West Africa: Strengthen the Role of Women, Young People - It's Key For Peace

Levinia Addae-Mensah is a Program Director at WANEP.
16 August 2019

Johannesburg — Thousands of deaths in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone are caused by the civil wars and political crises - the lack of peace - in West Africa, and this conflict leads to millions of people fleeing their home and crippling education and economic development in their communities.

Some governments have been unable to respond proactively to the insecurities: Nigeria is an example, with the deadly attacks from Boko Haram leading to thousands of deaths and millions displaced millions in the past 10 years. In Cameroon more than 2,000 people including soldiers and police, have been killed in mounting violence since the conflict started in 2006. It began when Cameroon's English-speaking regions teachers and lawyers protested the dominance of French language and officials in the bilingual country. Armed separatists in 2017 began demanding a separate English-speaking state, saying they would make the area ungovernable.

But governments are not expected to handle this alone, and that's why civil society organisations are there to help find solutions. Organisations like the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) founded in 1998 in response to civil wars that plagued West Africa in the 1990s. Over 250,000 were killed during the Liberian civil war that started in 1989 and ended in 2003. In Sierra Leone over 50,000 people died during a decade-long civil war over control of that country's diamond fields. WANEP was founded by Samuel Gbaydee Doe, a peacebuilding and development professional from Liberia, and Emmanuel Habuka Bombande, a Ghanaian with expertise in conflict transformation, peacebuilding, and development.

Levinia Addae-Mensah is now Program Director at WANEP, and growing up in Ghana with her father who worked for the United Nations played a role in her wanting to contribute to helping people.

"I did not understand why people should be suffering so much so that desire to help people who are in need was always in me, initially I thought I would do that through providing medical support because I wanted to be a doctor but as circumstances would have it, I realised that some of the sciences subjects were not my strength so I found myself leaning more towards social sciences and wondering what more can I contribute to people in need but I still didn't know exactly how I was going to do it," she says.

Though she had grown up wanting to work for the United Nations, while she was studying towards her Masters degree she based her thesis on conflict prevention, she found herself skeptical of the UN because of some of her research findings, somehow she suddenly has some "antagonism" towards the organisation as she puts it and didn't want to work for them anymore from a moral perspective.

"During that time between 1996 and 1997 there wasn't a lot of writing at least not in Africa on conflict, It was very difficult to get documentation and material. I contacted a UK based organisation called International Alert that had documents on some of these conflicts". The same organisation would later hire her, the job she described as an opportunity of a lifetime for her at that time. After working for them for 4 years she relocated back to Ghana and joined WANEP.

One of the first project she headed when she joined WANEP was an educational programme which has helped bring young people in schools and build their capacities directly through what is called peer mediation peace clubs where young students are trained on how to solve conflict and how to deal with conflict at that level with the hope that it will help them build their skills to deal with conflict in societal level.

Like young people, women are usually left out in peacebuilding initiatives or lack the tools to have an impact on peacebuilding in their communities. Women and children are a vulnerable group that has often been forced to leave their homes during conflicts without having any say on the matter. WANEP tries to enhance women's participation in talks regarding security issues in their community.These dialogues are a way of ensuring that at community level women are driving some of these dialogue on security issues in a number of countries particularly in a Saharan region.

"Statistics show that there is an increase in participation of women in peacebuilding and there's no doubt about that but in terms of proportionality looking at participation at leadership level the increase has not been exponential", she says.

Her job has to come with many challenges. "We work in extremely dynamic circumstances that are constantly rotating and changing context, new issues are coming up, we are dealing with issues of violent extremism and terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, drug abuse, money laundering, cybercrime, farmer Herder conflict that has taken a different form and many more. These have become merged with a lot of criminal activities, so you find that criminals are always looking for ways and means of changing their tactics, widening their networks and broadening their scopes of preparation."

Insecure borders create criminal opportunities and insecurity for border communities which can create tensions within communities and create conflicts. The organization works with several regional partners including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and the United Nations to try and overcome these challenges.

A signed Memorandum of Understanding between WANEP and ECOWAS was a first example of civil society organization and intergovernmental partnership in the continent, it has been highlighted as the best practice of building alliances with civil society organization in conflict prevention and is a referral point.

When ECOWAS was established its main objective was to increase economic cooperation in West Africa, but over the years a number of conflicts have distracted countries in the region from concentrating on development - forcing the organisation to attend to issues of conflict.

Levinia Addae-Mensah believes such partnerships and projects that are inclusive of youth, women, governments and different stake holders is the way forward to achieving peace and security in the region.

See the full interview here.

AllAfrica's reporting on peacebuilding is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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