When debating questions about the failures and successes of African mediation, an incisive analysis of power and knowledge hierarchies is usually absent. Furthermore, there is no direct discussion of whether mediation needs to be decolonized. African mediation would benefit from interrogating whose knowledge and power influences mediation processes and how this shapes mediation. Providing answers to questions about how decolonizing mediation can help solve emerging conflicts, address existing gaps in the literature, and promote a better understanding of African mediation. While this essay cannot close these gaps, it aims at pointing them out, arguing that decoloniality approaches can help transform African mediation.

Central to decoloniality approaches is the concept of “coloniality,” which refers to the unequal relations of power and knowledge between the Global North and the Global South which persist even after the end of colonialism.1Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, “Why Decoloniality in the 21st Century,” The Thinker, vol 28, (February 2013): 10-15, http://www.thethinker.co.za/resources/48%20Thinker%20full%20mag.pdf. These hierarchies of knowledge and power can be identified in various aspects of African mediation. While most African societies historically relied on mediation to resolve conflicts, there is a lack of confidence in African approaches to conflict resolution which is rooted in colonial thinking. This partly explains the tendency of some of the African Union (AU) mechanisms to reflect knowledge taken from conflict resolution theories from the Global North—as well as international organizations like the United Nations (UN), World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—which is apparent in the AU’s Mediation Support Handbook. The AU’s Standard Operating Procedures for Mediation Support includes a list of lessons learned from the UN instead of lessons learned from its own practices, experiences, and African thinking.2African Union Peace and Security Department, AU Standard operating procedures for mediation support (Addis Ababa: African Union, 2012) 46, http://www.peaceau.org/uploads/au-mediation-sops.pdf. Regarding AU mediation, it is useful to address questions relating to how knowledge on mediation relates and speaks to people on the continent.

While there needs to be more systematic research on the extent to which AU mediation has been influenced by ideas and practices in the Global North and how this affects it, the Darfur Peace Agreement can serve as a case study illustrating how power and knowledge hierarchies shape mediation practices. During the mediation process, it was apparent that the negotiators from rebel movements lacked negotiation experience. Furthermore, the Darfur Peace Agreement was initially written in English, which meant that many rebels had difficulties understanding some of its contents, though they were later provided with an Arabic translation which contained mistranslations. Thus, mediation was based on a document and process that was not well understood by some of the parties to the conflict. Instead of calling for capacity-building, what if mediation could be based on knowledge shared by all the parties to the conflict?

The funding of the mediation process in Darfur by the international community and its attendant influence over the mediation process exemplifies how power hierarchies can shape mediation practice. The international donors and the UN were focused on a quick accord, thereby putting pressure on the mediators and the conflict parties to come to an agreement instead of a long-term solution. The unequal power relations between the external actors and conflict parties were reflected in the domination of the mediation process by the international community and the lack of local or African ownership. Apart from international pressures for quick fixes, questions remain as to the kind of agreement being pushed by the international community and donors and whether they are responding to expectations on the ground. To adequately respond to this and other related questions, further research is needed focusing on the knowledge upon which mediation is based and the extent to which power relations influence mediation processes and outcomes.

As argued above, AU mediation is influenced by mediation theories developed in the Global North and promoted by international organizations; it is also subject to pressures from the international community as seen in Darfur. This suggests that AU mediation is not sufficiently rooted in African thinking, which shows that it is not enough to shift power over mediation from international to African actors. Decolonizing mediation would mean basing it upon African epistemologies, concepts, and methods that local people can relate to. It should also give greater prominence to the views and voices of the marginalized which are thus far mostly excluded in elite-driven mediation (e.g. Burundi, Darfur). This could change the nature and practice of mediation and make it more people-centered and people-relevant. For example, as Tim Murithi notes, by building mediation on a concept such as Ubuntu “we can contribute towards creating healthy relationships based on the recognition that within the web of humanity everyone is linked to everyone else”.

Decolonizing mediation would mean pluriversalizing instead of universalizing mediation, accommodating diverse approaches in different contexts. This trend strongly resonates with calls for a local turn in peacebuilding. While most organizations advocate for the inclusion of civil society and emphasize the importance of local approaches, decoloniality approaches do not merely incorporate but are based on local perspectives and knowledge, while also integrating the views of marginalized and silenced groups in society. Calls for a local turn in peacebuilding do not pay enough attention to questions about whose power influences mediation efforts. In contrast, decoloniality approaches aim to change knowledge systems and challenge power relations. Instead of solely focusing on the local level as promoted by proponents of the local turn in peacebuilding, decolonial approaches also call for transforming power and knowledge relations at higher levels. Thus, mediation approaches of regional organizations like the AU can be addressed as well.

This essay argues that African mediation would benefit from asking how knowledge and power influence mediation processes and outcomes. Decoloniality approaches offer a way forward by challenging power relations that influence mediation and basing mediation on African knowledge systems. The resulting greater ownership could help transcend the current focus on short-term “negative peace.” What decolonized mediation would look like in practice, though, can only be determined by African people in different places and contexts.

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