Investing in Africa’s Youth for Transformative Peace
Africa’s political leaders are some of the longest-sitting in the world, with five of the continents’ current heads of state holding power for more than three decades and six holding power for more than ten years. Entrenched political leadership has contributed to conflict, high levels of corruption, economic decline and stagnation, and inability to cope with regional challenges such as irregular migration, human trafficking, and violent extremism. A shared legacy of colonialism--including outstanding debts, inhumane labor, plundering of resources, and marginalization in post-colonial international systems--further compounds regional challenges.
African youth make up the majority of the population and are poised to contribute to the region’s demographic dividend and future leadership. However, as many African youth have grown up amid cycles of violence, poverty, and disease, their access to the interpersonal and social capital needed to access transformative leadership opportunities is limited. Lack of education, often disrupted by conflict in early years and limited at the tertiary level, serves as another barrier to leadership development--especially for young African women. Yet, by cultivating innovation, interpersonal skills, and recognition of a shared humanity, education has a crucial role to play in developing effective, ethical, and community-oriented leaders with the tools to transform Africa’s future.
Developing African leadership that can successfully catalyze economic growth, combat poverty, and restore the potential of Africa’s institutions and governance requires a Pan-African approach--that is, tapping into uniquely African resources and values and recognizing the shared heritage and experiences of African states. At Transformative Peace, we believe in inclusive, sustainable development that draws on the particular resources of local communities, including the values and identities that these communities hold dear. Here are five ways in which Pan-African leadership has the potential to transform Africa’s future:
An African Framework for Transformative Leadership
While leadership in Africa has been a subject of interest for the international research and policy communities since the onset of the post-colonial period, much of the early scholarship sought to analyze the characteristics of individual African leaders exclusively within the context of Western concepts of leadership. The turn of the millennium saw a proliferation of African-led scholarship on the shared characteristics and values underpinning leadership in the African context, much of which began to rely on new language rooted in Africa’s political and cultural past to articulate the meaning of leadership in the African context. Other thought leaders developed uniquely African concepts of leadership rooted in the African experience and culture, but linked them to existing global leadership frameworks.
One of the most widely-known tenets of African leadership philosophy is ubuntu, which originated among the Nguni/isiZulu communities and was subsequently recognized more broadly as a relevant governing strategy for the African context. As articulated by the Former President of the Republic of South Africa Nelson Mandela, ubuntu essentially means “the profound African sense that each of us is human through the humanity of other human beings.”Ubuntu captures the notions in traditional African leadership that the leader is intricately connected to those s/he serves, and that the mantle of leadership should only be taken in service of the common good.
On October 1, Transformative Peace hosted its fifth Transformative Conversation, The Critical Role of Civil Society in Peacebuilding. The event featured Dr. Marie-Joëlle Zahar, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Research Network on Peace Operations at the Université de Montréal and non-resident senior fellow with the International Peace Institute.
The conversation was moderated by Dr. Houda Abadi, Founder and Executive Director of Transformative Peace.
Dr. Zahar began the discussion by defining key concepts that set the foundation for a re-envisioning of civil society’s nature and role in peace processes. Our definition of civil society, she explained, continues to evolve away from the Western concept that civil society consists only of groups one can join by choice and toward a more inclusive understanding of the diverse traditional, religious, and secular actors who are capable of organizing and mobilizing in different contexts around the world. Dr. Zahar also made the case for why peace negotiations should go further than simply ending violence: “Peace processes are an opportunity to renegotiate the social contract, to reset the relationship between states and societies...when a peace process is only defined as a ceasefire, it’s like building a castle on a sandy foundation--there is nothing to sustain that ceasefire.” The inclusion of diverse actors such as civil society is crucial because it ensures that negotiations address the needs and grievances of non-elites while also giving legitimacy to elite actors to respond to evolving challenges in the post-conflict setting.
Throughout the conversation, Dr. Zahar continued to ground theoretical issues related to civil society’s role in peace processes within a firm understanding of day-to-day operational challenges, the complexities of modern conflicts, and the constraints imposed on them by the international system. Highlighting her experience serving in the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Syria during the formation of a Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) parallel to formal Track I negotiations, she praised the initiative’s broad and inclusive definition of civil society in the Syrian context, which recognized that actors were likely to have political ties given the complexity of the Syrian conflict. “The idea was to bring in people who, even though they have political leanings, would be peacemakers rather than warmongers.” At the same time, the initiative faced a number of challenges, including mismatched expectations for the CSSR both among civil society actors and between civil society and the UN, inability to more directly connect with the OSE team, and the deep fragmentation of Syrian civil society actors. “[There is] the expectation that international actors often have of civil society that it can emerge with one voice, and be one homogeneous actor, instead of recognizing that civil society will, by force, reflect the cleavages there are in society, although it is united in its commitment to peacebuilding and peaceful resolution,” Dr. Zahar explained.
Through the lens of their direct experiences supporting civil society in contexts such as Syria, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dr. Zahar and Dr. Abadi concluded the conversation with a lively exchange on the importance of local peace initiatives, how they can best be supported by the international community, and the risks that local civil society organizations face when they partner with international organizations. “One of the things that comes up a lot is the legitimacy and the trust,” Dr. Abadi explained, “And we’ve seen this now with Afghanistan where it’s a case of death for a lot of local civil society groups that are doing tremendous peacebuilding work that was previously unknown. Once they are seen as working or partnering with international actors, they’re seen within their community [as being] puppets, [and] the trust is diminished.” Dr. Zahar further highlighted the need to attend to both the national and the local levels.”
Dr. Zahar concluded, “The first order of business for anyone who wants to be a peacebuilder is to really understand what is happening in a given society and to see what the society has in terms of its own resources, capacities, knowledge, and experience...and to be able to leverage that to build a process that actually has a chance of taking root because it builds on local ownership, and is amplified by external efforts instead of external efforts coming in and rebuilding based on outside templates that don’t always reflects the realities, needs, or even the way of seeing the world that is consonant with the people who we are here to help.”
View our entire library of past Transformative Conversations
On September 30, 2021, Dr. Houda Abadi, was a guest lecturer at the Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace, Conflict Transformation and Development at Chulalongkorn University. She taught two rotary classes on Trends and Trajectories of Radicalization that Leads to Violence. The course examined the role of inclusive processes in addressing exclusion and marginalization, rights-based approaches to rehabilitation and reintegration, and how recruitment to violent extremist organizations can be thwarted.
Exciting News for the Transformative Peace Team
We are thrilled to announce that, following her invaluable contributions as Transformative Peace’s inaugural intern, Victoria Friedlander has recently joined us as a Program Associate. Congratulations, Victoria, and keep up the great work!