Monday, November 25, 2013

Why true reconciliation remains a mirage

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 24 November 2013

Last week at a meeting in Pretoria evaluating peace and reconciliation processes across the continent, I had the opportunity to reflect upon the role of trauma in conflict and reconciliation.

Kenya is a prime example of a country that has recently had major civil upheaval, exposing many citizens to extremely traumatic events. Today, many, especially politicians, are parroting the mantra that people have reconciled and are living together in peace and harmony. The Jubilee political coalition is touted as evidence of this.

In the parlance of conflict studies, one would term the method employed in managing our post-election violence as having succeeded at arriving at a negotiated political settlement. While this was a good outcome, it by no means constituted reconciliation. What happened was a suspension of hostilities while, hopefully, more lasting solutions were sought and implemented.

Research has indicated that trauma management and reconciliation are so intertwined that one cannot realistically hope to succeed in implementing one without the other. Unfortunately, many past efforts at reconciliation in this and other African countries have been similarly focused on settling conflicts by dealing with the competing interests, and convincing the combatants that they cannot do without each other.

Little effort has been focused on true reconciliation, whose aim is to effect a change in how people identify themselves, removing the need to negate the hated “other” as a core part of self-identity. True reconciliation facilitates the development of a positive communal identity independent of the need to demonise others, and the acknowledgment of the others’ humanity and right to exist and have competing narratives about common events.

In my presentation at the Pretoria meeting, I argued that traumatised individuals are at increased risk of getting traumatised again, and of perpetrating traumatic events on others. Unaddressed trauma tends to create a spiral of repeated conflict, making it near-impossible to intervene without addressing the trauma effects. Further, although they are most in need of reconciliation, traumatised individuals are unlikely to openly welcome interventions due to their suspicious nature.

Interestingly, societies or communities that have suffered long-term conflict often behave in the same manner as traumatised individuals. They are more likely to be insular and isolated, suspicious of strangers and ready to react with violence at the slightest provocation. They are also likely to experience internal conflict and upheaval as the members recalibrate their own views on the nature of human interactions.

These communal reactions are often enhanced and magnified by leaders who often have been at the heart of the conflict and have been perhaps more intimately affected by it than those they lead. The result is that the population is afraid to second-guess their “liberation heroes” who, in turn, are afraid to acknowledge their possible psychological frailties.

The obvious outcome is that possibly traumatised leaders make erratic decisions that increase, rather than ameliorate, the risk of conflict. The populace applaud and unquestioningly follow the leader. Reconciliation initiatives cannot thrive in such an environment.

Future conflict interventions must build in principles of reconciliation along these lines, and also deal with the needs of traumatised individuals and populations. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

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