Peace building in the Great Lakes region: Engaging Grassroots Communities

Peace building in the Great Lakes region: Engaging Grassroots Communities

By Luc Ansobi Loneli
Assistant Regional Coordinator, Peace building Programme Great Lakes Region, ACORD


For more than one decade, the Great Lakes region  has been conflict stricken. From the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, the Burundian civil war (1993 to 2005) and the recurrent protracted civil wars in the Republic Democratic of Congo (DRC), with linkages in neighboring countries; the region still shows signs of instability. Rwanda and DRC in particular, do not miss opportunities to trade accusations and counter-accusations against each other, thus fueling the tensions, which further weaken a very fragile situation between the two countries.

Innovative Training Programme on Governance Diplomacy Peace and the Security As a result of the cyclical and violent conflict, relationships between citizens of the three countries, in particular between the DRC and Rwanda have been greatly strained and resulted in severe stereotyping, resentment, mistrust and deep hatred.
Commendable efforts have been achieved mostly at the macro level in the search for lasting peace in the region - the most recent being the establishment of a Joint Intelligence Center in June 2012 in Goma and the signing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 4 February 24, 2013 of what has become known as the Accord Cadre aimed at ending armed conflict in the DRC in particular but with the broad focus on promoting sustainable peace in the region in general.

However, the nature of these efforts seems to have excluded community-level engagement and contributions. Yet, they remain the greatest victims as a consequence of conflict.
This article is an attempt to analyze the importance of engaging the grassroots peace building actors who, in our opinion, have a critical role in reinforcing other efforts and consolidating peace in the region. It argues that while national/regional peace agreements may create a conducive space for peace building, the reality is that creating an improved political environment does not necessarily respond to the realities on the ground at local level (ACORD, 2009, 2).

The experience indicates that one cannot conduct effective peace building without including local populations in the design, planning, and implementation of peace building initiatives. The article also argues that despite a history of cyclical conflicts, local communities of the three countries of the region need to work towards achieving a set of values, attitudes, modes of behavior, and ways of life that would reject negative stereotyping, animosities and deep hatred. Now that regional peace frameworks/agreements have been put in place, how do the communities of the region morally repair the emotional and mental harm that has transpired between them? How do they restore trust, re-establish shared norms and rules, and adopt strategies to promote collective well-being?

Involving the grassroots communities in building peace in the region

The search for peace is understood as a multi-level undertaking; one cannot conduct peace building only from the top down. Initiating a peace process in a context of recurrent internal armed conflict like, in the Great Lakes region reflect the legitimacy, uniqueness and interdependency of local realities, needs and resources and generate a grassroots momentum for national and regional peace.

With a region sharply divided, peace initiatives targeting grassroots communities should aim to overcome deep-seated hostilities and hatred characterized by mistrust and stereotyping. This process is likely to be a long, complex one and should move from prevention to reconciliation and relying on changes of perceptions, attitudes, motivations, and behavior, which therefore produces personal healing and inner change at a deeper level (Katrien, 2010, 60). Peacebuilding in the Great Lakes region targeting the grassroots must be rooted in and responsive to the experiential and subjective realities shaping people’s perspectives and needs. When inadequate attention is paid to the emotions, attitudes, perceptions, memories, thinking patterns, wounds and beliefs of people who have been living on either side of a conflict, it is very likely to re-erupt sooner or later, even when all the other building blocks are in place (Ibid). As such, initiatives aimed at bringing the grassroots communities of the great lake region to cooperate for the purpose of dispelling fear and mistrust while fostering mutual understanding, cooperation, and coexistence are highly recommended.

GDPS Trainee Team visit to Mt. Elgon, Bungoma, Kenya Negative stereotyping remains a hindrance to social cohesion within the region. According to (Burgess, 2003), the key to reversing negative stereotyping is to contradict them through direct interactions between people, through the media, and education. Intervention efforts should focus on developing a mutual understanding of the image of the other group through group dialogue, problem solving, joint projects such as post war-reconstruction efforts, children programs and any kind of program that brings individuals from opposing groups together in a cooperative venture. Thus working together cooperatively can help deconstruct negative images people uphold of the enemy (Burgess, Ibid). These are some of the key elements that a comprehensive peacebuilding programs should take into consideration in order to bring about and consolidate peace.

Peace building in the region should involve home-grown reconciliation approaches including among other things: addressing the consequences of violent conflict, healing, empowerment, trust building initiatives, dialogue changing attitudes, truth telling, mutual efforts to humanize one another, expression of mutual respect, fostering a sense of belonging, reformulating identities, breaking down stereotypes, dealing with emotions, negotiating expectations, relationship building, regaining hope, and inculcating values (Katrien, 2010, 48).

Relationship building on a daily level can be supported through concrete initiatives fostering cross-community cooperation, breaking down stereotypes, supporting (re) integration, enhancing respect, honor, mutual understanding and humanization. Lowering levels of hate, tension and suspicion between people is also critical. In protracted violent conflicts such as witnessed in the Great Lakes region, the transformation should involve grief and trauma work, as well as dealing with deep feelings of constant fear, anger, and bitterness that accompany accumulated personal and family loss.

