Cape Town / Durban — Since 1992, when the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) was established, the conflict management NGO has played an integral role in conflict resolution activities across Africa.

This led to ACCORD becoming the first African NGO to address the UN Security Council, and 28 years continues to build the capacity of the continent’s leaders to resolve conflict and address the underlying political barriers to growth and stability.

allAfrica’s managing editor Juanita Williams spoke with ACCORD Founder and Executive Director Vasu Gounden takes us from the early nineties to the future – particularly facing the challenges of post-Covid-19 Africa.

When I started out in the field, it was a very small field, because conflict management as a practice – although it’s been practised for centuries … people managed conflicts – but this kind of professional way was still in its fledgling state. I was really lucky at the time, in 1989, to receive the Fullbright Scholarship and attend Georgetown University in Washington where I did my Master’s in Law, specializing in conflict management and I worked for a dispute resolution institution in Washington, the National Institute for Dispute Resolution, which is where I got the idea to set up ACCORD. At the time you could count on your fingertips the number of universities offering Master’s and doctoral studies in conflict management, and you could even count the number of scholars that were qualified in this area.

Today there’s an abundance of universities across the world who offer conflict management. Today when we are recruiting and you know we are recruiting all the time, it’s not difficult to find a PhD in conflict management. There are many of them across the world so in a sense the field has grown exponentially I would say. The field has also grown in terms of the nature of the field and that’s probably why there’s been this growth in the conflict management practitioners.

Largely prior to 1990 conflict resolution was the domain of nation states and largely because conflicts were between states. As of 1990, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the you know the whole era of multiparty democracy coming into being and together with that the competitive political space opening up in countries meant that there were many more political conflicts in countries and internal conflicts.

Now involving not only states vs states but states with civilians and as a result of that people started to develop a practice in trying to resolve these conflicts. So I can say yes, I was very fortunate in that I grew with this field from its beginning so what we have today is a lot of people qualified theoretically but not many people have had the experience on the ground of mediating.

So there is still a dearth of people who have the qualifications on the one side and the experience on the other.

The centre has been involved in trying to resolve several conflicts on the continent – for instance Burundi and the DR Congo

We have the distinction as ACCORD of having prepared almost all the rebel groups, insurgency groups, across the continent who have been involved in negotiations – as well as government representatives. So for example in Madagascar, we worked with the ousted president, he was here many times in these offices (in Durban, South Africa) looking at negotiation and mediation Last year we had the five ministers from the Central African Republic; they came to these officers here again for two 5-day sessions where they were prepared in negotiation. And then you know the rebel groups in Burundi, including their former president Pierre Nkurunziza who died recently trained at ACCORD. The current president General Évariste Ndayishimiye also trained at ACCORD. In the DR Congo and Somalia, the transitional government representatives were trained here.

So what do we do? We train them in negotiations because like you when you go to be a rebel you know in the bush somewhere you get trained to use a gun to prosecute your struggle.

Negotiation is just another terrain of struggle – where you now sit in a boardroom and you have to be equipped, you have to be given training like you train to use a weapon, you’re trained to negotiate. And that’s what we do in preparing a rebel groups and others, we give them the skill because sometimes it’s easier to learn how to use a gun. You can be trained in one day to use a gun.

To be trained to negotiate? This is much more complex. Very often you know rebel groups don’t come to the negotiation table because they feel at a very distinct disadvantage in that governments have more capacity for negotiation. Giving them these skills empowers them with the confidence that they can also negotiate at that table.

How the researchers at ACCORD contribute to peacebuilding on the continent?

You cannot go and get all any situation of conflict without understanding the conflict itself and that means that you need evidence-based research. You need to have more than just a social media understanding or a CNN understanding of a situation.

I will give you an example – when I was going to Gaza to meet with Hamas and Fatah together with our former deputy minister of foreign affairs Aziz Pahad, I had a CNN view of Gaza.  People running around everywhere with guns and hiding behind walls and all of that.

And the first time I went when the Palestinian Legislative Assembly was still in charge… and we arrived in Gaza and were taken to a boardroom similar to the one I’m sitting in now, air-conditioned, we were given bottled water, we had long meetings. It was quite a revelation for me. Now if I had in my head what I was seeing on CNN I was not going to expect … even the second time when we went to meet with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh at the time in his offices, we had a formal meeting.

