'The primacy of politics' | Olubukola Akin Arowobusoye, Chief of Political Affairs

Abraham, a resident of Monrovia’s sprawling slum Westpoint, relaxes on Sundays with his treasured book and the sports pages of a local newspaper.Photo: K. Leigh Robinson | 12 Nov 17

9 Apr 2018

'The primacy of politics' | Olubukola Akin Arowobusoye, Chief of Political Affairs

The outgoing Chief of the Political Affairs Section of UNMIL, Olubukola Akin Arowobusoye began his career as a diplomat with the Nigerian Foreign Service, and amongst other postings, served in Liberia from 1989 to 1991. He later worked with two NGOs, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, a UN Resident Coordinator’s office, a World Bank project and UN peacekeeping missions in other parts of Africa.

Mr. Arowobusoye: it seems you came to UNMIL with a first-hand sense of Liberian history?

I had a little prior knowledge. As a director at ECOWAS, I was part of the technical team that worked on the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement that helped to establish peace in Liberia. That agreement also laid the foundations for the Security Council’s adoption of resolution 1509, which established UNMIL.

I also come from this region, so my background has given me some sort of understanding of the political and cultural dynamics in all of West

Africa. It’s not exactly the same culture, but it’s similar.

So, what is the role of the Political Affairs Section here? What have you been working on and what have you hoped to achieve?

Based on UNMIL’s mandate, the Political Affairs Section informs, monitors, facilitates, and intervenes at a ‘technical’ level. Most of the high-level intervention is carried out by the Mission’s leadership, in particular Special Representative of the Secretary-General Zarif. We also implement at a micro level, collect data, report on political variables and issues, and provide advice about what the Mission’s leadership should do and how it should intervene. Sometimes the leadership does not intervene directly and instead deploys the Political Affairs Section on its behalf to implement a particular course of action. When necessary, we can escalate the issue to the Mission’s leadership along with the information and analyses we gained from our engagement.

The section’s work is also informed by the pending closure of the Mission, which moderates everything that we do. At the micro level, we support the good offices of SRSG Zarif and his deputies through engagement with the Liberian executive, Legislature, the National Election Commission (NEC), political parties, and civil society groups –with a particular focus on women and youth. Also, in coordination with other sections within the Mission, we support national reform processes, the reform of elections laws, the consolidation of the political party system, and the mainstreaming of gender in national processes. Our section also coordinates with the international community, including reaching common positions with ECOWAS and the African Union. All these activities are to support Liberia as it strengthens its democratic systems and attributes, and achieves sustained peace, stability and economic development.

It seems that the political aspect is more in focus as the Mission prepares to close.

"Peace, whether you like it or not, is a political variable—conflict resolution, peace building, and re-establishing systems after a conflict are all political variables. For better or worse, missions are not deployed to manage the environment or deal with food and water issues, but to restore peace. Thankfully,UNMIL is focused on its core mandates and has seen success with the security transition in 2016 and the more recent political transition from the Government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to George Weah because of this attention."

If peacekeeping missions are not careful, they can lose sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, it wasn’t the lack of food and water that required the establishment of the mission, but it was because the peace was broken. Peace, whether you like it or not, is a political variable— conflict resolution, peace building, and re-establishing systems after a conflict are all political variables. For better or worse, missions are not deployed to manage the environment or deal with food and water issues, but to restore peace. Thankfully, UNMIL is focused on its core mandatesand has seen success with the security transition in 2016 and the more recent political transition from the Government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to George Weah because of this attention.

Peace is a political issue, even if human rights and the lack of food and water are part of the challenges a country has faced before, during and after conflicts, especially because government institutions are not fully functional or able to deliver on their mandates to provide for the people. This is especially so on the continuum from when peace is broken, to when peace needs to be reestablished, to when active intervention is required. If we look at the conflict cycle, peacekeeping missions must re-establish political arrangements, and restore public faith in the government, democracy and human rights, so that states and their institutions can go about their business. This necessarily implies that missions should leave at some point.

