It is not often that individuals so recognised for peace in the world find time to come together to share their experiences in the Arab world. So, it was great for Bahrainis to be exposed to ideas on making the world a better place with respect to peace.
The opportunity of another diplomatic travel will always, hopefully for some time to come, be an allure for me. So, an invitation to Manama, Bahrain, from September 9-13, as senior adviser to H.E. José Ramos-Horta, former president of East Timor and Nobel Peace Laureate was a very welcomed development. José Ramos-Horta had rallied the entire world to support freedom for his country and was recognised by the Nobel Committee in 1996 for this role. At independence, he served as foreign minister, subsequently as prime minister and finally as president of his country.
Part of my excitement for participation in the visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain was the fact that two other former presidents and Nobel Peace Laureates: F. W. De Klerk of South Africa, who had joined hands with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to dismantle apartheid, and Lech Walesa, who led the Solidarity movement – a trade union in Poland that signaled the trend towards the crumbling of the former Soviet Union, and then became president of Poland, were also going to be in Bahrain.
I had met F.W. De Klerk in 1991 when I accompanied General Olusegun Obasanjo on a peace venture sponsored by President Babangida, to explore what Nigeria could do to help the difficult negotiations that were ongoing at the time to end apartheid. September 10, 2018 was my first meeting with the revolutionary President Lech Walesa.
Another Nobel Peace Laureate, Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian child welfare activist of over 30 years, especially on eradicating the keeping of children in slavery, who shared the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousafzai was also in Bahrain for the same visit. Professor Anna Tibaijuka, the former Head of UN-Habitat and former Tanzanian minister and a leader in her own rights, was the fifth principal during the visit to Bahrain.
Africa has only produced nine Peace Laureates, out of some 100 individuals (aside from institutional winners), since the beginning of the awards in 1901. Europe, with 50, has the bulk of the Laureates for peace and United States alone accounts for 10, including three who are of African descent: Ralph Bunche; Marting Luther King Jnr. and President Barack Obama. On the African continent, South Africa has provided four Laureates, starting with Chief Albert Jacob Luthuli, then president of the banned ANC, who won the prize in 1960 for his Ghandist non-violent effort towards ending apartheid; Archbishop Desmond Tutu defending human rights from the pulpit won his prize in 1984. Of course, Nelson Mandela/F.W. De Klerk shared the prize that recognised their joint and respective roles towards ending apartheid in 1993.
Earlier, beyond the duo of Mandela/De Klerk, Anwar Sadat, as president of Egypt had pursued the peace option with Menachem Begin, one time prime minister of Israel. Both shared the Nobel in 1978, as a result of the Camp David Accord that President Jimmy Carter had facilitated. The signing of that Accord did not go down well with many Arabs and was given as a possible reason, for the subsequent assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
Kofi Annan from Ghana shared the honour of the prize with the United Nations that he led in 2001. In addition, Africa had late Wangari Maathai from Kenya who is on record as the first female – affording the Nobel Committee the opportunity of a wider definition of peace – to win the prize in 2004 for her struggles for the protection of the environment in Kenya. She not only planted thousands of trees and organised others to do the same for decades, she went to jail in protecting green spaces from encroachment by powerful individuals/institutions in Kenya.
Leymah Gbowee and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (both Liberians) shared the prize in 2011. This sharing turned out to be very controversial. It did appear that the Nobel Committee became partisan and interfered in the Liberian elections by giving an incumbent president the prize on the eve of an election in which she was seeking mandate renewal. Furthermore, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was criticised as not deserving the prize for being the “mother” of the initial round of civil war in Liberia and for which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Liberia had recommended that she be banned from politics for quite a while. That the Nobel Committee ignored this development was of concern to many, especially Liberians.
Well, it appears the Nobel Committee may be easily forgiving on past misdeeds and President Sirleaf may not be unique in this respect. Or else how does one explain Menachem Begin being awarded the Peace Prize in 1978. And some may even argue that the same should be said of Nelson Mandela, whose strive for freedom by any means necessary has my respect. But then, he had been classified as a terrorist not only by the apartheid governments of South Africa but also by Western leaders like President Ronald Reagan of the U.S.
Important, however, was the criticism of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by her compatriot and 2011 co-winner, Leymah Gbowee. According to her, President Sirleaf failed to speak up against ills perpetrated under her rulership, including nepotism. Leymah Gbowee was reported to have said: “you are as bad as being an accomplice for things that are happening in the country if you don’t speak up.”
