A Discussion with Elias Omondi Opongo, S.J., Director of Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations

With: Elias Omondi Opongo Berkley Center Profile

May 30, 2017

Background: Dr. Elias Omondi Opongo, S.J., directs the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations (HIPSIR) within the Catholic University of Eastern Africa's Hekima College in Nairobi, Kenya, which focuses on training practitioners and scholars from across Africa in skills and strategies needed to build peaceful societies. A Jesuit priest and Kenyan citizen, Omondi has a long track record as a scholar and activist. His interest in and approach to peacebuilding was inspired initially by working with refugees from the Rwanda genocide, and he has worked and lived in various African countries, accumulating a broad experience in conflict situations. During an August 4, 2016 discussion in Washington, D.C. (on the margins of a Catholic Peacebuilding Network meeting) and in subsequent exchanges with Katherine Marshall, Father Omondi focuses on the complex causes of conflict today, especially in Africa, and on the appeal of extremism. He discusses experience in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, and other countries, and issues ranging from election violence to corruption. He stresses how important it is to work for a better understanding of long-term sources of grievance that give rise to anger and violence.

What led to your keen interest in peace studies and in the work of building peace? Can you describe your path?

As a young Jesuit, I was especially interested in the roles of media. However, when I finished my degree in philosophy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire, circumstances led me to change my focus. I was sent to work at a radio station, to give me a chance to see if that was really what I wanted to do. It was 1996, just after the Rwanda genocide. And working with those issues, I found myself for the first time surrounded by the realities of violence and refugees. My interest shifted over the next year from media to peace and conflict. In speaking to David Schwinghammer, a Maryknoll priest who had just graduated from the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I gained an appreciation for the emerging field. But, still more, talking to refugees about the challenges they faced was a strong influence. In December 1996, refugees were being forced out of camps and sent back to Rwanda. I experienced their real fear of the harm, coming from their direct knowledge of warlords and others. Among the refugees were those who had participated in the genocide. The volunteers who came from Belgium and the UN looked at what they had witnessed and also focused on this experience of fear. Then in 1997, Rwanda invaded the Congo, and Uganda joined in. Through it all I came to a new vocation.

How did you pursue this new interest?

The Great Lakes situation at this time was tense, with widely divergent views of causes and solutions.

Returning to Nairobi to study theology at Hekima College, Jesuit School of Theology, I founded a new reflection group, the Hekima Peace Forum. This group met on a regular basis, in private, but there were also public forums once a month. The forum included various participants: some social justice advocates, NGOs, and civil society groups, among others. We organized a two-day symposium on Church approaches to peacebuilding.

I was involved during this period with UNESCO, which was supporting peace education in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Djibouti) but also for refugees from Congo and Somalia. I was sent to Somalia to train teachers in peace education. I also went to Yemen, working with teachers on the same subject in North Yemen in the Al Ghain refugee camp, right in the middle of a desert, a place I would never have imagined myself. It was quite a difficult experience, but a good opportunity to explore different dimensions of peace education and the peace education methods developed by both UNESCO and UNHCR. We emerged with a manual that was based on a two- to three-year experience working with refugees.

Did you have opportunities to develop your academic interests in this area?

After these assignments, I was sent to the Western School of Theology in Boston. I had been much struck by the Mennonite approach and interested in the programs at Eastern Mennonite University. I enrolled for an M.A. degree program and went there for a summer program. That was a fascinating experience, bringing together people working on peace issues from many different settings. The Mennonites have a particular approach to peace. I recognized that this field was truly where I wanted to be. While I was there I met a scholar, Scott Appleby, who was the director of the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame University. He urged me to apply to the institute, and I was accepted with a full scholarship. So I went there after my studies in Boston. It was again a beautiful experience: 24 students from 18 countries, all with rich experiences.

I then returned to Nairobi to a Jesuit center, the Hakimani Center, and spent four years working on conflict issues, training different groups in conflict transformation, human rights, reconciliation, and leadership. The biggest challenge during this time was the post-election violence over disputed election results in the 2007 and 2008 presidential election that led to deaths of more than 1,500 people. I kept asking about the big questions: What were the turning, the marking points? What had we been doing all these years, and what had it accomplished? Why were we feeling the impact of violence more than before? What was the implication of the politicized role of the Church and its divisions? Why had the Church not been able to show more leadership during the 2007 and 2008 post-election violence? What was the significance of transitional justice and other approaches to helping broken communities to be valued again? We were looking for new horizons for post conflict reconstruction.

