necessary and essential. Much debate and indeed bloodshed followed their implementation, resulting in anti- colonial, inter-state, intra-state, inter-group and intra-group conflict and violence. Some have argued that without the three policies things would be worse. Others, like writer Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, have dubbed the OAU architecture based on ‘Berlin Act States’ which he dubs as inherently anti-African and genocidal (i.e Biafra, Congo, Sudan).

Despite the carnage and maelstrom that has been unleashed over the last 50 years following the adoption of these three policies, extraordinary peace-building and reconciliation models have also emerged on the continent, the most prominent being the peaceful negotiation and truth and reconciliation process that ended Apartheid in South Africa.

Over the next 50 years, Africans have the opportunity for something of a fresh start with the formation of the African Union (AU) in 2002. Two of the three principles that were endorsed 50 years ago are now no longer relevant. Decolonization is at an end and with it the need for armed struggle. The new international norm of ‘responsibility to protect’ now overrides non-interference and is enshrined in the AU’s Constitutive Act. The only core principle that has remained is the rigidity of the borders – though even here increasing regionalism (SADC, ECOWAS, EAC) and other facts on the ground, especially the establishment of South Sudan through war and a referendum, and the slow grab for self-determination in Somaliland, Northern Mali and eastern DRC, are producing both de facto, and de jure change.

Nevertheless there is a need to continue to meditate on the on-going challenges and lessons thrown up by these three principles as we continue to seek to decrease violence and conflict on our continent and create a peaceful developmental environment.

At its most basic, the root cause of conflict is always about injustice or the perception of it – ‘no justice, no peace, goes the slogan. Injustice always demands a response but as Judith Atiri has noted: the choice is ‘not whether to resist injustice but what form the resistance should take’.

Given that the roots of so much intra-state conflict is lack of social justice, inequality and marginalisation suffered by different groups, strategies on removing these obstacles and building intra-group solidarity should be the key peace-building pan-African project of the next 50 years structured, as Horace Campbell would argue, on the basis of African humanism as embodied in the practice of Ubuntu. This is particularly important as new and old forms of injustice are multiplying. Neo-colonialism and globalisation are the source of Africa’s widespread poverty, which in turn trigger new conflicts.

At the continental level, The AU’s Constitutive Act, offers a vision for peaceful, but effective resistance. In its aim to create an environment for peaceful development, it has introduced a new core principle to the architecture of conflict resolution – that of collective security which is operationalised by the Peace and Security Council, and instruments such as the African Standby Force and its regional components such as ECOMOG in West Africa.

Collective security embodies the idea of a collective will, and at the heart of this shift is the attempt to create a body that is able to enforce the will of the African Union – the new ‘Sovereign’ on the continent. The contradictions that beset the Sovereign are as old as hat. Sometimes it is expressed in the old proverb: in order to maintain peace, you need to prepare for war, or at least have the capacity for it.

So if effective, the Sovereign protects against external enemies and most importantly provides internal peace – through putting in place effective conflict resolution mechanisms, or if that fails, then as a last resort through having and deploying a monopoly of violence. Though readily available, the use of violence by the Sovereign should really be symbolic, as its actual deployment represents a gross failure and is a contradiction of peace.

The way around this contradiction is for the sovereign will (in this case the African people) to agree some ground rules – about the use of violence in arbitrating difference. Something like this has happened in Europe. After the years of wars and conflicts which left millions dead and the Germans and Eastern Europeans under occupation and without their sovereignty, the countries of Europe after WW2 set up the EU. And most critically agreed henceforth to resolve their disputes without violence. They also agreed to accept the judgments of their various courts on human rights, commercial matters, standards etc. Since then Europe has been an oasis of peace. Its sovereignty is not threatened. Wars have raged on the edges – former Yugoslavia – where these values had not been accepted.

So, those who enjoy their full sovereignty and internal peace have not abolished or solved the problem of conflict (since there is always conflict); rather they have put in place effective systems of arbitration or final judgment to settle all disputes.

This system that the AU is recreating of settling final disputes through arbitration and final judgment of a sovereign is as old as time in Africa. It is at the heart of the oldest written story about conflict resolution in the world - the story of how peace came to the warring nephew and uncle duo, Horus and Seth in Ancient Egypt. At stake was the usual issue of power and who would rule.


The ancient Egyptian story unfolds with the formation of the world when the initial nine building blocks of creation – the ‘Grand Ennead’ - were formed. The first building block, Atum, self-created from the void to give birth to male and female twins Shu (light) and Tefnut (moisture). They in turn gave birth to their children, the next twins Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). The union of Geb and Nut produced the first human family. The eldest Osiris, is followed by his sister Isis, then brother Seth and finally sister, Nephthys.

The drama involving these four humans is arguably the first documented love story and tale of reconciliation. One version contained in the Shabaka Text tells of how Osiris, after marrying Isis, his sister, becomes pharaoh of Egypt. Jealousy consumes his younger brother, Seth, married to Nephthys. Seth eventually murders Osiris, cuts his body into 14 pieces, and scatters the pieces over all Egypt. Seth then becomes Pharaoh.

