In his book, Whose peace are we Building: Leadership for peace in Africa, Youssef Mahmoud, former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and long-serving peace practitioner, sheds light on his experience in conflict resolution and peacebuilding with the United Nations, including his role at the helm of two UN peace operations in Burundi and Chad/Central African Republic. In this highly informative book, which starts with an insightful foreword from Nobel Peace Laureate and former President of Timor-Leste, J. Ramos-Horta, Youssef Mahmoud offers a practitioner’s view of peacebuilding, while considering institutional challenges and practical considerations. What is more, the author discusses important and timely theoretical issues as well, which are essential elements in the dominant peacebuilding paradigms. To develop and foster effective leadership for peace in the context of peacekeeping and peacebuilding, it is wise to draw on the experiences of long-serving peace practitioners. Youssef Mahmoud cogently argues that relatively little attention has been given to the nexus between the concepts of leadership and peace. He argues for a paradigm shift in the nature and practice of leadership in order to foster stronger international diplomacy to achieve peace.
This is a timely topic given the rise of conflicts and instability in many parts of the globe, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, but also in Europe, with the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. It is in this vein that Youssef Mahmoud, in this discussion with Younes Abouyoub (ICDI), offers his thoughts and critical reflections on the topic of leadership for peace. This is an initial, yet highly inspiring discussion, which paves the way for further exploration and reflections at ICDI, on the relationship between leadership and peacemaking, in order to further our collective understanding of the nature of leadership that is necessary and most effective for navigating the increasingly challenging peacebuilding environment.
First of all, why this book at this juncture of world history characterized by multiple crises and uncertainties?
The book is the first of a series of publications sponsored by the Nairobi-based African Leadership Center that has a branch at King’s College London where for the past few years, I have been serving as Visiting Professor. Coming at this juncture in world history, the book attempts to interrogate the dominant paradigms through which African peace and security challenges are invariably described and solutions prescribed. It offers alternative narratives that draws on the epistemological advances led by African and non-African scholars who have taken a critical view of hegemonic peacebuilding orthodoxies which they empirically have found wanting. It could be argued that these narratives that integrate different perspective about peace and security could usefully be applied as a lens to make better make sense of the global ills afflicting our contemporary societies.
You discuss the importance of strategic leadership in the work of multilateral organizations working for peace. What does it entail and how can it help the world adapt, or mitigate the complexity of the security environment?
The current complex, geopolitical tensions and the ongoing war in Ukraine have prioritized security over peace. They gave a boost to the global military industrial complex that capitalizes on fear to fuel demand for armaments. More importantly, the war has lionized or demonized those who are in an adversarial country leadership position that cater to their parochial national interests. While ending the ravages of war is a priority, it reinforces the erroneous assumption that freedom from fear and the absence of violent conflict means peace. Multilateral organizations have heavily invested in hero-like individual leaders whose actions continue to be informed by the same faulty assumptions about individual leaders. What is needed in the current complex security environment, is a type of leadership that can move from the ego awareness to eco awareness. This involves shifting from downloading and preserving the destructive old systems of knowing and doing to operating from a multi-stakeholder whole that integrates the needs of future generation and the planet.
You presided over two UN peace operations in Burundi and Chad/Central African Republic. What are the lessons learned from those field experiences and how do they inform your thesis in this book?
When I started working in the area of peace and security whether at the UN Secretariat in NY or in the field, I treated peace as an exception, largely bounded by external normative moorings that tied its fortunes to the presence or absence of violent conflict.
Another way of saying this is that I was wedded to the notion that preventing conflict through peacebuilding was the true pathway to sustainable peace. I did not know any better. I never studied peace directly or developed a strategy whereby peace, rather than preventing conflict, was the starting point or the ultimate goal.
One of the early lessons I learned was that external intervenors like the UN missions I headed did not have the sole preserve of knowhow about how peace is strengthened when under stress or restored when interrupted. I had to acknowledge that countries emerging from conflict are not blank pages and that efforts to sustain peace should be motivated by learning from what still works well in these countries, and to respect that every society, however broken it may appear, has capacities and assets, not just needs and vulnerabilities.
This shift entailed a rethinking in how I analyzed conflict contexts. Assessing the factors driving and sustaining violence is important. But, it should be complemented by a mapping of the endogenous capacities that enable communities to peacefully prevent and manage conflict despite internal vulnerabilities and external pressures This analytical shift takes people away from the obsessive examination of what is wrong in host countries and help them uncover and strengthen what’s already strong. I say uncover because peace unlike conflict tends to be invisible and is often taken for granted until it is lost.
In deconstructing the dominant peacebuilding paradigm, you talk about institutional challenges but at the same time you explore and pose some serious theoretical issues with the current peacebuilding paradigm. In your opinion, is it a theoretical issue or an implementation failure that is the problem, or both?
I would say the main problem is a conceptual one. It stems from the way we conceive of peace.
There is no one way to define peace and many ways to work for it. For decades peace and conflict studies have devoted more attention to conflict than to peace, with the meaning of one depending on how we understand the other. These studies tend to focus on how to prevent violence rather than on efforts needed to lay the foundations for self-sustainable peace. As a result, despite its centrality, peace remains under conceptualized. One of the reasons for this is that peace is intangible, with non-linear dynamical properties and is often taken for granted until it is lost. Attempts to define it tend to ascribe to it the qualities of an ideal end state, that is hard to achieve, when in fact it is a complex endogenous process of becoming, an ongoing quest, constantly in the making, always arriving and never arrives.
