Prevent, pursue and reconstruct: Art for peace building in West Africa


By Sa’id Sa’ad

With kinds of Al-Shabab in Somalia, armed conflict in Mali, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, which I was personally affected– numerous non-state actors such as terrorist groups, militias, and rebels have continued to carry out heinous acts of terrorism including murdering, kidnapping, assassination, bombings, destruction of public amenities and other ugly acts that have deprived the continent its essential goals of integration, economic stability, growth, peace, security, and human capital development. Most of these conflicts – if not all – sprouted as bitter thorns in the continent as a result of the issues of bad governance, corruption, human rights violations, poverty, inequality ethnicity or ethnic marginalization, and conflict over resources. Whereas, some of their roots can be traced to the ages of colonization and war for independence.
While these are common problems in most African countries, no country is yet, on its own, capable of dealing with such multifaceted challenges such as terrorism – especially transnational terrorism activities – without a joint regional or continental interventions with other sister countries and agencies. Accordingly, this posed the dying need for a uniform and efficient approach that delves into commonalities amongst these diverse people and countries to be able to address these common issues that have bedeviled the continent’s aspirations for decades.
In a diverse and multi ethnoreligious continent like Africa, art as a common tool can be used to design processes for building societies by promoting universal and common values thereby creating an atmosphere for neutrality, and unification and providing a safe place for openness amidst birthing solutions for the problems. African art and culture in its diverse forms plays important role in fostering resilience as it constitutes identity and social cohesion. The four legs of nation-building – and also of continental development – are security, governance, human capital development, and culture, which art has transcended boundaries between conflicting parties, developed economies, established good governance, and build the imaginative capacities of people. Thus, this essay will provide ways how art can be used as a tool to: ‘Prevent’ root causes of terrorism by developing the economy, promoting good governance and peace; ‘Pursuing’ rapid responses to terrorism when it occurs by fostering advocacy, multi-national collaboration, and policy reform; and, ‘Reconstruct’ to rebuild societies by healing with art, behavioral changing and human capital development.


The problems of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, human right violation, and lack of basic human necessities have been the major drivers of conflicts and terrorism in Africa. With the richness in creativity and art in the continent, it is saddening that the continent was still tolled to have 1 out of every 3 Africans be poor. And, with the increased educated population and the continuous individual growth of the countries, one could trace the high rate of unemployment and poverty to the already systematically designed economic development blueprint that most of the young people in the continent have subscribed to, which all falls to the notion that says ‘graduate or travel to the city and find a job.’ In this case, in a system whereby the governments weren’t able to create jobs for the people, it makes it easy for them to join the folds of terrorists who will pay them to attack the same government that wasn’t able to give them jobs. These reasons were few among the numerous reasons that had led a lot of university graduates in Borno State to tore their degree certificates and join the Boko Haram terrorist when they began in 2009.

Accordingly, art has been a universal language inherent to any people and culture, and if harnessed creatively can be a million-dollar industry capable of developing economies. Art forms such as movie and music industries have proven to drive economies, for example, the Nigerian Film Industry Nollywood has been globally recognized as the second largest film producer in the world. In an economy like Nigeria that solely relies on crude oil and agriculture, over a million people are currently employed in the film industry making it the country’s largest employer after agriculture. The beauty of this art medium is that it accommodates both those who are considered literate and the illiterates. Therefore, these films, as an art form that exists in all the West African countries are a common goldmine that if harnessed efficiently – via collaborations between all the West African movie industries, both Francophone and Anglophone – can be a sustainable source of economic growth for the region and grow to accommodate the increased unemployed young people in West Africa. With collaborations between the movie industries of Nigeria and Ghana, Benin and Gambia, Liberia and Mali, Niger and Togo to mention but a few, there will be economic stability in the 17 countries and more young people, who might be a threat to the regional peace and security.

Similarly, as a means of preventing violent conflict, and terrorism, via strengthening good governance, art forms can play a vital role in this effect. For decades African literature has played a sound role in strengthening the continental good governance and supporting political stability, especially during the colonial times. Literature, as an art form expressed in the form of poetry, poetry, folktales, and drama humanize and corrects ideologies. Arts projects geared towards good governance are relatively cheap, usually locally based, and usually community-driven. Unlike the previous art form which might require more sophisticated media equipment and technicalities, storytelling, poetry, folktales, and drama are often intertwined in African culture and for centuries have been transferred from generations. For as long as Africa has existed, of course before religions were introduced, these art forms were used to inform the people about themselves and their histories and also strike a difference in form of stories between the good and the bad. Stories of the wicked king who lost to the tortoise and other fantastic stories were for ages installed into the minds of African children which have shaped their perception of leadership and ultimately governance.


