Book Review

Whose peace are we building: Leadership for peace in Africa

By Youssef Mahmoud (with Albert Mbiatem) , 2021
London: I.B. Tauris, 464pp
ISBN: 9780755618880

As multilateral organisations working for peace adapt to complex security landscapes, exacerbated by compound threats like insurgent violence, climate change induced conflict, transnational crime and the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, the importance of strategic leadership in directing interventions becomes increasingly important. With approximately 75% of United Nations (UN) Peace Operations deployed in Africa, a key option for developing and encouraging effective leadership for peace in this context is to draw on the experiences and wisdom of long-serving peace practitioners. It is this perspective that is so generously offered by Professor Youssef Mahmoud in the book, Whose peace are we Building: Leadership for peace in Africa.

This publication forms part of a series on peacebuilding and leadership run by the African Leadership Centre (ALC), based at Kings College, London. The series looks to bring together a diverse group, from leaders of peace missions to UN special envoys to document their work and perspectives on peacebuilding and leadership. 

The 464-page book is divided into seven chapters, introduced by a thought-provoking foreword from Nobel Peace Laureate and former President of Timor-Leste, J. Ramos-Horta. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of Professor Mahmoud’s leadership path during his career at the UN, including his role at the helm of two UN peace operations in Burundi and Chad/Central African Republic. The value of this publication, therefore, lies in its ability to bring together a detailed ‘insider’s account’ of peacebuilding which speaks to institutional challenges and practical considerations, combined with a discussion of serious theoretical problems with the current peacebuilding paradigms. It is therefore a valuable source of information to scholars, researchers, government officials, diplomats, donor communities, peace practitioners located within multilateral organisations and think tanks and, most importantly, local community members involved in peacebuilding processes. 

‘Peacebuilding’ and ‘leadership’ are two topics that have been well-covered in the international relations and peace studies literature, specifically in relation to African contexts. It is therefore important to not only situate this publication within the existing body of literature, but to look at the new contributions that it makes. As Professor Mahmoud argues, ‘relatively little attention has been given to the nexus between the two – leadership and peace’– and the paradigm shift needed in the nature and practice of leadership in order to bring about strong, global diplomacy for peace’ (pg 36). Such a contribution is strengthened by the fact that Professor Mahmoud combines a theoretical discussion of the peacebuilding paradigm and leadership with rich and detailed anecdotal evidence, that one would be hard-pressed to find in any international relations textbook. This balance therefore makes it easy to digest some of the book’s more technical information regarding the operational mandates and implementation with regards to the United Nations Integrated Office in Burundi (BINUB), and the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT). 

Another important contribution of the book is that it challenges readers to rethink the existing, more prescriptive peacebuilding paradigms which are rooted in liberalism – by focussing on locally-driven approaches to peacebuilding. In arguing this point, Professor Mahmoud explains that peacebuilding has largely failed to empower and strengthen local capacities for peace. The importance of this approach for leadership are foreshadowed earlier on in the book when he asserts that ‘leadership is not what one does to others, but what one does with them’ (pg 22), or later on in an apt metaphor that ‘peace is like a tree, growing from the bottom up, and that it is individuals and communities that are the custodians of peace.’ (pg 87). However, while this is a central argument made throughout the book, Professor Mahmoud does not make the mistake of romanticising this priority. He provides a sober reflection on the difficulties of promoting a localised and multi-stakeholder approach to peacebuilding while trying to balance good relations with the host state, which in some cases may present itself as the main peace actor. This particular discussion is fleshed out in Chapter 4, ‘Leading BINUB in a Fragile Context’, when Professor Mahmoud’s initiatives to promote more inclusive peace processes in Burundi were not always received well by the government. 

This is related to another important discussion of the book on the maintenance of cordial relations between the UN and the host nation. Through Professor Mahmoud’s accounts, it was clear that attempting to understand the local needs of the population, avoiding elitist policy priorities without alienating the government, was a significant challenge. The quandary of respecting state sovereignty while promoting a sustainable peace is not unique to the UN, but also appears to hinder sub-regional, regional and continental interventions in Africa. Professor Mahmoud’s experiences and lessons learned in this regard are therefore increasingly relevant and valuable in an increasingly complex peacebuilding space.

Inserted into the different chapters are excerpts of anonymously collected testimonies from colleagues who worked closely with Professor Mahmoud. The inclusion of these excerpts works well. It provides an objective perspective of his leadership style and offers additional context in support of Professor Mahmoud’s accounts. It would however have been interesting to the reader to know how and why specific testimonies were included, assuming there is a larger sample that these were drawn from. Such methodological detail is not clear in the book. 

Altogether, Professor Mahmoud has done an excellent job to share his vast experience in Burundi, Central African Republic and Chad. His work will help readers to better understand what kind of leadership is most effective for navigating the increasingly challenging peacebuilding environment now developing alongside the global COVID-19 health crisis.

It is an inspiring read which leaves room to continue the conversation on the relationship between leadership and working for peace.


Andrea Prah