Joel Okwemba: If only countries related as their citizens do

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Listening to him, it immediately becomes obvious he is a deep person – his unaffected intelligence, eloquence and astute knowledge on matters almost everything – a curious combination for a young person today. Even then, until you follow keenly for a while, you might mistake these talents as merely an occupational add-on by a young man only keen to make a quick dime in a difficult country. But Joel Okwemba is passionate and deeply so. He has identified a problem none of us thought existed; he has solution and, most importantly, a workable plan of how to bring his ideas to reality.

By NLM writer

The first thing I did when I met Okwemba was read him an excerpt from the late Major General Smedley Darlington Butler’s critically acclaimed book War is a RacketThat all international crises were manufactured with a profit motive. That International Relations and diplomacy are a zero sum game of selfish national interests and International Humanitarian Law – nothing beyond a collection of pious platitudes… I made it clear that his was a lost cause since those who profit from war would ensure that peace remains elusive.

He didn’t flinch. After a long pause he replied, “except that without this ‘failed’ law the world would be a mash of ruins by now…or at least freezing to extinction with the skies blackened by carbon emissions from a nuclear war. To savor the future shouldn’t be to lose sight of the past. Old knowledge is still valuable. I tell you, diplomats and experts may appear selfish, yet meet them on the streets, where the risk of being quoted is absent, and you’ll be amazed at how keen they are for a better world away from what you’ve spoken of.”

I had no rejoinder.

Joel is the Managing Director of the Center for International and Security affairs (CISA) whose main focus is finding solutions to world peace by conducting research and engaging experts and other stakeholders in honest informal conversations. At 14 years, when, growing up in the village, my grandest visions oscillated between taking over from legendary Harambee stars goalkeeper Francis Onyiso and being an Ugwe bus driver, he, having travelled the world as part of the Kenya Boys Choir, he already had his dream.

“I was the youngest member of the choir. Usually we performed before diplomats and high ranking government officials. Often as I sang, I couldn’t help but mull over what it would feel like to be part of my stellar audiences. Travelling and making friends from all over also, opened my eyes to the reality that there is in fact very little difference between the people. I found myself wondering why our governments fight when we have so much in common,” he muses.

Center for International and Security Affairs

CISA was born later on in campus, in 2014, when I was a student at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies at the University of Nairobi. Initially it was just myself and 15 other classmates who I thought shared my dream and had the ability to make a lasting difference. The defining moment came prior in 2013, when I met Vishal Vijay of Children in Action based in Canada as an interviewee for his project, and the 12-year old boy asked what I wanted my legacy to be. I was astounded, not so much by the question but by the fact it came from a young boy. Consequently, I promised myself that the organisation – CISA wouldn’t just be like any other NGO. Our methods had to be different and our solutions not only novel but also quantifiable, identifiable and actionable.”

At this point he breaks into a long monologue of what he considers to be the problem with education in the Republic.

“The biggest problem with education in this country is that they train you to work for someone else, and hardly to think and to make a difference on your own. In our classes, for instance, it was always, ‘get good grades and find a job at the United Nations or its agencies or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.’ Unfortunately, most of these positions are filled on the basis of cronyism and political patronage. Today, I know so many of my classmates whose potential is wasting away in other fields because they couldn’t find jobs. Meanwhile, the country is molested at every turn thanks to diplomats with neither the zeal nor the knowhow for the job.

With Director-General, United Nations Office in Nairobi, Amb. Sahle-Work Zewde at the 2nd session of the Nairobi International Political Forum [photo credits Gerald Anderson]
[photo credits Gerald Anderson]

“To bridge the gap between human interactions and government positions, we came up with The Nairobi International Political Forum, which allows diplomats to meet and engage other stakeholders on matters foreign policy, international relations and global security. At the culmination of these discussions is a raft of proposals we present to the relevant agencies for consideration and implementation. We then lobby for implementation or use the findings to inform our next course of action. So far we have hosted several high profile forums under the Chatham House rules, the latest one being only a month ago at the Villa Rosa Kempinski where we discussed cooperation between Eastern Africa and the Central Eastern European States.”

