Universities should work harder at peace-building – Study

Universities in East Africa have been urged to become agents of peace-building and conflict-resolution in the region, where many people are living in poverty and are confronted by extremist violence and ongoing ethnic conflicts. They can take up this role by introducing comprehensive peace education in their curricula.

The call was made by the UNESCO office in Nairobi and UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Science in Africa in a study, ‘Higher Education, Peace and Security in the Eastern Africa Region’, that stressed the urgency of higher education to produce knowledge that is relevant to address the root causes and challenges of peace-building in the region.

The region covers countries of the Horn of Africa, namely, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan as well as Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

Sabiti Makara, a professor of political science at Makerere University in Uganda, and the study’s lead investigator, as well as his co-authors, Ngandeu Ngatta, the head of social and human sciences at the UNESCO office in Nairobi, and programme coordinators Dr Abdul Rahman Lamin, Hugue Charnie and Bader Alamri, faulted universities in the region for not coming up with robust and fresh ideas on diversity management, nation-building and conflict resolution.

Limited academic engagement

According to Makara and his associates, there has been very little academic engagement by the universities about the causes of conflicts that are characterised by weak states, fragile national institutions, a lack of democratic norms in terms of free and fair elections, competition for natural resources by different ethnic groups and the marginalisation of civil societies in conflict resolution.

Such vulnerabilities, according to the study, have triggered internal battles among groups trying to gain control of the state, or ethnic groups fighting, not just to control natural resources, but seeking greater autonomy from the state, or seeking the right to secede and establish their own state.

Conflicts in the region have also emerged in failed states where the authority of a national government has collapsed and armed groups struggle to seize control of the state. Hostilities are also common in the region in some of the impoverished states where citizens find socio-economic situations unbearable and flee to other countries or rebel against the government.

According to the study, the region’s huge mosaic of linguistic groups and their diverse identities and cultures have given rise to radical religious groups that have adopted extremist political, social or religious ideals that reject contemporary ideas of freedom of choice.

That type of extremism is associated with dissident groups such as the Al-Shabab in Somalia, Lord’s Resistance Army, and Allied Democratic Forces based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and western Uganda, and other extremist groups linked to them.

Whereas those groups usually use religion, though not for religious piety but for capture of power, Makara and his co-researchers noted that little is taught in the universities about the factors that give rise to such radical groups, their mode of recruitment or their real motives.

Specialised course units on peace-building

Lacking in most universities are specialised course units in peace-building as well as a broad knowledge on respect for diversity, human rights, gender equality, democratic participation and regional integration.

Makara and his associate researchers wondered as to how many universities were promoting a culture of peace in terms of engaging their students on values, attitudes and behaviour that reflect on respect for human life, human dignity and rejection of violence.

But researchers singled out the Uongozi Institute of East Africa, a leadership institute that is embedded at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania that brings together bright students from universities across eastern Africa for a six-week residential training course on leadership.

According to the study, the training focuses mainly on intellectual debates on African challenges, critical thinking, values of teamwork, pan-Africanism and regional cooperation.

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