African Groundings: War Resisters International’s African Engagement

The Broken Rifle, No 98, December 2013

A quick and cursory view of the history of War Resisters International (WRI) – an organization responsible for many wonderful small actions but rarely credited for its inspiration of big and effective movements – had hardly any connection to Africa at all. But that initial impression would be incorrect. Though often behind-the-scenes and without fanfare or spotlight, key members of WRI have played significant roles in significant aspects of the continents anti-colonial and anti-war moments over the past 90-plus years since WRI’s 1921 founding. The July 2014 international conference in Cape Town, South Africa is simply the most public – and perhaps the most ambitious – of these endeavors.

It was post-WWII that WRI connections with liberationists on the African continent intensified – at first through the work of five conscientious objectors (CO) and militant CO supporters: African American objectors Bill Sutherland and Bayard Rustin, Jean Van Lierde of Belgium, Michael Randle of Britain, and Pierre Martin of France. Each in their own way strengthened WRI ties to groups and peoples in “the motherland” and attempted to ground, though the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, a militant nonviolence connected to the loose WRI network.

Sutherland gave his life towards these ends. Relocating from the USA to the British colony of the Gold Coast in 1953, Sutherland formed a WRI chapter along with some Accra-based Quakers, internationalists and anti-colonialists. His marriage to educator and author Efua Sutherland drew him closer to the freedom movement, and he (along with Rustin) took part in early dialogues on strategies and tactics with the man dubbed “the Gandhi of Africa” – Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah’s “positive action” program – a merging of Gandhian technique, non-violent direct actionist politics, and indigenous cultural sensibilities, led Ghana to become the first newly independent nation on the continent. Capital city Accra and Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) became the center not only for Pan-African aspirations but for a new hope among Western peace movement leaders about the possibility for widespread social transformation.

Van Lierde’s African involvement followed a parallel path. In the late 1950s in Brussels, on the eve of Ghana’s independence and as the rest of the continent was abuzz with interest in replicating Nkrumah’s example, Van Lierde formed the Amis de Presence Africaine, an organization committed to developing and supporting nonviolent strategies for the liberation of the Congo. He struck a close friendship with Congolese leader and first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, which lasted till Lumumba’s assassination in 1961. Van Lierde remained a strong critic of neo-colonialism and the continuing militarization of Africa.


It was French atomic testing in the Sahara desert near its West African colonies that next attracted the attention of WRI members, Pan Africanists, and anti-nuclear activists worldwide. Bill Sutherland took the lead, this time joined by Rustin, British WRI Chair Michael Randle, Rev. Michael Scott and others – including a strong contingent from within the Ghanaian CPP and the Accra-based All-African Federation of Trade Unions. French economist and WRI member Pierre Martin left his job at UNESCO to join the Sahara Protest Team; dozens put their bodies in harms way, marching into the desert to stop the bombing. After a series of local events featuring the international team (ansd attracting international attention) took place in Ghana, Upper Volta, and elsewhere in the region, the French government eventually abandoned their testing plans.

This crucial period – as the drive for independence was spreading throughout the continent and the world, and as civil rights, human rights anti-nuclear, and anti-militarist sentiments were also beginning to take root – saw extended WRI seed-planting in all of these burgeoning movements. The Sahara Protest Team, for example, included a number of West Africans who would go on to become leaders of their own countries once independence would come later in the 1960s. The World Peace Brigades (forerunner to many of today’s unarmed civilian peace-force organizations) was discussed in earnest at the WRI triennial held in India in 1960; it’s founding in Beirut in 1962 included sponsorship not only from Michael Scott, AJ Muste (leader of several US pacifist organizations, including War Resisters’ League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation), and Gandhian associate JP Narayan, but also Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda. An Accra-based Conference on Positive Action for Peace and Security in Africa was held in April 1960, with AJ Muste, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Franz Fanon and others in attendance – in what organizer Bill Sutherland termed (in the book Guns and Gandhi in Africa which we co-authored): “the height of influence of the world pacifist movement on the African liberation struggle.”

The heady actions of the beginning of the decade gave way to long-term planning – small actions, intellectual pursuits, base-building and private meetings about how bigger, more lasting and successful movements could be developed in the future.

