Participant images from Zoom call

First Virtual MPI-Africa Alumni Roundtable Meeting

Summary of Highlights
September 2020

Introduction

Since 2005, MPI has trained Africa-based peacebuilders from across the continent. As MPI alumni, these peacebuilders have been sharing their individual personal stories after their training in bits and pieces. For some time now, MPI has been strategizing on how to energize its Africa footprint by invigorating an ongoing interaction for mutual sharing and exchange with its alumni peacebuilders there.

It is with this aspiration that on September 23, 2020, MPI Director, Christine Vertucci, and the Research, Documentation, and Learning Coordinator, Marlies Roth of MPI organized the First Virtual Alumni Roundtable "MPI-Africa Connection." 

Christine Vertucci welcomed the six alumni delegates from Sierra Leone, DR Congo, and Kenya to the MPI-Africa online meeting. She pointed to the fact that MPI has held deep-felt aspirations for increased connectedness to Africa. MPI envisions creating a critical mass of intertwined and connected peacebuilders not only in Asia-Pacific but also throughout the world. “As we gather together today, we are sowing the seed for realizing this vision, as we reconnect, renew our friendships, and plan together initiatives that will re-create and transform our world into a place where justice and peace prevail." 

This is a synopsis of the discussion in that meeting and forms a beginning of a journey of the connectedness of MPI and its alumni peacebuilders in Africa.

Experiences and Impact of Ebola and COVID-19

The three countries where these alumni live and work have had different experiences with Ebola and COVID-19. Sierra Leone and DR Congo had dealt with serious outbreaks of Ebola before COVID-19 struck in 2020.

From DR Congo, Marie-Jose Mavinga, and Odile Bulabula, both alumni of MPI 2016 and peace practitioners involved in peace and advocacy work in DR Congo for many years, attended the virtual meeting. Odile is based in Bukavu, South Kivu, in the east of the country. Marie-Jose lives and works in Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo. Both are working in institutions of the Church of Christ in Congo (CCC) and are coordinating the Civil Peace Service program of Bread for the World in DR Congo.

With thousands of deaths, the immediate effects of Ebola in Sierra Leone were very visible and had traumatized the people immensely. “There were dead bodies everywhere in the villages, in the towns, in the streets and the bush," observed one of the representatives from Sierra Leone. Civil society organizations, churches, religious institutions, and the government had worked together in campaigning for hygiene measures, like regular hand-washing, no-touch protocols, and social distancing, and eventually were able to stop the spread and contain the Ebola virus. 

When the Coronavirus made it into Sierra Leone after the first quarter of 2020, people were already informed about the worldwide pandemic and thus prepared. In Sierra Leone, the advent of COVID-19 was different from that of Ebola. “COVID didn't catch us with our pants down,” Shecku explained. The experiences with Ebola helped a lot in sensitizing communities and instituting the COVID-19 hygiene protocols to prevent the further spread of the virus. 

Sierra Leone was represented by Aminata Massaquoi, an alumna from MPI’s 2014 Annual Peacebuilding Training, and Mohamed Conteh and Shecku Kawusu Mansaray, both of whom attended MPI in 2011. Aminata is serving as a journalist with Culture Radio in Freetown. Mohamed is the Director of the Mankind Activities Development Accreditation Movement (MADAM) and President of the Sierra Leone Network for the Right to Food (SiLNoRF) in Makeni. Shecku Kawusu is an adult educator and peacebuilder associated with the Sierra Leone Adult Education Association (SLADEA).

In Equateur Province in the northwest and North Kivu in eastern DR Congo, communities have been facing Ebola outbreaks over many years. With the support of churches and civil society organizations who worked together to raise awareness and spread messages on how to manage and control the spread of Ebola as well as international NGOs, who responded by supporting the health delivery services, Ebola was declared over in Eastern Congo in June 2020 after almost two years. 

The conflict in South and North Kivu presented big challenges in responding to Ebola as non-state actors and violent groups kept fighting, causing displacement of people, and destabilizing the social support systems. While Ebola was successfully eradicated in the East, it broke out again in Equateur Province in June 2020. The international NGOs, churches, and civil society organizations are working closely with local communities and government agencies again to fight Ebola while at the same time responding to the spread of COVID-19. 

Kenya was represented by Kisuke Ndiku who attended MPI in 2013. He is a peace practitioner and management development consultant working with PRECISE, an agency working in the Eastern and Greater Horn of Africa.

In DRC, the experiences in the fight against Ebola, the sensitizing campaigns, and the involvement of the local communities had already raised the awareness of hygiene measures. "The community members had learned personal hygiene, like washing hands, keeping physical distance, isolation, and care of the sick.” Odile continued saying, with COVID-19 now, it was not a big deal to add “wearing a face mask” as a prevention measure. 

Kenya did not have an experience with Ebola apart from public caution due to its interaction with DR Congo through logistical support to the UN agencies and NGOs operating in Eastern DR Congo. As a result, the sensitization of communities and awareness building among the citizens related to COVID-19 took a massive effort through the media and enforcement through law enforcement agencies such as the local administration and the police. 