In this case, these art forms can be used in digitally packaged technologies such as software, gaming, blogs, social media, and audiovisual outputs and made available to the young population of the continent can reconstruct the minds of the younger generation about the concept of good governance and leadership. Whereas, the already existing literature such as fiction and poetry can be expanded by establishing literary platforms and fora for intellectual discussions to continue creating narratives in the form of art which can correct perceptions, bring about behavioral changes in leaders, and recreate with art, the positive picture of the societies. By supporting the creative industries, more narratives will sprout.

Peace as a process has for long been promoted by art. With or without the formal communications channels, art has offered efficient communication channels in form of music (cultural and secular), paintings, photography, community theatre, and graffiti which carries valuable information. Thus, these can be used in the dissemination of peace messages and build communities of peace, promote alternative non-violent narratives, and facilitate exchanges between youth around the West African region, which can ultimately prevent the conflict violence from erupting.


In conditions where terrorism has already occurred, art can be used to rapidly and effectively respond to terrorism and strengthen the resilience of the people. Art in conflict situations is usually vibrant, joyous, and lends voices. It is a way of looking beyond the pain that surrounds them and with that, art has thrived in conflict zones. Museums, theaters, music and cultural organizations, filmmakers, and local performance groups have engaged in a broad range of peacebuilding, conflict prevention, conflict transformation, violence prevention, and social cohesion activities that can respond to terrorism in a rapid and efficient means.

However, these require a strategic understanding of when to use the art-based intervention, what approaches to be used, where the approaches should occur in terms of space and relevance, and who are the art forms targeted. This makes it easier to identify what art form is suitable for advocacy, policy reform, and multi-national collaboration. In the case of advocacy to pursue peace, youth organizations can use creative schemes such as street theatre, cultural dances, exhibitions, and music to express concerns about certain security issues. This translates loosely to the street exhibition, for example, will create public platforms which could give room for everyone to access. Through performances in public spaces and other creative methods, the young will lend their voice and opinions as to how they want the countries to reform their policies on security issues thereby being fully aware that their messages reach a wide audience. This will also open the floor for unification.

Art enables relaxation and fosters creativity and self-expression that builds self-belief and better socialization. This can be effective in the case of driving multi-national collaborations between West African countries on the war against terrorism and violent conflict. Art forms recreate experiences and lead one to see or imagine the world from another person’s perspective. To enhance this, bodies such as ECOWAS and AU should promote narratives that positions youth and especially art enthusiast as essential and effective partners in promoting peace and sustainability – to proffer most of the efficient platforms for multi-national collaborations in forms such as local community theatre, cultural exchange, music concerts, and festivals. This will be a holistic approach to engaging youth in a way that considers them as beneficiaries, partners, and leaders in promoting peace and security with their tools.


The aftermath of terrorism could destroy the social growth of society. Authors have argued that the arts and culture can be used in peacebuilding due to their therapeutic role, as a tool for healing, expressing and describing fears, anxiety, and other feelings when talking or words, fail or seem unsafe. Thus, the spread of art in conflict-affected contexts has opened new possibilities for political, economic, and social transformation and emerged as tools for peacebuilding and healing.

Looking at ways in which art can create trust, encourage empathy, raise awareness and inspire tolerance around differences, art forms such as visual art can be used to reconstruct young minds that war has scarred by distracting kids from what was happening around them. Children’s artistic projects can be introduced at the post-conflict stage, where they can channel their experiences into imaginations through visual arts. The projects will use painting and the process of creation as a form of healing. The use of visual art forms can also be used to present uncompleted or indirect narratives, enabling people to create their worlds.

More so, art mediums can help foster dialogue between populations in conflict and contribute to more positive interactions between communities caught up in conflict. It provides a safe space to undergo negotiations and rebuild trust. Arts and culture interplay with conflict, reconciliation, and efforts to build more peaceful societies in Africa. Culture helps in regaining the past just as it helps in rebuilding the future, therefore, cultural preservation must take into account these associated narratives that have been built up over time and transform them into a more peaceful narrative.

Artistic activities such as supporting musicians and other creatives in refugee camps, and developing theatre works involving young people in returning communities can do well to heal the people and provide them the momentum to rebuild their communities. For example, in a project carried out by UNICEF in Borno State that I was part of, child soldiers that were reintegrated into the community were being trained into radio productions as casts, which has helped them to forgo their previous lives and reconstruct them to become back into normal lives.

In the drive to prevent, pursue and reconstruct West Africans from the problems of terrorism, art and art forms are an effective tool in addressing most of the pressing challenges which serve as fuel for most terrorism activities in the continent.

Sa’ad can be reached via

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