Africa: 'Conflict is Like a Cough, If You Don't Treat the Root Cause, It Comes Back'

Joy Ada Onyesoh is the Director of WILPF Nigeria and was an International Vice-President of WILPF between 2014 and 2018.
23 January 2020
interview

Nairobi — With the ongoing conflicts in Cameroon, Somalia, Nigeria, the Sahel and Mozambique, peace on the continent may seem elusive, but Nigerian-based Joy Ada Onyesoh, president of the International Board President of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), is convinced that the continent's peacebuilding goals can be achieved if women and men work together. AllAfrica's David Njagi spoke with her in Nairobi, where a women mediators chapter for Kenya was launched.

Excerpts:

What does the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) do?

The Women's Social League for Peace and Freedom is a women's peace organization - the oldest one in the world. We are currently 104 years old and have been working on peace for all these years.

We have been working on ensuring there are equal opportunities for everyone and that the society is peaceful and stable. Most importantly, we have been looking at the root causes of conflict and also working towards ensuring that the root causes are ameliorated.

This is because peace is a human right for everyone, and irrespective of whom you are, you need to enjoy peace.

You cannot have sustainable peace without having women take the center space in pushing the process forward.

What is the state of peace building in Africa?

I must confess there is a lot of work being done in Africa in terms of peace building, by having both women peace builders working on the ground and other actors as well.

But the truth is we need to actually look at the root causes of conflict in Africa and address those root causes.

Most of the time we are addressing the symptoms and it is just like when you have a cough and you do not treat the root cause of the cough. You just keep treating the cough itself without treating what led to the cough. After a while the cough will repeat itself.

We keep having recurring conflicts which are sometimes based on grievances that have piled up. They are based on people feeling they are not heard, they are silenced and discriminated.

There is a lot we need to address. For instance, what are the issues, what are the causes of these grievances in the first place, what are the causes of people feeling that they are left behind?

Once we can address all that and also realize there is a structural system that is in place which represses certain voices, which excludes certain kinds of people, then we need to ask ourselves why are those people being excluded and how can we bring everyone to the table.

Once we are on that line addressing those issues, then we can be building peace effectively.

We also need to recognize the role of arms and ammunition in exacerbating the conflict situation. Arms proliferation is a huge factor in driving conflicts in Africa.   We need to address the issue of arms proliferation.

We need to address the issue of militaristic societies which we see more of now. I come from Nigeria where the society is gradually becoming heavily militarized, both through militants and the government.

The truth is traditional hardcore security has not solved that issue. Evidence has always showed it is dialogue and negotiation.

So we need to get back to the table, we need to start talking more, communicating more effectively and negotiating appropriately.

What are the challenges of peace building in Africa?

Some of the challenges include the stereotyping and patriarchy.

We live in a very patriarchal system and so women are often stereotyped and socialized into our traditional roles.

The stereotypes say a woman belongs to the domestic space. We are not seen as leaders. Even when people talk the walk they do not want to walk the talk.

So we need also to address that issue and understand that leadership is not a monopoly of older men.

It should not be a masculine identity. It has to be a freed identity where we know that human beings can be leaders once you can build the prerequisite skills.

No one is born a leader. You need to build your skill and capacity to be able to lead.

Another thing is lack of information. People react most of the time to situations when they are not carried along, when they do not have full information.

So it is important that at every process for trust to be built and then information to be passed. Information needs to be made available to everyone.

Another challenge I have seen is low capacity on the side of almost everyone. I would not want to say just the government or the security apparatus or the women. Different target audiences have different capacities that need to be built.

Then another is lack of collaboration. Peace building is a collective effort. No individual can take responsibility for peace building.

We need to recognize all of us have a collective role to play in building peace within the communities and the world at large.

We need to ask ourselves this reflective question: how am I contributing to creating peace within my own space? How am I influencing my space positively?

Once we can address some of these challenges then I am very sure that we would start moving forward.

What are some of the causes of conflict, especially in Africa?

Some of the causes of conflict in Africa are natural resources. We also need to acknowledge that there are both internal and external forces that fuel interests in natural resources within countries and this also becomes a driver.

We have elections as a conflict driver. The quest for so much power in Africa that leaders do not want to give up power, they do not want to practice true democracy where everyone's voices are being carried along, or inclusive governance, is another cause of conflict in Africa.

There are religious conflicts and some that are ethno religious. We also have many types of conflicts that are mixed in nature.

Can conflict cause food insecurity?

When situations are not favourable farmers will not go to the farm. And when they are not producing there will not be enough harvest.

Sometimes when there are conflicts certain communities are cut off completely, meaning they cannot farm because of the conflict and violence in that country or in that community.

Relief workers and other people cannot be able to bring food into that place and so this is a conflict situation already making women and children more vulnerable.

Can having more African women in the UN Security Council accelerate the peace building process in the continent?

My take is that peace building has to be a holistic process. It is a broad process.

We should not just aim at having more people at the Security Council. Peace building needs to be a bottom-top approach. It needs to be a very holistic approach where everyone is carried along.

