UN Peacemaking: Fit for Purpose? Interview with Ozonnia Ojielo – UN Resident Coordinator, Kyrgyzstan

Fit for purpose? Strengths and weaknesses of traditional vs. non-traditional forms of peacemaking in the UN and international arena

During a sweeping and behind the scenes interview with GVI President Joe Washington, Dr. Ojielo shares his views and perspectives on a variety of conflict management and peace building endeavors in which he has been engaged, from his distinguished work as a legal advocate in his native Nigeria to catching the ‘alternative dispute resolution bug” that led his career in a new and unexpected direction. Dr. Ojielo’s ‘stories’ have informed his views and perspectives regarding some of the key challenges confronting the international system today, and answers the key question: “Is the UN and multilateral system fit for purposeto respond to the current and emerging threats in the international arena?

Part 1 of the interview is shared below. Dont miss Part 2, which will be shared in the December edition of the GVI newsletter.

GVI: Ozonnia, youve had a rich and diverse career as a legal practitioner, scholar, civilian dispute resolution expert, and now as an international civil servant working for the United Nations. In the area of peacemaking, peacebuilding and transitional justice, it is important to recall your distinguished career,  with UNDP as Coordinator for Conflict Prevention and Recovery in UNDPs Bureau for Crisis Recovery in New York, as Regional Cluster Leader for Governance and Peacebuilding in Africa, based in Addis Ababa, as Senior Peace and Development Adviser to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Kenya and Chief of the Peacebuilding Programme of UNDP Kenya, as Senior Governance Adviser to the UN Resident Coordinator, and Head of the Governance Programme of UNDP Ghana; and as Head of Operations and Officer in Charge of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You currently serve as United Nations Resident Coordinator, UNDP Resident Representative, and UNFPA Representative for the Kyrgyz Republic. Over such a long and distinguished career, what were some of your most challenging and rewarding experiences?


Ozonnia: Thank you very much Joe and it is a pleasure to participate in this conversation with GVI. The GVI principles are excellent and many times practitioners, scholars and policy makers in this field do not have the opportunity to detach for a period and reflect on their experience. Such reflection can provide an opportunity to gain insights on the work you do, and perhaps either to recharge your batteries or develop a new perspective that you previously did not think about.

 Perhaps I should start with the most critical functions that I have performed which occurred literally in the heat of the action as it were. The two will be in Kenya and Sierra Leone, and then I can come back and highlight others experiences from a more long-term development perspective and what were the challenges.

Experiences in Kenya

Beginning with the most recent of these real time experiences was Kenya, as a result of the 2007 elections. As you may recall, the opposing party rejected the results of the elections, and people went onto the streets and started attacking supporters of the party that was declared victorious, and then the violence degenerated and took on ethnic undertones.. By the time the violence had ended, more than one thousand individuals had been killed, and more than six hundred thousand displaced.

Over the previous 20 to 30 years, people had looked at Kenya as a model of stability in a region that has been challenged by conflict, insecurity and instability. Most people did not think such an outbreak of conflict was possible in Kenya. Responding to the outbreak of violence, the Africa Union requested Kofi Annan to lead a mediation panel composed of prominent African personalities, and in early 2008 they managed to get the parties to sign an agreement which called for the formation of a coalition government.

 As I arrived in Kenya in July of 2008, my main task was to lead the implementation of the Kenyan National Dialogue and Reconciliation Process. This essentially was the peace agreementthat had been agreed by the parties. Key elements of the agreement included stopping the violence and addressing the humanitarian situation. Addressing the humanitarian damages took much longer to address.  When I left Kenya in 2011, the plight of thousands of displaced persons had not been fully addressed because many were still living in IDP camps as they could not go home.  Ultimately, the camps were closed and some went to transition houses while others had to find their own way.

 A second dimension of the peace process was to understand what had happened and why. For this task, an international panel was established. They came up with various findings and recommendations on electoral and judicial reforms to address the issues.  Another panel was set up to understand the root causes of the violence, and identify those responsible for the violence and the measures that had to be undertaken to ensure the violence did not occur again.  A fourth dimension of the recommendations was to look at what they called the long-term structural issues. These issues were the drivers of the crucially felt marginalization in Kenya, the governance and other deficits, the significant inequality that had permeated the society, the history of political violence, and how they could be addressed.  These were important steps the leaders had to confront once the humanitarian crisis was essentially under control, shelters set up, and significant portions of the population were living in displaced camps.

