A “Zone of Peace” in Southern Africa: Exploring the Causes of Peace

Op-Ed: Johan Brosché and Kristine Höglund work in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. Here, they discuss their latest project.

Peace research is meant to contribute to the prevention of violence, and to the establishment of sustainable peace. Despite this dual concern, an overwhelming share of peace research addresses the causes of war and violence, rather than the causes of peace. Overall, attention has primarily been on countries that have experienced armed conflict – such as Israel-Palestine, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Colombia and Somalia – while those spared from large-scale violence have been neglected.

In our research we shift the focus from the causes of war to the causes of peace and study a zone of peace in Southern Africa, consisting of Botswana, Malawi and Zambia. These three countries have been spared from civil war since they gained independence half a decade ago, despite being surrounded by seven countries plagued by violent conflicts. The prevailing peace in these three countries are even more surprising since Africa is the world’s most conflict-affected region with one third of all inter- and intra-state conflicts since 1946 taking place on the continent. Our project aims to explain why peace has prevailed in these three countries, despite being part of the world’s most volatile continent and with their neighbors struck by conflict.

In doing so, we strive to generate new insights about the variations of peace and its conditions by seeking answers to previously overlooked questions. By studying the cases where war and violence have been absent, we avoid drawing conclusions that are applicable to only the very violent cases. This approach will also be useful to refine existing theories, since the causes of peace and the causes of war are not mirror images of each other.

Preliminary research from Malawi indicates that four factors are particularly important for understanding Malawi’s relative peace. First, although ethno-religious identities are strong in Malawi, they are less politically salient than in many other countries. Moreover, ethnic communities live in relative isolation, which means that local conflicts tend to play out within, rather than between, communities. Second, Malawi’s political elite has adopted a political culture that preserves status quo and that has served to contain tensions. Third, although poverty motivates protests in Malawi, it has also had a pacifying effect. Fourth, important institutions have served to promote peace: the armed forces have stayed out of politics and religious organizations have been important in bridging political divides at times of crisis.

These insights are important for identifying potential risks that could lead to escalating conflict, but also provide inspiration for how to address and manage conflicts before they turn violent. Further analysis of Botswana and Zambia will complement and nuance our understanding of Southern Africa’s "zone of peace". We call on fellow researchers – and other concerned actors – to devote more attention to the conditions underpinning peaceful development and peaceful societies, since such understanding is necessary for its achievement.

Photo by Geoff Gallice

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