Personal reflections after attending the Nansen Training Dialogue in Conflict.
By Kyle Naidu
In 2017, as part of a Pan-African civil society delegation, I was sent on a solidarity mission to The Gambia in the wake of the previous year’s elections, resulting in incumbent president Yahya Jammeh refusing to step down from power. There was a fear of widespread violence, and thousands of people were fleeing across the borders into Senegal.
Days before the president-elect was to be inaugurated, we gathered and listened to civil society actors from all sectors: NGO’s, religious groups, youth groups, trade unions and many others. This was the only time these groups were brought together to take part in a conversation about the current state of their country. For the first time, they could sit down and listen to each other about their different approaches to stopping the country from slipping into a civil war.
After attending the Nansen Centre for Peace and Dialogue (NCPD) training on dialogue in November 2021, I was left thinking about the value of dialogue in my experiences with civil society, both internally and in relation to conflicts with the state.
Dialogue is necessary at all levels
The role that civil society can play in pre-conflict, during conflict and post-conflict situations is, I believe, invaluable. Civil society is often seen as a set of non-governmental entities that act as a counterbalance against the state. Alternatively, Mary Kaldor, a scholar on the subject of conflict and civil society, states that it is “the medium through which social contracts or bargains between the individuals and the centres of political and economic power are negotiated, discussed and mediated”.
Given the spaces civil society operate in, dialogue can be a decisive method to build trust, relationships, and understanding between the state and its citizens. This is because dialogue is an inclusive process that brings parties together to begin a process of understanding based on respect and openness. When communication breaks down, conflicts escalate, and more trust is needed to bring the parties back to the conversation. Moreover, the value of dialogue is not limited to conflicts between the state and the people. As a tool, dialogue is an integral part of building social cohesion at all levels of society and even within civil society itself.
The importance of communication in times of conflict
The training at the Nansen Center provided us with specific tools such as conflict mapping, conflict analysis and role play, but also an overall approach to dialogue. After the training I reflected upon the meeting with the Gambian civil society organisations and I still wonder what sort of progress could have been made if we were able to dig deeper into the positions, interests and needs of the stakeholders or even map out the conflict.
Although the meeting in The Gambia was not set up with a dialogical methodology, it did demonstrate that in times of conflict when communication comes to a halt, conversations that allow us to listen to each other’s perspective and positions are of great necessity.
Listening is necessary for a common understanding
I witnessed how the act of listening and understanding each other helped develop a more complete view of the efforts being undertaken by each group. In the end, the participants of the conversation left feeling energised, and an air of camaraderie was felt by many as they came together in a mutual understanding. The participants went on to combine their efforts and launched an SMS task force aimed at sending mass cell phone messages to military higher-ups to stand down and respect the election results. The Gambia is a small nation, so it only took a moment to find someone at the meeting with a cousin who had a general’s phone number.
Having worked extensively with civil society across Africa, it is clear to me that dialogue can be a vital tool in stemming some of the misunderstandings that often happen between state entities and CSO’s, but also amongst CSO’s themselves.
Unveiling the needs and interests beneath the surface
Within grassroots movements and civil society organisations in general, we are often used to conducting our meetings and operations with a slightly argumentative rhetoric. This can include systems such as internal voting, debates, agenda-setting and even as we identify the goals of our organisation. We often spend little to no time further understanding the interests and needs that lie beneath the surface of our outward-facing positions as we focus more on our deliverable or servicing our community.
A dialogical approach to running an organisation or movement can allow for a broader and deeper understanding of the problems that face the organisation or community and elucidate more effective ways of implementing ideas through the inclusive process of dialogue.
Conflicts are a part of life
We all encounter misunderstandings, conflicts, divisions, or disagreements in our lives. Some of these realities remain on a manageable level, and we often manage them unconsciously. Other times, these natural processes become escalated and difficult to navigate or manage. As John Paul Lederach, one of the foremost thinkers in the field of peacebuilding, states, “conflict is continuously present ”, but it must be managed to ensure that the worst outcomes are avoided. The same can be said for conflicts between groups at all levels of society.
Civil society actors like myself need to embrace dialogue as a tool to better understand ourselves, the people we aim to serve, and those that we are critical of. Moreover, we should recognise that its value is not only limited to conflict but should sink into the very core of our functions.
As we touched upon in the training, conflict is not inherently bad; however, if neglected, conflicts often become untenable, and the harmful aspects of conflict can begin to take root. Therefore, the need for understanding becomes imperative to mitigate conflict escalation.
That is where dialogue can be a tool for peace.
Naidu is a South African grassroots peacebuilder, conflict resolution practitioner and researcher with experience working with civil society and activists from across Africa. Naidu holds a master’s degree in Advanced Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution from the University of Bradford and attended the Nansen training – Dialogue in Conflict in November 2021.