Overall, I believe a lot of things were done in Kenya. The political actors quickly came together and tried to address many of the underlying issues. So, for example, in terms of institutional reform, efforts were undertaken to look at the entire electoral process and ensure the functioning of an electoral commission that could gain public confidence. A committee on national cohesion and integration tried to address some of the ethnic competition that often lead to political violence in the country. Some effort was directed towards judicial reform, and the parties to the peace agreement agreed to the formation of a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation commission.

New groundbreaking constitution

 I led the UNDP effort to support all commissions in terms of building their capacity, including assisting them in the development of strategies and implement plans to gain public confidence and increase legitimacy. There was also an understanding that the constitution needed to be reviewed, so an initiative was started to review the constitution and adopt a new one.  Overall, this was a massive social engineering endeavor, basically to create a new country on a new scale. To various degrees, all commissions managed to fulfill their mandates and produce reports, and the proposal for a new constitution was then put to a referendum and adopted in 2010.

 As I look back, I think there were lots of rewards for the Kenyan peoples which ultimately emerged from this tragedy. Of particular note was the effort to adopt a new constitution. Kenyans came up with a new groundbreaking constitution in terms of the breadths of rights. This included provisions to redress the historical occurrence of the President from a particular ethnic group being beholden to his group, and as a result disproportionately directing resources and development opportunities to this group.  So provisions in the new constitution were significant in redistributing various powers of the President, and strengthening levels of governance among national, county, and local authorities. By trying to address the issues which emerged as a result of the prior power imbalances in multiple ways, this gave confidence to the public at-large.

The adoption of the boundaries review was also an extremely contentious issue. Court challenges were lodged. I take a lot of pride in the success of the behind the scenes work whereby I had an opportunity to engage with the parties to find a consensus around the boundary review. This resulted in a consensus being formed over what was proposed, supported by the leadership and all parties in parliament, the cabinet, and ultimately adopted and validated without litigation in the courts. I think that was groundbreaking.

Collaborative leadership

Important efforts were also undertaken in the realm of conflict management, violence prevention and peace building. This included a mechanism for tracking past incidents of violence. The use of social media was employed to share factual information on what had occurred, and more importantly to put in place mechanisms to mitigate against such atrocities occurring again. In this regard, we identified individuals to serve as peace monitors across the country, and gave them computers and different kinds of equipment. They could predict violence and employ capacities to keep violence from occurring. This early warning capacity was of vital importance in the lead up to the referendum on the constitution in August 2010, and in support of the two subsequent elections held since 2007-2008. The elections were pretty tough, but the capacities and skills that we had built in 2009 and 2010 continued to be present and deployed to manage political violence in the country.

 We started the initiative we call collaborative leadership, where we got political actors together, where we got them to participate, got them to work together across lines of division, and we said it was important that political actors can compete and collaborate at the same time – these are not mutually exclusive enterprises. The driving question remains what is it that we need to understand and learn to repeat this collaborative system?

In the context of Kenya, the challenge has remained that the politics on Kenya are deep seeded. Political violence has not gone away in Kenya, despite the excellent work that was done in Kenya from 2008-2010. We could see from the 2017 election how the country can quickly polarise. So the project in Kenya is a mammoth undertaking and there is still a long way to go. Perhaps one can only hope that the support that some of us played was a small contribution in a long journey that the country still has to undertake. In peace building, one cannot just stop, even when the general funding has ended. National actors must retain ownership and lead the process.

Experiences in Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, 12 years of civil war lead to tens of thousands of people killed and displaced. Here you had a lot of young kids being subjected to use psychotropic substances and committing terrible acts of depravity and violence against community members – especially women and children. So there was a lot of violence in Sierra Leone. A Truth Commission was set up at the end of the war in 2002. I arrived shortly afterwards, first serving as Chief of Operations, and later as Officer-in-Charge of the Commission. Leading the operations of the Commission, my key tasks included sending people out to take statements across the country, reviewing the statements, planning the public and private hearings of the Commission, giving ordinary people a voice and the victims an opportunity to speak to the Commission, and directing attention to the experiences of women and children in that conflict.

Truth Commission, women and children 

The Truth Commission of Sierra Leone was the first Truth Commission in the world to develop a specific report of the experiences of children in armed conflict. Our Truth Commission was also the first to write a specific report on women because of the nature of the violence that occurred in the conflict. Our Truth Commission was also the first to take statements from Sierra Leoneans living outside the country. We travelled to Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, and other parts of West Africa where we gave Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora an opportunity to interact with the Commission. and we produced a report that still today is a reference point for members of that Commission. The report we produced is still today regarded as the most comprehensive analysis of conflict in the country, and our findings had enabled the declaration of a roadmap to ensure that violence doesnt occur in the country again, and if as a last alternative how it could be addressed. That was rewarding. It was a very fulfilling effort where you see change happen and where you see a country and its citizens gaining a sense of optimism and renewal in their country.