There is yet to be any Nigerian winner arising from dedication to any issue that bothers on peace, even using the larger definition like the case for Wangari Maatahi or Kailash Satyarthi. Consistency in being at the fore-front of handling many conflicts must not be vitiated by other behaviours that suggest a lack of respect for the rule of law on other issues. In effect, one cannot be dousing the fire of conflict on one front and pouring fuel into potential creation of conflicts elsewhere or on other issues.
In effect, being in the delegation that included four Nobel Peace Laureates is of importance. This is more so when they shared their respective experiences and made recommendations on improving the strive for peace and development in our world. This theme was equally well articulated during the arrival meeting and at the state banquet given by His Royal Highness (HRH) Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. HRH argued for spirited efforts to address root causes of conflicts in order to advance development in the world. He equally stressed the desire of Bahrain for tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
In addition, being in Bahrain, aside from the opportunity to meet and interact with many interesting Bahraini leaders and others from the world at large, was a major eye opener on the positive achievements of the Bahraini leadership in deploying the relatively small oil wealth and material support from Saudi Arabia into development in spite of challenges.
President Lech Walesa found time to attend a Catholic mass, thus confirming religious tolerance in Bahrain. With a large labour population from the Philippines, Catholicism is being overtly practiced unlike in other countries where this would be a major problem. Indians probably constitute the largest expatriate community. So, Hindu temples and Synagogues, for the few remaining Jewish families, exist. The time was short to assess the healing subsequent to the 2011 conflagration along the Sunni and Shia divide in Bahrain, suffice it to note that there was no visible tension.
The more recent divide in the Gulf that saw Qatar blockaded by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain remains. The U.S. as the major power that should help on this problem, given its having bases in both Qatar and Bahrain and strong relations with Saudi Arabia, appear to have thrown up its arms as its leadership responsibility in the world is abandoned for tweets on whether there was collusion or not in the 2016 American elections. Maybe some Nobel Peace Laureates could summon up the courage and make facilitation/mediation moves that could address a complex problem of regional dimension that is bigger than little Bahrain.
One of the surprises of my visit was an evening at a private/civil society centre, the Shaikh Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre for Culture and Research. The Centre was particularly interested, beyond hosting an assembly of the diplomatic community in Manama, in listening to two major world leaders – President José Ramos-Horta and Professor Anna Tibaijuka – share the respective experiences. This Centre, led by a visionary lady, Mai Bint Mohammad Al-Khalifa, houses a centre for high energy physics that is dealing with the issue of “what is our universe made of and why?” This involves exploring the basic particles of our universe and the forces that bind them together. This effort, in collaboration with the University of Bahrain, is part of the 25 projects being funded by the Centre from family resources and additional support from the private sector over the last 15 years.
I am a novice in this area, having run away from physics in the secondary school. I was, however, enthused that this exploratory effort into our universe is not left alone to the European Centre for Nuclear Research. Bahrain is showing that we should not only be consumers of products from major research centres of the world but we, in the developing countries like Nigeria and Bahrain, can be activists in making contributions. It was pleasing to listen to plans that are afoot in collaboration with the European Centre.
It is interesting that the Bahrainis probably commenced the idea of setting up a sovereign wealth fund from oil proceeds in the 1930s, when a third of earnings went into external investments, a third for development of Bahrain and another third for governance. I did not have the opportunity to learn more about the current size of the sovereign wealth fund but thought that Nigeria and Angola could have benefitted if leadership in my part of the world had pursued such visionary approach to the common patrimony, as opposed to being a means for corruptly enriching those who had the luck of receiving the mantle to lead. I now know that Norway did not teach the world on this. Ramos-Horta, who used to think East Timor was second, following the example of Norway, now knows that Bahrain honorably set aside a sovereign wealth fund, a long while before Norway did.
It is not often that individuals so recognised for peace in the world find time to come together to share their experiences in the Arab world. So, it was great for Bahrainis to be exposed to ideas on making the world a better place with respect to peace. I personally hope that the Nobel Laureates would push further on the need for a peaceful Gulf, even if the major powers and the United Nations are currently not doing enough to ensure this. There is no conflict that cannot be subjected to dialogue. Facilitation of such may not appear easy, but formal and informal efforts at facilitation/mediation could help when a positive outcome was not anticipated. It may be difficult to have the immediate resolution or improved management. But striving to help must continue with some vigour.
Babafemi A. Badejo, Ph.D, is former head of Political Affairs at UNAMID, Darfur, Sudan.