Michelle Ndiaye Ntab is the program director for African Peace and Security Programs (APSP), a joint program of the Addis Ababa University and the Institute for Peace and Security (IPSS), with the support from GIZ. Before joining IPSS, she was the Managing Director of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies (MINDS). Between 1999 and 2011, she consecutively headed several African and international organizations among others, Executive Director of Greenpeace Africa, and CEO of the African Institute for Corporate Citizenship (AICC). IPSS organizes several policy dialogues of which the Tana High-Level Forum for Security in Africa is the major one. The Fourth Tana High-Level Forum, under the theme “Secularism and Politicized Faith”, will be held on the 18th and 19th of this month in the city of Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara regional state, 578 kms North of Addis Abeba. Addis Standard’s editor-in-chief, Tsedale Lemma, sat down with Michelle for this exclusive interview on Tana Forum. Excerpts:
Addis Standard – I was reviewing the document for this year’s theme and I found one very interesting phrase that described one of the Tana Forum’s objectives as “filling the intellectual gap.” What does that mean? Why do you think Tana matters?
Michelle Ndiaye Ntab – I believe one of the reasons why Tana matters is that when in 2009 African heads of state and governments called for African centered solutions and ownership of the African intervention in peace and security they looked at peace and security as being an intellectual challenge. They called on research institutions and academic institutions to get together and deal with this intellectual challenge. Tana is a response to that intellectual challenge; a platform for [intellectual] dialogue. I think the African Union also knew very clearly that it was better to have it informally but also not to kill it by the heavy protocol of the AU.
You often pick up rather interesting topics to discuss, like “Managing Diversity and State Fragility”, “Security and Organized Crime in Africa”, “Illicit Flows and their Impact on Peace & Security” which are interlinked to one another but not directly. How do you arrive at the decision that the continent needs to have a dialogue on these issues?
I am getting that question very often. I believe that the board is composed of people with very sharp intellect but who have been also on the forefront of most of the challenges in peace and security in Africa. It is really a very deep process of thinking and as you rightly pointed out, most of the themes are linked. If you can look at monitoring diversity and state fragility, they are interlinked; if you go from managing diversity to state fragility to organized crime and illicit financial flows then we are coming back to the first topic which looks at state fragility.And somehow because of the rise of religious extremism but also because of the fact that secularism is not at a position to be defended this year’s theme….
Michelle Ndiaye Ntab
Let me interrupt you here because I want to come back to it when we will be particularly discussing this year’s theme. One of the main objectives of the forum, according to your own documents, is to work towards “effective African led solutions to the continent’s most pressing challenges”. But you have leaders who participated in the last three forums – for example Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. And yet these are the same countries which succumb to the very topic that their heads of state come to discuss at Tana forums. How do you comment on that?
The process of change is a delicate process especially when it comes to political change and social change. And I believe that because it is linked to human nature that process is very difficult to manage. And Tana is, I believe, making impact in the minds of the people and that is what we want Tana to be. But again it is going to take time for those who are attending Tana to really internalize the outcome of our discussion. We believe perhaps it will take ten or twenty forums to get to a point where people really start saying we need this process of change within our institutions, within our countries but also at individuals level. When we said we are discussing under Chatham house rule it is to precisely allow those heads of state to have their own introspection during the debate and when they go back home and reflect on what they have said; that their peers will hold them accountable. And we believe by systematically inviting those leaders, putting very delicate questions about their way of doing things will lead them to [self-examine] when they go back home.
Was there any particular incident in the last four years whereby you think Tana Forum had influenced a decision making process within states? Or where countries reverted back to you and asked for more research to be done on specific topics? Four years is the beginning of something, isn’t it?
Well it is the beginning of something but I must say that the baby has grown up but it is not an adult yet. It is still a young adult. But it is too early for us to conclude we have made that change happen. But I can cite one example: last year President Olusegun Obasanjo was chairing his session and President Salva Kiir [of South Sudan] left the forum earlier than expected. He was called infront of his peers and the entire assembly and was told: “Mr President at the end of the day you are the President; you have to make it happen. It is your call to stop what is happening in your country.” It had a huge impact on how people perceived those words. Although we cannot associate that with what happened at Tana, a few days later President Kiir announced that he was ready to negotiate. But it was very difficult to link that with the outcome of Tana.