Local capacity and ownership

 In terms of the challenge in Sierra Leone, the fact was there existed limited capacity in the country at the time to work on Truth Commission issues. A Truth Commission doesnt come to a country twice when there is the conflict. We had to find ways to use students to participate actively in the Commission, as it was important that when the Commission shut down, some capacities continued to lead on issues of transitional justice, and to share the Sierra Leone experience. Since the Commission was composed of both national and foreign Commissioners, the leadership of the staff were all internationals. For me, it was a legacy question that we generated local capacity, that they could take ownership of the Commission once the internationals had left.


UNDP in New York, national infrastructures for peace

Now very broadly, I turn to some of the work I have done leading the UNDP Conflict Prevention and Recovery efforts globally in NY from 2011-2014. This was very rewarding. It allowed me, my colleagues in UNDP but also with support of our leadership, to first reposition UNDP as a key thought leader on big issues related to peacebuilding around the world. Even issues on infrastructures for peace. Historically we focus on so-called Track 1 processes and not a lot on Track 2 process, or even Track 3.  Most of the resources and investment went to Track 1 processes. During that time, our initiative allowed us to highlight the importance of Track 2 and promote Track 3 processes on a larger scale. We were able to get governments to recognize that peacebuilding is not just the purview of governments, but rather a national endeavor requiring the mobilisation of all capacities in the country.

The model of Ghana

We managed to do some groundbreaking work, particularly in Africa, with African Union and ECOWAS that adopted the concept of national infrastructures for peace. In Ghana, we set up the first national infrastructures for peace during my time there from 2004-2008. If you remember in 1994, South Africa set up the National Peace Committee process and that was the mechanism for trying to manage violence that was occurring in parts of South Africa. Now the regret was that in 1998 when South Africa set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they shut down the National Committee process, the assumption being that everything had been resolved and they didnt need it any longer. The work we did then in Ghana became the very first globally after the initial experimentation in South Africa that showed that a peacebuilding initiative is an important national process, particularly for countries where the concept of nation-state is still under development, along with building a multi-plural and multi-ethnic society.

As a result, what we worked on was supporting the development of a state infrastructure where many issues can be addressed amicably, where people can find common ground, and take the consensus that had been generated in international development processes. Such infrastructure is not just for preventing violence, but can be used to manage differences and problems in a country, for building consensus around development priorities, and mobilizing entire country around other critical priorities. Ghana was a fantastic model in terms of our work, and leading the portfolio for UNDP in New York gave me the opportunity to take that concept and extrapolate it into a global initiative, working with civil society, through GPPAC (Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict), and through regional groups across the world.


Experiences in Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, the country is not at war, it does not have conflict using the global definitions of conflict. The country is emerging from a long history of authoritarianism, and reinvented itself in 2011 in terms of a new political paradigm – a parliamentary democracy. This followed 2 revolutions, one in 2005 and another in 2010.

 Construction of a nation 

The construction of the nation under the new parliamentary democracy is a work in progress, the development of the institutions, the development of the sense of unity, these are works in progress. The perfection of the rights of the citizen by the institutions is a work in progress, and the relationship between the state and the individual has to be consolidated and deepened. So there is a lot of work that needs to be done in Kyrgyzstan. My role is to recognize that the UN is the chief advisor to countries on development issues and to mobilize the policy expertise, some resources by the UN, and by marshaling our comparative knowledge and putting all of this at disposal of government so that change can happen.

All the prior country examples highlight the fact that we should look globally at where we are going and the challenges these countries face. You would wish that there is a higher degree of ambition and effort towards these changes, that people recognize the sense of urgency that should accompany the national and international efforts to address these issues. But when you remember that we are dealing with governments, with individuals, with people from different ethnic backgrounds, it provides a dose of realism that lets you know that while you may wish things move faster, you have to take them as they come, you must be patient. Our role is an accompanying role, it is national institutions and actors that must lead, we cannot be the ones in front. We have to go at their pace, while continuing to remind them of the challenges they face and the need for quick action on their side so they can continue to sustain the development they have made.


GVI: That is really fascinating, I am particularly intrigued with what you mentioned about the link between nation building and peace building, and it being a work in progress. I think in the current era, it would be very useful for western countries to do their own reflection on their development journey, and how it is not a completed journey. We all still have a distance to go. We can unfortunately go backwards as we see happening in many places, and as such we have to figure out how to re- energize and continue going forward, so thank you for that sharing.

