Leadership and “Conversation” In Dialogue: Securing Peace In the Unromantic Context, By ‘Funmi Olonisakin
1. Journeying Through the ‘Romantic’ and ‘Unromantic’ Contexts
The labeling of the context that constitutes the focus of this inaugural lecture as unromantic has invoked much interest. The use of the unromantic label is intended to drive home the realities of the human condition in places where daily survival is not easily predictable. In some such situations, already dire conditions are compounded by the destructiveness that occurs when mismanaged conflict escalates into violence. As such, the perennial pursuit of peace and stability becomes a key feature of this context.
The relative serenity and idealised sense of reality that comes out of places where the course of life and living is more predictable such as the very city (London) from which this lecture is being delivered, can be attractive, if not seductive. And this can sometimes colour our judgment or determine the expectations we have of people in unromantic contexts.
It is however too simplistic to imagine that unromantic refers only to the challenging conditions in the developing South, while romantic contexts are those of the more affluent, stable societies of the West or indeed the North. For those who face the realities of life in the unromantic context, the fact of their presence in the South or North matters little.
The wholesale dowsing of the romantic – idealised sense of reality, reflecting a moral or physical superiority – as the solution to the problems experienced in unromantic contexts might invite criticisms and resistance. Moreover, it might be a costly mistake to think that idealised solutions tilt only to one part of the world. Indeed, that very approach to solution finding is rife within all societies, regardless of the socio-cultural context.
To be sure, there is no absoluteness to the romantic context under discussion here. Nor is there an out-and-out romantic context. Perhaps it is better to talk of unromantic and romantic conditions. There are zones of romance in the unromantic even if they serve as reminders of the grave inequalities in those contexts. In the same vein, the romantic contains unromantic pockets. The soberness and hard headedness of the unromantic can sometimes illustrate the worst of the human condition and yet, bring out the best of innovations while demonstrating human resilience. Solving everyday problems in the unromantic context can become a crisis or result in instant innovation.
In the less than ideal reality of life, many of us crisscross romantic and unromantic spaces and conditions, and have done so across time. The differences between the two contexts and conditions can sometimes be a matter of degree rather than substance. Romantic contexts and conditions too, sometimes produce extreme insecurities particularly when underpinned by inequality or “unequal life chances”.
However, one reality which sets societies where the unromantic dominates everyday life for the vast majority is that of a generalised sense of insecurity which makes such contexts demand a special focus.
I have positioned myself at the intersection of the romantic and unromantic contexts.
I stand before you as a catalogue of dualisms. I am a scholar who sits at a special place of privilege. My personal and professional lives have intricately combined the romantic and unromantic. I was born in East Dulwich, London in the 1960s to Nigerian students. I was sent to Nigeria at the age of 20 months and raised by my grandmother. That singular experience was the first manifestation of the many dualisms that would characterise my world.
To the village children with whom I played, I was at once a member of the community, as well as someone who came from the “white man’s country”, even if I had no recollection of that place from which I was “imported”. Daily greetings from the old women and men – friends of my grandmother in whose company I felt comfortable – were incomplete without enquiries about how the “little foreign one” was doing even after years of having settled in.
My student years in Nigeria, particularly at the University of Ife, combined studying with active student unionism; and co-creation of exotic student societies (including ‘GQ’, an all male club led by Adewale Ajadi and La Cle an all-female club led by Agnes Ituen Bassey). All of this was combined with intense periods of discovering some of West Africa’s capital cities, with fellow students like Jumoke Jalade, who had the courage to hitch hike with me across the region.
My career has also been shaped by a duality of being an academic and a policy practitioner in almost equal measure. My stint at the United Nations, working in the office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict and my active life at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), the brain child of Kayode Fayemi, of which I was co-founder (alongside Kayode Fayemi and late Tajudeen Abdul Raheem) provided solid ground for what has become my sustained engagement with the world of policy and practice.
It was in the environment of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London that I fully understood my purpose as an academic whose contribution would be to bring the weight of a particular form of knowledge to bear in transforming what I now refer to as the unromantic spaces, which I straddle. However, it was my experiences at the United Nations that would play a huge role in shaping my intellectual trajectory.
This inaugural lecture is invariably an attempt to present scenes from the two worlds between which I commute and to draw lessons for those stationed at the cusp, as well as those seeking to contribute to managing the higher levels of uncertainties of the unromantic world. The relevance of my professorship is its relevance to daily life and not the esoteric conceptualisation of the ivory tower.
What I present to you here is the evolution in my own understanding and contribution to problem solving at the global and regional arenas through research and policy engagement on an issue that has occupied attention at so many levels even as it has evolved – that of the search for sustainable peace.
2. Sojourn Into Academics: Seeking Knowledge and Explanations for My Experiences
Two phenomena have remained constant in my observations across these contexts over time: unrealised aspirations and unmanaged conflict. They are not new phenomena or conditions within human communities, however grouped or governed.