A distraught Isis, with the help of her sister, Nephthys, goes in search of the pieces of her beloved husband. She finds the discarded remains and reassembles Osiris’ body, thus creating the first mummy. Osiris’ mummy is resurrected for one night and Isis sleeps with him, conceiving a son, Horus, who is raised secretly in the marshes of the Nile to hide him from a vengeful Seth, now seeing a threat to his throne.

Seth is right to be worried. When Horus comes of age, he sets out to avenge his father and fight for his throne. Horus and his uncle battle for 80 years, the wars going back and forth, until finally, the ‘Grand Ennead’ are called in council to settle the dispute. The council meet and after long deliberations, involving hearing evidence and appeals, and setting various tests, the Grand Ennead, the sovereign will of ancient Egypt, settle the dispute by imposing a judgement. And the judgement is final, and accepted by the warring parties.

They decide in favour of right (Horus) and not might (Seth). Horus becomes Pharaoh because he did not shed blood for the throne. Legitimacy would in future from his mother, Isis, the female line – whose symbol is the throne or seat of power – which is why in pictures Isis always has the throne on her head.

The judgement is also win/win recognising Seth’s rights and interests. Seth is given an area to rule over - the deserts/wastelands. And in some subsequent traditions in Ancient Egypt legitimacy to rule as Pharaoh derives only if the lands of Horus and Seth are united under one standard. Finally, the dead Osiris is given the Netherlands to rule over, becoming the symbol of the ancestral past and the point of transition between the living and dead.

Over 4000 years later the sophistication of the judgement of the Grand Council/Ennead is still relevant for us as the AU seeks to recreate a new Sovereign will. ‘Right’ is given ultimate power, but unity is preserved by also recognising ‘might’, through sharing some of that power and territory. Finally, conflict is resolved not through fighting but by a council, hearing evidence and sitting in judgement. This council’s authority to impose a decision is recognised by all because the body enjoys enormous spiritual and moral legitimacy.

The AU, with its various instruments, is seeking to be that contemporary body that can impose such a ruling. Many AU organs are formally involved in this process – the Court of Human and People’s Rights to arbitrate the disputes; and the Peace and Security Council, are just two. Informally, the group of ‘Eminent Persons’ or ‘Elders’ entrusted by the AU to mediate in conflicts, as Kofi Annan did in the 2007 disputed Kenyan elections, are also part of the process of creating a ‘Grand Ennead’ – whose process is fair and whose judgements are accepted so that peace can return.

Finally, it is worth noting that the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol for members of the ‘Grand Ennead’ looks like a flag – which remains the modern symbol of independence and sovereignty. I hope that the AU over the next 50 years will be able to genuinely provide collective security, protect our sovereignty, and create the mechanisms for resolving conflicts through being accepted as Africans as an expression of own sovereign will, seated in council, and trusted to decide in favour of ‘right’, while acknowledging ‘might’ – so that peace can return.

As we build a culture of peace over the next 50 years in Africa, we can draw on enduring and ancient concepts of peace from our continent.


Ancient Egyptian Goddess of truth, justice and order, is the most enduring symbol of peace. Her symbol is the feather (which sits on her head). The feather is weighed on the scales of life against the heart of the person being judged, and is expected to balance if the heart is pure. Without justice and truth there is no peace or order! ‘No justice, no peace’ as Jessie Jackson/Al Sharpton and others would still say. So Maat and the feather of justice are a precondition for peace.

Imoteph – the one who comes in peace, is with peace

Ancient Egyptian polymath and the first recorded individual in history, subsequently defied by the Egyptians.



‘knot of pacification/reconciliation’
Symbol of reconciliation, peacemaking and pacification - Mpatapo represents the bond or knot that binds parties in a dispute to a peaceful, harmonious reconciliation. It is a symbol of peacemaking after strife.


‘No one should bite the other’
Symbol of peace and harmony. This symbol cautions against provocation and strife. The image is based on two fish biting each others tails.


Ndibisi Symbol of Ani

The Igbo week of peace is a tribute to Ani, the Earth mother. It is not only a time of peace, but a time of thankfulness to the goddess for her bounty. It teaches humans to be humble and grateful, as well as peaceful.

Palm Fronds

Igbo people (and many other Africans) use Palm Fronds when on a demonstration as a sign of peaceful intent, non-violence and justice. In Roman, Christian and other near east cultures it had been a symbol of victory, but the ancient Igbo Kingdom of Nri, founded in the 9th century, used it to sacralize and restrain – so its current use as a symbol of peace in protests is more likely linked to this earlier understanding of it.


It would be good to build up a corpus of peace symbols and concepts from different African cultures around the continent as increase the peace over the next 50 years. Please forward your contributions.

* Onyekachi Wambu, African Foundation for Development


* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.