Ozonnia: You are absolutely right. For many of us who come from developing countries, and continuing through the foundations of our efforts of peacebuilding, was a through sharing of experiences.We always looked up to western countries as the model for development and nation building. There was a sense that western countries had completed their ‘development’ and peacebuilding journey. I think the last decade has been a rude awakening for every peacebuilder around the world, that in spite of the vast expertise and capacity that reside in western institutions that their process of development is far from complete, this is not always the case.

What we have witnessed is that even in many western societies, within the peace processes, the emergence or reemergence of micro nationalities that we have seen, the sense of othering and the other, and of difference is so shocking and strong that clearly we have to re-state the value of uniting the global community. We have to work to rebuild the interconnections that bind us together as a global community, and that multilateralism is a powerful force for peace.



As you know, GVI is committed to the promulgation of values awareness as a key motivating and energizing tool for those involved and committed to building a values driven international system.  What are some of the core, underlying personal values that inform and motivate you in the conduct of your work?

Ozonnia: Thank you. I think this is a fundamental question because in terms of my own life experience, at the time when I got into peacebuilding, I was a very successful legal practitioner in Nigeria. I was making a ton of money in legal practice. A friend of mine had travelled to the UK for a training in peacebuilding and stayed at my house in Lagos before and after the trip.  He bought me some books as a token of appreciation. The two books I remember were “Getting to Yes”, and “Everyone Can Win”. I read those two books and they fired my imagination, and I thought okay, perhaps I should start doing alternative dispute resolution. I set up an ADR team in my office. I had quite a number of lawyers employed in my office and we previously relied totally on the law. With ADR, we determined that instead of going to the court to litigate cases, we needed to look at which cases were more appropriate for negotiation and mediation.

I began with limited ambition. All my life I wanted to be a lawyer. I thought through the instrumentality of the law, practicing the law, representing people in court and working with Human Rights in Nigeria was my own way of finding personal fulfillment.  The books on ADR changed my perspective. I found each time I spoke to people and said let’s resolve this dispute, the opposing lawyer always thought my case was weak and that was why I wanted a settlement. In the field of the law, if you case is strong then why do you want a settlement? Rather than getting them to think constructively it made them dig in so we didn’t resolve the case amicably. I started thinking what then do you do to create more awareness among lawyers about the importance of mediation? Now in that particular moment, given the size of Nigeria and high-disputing culture, if you went to court on Mondays which are called motion-days, due to the volume of cases, you may go to court which starts at 9am and you may not be called until 5pm. By this time, the judge is already tired and asking the Registrar to give you another appointment. You get the new appointment and often the same thing occurs. So in this environment in 1993/1994, I cared about the importance of mediation and ADR.

Personal impact of the Nigerian civil war

By 1995/1996, I had basically quit legal practice and focused fully on mediation and ADR. My friends and colleagues were shocked – how could I leave a successful practice for this unknown field, which no one makes an income? You still have to pay your bills. I have been reflecting deeply about that and I think a lot of it connected deeply to my experiences during the Nigerian civil war. The Nigerian Civil War occurred between 1967 – 70. I come from the part of Nigeria known as the Biafra Republic, and my family and I lived in Biafra for those 3 terrible years. I still have powerful emotions and memories of cousins who died before our eyes, of those hiding in the forest from morning to evenings because of Nigerian aircrafts bombing civilian targets. As a result, they would leave their house every morning and hide in the forest and no one could wear clothing with any colour, and in the night we tried to come home to sleep. I still have strong memories of being suddenly attacked while walking on roads by aircrafts. So, it was a terrible moment in the country. Our family home was destroyed and looted.

Immediately after the war, the recovery process was tough. My immediate family and the broader community had suffered a lot. It left an indelible memory in my mind. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was in 1995-96 that I decided I was going to focus on ADR full time. I think a lot of it had to do with what I had seen and experienced during the Nigerian civil war and that perhaps with mediation and amicable processes, it could never get to the level of taking up arms or violence against another person. That desire for consensus seeking, for co-sharing spaces, I think that was a powerful desire and value that has affected the work I have done since. It was a powerful decision to leave legal practice and focus on ADR. At the time, I did not have sufficient skills needed to do ADR successfully and I made terrible mistakes. I was just fired up by imagination from those books, but I had to invest in training. I got accepted to a number of training opportunities and over time performed much better. At that time there were quite a number of Nigerians interested in ADR, so it was an initial field.

