Johannesburg — allAfrica.com’s Nontobeko Mlambo spoke with Levinia Addae-Mensah, Program Director and Deputy Executive Director of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), about how she became involved in peacebuilding work, what goes in to her role and why empowering women to be decision-makers in this sector is key…
I am originally from Ghana, growing up my dad was working with the United Nations and so I used to see a lot of reports about people in need and this was the time when there was a major famine in East Africa. I knew I wanted to help people because I did not understand why people should be suffering so much, initially I thought I would do that through providing medical support because I wanted to be a doctor but as circumstances would have it as I was growing up, I realised that some of the sciences subjects were not my strength so I found myself leaning more towards social sciences and thinking what more can I do. As children we would put together our pocket money that our parents were giving us and give to my dad when they were raising funds for famine or for victims of some environmental disaster and send it so I thought I would like to do more when I grow up.
I went from physical sciences to social sciences and ended up doing International Relations for my master’s degree where I suddenly discovered that I had a strong interest in conflict resolution. There were a number of conflicts that were emerging in West Africa, in Central Africa and in East Africa in countries like Burundi and Rwanda so I got really interested in knowing more about those conflicts. I had an opportunity to work with the National Service System in Ghana so after my first degree, I worked with the foreign ministry as the National Service Personnel, even though I was not in the section that was working on international relations, I was on the administration section I found myself always wondering around in the international relations department that is when I found out that there were some conflicts in Liberia and there were peace talks so I became very interested. I managed to get myself into that team just to understand more on what what was happening and again I found myself wondering what I can do about this.
After that one year of national service program in the Ghana foreign ministry I opted to do my thesis on conflict prevention. I had been involved in some of the Liberia peace talks as the national service personnel in my internship position provided logistical support and administrative support and I was able to hear some of the issues that were going on in Liberia but I still did not fully understand the whole thing. Once I started doing my masters in conflict resolution and conflict prevention, I started to understand some of the issues but from a very theoretical perspective through my dissertation on conflict prevention. Liberia and Sierra Leone were some of my case studies, I also picked cases from Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Between 1996 and 1997 there wasn’t a lot of writing, at least not in Africa on conflict so it was very difficult to get documentation and material but there was an organisation in the UK at the time that was called International Alert that had documents on some of these conflicts. I contacted them through email where I was introduced to somebody who was working there who was my point of contact in terms of getting material for my dissertation. Once I finished my dissertation and my masters I went to the United Kingdom for holidays to visit some of my family member. While I was there I called the person at International Alert to say thank you for providing me with material and the person ask me to come to the office where he introduced me to the stuff. A week later they called to invite me to a conference about issues in Burundi that they were organising also asking me to help with some French translation. I had done French for my first degree, it was assumed that I could speak French well so they asked me to take the notes during the conference. During the conference I was completely lost because I hadn’t really used French for a while also because Burundians had a bit of an accent I could not follow the conversations during the conference. The other bigger issue for me was I could not relate to the issues they were talking about, I was very theoretical in my thinking and in my understanding of issues for me prevention was something that could be done easily, I felt that they were coming up with excuses about why the fights could not be prevented but nevertheless I was able to capture some notes during this three day conference and was able to send them via email to the International Alert offices. A week later they called me and asked me to come in and then they told me I got the job that I never applied for and that is how I got in to peace building work.
All along I was looking for ways to I could contribute to peacebuilding. I had even been a volunteer for a small organisation in Ghana called Centre of Conflict Resolution but I didn’t have a lot of practical experience because my contribution was limited. This new job with International Alert was an opportunity of a lifetime. It was supposed to be for one year but I ended up working for them for 4 years.
I somehow didn’t want to work for the United Nations because when I was doing my theses, I had become critical of the UN in terms of their policies, particularly because of what had happened in Rwanda. In my analysis I had raised issues about the UN itself, so I had a certain level of antagonism and started feeling that I could not work for them just from that moral perspective. I wanted to engage in community level but wasn’t sure on how to go about it because Ghana did not have that level of conflict and also I did not fully understand the concept of peacebuilding, conflict and security to even understand that even the government issues were conflict, peace and security issues.