A lifelong line of questioning connected to these phenomena has evolved over time. From being too inquisitive in village settings about why girls could not see the “dancing masquerade” but only boys could; why older men presided over certain spaces and not the women who sustained those spaces; and why so few young people realise the aspirations they so passionately pursued at some point. This applies particularly to the aspiration to live well, whatever it means to them.
Who decides who gets to live a good life and who doesn’t? Who is absent from key decision making spaces and why? Where is the silence? What is left unsaid that matters more than what is said? Why is power constructed mostly in hierarchical and coercive ways, even among the oppressed and coerced? Why is the longevity of soft power rarely attractive to those in search of stability and peace? Why is peace little researched, while violence in all its ramifications seems ever so seductive to watchers and actors alike?
To a simple mind, these questions ought not to be disconnected. And indeed they are not disconnected in the two worlds I have described, between which I commute and could perhaps produce ready and simple answers. Tempting as it is to hazard a guess that unrealised aspirations lead to the pursuit of violent solutions and outcomes (and many others before my time from Ted Robert Gurr in Why Men Rebel to Robert Kaplan in The Coming Anarchy have offered explanations), it is the case as recent research has shown that the vast majority of young men with unrealised aspirations (to live well and live long) do not resort to violence. Conversely, violence seems rife among those with a reasonable degree of realisation of their aspiration to live well.
Still, these observations are fraught, given the relativity of what living well means to individuals across time and space. Discovering what this means and what implications it has for peace and stability is invariably the challenge that has driven policy and academic researchers like myself for generations.
To be certain, it is difficult for any people to challenge the ideas of living well; having states that will secure and ensure the collective aspirations of citizens to live well; and securing a peaceful co-existence of citizens in republics and a federation of republics – so long as every member of that community has a fair chance at this pursuit.
The assumption that the instability and hardships of the unromantic context stem from failure to cumulate the aspirations of the people under a collective and relevant governance arrangement underpinned some of my research questions. The pursuit of peace and the securing of conditions for peaceful co-existence are not unconnected to the ways in which individual aspirations are cumulated and pursued for groups and communities.
As a student of political science, my thinking about peace and the management of insecurity was influenced like many, by political philosophy. The ideas that I gleaned from political philosophers, initially, spoke to the realities of my context. The state’s reason for being, which Aristotle describes in Politics, as the ‘perfect community having the full limit of self-sufficiency, which came into existence for the sake of living, but exists for the sake of living well’, was very appealing to me. The mantra for one, in our Students Union in Great Ife (as articulated then by Sola Ebiseni), was: ‘”man” was created not only to exist, but to live well.’
As I learnt about theories of war and strategies for peace, Immanuel Kant’s treatise on Perpetual Peace became appealing. In the Kantian logic, perpetual peace among nations requires a republican system in which citizens, through their inalienable natural rights as human beings and equal beings, would establish a set of laws. This would be a republican constitution to which they all subscribe and which forms the basis for governing the state. In such a system, war (between states) might become a rare occurrence since the decision about whether or not to wage war would be made by the very people who bear the cost of that war. It is this logic that founded the democratic peace theory – the idea that democracies do not wage wars against themselves.
Still, this assumes that such democracies will be inherently peaceful from within because the set of laws – the constitution – already provides a basis for governing the collective pursuit of the “common good”.
The inevitability of the state – its institutions – as the “cumulator” of people’s aspirations and as the “impartial arbiter” when the pursuits of conflicting aspirations threaten to destroy the state of peace in a society, was crystal clear in my mind. And in similar vein, the idealised sense of Marx Weber’s state as one that successfully claims the monopoly of the means of violence, seemed comforting at first glance, as an entity able to maintain the security of people and minds. In one’s realist mind, it is the state that secures and protects.
However, the unconscious shades of comfort, which this learning produces, begin to give rise to conscious discomfort when these ideal constructions of the state are placed in their proper context. The societies and times in which the political philosophers that influenced many scholars and students of political science lived, has provoked critical thinking, even if peripheral in relation to mainstream knowledge. Enlightenment philosophers appeared weak on the treatment accorded to colonialism and people from European colonies. Kant was no exception, although some authors give him the benefit of doubt in their interpretations of his works (Howard Williams). Over time, evidence of Kant’s universalist perspective has been tested.
To be certain, it is difficult for any people to challenge the ideas of living well; having states that will secure and ensure the collective aspirations of citizens to live well; and securing a peaceful co-existence of citizens in republics and a federation of republics – so long as every member of that community has a fair chance at this pursuit. In essence, the core ideal of liberal peace is desirable for every human community.
My interest was not to add to the rich critiques that exist in abundance. Those more prolific than I, have dissected the colonial legacy in Africa and other places, both in terms of race and institutions. Frantz Fanon and Mahmood Mamdani are just two examples.