Mentors and kindred spirits

I found some powerful mentors who believed in my vision, even though my legal practice was collapsing because I was hardly there. I was t[1] raveling the world being trained. I offered free training to whoever wanted training in Nigeria. I would fly there and provide training at my own expense and come right back.  So the Vice Chancellor of a Nigerian university in Enugu, Nigeria, believed in my vision and offered me my very first commission, to train all of his senior staff, academic and non-academic. It was an amazing opportunity. So I went and offered this training and what I received in today’s terms would be probably less than 300 dollars as honorarium. But it wasn’t about money, it was about opportunity at the highest level – these are professors, senior lecturers, registrars, administrative staff at university, and in the training, the degree of interest, the kinds of questions, and their desire for something like that to be mainstreamed, fired my imagination. It showed me what was possible and helped sustain my passion.


I started looking for kindred spirits. I started my own institution for conciliation and mediation in Nigeria. I started offering free training to judiciaries. I started travelling to various parts of Nigeria, inviting all the judges and lawyers, and offered them free training. All I asked was that they pay for their lunch. I would use their facilities and go with some materials and train them. So slowly the nucleus started to develop in Nigeria, and now has become the largest training institute on mediation in Africa. It is called Institute of Chartered Mediators and Conciliators (ICMC), which has more than 20,000 professional mediators trained in Nigeria, across all fields. The equivalent of the Fortune 500 companies in Nigeria, top leadership members, leading judges from Supreme Court to magistrates, leading lawyers and also non lawyers are all members of the Institute. The Institute has branch offices across Nigeria and continues to offer training. In 1996/1997 it seemed like a pipe dream, it wasn’t going to work, and today in 2018, it is the leading institution for mediation in terms of numbers. We have members across the length and breadth, active in Nigeria. For me, I have clearly not regretted quitting legal practice..


Fairness, equity, giving everyone a voice

Something that started based on my experience from the Nigerian Civil War, and a desire for equity, for fairness, for giving everybody an opportunity to have their issues discussed and amicably resolved, lead me to consultancies for the UN system. I never planned to join the UN, I had a successful legal practice! Then I began consulting for the UN, I became an advisor on ADR to the Human Rights Commission of Malawi over a two year period, and trained judges in the country.  I offered the same training in Namibia, ranging from magistrate courts to supreme court judges. I went to Sierra Leone to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. My job in Sierra Leone was just an initial 3 month consultancy, extended for just another 3 months, to develop the policies and procedures for the Commission, to train the Commissioners after they had been appointed, and to go home. I spent the first 3 months developing the policies and procedures, then I trained the Commissioners. I vividly remember the last day when I said my job is done, I’m leaving, I finished my work. They said, what do you mean? I said this is a short-term consultancy just to train you guys, I am going back to Nigeria. They said you must be joking. You can’t set us up then leave, you have to help us to do this work. So that became 2 years of my life in Sierra Leone and that has now lead to where I am in Kyrgyzstan.

So I think those values about fairness and equity and giving everyone a voice – being a space for everyone to have a say, it doesn’t mean it will be resolved, sometimes it’s not resolved, but we must make the effort to find common ground. It is always rewarding. Those are the things that continue to motivate me.The day I lose my passion is the day I leave the UN and go home.



Dr Ozonnia Ojielo

Ozonnia Ojielo is the United Nations Resident Coordinator, UNDP Resident Representative and UNFPA Representative in the Kyrgyz Republic. Prior to this appointment, he was the Regional Cluster Director for Governance and Peacebuilding in Africa, based at the UNDP Regional Service Centre in Addis Ababa.  From 2011 to 2014, Dr. Ojielo was the Director for Conflict Prevention and Recovery in UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR) in New York.  He previously served as Senior Peace and Development Adviser to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Kenya and Chief of the Peacebuilding Programme of UNDP Kenya (2008-2011); Senior Governance Adviser to the UN Resident Coordinator, and Head of the Governance Programme of UNDP Ghana (2004-2008); and Head of Operations and Officer in Charge of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2002-2004).

Dr. Ojielo was formerly a human rights lawyer in Nigeria (1990-2002), a university academic (University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus and the Enugu State University of Science and Technology, Enugu, Nigeria, 1992-2001); President of the research and advocacy organization, Centre for Peace in Africa, Lagos, Nigeria (1993-2002); and former newspaper political affairs editor (1987-1989). He has first and advanced degrees in History, Law, Strategic and Project Management, as well as a PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.




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