Obviously a mission that is closing will focus on the sustainability of the efforts made to rearrange the political situation that led to the conflict in the first place, which is the situation UNMIL is in right now. Immediately before the Mission will have departed, Liberia held Presidential and House of Representatives elections in late 2017, followed by the actual transition of power in January 2018. During this last period we were trying to assist the Liberian Government with making political arrangements that will engender long-term peace. There has not been a peaceful and democratic transition between two elected heads of state in Liberia since 1944, and the lack of an inclusive and functional governance system was part of the cause of the civil wars here. As such, our work can be seen as a necessary preventative of future conflict, not just in holding elections but in facilitating a larger political system and discourse that prevents a return to conflict.

"At this time in UNMIL’s history, as it withdraws, the focus is on securing the political arrangements in Liberia that will ensure continuous peace and stability, with a heavy focus on politics to ensure that the elections are not just a moment or a blip, but part of a larger trajectory towards political and social stability, cohesion, reconciliation, peace and development."

Sometimes it appears that the panacea and end state of an intervention is to facilitate elections and that is it. But in thinking about elections and peace processes, it is important to remember that elections are part of a larger political context: there must be a winner obviously, but there must also be a structure for including other voices in the process before, during and after the elections, as well as within the new dispensation and political arrangement after the elections. These are the kinds of systemic safeguards against conflict. Elections are a necessary part of that larger reform, but are not sufficient in and of themselves. At this time in UNMIL’s history, as it withdraws, the focus is on securing the political arrangements in Liberia that will ensure continuous peace and stability, with a heavy focus on politics to ensure that the elections are not just a moment or a blip, but part of a larger trajectory towards political and social stability, cohesion, reconciliation, peace and development.

Consequently, peacekeeping missions must consider helping countries in post conflict situations to think about effectively managing divergent and sometimes conflicting interests in order to ultimately provide for the basic needs of the people. It is important to remember that the provision of basic needs is a fundamental function of any political system, and that it is not enough to think of technical electoral matters without making arrangements for the larger political, economic and social contexts that inform policy choices by governments and ballot choices by the electorate. These are often very complicated and difficult choices, and are often the source of conflict, especially where the state and economy are not wealthy enough to provide everything everyone wants. At the end of the day, while peacekeeping missions are not deployed to provide for the basic needs of the people in a particular country, they are there to help the government do so. Governments must meet the basic needs of the people, whether material, political, economic or social. Ultimately the provision of basic needs, irrespective of the formal system of governance at this time, is the most important thing. With that in mind, peacekeeping must be about enabling local governmental systems to provide for those things in order to secure a stable peace. That is quite different from seeing elections as an end in and of themselves, but as a means or a barometer of our intervention.

More critically, on this continent, an acknowledgement of this implies that we might need to re-think when we push for elections, so that it does not exacerbate underlying divisions where the state and the relevant actors do not have the means of resolving them effectively.

"Ultimately the provision of basic needs, irrespective of the formal system of governance at this time, is the most important thing. With that in mind, peacekeeping must be about enabling local governmental systems to provide for those things in order to secure a stable peace."

What are some benchmarks of social cohesion, if elections are not a panacea for democracy?

The basic needs of the people must be provided first by any society and any government; then communities can look at the kind of arrangements that are suitable for them. In that sense, elections are representative of what a government is trying to achieve or a choice of the people as to who will best fulfil their desires and needs. It is also important to remember why we have elections: to allow people to be represented in the government, to ensure the provision of services and to provide for the needs of the electorate, and to ensure that there is a space for political voices to be heard and considered. What should happen with a mandate in a country that is sometimes unable or incapable of delivering for its people? We can analyze why it is lacking those capabilities, but we cannot think that once the elections are held, that it’s done and we can go home. We may know that despite the mere existence of elections, new problems may be generated or old problems brought up again that we had been managing before the electoral cycle.

For instance, Liberia has for the past few years been going through a constitutional review process, which entailed the establishment of a Constitutional Review Committee and extensive consultations with the public and stakeholders to identify particular concerns and generate proposals. As a result of this process, 25 separate propositions were identified, covering topics as diverse as the length of the terms of office of presidents and legislators, to allowing dual citizenship, to local governance and land use, to the rights of women and people with disabilities.