My sight was set firmly on the human communities in those new states of Africa, which were created in the likeness of the European states that colonised them and with the same underpinning assumptions.
The questions that have lingered in my own mind have to do with Africa’s inheritance (post-colonial) elite, and their successors:
• Did they think that they too, like their colonial predecessors, inherited states whose inhabitants would be subjects and simply exist rather than live well?
• Given the wholesale transfer of the very institutions that served the purposes of the colonial system, on what new terms will African peoples and the inheritance elite live together?
• How will Africans define living well for themselves? And how will the spaces be mediated and protected for the collective pursuit of aspirations to live well?
It was these considerations that heavily influenced my thinking and activism prior to my exposure to the world of policy and practice at the United Nations.
Until I joined the United Nations, I accepted the idea that in the absence of a governing elite’s pursuit of a common agenda for society’s living well, citizens can and must make demands on the leaders charged with the task of governing their spaces. I saw this as a necessary part of the conversation within a society where the state was not created for the benefit of the vast majority of the population.
My experience as a staff member of the United Nations (UN) between 1999 and 2003 transformed my worldview. I went to the UN on the strength of the persuasion of Olara Otunnu, the first UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG) appointed by Kofi Anan. I would later manage the Africa programme of that office and, in particular, the work relating to the flagship country, Sierra Leone.
In a Cold War (as in the post-9/11 climate), conversations and contestations over the terms of living together were mediated by global power dynamics. Nonetheless, the end of the Cold War ostensibly provided a moment of opportunity for African states and societies to have long overdue contestation over the quality of citizenship and the peoples’ relationship with their “hollow” states. The civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone were not necessarily thoughtless as Chris Cramer would come to acknowledge in his book. It was inevitable that across societies where the space for citizens’ demand and contestation and meaningful pursuit of conflict was virtually non-existent, when the space opened up, such contestation might conceivably produce violence, even if not of the destructive nature that occurred when that space opened up.
As a doctoral student, I studied the interventions in the Liberian civil war with fervour. It was as much personal as it was a novel area of study. My friends had been caught up in war or lost relatives; West African media was full of stories of innocent souls lost in that war.
Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace in 1992 had set the tone for what still remains a class of peace intervention – post-conflict peacebuilding. Like many of my contemporaries, I did not question much the need to put a state back together after it had collapsed. But perhaps more significantly, it was the ‘type of state’, which needed to be rethought.
3. The “Road to Damascus”: My Experiment as a Policy Practitioner at the United Nations
My experience as a staff member of the United Nations (UN) between 1999 and 2003 transformed my worldview. I went to the UN on the strength of the persuasion of Olara Otunnu, the first UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG) appointed by Kofi Anan. I would later manage the Africa programme of that office and, in particular, the work relating to the flagship country, Sierra Leone. Until that time, my academic and policy engagement was with visibly powerful actors – governments, peacekeepers, parties to conflict and policy decision makers.
Notable in this regard was my engagement through CDD. Prior to my UN experience, CDD had facilitated a Track Two initiative, a workshop, which was effectively a dialogue between some representatives of the armed group, Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Government of Sierra Leone and civil society representatives, which took place in Lome prior to the signing of the Lome Peace Agreement in 1999.
Four events would radically alter my perspective of interventions in particularly unromantic contexts such as this:
(1.) The first occurred during the SRSG’s first mission to Sierra Leone (and Guinea) on which I accompanied him in September 1999. In Sierra Leone, we traveled across the country to witness, first hand, the impact of the war and to propose an agenda for rehabilitating the children affected by that conflict. We flew by helicopter to Makeni and one of our stops was at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). What I saw was the sharp opposite of what I encountered during my earlier visits to Sierra Leone as a researcher. There were hundreds of children who seemed anything from toddlers to adolescents. Many of the little ones were in tattered clothing, some with underpants, some had one slipper or oversized shoes. They were assembled in an open space in front of a building. The SRSG and senior UNICEF officials were escorted to the front and they stood on the pavement of the building – for a good view of the children. Then the children were motioned to sing a welcome song for “MR. UNICEF”. Those wretched children sang like angels. I went behind the UN vehicle that brought us and wept like a child.
(2.) The second event was meeting with local civil society associations during which we met the youngest victim of the war in Sierra Leone as at that time, Abu Sesay. Abu’s mother recounted her ordeal while fleeing RUF soldiers during their January 1999 invasion of Freetown. She knew she would surely be raped if she was captured by the RUF soldiers. But she assumed that they would have no use for her baby (the rebel groups were only interested in older children who could be trained to handle AK47s), she set baby Abu down on a street corner to give herself a chance to run faster to escape capture. Unable to capture Abu’s mother, the soldiers returned to the baby and chopped off his left foot. Abu Sesay was 10 months old when we met him and his mother in September 1999. The scar from his brutal amputation was still new. Ambassador Otunu wept openly.