Such work should be conducted especially on the side of DRC communities who allegedly accuse the Rwandan government of being the reason for their suffering. Home-grown reconciliation approaches should focus on re-establishing harmony and cooperation between the three perceived antagonists’ communities of the region, developing a mutual conciliatory accommodation and establishing an amicable relationship so as to help them put aside views of the other as malicious, evil, dangerous, enemies and the desire for retribution.

Concretely, peace building initiatives in the region should aim at significant results including (ACORD, Ibid):

  • gradual ownership of decision-making by the community in the management of the issues problems affecting them;
  • the capacity of local communities is strengthened to resist any form of manipulation and to respond positively to secure the survival of the region (regardless of previous divisions);
  • the establishment of positive relations of solidarity and togetherness between these communities and a progressive “de-balkanization” (i.e. a reduction in ethnically driven thinking allowing community members of the region to focus more on similarities and common interests rather than on divergent positions and real or perceived differences);
  • putting in place jointly negotiated peace projects with an aim of encouraging the communities to work together in the design and realization of their future, thus contributing to peaceful cohabitation. The projects should address the basic and recovery needs of communities. They improve access to and control over resources and technology, training, the basic services, as well as enhance quality of life. These projects should also focus on alleviating the root causes of tensions;
  • improvement of the technical and operational capacity of grassroots organizations/associations and peace committees to pursue the interests of the communities of the region;
  • regarding justice and accountability, peace-building initiatives should work hand in hand with state structures for a collective community-led approach to holding individuals responsible for their crimes and generating reparative solutions that allow the community to restore peace and normalcy.

Overcoming challenges to grassroots peacebuilding in the region

 It is important to keep in mind that grassroots peacebuilding is a complex process. It can take several years to achieve grassroots reconciliation particularly in the context of the Great Lakes region where many interests are at stake. Approaches used at the grassroots level face different challenges from those confronting the top- and middle levels. “First, at this level are massive numbers of people. At best strategies can be implemented to touch the leadership working at local and community levels, but more often than not, these strategies represent points of contact with the masses rather than a comprehensive program for reaching out to them; Second, many of the people at this level are in a survival mode in which meeting the basic human needs for food, shelter, and safety are a daily struggle” (Lederach, 1999, 51-52). This article recommends such struggle for daily basic human needs of food, shelter and safety be used as an entry point for a comprehensive peace program that would bring Burundians, Congolese and Rwandans together towards peaceful coexistence.

GDPS Trainee Team visit to Mt. Elgon, Bungoma, Kenya The other challenge facing grassroots peacebuilding is related to the fact that it may be perceived as a threat by the top leadership, particularly in the context of the Great Lake region where many interests pertaining to exploiting natural resources in the DRC are at stake. Efforts to undermine local peace building initiatives are usually precursory to efforts to ban them and ultimately to sanction those who insist upon continuing with such efforts. The sanctions can also take the extreme form of death threats for those attempting to practice some form of neutrality or to interfere with those interests. Ultimately, governments have a wider range of actions they can take in order to sanctions local peace building efforts that they disapprove.

To overcome the above, not only is there need to reach out to the top leadership and others who may resist or capture/block the process but strong support and partnership with the private sector is also essential. Most crucial is a strong civil society at local, national and regional levels, supported by international peace actors. Their collective strength is essential in countering pressure and intimidation from the countries’ top leadership and other potential spoilers so as to catalyze progress towards peace.


To be successful and effective, grassroots peace building processes in the Great Lakes Region require a genuine sense of understanding, commitment, participation, ownership, responsibility, and sacrifice across a broad spectrum of the population. With many top level efforts and initiatives, it is believed that a continuous engagement with grassroots leadership and an emphasis on home-grown reconciliation approaches and continued national and international support will profoundly impact the region with peace building process. The continued role of the grassroots and support from the international community can translate into a positive outcome.
Peacebuilding process with grassroots leadership must go beyond a mechanical strategy and it must instead rather be seen as continuous process with focus on aspects of reconciliation, a central framework of peace building.

Selected references

  1. ACORD, Community Social Peace and Recovery Model, Generating Leadership for Sustainable Peace and Recovery Among Divided Communities, ACORD Handbook, 2009
  2. Christopher R. Mitchell and Landon E. Hancock, Local Peacebuilding and National Peace: Interaction Between Grassroots and Elite Processes, A&C Black, 2012.
  3. Heidi Burgess, stereotypes / Characterization Frames, October, 2003, Beyond intractability)
  4. John Paul Lederach, Building Peace, Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, United States Institute of Peace Press, (Washington, DC, 1999).
  5. Katrien Hertog, The Complex Reality of Religious Peacebuilding: Conceptual Contributions and Critical Analysis, Lexington Books, 2010


  • burundi
  • congo drc
  • ethiopia
  • peace
  • rwanda