By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE (IDN) – Earlier this year, addressing a ministerial-level open debate of the UN Security Council on conflict prevention and sustaining peace, newly-elected UN Secretary-General António Guterres outlined his intention to pursue diplomacy for peace, saying “prevention is not merely a priority, but the priority”.
“The best prevention for conflict and the best prevention for other negative impacts on societies is, of course, sustainable and inclusive development,” Guterres said on January 19 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
A noble vision for the septuagenarian body, but how far does it convince people on the ground? IDN talked to a number of sub-Saharan Africans about their views on what the UN Secretary-General’s words might mean for them and their region.
The current situation is “hopeless,” said 36-year-old Obert Matikinye, an unemployed graduate in Political Science from the University of Zimbabwe. “Zimbabwe is dead, there is no future for this country, not even for the rest of Southern Africa, yet the United Nations preaches a focus on conflict prevention, sustainable peace and sustainable development.
“How do we develop without jobs?” he asked.
Matikinye spends much of his time sitting by the roadside in Harare’s Highfield low income suburb in the company of fellow unemployed graduates and talk often comes round to their country’s deteriorating political situation.
With many disgruntled unemployed people like Matikinye in Zimbabwe and with growing political instability rocking a number of other sub-Saharan African countries, the UN Secretary-General’s calls to focus on conflict prevention, sustainable peace and sustainable development may come to nothing, according to experts in Southern Africa.
“I personally applaud efforts by the United Nations to focus on conflict prevention,” Mlondolozi Ndlovu, a media expert based in Zimbabwe studying for a Master’s degree in Media and Society at the Midlands State University, told IDN. “However, much needs to be done in ensuring that UN member states strictly observe UN protocols on peace and conflict prevention because the problem has not always been the lack of these mechanisms, but the failure by member states to observe and adhere to them.”
He said that “in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo conflict persists, while in Mozambique signs of conflict often recur; meanwhile Zimbabwe is in a perpetual state of negative peace due to a failed leadership.”
His views are echoed by some sections of Zimbabwean civil society which argue that the United Nations is not doing enough to address the problems blighting the sub-Saharan region.
“It is not enough for the UN to focus on conflict prevention without addressing numerous root causes of conflicts across the sub-Saharan region,” Owen Dhliwayo, programme officer with the Youth Dialogue Action Network, a Zimbabwe-based civil society organisation, told IDN. “There is set to be instability in Zimbabwe as long as university graduates keep filling the streets without formal jobs. These are disgruntled persons who can turn everything upside down if their sources of anger are not addressed.”
Tanzanian international freelance journalist Kizito Makoye is equally sceptical about Guterres’ vision. “It has been a tendency of many leaders of this global body, not just the UN Secretary-General, to scramble for visibility; they always want to be seen doing something for development,” he told IDN.
“Remember there have been many grievances among member states who accuse this global body of not doing enough to fulfil its mandate,” said Makoye. “For instance, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted 17 years ago did not succeed in many parts of the world. Many countries struggled to meet the deadline, which apparently passed without desired results. The new UN boss is trying to vitalise the efforts to ensure that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are met.”
For Raphael Mweninguwe, a Master’s degree student in Diplomacy and International Relations at the African University of Diplomacy in Malawi, the United Nations has an arduous task on its hands in pushing for the prevention of conflicts.
“The new UN boss is a person who has vast experience in conflict issues and prevention of conflicts in the world,” he said, “but it has become so hard for the UN to sort out these conflicts mainly because most conflicts are political and countries involved have their own political interests other than the interests of those affected, especially women and children.”
Mweninguwe pointed to conflict in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo as good examples, saying that “the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto powers do not agree on any one thing when it comes to trying to resolve conflicts.”
“Therefore, the UN Secretary General alone cannot solve these issues without the UN members agreeing on the issues and finding a solution to them,” he added. “What is important is that for peace to reign there must be mutual understanding between conflicting parties, understanding that war has a consequence on human life, environment and property.”
Zimbabwean Dr Victor Chimhutu, associate professor at the University of Bergen’s Department of Health Promotion and Development in Norway, agreed with Malawi’s Mweninguwe.
“The focus is noble, but as usual, the problem comes with deliverables, on how to transform these promises to the benefit of those living in the marginalised societies which we know are the most affected,” he told IDN.
“Conflict is mainly in countries where there is poor governance and human rights abuses, where very few people participate in political and developmental discourse. I therefore hope UN will play a pivotal role in making sure elections in many parts of the world and especially Africa, are conducted in an acceptable manner by international standards.
“This on its own contributes a lot in realising the UN boss’ focus which is in tandem with the current Sustainable Development Goals.”
Trevor River, a development researcher based in Harare, took Chimhutu’s views a step further, saying that “the stance taken by the newly-elected UN boss on conflict prevention, sustainable peace and sustainable development is a worthwhile direction to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in September 2015.”
“Conflict prevention is the backbone on which other facets of sustainable development rest,” he told IDN. “There can be no sustainable development without peace and no sustainable peace without measures to prevent conflict and no peace without sustainable development. Thus, this plan of action is for the people, the planet, eradicating all forms and dimensions of poverty and prosperity, in particular here in Southern Africa.”
According to Hluphekile Sibalo, a media consultant based in Johannesburg, transformation of the United Nations is the way to go before it achieves success in preventing conflicts globally, including in sub-Saharan Africa.
“In order for the UN to be able to address these challenges, which include preventing conflicts particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the global organisation has to recognise the need to reform. The UN has to ensure that prevention and sustaining peace especially in sub-Saharan Africa must be on top of the agenda,” Sibalo told IDN.
Likewise, Donald Mwansa, an independent development expert based in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, told IDN that “for it to be possible to attain the dreams outlined by the UN boss, the UN itself needs to reform in as far as the organisation’s development system is concerned so that it is able to fully support countries in the implementation of the SDGs, in particular sub-Saharan nations.”
On January 24 at the UN General Assembly plenary of the seventy first session, Julienne Lusenge of the Fund for Congolese Women and Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development, had stressed the significance of upholding peace in order to ensure development.
“Peace opens the door for development, while development constructs and consolidates peace,” Lusenge said on that occasion.
Meanwhile, for many economically hamstrung Zimbabweans like Matikinye, no amount of debate is likely to make much difference.
“War or no war, for over three decades I have lived and for over another decade after I completed my university studies, I have had no job. So has peace employed me?” he asked.
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