While the story of Abu Sesay was just as moving, if not more moving, I was not immediately sure why our experience at the IDP camp left me more troubled. Upon further reflection, I realised that the IDP camp placed a sense of responsibility on me (and others) and required a deep consciousness of my own privileged position. We could have better managed the power dynamics at play. The children were clearly happy to be singing and that experience certainly illustrated the resilience of human beings, even in the most dire of conditions. But the view of the UN officials coming in from their romantic contexts looking over the children like subjects and coming across even though unintended, as patronising to the people in that heavily unromantic context haunted me for sometime. It taught me about the importance of reflexivity in relating to communities that are far less privileged and vulnerable. I could not stop thinking that I should have altered the set up of that gathering. Could we have all entered and held hands and sang together with those children? And to which effect?
(3.) Third, Mr Otunnu’s meeting with senior representatives of the RUF during that first mission gave me an exceptionally useful perspective about “speaking truth to power” under any circumstance; and the need for actors removed from the daily reality of that setting to do the difficult job of negotiating access to captured/kidnapped citizens and/or their release. In the January 1999 RUF invasion where, then one-month old Abu Sesay had his foot cut off, nearly 4000 children were abducted from Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown. The SRSG had requested a meeting with RUF’s senior leaders to ask for access for UNICEF and the humanitarian community to support the children behind RUF lines, including those abducted by the RUF. The persuasive and yet passionate way in which Otunnu communicated his message to the RUF commanders at that meeting made an impression on me as a young scholar and practitioner. Furthermore, the legitimacy accorded to senior UN representatives, even among armed actors who had shown no regard for established order, left me with a positive impression that the UN had great credibility as a universal actor for peace. If only the organisation had a rigorous formula for mediating these spaces, it might realise greater success.
(4.) The fourth event that transformed my worldview occurred at the end of that visit and it triggered a chain of events. Otunnu proposed a ten-point agenda for the protection of children affected by war in Sierra Leone, one of which was the establishment of a National Commission for War-Affected Children (NaCWAC). This was proposed to late President Kabbah of Sierra Leone who agreed in principle. I was responsible for the implementation of the agenda as part of the Africa programme of the Office.
Nearly 8 months after that visit, Mr. Otunnu and I returned to Sierra Leone in late April 2000 with the aim of consolidating the plan for the establishment of NaCWAC and agreeing on terms of reference with the minister for Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs. This was a moment of opportunity to influence a process in that country in which every agency was present and “helping” the people of Sierra Leone. In my room at Mammy Yoko Hotel, I was up for much of the night drawing up the Terms of Reference (ToR) to be discussed with the minister, who accepted almost all the proposals we made.
That visit would end abruptly because RUF had reneged on the Lome Peace Agreement. In early May 2000, the RUF kidnapped 500 UN peacekeepers. UN staff members in country were poised for evacuation. A period of intense peacemaking ensued. It was my first encounter with the incident of conflict relapse.
The Government of Sierra Leone would later receive a multi-million dollar support package under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) scheme, for NaCWAC and other initiatives. I returned to Sierra Leone for the launch of the Commission.
Despite these wins, I consider this experience my most spectacular failure in my time at the UN. Even though I returned to Sierra Leone periodically to meet with the ministry and to see how NaCWAC was progressing, in none of the follow-up missions did I visit any NaCWAC rehabilitation centres in the provinces. Not even the one in the district of Kailahun, which had been badly affected by the war and had seemed to be a flagship. So, in 2003 upon winding up at the UN, I decided to go on a private visit to Sierra Leone. A colleague in Conciliation Resources facilitated my visit to Kailahun. The only thing to show that an institution was once present at the location was the signboard that read NaCWAC, with no sign that anyone had lived or worked in that place for many months. I recorded this as a spectacular failure as a UN functionary, especially because the Commission had been highlighted as one of our key successes in Sierra Leone.
Again, the power dynamics should have been obvious to me from the start. But it wasn’t. The fact that one individual from a powerful global institution, (on whom the government would depend for fundraising), shaped the ToR and designed the agenda of the Commission, was a major challenge. There were not even “pretend” consultations beyond the meetings with the ministry. I was too locked in the romantic context, privileging established frameworks and approaches, to propose an alternative channel of implementation.
…of immediate relevance to the academic environment to which I would return at King’s, I noted that the intellectual project of peace was too policy-driven, too ideological and not sufficiently critical in its approach. Security Studies and Peace Studies were not always closely integrated, not withstanding that the imperatives of the post-Cold War era aligned their objectives.
I came away from my time at the UN, with five key observations and lessons as I reflected on my brief, challenging but rich experience in the Office of the SRSG:
First, Africa’s footprint on the UN Security Council’s agenda was hugely disproportionate to the continent’s representation in the places where decisions about the destiny of Africans were being made. To borrow from an African proverb, “the heads of Africans were being shaven in their absence” by those claiming to be “good hair dressers”.