This way, we would eliminate having to start pushing women to get to the Security Council. We do not solve the conflict situation by having more women getting into the security sector. No. for me it does not solve the situation.

We need to look at what are the causes of these conflicts in the first place. How then can we address these causes so that everyone feels carried along, that nobody feels left behind and everyone trusts the system?

That speaks about inclusive governance, about having accountable and transparent processes in place, about demilitarization. We need to address arms proliferation in the society.

These are some of the issues we need to address. We also need to address the intersecting roles several factors play in escalating conflict.

We need to look at the full cycle of conflicts and look at what we need to be doing to de-escalate and also to ensure that we have peace within the communities.

I remember that today we talked about the family unit being very important. Peace starts from somewhere. The earliest unit of socialization is the family. The family has the responsibility of nurturing children with values.

We should start asking ourselves what kind of values are we giving to these children, what values are we imparting to our children, what kind of structures do we have in place?

Remember I talked about structural violence. We need to start examining structures we have in place and ensure that sources of power are as inclusive as possible.

Women, men, youth, everyone has access to sources of power. These are some of the issues that we need to tackle.

How is lack of research becoming a barrier to the peace building process?

A lot of work has been done on the ground. Most of the time we tend to come in and feel we are experts in conflicts especially when it is contextually on one's conflicts within communities.

Most conflicts start from somewhere. They start from grievances not addressed at the community level and then they escalate.

And so we come in with other ideas. We think we know how to solve the conflict, but the truth is; within these communities they always had historical ways of settling conflicts.

Can we understand what the nuances within these communities are; can we document some of these processes?

For instance, one of the challenges of African history is that it is stored orally.

Most of our history is not written like in the western world where you can access a lot of information which is already archived in books.

We rely mainly on oral information. But this is a time for us to move forward, to start documenting what we are doing.

So it is now a collective responsibility that for every process that we take and has worked well, it needs to be documented.

What worked well? What did not work well?

This is so that these become building blocks for adaptation or off scaling or replication. That there is something we can hold on to.

For me it is very critical that whatever process we are doing we document it and ensure the information is also out there, as well as creating visibility for the process.

What was today's launch of the women mediators' initiative in Africa, Kenya chapter, about?

Today we launched the Kenya women mediators' collaborative initiative.

It is a platform that is meant to bring all the women mediators in Kenya together. It is a platform that recognizes that women are doing a lot on the ground as mediators.

We lack the framework nationally to address and ensure women participation as mediators.

What we intend to do is first of all to ensure that we have a structure and that is what the mediation platform is about.

Structure, gendered training on mediation, documentation of research analysis, having structured and consistent engagement with women peace mediators all over Kenya and documenting our experiences.

This is so that we can learn from our experiences, we can understand what the gaps and challenges are and that we can improve on them.

That is what the network is basically all about. Creating an inclusive space for women mediators to hone their skills, to share their learning experiences and do what they know to do very well.

It is the Kenya Women Mediators Collaborative Initiative. It is a chapter from the African Women Mediators Collaborative Initiative.

What is the African Women Mediators Collaborative Initiative, and what does it do?

WILPF organized a dialogue last year December in Nigeria where we had close to 40 women from 20 countries.

There, we reviewed the mediation practices of women across Africa and shared our experiences. We looked at the gaps and also at the solutions.

What is the way forward?

We recognized that there are many mediation initiatives such as the Network of African Women in Conflict Prevention and Mediation (FemWise-Africa), women mediators across commonwealth, and all that.

But we also recognized that one major gap is that there was no framework for engagement within countries.

We said okay, instead of replicating structures, can we just use what we are doing already and then have a framework within each country where everyone just fits into different levels they are working at.

Some people are working only at the community level. Some people are working across all levels.

Can we identify these and have a structure? And then can we also identify the training needs of the women mediators?

This is because the truth is that mediation needs is a structured process that requires specialized communication and negotiation techniques.

We all need to be on the same page in terms of who can be a mediator, what are the roles of a mediator?

As well, ensuring that we all have the prerequisite skills to act and function as a mediator within our different spaces.

That is what the network is all about. We agreed that we will now launch it in different countries.

So we did that in Nigeria in September, now we are launching in Kenya and from Kenya we will move to the next country.

Now we are targeting Cote d'Ivoire, we are targeting Mali, and other different countries. We will see how it goes because we still have some months to work out which country is next.

Final words...

Peace building is a collective process. We cannot leave it just for women. Women cannot do it all.

Let us not place too much burden on women.

We need to recognize that women have a role to play just as men have a role to play. We need men and women as equal partners pushing the peace agenda forward.

This takes a commitment from everyone. We should all have hands on deck. And I would like to finalize with this analogy.

I have never seen a bird fly on one wing. A bird needs two wings to fly. Which means for us to have peace, which is the bird, we need men on one wing, and we need women on the other wing working together in harmony.

This way we are complementing ourselves.

Remember women are not a homogenous group. We need to carry along all the sub groups of women including young women.

Men are also not a homogenous group. We need to carry all the sub groups of men including the young males as well.

So when we all come together and speak the voice of peace, then Africa will be great again.

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

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