And your Ph.D.?

After four years at Hakimani, I went to England for my Ph.D. studies. There my research focus was on post-conflict reconstruction in relation to international and local mechanisms justice, reconciliation, and statebuilding. My thesis was on the Northern Uganda post conflict reconstruction. I did work on the ground and interviewed Bishop [John Baptist] Odama and other religious leaders, members of Catholic Relief Services, the communities, and NGOs.

I worked to understand liberal peace, a model that is currently used in states emerging out of conflict. This model is totally centered on the state and leaves out the local agency. The state has to define and provide for the rule of law, human rights, and political and economic centers. The model does not, however, involve religion, assuming that state authorities are sufficient. It is very much a Western model of post-conflict reconstruction that we are seeing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Rwanda. The progression is to establish the rule of law, liberalize the economy, then hold democratic elections, and things will get better. It was a frustration that religion was left out. My focus was on how to get more coverage in leverage for religious actors in political settlements and in post-conflict reconstruction. Because if the political settlement is not well managed, with no agreement for transitional justice, there is no sound foundation, and the results will be poor. The political settlement cannot be external; if it does not take local realities into account and balance political realities, there is no long-term foundation. Religious actors know the community and can help to ensure that justice is more effective. It is thus vital to identify and work with the key actors including those in religious institutions. 

What is happening today?

In the last four years (and even earlier), the challenges of conflict resolution are seeing a new phase with the rise of terrorism. We find ourselves searching in the dark, as we try to determine how to deal with the issue of extremism. We are learning from research, for example in Tanzania, that helps in understanding at least some of the manifestations of religious extremism and violence. There are at first specific phases of denial, with assertions that deficiencies do not exist. We need to dig deep to overcome that. Surveys we conducted in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar have helped in understanding the causes better. Some of the approaches have been heavy-handed. Zanzibar in many ways stands as a litmus test. The question raised is how to conduct dialogue in a manner that addresses the real concerns, and that is not subject to political manipulation, or a military response or repression. The government did not address the real issues. In Zanzibar the elections were taken to be a Muslim issue, with the result that they were seen as manipulated by the government. Elections in Tanzania always bring forward religious grievances that have yet to be addressed. This shows how an effort to address violence still became a manifestation of deeper grievances.

Externally generated funding, notably from Oman and Saudi Arabia, can also exacerbate tensions. That offers an entry point for other grievances that can be camouflaged as religious extremism and violence.

As an example of those grievances, in focus groups in Dar Es Salaam with Muslims, they raised grievances about education. In their view their concerns expressed over many years had not been taken seriously. They said they were marginalized, that students could not take exams, and that when they took them they could not pass because their exams were marked unfairly. There is really no basis for those assertions, as there was no ways to identify the student papers by religion or location. But the fact that people believed that it happened is significant. It exemplified their reaction: when their children fail in a course or exam, there must be machinations. Christians are part of the exam council. What is important is that the concerns were not addressed.

In many interreligious conflicts, we can find similar allegations and attitudes, with people fearful for the same kinds of reasons. As we study the situation, we need to look at the underlying issues in a long-term framework.

How does that apply for Kenya today?

Kenya is an example of how the issue of economic marginalization translates into political exclusion and manipulation of political processes. As resentments build up, young people can be recruited into radical groups that propagate violence for various reasons. And this is not just about attitudes. It reflects how the state has been able to deal with the issue. There has been a lack of clarity in how to respond. The tendency has been to focus on the military and intelligence, treating all concerned as criminals who must be crushed. Military and police have dominated the response, without taking the community into account, or giving them trust. So they in turn are not trusted.

The question is what can be done to earn trust. As the communities are pushed to extremes, people become very vindictive. We need the government to examine its approach to addressing the recruitment of youth. An example is handling of returnees, who were duped and are completely lost. This situation is linked to many weaknesses, for example in election processes, the election commission, and many political machinations in how state is governed.