Let’s get back to the current topic: “Secularism and politicized faith”. We know that many countries in Europe are dealing with this very issue in post Charlie Hebdo incident. Why did you think it was an issue in Africa at this particular point and time?
It is definitely an issue in Africa too. Look at what happened in Northern Mali which would have affected the entire Sahel region if we had allowed it to spread. When I say the Sahel region it is Chad, it is Niger, Senegal, Mauritania, Northern Nigeria etcetera. And you come back to Northern Nigeria, what is happening is Boko Haram. It is not totally about fighting secularism but somehow it is. We are looking at secularism as something that is separating state and religion and that is the perceptions of the Jihadists who want to establish a caliphate in Northern Nigeria for example; in Mali it is the same.
I always say that I came from a country whose constitution starts with these words –a republic that is secular. Those are the two first words. And I grew up with the notion that secularism has brought stability in the process of nation building. The value that secularism contains in terms of thinking about religion being separated from the state and state being separated from religion allows social cohesion, which in turn allows building a nation based on value system that is shaped by its own citizens. That also allows us to answer the question of who needs secularism. We need secularism in Africa and it has to be defended. Of course religion is part of our private life but it should not intervene in the affairs of the state. But this doesn’t mean that religious leaders should not be consulted by a state when the need arises; they are part and parcel of a society and they have the possibility to provide their opinion when things are not going well. But at the same time I believe the process of building a modern state in Africa needs secularism.
The biggest challenge is how to reconcile that in Africa with the crisis of identity that our young people are going through? And that leads them to use religion as a tool for airing their grievances because our society and the way we are building African state is not conducive enough, is not inclusive enough. And this is where religious radicalism comes in as a tool.
There is another challenge too, I guess. In most countries in Africa religion has an enormous power over state and some states are only happy to use religion to subdue a society. This makes it that it is not only the youth who are resorting into radicalism but states which are also not ready to separate themselves from religion.Is the forum going to address this?
The forum will definitely address this. There will be a session especially looking at African secularism and the way we deal with religion and politics. And that session will be, I think, one of the most important sessions of this forum this year. And I believe that we all have religion in our constitutions or the spirit of constitution in Africa has religion playing a role in it. But at the same time in practice we all are using religion when it suits us. I think that trend will continue. What we need to put an emphasis on is to make sure religion is used and religious leaders, those who are carrying that convening power, are used when society needs them the most. It is a very delicate balance. We were recently in Ghana conducting one of the regional pre forum workshops and precisely that topic was debated extensively by the participants who are at the very grassroots level…
Which countries have you invited, and particularly targeted to come and participate in the forum? Which countries in Africa are threatened by politicized faith?
We looked at several criteria as we do every year when we invite heads of state and government. And it goes to the office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia who has the final say, Ethiopia being the host country, but also in collaboration with the Board of Tana. This year we looked at of course the Sahel region, we looked at Nigeria, but we also looked at particularly those countries that are currently under civil war and those that are going into what we call ‘Intractable Conflicts’, those conflicts that are never ending, just changing faces and have the capacity to regenerate themselves – Somalia, Eastern DRC and the Congo etcetera.
Then we said let’s look at the countries that had enjoyed stability for the past twenty years and why precisely secularism has been important in the process of nation building. We looked at those we call ‘Oases of Stability’ and this is also very relative when it comes to which country is stable and which is not. We also looked at recent reports from AfDB on African Fragility Index; they published a very good report that came up with the sign of fragility in our countries and a lot of countries have been listed. We looked at those that are holding elections this year and next year – 18 African countries will be holding elections [this year] and twelve of those elections have the potential to turn into conflict. So we looked at different studies but also different criteria that allowed us to say ‘let’s invite these countries’. But at the same time we also said whoever wants to participate can participate because this is an interesting theme; we realize that after what happened in recent events in the world people might be interested. That is how we processed our invitation.