Stanching the Bloodshed: Funmi Olonisakin and the Pursuit of Peace, By Toyin Falọla
Olonisakin’s contribution to the static or rigid models of developmental agenda has been to fashion engagement processes within the conflict-affected societies and do so in a way that touches them more urgently. The reflexivity that emerged from her ethnographic work in the field boosted her understanding of how structures of peace production can, in fact, become a stricture.
Since the beginning of this year, violence of all forms have pervaded Nigeria and resulted in a massive number of casualties, the scale of which is almost unthinkable. Violence is not an alien in Nigeria; it has been a part of our national life as long as the country has existed. However, the cruel manner in which the dead bodies are steadily piling up in recent times should worry every Nigerian in every part of the world. Last year alone, an estimated number of 1,500 people were deemed lost to the herdsmen crisis that is gradually wrecking the mid-central regions of Nigeria. Even many more were killed in other disasters that occurred in various parts of the country, many of which go unrecorded by the relevant agencies. For those who have been following the developments in the country in recent times, in the past few weeks there have been numbing reports of attacks in Benue, Plateau, Borno, Cross River, Ebonyi, and Zamfara States.
Outside Nigeria, the situation is not much better as reported cases of violence have occurred in other places along the coast of West Africa, particularly in countries such as Cameroon, Mali, Burkina Faso and so on. The bases of these acts of violence have ranged from religious terrorism to ethnic clashes, separatist movements, state brutality against citizens, indigene-settler crises, and as in the case of the herdsmen and the frequent attacks on farmers, suspected genocide. There are no clear-cut reasons to be readily adduced for why all of these acts of violence occur perpetually, neither are there simple solutions to resolving them. What we all can agree upon is that the postcolonial state security architecture is, as it currently stands, barely functional and guaranteed to protect the citizens of this country. As the volume of violence drives up, it necessitates a fresh moral urgency in proposing tested solutions that we can apply to the local situations and do so sustainably too. By now, we should all be tired of the cycles of post-conflict reactions: Outrage, call upon the government to do something, the government makes promises, all quiet down, then there is a conflict relapse, and the process repeats itself.
Foremost scholar of security, leadership, and society, and also vice-president and vice-principal international, King’s College in London, Professor Funmi Olonisakin, delivered her inaugural lecture titled, “Leadership and “Conversation” in Dialogue: Securing Peace in the Unromantic Context,” at her university this week, July 9, 2018. Her address was on leadership and securing peace, and she offered many valuable insights into the means by which we can approach issues of conflict resolution, and the building of post-conflict peace in our society. Her lecture got me thinking about how we can refocus our efforts from reacting to violence to the task of building peace and doing so sustainably. Many of the ideas and understandings of crisis and conflict resolution that she offered in her lecture are also instructive for divining the means to restructure the shaky scaffold upon which our social structures are built, and which have consequently led to frequent antagonisms and unresolved tensions between warring parties.
I am confident that confronting the problems that lead to communal violence and crisis in our various countries can also be resolved by looking within the paradigms of peacebuilding tactics that have both been proposed. We can apply the strategies and reflexively question the grey areas that we must have missed on the recurrent nature of the attacks, how we can improve on ongoing efforts to stem the constant outbursts of the various crises that plague Nigeria and other African countries.
Olonisakin, for those who do not yet know her work, is one of the most respected scholars of peace and social security in the whole world today. A remarkable achiever and researcher, she has a broad swathe of works on the study of security and development, while marrying the fields of academics, policy making, and the practice of ideas. The trajectory of her career has moved through practice, policy, and the academic to currently encompass expertise that imbricates the theoretical with the political and the practical. Olonisakin is presently a professor in the African Leadership Centre of the School of Global Affairs at King’s College, London. She established the centre and was also the founding director.
Olonisakin also highlighted the problems of global racial and cultural hierarchies that place certain people at the top of the table, while the rest of the world becomes regular invitees to the feast of peace talks. Organisations such as the U.N. are run by well-meaning influential people whose interventions sometimes turn Africans into the subject of peace talks.
She has had a sterling career as a United Nations official working in the office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. She also co-founded and worked at the Centre for Democracy and Development, the arenas where she built a solid ground for what has become a sustained engagement with intellectualism, policy, and practice. As an official of the UN, she developed many essential proposals that highlighted the gaps in knowledge and comprehensions of post-crises states such as Sierra Leone and Liberia. She has been a consultant to many worldwide organisations to create means of facilitating peace and building post-conflict states in Africa. As the director of the ALC, she has afforded many opportunities to young Africans and upcoming Africans to include them in the vital process of nation-building. A respected scholar, Olonisakin has weighty appointments, consultations, and awards from reputable institutions such as the University of Pretoria, South Africa; the Mellon Foundation; Geneva Centre for Security Policy; Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute; and the United Nations. With her vast world of experience and knowledge, her arguments about rebuilding a society scarred by violence are worth listening and responding to robustly.