The Church, civil society, and academic institutions really need to reflect and look to how to develop really accountable institutions.

Elections cannot be the ultimate test, to do or die. They are only a preface. The hope is that such a longer-term approach will happen in Kenya with the decentralized system. There are now mini federal counties. The local government is supposed to act, so that accountability is closer to the people. That is, I hope, a positive over the longer term.

Another aspect common to elections is that violence has become a way to control the election process.

How does that apply?

You can see it happening in Zambia today. Zambia has always had peaceful elections. But in the latest elections there are signs of the process being ethnicized. That means that ethnicity has been politicized, a true playing of that issue. The opposition feels that it does not have the numbers. So they begin hiring hooligans to force their will. We have seen similar patterns in Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, where youth have been hired and used for political purposes. In Uganda and Burundi these groups have actually been formalized and are used to intimidate during elections.

How are do you see corruption as a central part of grievances?

Corruption is, sadly, part of the country, deeply grounded in the system. It is a major issue of concern. Corruption is in practice used as a tool of governance, a tool to thwart accountability. It is a means to gain and use power, to favor certain regions. Finance is used to bribe the electorate to get services. Thus it becomes a means to control the electorate in ways that are almost institutionalized. Worse, the patterns have been used deliberately to create economic disparities as a way to control political power.

The efforts of civil society, the churches, and the donor community are needed to devise new systems of accountability. Even the constitution lacks the tools to address the issue. The Public Information Act offers one way to help people to be more aware. The Kenyan constitution does have provisions for debate on expenditures, but it does not provide a way to ensure real accountability. The result is that we rely on the media as the major whistle-blower. We need to have other monitoring systems on the government to be more transparent.

The challenge on accountability is accentuated when natural resources are involved, and their presence tends to lead to more government secrecy. There are clear examples in Uganda, with the secrecy around oil benefits—also Nigeria, Angola, and Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe they claim that the government says it cannot find $15 billion in diamond revenues. How could that kind of money be hidden? These examples highlight the importance both of the Public Information Act and of other independent institutions that contribute to accountability.

When did you come to Hekima? And what is your focus there?

I came to the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations, Hekima University College, in August 2012. HIPSIR offers an M.A. in peace studies and international relations. It is exciting interacting with students who have lots of experience. The students come from different parts of Africa, although we also occasionally get students from Europe, Latin America, and Asia. There is a mix of male and female, Christians and Muslims, clergy and lay. Some are totally green, but many have a wide experience of conflicts, civil society engagement, and international relations. I teach the ethics of war and peacebuilding. In this course the understanding is that violence is something that can be manipulated. Thus the issue is how to control violence and the use of force and how to hold leaders accountable. There are students here that have experience on both sides of the issue.

At HIPSIR we emphasize that theoretical understanding of diverse contexts ought to be merged with and enhanced by further research and practical experiences. The Centre for Research, Training and Publications at HIPSIR ensures that there is a creative link between research and social action. And our work forms part of a trend within civil society, religious groups, and NGOs interested in research that goes deeper into patterns and causes of violence, and how to create structures of governance that are accountable to the people. Such research can be used effectively as a launch pad for in-depth analysis. We can identify factors, then zero in on the most important among them.

Our approach involves both intellectual analysis and debate, dispute, and appraisal on the ground. In a course I teach on the practice of peacebuilding, diplomacy, and international relations, for example, we send students to different organizations to review the activities of the organization, theory of change, and how to improve on the methodologies of interventions. At the end of their experiences they share their findings with the institutions so that the latter become more open to learning. We find that this experience gets students searching for answers. Younger students tend to be more critical, but when they are attached to institutions, they find that certain realities are limited by context.

How did you come to the priesthood?

I come from Western Kenya, near Kisumu, but I grew up in Nairobi. I went to high school in a minor seminary and was an altar boy. I had an older brother who wanted to be a priest, but my parents refused. But when I too wanted to be a priest, they did not resist seriously. I went to study in Zambia, then my second year in Tanzania in 1991. I spent other years of study in Zimbabwe, Kenya, United States, and United Kingdom. I love what I am doing now in teaching and training people who are committed to making our world a better place.

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