Because the above subtleties have largely escaped the attention UN policy makers and practitioners, UN peacebuilding tended to take the form of externally-driven, time-bound and centrally-coordinated packages of programmatic interventions designed to mitigate the ravages of conflict and prevent its relapse. This is usually done through fixing broken institutions and promoting electoral democracy, the rule of law, human rights and market economy, among other liberal prescriptions.
These prescriptions are all wedded to the notion that if you understood the pathology of war or addressed the root causes of conflict peace would ensue, despite studies pointing to the opposite, and to the faulty linear assumptions informing such approaches. They also adhere to the theory that a strong centralized state is key for preventing conflict and establishing peace, broadly discounting the role and agency of individuals and societies as well as traditional governance structures in its construction and sustainability. Empirical research cited in the book and elsewhere has shown that in sub-Saharan Africa, local chiefs, Kings, and other forms of order beyond the state can play a powerful role in rendering services to citizen as well as preventing conflict and maintaining peace. Ghana and Malawi among other countries are excellent examples of what is called institutional hybridity where these traditional forms of governance have been integrated within the public administration of the state. This means that approaches aimed at increasing the capacity, authority and legitimacy of national governments, excluding traditional governance structures may not yield the expected peace dividends.
Your central argument in this book is what I would call “collective leadership”. You define leadership as that which “is not what one does toothers, but what one does with them”. You are basically calling for a new form of leadership based on the collective not the ego. Can you explain?
Leadership for peace is not only about the change that outsiders can bring about in ending violence and building peace. It is about listening meaningfully and without preconceptions to those that UN missions are intended to serve–in order to understand what local actors know and what capabilities they have that can be built upon.
In the book I define leadership for sustaining peace as a collective effort, a process that creates and nurtures an empowering environment, which in turn unleash the positive energy and potential existent within people, enabling them to resolve conflict non-violently and participate in charting a path towards positive peace. This definition is motivated by a more nuanced understanding of peace that taps into the human potential for peace, rather than the overstated potential for war.
From your practical experience, do you believe it is possible to respect state sovereignty while working on achieving a sustainable peace?
One of the powerful assumptions informing UN peace work is that if states can start wars and end them, surely states can make peace. Helping post-conflict fragile states recover their authority and responsibility to govern their own affairs was thus thought to be key to building peace, when in fact it has been shown that the process can undermine peace. Because of its national and international dimensions, the process of building peace on the ashes of war often requires the pooling of sovereignty and the contributions of many entities and peoples across state boundaries. However, without proper national ownership and leadership, peacebuilding can be perceived as intrusive and thus infringing on state sovereignty, even though such a notion is increasingly under stress these days.
The world must adapt to complex security landscapes, exacerbated by compound threats like insurgent violence, climate change induced conflict, transnational crime and the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. How do you see the future of the multilateral peace and security architecture in this increasingly challenging peacebuilding environment?
Coming on the heels of the pandemic unleashed by Covid-19, the military invasion of Ukraine is threatening to end peace in Europe and has retched up to worrisome heights the militarization of an already toxic geopolitical environment. We are seeing crumbling before our eyes many of the paradigms long believed to be the bedrock of a rule-based international system that now seems to be gasping for air. We are reminded that peace is not the absence of war, that sanctions can’t stop tanks and that economic interdependence is not always the guarantor of peace. Global governance institutions where they still function seem to be catering for an obsolete world. Cooperation on critical global issues seems to be frozen or elusive. The UN Security Council’s dismal performance in the face of the Ukraine war and other ongoing violent conflicts has further diminished its legitimacy. Routine renewal of sanctions and mandates of existing UN stabilization peacekeeping missions seem to be the only remaining lowest common denominators for its actions, In addition to securitizing the work of peacekeeping, stabilization has sucked the oxygen out of whatever is left of peacebuilding, leaving the UN Peacebuilding Commission to do whatever it can to keep the agenda alive. In the meantime, the UN Department of Peace Operations continues to pursue the implementation of inane structural and, operational reforms that perpetuate the illusion that changing the tools of delivery would enhance its relevance and the chances of peace on the ground.
One bright light in this rather dim picture, is the pioneering work being done by the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) through its innovation cell which uses inter-disciplinary approaches such as futures thinking and speculative design to re-imagine diplomacy and peacemaking and to spur new thinking about how to prevent conflict and build peace leveraging the comparative advantages of the special political missions operating in various conflict or unstable settings.
All told, this book is an invaluable source of information to scholars, researchers, government officials, diplomats, donor communities, and peace practitioners located within multilateral organizations and think tanks. Nevertheless, what makes the seminal character of this book is that it speaks to, and highlights, the usually forgotten voices of the local community members, which more often than not, are sidelined or at best not effectively included in peacebuilding processes. It is high time, the international community reconsidered, from a critical perspective, the existing peacebuilding paradigms which are prescriptive in their nature and rooted in liberalism, by focusing on locally driven approaches to peacebuilding. In fact, one may wonder whether the dominant approaches to conflict resolution and peacebuilding have largely been unsuccessful around the globe, precisely because they failed to empower and strengthen local capacities for peace.