9-12 December, 2010, Atlanta, United States
More than 60 delegates from five countries in the Horn – Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan -- met in Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency hotel for a brain-storming session. The conference was called and organised by the Eritrean Citizens for Peace movement. It included academics, civic activists, faith leaders and scientists from both the countries themselves and their diaspora communities, along with international analysts and writers on the Horn. It was a follow-up to two previous Eritrean gatherings in London and Brighton and aimed to stimulate a free flow of ideas to break the logjams and festering conflicts in many countries in the area. The initiative was the brainchild of Paulos Tesfagiorgis.
A number of delegates commented on the unique nature of the gathering in bringing together citizens from the five countries and encouraging mould-breaking discussions amongst traditional “rivals”, many of whom had never met their geographical counterparts. The conference was characterised by a remarkable absence of national stereotyping, lack of acrimony, and consistently open and tolerant debate.
On the first day the conference heard papers from representatives of each country, conveying the policy approach and stereotyping practised by the relevant administration and the mindset of the citizenry.
Andre Zaaiman, a member of South Africa’s ANC, conveyed some lessons of that organisation’s campaign to end apartheid: the importance of focussing on winning over the enemy rather than preaching solely to friends, seeing the enemy as the system, not individuals, and the need to think outside the box when seeking solutions to intractable problems. He said solutions were often counter-intuitive and initially even shocking to those exploring them, but that should not hinder such attempts. He urged delegates to base tactics on solid research and to focus their activities initially on a specific, targetted campaign with a pre-agreed time frame. Campaign needs to be based on solid research and have an agreed strategy, which would then dictate tactics. He also said moments of substantive change were rare and needed to be prepared for and then seized.
- borders divide peoples and fracture communities
- climate change (and pastoral issues) require regional approaches, as they all cross border
- regimes may be polarised against one another but citizens in border areas are not, cooperating on many fronts despite wars
- violence has been the dominant means of communication in the region and this needs to end
- he vicious cycle of poverty, conflict and poverty was highlighted
After lunch the plenary broke into four groups to brain storm the issues in more detail and come up with innovative suggestions. In summary, these were:
- the role played in breaking down ethnic stereotypes by bringing students together in multi-ethnic boarding schools.
- establishing the border town of Badme as a neutral zone recognised by both Eritrea and Ethiopia to be run by faith groups
- improvising liaison between communities in the diaspora, via sports, music and cultural activities and with a special focus on women and youth, who make up the vast swathe of the new refugee population. It was noted that diaspora communities rarely break outside national limits during their current social activities.
- traditional methods of conflict resolution have waned and need to be revived in the region eg. meetings of village elders, blood brothership ceremonies etc.
- using faith-based groups to end animosities and increase understanding. Religion has traditionally been a conflict resolution tool of huge importance in Africa, the animosity of various administrations towards religious leaders has pushed this into abeyance
- developing the media to spread the word. Given the polarisation, factionalism and xenophobia witnessed on existing Horn of Africa websites, there is a pressing need to establish a calm, neutral and independent website spreading bulletins and news about the region within the diaspora and to the region. The youth’s skill at social networking – Facebook and Twitter – should be tapped. These activities need to be independently funded, by businessmen from the diaspora
- thought should be given to establishing a radio station to do the same job. Radio’s role in the region is enormously important and the stations are not currently speaking to the people or beyond local stereotypes, often whipping up local hatreds.
- within the region mutual understanding could be tapped through cultural, musical and sports events. Eg a music festival in Djibouti, marathons, with invitations extended across the Horn
- exploring the idea of a peace caravan which would travel the region, spreading a message of peace
- all agreed that borders must remain porous and the migratory routes of nomadic communities open. Dual citizenship was explored as a possible right for border communities.
- delegates highlighted the importance of trade being resumed along contentious borders. Eg trade across Eritrean/Ethiopian border and reviving the port of Assab
- stepping up student exchanges already taking place between countries in the region and exchanges organised by civic associations across borders.
- there was an agreement that outside perspectives were refreshing, helpful, credible, and to be encouraged in future – eg. A Djiboutian journalist writing about Sudan, a Somali academic researching Eritrea.
- need for more research into the causes of the various conflicts, with some debate taking place as to whether the existing institutes in Addis and Juba were sufficient and credible enough, given their location. Some delegates felt a peace institute delving into the problems would be best located elsewhere.
- question of justice was explored – some delegates believed it was time to end a long history of impunity for leaders in the region, others warned attempts at prosecution could prove counterproductive. More research is needed to work out an appropriate strategy for the Horn – which may differ from those applied elsewhere in Africa - and clarity will need to be achieved, a joint position agreed.
- greater recognition of the traditional role women play in peacekeeping. That role should be tapped into both in the diaspora and in the community itself. Women in particular can be used to combat poverty, a factor in conflict – cf microlending schemes which focus on women.
There was agreement that a regional and diaspora peace movement should be established to tap into the energies of the conference and keep momentum going. This will involve setting up a regional peace initiative, which will use the acronym HOPE (Horn of Africa Peace Engagement). One of its targets will be to mobilise local chapters in the five countries in the region.
Those who organized the Atlanta conference – Selame Kidane, Gaim Kibreab, Dawit Mesfin, Seyoum Tesfaye – will join the steering committee of the new organization - HOPE. Focal people from the region, who will champion and research topical issues, will join the ranks of the steering committee. HOPE’s aim is to transcend national borders and it was agreed that all committee members will represent themselves, not nation states, and are by no means regarded as “country representatives”.
The following were selected to the steering committee are:
Buthaina Ahmed Elnaiem (Khartoum), Yongo Bure (Juba), Tamrat Kebede (Addis) Ismael Wais (Djibouti City), Zeinab Hassan (Mogadishu)
The initiative’s slogan will be “Make peace possible” and overall, five key themes emerged as the likely future foci of campaign issues for the movement:
Delegates agreed that all these issues needed to be carefully researched to inform the campaign.
It was agreed that HOPE’s first task was an appeal for the holding of a peaceful referendum in Sudan on the future of national unity, given the proximity of the vote.
It was agreed that HOPE’s first campaign should have a strict time limit to allow the initiative to learn from past experience and become more effective. A one year time limit for this campaign was agreed.
It was agreed to issue a press statement declaring the formation of HOPE and the gathering of delegates in Atlanta.
11th December 2010 ends