It was not that we met him somewhere behind some building while he was trying to hide from bullets or something you know. So you need contextual knowledge, you need to understand the situation. This is what our researchers do – they go and they get evidence. We need to understand what is the geography of the of the country, what’s the demography of the country what is the politics, how did the conflict start, what has been its trajectory. We need all that information. How is research to end conflict and encourage peacebuilding in Africa aligning with the novel coronavirus pandemic?

How is research to end conflict and encourage peacebuilding in Africa aligning with the novel coronavirus pandemic?

Well, ACCORD was one of the first NGOs, I think even globally, that immediately when the Covid-19 pandemic was identified on the continent, set up a research operation where we deployed 17 of our researchers to research all 55 countries in Africa on 7 indicators every single day. We started to produce a weekly Covid-10 Conflict and Resilience Monitor. The 23rd edition will come out today, that’s every Wednesday. Our data capturers basically get their information every day. We have set up a technology instrument in which the information is inputted and then it is analyzed using the instrument and we produce these are infographics over which gives the analysis. Then we bring expert writers and current decision makers, former presidents, ministers and others who are currently involved in those conflict situations. What are we tracking? We are tracking the impact of Covid-19 on peace and security on the continent. I’m just coming off a discussion now with a consultant to doing some research for the European Union and he was complimenting ACCORD on the Covid-19 Conflict and Resilience Monitor and saying this is one of the few across the world that actually took specifically Covid-19 and looked at its impact. We are in the middle of it and will continue so long as that there is the virus, we will continue to look at its impact.

Our current analysis is that the Covid-19 pandemic is acting as a conflict multiplier, so you know we have already had problems on the continent but once the pandemic arrived – rightly so – governments had to shut down the place in order to prevent the spread of the virus … but having had to do that of necessity at the same time it led to huge economic dislocation.

Many people lost their jobs, other people were paid less, so you have financial constraints, etc. We know the statistics on gender-based violence and the rise in gender-based violence. There have been a number of unintended consequences and we think the lockdowns have put a lid on conflict. That’s why we are seeing our own research indicating that conflict actually subsided across the continent, largely because people are now stuck in their houses. They’re not on the streets and there are all of these curfews, etc.

Again as I say necessarily so, we need the lockdowns but once the lockdowns are lifted, you know that lid is lifted, you are going to get many more people who are unemployed and we know that the key, underlying causes of conflict are poverty, unemployment and inequality. And we know that post-Covid-19, unemployment inequality and poverty will all have increased, which means that Covid-19 will have acted as a conflict multiplier. This is where our research is taking us currently and we are in discussions with the African Union, with regional organizations, with our own government, about how to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 and therefore our Monitor has been an important part of ensuring that we can have early warning and begin to have earlier responses.

Dealing with the underlying causes of Covid-19, as we know very well in South Africa. Poverty, unemployment, inequality – it is not easy. That takes a generation, two generations that’s 20 to 40 years.

So what do we do? What do I mean by mitigating? When I say mitigate, we’re training people across the continent at NGOS on the ground, faith-based leaders, traditional leaders, all of whom can mediate in these local disputes.

You might remember 1993 when we had huge conflict in South Africa, and there was the national peace accord and there were the peace accord structures on the ground and hundreds of people were trained by ACCORD. They mediated in those conflicts so that they could reduce those conflicts; that’s what we are saying we could be doing now as ACCORD. We will be training almost 10,000 people across Africa over the next 18 months or so to mitigate and manage those conflicts on the ground that will come from the Covid-19 impact.

What would that training involve for presidents, NGOs and community leaders?

Obviously we are not training a president but we are orienting them into how to negotiate, how to calculate your balance of forces, how to calculate your power – you know because people sometimes overestimate their power, underestimate it – and then having the skills. How do you negotiate? How do you come up with your negotiation position? And if you’re the mediator, how do you bring parties to the table? How do you manage a dialogue on an ongoing basis?

What to look for when you are mediating, because mediation can take one day, it can take one year, it can take 10 years, depending on the complexity of the conflict.

We are going to train people on the ground in how to manage dialogue, so how to bring people together. If it goes beyond dialogue, where trust levels are so low, how do you build that trust, how do you build conciliation amongst parties. In South Africa for example we are more and more a divided society. Now do you work to build social cohesion in society? There are many many strategies that we have learned over the last 28 years that can be employed and deployed in order to build conciliation, to facilitate dialogue, to engage in negotiations, to engage in mediation, to build social cohesion, and these are the kind of trainings that we will offer people.