Pierre Martin relocated with his family to Senegal, where he served as a member of the WRI’s Council. Martin’s 1968 booklet Violence in Africa, published by WRI, reviewed the nature of colonial subjugation and suppression, as well as the role of religion, the army, and trade unions in building militarized or de-militarized societies. In a conclusion reflecting on the possibilities for nonviolence in Africa, Martin noted that the little overt support for large explicitly pacifist movements notable in the late 1960s meant nothing, as “non-violence does not attract the attention of the professional newsmen: violence is much more sensational.” Martin urged readers to take careful note that some key indigenous forces in Africa speak explicitly of nonviolence, including the Kibangist Christians in the Congo and the Muslim sect of the Mourides, founded in Senegal “by a saint who resisted the French military colonization by nonviolence.”

WRI’s triennial conference held at the end of 1969 in the Haverford, Pennsylvania also indicated a deepening understanding of the need for long-term strategies and a two-way solidarity. The conference theme, “Liberation and Revolution,” included reports and dialogues about the connections between means and ends, the role of “liberated nationalism,” and the need to get “beyond all separatism.” A special report on Nonviolent Revolution and Developing Countries was delivered by Bill Sutherland, Indian leader Narayan Desai, and Vietnamese human rights defender Vo Van Ai.

Some of these conversations came full circle in 1985-86, at another WRI triennial in India, this time hosted by Desai and including Bayard Rustin, World Peace Brigade founder George Willoughby, representatives of the South African Council of Churches and the women’s group Black Sash, and some youthful participants (including this author). A few years earlier, on a trip to Mozambique and Zimbabwe, US reporter Julie Frederikse noticed me sporting a broken rifle tee-shirt and took me aside to tell me about a meeting her South African husband Stelios was having with some young chaps from across the border. A few white South African boys had come to Harare to visit former CO Stelios about their plans to launch a more mainstream project linking a call for an end to conscription with calls for racial justice and an end to apartheid. We joined together to discuss the possibilities of international support for such work, and – shortly thereafter – the world learned of the highly creative, barrier-breaking End Conscription Campaign (ECC). The ECC phenomena not only helped work alongside South Africa’s mass democratic United Democratic Front to bring white folks closer to an anti-apartheid perspective, it also inspired thousands across the globe in showing how making links between peace and justice issues could be done in a fun way, empowering for all. WRI’s distinctive support role throughout the 1980s was a prime example of mutually beneficial solidarity.

New Ground

WRI contemporary work in Africa is rooted in three major inter-related projects developed in the 1990s: the Bangkok Women's Conference of 1992, the formation of the Africa Working Group (AWG) in 1994, and the International CO Meeting in Chad in December 1995. The AWG brought together the growing contacts which WRI had made with the South African mass democratic movement, a grouping of European-based Africans and African solidarity specialists, and several North American African academics and activists. It has held meetings and seminars at every subsequent WRI conference, and has been responsible for reporting on relevant issues, including the 1996 Peace News dossier “Peace and Reconstruction in Africa” and in the two-volume Africa World Press book series Seeds of New Hope and Seeds Bearing Fruit, edited by AWG co-conveners Elavie Ndura and myself. As Narayan Desai coached us in 1986, the AWG has always emphasized South-South collaboration and skills-building, with support people in the North working to help facilitate rather than moderate that independent contact.

Concrete fruit of a distinctly Pan African variety grew prosperously at the WRI African Nonviolence Trainers’ Exchange meeting, in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 2012. It was at that meeting that the African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network was formed, with Soweto-based Sipho Theys and former Parliamentarian Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge serving as co-convenors. Nozizwe, who is also playing a leading role in the organization of the July 2014 WRI conference along with her group Embrace Dignity, noted: “The creation of the African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network is a significant moment in that we now have the opportunity to build on the on-the-ground work happening all across the continent, to break the isolation which so many feel. I like to think about it going beyond training to peacebuilding, going to the root causes of violence.”

Getting back to the roots – of both war and war resistance along the broad continuum of nonviolent direct action – seems like an appropriate goal given the WRI’s 90-plus years of engagement with African Liberation. As we experience new and renewed levels of mass moblization, small and now-not-so-small-actions playing a role in developing even larger and hopefully more effective democratic movements for justice and peace, now is the time to do more than just network. Together we must act.


Matt Meyer is a New York City-based author, educator, and activist, who serves as War Resisters International’s Africa Support Network Coordinator. A UN representative of the International Peace Research Association, Meyer is editor, author or contributor to a dozen books, including Time is Tight: Urgent Tasks for Educational Transformation—South Africa, Eritrea, and the USA; and (with Bill Sutherland) Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation. Archbishop Tutu, in his Foreword to Guns and Gandhi, noted that “Sutherland and Meyer have looked beyond the short-term strategies and tactics which too often divide progressive people. They have begun to develop a language which looks at the roots of our humanness beyond our many private contradictions.”

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