Civil wars have devastated the lives of many across Africa and, despite global efforts to build peace, relapses are an ongoing reality – every civil war that started in Africa since 2003 has been a resumption of a previous conflict.
To help us better understand and break the cyclical nature of conflict, Professor ‘Funmi Olonisakin has been working to help to transform approaches to peace-building in Africa.
For 15 years, she has carried out numerous multi-layered research programmes across 12 different African countries, pioneering inclusive research and involving previously excluded voices in peacebuilding efforts. This combined with her engagement work has underpinned a variety of peacebuilding activities at the highest level with UN bodies, donors, governments and other influential groups seeking out her expertise.
Through reframing peace-building around ‘societal conversation’ and inclusive leadership, her work has shaped UN resolutions and policy, as well as influenced views and policies of African governments and major donors.
Lived realities and inclusive leadership
Professor Olonisakin’s research found that peace-building systems fail if they do not speak to the lived realities of those most affected by the conflict. It revealed that the current approach, based around building institutions and infrastructure, is flawed because it does not seek to rebuild fractured societal relationships. It also excludes significant groups of those affected by the war and in active pursuit of peace, particularly young people and women. This leads to alternative non-state structures forming, such as armed groups, religious organisations and informal economies, which can compete with formal peace-building efforts and reinforce insecurities within a society.
To address this, her work identifies the crucial role of conversations between those in power and society more widely and the missing links which need to be addressed. This includes facilitating conversations about what society itself considers violent and what it agrees to be peace, rather than adopting what external peacebuilders say it is.
Her research sets out a way of building peace through charting 'conversations' among individuals and society in non-violent ways, involving previously marginalised groups. Conversations in this regard are not just overt dialogues but can include different methods of interaction including music, theatre, artefacts and protests – and in some cases through deliberate inaction and silence. Through tracking these conversations, this enables those in power to understand how people are talking about peace and security and so help to forge a peace that will last.
Central to Professor Olonisakin’s work is inclusive leadership - which her work found must be a core focus of peacebuilding - and the importance of investing in African leadership to break the cycle of conflict. Through identifying those who are working to address common issues and building their capacity, she found they can then become co-producers and agents of innovation, policies and programmes to build peace.
Shaping UN resolutions
Professor Olonisakin’s research has become an integral part of UN discussions on peace and security in Africa and she is consistently called on to share her expertise and evidence around women, peace and security in a variety of UN settings. She has also contributed to several UN Resolutions, which reflect the opinion or will of the UN to provide guidance to member states. This culminated in her being appointed as an expert on the UN Advisory Group of Experts on the Review of Peacebuilding Architecture in 2015.
Her research led to a shift in approach away from elite and imported peace, so that leadership building was part of reconciliation and nation building. It also endorsed leadership based on a mutually-shared goal or vision between the elites and wider society. This view was adopted formally through the 2016 UN Resolutions 2282 on Sustainable Peace.
She was also appointed to the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Group of Experts for the UN Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security in 2016 and her work influenced a report by a group of experts in Nairobi which called attention to challenges around the exclusion and vulnerability of young people. In 2018, this informed UN Resolution 2419 on Youth, Peace and Security calling for youth marginalisation to be recognised as detrimental to peace-building and for increased representation of young people in such efforts.
Shaping national policies, youth programmes and conversations
Professor Olonisakin has helped advise the Nigerian government on security and conflict. Her work has also influenced Canada’s International Development Research Centre, which subsequently funded projects around youth economic vulnerability and exclusion across the continent including in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Her research has also opened up new opportunities and networks for discussion of security and peacebuilding issues in Africa such as the Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa. Professor Olonisakin served on the board of the forum, which brings together heads of state, former heads of state, policymakers, academics and others to look at security solutions, and her work has informed its focus and agenda.
She is also co-chair of a partnership between Wilton Park, which is part of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which facilitates a forum on peacebuillding in Africa, linking policy and government decision-makers, with academics, practitioners, activists, civil society, youth ambassadors and emerging African leaders.
Transforming a new generation of African leaders
The African Leadership Centre (ALC) at King’s aims to empower a critical mass of young African leaders to tackle the lack of representation of young, and especially female, Africans in positions of influence.
Alongside the educational benefits, it helps forge life-long networks and support systems. Since August 2013 it has mentored 57 young African leaders from 18 African countries who have gone on to take up roles as official, educators, analysists and practitioners in African organisations, governments, non-governmental organisations and civil society.