Residents check for their names on the voter registration rolls placed by the National Elections Commission prior to the presidential election run-off. 
Photo: Shpend Berbatovci | UNMIL | 2 Dec 17

Politically speaking, the most contentious bill, Proposition 24, sought to “recognize” Liberia as a Christian state. However, there is a large Liberian community of Muslims, and many felt threatened by a process that gave them the sense they were being written out of the country’s history or relegated to some lesser status. When I arrived in UNMIL, this was a hot button issue and would have created real problems were it put in the Constitution. For various reasons, this tension was partially resolved by pushing the question further down the road to be dealt with by the next Government, which would have to hold a referendum on it. The problem still exists, however, and there is a portion of the Liberian electorate that wishes to adopt Proposition 24 into the Constitution. Unless dealt with, that is the kind of issue that can be a flashpoint for conflict. This is the kind of long-term political assistance and the long-term political engagement that is fundamental to peace building that goes well beyond holding an election or thinking that a voting process will invariably make the situation better.

Can you talk about some of the achievements in political affairs, some of the things you are proud of, from the time that you have worked here?

In support of the SRSG, we have helped the Mission in managing, mitigating and resolving all kinds of crises. These are possible because of the daily work we do to maintain contacts, nurture relationships and collect information. We do not exactly consider achievements as only meetings held or trainings given or equipment transferred, but also we try to ensure that we know what the salient issues are, what the underlying considerations are, whom to speak with, when to speak with the person, and what needs to be said to ensure the effectiveness of the Mission’s intervention in order to lead to a sustainable peace. This requires a certain appreciation of the political and cultural dynamics at work, an appropriate analytical framework, and, perhaps most importantly, hard work to ensure that we are everywhere we need to be and speak with everyone who needs to be spoken with.

Let me give you a concrete example from the recent electoral period. We had an issue between a prominent political party and the National Elections Commission (NEC). This party planned a large meeting during the period before the NEC authorized political rallies to be held. In response, the NEC issued a formal and strongly worded letter to the political party saying that it learned about the plans for a political rally and that it would be contrary to the elections laws and a recipe for chaos. The NEC warned the party not to hold the rally, and made this known in the media. It seemed like the NEC’s warning could destabilize the situation because it put into tension the authority of the NEC and its obligation to ensure adherence to the Elections Law, and the party’s right to participate in the democratic process and hold a meeting.

We went to see all those concerned and then played a mediation and conciliation role. First, we assessed the situation and informed the Mission’s leadership, who then authorized an intervention to facilitate a solution to the impasse, which entailed offering UNMIL’s assistance as an impartial ‘mediator’ between the NEC and the party. The whole situation was playing out in the press, and neither side was going to back down: the party insisted that they would go ahead with the meeting, while the NEC warned that no one would be allowed to break the law and hold a rally. So we went to see the political party, and they argued that they were not breaking the law and that instead that they would have a ‘big’ meeting inside their office, and that a gathering could be held in the big yard inside their compound, which was not public land. Of course, everyone knew that party supporters would end up in the streets beyond the yard, but we had to deal with two competing interests and rights: first, the party’s legitimate interest in hosting a meeting at their headquarters, which conformed to the NEC’s existing rules, no matter the size, and, second, the NEC’s legal mandate to ensure that parties not actively campaign or hold rallies outside of the officially sanctioned periods. In the end, the party was glad to work with us as a facilitator, and they were agreeable to an arrangement where they would stay within their yard.

With the party’s agreement, we went to NEC and asked whether the Commission could have contacted the party directly to discuss the situation rather than making the issue a big deal in the media. This is a small country, and the NEC could have simply advised the party directly that it could meet and host a gathering on its private land as long as it did not spill out into public land. In the end, we mediated the dispute and brokered a resolution, the only difference being that we did it without the media. Ultimately, the rally went on within the compound, and without breaking the law to the satisfaction of the NEC and the party.

Another example is that we regularly speak to all registered political parties to facilitate and arrange meetings with the SRSG, and to ensure their attendance. These meetings provide a safe space for the parties to share ideas and raise concerns. Arranging these meetings requires a lot of intense work to ensure that we have the parties’ trust and ear. Sometimes we take on the role of a back channel ‘communicator’ to ensure that various political stakeholders are fully engaged and are on the same page on a particular matter or a process.

"We engage intensely with legislators to ensure the passage of bills critical to national reforms or to facilitate amendments to ensure that Liberian laws comply with human rights norms and best practices, and also to make sure that these bills move the peace and reconciliation process forward."