The advent of COVID-19 infections in Kenya was directly related to air travel and cross-border road transport. Urban locations that had more frequent airline-related contacts had more cases of infections than rural areas. It was interesting to note that the home care of patients in Kenya had far better results in terms of recoveries than hospital-based care. 

Overall, COVID-19 in the three countries had a far limited number of infections and deaths than had been predicted. However, the impact of COVID-19 was much more negative due to the lockdown protocols that led to the loss of livelihoods, income, employment, and businesses. This, in turn, led to increased social crime, violent conflicts, and domestic violence.

Shecku referred to a riot prompted by the COVID-19 measure that limited the number of fisherfolk clustering in fishing boats on fishing trips in Tombo, Sierra Leone. After several days, this restriction was seen as a serious threat to their survival and resulted in violence where “people died, community police post and clinic were destroyed.” Shecku cites the words from Bob Marley’s song Them Belly Full (But We Hungry): “A hungry mob is a angry mob” to underline the cause of a lack of peace in his country. It is not only Sierra Leone where there is no local social insurance or social safety nets for health, incomes, and food. Restrictions that come with COVID-19 measures are likely to deepen inequalities and poverty for the majority of the poorest communities in most African countries. 

The alumni from each of the countries indicated that measures to control COVID-19 have made gender-based violence and girl pregnancies more visible at the household level. It has also exacerbated inequalities in households and different localities in each country. The plight of jobless youth, poverty, and inadequacies and gaps of access to basic services like health, adequate shelter, and food have also been exposed in quarters not fully visible before. 

These aspects require follow-up to establish strategic response mechanisms that address them.  How might girl pregnancies be prevented while at the same time keeping the girls safe and in school?  How is gender-based violence being increased due to the protocols used on control and prevention of COVID-19 or Ebola, and how could this be addressed?  How could livelihoods, incomes, jobs, employment, and food be sustained for households and the youth in the advent of disruptions such as Ebola and COVID-19?  These concerns need long-term interventions.

Furthermore, children have become lost in all of this. Suspension of classes means that the learning program for most learners is deferred by long periods. Even though some education has been resumed, the process is approached with caution, especially with students that have some end-of-course examinations. There is apprehension about new waves of COVID-19 as a result of increased interaction among children and youth in school and as work and market places return to normal operations.

The government, companies, and households will have to create recovery and business continuity plans in the health, education, and business sectors. Strategies will have to be developed to offset the challenges introduced by a fall in the performance of the economies, lost learning time, and lost staff in the health and education sectors where deaths have affected personnel. Recovery time for learners and teachers in schools will need to be addressed by individual countries and affected localities and households. 

Everyone agreed that it would be advisable that, in the future, the protocols such as were set out on COVID-19 be adopted and applied appropriately to the socio-cultural setting to offset the impact of the loss of livelihoods, incomes, employment, and businesses.

Sharing and Exchange on Peacebuilding

The alumni from each of the three countries shared briefly about their peacebuilding work. This was related to their training in MPI and the period after. The experiences of the three countries in peacebuilding had a different bearing due to the divergent root causes of conflict in each country. 

In Sierra Leone, Aminata shared that land grabbing and allocation of land to large-scale commercial operators for large plantations and large-scale mining companies are stirring conflicts in different parts of the country. 

This has resulted in communities losing access to their land and not being able to farm for themselves. "Authorities," says Aminata "are not giving attention to the local people …. They are making contracts with them (big companies) and not involving the community. That is not good for peace.”

She pointed out that, through the MPI training, she realized how important it is—especially as a media practitioner—to communicate peace in order not to ignite unrest. “MPI has changed my pattern in communicating.” She went on to emphasize that there is a challenge on how as peacebuilders “we need to use appropriate language to inform the public about this without creating more conflict and how to give voice to the voiceless people.”

Some of the least heard voices are those of women. Aminata shared that she is also training women in peaceful negotiation, and communication to be more successful in standing up for their rights. “Women have been arrested, beaten up, because they are stepping out, asking for what belongs to them. I engage with them to find ways on how to ask for their rights peacefully.”

Mohamed shared from an advocacy and campaign perspective. He pointed out that he attended MPI in 2011, about the time he became the founder and later President of the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF). “Initially, as an advocacy and lobby organization, we started by being very confrontational with the mining companies.” Mohamed further explained that “this was the time when we had an influx of multinational companies in our country, mainly making land-based investments.”

The training at MPI and the exposure in the Bangsamoro region made Mohamed reflect on how he could guarantee “that in as much as SiLNoRF will continue to do its work, at the same time it will ensure that peace exists in the communities.” This led to the crafting of a “multinational stakeholder platform where the companies and the other stakeholders were brought to discuss issues around the conflict in this area.” 

According to Mohamed, this approach prevented the outbreak of violent conflicts that were happening in other regions where land-based investments were taking place. According to Mohamed, “even though we were very vocal, the advocacy was very strong, but there were no violent incidents in the Addax communities and between the Addax and the workers.” * This could be a model for use in other locations and countries. 

