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Shining a Light on African Current Events at the Korbel School

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University of Denver

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Over the past few weeks, I have been lucky enough to attend two Korbel events led by influential African speakers highlighting current issues that the region is facing. On September 21st, Liberian political activist Leymah Gbowee spoke with Professor Marie Berry about her experience organizing the collective action of Liberian women to negotiate peacemaking with dictator Charles Taylor. In partnership with World Denver, the Sié Center's Maglione Hall was filled with attendees, all captivated by Gbowee's retelling of her upbringing in Liberia as a fierce woman challenging societal norms. Gbowee's strength remained even after Liberia entered its first civil war of 1989. Hearing her speak made it clear that Gbowee's life is filled with fundamental lessons for future activists regarding implementing peace in the face of oppressive regimes. 

From the day the war started in 1989, Gbowee was merely a teenager; she felt a calling to protect Liberia's future, "That morning I woke up a 17-year-old girl. That evening I became an adult. All of a sudden I had to decide the future of solidifying our home." Years later, in the wake of the second war of 1999, Gbowee's frustrations with the constant violence and the silencing of women and children grew. Overrun with militaristic oppression, Liberia was under the reign of guerilla leader Charles Taylor. Gbowee could no longer sit in silence. She knew there needed to be action in the form of peaceful protest. Gbowee's resilience garnered solidarity among hundreds of Liberian women; they began banding together and protesting in front of important government buildings. The peacebuilding process was long and strenuous. As Gbowee describes, "One week of peace talks turned into three months. We were sleeping on the floor, running out of money, but still getting up every morning and giving these talks." Eventually, Gbowee and her group of women found success, negotiating with Taylor himself. In a historical event, Gbowee's group of activist women convinced Taylor to attend a series of peace talks with the warring factions in the region. The success of Gbowee's peaceful protesting captivated the globe, and she continues to make waves toward peaceful developments around the world. Gbowee's legacy lives on. In 2008, she took part in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a critically acclaimed documentary on the women's movement in Liberia and how their actions led to Liberia's first female President. The global impact of her actions was further highlighted in 2011 when Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her decades-long peacebuilding and women's liberation career. Today, she works as the President of her foundation, the Gbowee Peace Foundation African, continuing her work for women's inclusion in global leadership roles. 

On September 26th, Ambassador Abdel-Fatau Musah, commissioner for political affairs at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), gave a presentation on the current evolution of the Niger coup, speaking with director of the African Center for the University of Denver Abigail Kabandula. Ambassador Musah was once the director of West African Affairs at the UN and is an expert on West African current affairs. His research focuses on the political and social unrest within the Sahel band of Africa. The Sahel band is a geographically located strip stretching across Senegal to Eritrea. The region contains, as Ambassador Musah describes, "the most vulnerable parts of Africa today. The Sahel faces extreme cycles of climate change, hemorrhaging internally displaced people, and refugees. These areas used to live in harmony, but now the relations are poisoned by multiple narratives and terrorism." The goal of ECOWAS, consisting of 15 countries, is sustainable economic and political development in West African countries to improve standards of living and peacebuilding. Ambassador Musah stated in his presentation, "in 2001 ECOWAS saw that peace and security would not survive without democracy and good governance," which is why in the wake of the Niger coup, militia uprisings will not be supported by ECOWAS, as they lack the tenants of a democratic system. In response to questions from the audience in Maglione Hall regarding the possibility of armed attacks by ECOWAS on the militias leading the coups within the Sahel, Ambassador Musah states, "We are giving peace a chance, but our patience is not elastic.", indicating that if coups persist, ECOWAS will lead military action to neutralize the region's terrorism. It became apparent through the Ambassador's presentation that the central concern of ECOWAS is preventing anywhere in West Africa from becoming a haven for terrorist groups, as this is the most prevalent component destroying the success of economic development. 

Korbel is a widely used platform for international speakers to present on topics in which they are experts and witnesses. These discussions give audience members critical insights into global events, giving our community access to an international perspective. Within Korbel is the Institute of Comparative and Regional Studies (ICRS), the hub for the Africa Center, which brought in Ambassador Mussah for his recent discussion on ECOWAS.  

For anyone interested in becoming involved with African current events and learning from experts in the field, look out for future events by the Africa Center. I learned about critical African issues first-hand from influential political actors and look forward to the opportunities ICRS presents in the future. 

Written by Kat Vess