Conflicts are dynamic. What starts out as a dispute between two gangs may develop into a communal or religious riot, which then becomes a violent, local conflict.
That in turn may be used by politicians to build up a political following. Then businesses (often also owned by politicians) jump on the bandwagon, selling weapons to one or both sides, making money hand over fist. That business opportunity may develop over time into other business opportunities, such as mining and selling minerals for example. Then the militias used by the business to protect the investment may decide that they can run the business without him/her, so a kind of civil war develops between militias, which may then bring in an army to ‘control’ the situation. But the officers in that army may also see business opportunities, and seek control of mineral extraction.
So it goes on, continually changing and shifting, creating new realities, new liaisons, new economic opportunities and new dynamics. And through all this, ordinary people are likely to be bullied, robbed, beaten, raped, tortured, forced to flee, and forced to return again – pushed around from one place to another, disempowered and disenfranchised.
The conflict sensitive journalist needs to be aware of all this, of the dynamic nature of conflict, and of the different factions, of their financial, personal and political interests, and be deeply aware of what it all means for ordinary people. Indeed many of the best journalists always try to report from the point of view of ordinary people.
How conflicts start (and are maintained)
Conflicts do not simply arrive out of nowhere. There will always be a build up to the violence, sometimes over many years. But there are a number of factors which make a violent conflict more likely to break out. Some of these factors are listed below:
- Closed borders and/or an absence of communication between the different sides;
- Each side has negative images, stereotypes and prejudices about the other (often these are reinforced by educational systems, the commercial and state media, blogs, Facebook, YouTube videos and Twitter);
- Long-standing, unresolved issues or disagreements between the two sides;
- Inequitable distribution of power, and/or resources (votes, positions in local or national government, education, employment, land, oil etc.);
- Absence of freedom of speech and state (or other) control of media outlets;
- A widespread zero-sum vision of the conflict (i.e. it’s either win or lose, nothing in-between is possible);
- Absence of platforms for expression or discussion of alternative or pro-peace views, and institutional obstacles to the creation of such platforms;
- Pressure on peace activists, and obstacles at governmental and societal levels which prevent the emergence of a community of peacemakers.
How conflicts end
All conflicts always come to an end at some point. It may take years, even decades, but the conflict will end. It is important to keep this in mind because people caught up in a conflict often become depressed and pessimistic, unable to see a way out, and this allows warlords and leaders of all kinds to convince them, to manipulate them into thinking that there is no option to more war.
It is the job of a conflict sensitive reporter keep exploring the official and unofficial processes, or the possibilities for peace building. This too is news, although because it is less overtly exciting than death and destruction editors sometimes resist including reports about local or national efforts to bring peace.
Traditional methods for resolving conflicts in Africa exist and have proved their worth over centuries, although most have been eroded by state or national power structures. However, in some countries these traditions have been revived, giving a sense of control back to the people, helping them see that they cannot just depend on official routes to peace. Such initiatives are also worthy of being reported.
Conflict analysts say that conflicts can end in at least four different ways;[i]
One side wins: One side wins and the other loses because it is physically stronger, financially more powerful, or is supported by some authority such as the courts. The loser is likely to be unsatisfied, and may suffer violence and harm. The 1980s war against the Shona in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland ended in a total victory for the central government, but it has left many on-going problems in that part of the country, including poverty and a deep-rooted suspicion of Government officials.
Withdrawal; One or both sides back away, although neither side is really satisfied. At the end of May 2000, exhausted by a ruinously expensive and bloody border war (70,000 deaths) both Ethiopia and Eritrea temporarily withdrew their forces (Ethiopia claimed a victory). But the underlying problems were not resolved and continue to create serious tensions even now, over a decade later.
Compromise is the beginning of a solution to the conflict. The two sides agree on at least a small change, such as sharing the resource about which they quarrelled. The share may be unequal but it is temporarily satisfying enough to both groups. The 1996 agreement between the government of Mali and northern Touareg groups is an example. The government decentralised local authority and economic development to the north; the Touareg abandoned their weapons and efforts to achieve outright independence. This compromise lasted fairly well until 2012.
Real common ground (or Transcendence), involves both sides achieving a new understanding of their real needs, and finding a new way to share the benefits of cooperation. The opposing sides respect their differences, recognise their common problems, and work together for their common good. In this way violent conflict becomes a less desirable method of resolving a disagreement. Transcendence is most likely to result in lasting peace. The 1992 peace accord to end the long civil war in Mozambique is an example. In a 10-year process, both sides agreed that rebuilding the agricultural economy, tolerating regional self-governance and moving to free elections were the best ways to improve everyone’s lives.
A conflict sensitive reporter needs to be able to recognise these four main ways of ending a conflict, although peace agreements are sometimes quite messy and contain elements of more than one of the above. Reporters should be able to analyse how the conflict or conflicts about which s/he is concerned are developing and changing, or ending. Too often journalists or reporters think of peace as an event, something which happens only when an accord is signed. They report on this, but not on the build up to it, nor on the type of deal which has been worked out. This is important in the sense of how likely a new conflict will break out at some point in the future if any pre-existing cultural and structural violence has not been dealt with.