Exclusive Interview with Dr Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, Senior Lecturer, Media and Politics at Northumbria University and former Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) on the last IPRA Global Peace Conference which he said was a huge success despite many challenges, including the disappointing APC government let-down
- I understand that you organised a very successful international peace conference in December 2016 in Freetown in partnership with the University of Sierra Leone in your capacity as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA). Can we start this interview by asking you about how did it go and its impact on Sierra Leone?
Dr Shaw: The conference went very well and it was indeed a very huge success. In all, about 400 peace researchers and professionals from 82 countries from all the regions of the world attended the conference. We also received very positive feedbacks from participants in the survey conducted just after the conference. In terms of impact on Sierra Leone, well it is difficult to measure this, but it is clear that it raised the international profile of the country and rebranded it as one that is once again open for business with the rest of the world, not least investors and tourists, following the almost 11 years devastating civil war that ended in 2001 and the recent deadly Ebola epidemic. It was by far the first ever largest gathering of academics and professionals from almost all over the world in the country putting it firmly in the spotlight for all the good reasons. I was very heartened to receive words of appreciation from most of the participants saying that the conference gave them the opportunity to visit Africa for the first time and that they were truly impressed with the hospitality of the conference organisers and where ever they went during their short stay in Sierra Leone. Moreover, some of the international peace researchers who attended the conference presented papers based on research projects on some of the post-conflict development challenges such as gender inequality, environmental degradation, increasing school drop-outs, child exploitation, poor living conditions, poor health care, youth marginalisation, growing unemployment, human trafficking, bribery and corruption, poverty etc. facing Sierra Leone. It is hoped that a lot of academic papers and reports based on these conference papers would be published in the next couple of years to provide new scientific knowledge needed to inform policy and interventions on the dynamics and challenges of Sierra Leone’s transition from a post-conflict country to one that is going through the development phase (as acknowledged by former UN Secretary General Banki Moon during his visit to Sierra Leone in 2014). In my view, this impact will be the lasting legacy of this conference for many years to come. The conference also provided a unique platform for Sierra Leonean peace and conflict researchers at home in the Diaspora the unique opportunity to network and initiate future collaborative projects not only with each other but also with international colleagues. Finally, in collaboration with the Mass Communication department at FBC, USL, IPRA organised a one-day workshop with journalists in Sierra Leone on peace journalism, which was facilitated by Professor Stephen Youngblood, Director of the Centre for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in the USA, who participated in the conference.
- Did you encounter challenges along the way?
Dr Shaw: Yes indeed, the success did not come without some very serious challenges. In the first place, it was very difficult, given the Ebola outbreak in June 2014 just when we were going to start making preparations to host the 26th IPRA conference in Sierra Leone. The first challenge was to convince my colleagues at the IPRA 25th conference in Istanbul Turkey in August 2014 that Sierra Leone would be free of the Ebola epidemic by November 2016 to host the next conference. Luckily, with the help of other colleagues, especially from Africa, who still believed in the project despite the Ebola outbreak, I was able to convince the 25th IPRA conference attendees to endorse the hosting of the conference in Sierra Leone in 2016 albeit on the condition that another West African venue would be sought for as a back-up plan just in case Sierra Leone fails to make complete recovery from the Ebola pandemic. The other even more serious challenge we faced was funding. Since IPRA is a network of peace researchers all over the world and the fact that funds from membership fees and conference fees are not enough to pay for the cost of organising its biennial conferences, its secretariat normally embarks on fund raising efforts from state structures and NGOs operating in the host country. However, because Sierra Leone was at the time going through some financial difficulties, which even made it to be declared bankrupt, we knew that it was not going to be easy. Having said that I must say that I was very upbeat about the prospects of getting some support from the government of Sierra Leone following my first audience with President Koroma in his office at State House in May 2014 when I visited the country during my sabbatical research leave. The President, who was very accommodating, assured me that he and his government felt very honoured by this idea of hosting such a big international peace conference in Sierra Leone and that he will do everything possible to support it. The other challenge was to get the University of Sierra Leone to collaborate with IPRA in hosting the conference through the active involvement of the department of peace and conflict studies at Fourah Bay College. Luckily, the first