Second, the voice of young people was glaringly absent – not withstanding my own privileged position – particularly African youth (most especially women), who were rarely found among the Junior Professional Officers (JPOs) and interns. Again, power dynamics were at play such that only wealthier member states who provided voluntary contributions and other support to the relevant UN offices had JPOs in the Secretariat.
Third, far too few African representatives seemed to grasp these realities and the structural flaws that stunted the progress of the UN in various ways, some of which manifested in the faulty UN interventions in their region. If they did, it was not apparent in their overt actions.
Fourth, and of immediate relevance to the academic environment to which I would return at King’s, I noted that the intellectual project of peace was too policy-driven, too ideological and not sufficiently critical in its approach. Security Studies and Peace Studies were not always closely integrated, not withstanding that the imperatives of the post-Cold War era aligned their objectives. The pursuit of negative peace, that is, bringing direct violence to an end, had become an end in itself without corresponding investments in conflict transformation. This fixation on negative peace, which leads to only partial realisation of the ‘extended concept of peace’ – as outlined in Johan Galtung’s seminal piece on ‘violence, peace and peace research’ almost fifty years ago – explains the elusiveness of peace in many situations.
Fifth and linked to the last point, what has become a peacebuilding dilemma and posed a major challenge for the UN peace and security agenda is the problem of conflict relapse. In about 50 per cent of cases where the UN has intervened to build peace, it has returned to make peace again within 10 years.
Overall, sadly, our orientation as UN staff was almost religiously focused on the perspectives of state officials. I was somewhat unquestioning about the idealised pursuit of a particular kind of democratic state. By seeking a romantic – idealised solution – we risk doing more harm than good or at best doing no good, notwithstanding all of our good intentions.
4. From “academic” to “Acade-maker”: the Art of Making Change Happen
I returned to King’s in April 2003 a changed scholar. I was more questioning both of established frameworks and of global governance institutions, as well as unhelpful perspectives of leadership and peacebuilding. But I remained convinced about the ideals of the United Nations.
My research agenda was crystal clear. I wanted to study and engage with conflict-affected societies differently and urgently. I was sure that I wanted to contribute to solving the peacebuilding dilemma (of conflict relapse) and I was clear, like most other researchers as well as policy practitioners, that a more inclusive approach to peacebuilding offers the best path to sustainable peace. But no radically new ideas emerged on how the visibly powerful actors could become part of the solution, rather than be part of the problem or the problem itself.
How then did the brief stay at the UN transform my work as an academic?
Research in the social sciences, particularly on the subject of conflict and peace requires a good measure of integrity and reflexivity. Locating and acknowledging the relations of power embedded in research, as well as in policy processes and policy implementation, became critically important to me after the UN. Yet in the academic space in general, to be considered a serious academic, one has to be a particular kind of researcher who produces knowledge and publishes via a particular kind of medium.
Although the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) later renamed Research Excellence Framework (REF) – that formed the basis upon which the quality of UK academics is measured – would later make life easier for activist academics like myself, there was an important choice for me to make in 2003. It was whether to worry about research that would lead to articles for high impact academic journals or to undertake research that was more action oriented and participatory in order to stay engaged with the issues I was involved with at the United Nations. Thankfully, that was not a difficult choice to make. My location at the International Policy Institute and subsequent appointment as the Director of the Conflict, Security and Development Group (CSDG) already suggested my career track.
In my new worldview, relationships (of trust) would matter more than institutions as an entry point for rebuilding societies that have been torn apart by destructive conflict and related insecurities. Relationships of trust along with a collective pursuit of mutually held goals in a society offer greater promise of building lasting and effective institutions with the potential to build stable peace. To be certain, the quest for institution building, which is often sought by the United Nations as a formula for returning conflict-torn societies to stable peace is not illogical. But it is unhelpful if it disregards contextual realities and prescribes a template for building institutions that bear no semblance to the reality of the societies in which it is intervening.
I returned with clarity to the observations I made, albeit in disjointed ways, in earlier years:
• Why aspirations are rarely realised among particular groups;
• Why the longevity of soft power is rarely attractive to the coerced;
And seen through the lens of my UN experience,
• Why the same conflict recurs several times in a generation despite many attempts at conflict resolution.
My research and research community contributed in significant ways to the research that emerged from my quest to find answers to these questions. I embarked on this first set of initiatives:
• Youth vulnerability and exclusion in Africa – investigating how young Africans respond to their vulnerability and exclusion from mainstream arena – with Wale Ismail, Abiodun Alao and a host of other scholars from seven West African countries;
• Women Peace and Security – examining the extent to which the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was implemented in places where the UN intervened, compared to places without UN presence – with Eka Ikpe and Karen Barnes and other researchers from across four regions, including Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America;
• Action research on security governance in Liberia – with CSDG directly supporting parliamentarians, along with the African Sector Network (ASSN) and CDD.
