SWM 2014: Taking steps to promote peace and reconciliation in West Africa

Case study by Paige Wilhite Jennings

Though much of this chapter makes grim reading, there are concrete grounds for hope in the region. In Sierra Leone, where around 60 per cent of the population is believed to be Muslim and another 20 to 30 per cent Christian, ethnicity played a role in over a decade of war. Religion, however, reportedly did not. Sierra Leone, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, boasts a truly enviable climate of tolerance of religious diversity. In a region where strife between Christians and Muslims is common in country after country, the Special Rapporteur found an unusual level of cooperation, fostered in schools, through the media and by the country’s Inter-religious Council, a nation-wide NGO. The Council has played an important role in responding, alongside public officials, to two recent cases of conflict between people of different religions.

While Burkina Faso, with more than 60 ethnic groups and four major religions, is notably tolerant, as highlighted by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism following a 2013 country visit, its civil society and authorities are sensitive to potential spillover of conflict from neighbours such as Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. Burkina Faso has not seen internal armed conflict or acts of terrorism due in large part, according to analysts, to its long history of interfaith and inter-ethnic tolerance; however, it is not relying solely on tradition to maintain peace.

In April 2011 the government adopted a national strategy, developed by the human rights ministry, for promoting a culture of peace among different groups. It has also taken steps to address tensions between herders and farmers over land usage that cause strife across the region. In January 2012 the human rights ministry published a Handbook for Preventing and Managing Farmer-Herder Conflicts, followed by joint workshops for farmers and herders in the country’s 13 regions focusing on land regulation, protection of nomadic paths and sustainable use of natural resources. Community leaders and local and regional officials also take part in the workshops, which aim to reduce conflict by increasing understanding of rules protecting both farmers and herders. It is hoped that taking steps like jointly agreeing the boundaries of corridors for moving livestock will also help to prevent clashes.

Niger, sharing borders with both Mali and Nigeria, has like Burkina Faso guarded rigorously against any spillover of conflict. While it has some similarities with Mali, there are important differences. Although Niger’s Tuareg have suffered marginalization in the past, many of them live interspersed alongside other ethnicities throughout the country and have a long history of coexistence with these other groups. Though Niger does have a history of armed Tuareg rebellion, violent separatism has not taken hold to the extent seen in Mali.

In Mali, the state response to Tuareg unrest was security-oriented. In Niger, however, the authorities have reportedly taken some steps to address Tuareg claims of exclusion. Niger currently has a northern Tuareg Prime Minister. Decentralization has given Tuareg access to positions in local administrations. Finally, though there is still a long way to go before their grievances are fully addressed, the peace process with former Tuareg rebels in Niger has placed more of an emphasis on socio-economic reintegration, poverty reduction and inclusion.

Cooperation between the state and former Tuareg rebels in areas of mutual benefit, for example joint efforts in demining, has also helped to improve relations, though some issues remain. These examples demonstrate how some national governments and communities are countering threats to peace. Though their efforts rarely make headlines in the way that inter-ethnic and inter- religious conflicts do, they offer a blueprint for positive steps towards an end to communal strife across the region.

This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014. View the full report.

Photo: A Tuareg man in Mali. Copyright: MRG

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Date: 20/06/2014


Burkina Faso
Sierra Leone


State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014
Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech
Religion/Religious minorities

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