AIII #8: How to make peace in eastern Congo? Send in Céline Dion

How to make peace in eastern Congo? Send in Céline Dion

Timo Mueller

On 21 September 2014, 5,000 people streamed into the airport of Goma to take part in a concert of Peace One Day, a 16-year old movement to establish peace worldwide. While the festival was fun, the beats bustling and crowd cheering, the concert is emblematic of the many weaknesses of foreign intervention in eastern Congo, many of which are all too often repeated.

Peace One Day

In 1999, the British actor-turned-filmmaker Jeremy Gilley founded the organization Peace One Day to create “the first ever day of peace.” Together with other activists, he eventually managed to convince the United Nations General Assembly in 2001 to create the International Day for Peace on 21 September. Ever since, he’s been traveling the world to spread the gospel of peace.

In one of his reported landmark achievements in September 2007, Gilley and Jude Law negotiated a ceasefire with the Taliban in Afghanistan to organize a large-scale vaccination drive across the country. To this day, Gilley continues his journey, working with a 45-man team in London and celebrities such as Angelina Jolie to “institutionalize Peace Day 21 September, making it a day that is self-sustaining.”


Lack of inclusivity and local ownership

Unlike the Amani Festival which collaborated since its inception in 2013 with Congolese youth centers such as Maison des Jeunes and Yole!Africa, Peace One Day failed to tap into the city’s rich cultural landscape and build upon a rich tradition of festivals in Goma, including the Salaam Kivu International Film Festival

The organizers could have worked hand in hand with the many youth organizations and civil society organizations such as Lucha, Promo Jeune Basket, or Vijana Kokoriko, which work towards community reconciliation and positive change and had organized their own activities for September 21st. The concert’s impact might have been greater if it had built upon the city’s resilient and creative youth that abounds with energy, opening up an art boutique or recording its own version of Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy”.

By failing to connect with local voices, Peace One Day missed a unique opportunity to strengthen existing peace building initiatives, a phenomenon that characterizes other foreign organizations as well. Worse, it inadvertently caused bad feelings among many local institutions, which later openly called on city dwellers to boycott the concert altogether. As a result, only about a 12th of the expected number of visitors (60,000) eventually turned up. Contrary to the Amani Festival, which entire families frequented in 2014 and 2015, the spectators at Peace One Day were mostly young men.

Communication and outreach

The low level of local participation in the concert is partially the result of bad communication and insufficient outreach activities via local radio stations and other media channels. It was not enough to deploy a two-man team just a few weeks prior to the event to prepare the groundwork.

In the lead-up to the concert, residents, Congolese journalists and activists were poorly informed about the contours of the event. Among the greatest confusions during the press conference of the concert was why the airport was chosen as a venue, causing transportation delays and subsequent economic loss for the commercial trading hub in the Great Lakes Region.

Another question that was frequently asked pertained to the selection of the artists. The festival included such great Congolese artists as Lexxus Legal and comedian Mweze, but the concert’s main focus was clearly on American Hip Hop Star Akon. While the audience erupted in ecstasy when the superstar took to the stage and later surfed into the crowd in a giant plastic bubble, the choice is indicative of what appeared to be the main audience of this concert: The World outside Congo.

Genuine intention and local adaptation

For foreign initiatives to have a more meaningful impact in Goma and beyond, the city must not be relegated to serve as a background for a campaign elsewhere. Every theater of conflict is unique and should be respected as such. Goma and the wider east are complex and intertwined and may not lend themselves to activists parachuting in to pull off an event with no clear lasting impact. The region is worth more than that.

While the organizers did not hide their intentions to promote their own campaign and build the concert into a larger documentary about Jeremy Gilley’s movement, they may not have chosen the best location to do this. The concert appeared removed from local context while the movement avoided discussing the political causes for war and conditions for peace.  From discussions with Congolese activists (here and here) it becomes clear that residents have nothing against celebrating peace. They believe in the value of coming together as one community but under the premise that it is meant well.

Sustainable impact and do no harm

One of the campaign’s benchmarks of success is the number of people that were aware of Peace One Day. According to the organizers, a total of 610 million people knew about the International Peace Day in 2014. The objective is to reach 3 billion people by 2016.

This measure of success is part and parcel of the prevailing narrative of Peace One Day, which seems to suggest that Congolese do not want peace hard enough and need a bit of nudging in the right direction. This assumption is fundamentally flawed. The majority of Congolese in the eastern part of the country want peace, according to a recent survey of 5,000 residents by Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. After two decades of a series of taxing wars, ordinary citizens have a deep longing and appreciation for stability and calm, just like citizens in any other conflict-affected countries.

While awareness is important, it is not sufficient and certainly not what is really lacking for change. In many ways, Congolese do not need further awareness campaigns but empowerment and resources to realize their own goals and instigate change. Unfortunately, Peace One Day did not address the fact that violence in the country is not always random and pointless but has its roots in the volatile environment that is eastern Congo. Performed according to a brutal yet real logic, violence is a currency loosely traded for political power and profits among elites in the Great Lakes Region. They benefit from the status quo and are unlikely to change course.

Irrespective of its existing education programs, the Peace One Day movement depoliticizes conflict in Congo. It is by ignoring the spoilers for peace that the organizers appear to disregard the struggle of Congolese activists and raise false expectations.

It is difficult to speak against a day of peace, albeit for one day, and Jeremy Gilley is quick to deflect criticism by calling critics jaded and cynical as happened during an interview with BBC on 21 September. But such a mega concert cannot simply be ignored as just another failed attempt. One way to yield lasting impact would have been to ask for a concrete measure. With the Governor of North Kivu and the Mayor of Goma present, the organizers could have asked, for instance, for a public commitment to build roads or rehabilitate the debilitating sanitation and water systems in the city, let alone the province.

Peace is not always in the abstract.

At the time of writing, Timo Mueller worked as a freelance researcher on eastern Congo.

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