My lived experience of the romantic and unromantic conditions, my academic career, sojourn at the UN, and experiments with the ALC (and its fellowship) had a cumulative effective of triggering my quest for intellectual alternatives. This led to my heightened interest in leadership studies.
The First two studies confirmed what I observed anecdotally at the UN:
• Many young people rendered vulnerable to insecurity and poverty do not rely on state or governmental sources to respond to their need. Other sources of response and influence are present – including, for example, civil society groups and associations, sports, informal trade, illegal trade, diaspora remittances, churches and mosques;
• The vast majority of young people pursue peaceful means in responding to their exclusion and vulnerability rather than violence’
• The initiatives that transform women’s lives on peace and security are organic and occur even in conflict affected societies where the UN is not present.
By 2005 and while the studies above were underway, I seized a moment of opportunity to establish a pilot programme to test an idea: That if we selected young African women (from any disciplinary background) who are committed to a set of core values, with a sense of the change they wish to make in their society by immersing them in an intensive training programme in the field of international peace and security at King’s, followed by a period of attachment to institutions working on peace and security in Africa, they would in time gain the confidence to participate in peace and security decision making in their communities or indeed in regional and global institutions. This was intended in part to fulfill the expectations of UNSC Resolution 1325 which, among other things, seeks to increase the number of women participating in peace and security processes and related institutions.
One individual rarely owns a good idea or a successful initiative alone. The testing of this particular idea was a team effort between myself, Zeedah Meierhofer Manageli, Abiodun Alao and Eka Ikpe, who supported the delivery of the initial project. In the first year of this pilot initiative, we received 215 applications for three places on the Peace and Security Fellowship Programme for African Women – demonstrating a huge need. That was the African Leadership Centre (ALC) in the making. Following the initial pilot of the women’s Fellowship programme, two other Fellowships were developed, offering Masters degrees, along with institutional attachments to selected candidates interested in pursuing academic careers and those seeking to become policy practitioners, particularly in African regional organisations and centres of excellence. These Fellowships would later form the core pillars of the African Leadership Centre.
The next set of research activities that I embarked upon, often in collaboration with others, built on previous research as I continued to pursue better understanding of the issues outlined earlier with a solution-finding mindset:
• Security Sector Reform and the Governance of Security – with Dylan Hendrickson and ASSN, led by Eboe Hutchful;
• New issues and actors in the governance of security: Women and Security Governance, with Awino Okech with whom I collaborated on an expanded study on women, peace and security, alongside Cheryl Hendricks;
• Militancy and violence in West Africa – with James Gow and Abiodun Alao;
• Leadership and Peacebuilding – with the African Peacebuilding Network (APN) of the Social Science Research Council in New York;
• Reframing narratives of peace and state building in Africa – with a multi-country and inter-generational research team led by Medhane Tadesse, Boubacar Ndiaye, Abiodun Alao, Godwin Murunga and others.
The Search for Intellectual Alternatives
My lived experience of the romantic and unromantic conditions, my academic career, sojourn at the UN, and experiments with the ALC (and its fellowship) had a cumulative effective of triggering my quest for intellectual alternatives. This led to my heightened interest in leadership studies.
In the ‘reframing narratives’ research listed above, we compared contexts in which societal conflict led to large scale external interventions through peacekeeping and peacebuilding (Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire and limited external intervention (Kenya), those in which the local society undertook peacebuilding in their own way (Ethiopia and Rwanda). The outcomes for peace between those two contexts was not substantially different. Yet billions of dollars more were spent in one context than the others. If anything, Rwanda seems to be far more successful economically than Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire. At the same time, there was not much to suggest that liberal peacebuilding should be done away with. Additionally, the idea of state building is not what is contested, it is whose idea and through what process and what kind of state?
However, it is possible to imagine what might have happened had organic processes been protected in Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire much sooner. There are real gaps in our understanding about leadership emergence and problem solving in spaces outside of the externally supported state. My research on leadership and peacebuilding emerged after five years of immersing myself in leadership studies. I began researching leadership theory and practice to have the intellectual basis to call the ALC fellowship programme “leadership training” and to understand how societal transformation, including from conflict situations, takes place.
Upon comparing my research to my experience, I was able to distill what the UN taught me about the approach to leadership:
The approach to leadership within and outside the organisation in dealing with issues of peace and security is based on inherently faulty assumptions, which include the following, among others:
i. That people could be trained to become leaders in particularly challenging contexts, taking on roles such as Special Representative of the Secretary General and deliver the change desired by the organisation – in reality this does not happen consistently;
ii. The idea that if we build institutions, those institutions would regulate political, social and administrative behaviour – this is rarely the case in the unromantic context, particularly those affected by armed conflict;
iii. That a good person, or nice people will make effective leaders and can deliver peace just by the fact of their nicety or good intention – this is a myth;
iv. That ill-intentioned people cannot exercise effective leadership; if they appear to demonstrate effectiveness, we can just ignore this fact, declare them bad people and the world will be fine – the world will not be fine;
v. That a new generation trained to do the same things will come up with a different solution; they only have to be brought to the table and given a chance to exercise leadership – this is not a forgone conclusion where the same unsustainable assumptions about leadership persist.
