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African peacemaker calls for better leadership to end conflicts

Betty Bigombe left a comfortable condo in Chevy Chase, Md., and took unpaid leave from the World Bank in 2004 to return to Uganda to help again with peace negotiations between the government and the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), which had massacred more than 200 villagers.

Betty Bigombe and U.S. Institute of Peace
Betty Bigombe

“I couldn’t believe it was still happening,” said Betty, who was elected to the Ugandan parliament in 1986 and became minister of state for pacification of northern Uganda in 1988. 

In 1993, she was named Uganda’s Woman of the Year for her peace efforts.  She led negotiations that had brought the government and rebels to a settlement in 1994. 

After earning her master’s degree from Harvard University in 1997, Betty became senior social scientist at the post-conflict department of the World Bank.

She knew when she heard of difficulties in 2004 that the time for action would be short.

Betty told about 300 gathered for the U.S. Institute of Peace Conference in March in Spokane that she had thought she would be away three weeks.  Instead, it took 18 months camped out at a motel in rural northern Uganda, working as a one-woman peace effort with no official role or funding, just the trust of both sides.

Betty came to Spokane in her role as senior fellow with the U.S. Institute of Peace through July 2007.  She is preparing a paper on “The Challenge of Managing Mediation:  The Northern Uganda Experience,” telling of bringing rebels and government ministers face-to-face.  She spoke on “The African Role in Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution.”

She had been coming to the United States for short visits since the 1980s, drawn by the growing U.S. interest in Africa.

“Students are now asking what they can do,” she said, wishing she could go to speak at universities every weekend.

“If U.S. young people are concerned about people deprived thousands of miles away, we are heading for a better future,” Betty said.  “If Americans need to know, they will lend a voice.  In the past, they were just consumers.”

Before talking about conflict resolution or management, she said she starts with causes.  She seeks to foster tolerance, human rights, accountability, transparent government, an independent judiciary and a free press.

Betty considers leadership issues a primary cause of conflicts.    Leaders can guide people to deal with ethnic differences, rather than letting problems grow and exploiting them to stay in power.

“In some African countries, people find power is sweet and don’t know when to exit,” she said.  “They become corrupt and then fear if they leave power, they will not be safe or able to enjoy the wealth they stole.  So they change constitutional term limits.”

She said more leaders need to relinquish their power as did Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Julius Nerere in Tanzania.

Over 50 years since colonial independence, conflicts generally have been intrastate—not interstate—like genocide in Rwanda, Uganda and Sudan.  She said it took 35 to 40 years of independence for some countries to correct the impact of colonialism.

“Governments encourage them to see their different shades, to exclude people based on religion, tribe and ethnic group, and to pick up arms. It’s about power and greed,” Betty said.

In Rwanda before the genocide, government leaders authorized media to spread fear of the other ethnic group.  The international community saw it as an internal matter and continued aid.

In Uganda under Idi Amin’s dictatorship, no one challenged his brutality to opponents.

“Armed conflicts in Africa are more civilian than military conflicts.  Women are raped, child soldiers are trained, and girls are turned into sex slaves,” Betty said.  “Cultural values erode among people in the internal displacement camps.  People suffer from diarrhea, TB, malaria.  With HIV/AIDS rampant, rape becomes a weapon.

“Wealth from natural resources is not used to improve the lives of people,” she said.

Betty knows that if African leaders were committed to preventing conflict, they could do it. 

“I am disappointed at the corruption, which creates haves and have nots. Opposition is not allowed, despite claims of political pluralism,” she said.  “Countries drift back to war when leaders refuse to leave power.”

For example, in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe will not relinquish power.  Children don’t go to school or live decent lives.  Groups around him tell him what he wants to hear.  Critics are arrested.  Instability rises, she said. 

For years, many considered the Ivory Coast stable.  It had a good GDP, seemed democratic and won praise in the West.

“We must look below the surface to see life in rural communities. There the situation was boiling from the lack of democracy,” she described. “While international monitors found elections there free and fair, they did not see how the state rigged elections.

“We need to see if economic development flows into rural areas to the majority who are poor,” she said. “Poor people have nothing to lose if dissidents give them arms and force them to fight.”

In Sierra Leone, poor boys who were 12 to 13 volunteered, because they couldn’t go to school and had nothing to eat. One meal a day was a luxury.  A gun was a status symbol. 

“Poverty causes conflict, feeding the growing number of child soldiers.  Children are also abducted, lose their innocence and become killers,” she said.

“About 50 percent of Africans are uneducated.  We need to invest in education so people will know their rights, stand up, talk and create civil society,” she said.

Despite the “sad situation,” Betty is hopeful and sees change in the bloodless transition from apartheid in South Africa, North and South Sudan settling their civil war, Burundi mediating its conflict, and the settlement in Congo before elections.

“There are no military solutions.  If people are defeated, their issues are not resolved,” she said.

Betty hopes that as Africans become involved in resolving African conflicts, they will gain tools to prevent conflicts in their own countries.

“Africa has a brilliant future,” she said, “if we correct problems, prepare leaders with vision, allow Africans to benefit from their natural resources, involve the international community and take risks.”

For example, Betty knew satellite phones were key for mediation with rebels.  So she spent about $8,300 of her own money to buy satellite phones and pay for calls to negotiate with rebels.

Her coming on behalf of the international community gave credibility to negotiations for both the rebels and the government.

“We need to be friends with more than leaders so we have sustainable relationships,” she said. “Presidents come and go.”

Betty pointed out that problems in Africa cost the United States billions in humanitarian aid for refugees, hunger relief and development projects.

“It’s crucial to help hopeless people fend for themselves,” she said, calling for moving beyond blame of colonialism, Christianity, independence, structural adjustments or aid that blind leaders from seeing internal issues.

Betty suggests Christians abroad stand in solidarity with Christians who stand up as opposition voices challenging dictators.

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Institute for Peace promotes peace studies programs, peace building

With a budget of $22 million a year, the U.S. Institute of Peace seeks to counteract the $650 billion a year spent on military solutions to conflict, said David Smith, senior program officer for the agency funded and created by Congress in 1984.

At the U.S. Institute of Peace, about 110 employees and fellows promote solutions in which military are peacekeepers in crises and promote civil societies.

The USIP seeks more visibility about publications, training and education programs.  For example, it coordinated the Iraq Study Group. 

One step to visibility is its planned education center on the national mall, where Americans of all perspectives can learn tools of nonviolence and ways to “win peace,” rather than trying in vain to win wars, he said.

“Our goals are prevention, mediation and post-conflict peace building,” David said.

Recently a team helped create Christian-Muslim agreement in Iraq, training people to mitigate conflict, insure the constitutional process and involve people.

“Even the military realizes it needs to lay down arms in Iraq and seek non-military solutions,” he said. “There are more tools in the tool kit of nonviolence than there are for armed responses   We can’t keep up with the demand for our work.”

David has been visiting Gonzaga University recently to help develop a peace and conflict studies program as a model for higher education to teach peace. 

“There is a demand in academics to teach young people how to be negotiators and peacemakers.  Many Catholic Jesuit universities have peace and social justice programs to help them understand conflicts abroad and at home, he said.

For information, call (202) 429-4709 or contact

Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © May 2007