In her reflections on the role of the United Nations as a peace umpire, Olonisakin argues that the structures of political power that attempt to mediate peace between warring factions are not inclusive enough of the political actors of the countries involved. They do not fully engage the stakeholders — to use a Nigerian term now — but instead, more of other concerned citizens of the world who do not have the same level of emotional and moral investment in the crisis as the direct victims. Second, the politics of peacebuilding can be geriatric, as those who have the power and resources to sue for peace are often those who have spent years of their lives accruing the necessary capital. Those whose communities are directly impacted by violence — young people and particularly women — often do not get a chance in the mediations of peace.
Olonisakin also highlighted the problems of global racial and cultural hierarchies that place certain people at the top of the table, while the rest of the world becomes regular invitees to the feast of peace talks. Organisations such as the U.N. are run by well-meaning influential people whose interventions sometimes turn Africans into the subject of peace talks. As such, Africans do not get enough say in the issues of peacebuilding, even when they are the concerned parties. Also, while the pursuit of peace is a noble objective, it is not an end in itself. It is not enough for people to survive a war but to also survive the peace when it is attained. As such, we are supposed to invest in peace, not as a goal to be achieved once and for all, but as a continuous process over time to prevent conflict relapses. This approach will require building institutions, formal and informal, that will turn peacebuilding into a social activity and engrafted within its political structures.
Olonisakin’s contribution to the static or rigid models of developmental agenda has been to fashion engagement processes within the conflict-affected societies and do so in a way that touches them more urgently. The reflexivity that emerged from her ethnographic work in the field boosted her understanding of how structures of peace production can, in fact, become a stricture. Sometimes we are so focused on established modes of peace and conflict resolutions that we arrogate all the agency to the leadership and the formal structures that legitimise them rather than the people and the values that nourish their social cultures.
To begin to confront the problem of violence, we have to upturn the model of peacebuilding in some of our communities where these acts have been raging in present times. Mind you, the point is not to absolve the leadership of the government of its responsibilities but to bypass them in the meantime and empower local communities to be architects of their own survival.
To undercut the established channels and the rigidity that undermine their effectiveness, she focused on the relations of power and the means by which they become established in the methods we take to study conflict, prescribe solutions, and then enforce them. When answers come from external forces, she noticed, it does not have the same level of buy-in as the one people organically generate within their mundane activities and the network of daily cultural behaviour. She recommends that we take a bottom-up approach to solving problems of conflict by working within the existing structures of the society which the people already created and which they can relate to. Making peace should be about building conversations around the interactions of ordinary folks and the values that underpin their desires for a better society, instead of around the leadership.
Here are some of my thoughts and the implications for Nigeria facing a crucial time because of the violence that is ongoing in parts of the country. The thrust of Olonisakin’s arguments on the subject of peace began where such discourses tend to always start: Political philosophy, and the ideational ways that we should approach and understand the nature of our challenges. For Africans, part of our problems of managing the modern state stem from our colonial inheritance and how the construct of government still needs to be fine-tuned to cater to the nuances of Africa and its multiverse. Historians and political scientists have made useful critical arguments on the nature of the African states, the colonial outposts that were more or less replicas of what subsist in the European metropole, except what was designed for Africa was not for the benefit of Africans but to further the project of colonialism. Today, we see the consequences because a chunk of the violence that erupts in postcolonial services are bursts of the pustules of tension spurred by living together in a spatio-political space where they did not get to determine how the terms of co-existence would work. The mounting scale of the violence has made the killings seem meaningless, but there is in fact, a world of meaning behind them and they point in the direction of state formation, history and culture, and the problems of leadership in Africa.
To begin to confront the problem of violence, we have to upturn the model of peacebuilding in some of our communities where these acts have been raging in present times. Mind you, the point is not to absolve the leadership of the government of its responsibilities but to bypass them in the meantime and empower local communities to be architects of their own survival. In Nigeria, there is the probability that the solutions that will stanch the constant flow of bloodshed — a reorganisation of our unwieldy governmental structure to devolve power to local communities — is frequently ignored by successive governments for politically prejudicial reasons, often leaving people to their fates in the hands of their killers. While government responses have occasionally stemmed some of the massacres or at least prevented retaliatory killings, there is little proof that their administrative machinery is capable of constructing peace in these organisations. The peace they manage to attain often breaks down, then there is a conflict relapse, and suddenly we are back to where we started. Suppose we begin to look beyond the leaders at various levels and instead focus on the people at the local level to imbricate an attitude of peace into their daily culture?
Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, The University of Texas at Austin.