The discovery of ‘conversation’ as the compass and indicator of binding mutuality that underpins effective leadership is perhaps one of my most exciting discoveries in the last five years. The discovery of the notion of conversation during the research project that I led on ‘reframing narratives of peace and state building in Africa’, has transformed my own thinking and it offers a new lens…
5. My Findings and Concluding Thoughts
This everyday buzzword, leadership, is as much a science as it is an art. The science of leadership recognises the absence of a universally agreed definition. Leadership literature also identifies a variety of perspectives that explain the phenomenon in its ramifications, as well as a variety of frameworks for analysing leadership. One perspective, in particular, bears relevance to the societal context (particularly the fluidity) of the unromantic context. This is the process-based perspective to leadership. However, the popular view of leadership is leader-centric and relies more on trait-based approaches and an obsession with style over substance.
In a peacebuilding context, the institutional framework upon which to establish a basis for this leader-centric peace is often weak. Thus far, a leader-centric approach has not delivered stable and positive peace in Africa. In almost all situations studied in my work so far, an entry point that focuses on a set of individual leaders particularly, where we ask ‘who are the “good” leaders?’ rather than a systematic leadership analysis that finds honest answers to the questions below almost always fails.
I have therefore, based on the failures observed in situations of conflict relapse, proposed a leadership analytical framework that is still being tested through research.
Questions that go to the heart of efforts to study and navigate a path to stable peace in a given situation should be systematically framed to take the following five things into account: The predominant situation; the degree of mutuality; the domains and societal levels in which emergent leadership is occurring to build a shared response to the situation; the quality of the leadership process (that is, how influence is being exchanged between leaders and followers across domains and levels); and the degree of leadership effectiveness (that is, the movement toward peace or a return to conflict).
Ultimately, a process-based leadership framework of analysis will expand thinking and understanding about the processes of bringing lasting peace to war-affected societies, rather than a person focused approach. It will also provide opportunities for peacemakers to pursue an inclusive, all-encompassing peace that can be sustained, not the least because it concentrates attention on mutually held goals by people of the target society and their leaders. And it leaves a seamless process for that society and their leaders to pursue long after external peacemakers have left.
Change (new situation) is an inevitable outcome of a process-based leadership approach. In a new situation, there is always an opportunity for new ideas and new leaders to assert influence in response to the new situation. The potential for change and the opportunities to reinvent peacebuilding during moments of change is perhaps the most dynamic aspect of this approach.
My foray into leadership studies would later explain the inconsistency; no matter what traits the leaders had and what skills are drilled into them, their success in making and building peace in those contexts does not depend on them. Leadership in free flowing societal context could not deliver peaceful outcomes without mutually held goals with the society and without exchange of influence between those exercising leadership and those following at any given time.
On the Notion of “Conversation”
The discovery of ‘conversation’ as the compass and indicator of binding mutuality that underpins effective leadership is perhaps one of my most exciting discoveries in the last five years. The discovery of the notion of conversation during the research project that I led on ‘reframing narratives of peace and state building in Africa’, has transformed my own thinking and it offers a new lens through which the interventions in troubled contexts can be assisted.
Conversation, like leadership, is simple in its popular conception, interpretation and usage in everyday life. In its original form, conversation was part of “polite sociability” which largely took place in metropolitan coffee houses, salons, clubs and entertainment places in eighteenth century Europe. Influenced in large part by Jurgen Habermas through his notion of the ‘public sphere’, “bourgeois subjects” freely exchanged ideas as equals under rules underpinned by politeness. At the core of Habermas’ thinking, though not without controversy, these conversations were closely about monitoring and influencing public affairs because they ‘developed into a critical discourse, through which the people monitored state authority’, thus ultimately leading to the birth of modern democracy.
The notion of conversation has not been found to be easily adaptable to other contexts. However, there are several useful elements that might be transferrable in the conceptualisation of conversation, which can expand our understanding of conflict and peacebuilding in Africa. In this regard, conversation can be understood as:
• Interaction – which occurs in a set of generic forms – largely verbal, expressed through “sociability” or in written form not least poetry or “conversation pieces” in painting;
• Involving individuals and groups as well as entities;
• Engaging in “talking” and “talking back” about a thing and/or issue;
• Talking and talking back through a range of actions or inactions;
• Occurring in “conversable spaces”;
• Producing a recognisable or distinct narrative
In a state- and peacebuilding context, conversation and “conversable” spaces are considerably expansive. With the understanding of conversation outlined above, one can observe the diversity of its manifestations. Like process-based leadership, conversation is interactive but it goes beyond overt dialogue. People might “talk back” in response to verbal or written expressions through other forms of action such as protest, poetry, music, drama, and indeed open violence; or through inaction such as silence and boycott.