person I contacted, Mrs Bernadette Cole, former head and founder of the Mass Communication department at Fourah Bay College, now Director of the USL alumni and international relations, and a long-time acquaintance during my days as a journalist in Sierra Leone, was supportive. When she took the IPRA invitation to the USL Senate to co-host the IPRA 2016 conference, it was unanimously supported by the Acting Vice Chancellor Professor Thompson and other members of the university executive, some of who in fact recognised me as their former student at FBC. With this support, and following a series of meetings with the IPRA 2016 conference national organising committee headed by Mrs Memunatu Pratt, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies at FBC, Mrs Pratt, Mrs Cole and I had an audience with President Koroma at State where he reiterated his pledge to support the conference and accepted the invitation to give the welcome address as president and chancellor of the USL. The president invited us to prepare a conference business plan and identify the type of assistance we will want the government to provide. We worked on this and submitted to the president’s chief of protocol as requested. However, on my following visit to Sierra Leone I requested an audience with the president which was arranged on a particular date but was only seen by the president’s secretary Mr Osho Coker who told me that the country is going through some financial difficulties at the moment and said that because of this the country has nothing to contribute towards this conference. This was indeed a disappointing piece of news, which I shared immediately with Mrs Pratt and Mrs Cole so that we can start thinking about alternative sources of funding. We decided to still try and have an audience with President Koroma and scale down our demand from asking for financial support to logistical support. However, the president did not see us but scheduled us to be seen by his Chief of Staff. During this meeting we updated the Chief of Staff on how far we had gone with the conference preparation and made a modest request for assistance to provide the venue, Bintumani conference centre free of cost except running charges such as fuel for the generator and security which would be handled by IPRA and also to help with at least two days lunch for the delegates. The chief of staff promised to discuss this with the president and get back to us. Unfortunately, just about three weeks to the conference, we received word from State House saying that nothing was forthcoming from the government. This was very disappointing and we had to rethink our original plan and started to consider other less costly options such as moving the conference to more affordable venues. NASSIT, who run the Bintumani conference centre, were charging 200 million Leones for four days, which was a lot of money. They argued that the original cost was supposed to be 400 million Leones and that they had already knocked off 50% of the overall cost. We tried to see if the government could at least waive the cost of hiring the Bintumani conference centre so that we could direct the funds for hiring it to take care of other expenses such as food and other logistics but they still refused to play ball. However, as God would have it, some of our back-up plans in fund raising started to pay off. Some organisations such as the World Bank Sierra Leone Country Office, which offered to sponsor the Opening Conference Day Reception, and Action Aid, Air Tell, Shenhuaetc, confirmed funding for the conference. However, we still felt that we were going to run short if we stuck to our original plan of giving the contract of providing lunch to Bintumani hotel who were really asking for a lot. We decided to use another private caterer whose rates were more affordable under the circumstances, and because they were recommended by the USL as having done catering for their senate meetings and other events in the past. This readjustment helped us a lot as we were still able to pay the 200 million Leones for the hiring of the Bintumani Conference Centre which hosted the entire conference except the Conference Dinner and Dance Party which was held at the Family Kingdom Resort. We decided to manage and host the conference at the Bintumani conference centre despite the huge fee because at the time it was the only ideal venue that can host such a large academic conference given that in addition to the large conference theatre it has some few rooms for breakout sessions. What is more these were really not enough to host all the break-out sessions we had planned and we had to basically improvise by tactically using some of the free spaces available. President Koroma was not around to officially open the conference as he was away in China on state visit but managed to ask VP Victor Foe to do so on his behalf. We appreciated this but of course we would have appreciated it even more if the president had followed on his own words to at least provide any in kind support such as allowing free use of the conference centre, which is owned by the state since NASSIT, who are running it, is a state institution. This would have helped us to divert funds used to hire the conference venue to providing travel and accommodation grants for more participants from countries of the global south, mostly from Africa. Having said that, I still thank God for giving us the wisdom and power to navigate all the challenges we encountered to still organise such a successful international conference on home soil. I also thank the USL and all other stake holders such as Road Transport Authority and the Immigration Department for the support they provided in ensuring the success of the conference.