Ghana is among a few countries in Africa that are “relative oases of peace despite internal vulnerabilities and external pressure”, according to Youssef Mahmoud who served as head of two United Nations peace operations in central Africa.
In 2007, Mr Mahmoud, a Tunisian who joined the UN in 1981 as a linguist, was appointed by the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to head the UN Integrated Office in Burundi.
Three years later, Ban Ki-Moon, who had by then become UN Secretary-General, asked Mr Mahmoud to lead the UN Integrated Peacekeeping Mission for Central Africa and Chad.
He has recorded his experiences in a book, Whose Peace Are We Building? that was launched virtually over the weekend.
In the book, he wrote: “…the binary relationship ascribed to conflict and peace means that stable societies with no violent conflict are excluded from the study of peace, when, in fact, they are the case studies most likely to unveil the factors associated with peace.
“A meaningful investigation in this regard would attempt to unveil the domestic, regional and international threads that make countries such as Senegal, Ghana or Botswana relative oases of peace despite internal vulnerabilities and external pressures.”
Speaking from Tunis during the launch, which was organised by the African Leadership Centre (ALC) in the School of Global Studies at King’s College London, Mr Mahmoud said: “When I started working in the area of peace and security, whether, at the UN Secretariat in New York or the field, I was labouring under the assumption that if I understood the pathologies of war, and the complex factors driving violence, I would be able to craft the appropriate interventions that can foster and sustain peace.
“This assumption treats peace as an exception, bounded by external normative moorings that tie its fortunes to the presence or absence of conflict”
Mr Mahmoud went on: “I was wedded to the notion that preventing conflict through peacebuilding prescriptions was the true pathway to peace.
“I never studied peace directly or developed a strategy whereby peace, rather than conflict, was the starting point or the ultimate goal.”
He said he soon acknowledge that countries emerging from conflict “are not blank pages and their people are not projects”.
“This means that efforts to sustain peace should be motivated by learning from what still works well in countries emerging from conflict, and to respect that every society, however, broken it may appear, has capacities and assets, not just needs and vulnerabilities,” Mr Mahmoud added.
He said this meant rethinking how conflicts were analysed.
He explained that “in addition to assessing the factors driving and sustaining violence, we should also identify those capacities that enable communities to peacefully prevent and manage conflict despite vulnerabilities and external pressures.”
Mr Mahmoud added: “Such an approach goes against the grain of the practices of some well-meaning outside intervenors who believe that countries in conflict lack the competency, the agency and the resource to address their own predicament.”
Touching on what he would do differently now, he said “I would practice the art and craft of deep and reflective listening.
“We tend to listen more closely to people who have control over our future than those whose influence is judged immaterial.
“We tend to listen with the intent to help or solve not with the intent to understand.
“Thus, listening with intent has been a defining practice of my leadership styles over the past two decades,” added Mr Mahmoud, who is a Visiting Professor at the ALC.
He admitted that this process was “hard and requires a great deal of presence and humility.” “Nonetheless I continue to return to it when confronted with situations for which I have no immediate solution and over which I have little control and influence,” Mr Mahmoud added.
The book, published in association with the ALC, is part of a series that is bringing together leading African practitioners – from leaders of peace missions to UN special envoys – to provide critical perspectives on the current understanding of peacekeeping and leadership.