Observations can therefore be made in diverse spaces across society, where people and groups connect their mutual concerns by talking back through these varieties of conversational forms. Thus, conversable spaces are much more than the formal places that have become the focus of peace talks, negotiation and conflict resolution. In addition to parliaments and government offices and houses, they might include, for example, theatres, galleries and streets, as well as the Internet, which is fast becoming the bane of the twenty-first century world.
The question that remains is what responses to conflict and insecurity might look like if we accept this adapted notion of conversation? What would this mean for how we practice leadership in the context of peace and peacebuilding?
• The attention that is usually focused on individual leaders and the framing of their roles, might be redirected to an examination of the loci of mutually held pursuits of peaceful co-existence or other agenda outside of warring leaders.
Conversable spaces outside the realm of politics would become vitally important in the search for sustainable peace. Art, music, the literary world and how they are talking back in relation to the conditions of the times and the ways in which power holders are managing these conversations might be essential parts of peace processes.
• We would look for those who are talking back through other ways in response to government or institutional policies. In this regard “zones of silence” where people are talking back through silence or boycott might become a more visible part of the search for stable peace.
• Conversable spaces outside the realm of politics would become vitally important in the search for sustainable peace. Art, music, the literary world and how they are talking back in relation to the conditions of the times and the ways in which power holders are managing these conversations might be essential parts of peace processes.
• We would see the issues around which non-political and non-security, particularly non-official actors, are exchanging influence and the narratives emerging outside of the official spaces as a critical part of the conflict and peace equation.
• We would pay greater attention to the emerging leaders in these spaces and observe where the potential for positive change exists outside the world of officialdom.
If we accept this adaptation for the practice of leadership in peacebuilding contexts, then in the absence of real life application thus far, we could imagine what might have been in several situations had we expanded our thinking and approach in this way. How, for example, might the situation in South Sudan have turned out differently if peace efforts had looked beyond individual leaders and given equal significance to other conversable spaces outside the domain of the two protagonists? What might have been in Somalia had the areas of binding mutuality between the people of Somalia been explored before imposing a “foreign” peace on Mogadishu? Could other conversable spaces, such as those in which Somali youth occupied, been engaged before the emergence of Al Shabaab? Could the Boko Haram tragedy have been averted if those responding had seen the group as being in conversation with the state or understood the conversable spaces where Boko Haram’s narrative was most compelling? Solutions to all of these illustrative situations have been sought through the myopic prism of coercive, leader-centric power.
This expanded thinking and approach to solution finding and peacebuilding must at least be tested in a world where old approaches can no longer guarantee or sustain peace. However, this is a big ASK in current peacebuilding contexts – globally and regionally – because it requires that we ask those for whom holding public office has become a birthright to give up some privileges. This is the issue on which today’s decision-makers and governors must be compelled to reflect.
Collectively, all of these concepts, research, education and programmatic interventions are part of a single experiment. These are ideas yet to be fully tested and experiments that are yet to reach maturity in terms of results and outcomes such as the African Leadership Centre, which continues to evolve.
The ALC was established in Nairobi in 2010 by King’s College London in partnership with the University of Nairobi, Kenya – with dedicated support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and support from King’s. After six years of at the helm, with Godwin Murunga as my immediate successor, an alumna of the ALC, Shuvai Nyoni, is now its executive director in Nairobi. About 110 Fellows have passed through this programme. Our ambition is to prepare 500 young Africans over a generation (estimated at 25 years) for careers in academia and policy decision-making. We are seek to develop transformational leaders who are committed to a set of core values and who will in turn transform the spaces they occupy, for the better.
The pursuit of peace and stability is an endless one in the 21st century world. Peace has no geography even when we try to force geography upon a situation where peace has failed.
The wholesale dowsing of the romantic – idealised sense of reality, reflecting a moral or physical superiority – as the solution to the problems experienced in unromantic contexts might invite criticisms and resistance. Moreover, it might be a costly mistake to think that idealised solutions tilt only to one part of the world. Indeed, that very approach to solution finding is rife within all societies, regardless of the socio-cultural context. Thus, the treatment of terror attacks with superior Christian values or the prescription of seemingly perfect democratic Western model of the state as the answer to a collapsed or frail state in Africa; and imposition of a timeframe without a closer look at the organic conversations occurring in those settings, which gave rise to the crises in the first instance, are inherently problematic.
‘Funmi Olonisakin, a professor of Security, Leadership & Development, is vice-president and vice-principal International at King’s College London.
This is the first Inaugural Lecture delivered female scholar of African descent, held at the Bush House Auditorium, King’s College London on July 9, 2018.