After decades of violence and civil war, the Hutus and Tutsis of Burundi, in Central Africa, are trying to govern the country together. Their new constitution requires power sharing in every government agency. Yet many on both sides of the conflict are still armed, and few have experience negotiating political disagreements without violence.
Howard Wolpe, a former U.S. congressman and President Clinton’s special envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region, says the problem is not that Hutus and Tutsis hate each other. Burundi’s colonists and corrupt leaders taught them to blame their problems on each other, he says. And once war and violence took hold, the conflict was self-perpetuating.
“War creates a situation where people are convinced that their own survival can only come at the expense of the other,” Wolpe says. “The challenge is trying to change the culture that war creates.”
To do that, Wolpe is bringing to Burundi an American-style corporate leadership workshop that Burundi’s new senators and generals and police chiefs swear is helping them work more constructively together. The idea is to interrupt the culture that war has created and reintroduce a culture in which people understand that their own survival depends on their ability to collaborate.
“It’s true in all conflicts that when people get into a war, communications break down,” Wolpe says. “Stereotypes emerge. Barriers are put up. So the techniques we use are techniques that open up the lines of communication and equip people with the means of transcending their earlier conflict.”
When Tutsi General Jean Bikomagu and Hutu rebel spokesman Jerome Ndiho arrived at one of the earliest workshops, they had never met – but they despised each other nevertheless.
“I had the feeling that he had helped create all the unhappiness of the country,” recalls Bikomagu. And Ndiho says he was shocked when he found they would be spending the week together. “You understand how I hated this man. We had been launching shells at each other!”
By the end of the week, they say, it was their colleagues who were shocked—that they had publicly agreed on several points about Burundi’s future.
Participants in a session for the High Command of Burundi’s National Police ranged from young Hutu rebels, who came of age fighting in the woods, to Tutsi leaders of the government’s Gendarmerie, a force that was notorious for helping massacre Hutus. Together for a week in a walled-off Catholic seminary, they learned techniques like “active listening” and brainstorming. During one exercise they argued over whether a woman in a drawing was old or young – only to discover the image was a composite of two women, one old and one young.
The moral: in a conflict, it’s possible that both sides are right. They simply have different perspectives.
The workshops include lessons on the importance of preparing your position before entering a negotiation, and on identifying the causes of a problem before trying to find its solution. The men spend one day doing a “social simulation.” Each person is assigned to an imaginary geographical region in an imaginary country and asked to operate in the region’s interest, but with the goal of making the whole society survive. Some regions are rich, others are poor; some have resources but few people, others have few resources buy many people. These imaginary societies often fail miserably. But in their discussions afterward, participants find plenty of useful parallels with real life.
The application of such techniques to Burundi’s devastating conflict can seem, at times, absurd. A leader of the famously intimidating Gendarmerie scurried between the red region and green region, begging for food tickets so he and his region-mates can survive. Fiercely proud military-types try to use active-listening phrases (“So what you’re telling me is …”), mustering all their patience to resist the urge to launch into their own arguments. But by the end of the workshops, participants seem quite moved by the experience. One former general claimed that with these tools, he could have averted one of the first battles of Burundi’s Civil War.
Howard Wolpe and his team have been asked to take the workshops to the war-ravaged Republic of Congo, where the situation is much less stable than in Burundi. The first challenge will be to get leaders there to buy into the process. Wolpe has to convince them that it’s in their interest to work together.
“I believe that fundamentally people will never alter the way they behave toward one another unless they see that as a matter of self interest,” he says. “We try to assist people to come to an appreciation, first, of their interdependence. That there’s value in collaboration, even with people they’d historically defined as enemies. But secondly, that they can do that. That it’s possible to rebuild trust, to rebuild the ability to communicate.”
– Marianne McCune
Thank you to the Burundi Leadership Training Program and to Burundi’s new National Police for allowing me full access to their week-long training.