Towards Coalition Building among Art-Based Initiatives for Peacebuilding in Eastern Congo
A report issued by the International Rescue Committee (IRC, 2007) shows that conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the past two decades have cost the lives of more than 6 million people and continue to create unbearable living conditions for survivors of those conflicts, especially in eastern Congo. As a result, peacebuilding initiatives in this region are increasingly seeking creative ways to respond to the crises. This article examines the efforts of arts-based initiatives in the towns of Bukavu and Goma, and seeks to stimulate discussion around ways to improve the effectiveness of such peacebuilding initiatives toward addressing the conflicts in eastern Congo. I argue that although arts-based initiatives in Bukavu and Goma are doing excellent advocacy for peace and stability in the region, their efforts could reach greater local and international resonance through the formation of a coalition of arts-based peace actors working on a common peace agenda. In this way, instead of having isolated arts-based efforts in Bukavu and Goma working on different themes of peacebuilding in the region, the coalition of actors could channel resources for advocating a common peacebuilding theme. In so doing the coalition could reach three important benefits: increased efficiency of arts-based initiatives, increased local participation and ownership of peace initiatives, and increased unity of action for peacebuilding in the region.
The article is divided into three sections: the first section looks at existing literature on art and peacebuilding and provides a framework for analysing arts-based initiatives in Bukavu and Goma. The second section gives a background of arts-based peacebuilding in the two towns from 1996 onward and examines structural constraints, limitations and some cases of success of these initiatives. The third and final section sums up the article with an emphasis on the relevance of coalition building in amplifying advocacy efforts of arts-based initiatives in response to the crisis in eastern Congo.
Section 1: Literature review
In his book Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World’s Frontlines, William Cleveland, a prominent scholar studying arts and peacebuilding states that, “in the face of destruction, we are compelled to create” (Cleveland, 2008:9). Cleveland’s statement is a powerful acknowledgment of the role of creative processes in helping individuals and communities facing crisis to rise up from pain and envision a better future. The arts offer unique tools to address intractable conflicts and help wounded communities to engage in dialogue, to reconcile and to heal the pains of the past. While the arts have the potential to influence peacebuilding, they are under-explored in conflict studies literature. Lisa Shirch and Michael Shank, two influential scholars exploring arts and peacebuilding, give three reasons for the non-development of the arts in peacebuilding discourse:
Arts continue to be marginalized in the peacebuilding field first because they are perceived as soft approaches to hard issues of conflict and violence. Secondly, peacebuilding practitioners frequently originate from social and political sciences rather than the arts and humanities, or because the methodologies are not yet readily available. Finally within the artistic community, many artists feel that their art needs no sociopolitical or sociocultural explanation, no explicit reason for existence (Shank & Shirch, 2008:2).
In contrast to those that think that art should not be used in peacebuilding, prominent peacebuilding scholar John Paul Lederach -- in his book The Moral Imagination (2005) -- emphasizes the centrality of the arts in peacebuilding processes and calls for more integration of the two disciplines. For Lederach (2005:5), the "pursuit of the creative act has not been properly considered in the peacebuilding field". He problematizes the tendency of professionals in the peacebuilding field to think more as technicians rather than artists when approaching conflicts.
I fear we [peacebuilders] see ourselves be — and have therefore become — more technicians than artists. By virtue of this shift of perception, our approaches have become too cookie-cutter-like, too reliant on what proper technique suggests as a frame of reference, and, as a result, our processes are too rigid and fragile (Lederach, 2005:73).
For Lederach, one of the benefits of integrating art in conflict resolution programs is that arts have the potential to transform power relationships between peacebuilding actors and affected communities, which are essential to maximize the local participation, ownership and efficiency of peace initiatives. In other words, when peacebuilding processes become actions done with people rather than to them, they spark people’s imagination to respond to the complexity of conflict situations. Such processes also increase the agency of affected communities to write their own narratives of peacebuilding. It is this lens of analysis that the article uses and before exploring its application in the case studies, the next section provides a quick overview of the historical trajectory of arts-based initiatives in the Congolese volatile political context.
