Whenever we think about conflict – whether conflict in general or a specific conflict – we soon become aware of various degrees of complexities. Even when it superficially seems as if a particular conflict started with a mere clash of interests or understandings, there may be a quite complicated context of backgrounds, cultures, approaches or perspectives. It is understandable, therefore, that we try to make our thinking less confusing and more manageable by, for instance, introducing convenient distinctions. One of the very obvious and therefore widely used classifications is the one which distinguishes between beginnings, escalation and resolution. Such a stage-related approach has led to the use of a set of terms and methods, of which the most well known are conflict prevention, management and resolution.
These, and other, distinctions can be useful when practitioners are around their planning tables and researchers are at their desks. In real life, however, things – including all the ‘things’ about conflicts – defy pigeonholing. Apparent beginnings of a problem can be the repercussions of a previous solution, as captured in the saying that today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems. But on the other hand, satisfactory cases of resolution and reconciliation can become models for conflict prevention. So, whether we classify a situation or a finding as ‘before’, ‘during’ or ‘after’, it may contain intermingled elements of past, present and future.
The articles included in this issue provide meaningful examples of such interrelatedness and cross-fertilisation. They describe and assess ways of thinking and doing that have been used, and they share suggestions for future use. Some lessons, conclusions and recommendations are explicitly stated, but certain corollaries, implications or seed-thoughts may be discovered by observant, thinking and meditating readers.
The articles on Rwanda and Sudan focus on post-tragedy situations in which justice (punitive and/or curative) and recovery (economic, social and/or political) are pursued. They are ‘after’ papers with ‘before’ messages. The article on electoral violence is a retrospective one – containing explanations of prospective value. The Niger Delta article is about a promising new approach emerging during a tenaciously protracted conflict. And the two articles dealing with traditional approaches and strategies discuss ways in which wisdom and expertise accumulated in the past can be incorporated into current ways of handling conflict. Moreover, several of the time-proven elements warrant ongoing use in the foreseeable future.
Each of these articles should of course be read – and hopefully also be referred to in further study – with regard to the specific issue and situation described and discussed. Particular findings and suggestions may be applied in the same settings, or in comparable circumstances. But, in each of the articles something may also be found that contributes to an overall thrust of this issue. The message is very common-sensical, but one which deserves common application: Learn from the past, apply what you have learnt to improve the present, and, where feasible, disseminate the learnings for wider use in future.
Academics are often tempted to elevate themselves above the ‘commonplace’ level of the common-sensical and rather revel in the ‘above-the-ordinary’ realm of analyses and arguments, hypotheses and theories, methodologies and terminologies. But academics committed to accountability and relevance do manage to integrate theory and practice, and will never frown upon life-relatedness. So then, in addition to all we can learn from situations in particular countries (Rwanda, Sudan and Nigeria) and from African elections and traditions (of applying justice and managing conflict), we can internalise a past-based and future-oriented readiness to respond to emerging or existing disputes.
We therefore trust that this issue will do its bit to equip ourselves, publishers and readers, better to be available as conflict preventers, managers and resolvers. Even when we are not called upon to intervene, our presence with an appropriate attitude may make an important difference. And this may happen in all potential or actual conflict situations – whether ‘trivial’ or crucial, ‘simple’ or complicated.
Finally, however, we may take our line of thought about ‘after’ and ‘before’ an important step further. After the Rwandan genocide and other gross atrocities the call ‘Never again’ was justifiably cried, and possibly did exert some mindset-changing influence. Of course we are hoping that there will never again be an occasion for screaming ‘Never again’, but as a preventive measure we may use opportunities for reminding fellow-humans and human groupings about this clarion call. We may also follow one of the French versions, as used in Rwanda, which simply says ‘Not ever’ – not even once!