Shecku shared from the adult education perspective. He highlighted that the MPI exposure to the Bangsamoro region was most impressive as he came “to appreciate our religious tolerance in Sierra Leone, looking at and seeing what was happening in the conflict region that we visited.”

He pointed out that in SLADEA, they have integrated peacebuilding in the curriculum for adult learners. While teaching how to read and write, the adult learners would also learn “about how to live and co-exist peacefully…” This has been very important because the war had destroyed the social fabric of the communities.

Marie-Jose affirmed that the MPI training on negotiation and mediation skills impacted her the most. She has used the competencies gained in working within the church in DR Congo where mediation is most needed. Marie-Jose shared that the country is large and has different realities. The problems people are facing in the East and West are different, but what is the same throughout the DRC is that politicians misuse their power.

Marie-Jose pointed out that politicians have the power and use that power to incite and spread conflicts. “They are only interested in money, as opposed to the development of the people," she said. Through the peacebuilding network, Marie-Jose and Odile have worked towards social cohesion. “We have realized that young people were manipulated by politicians and our efforts were to sensitize young people in the peace clubs and to bring communities together,” added Marie-Jose. She and Odile shared that in their context the churches play an important role in holding political leaders accountable. 

Odile shared her experience and stressed the point that the competencies she gained at MPI helped her to continue working in a very difficult and complex context. She operates from South Kivu in DR Congo, where different forces of non-state actors and government forces are in continuous conflict with communities. This generates mistrust between actors in negotiating for peace. 

To respond to the mistrust and divisions between the ethnic groups, Odile and her colleagues have organized dialogues with different actors and the communities. They are often challenged with the fact that men do not want women to participate. According to Odile, “women are suffering the most in these conflicts.” In responding to this situation, Odile and her colleagues have started to call women from the divided ethnic groups to come and get trained in negotiation and dialogue skills. 

According to Odile and Marie-Jose, it is a big success that the two big churches, Protestant and Catholic, have come together now in supporting the work for peace and justice in the country.

For Kisuke Ndiku, the MPI training enriched the content of his work, especially in peacebuilding at the community level. He shared that he attended the MPI training at a time he “needed new perspectives on peace after having been working in South Sudan, during a time when it was very difficult and even after the comprehensive peace was signed.” South Sudan presents lots of challenges. Being able to meet peacebuilders from different parts of the world has helped him to engage and address peacebuilding better. 

He pointed to the role of social inclusion and embracing all actors and in particular the role of the church in peacebuilding. He continued that, following the training in MPI, he has since modeled peace analysis that seeks to identify community peace pillars and factors underpinning the pillars for scaling up at the local level for communities to uphold peace. He highlighted that, “the approach to identifying and working with community peace pillars entails systematic analysis for evidence on what holds peace in communities; what breaks those pillars; who maintains those pillars; and then how the peace pillars work in their context for peace to be upheld.” He shared that based on evidence drawn from peace analysis, local communities and local governing structures have been able to forestall peace at the local and regional level.

Kisuke also gave an overview of the peace work in East Africa. He talked about the ongoing conflicts in Somalia, the internal conflicts in South Sudan, the engagement of the Africa Union in counter-terrorism, and the stability linked to the UN, EU, US, and Nordic country support. He also pointed to country-level types of infrequent hostilities, such as in Ethiopia due to tensions related to elections and decentralization of governance. He also talked about the spread and evolution of radicalized extremist violence which has spread from Somalia into Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and northern Mozambique. 

Next Steps

After a very lively sharing of our experiences and reflections—after listening to the stories and ideas of fellow peacebuilders—everyone agreed that this virtual MPI-Africa roundtable meeting was a seed that needs to be nurtured to grow and deepen our African-Asian peacebuilding connection. We were wondering what small steps we could take as MPI peacebuilders in relation to the discussion and the severity of the effect of COVID-19 on our societies. Is there something that we can do as a group or as a network?  

One idea that came forward was to publish and share this synopsis, hoping that it will encourage MPI alumni in Africa and beyond to advance the discussion, to draw out relevant themes, and highlight issues that need follow-up from a peacebuilder’s perspective. 

We are looking forward to your feedback and another round of MPI African-Asian roundtable meetings.

Marlies Roth is the Research, Documentation, and Learning Coordinator for MPI. Kisuke Ndiku is an MPI alumnus from 2013 and works as a peace practitioner and management development consultant with PRECISE in Kenya.

*Addax is a bioenergy company incorporated as Addax Bioenergy Sierra Leone Limited by the Addax and Oryx Group (“AOG”) of Switzerland. Addax established sugarcane production for bio-ethanol on community land resulting in depletion of water and loss of land by the inhabitants. Some local people got new jobs at Addax but others did not. In the beginning, there were huge conflicts between the communities and the company and also within the communities (see https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/sierra-leone-study-claims-villagers-are-displaced-by-addax-bioenergys-ethanol-plantation-leading-to-loss-of-livelihood-access-to-water/).


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