Youth affirm the power of cooperation for peace in the Great Lakes Region
October 16, 2015
At just 22 years of age, Ornella Irakoze has a deep understanding of the consequences of political manipulation. She grew up in Burundi, which has known a history of conflict underpinned by ethnic divisions as a result of political manipulation.
In September, Irakoze had the chance to talk about this phenomenon with young people from neighboring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo at a youth forum held jointly by the Communauté Economique des Pays des Grands Lacs (CEPGL) and Interpeace.
“This [experience] helps us to learn that manipulation prevents us from developing and takes away our dignity,” said Irakoze. The forum also reminded her of the importance of looking for collaborative solutions to economic challenges and obstacles to peace.
“I understand that others will face the consequences of my choices – my future children and grandchildren, and society at large,” she said, adding, “I want to be an example for others.”
Irakoze was one of 90 youth delegates from Burundi, DR Congo and Rwanda who took part in the CEPGL youth forum from Sept. 15–17 in Rubavu, Rwanda. The forum, hosted by CEPGL and Interpeace, promoted the values of non-violence and tolerance among youth during a critical election period in the Great Lakes Region.
The forum also aimed to foster development initiatives based on young people’s ideas and initiatives, and to provide a space where youth could interact with decision-makers of Rwanda, DR Congo and Burundi. It was made possible by support from the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
During the course of the forum, youth delegates developed and adopted their Action Plan for Youth for September 2015-December 2020. The plan includes regular meetings of the youth at local, national and regional levels aimed at strengthening cross-border relationships and cooperation; organizing professional and scholarly trainings for youth; ensuring better access to funding and microfinance; integrating youth councils into the CEPGL with more visibility; and promoting greater youth inclusion in decision-making processes in their home countries.
The youth also called upon leaders of all three countries to meet in order to align their development priorities. Many youth delegates said they consider it a major impediment to peace that the last time the CEPGL hosted a meeting that brought the Presidents of Burundi, Rwanda and the DR Congo together was in 1994.
On Sept. 19, the youth presented their action plan to the Minister of Youth and ICT for Rwanda, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the Minister of Youth and Sports for the DR Congo, Sama Lukonde Kienge, and a representative of the Minister of Youth of Burundi. The ministers in turn shared the relevant youth and economic development programs that they have in place in their respective countries.
The executive secretary of the CEPGL, Herman Tuyaga, expressed the organization’s commitment to including youth in its activities. “By creating opportunities for meetings and for the follow-up of the action plan coming from this forum, the CEPGL will continue to support youth in their projects of youth economic autonomy,” he said.
Throughout the forum, youth delegates also took part in a number of peacebuilding exercises led by Interpeace and its partner organizations from Rwanda, DR Congo and Burundi in the region. The peacebuilding activities were designed to foster critical thinking, deconstruct stereotypes about one another, raise awareness about identity manipulation, and to build trust and foster relationships among youth from different backgrounds.
Many youth delegates said that the exercises reinforced values that the countries of the Great Lakes Region needed to embrace in order to move forward and develop collectively. Some youth spoke out about issues such as intolerance for marriage between couples of different nationalities, and others referred to colonial history as the root of division between the people of the Great Lakes, calling on a return to unity and peaceful cohabitation in the region.
“I think we have the ability to overcome our history,” said Junior Museke, 28, from Goma, DRC, who said that peace is a necessary prerequisite for economic development. “This starts with working with young children, who haven’t yet formed stereotypes or prejudices,” he said. “CEPGL is creating activities in which youth are beneficiaries, which is very important in conflict resolution efforts.”
During the youth forum, Interpeace held a trust and teambuilding exercise, in which youth were organized into teams – each of which had delegates from all three countries. They were instructed to form a circle, close their eyes, and to reach out and grab the hand of another participant so that everyone in the circle was holding the hands of two other people, which created a “human knot”. The groups were told to open their eyes and begin working together to untie the knot, without letting go of others’ hands, so that they could all stand in the circle directly beside the people whose hands they were holding. Although it was challenging, all groups found ways to work together to problem solve. At the end of the activity, the youth discussed in an open forum about how they felt during the activity and what they had learned and to assign meaning to the various steps involved in the activity.
“Without the will and engagement of everyone concerned, we can’t accomplish anything,” one participant reflected.
Jessica Kwibuka, 25, from Kigali, Rwanda, said that the activity, and the forum at large helped her realize that there are more similarities than differences between youth of Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo, and that they can and should work together to achieve their goals: “I learned that as youth, we can communicate, we can collectively identify our needs, we can sleep in the same hotel and we can have friendships.”
Kwibuka added that when it comes to stereotypes and prejudices that are passed down from parents to their children, it is up to the youth to challenge those beliefs for the sake of peaceful development. “I believe that it is our responsibility to remove that [prejudice] from our parents’ minds,” she said. “It is our duty to educate, it is our responsibility to develop our region and Africa at large.”
Interpeace also organized a skit on political manipulation, featuring the Congolese comedian Djasa-Djasa, and presented a film on stereotypes and identity for the youth forum delegates to watch. After both presentations, a discussion was facilitated and participants were so eager to express themselves and propose solutions for political manipulation, negative stereotypes and prejudices, that it was difficult to bring the discussions to a close.
Interpeace encouraged the youth to get in touch with its partner organizations in their respective countries to continue the discussion and to take part in debates related to the challenges to peace in the Great Lakes Region.
As the conference came to a close, Irakoze said that she felt that the forum had a lot of potential to help young people lead joint development efforts across all three countries, which will help to build a lasting peace between them.
“I think there are many challenges to overcome,” she said, “But with the mandate that we’ve been given, I think it can help to overcome those challenges.”
About the CEPGL
The Economic Community of the Great Lakes countries (CEPGL) is a sub-regional economic development organization founded in 1976, bringing together the Republic of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Rwanda. It is headquartered in Gisenyi, Republic of Rwanda. Its main mission is to consolidate the member states’ peace initiatives, security and stability, as well as to promote social and economic activities of common interest. In order to support this mission, it promotes the development of trade and the free movement of persons. Its mission focuses on three priorities: 1) Peace and Security, Democracy, and Good Governance; 2) Energy and Infrastructure; 3) Agriculture and Food Security. The CEPGL has a focus on youth on its economic programme, where it brings together youth from the three countries to jointly do income generating activities. This economic engagement is also supported by dialogue, and aims at fostering development and peace in the region.
About Interpeace’s cross-Border Dialogue for Peace in the Great Lakes programme
Interpeace is partnering with the CEPGL in the framework of its Cross-Border Dialogue for Peace in the Great Lakes programme. It is a long-term process funded by the governments of Sweden and Switzerland to use dialogue to address challenges to peace, with a particular focus on the border regions of DR Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. Beginning in 2013, Interpeace has been implementing the programme with six partner organizations across the Great Lakes Region: Pole Institute and the Centre d’Etudes Juridiques Appliquées (CEJA) in DRC’s North Kivu province, Action pour la Paix et la Concorde (APC) and the Réseau d’Innovation Organisationnelle (RIO) in DRC’s South-Kivu province, as well as the Centre d’Alerte et de Prévention des Conflits (CENAP) and Never Again Rwanda in Burundi and Rwanda respectively.
The programme facilitates dialogue about issues that are essential to peace, such as identity-based manipulations and stereotypes, and promotes values of non-violence and tolerance among youth, especially in light of upcoming elections in the region, which were brought up by citizens of the Great Lakes Region.