"African women have shown leadership ability, but institutions and cultural practices hamper their visibility"

 Fatiha Serour

Fatiha Serour

Teresa Bau
Fatiha Serour, United Nations High Commissioner in Somalia and UOC course instructor


Dr Fatiha Serour, the United Nations High Commissioner in Somalia, has started this year as course instructor for the UOC-UNITAR Master's Degree in International Affairs and Diplomacy, one of the two master's degrees that the University offers jointly with the United Nations. The other is the Master's Degree in Conflict, Peace and Security. Born in Algeria, she has built a successful career in the field of conflict management, human rights, equality and inclusion. In this interview, she gives some ideas about how to settle the instability that still persists in Africa and the role of civil society within this framework. 

What are your expectations and feelings as new course instructor of the UOC Master's Degree in International Affairs and Diplomacy?

I have been very pleased to join the UOC. I see it as an opportunity, not just to share my theoretical knowledge about Africa and international politics but also to gain practical experiences that can transform this theoretical framework into reality. I see it as an opportunity for mutual exchange and learning. 

What role does civil society play in Africa and is its empowerment driving change on this continent? 

Today, the role played by civil society is vital for political and socioeconomic transformation. In the past, civil society led the struggles for independence in all parts of Africa and it succeeded. Although there have been setbacks in the last four decades because of authoritarian regimes, it is stronger now, as shown by the civil movements that call for participatory democracy, campaign against corruption and are in favour of inclusive, transparent, accountable justice systems. 

African civil society performs the role of watchdog when it calls on governments to give account. There are examples of recent civil uprisings in Gambia, Sudan, Algeria, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, etc. Being so diverse politically and socially, one cannot view civil society as a homogeneous bloc. However, even so, the movements usually share a common goal: the fight for social justice and equal opportunities. So, civil society is a motor for change, as recent examples have shown, such as the civil movement in Sudan, which has brought about a change of government (2019). Another good example could be the movement in Gambia, in 2017.

As you say, leadership is one of challenges facing Africa. What role do women play in this leadership and can women's empowerment lead to positive changes in leadership on the continent?

Leadership is often associated with positions of high rank, such as president, CEO, etc., but I think that it can exist at all levels. It is related with inborn qualities: a leader is a visionary, a leader has the ability to inspire others to share and engage with their vision. This can happen at all levels, from senior positions to small communities. In Africa – and, in fact, everywhere – women have shown leadership ability, but institutions and "cultural" practices hamper their visibility and eclipse them. Women usually reach positions of leadership by their own merits rather than by using coercion or corruption. Actually, I don't think that it's about "empowering" women: they already are powerful, resolute and resilient. It's more about removing the obstacles that block women's visibility and allow them to develop their full potential. African women are a powerful force for good: in politics, in business, as community leaders, peace activists, etc. This power must be optimized, giving them visibility in both public and private spheres.

The burden of colonialism is still felt in Africa. Are there now new players who want to play a major role in politics and economics?

The simple answer is: yes, of course! As well as the former colonial powers, Africa is now coveted by China, Russia and the United States, as well as the "meddling" by the Arab Emirates, Turkey, etc. The narrative hasn't changed since the revolts of 19th century: raw materials, deregulated markets for cheap/unsafe manufactured products, trade routes, mining industries that use cheap labour bereft of any social protection... These still dominate foreign countries' vision of Africa. As well as economic interests, foreign powers also have "political" motivations in their antiterrorist programmes, and also in the war against transnational crime, including piracy in the Sahel, in East and West Africa. In spite of this, the war against transnational crime has not put an end – because it's not expedient – to illegal arms traffic and the presence of mercenaries. They are a source of worry because they endanger Africa's stability (Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Uganda, etc.). To summarize, the presence of foreign powers in Africa has not changed very much since the end of the Cold War and the wars for power. Now, they have re-emerged in other scenarios that include new players such as mercenaries, private security companies and new state players (Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt, etc.). 

One of the obstacles to peace and stability are the large numbers of mercenaries who "earn their living" by taking part in different conflicts in Africa. How can this challenge be addressed? 

This is one area where African leaders must show and exercise firm, credible leadership. The growing numbers of mercenaries and security agencies give serious cause for concern because of their magnitude and constant flux. I remember when I was sent to Somalia with the responsibility of enforcing the law and I found that the mercenaries had infiltrated themselves into the offices of international organizations and national authorities. They operated without any control or monitoring and answered to no one (except to their security agencies, outside states or non-state players).

The mercenary problem cannot be solved without genuine commitment on the part of African leaders to negotiate their departure from the continent. We need a plan for gradual withdrawal under the auspices of the African Union and the United Nations Security Council. An attempt was made to do this in Libya last autumn. The conflict – led by General Haftar – had further divided the country and caused a humanitarian crisis, forcing the Russian, French and Turkish mercenaries to leave the territory. This type of dialogue can only achieve its goals if the countries involved give priority to stability instead of their own (political and economic) interests. It's a very difficult balance, but it's a vision we must aspire towards...

The importance of personal contact in diplomacy

As you have said, some of the international organizations that are working for stability and peace on the continent aren't getting to the root of the conflicts. What would be necessary for this to change? 

We urgently need an analysis of the conflict from a transformative vision of Africa. That way, the analysis could be taken away from the elites (normally located in the country's capital) and moved to the communities involved in the conflict or which suffer its consequences. By including them in the dialogue, the aim is to identify why the conflict started and how it could be addressed through solutions that are designed and implemented jointly. This would empower the communities to progress toward stability by taking the responsibility for peace and social transformation to them. Regardless of whether the root of the conflict is a dispute about water, ownership of the land, ethnic or religious intolerance... All of this should be at the heart of the analysis and the solutions, so that the conflict is eradicated at source, before it grows. And, lastly, a conflict signalling mechanism should be included in any conflict transformation strategy. 

We are living in the age of digital communication: social media have a strong influence on world politics that is not always positive. How have these technologies changed diplomacy and how can they have a positive influence in this field? 

 It is true. Digital communication is a powerful tool for informing, "educating" and influencing. A good example is the impact of social media when the Arab Spring erupted: for the first time, North African youth connected with young people in the Near and Middle East in organizing protests. It was a powerful, positive process that broke communication barriers. However, there is a less positive part, which is social media's inability to control and regulate themselves precisely, as we have seen in recent political events. So, I would be careful about using these technologies for "diplomacy". Diplomacy – travelling and evaluating the conditions for negotiating a peace agreement – can only be done "face to face", where interpersonal skills play a key role in building a relationship based on trust. Furthermore, some of these negotiations must be held "secretly" in order to protect the people who take part in them. So, a balanced approach needs to be taken when considering the use of social media in diplomatic affairs. For example, they can be used for information and basic education, including peace education, and this can contribute to the diplomatic process (albeit indirectly).

What are your wishes for the students who are taking the Master's Degree in International Affairs and Diplomacy? How do they think that they can contribute to settling conflicts in Africa and the rest of the world?

Many of the students taking this course have an enormous potential – intellectual potential – as well as interest in and commitment to the course. However, not all of them would like to work in diplomacy (which requires specific skills). So I advise them to explore their interests to decide what their passion is, to identify exactly what they want to do and where. I suppose not all of them want to "settle conflicts in Africa", but perhaps they are interested in other political aspects of the continent. So I would suggest they talk with their tutor and/or with me to explore together whether they want to be diplomats in their governments, in the African Union, in the United Nations, or whether they want to work in research and teaching, etc. Whatever path they follow, they will definitely contribute to transforming conflicts into peace and stability in Africa.