Section 2: Arts-based initiatives and political context
The Congolese way of life is beautifully woven around a deep appreciation of music and art. While music and arts are an intrinsic part of the Congolese identity, these activities have often been restricted by the political elite. Since the colonial era, artistic expressions that aim to raise civic consciousness and challenge the status quo have been severely suppressed; while artistic expressions that eulogize the political elite are encouraged by the political order. During the thirty-two year dictatorship of president Mobutu from 1965-1997, the music and arts sector was coopted by the state to praise Mobutu. One of his occasional critics, the massively popular singer Franco (Luambo Makiadi), once did jail time for recording a controversial lyric. However, once released from jail, Makiadi performed a song called Candidat na biso Mobutu (Our candidate Mobutu) urging people to vote for Mobutu (This is Africa, 2015). With the demise of Mobutu’s regime, President Laurent Kabila who was in power from 1997 to 2001 encouraged artistic expressions promoting messages of peace and reconstruction of the Congo. This freedom of speech in artistic expression continued under Joseph Kabila’s leadership; Kabila has been rightly praised for uniting different rebel groups between 2001-2006 and for promoting national cohesion, which led to Congo’s first democratic elections in 2006. However, in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, the current regime has been criticized for suppressing freedom of speech in arts-based initiatives especially when they challenge the status quo (Human Rights Watch, 2015).
In the next section, I will explore four well-known art-based peacebuilding initiatives, which I have personally experienced, and analyze their effectiveness in promoting local participation, ownership, and unity in action towards peacebuilding. Although there are other art-based initiatives, I have selected the four cases below based on their popularity and ability to raise awareness on a range of timely issues in the region.
Section 3: Case studies
1. Centre Lokole by Search For Common Ground
Despite the limited freedom of expression for arts-based initiatives to challenge the political status quo, such initiatives have been active in addressing war and instability in eastern Congo under a humanitarian agenda rather than a political one. Starting in the early 2000s, Search for Common Ground (SFCG) was one of the few international organizations using arts for peacebuilding purposes in eastern Congo. In partnership with local organizations, SFCG initiated Centre Lokole, a media network that produces short skits on themes concerning the effects of conflicts and violence in eastern Congo. These themes of the skits include, but are not limited to, sexual violence, domestic abuse, ethnic tensions, child soldiers, land dispute resolution and youth unemployment; the skits are broadcast on local radio stations both in Bukavu and Goma and in the interior parts of the region, reaching thousands of listeners.
Case 2: Festbuk and Fesnag [3 Tamis]
Besides using the radio to reach people with peacebuilding messages through arts, community performances are another way in which arts-based initiatives are used to reach communities. In Bukavu, Fesbuk (Festival of Bukavu) and Fesnag (Festival Nangu) are yearly festivals produced by 3 Tamis (The Fesnag, 2013), a local organization. The festivals display a rich Congolese cultural diversity that derive from many ethnic groups and nationalities. During the 14th edition of Fesnag in Bukavu (2014), fifteen dance groups including traditional drummers from Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya participated in the festival. Approximately twelve thousand participants attended this rich artistic gala promoting peace in eastern Congo.
There are three objectives that are aimed for by the festival: to bring diverse sounds of drums from the rich ethnic representation in the Great Lakes region, to say no to sexual violence and the war in eastern Congo, and to promote national cohesion and peace. 3 Tamis' festivals engage thousands of spectators in a deep appreciation of each other’s humanity and pass messages of peace and reconciliation among communities of eastern Congo (The Fesnag, 2013). One of the main successes of 3 Tamis over the years has been building of partnerships with local, national and regional art organizations that are concerned with peace efforts in eastern Congo. Additionally, as one of the early arts-based initiatives from Bukavu that responded to conflicts in eastern Congo, 3 Tamis enjoys a positive reputation among locals for supporting civil society efforts during the times of major invasions of eastern Congo by rebel groups (particularly in 1998 and 2000). However, despite these successes, 3 Tamis is still struggling with funding stability as most of its projects are donor dependant.
Case 3: Pamoja Tujenge Festival [Bukavu Youth Action Center; BYAC]
Another important initiative is the Pamoja Tujenge festival, which in Swahili stands for 'Building Together'; a yearly festival that was started in 2015 by the BYAC -- a youth organization focusing on youth leadership development through art and communication. Unlike the 3 Tamis’ festivals that raise awareness about the negative effects of conflicts in eastern Congo, Pamoja Tujenge specifically aims to promote the positive roles that youth from Rwanda, Congo, and Burundi can play for development and stability in the Great Lakes Region. BYAC plans to continue this festival in the future as it an avenue to promote youth leadership in eastern Congo, a sustainable approach to respond to conflicts in the region. Although a young initiative, the Pamoja Tujenge festival drew hundreds of youth from the region who found the initiative to be rich, diverse, and youth centered. The festival was conducted in partnership with the US Embassy in Kinshasa and has also been supported by many local partners. While Pamoja Tujenge faces many challenges including stable sponsorship and access to public spaces for events, numbers are expected to increase in this one-day arts festival that sets the tone for youth determination to build a peaceful future.
