Introduction

Africa’s peacebuilding landscape is increasingly animated by the intentional exploration and strategic use of digital technologies to prevent or respond to conflict, in the aim of building sustainable peace. This is taking place alongside growing calls for localizing peacebuilding in terms of advancing local ownership, leadership, and agency.1 Both trends are an opportunity to not only reappraise the complexities of conflict and peacebuilding in Africa, but to effectively introduce these complexities into simplistic perspectives and strategies. My research explores the nexus between digital and local peacebuilding in Africa; specifically, how digital peacebuilding projects integrate local cultures, systems and wisdom. This essay draws on selective case studies to provide a brief overview of the African digital peacebuilding landscape, and discusses some of the everyday practices and locally-informed dynamics on the continent.

Digital peacebuilding sometimes evokes similar associations to rapidly multiplying technologies and platforms, such as innovation, advancement, progress, and yet can also diverge from the non-digital, physical, conventional or traditional. This paper demonstrates that ultimately, digital peacebuilding is an everyday local peacebuilding practice that is strongly connected to local realities and contexts. It reflects local needs and embodies (and extends) local peacebuilding practices, all the while addressing uniquely digital forms of violence. Therefore, it involves an iterative relationship between the digital and the non-digital, reflecting the nature of today’s conflict and peace landscape.

Digital Peacebuilding  in Africa

There are several projects focused on the use of digital technologies for engaging in online peacebuilding, such as countering hate speech online. The BuildUp 2021 report for ECOWAS cited several case studies exemplifying technology-driven peacebuilding work in West Africa – mostly involving the use of social media platforms, mobile applications and data analysis.2 My work surveyed projects in other parts of the continent for the purpose of expanding this list. Of special interest were:

1) The Maskani Commons Project, running in six universities in Western Kenya.3

2) The Women and Youth for Justice and Peace Initiatives (WAYJPI)4, which has conducted seminal interventions with local communities, collaborating with organizations to counter hate speech through radio stations and social media platforms in Nigeria.

3) The Centre for Analytics and Behavioral Change (CABC),5 and subsequently, Tales of Turning,6 doing digital peacebuilding work in South Africa, with one of its focus areas being xenophobia. The Ushahidi project remains exemplary as one of the earliest and most successful digital peacebuilding projects globally, developed in Kenya following the 2007-2008 post-election violence.7

The use of digital technologies for peacebuilding is also taken up by Africa’s major peacebuilding institutions, such as the African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), which have all implemented early warning and early response systems to help prevent conflicts by addressing them before they are escalated into full scale violence. (Gnanguenon 2021). However, the effectiveness of these digital systems is being debated.8

Everyday Practices and Tactics

There is a general understanding in Africa, as there is elsewhere, that technology is a double-edged sword. Members of the  projects I interacted with agree that digital platforms can be highly effective instruments of polarization, playing a critical role in inciting and escalating conflict and violence. Practices such as cyberbullying, the spread of disinformation, deep fakes, and others are evidence of the dangers technologies can present. At the same time, they recognize that digital technologies also offer immense potential for peacebuilding processes – promoting more diverse voices, mobilizing people for participation in conflict prevention, and crowdsourcing information and solutions. They are capable of providing avenues for peace advocacy, social media monitoring, data-driven interventions, early warning, mediation dialogue and building digital resilience.9

It is this potential behind digital technologies that partly inspires these practitioners and enthusiasts to engage in digital peacebuilding. They employ a wide range of practices and tools in their activities. For example, practitioners affiliated to The Women and Youth for Justice and Peace Initiative (WAYJPI) in Nigeria reported utilizing a list of hate speech terms that they continuously develop and update, together with PeaceTech Lab’s Hate Speech Lexicons,10 to identify, flag, and report hate speech on Facebook, X (Twitter), Instagram and other social media platforms. Since hate speech is fluid and contextual, they are skilled in using their mastery of local contexts, dynamics, and meanings to identify different forms of hate speech, and respond accordingly. The Maskani Commons peacebuilders (Maskani champions) in Kenya also use positive messaging, storytelling, memes, and blogging, amongst other strategies, to promote peace online. Practitioners in Nigeria and Kenya, and across Africa ,also directly initiate dialogues with social media users who post inciting content; as well as strategically commenting on posts, sharing of positive messages and counternarratives, fact-checking, and several other interpersonal and group engagements both online and offline.