We are also actively involved in the Legislature. We engage intensely with legislators to ensure the passage of bills critical to national reforms or to facilitate amendments to ensure that Liberian laws comply with human rights norms and best practices, and also to make sure that these bills move the peace and reconciliation process forward. Under the direction of Mission leadership, we were able to engage influential legislators on key bills such as the land rights and the local government bills, which required urgent passage. It is widely accepted that ensuring the equitable use and ownership of land and the decentralization and de-concentration of decision-making authority and services are essential to stability and peace in Liberia, and as such the Land Rights and the Local Government bills are essential components of the Mission’s political engagement. As part of this process, we facilitated several critical meetings between the SRSG and the Speaker of the House Representatives and the Senate President Pro Tempore. The SRSG’s good offices culminated in both houses placing the bills on the top of their priority list, and they currently await passage. Their passage will mark a significant step towards supporting Liberia’s decentralization and economic development.


Yet another example: Immediately after the 10 October elections, we learned about an electoral complaint by a prominent political party that sought to annul the results of the first round and re-run the entire election. This was a very big deal and potentially hugely divisive in a still fragile country like Liberia. We were probably the first outsider to learn of the complaint because of the continuous background work we do and our persistence in following up with all stakeholders. We immediately sprang into action and, on the direction of the SRSG, facilitated a discussion between the party’s standard bearer and the SRSG. Sometimes we participate in these meetings, and sometimes the meeting is held tête-à-tête to allow the principals to have a direct and frank talk about what should be done. But even then, we support the SRSG by preparing background notes, identifying interests, and highlighting points of agreement and disagreement.

This discussion with the SRSG and the leader of this political party was emblematic of the larger engagement we had with political parties, stakeholders, and national and international groups to try to forge consensus about the process. Some said that the elections were not properly executed and that there should have been a re-run, while others thought that the process was accurate and well-done, and that the results must stand. In order to keep everyone “on-side,” we facilitated countless meetings with stakeholders on both sides of the divide, which was substantial, as well as with neutral parties and other interlocutors, to calm things down.

More technically, early on during the electoral process, we subtly encouraged the NEC to identify logistical needs and make early formal requests for UNMIL’s support. This may seem like a simple thing, but it required advance planning and assessment on our part to predict what those needs would be, and then, to cajole the commissioners to reach out to us in time for UNMIL to offer support. In Liberia, that in itself can be a challenge, to get the NEC to identify what it needed and where and do its own advance planning. That kind of work can only be done if you have been on the ground well in advance and are known to and trusted by the relevant actors; it cannot be done by experts parachuting in at the last minute. Finally, as Political Affairs officers at our technical level, having had the opportunity to listen to the concerns raised by the NEC and political parties in our everyday engagements, we recognized that the relationship between them was weakening due to a challenge in communication. We informed the SRSG, who through his good offices encouraged them to engage more frequently under their Inter-Party Consultative Committee mechanism. As at the end of the electoral process, that Committee was very effective with a strengthened relationship between the NEC and political parties. Again, this essential engagement was made possible because of our continuous presence on the ground and our familiarity with the parties so that we could recognize small shifts in tone and predict future issues.

In political work, those interventions which avoided crises could then be characterized as achievements.

We encouraged and supported the Government to take up particular issues, for instance to promote good governance and to pass laws. To do that we identified issues and developed engagement strategies, based on a longer process that entails spotting an issue, assessing why the issue is not moving forward, identifying who, potentially, is preventing the situation from moving forward, and how to best address the issue. That requires a lot of advance work and continual engagement with stakeholders, contextual knowledge, analysis, relationship building and familiarity with the situation. Beyond that, we identify to whom the SRSG needs to speak, what buttons we need to press to move things forward, and what is happening with the Legislature and the executive.

One of the critical good offices engagements by the SRSG was diffusing tension between the judiciary and legislative branches of the Government at the peak of the electoral process. In August 2017, the House of Representatives alleged that three associate justices breached their oath of office and usurped the functions of the Legislature in their judgement on the code of conduct law, which allowed public officials to contest in the 2017 elections. Based on this allegation, the House initiated impeachment proceedings against the three justices. In response, the Supreme Court issued a stay on the proceedings. Tensions rose further when the House and the Supreme Court summoned the other to appear before each other, and both parties remained intransigent on how to peacefully resolve the matter, claiming that they were exercising their constitutional prerogative.