The First Forum held in June examined the diplomatic, political, economic, social and cultural effects of the America First Foreign Policy and the effects of Brexit on Africa, East Africa and Kenya. Among the participants were persons from the diplomatic corps, government and academia.

He offers that through their programmes, they hope to ensure that the easy relationships between people are reflected in policy. To do so, his organisation has resolved to informalise and democratise diplomacy by minimising the politics. Through the Know Your World Initiative (KYWI), they also hope to shape the next generation by incorporating aspects of International Relations and diplomatic studies into the school curriculum from a very young age. They also intend to harmonise the definitions of important terms, such as terrorism, and their causes. CISA encourages and facilitates conversations between everyone at different levels. It’s not an experts’ playground as perhaps may have been thought so far.

My people perish because of…

According to Okwemba, the biggest problem they have encountered so far is a lack of knowledge and interest in matters to do with international relations. He laments that media has been reluctant to support their causes because they do not deem this area to be newsworthy. The going line, he says, is that “Kenyans consume domestic politics.”

Says Okwemba, “the politicians are not as well acquainted with these matters either. In fact, we have had to change tack from dealing with the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Relations to lobbying through the office of the President directly and, occasionally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But the cooperation still isn’t as good. Often, all we get are promises for consideration then nothing. A perfect example is the Know Your World Initiative (KYWI) programme that we wanted the Ministry of Education to incorporate into the curriculum during the recently concluded curriculum review. The Ministry promised to “consider it later”. We had also proposed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they consider this as a long term soft power diplomacy instrument to improve bilateral relations in countries where Kenyan Missions are established. We are still waiting for a way forward. Ironically, we have received invitations from other African countries asking us to go implement the programme there!”

KYWI aims at connecting classrooms across the world in conversations on shared international themes and concerns – eventually enhancing people to people relations. This involves engaging various foreign missions in the country, among them the Embassies of Israel, Brazil, Norway, Ireland, South Sudan and Botswana, in various high schools and educating students more about international affairs and topics that affect them.

In December 2016, KYWI organised the Refugees Week in various schools that host refugees, looking at the need to enhance integration and education of/between urban refugees and the host communities in the multi-cultural Nairobi and across the world. The Octopizzo Foundation and Xavier Project supported the initiative. It culminated in theRefugeenius Album Launch which was supported also by UNHCR Kenya and the Danish Refugee Council Kenya Programme.

“We have approached government several times for support (for the KYWI) at least (loud sigh)…you know of the bureaucracy. The corporates are also reluctant to sponsor long term projects with no obvious business or corporate benefits in the short term. But people from outside are interested, which is a good thing.

“An important issue we must not lose sight of, in this age of terror, everyone, more so government, seems to think that we are a security firm or a security think tank. We are not. But, beyond the traditional models of security (military), there are other forms of security we can’t ignore. We have expanded and widened these concepts. Talking about conflicts today, there are ideological threats such as the conflict between communism and capitalism that defined the Cold War, autocracy and democracy et al. There is also the question of economic security which is basis of the simmering tensions between the United States and the East including the BRICS Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and China coalition, but particularly China. In fact, economy is the new currency for world dominance. Security may also be national or international. When you speak of the failure of International Humanitarian Law, you may be referring to failure on the domestic front which International Law is virtually powerless. Other aspects of security include food security, political security, climate change and health. On food, you are aware that hunger has been used as a weapon of war. Climate change, hunger and malnutrition actually kill more people every year than war does in certain regions of the world. We also have a deepened understanding of security, referred to as Critical Security which is hinged on the aspect of emancipation (freeing of people (as individuals/groups) from these physical and human constraints which stop them from carrying out what they would freely choose to do. It is actually the wideners’ view of Security that informed the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. At this point then it would perhaps be prudent to ask, is Kenya a secure country? That is why CISA is important,” Okwemba concludes.

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