How I started working for West Africa Network for Peacebuilding
I work for West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (Wanep) which is a non-government organisation that was established by two African scholars who happened to meet in the U.S. It was established in 1998 by Dr Emmanuel Habuka Bombande who is a Former Deputy Foreign Minister of Ghana and currently been the United Nations’senior mediation advisor in the Central African Republic and Samuel Gbaydee Doe who is also working with the United Nations. The organisation focuses on collaborative approaches to conflict prevention and was started in response to the civil wars taking place in West Africa.
When it was established in 1998 and became operational in 1999, I was still working in the UK for International Alert and I had met with one of the co-founders Dr Emmanuel Habuka Bombande on different occasions and we had discussed the idea and when it was established he said if you I’d like to come work for the organisation I should. In year 2000 while I was working in the UK I changed my status because I moved back home in Ghana and was just working for International Alert as a their consultant. I started working with Wanep as well as a consultant in a capacity of a coordinator to set up a peace education programme which sought to help strengthen institutional educational sector so that it can include peace and security and Conflict issues as part of the curriculum. Also at the same time developing Informal educational platforms for young people to develop skills in dealing with conflict. This was supposed to be a long-term strategy for preventing conflict then I left the organisation in 2005 for personal reasons. I relocated to Botswana to join my husband and start a family so I took time off my career and then I came back to work for another organisation called the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Center in 2015. During the same year I went back to Wanep, this time as a Program Director and Deputy Executive Director which is my current position.
What I do at WANEP
As the programme director, I am based in Accra responsible for program conceptualization, program development and implementation in all the 15 Western African countries of ECOWAS. In addition to that in terms of our mission and strategic objections, Wanep supports primarily building capacity, supporting civil society organisation and building civil society movements to influence policy change or in the prevention and medication conflict
We work to support election processes, election observation, counter-violence extremism or terrorism. We work to build capacity of media so that they are more sensitive in their reporting and do not exacerbate conflict situations but rather report in ways that helps prevent conflict. We also work on gender issues, building capacity but also doing advocacy and lobbying for women’s participation, women’s protection.
We have programmes for youth which cut across both formal and informal sectors. I spoke about that educational programme I started when I worked for Wanep in 2005, it has to help bring young people in schools and build their capacities directly through what we call peer mediation peace clubs where we train young students 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.
We also provide assistance to schools in terms of curriculum for formal peace education work, in addition to that particularly in light of the security threat like violence extremism and terrorism. We help identify threats of violent extremism to radicalisation, working with young people themselves to develop the indicators of how one should know when somebody is getting radicalized but more importantly creating what we call the dialogue platforms that allows young people to come together with those in policy making, decision-making levels and traditional leaders so they can engage in security issues within their various communities.
Empowering women and their participation in peacebuilding
We enhance women’s participation, we have what we call the community and security dialogues where we talk about security issues, usually you will find dominating in positions of power and less women in the decision making in the security sector. These dialogues are a way of ensuring that at community level we have women driving some of these dialogue on security issues so we do that in a number of countries particularly in a Saharan region. My responsibility lies primarily with overseeing these projects and insuring proper conceptualization in line with the context, in line with the contemporary and current emerging threats of peace and security, ensuring effective development of these project and also implementation.
There are a lot of opportunities and currently we do not have a lot of women participating at the decision-making level. 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. Our strategy has been to focus on advocating for participation on already established platforms so we are looking at women’s participation at negotiation tables and in leadership positions in institutions such as the African Union, the United Nations and even at state level as members of government. It has yielded some results. There’s been a marginal increase in numbers and some countries have done much better than others countries, like Senegal has done it way better than other countries in West Africa and some countries like Rwanda that are doing well in East Africa in terms of more numbers of women that are in leadership positions.
