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An Underappreciated Tool? The Role of Traditional Justice Institutions in Peacebuilding in Africa

On March 31, 2022, the Wilson Center Africa Program hosted a Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) event, “An Underappreciated Tool? The Role of Traditional Justice Institutions in Peacebuilding in Africa.”

Date & Time

Mar. 31, 2022
9:00am – 10:30am ET




Ms. Cheri Ayers, Program Assistant (Communications) at the Wilson Center Africa Program welcomed participants and introduced the event, the SVNP project, and the scholarship program. Ms. Alyson Grunder, Associate Director and Senior Diplomatic Fellow (U.S. Department of State) with the Wilson Center Africa Program framed the discussion, introduced the speakers, and moderated the event. The event featured Mr. Awet Halefom Kahsay, a current Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar at the Wilson Center and Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia; Ms. Jana Ramsey, Senior Advisor in the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the U.S. Department of State; and Dr. Catherine Lena Kelly, Associate Professor of Justice and Rule of Law at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

This event assessed the challenges to restoring justice and building sustainable peace in post-conflict environments and the role of traditional African justice institutions, used case studies to explore ways that African, U.S., and international actors can better engage with traditional justice institutions to strengthen peace, and shared  lessons learned and successful examples of traditional African justice institutions facilitating justice and reconciliation within a broader context of national and international justice frameworks and mechanisms.

Dr. Kelly opened the conversation by examining several challenges to restoring justice that traditional justice institutions can help to address: first, that peace accords between elites often fail to address conflict-related concerns of the populace; second, that justice is one of many competing priority concerns for governments in the aftermath of conflict; and third, that there are a wide range of justice needs pre- and post-conflict, and that justice mechanisms may not be available, affordable, or easily accessible for all citizens. Dr. Kelly suggested that traditional justice institutions can help address these challenges by playing roles the state is not yet ready or able to play, noting that they are often the only accessible justice option, especially in rural areas. She then brought in a few case studies to support this argument, including the successful employment of traditional justice institutions in Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Somalia, and by the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) in their dialogue and mediation efforts. Dr. Kelly offered two key recommendations for the utilization of traditional justice institutions: that they be used in ways that are complimentary to justice institutions that include women, youth, and other traditionally disadvantaged populations within a broader “ecosystem” of justice; and that they build on legal empowerment frameworks that allow people autonomy in choosing the type of justice they want to pursue.

Mr. Kahsay shared his case study research on traditional justice institutions in Northeastern Ethiopia known as the Gereb, providing an overview of the multidimensional conflict overlapping the Ethiopian-Eritrean border and describing the religious and functional (farmer/herder) differences between the two groups living in the border area.  He noted his opposition to approaches in which traditional justice institutions are included in peacebuilding for the sole reason of ticking the box of local ownership, and argued that traditional justice institutions have a context-specific nature that gives them unique peacebuilding value. Mr. Kahsay pointed to the ability of traditional justice institutions to prevent the emergence or re-emergence of conflict, and argued that they are in a better position to understand local conflict, peace, and justice issues. Mr. Kahsay identified two challenges to the inclusion of traditional justice institutions in peacebuilding interventions and frameworks. First, he explained that most traditional justice institutions operate in such a manner that they are in effect on the ground but not legally recognized. Second, he noted that the ability of traditional justice institutions to prevent or resolve all conflicts is often impacted by factors outside of their purview, such as national political tensions. Mr. Kahsay made several key recommendations to maximize the role and benefits of traditional justice institutions in peacebuilding. First, he recommended that the African Union and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) should consider establishing formal mechanisms for including traditional justice institutions in conflict prevention frameworks. Second, he emphasized that peace agreements and peace support operations should strive to include traditional justice institutions and not just elites. Third, he recommended that community-level reconciliation processes, facilitated by traditional justice institutions, should occur prior to or alongside national dialogues.

Ms. Jana Ramsey shared her perspective on the fragility of peace and the blurred lines between conflict and post-conflict periods. She highlighted the risk of a re-emergence of conflict when post-conflict reforms are viewed as unbalanced, emphasizing that the implementation of post-conflict justice must take local realities into account. She then stressed the importance of understanding the difference between restoring justice and establishing justice where it did not previously exist or was not available on an equal basis for marginalized members of society. She acknowledged the various political, economic, and humanitarian challenges (such as DDR—Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration) faced by government authorities in the aftermath of conflict that complicate the prioritization of justice. While acknowledging the limitations of traditional justice systems, she used the example of South Sudan to demonstrate how traditional justice institutions can help fill gaps within a larger system to facilitate truth-telling, reparations, institutional reform, and memorialization (in addition to trials conducted by the state.) She concluded by emphasizing that in order for such post-conflict restoration efforts to be successful, both government and traditional mechanisms must have support from the societies in which they are operating.

The Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding: Centering African knowledge and agency is key to building and sustaining peace in Africa. The Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) is a network of 22 African policy, research, and academic organizations that works with the Wilson Center’s Africa Program to attain the most appropriate, cohesive, and inclusive policy frameworks and approaches for achieving sustainable peace in Africa. Generously funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York since its establishment in 2011, the SVNP works to generate African knowledge to inform U.S. and international peacebuilding policies on Africa; help build the next generation of African peacebuilders through its scholarship program; and create a pan-African network of African peacebuilding organizations, practitioners, and experts to collaborate and share knowledge, best practices, and lessons learned on peacebuilding in Africa.

This event was livetweeted and webcast. Follow the Africa Program Twitter account @AfricaUpClose and catch up on the conversation using the hashtags #TraditionalJustice and #PeaceandJustice.

Hosted By

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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