A group of Congolese dancers performing a traditional Rwandan song during Pamoja Tujenge Festival
Case 4: Amani Festival [Goma]
Nadia Fazal, a staff member at an arts-based initiative in Goma, notes that the slogan “art for peace” has become mainstream in Goma in almost all arts-based activities, including well-attended festivals such as Peace One Day and the Amani Festival (Fazal, 2015). In 2016, the Amani Peace Festival’s theme was “Youth Entrepreneurship” and focused on encouraging youth businesses as an avenue to resolving conflicts. Participants of the Festival came from all across the region, including Rwanda and Burundi. Unlike 3 Tamis' Festivals and the Pamoja Tujenge festival in Bukavu, the Amani Festival is sponsored by the United Nations Peace Keeping Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) and receives reasonable sponsorship from other international organizations including the US Embassy, Trust Merchant Bank, Primus, and French Radio International. Because of this strong sponsorship, the Festival has produced internationally renowned artists such as Lokua Kanza, Lexus Legal, Werrason, and Innoss B. While attending the Amani Festival in July 2013, I had the chance to interview former UN secretary representative in DR of Congo Martin Kobler who shared his optimism in the role of arts in transforming the conflicts in eastern Congo:
Youth can use the soft power of art to bring communities together. You know I come from Germany and during the time of Shoah, it was only the arts that awakened people’s humanity towards the Jews and led to the stop of violence. I believe it is also possible for Congo.
The Amani Festival is the most well-attended peace festival in the region with more than 30,000 participants in 2016. However, despite the massive success of the Amani Festival, it is criticized to by the locals to having been appropriated by powerful international peace institutions and businesses, rather than being a grassroots initiative that is led by affected communities. The festival is also viewed as being a big 'show' of talents in the region, who are sponsored to sing for peace. Although there is nothing wrong with the spectacle aspect of the festival, it may miss the need to engage participants in collective healing and reconciliation, and to acknowledge and give voice to affected communities.
In raising awareness about the conflicts in eastern Congo, and in engaging affected communities to design adequate solutions to these conflicts, all the four case studies presented above are contributing to peacebuilding efforts in the region. However, one major difference between longer term arts-based initiatives like the radio skits of SFCG and the one-off festivals in Bukavu and Goma, lies in the measurement of impact. SFCG’s radio skits are by far the most listened to programs in eastern Congo and an evaluation report produced in 2003 revealed that SFCG’s radio programs were the most popular and impactful due to their quality content on timely topics (SFCG, 2003:4). This observation raises the question of how to measure the impact of less long-term arts-based initiatives.
I suggest that coalition building among arts-based initiatives across Bukavu and Goma can help address the question of impact by tapping on the expertise of organizations such as SFCG. Coalition building can be a great opportunity to identify the strengths and weakness of arts-based initiatives in Bukavu and Goma, and to design a capacity development plan that increases the efficacy of these initiatives in peacebuilding efforts. For example, SFCG’s strength in producing radio skits that impact people’s lives even in remote areas of the country might inspire a coalition of arts-based initiatives to disseminate peace messages to Beni and other places in eastern Congo where innocent civilians continue to perish due to conflicts. These are the places that urgently need arts-based initiatives to speak up for them and with them, and only a coalition effort can take such an important step in promoting peace.
Art is an important tool in peacebuilding initiatives and ought to be used to stimulate and nurture the agency of communities in conflicts for dialogue, reconciliation and healing— without causing harm in the process. Through an examination of four cases of arts-based initiatives in Bukavu and Goma, this article proposes the idea that these initiatives would benefit more from coalition building. Although each one of the cases discussed above is reaching a wide audience with peace messages, these peacebuilding efforts are often isolated from one another and do not reach significant local and international resonance to be able to amplify the outcry of Congolese people for peace in the region. This lack of a coalition of arts-based initiatives also limits the potential of the arts to transform the power relationships between peace actors and the benefiting communities. A coalition building assumes that arts-based initiatives create platforms of expression for affected communities more than spaces of visibility for the most powerful art organizations and therefore, a foreseeable difficulty in coalition building is the power struggle among arts-initiatives themselves: Who takes the credit for the coalition? While this is a valid concern, it is my hope that when the coalition is established, the ultimate goal will be the people of eastern Congo. It is my hope that there will be more local ownership, participation, and more efficiency in the coalition’s efforts towards lasting peace in the region
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