One of the things we are realising because the growth is not fast enough is that, yes, some women may be in leadership position but women in decision-making positions are still few and therefore there’s a domination of men who are still making decisions. If there’s a leader who is a woman whether she is a minister or a president they are still more men surrounding her who then influence her decisions that she will make because democratically no one cannot be taking decisions on her own. It has to be consultative and therefore if you look within the system you realise that it is still dominated by men so the voices of women still need ratification. We are trying to create alternative platforms so that projects like a community security dialogue which is a strategy that focuses on community level decisions no matter how small. Decisions that are taken at a national level will have less meaning to most people in communities but most meaning is at community level where decisions that are made affect the community that is why we want the voices of women to be heard in those community dialogues.
Challenges WANEP faces
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.
In terms of how you strategize to respond becomes very challenging because it’s constantly changing. One time you could be advocating for some policy changed according to the experience on the ground and immediately the strategy that the criminals are using changes which means that you have to also revise what you are proposing as a strategy for policy development and policy engagement and policy development processes take time and they have to go through various processes and by the time you get there the issue has already changed so your solution or policy is no longer applicable to the problem and the criminals are on to something else.
The second issue is off impact which is linked to financial resources. Donors want to see that there is an impact otherwise they will not fund projects yet some of the things take too long for the results to show, for example issues like societal change and attitude change could be a lifetime thing to change at the end of the day you have spent money and you have done training but you can’t show tangible results to the funders. It becomes difficult to convince donors who work with a certain framework which is usually input, where they give you money and then they need to see the results immediately. With issues of peacebuilding, security and conflict it unfortunately does not work like that because it is a transformation process which is a long-term thing. We are an African institution but our funding does not all come from the continent, very little of it comes from African sources and most of it comes from western sources which are dealing with their own challenges.
Another issue is resources like capacity, what tends to happen usually in the NGOs is that you train people that you work with because to be able to really make an impact and even engage, let alone talking about making an impact, just to engage in the peace and security issues one needs to have experience. If I relate this to me back where I started I mentioned that in the beginning I did not have the experience so in terms of my own contribution I felt that I was extremely Limited. It’s the experience that will yield the results and you have to acquire it. So imagine training people and and get them to acquire the experience but because you are an NGO or there is limitation in terms of how much you can pay for salaries so they get poached by big organisations like the United Nations and the African Union who have more funding and can pay huge salaries so you are constantly faced with a capacity gap.
Implementation processes involve partnerships, we work a lot with ECOWAS particularly on issues of early warning and early response which is all geared up for prevention. We also have a partnership with African Union through an MoU and we have various levels of partnerships with the entire UN system. We work with the UN at the global level participate in a number of Strategic global initiatives. In terms of engaging with community there still remains a limited capacity particularly for civil Society engagement with the state which is a skill that needs to be acquired. Some of the areas that are difficult to find funding for are capacity building. Civil Society as a broad collective term continues to remain weak particularly when it comes to how to engage with the state. West Africa is one of the example that has been touted all over the world as one of the best examples of how well civil society engage with the state agencies at national level, regional level or continental level or even at a global level. There are no other examples like this anywhere in the world where civil society organisation has an established partnership and relationship with a state organisation or inter-governmental organisation because there’s a history of antagonism between state organisations and civil society that dates back to many years.
Civil Society has always been seen as the advocate for society and critique of state and government, therefore there is antagonism. Overtime we have learnt the hard way that you cannot go and criticize government and expect to see changed, your style of involvement has to be different, you need to present yourself as a credible partner who has the capacity to support rather than write reports that just criticize without coming up with solutions through constructive engagement and get the state to realise where its weaknesses are. As a civil society organisation you need to come as a credible source and credible entity and to do that sometimes can be challenging because it’s almost as if you need to on your own find the resources to build yourself, make yourself visible and then you can be taken seriously. The fact that we have a legal document that binds our partnership, that does not exist in many places and you can’t even find this in European countries. Yes, you can find that an organisation deals with a governmental institution like the EU based on specific areas but to have a civil Society organisation that works directly and is relied on by international. As a result other regions like SADC are now looking at what they learn from this example and work with their civil Society groups and have formal partnership with them. It did not come overnight it was years of engaging and building ourselves, building on our credibility and integrity and learning the tactics of how to engage with state agencies.