For digital peacebuilders in Africa, these practices are part of their everyday interaction with digital spaces and platforms. Digital peacebuilding is integrated into their regular social media use. Many use their personal social media accounts, and peacebuilding is part of their personal branding and identity online and offline.

Local Dynamics of Digital Peacebuilding

Rather than being disconnected from it, digital peacebuilding is primarily a local practice. The localization debate still grapples with what precisely “local” means.11 I use the term here, informed by my data, to refer to the immediate realities, communities, relationships, and institutions in which research participants operated. The issues addressed by practitioners were those affecting local communities, and the techniques were adapted to the local conflict, as well as local meanings and perspectives. The Maskani champions, for example, said they dealt mostly with students at their universities, the communities where their institutions were located, their home communities, or current work and living environment, against the background of conflict history in Kenya broadly, especially the 2007 post-election conflict. While they worked in vast online spaces, these communities were a core focus in both online and offline interaction, shaping their practice. The prevailing digital peacebuilding issues for WAYJPI were political. Their work on hate speech focused much on the political context of Kano, Nigeria, which was more pressing, especially around elections. While they addressed hate speech related to ethnic and religious vilification, gender-based violence, and others, the context and core issues were mostly political incitement. In both cases, mastery of local language, slangs, and being attuned to the rapidly changing meanings and contextual applications, was very important. WAYJPI uses several tactics, including extensive use of radio drama, jingles, conversations, and other strategies to fight hate speech and build peace. This is because radio drama is popular among the population, especially the youth, and the organization targets some of the most popular radio programs for peace messaging.

Interestingly, a considerable amount of digital peacebuilding work in Africa happens offline. This may include using multimedia resources shared through social media to initiate in-person dialogues; the use of town hall meetings for training on digital peacebuilding; bringing digital peacebuilding strategies and messages to religious gatherings or soccer games (where many young people are found); and translating in-person lessons into online practices, stories and messages. Some of my research participants in Nigeria and Kenya shared stories of responding or initiating dialogue online with individuals who have shared harmful or inciting content, and sometimes having to take the conversation offline. Thus, while many of them were trained and worked as digital peacebuilders, they also recognize that there is sometimes no clear distinction between the offline and online when it comes to peacebuilding. There are overlapping spaces with the same people and issues.

Beyond the Local

While digital peacebuilding in Africa is local, it is also supported and sustained through partnerships and relationships with organizations, based locally and outside the continent. Organizations like BuildUp, PeaceTech Labs, and Peace Direct, were often cited as providing support mainly in the form of capacity building and funding. The Maskani Commons Project started in partnership with BuildUp, which trained the first cohort, and subsequently, new members take BuildUp’s free online course.12 WAYJPI works in collaboration with a wide range of partners, including , the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC), radio stations, Centre for Information, Technology and Development (CITAD), Peace Initiative Network (PIN) and higher institutions such as the Federal College of Education, Bichi, amongst other partners. Their work is made possible through partnerships and through building networks of diverse actors who can contribute in different ways, even when digital peacebuilding may not be the primary focus of these partners.

Challenges

Several challenges were highlighted during my research—a major one being lack of funding. Despite its years of impactful work in Kano, for example, WAYJPI has struggled to find funding. Access to the internet and other resources is a challenge, especially for young peacebuilders who are unemployed and affiliated with projects unable to support them. Some Maskani champions have been able to leverage digital peacebuilding skills to support their livelihood, while others have not found such opportunities to translate their skills into income generating activities.

The polarization and flow of online hate content can be overwhelming. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether one is making any impact. Participants shared stories of change and positive impact through their work. The WAYJPI also has a tracking system where its volunteers record their activities in detail, which helps the volunteers and the organization to measure impact. However, there was a sense, especially with the Maskani peacebuilders, that it is sometimes unclear what impact one is making because online peacebuilding activities are usually as appealing, or likely to pull large following and reactions, as other types of content.

Digital peacebuilding in Africa is also challenged by the digital divide in terms of unequal access to technology.13 Additionally, the number of active digital peacebuilders appears to be small compared to the number of users engaging in harmful practices online, such as hate speech. Many conflicts in Africa have multiple complex factors, including historical grievances, competition over identities, resources and politics; all of these require equally comprehensive responses. Some African states make digital peacebuilding challenging due to their use of online repression, internet shutdowns, and other such controls for fear of anti-government protest and mobilization.14 Several ethical considerations, such as data privacy, algorithmic bias, and other unintended consequences, are also challenges that require in-depth attention in African peacebuilding.

