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Why not stop the fight starting?

THIS THRONE is not very big, very beautiful or very comfortable. But it is an important symbol. It is a chair made from Portuguese guns and Russian AK-47 assault rifles stockpiled illegally in Mozambique after 16 years of civil war. It symbolises the hopelessness of war, the inhumanity of the arms trade, and the need for us all to be resolved to find routes to peace.

This story started when the Anglican Bishop of Lebombo, the Rt Revd Dinis Sengulane, was confronted by a stark challenge at a conference on reconciliation after the war in Mozambique. Millions of weapons remained, hidden illegally. It was said that they were the biggest threat to peace, and they needed to be destroyed. But no one knew exactly how. His inspiration was to persuade people to hand over guns in exchange for tools: to turn "swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks".

This inspiration led to a large-scale decommissioning project, "Transforming Arms into Tools", run by the Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM), and supported by Christian Aid. To date, some 600,000 weapons have been handed over in exchange for "instruments of production", such as sewing machines, bicycles, and building materials. No one asks for names and papers. The weapons are simply taken away, smashed, and melted down.

This exchange of guns for tools has provided a long-term solution to some of the many problems facing people in one of the world's poorest countries. "A group of farmers found 500 guns and brought them to us," said the Bishop. "In exchange, we gave them a tractor. If a child brings in bullets, we give something to help them go to school, study, and get a profession."

NINE YEARS later, this flash of inspiration has been transformed into art. The Throne of Weapons is the work of Cristóvão Canhavato, known as Kester, born in 1966 when the struggle for independence in Mozambique was already under way. However, this chair is more than just a piece of art. It is a symbol that calls for a response. It is a "call to arms".

Violence has caused as many deaths in Africa as disease. At least three million people died in four years in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another 10,000 people lost their lives and an estimated 800,000 people were displaced in Nigeria between 1999 and 2003.

We now we seem to be entering a new phase in Africa's development. There is hope of peace in places such as Angola and Sierra Leone. There are even glimmers of it in Congo, Sudan, and Somalia. Countries such as Mozambique, once previously synonymous with violence, have maintained peace for more than a decade.

Until now, the international community has sought to intervene in conflict either militarily or with humanitarian aid. The Commission for Africa has concluded that donors must change their focus - building foundations for durable peace.

Preventing conflict is much more effective than intervention once it has started. One estimate suggests that it would have cost only US$1.5 billion to prevent the outbreak of fighting in Somalia, compared with the US$7.3 billion it cost to respond. But this is not just about money. Another estimate suggests that it would have taken only 5000 troops with robust peace- enforcement capabilities to have saved half a million lives in Rwanda. Money is a meaningless measure in the face of tragedy on this scale.

SO WHY DON'T governments put more effort into prevention? They have coined the phrase the "CNN factor". Preventing violence rarely grabs headlines. In contrast, the media can create a massive profile for some emergencies. This puts pressure on politicians to respond - and provides political rewards for doing so.

Despite this, the international community must invest more in conflict-prevention, if Africa is to have a chance of prosperity. The best way to achieve this is to strengthen mechanisms to manage tensions before they get violent. Weak institutions, authoritarian rule, poverty, inequality, the exclusion of minorities from power, high levels of corruption, and low levels of accountability - all conspire to create an environment that is prone to violence.

Add to this the vast quantity of weaponry readily available throughout Africa - AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles can be bought for as little as US$6 - and you can see how wars start.

If the leaders of the G8 countries can work together to address these issues, then the future for Africa might look different. Perhaps the UN and Commission for Africa should adopt The Throne of Weapons as a symbol for transforming Africa and for eliminating the causes of conflict throughout the world.

Malcolm Munro-Faure is Bookshops Director of SPCK, but writes here in a personal capacity.

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