Hizkias Assefa (b. 1948)

Educator and experienced mediator in hot zones of conflict

I first learned of Hizkias Assefa over 20 years ago through his writings about the Sudan peace process. I thought he was an academic since he was also on the faculty of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University. Then I discovered how much he was doing as an activist in mediation throughout Africa. Assefa is that wonderful combination of activist-academic who puts his depth of intellect and experience into practice.
—Daniel Buttry

Hizkias AssefaIf one is allowed to work with the parties step-by-step and layer-by-layer, it is possible to get them to meet at a deep level when they recognize the humanity of each other and recognize that their commonalities are much greater than their differences. And based on that they can have the vision, fortitude and mutual tolerance to work towards peace and reconciliation.
—Hizkias Assefa

In December 2007, a hotly contested election in Kenya spilled over into violence. Many deeper simmering divisions were revealed as the fighting spun out of control. Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, brought a team from the African Union to try to mediate. Annan invited Hizkias Assefa to join them as an expert advisor on mediation. Assefa helped the team structure the mediation process, think about the root issues, overcome the obstacles to an agreement, and draw the civil society into the peace-building process. Together, they secured a political solution to a violent crisis that established a power-sharing government.

Hizkias Assefa is a hidden presence behind many of the peace processes that make the news. The warring political leaders are seen shaking hands, but Assefa’s mediating role remains humbly behind the scenes. He is an academician, teaching conflict studies at Eastern Mennonite University and earlier at George Mason University, but he regularly leaves the ivory tower for the hot zones of conflict. Often, this pushes him beyond the neatly worded conclusions in academic papers. He writes, I know all the theories, and in fact I have even written about them. But they feel different when you are in the middle of these problems and are expected to do something about them. Then, all the theoretical answers that you felt you knew sound strange and are unable to help you with the problems.

Assefa began his career as a lawyer, working with the government and in private practice in his homeland of Ethiopia and in the United States. As he studied some of the mediation efforts in Sudan, his vocation shifted. He began teaching—both at universities and in grassroots training workshops—in more than 50 countries. He has also engaged in second-track (nongovernmental) mediation efforts from the community level to the national level in places such as Sudan, Nigeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Colombia and Guatemala. He established the African Peacebuilding and Reconciliation Network (APRN) based in Nairobi, Kenya as the center for his mediation and training work.

In the 2007-2008 Kenya crisis and in other conflicts, Assefa’s goal is not merely to halt the fighting. There are always deeper reasons that a conflict erupts into violence, and these issues must be addressed if a conflict is to be truly transformed.

Regrettably, addressing root causes is very complicated. It is a long-term process, Assefa says. Once there is no immediate pressure of turmoil, it seems that the pressure is off of everyone—the politicians, the negotiators, the population, even the mediators and sponsors of the process. So people lose focus on the long-term underlying issues, and things slowly begin to return to business as usual. That’s not Assefa’s goal—as such seeds, if ignored, will sprout in conflict once again. Neither is he interested in merely moving a conflict from a battlefield to a negotiating table. Such bargaining is not as important as making fundamental changes to prevent future violence, he believes. Parties must move from their roles as antagonists to become collaborators in solving a shared problem.

Assefa also brings a concern for self-reflection into peace processes. In most conflicts, even while people are engaged in peace negotiations, they tend to see the problem as embodied in the other side. Deeper peace, even reconciliation, requires people to look at themselves as well: Since responsibility for conflict is usually not entirely on one side, reconciliation encourages the parties to look within themselves as well as at the other to explain the cause of the conflict and possible ways for resolving it.

This inner work, especially, calls for religious responses—often there is so much chaos in a complex conflict that religious leaders can provide a moral compass. As Assefa says, Religious leaders and institutions have a unique opportunity to become the conscience of humanity and help reestablish sanity and healing in this broken world by giving us insight into how to deal with the more deep-rooted sources of human conflict than politicians, soldiers or merchants can do.

In Nigeria, Assefa focused for years on grassroots peace-building involving problems like land disputes that had prompted violence. Through his efforts, community leaders learned to work together to resolve these problems peacefully. The wisdom of his approach was obvious when conflict broke out again across a larger region and these smaller communities became islands of peace, refusing to get sucked into the violence around them. Assefa hopes to see a worldwide linking of such community-based efforts.

Assefa is able to continue his mediation in very thorny conflicts because of hope. What my experience has taught me is that regardless of how complicated the problems might appear, it is possible to work through them and find solutions that are mutually satisfactory to every stakeholder in the problem, he says.

Most of our problems on this earth are created by us and therefore we have the capacity and the obligation to unmake them.