The stalemate was only resolved through mediation support from UNMIL’s good offices, in collaboration with the African Union, ECOWAS, the Inter-religious Council, the National Traditional Council of Liberia and the National Civil Society Council of Liberia. These tensions between the two branches of Government could have had far-reaching implications for Liberia’s peace and security.

Looking at the bigger picture through the lens of political affairs, are there some achievements by the Mission that you have found significant?

I am most proud of the security transition, even though my work is focused on political affairs. When I got here in April 2016, the Mission was still effectively managing Liberian corrections officers and police officers as part of its mandate. By June 2016, we had slowly withdrawn our active engagement in everyday security issues. You would have expected violence to increase in the vacuum that many Liberians suspected would emerge as UNMIL withdrew. But none of that has happened. There have been no major incidents, which is hugely important.

The SRSG’s regular face-to-face meetings with the President are also very useful. I have seen missions where the head of mission has very limited access to the executive and the government. At UNMIL, we have a friendly and effective working relationship with the Government, political parties, businesses, and ordinary citizens, the international community and civil society that has propelled a lot of what we have done here.

How confident are you in the future of Liberia?

I am confident in the people of Liberia; I am confident in the regional support structures; and of course I am confident in the UN system’s capacity to provide support.

The problem goes back to how we have defined governance, politics and elections, as to whether the people in power would be able to move the nation forward. The fundamental issue is the need to enable a structured and capable Government, and forge national unity and a deep sense of ‘Liberian-ness’. To achieve the necessary sense of Liberian-ness, the country may need a ministry of national orientation and ‘propaganda’ to send out civic messages on patriotism, on being a Liberian first, above anything else.

Liberia has been around long enough and there have been enough generations between the arrival of the first emancipated slaves at Providence Island in 1822 and intermarriage and interactions with those who were already here to create an inclusive environment and Government. Perhaps what Liberia needs is a conscious effort to change the course of the country and forge an inclusive culture that incorporates everyone from all of the different communities here. There has certainly been enough time; there simply has not been enough conscious effort to change the fundamental dynamics.

So what recommendation do you have for the country?

Liberia must make a serious attempt at nation building in all its forms, driven by Liberians and assisted by the international community, to build the country in all aspects, including the civic and social consciousness of the people. I am not talking about building more schools, because you can build as many schools as you want, and people will still want to take their education and leave. Liberians must decide for themselves that this is their country and their nation, and that they must do something about it because they have nowhere else to go. Liberians must fully agree that this is their country and to take pride in it.

In short, Liberia needs to improve its nation building process. The UN system should remain in support with capacity building activities, as required. Is there anything else that you would like to add about the United Nations?

One lesson learned from Liberia for future peacekeeping missions could be the need to see legitimate and pressing problems in their larger political, economic and social contexts. Too often we attempt to solve problems along only one axis: pass this law, empower that actor, provide this capacity. Ultimately, in order to resolve the kinds of serious problems confronting post-conflict societies like Liberia, we need to see them as embedded in larger, more complex contexts that defy simple solutions and require multi-faceted and sustained engagement. We need capable hands that understand the context and do not attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all solution, or reduce progress to a single event like an election.

This does not mean that Political Affairs cannot engage with a particular problem with a set deadline, or that incisive action is not needed along any of the axes I mentioned. Rather, the point is that individual interventions are needed to ensure that the inevitable rocks along the road to peace do not become unmovable objects. To do so, missions need to have political officers who understand the intricacies of local contexts and the sensitivities of stakeholders and decision makers, and who can facilitate meetings and identify the fulcrum of an issue to allow the country to move those inevitable obstacles out of the way.

Finally, we must remember, conflicts are the result of a long-term breakdown in national systems. If we want sustainable peace and resilient communities, we must also be willing to make a sustainable commitment that is not limited by any artificial deadline. Fortunately, when UNMIL leaves, the UN Country Team remains to continue to provide support to Liberia.

Photo: Staton Winter | UNMIL | 3 Jan 12