Conclusion

Digital peacebuilding in Africa is increasingly a vibrant and promising space. There are many young people operating within the space who can contribute immensely to sustainable peace. There are many opportunities for peacebuilders to explore technologies and to engage Africa’s young and tech-savvy population in making data-driven decisions; address conflict-prevention and post-conflict reconstruction challenges by supporting and facilitating dialogues; promoting reconciliation and fighting online practices that can reignite or escalate violent conflicts. Support for digital peacebuilders will advance the building of greater Pan-African networks and exchange of ideas between peacebuilders. The support would also create room for local, cultural, and indigenous resources, systems, and wisdom to shape peacebuilding on the continent, thereby increasing localization. Existing practices already show that all of these are currently happening to some degree, but require more concerted and deliberate effort to support sustainable peace on the continent. Such efforts may include contextualized capacity building to increase the number of active and effective digital peacebuilders on the continent; creating continental platforms for digital peacebuilders to collaborate; exchange knowledge and grow together; increased funding for digital peacebuilding initiatives; and increased integration of digital peacebuilding practices into mainstream peacebuilding activities and structures.

Acknowledgements

I wish to acknowledge the SSRC for funding this research through the APN Individual Research Fellowship. I also acknowledge the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) for its support for my work through the Centre for Mediation in Africa (CMA).

 

Endnotes

  1. Hanna Leonardson and Gustav Rudd, “ The Local Turn in Peacebuilding: A Literature Review of Effective and Emancipatory Local Peacebuilding,” Third World Quarterly 36, no. 5 (2015): 825-839.
  2. Caleb Gichuhi, “Leveraging Technology for Peacebuilding in the Ecowas Region: Documentation of a Consultative Process” (ECOWAS Commission, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, 2021), https://howtobuildup.medium.com/digital-tech-and-peacebuilding-in-west-africa-23b42ae03158.
  3. Frederick Ogenga, “Maskani Is Our New Normal- Exploring Digital Peacebuilding in Kenya, Working from Home (2020),” ConnexUs (blog), 2020, https://cnxus.org/resource/maskani-is-our-new-normal-exploring-digital-peacebuilding-in-kenya-working-from-home-2020/.
  4. Peace Direct, “Women and Youths for Justice and Peace Initiative (WAYJPI),” Peace Insight, 2021, https://www.peaceinsight.org/en/organisations/wayjpi/.
  5. “Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change,” accessed May 8, 2024, https://cabc.org.za/.
  6. “Tales of Turning,” Tales of Turning, accessed May 8, 2024, https://talesofturning.co.za/.
  7. Juliana Rotich, “Ushahidi: Empowering Citizens through Crowdsourcing and Digital Data Collection,” Field Actions Science Reports. The Journal of Field Actions, no. Special Issue 16 (June 1, 2017): 36–38.
  8. Wiriranai Brilliant Masara, “Biting the Bullet: Interrelating Early Warning to Early Action in the Continental Early Warning System of the African Union,” Journal of African Union Studies 10, no. 3 (December 2021): 5–17, https://doi.org/10.31920/2050-4306/2021/10n3a1.
  9. Peace Direct, “Digital Pathways for Peace: Insights and Lessons from a Global Online Consultation” (Peace Direct, 2020), https://www.peacedirect.org/publications/digital-pathways-for-peace/; Andreas T. Hirblinger, Digital Inclusion in Mediated Peace Processes:. (United States Institute of Peace Washington, DC, 2020); Lisa Schirch, “25 Spheres of Digital Peacebuilding and PeaceTech” (Toda Peace Institute and Alliance for Peacebuilding, 2020).
  10. PeaceTech Lab, “Hate Speech Lexicons,” PeaceTech Lab, accessed May 8, 2024, https://www.peacetechlab.org/hate-speech-lexicons.
  11. Roger Mac Ginty, “Where Is the Local? Critical Localism and Peacebuilding,” in The “Local Turn” in Peacebuilding (Routledge, 2017).
  12. BuildUp, “Rehumanizing Relationships on Social Media,” accessed May 8, 2024, https://howtobuildup.org/community-learning/courses/rehumanizing-relationships-on-social-media/.
  13. Bruce Mutsvairo and Massimo Ragnedda, “Mapping the Digital Divide in Africa : A Mediated Analysis,” 2019, 1–252.
  14. Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net,” Freedom House, 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-net/scores.
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