Passport photoA Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Partners meeting was held May 19–21, 2015, co-organized by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY) and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Following this event, African Peacebuilding Network (APN) staff met with George Omondi1George Omondi is the executive secretary at African Research and Resource Forum (ARRF), Nairobi, Kenya. He is a political economist who has had research interests in peacebuilding in post-conflict and post-crisis countries since 2005. to discuss further his work with the African Research and Resource Forum (ARRF). Below are his reflections on the practice of peacebuilding through the promotion of statebuilding in Africa, and the challenges faced particularly in South Sudan and Burundi.

APN: Please describe the work of the ARRF, and what your experience has been in researching the international efforts to build peace in South Sudan and Burundi.

GO: The ARRF is a regional think tank that works on four key areas. The first is statebuilding and peacebuilding in eastern Africa, partly in countries coming out of conflict such as Burundi and South Sudan. We began our work in South Sudan in 2003 before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), working with civil society organizations and scholars to mobilize sections of South Sudanese society and also participate in the peace negotiation process. After the CPA we began working with the government of South Sudan to help build the capacity of state institutions, making a connection between the government of southern Sudan and South Sudanese experts from around the world who could offer support and build the technical competence of the state. Later, we started to work with South Sudan academics on developing a research project looking at state accountability and legitimacy.

In Burundi we got involved in a research exercise and review of the 2010 elections, looking at how they were going to sustain a pillar of democracy that had been built by the Arusha agreement. It was estimated then that the 2015 elections would most likely turn violent unless people retracted their steps and reflected on the Arusha agreement. We found that the power sharing arrangement had more or less collapsed and that the lines were going to be blurred going forward.

APN: What are your views on the situation regarding the practice of peacebuilding through the promotion of statebuilding in Africa? What are the challenges?

GO: Often time there is a misconception of both peacebuilding and statebuilding, and between them. There is the belief that if you build competitive institutions and a structure of government, these elements of statebuilding will lead to state stability. It is more than just democratic competence of the state, however; it is also about the strength of the nation. The question to be asked is, How do you building a strong and stable state, but also a strong nation? The issues here relate to diversity, which is what conflicts revolve around—particularly that of identity. Politicians try to manipulate identities when building a state, which is easy to do because there is not a lot of cohesion in these countries. But the cohesion and strength of a nation is not going to be achieved by the building of technical competence of the state.

Take Burundi for example. There is the idea that when demobilizing people all you have to do is get weapons out of their hands. However, effort needs to go towards reconciling the people. Otherwise they are going to hide these arms. The peacebuilding process did not succeed entirely because there was not a proper elite consensus. In the absence of this, and in addition to a missing framework of the nation, people are going to hold onto something because the future is very uncertain, and this could lead to instability. In the case of South Sudan, people talk all the time about political rivalry within the country, but there is more to it than that. People still hold back on some level of military capacity. Even from inside the government, officials tried to hold on to separate military competencies for themselves because there had not been sufficient convergences on the nation-building project.

APN: What are ways to push past these challenges?

GO: Elite consensus is a major issue in both of these countries. South Sudan had a long list of issues, and consensus on those issues had not been reached. People have not been able to agree on basic elements of building a state, let alone a nation. These included the national language—English, Arabic, or a mixture of the two—and the national currency. In Burundi, too, the president tried to reach a consensus pushed through manipulation for his own gains. He ultimately abandoned consensus and decided to use instruments of power and his own personal charisma.

Evidence suggests that the problem here is leadership, in terms of both objectives and character. Both countries have attempted dialogue, so it is not fair to make a recommendation for that. You can see from the actions of these leaders that there is a drive toward personal rule, and one cannot help but wonder why. It seems that some form of authoritarianism has been returning to Africa in recent years. It is a character of leadership that some of us thought had been long forgotten but it appears to be coming back and playing out today in a different way. This is evident especially in elections. Even though countries are holding elections they are not competitive; people can tell the outcomes even before the process begins. Perhaps political change would be a way to push past this, but who is going to lead this change? The question that must be answered is how leadership in African countries will respond to threats to political stability arising from elections and conflict.

APN: What is your take on the relationship between research, policy, and practice? Which strategies do you feel work best based on the experience of your organization?

GO: Researchers are generally very ambitious about uptake of their work into policy. Research undertaken in the short term is usually designed to respond to emergencies or to rapid response mechanisms, otherwise it cannot be something we will be able to measure right away. Sometimes researchers are under immense pressure to say, “Here, we did that research and it led to these decisions.” In South Sudan and Burundi, there is always something to be done, and people are constantly looking for new ideas. In a context like that, an individual or organization can do research and say “I, or we, influenced that decision.” But in different contexts it is extremely difficult to be so influential unless researchers integrate some elements of rapid response.

There are many factors that affect the policy choices that governments end up making. Yes, researchers could do a little bit more about understanding the policy process, which is important because a lot of researchers in various fields don’t understand how policy processes work. For example, ARRF tried to share its findings on regional integration with the East African Community. There was an MoU (memorandum of understanding) drawn up, and we thought we were going to influence a lot of policies. But after some time, we realized that the policy process is different in the sense that very little was actually accomplished in Arusha. By the time policymakers from partner states go to these meetings they have already made up their minds on choices from the perspective of partner states national interests. So, there is more to it than just dissemination. We therefore need to create some shared spaces to understand the policy process between regional organizations and all actors, including governments. What we mostly see is advocacy groups; it might be necessary to create platforms for dialogue instead. These type of spaces are called boundary arrangements between research and policy spheres. But do we have to re-engineer existing research institutions, or come up with completely new ones?

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    George Omondi is the executive secretary at African Research and Resource Forum (ARRF), Nairobi, Kenya. He is a political economist who has had research interests in peacebuilding in post-conflict and post-crisis countries since 2005.