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From Peacemaking to Humanitarian Diplomacy – CMI’s Itonde Kakoma moves on to his next challenge

Published on Friday, 30 April 2021

CMI’s Director for Global Strategy Itonde Kakoma has been appointed Permanent Representative for the IFRC to the African Union. Photo: Olli Puumalainen/CMI

Without a doubt, CMI’s Director for Global Strategy, Itonde Kakoma, is going to miss Helsinki and Finland as he moves to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. He has taken up the position of Permanent Representative for the IFRC to the African Union. Big and ambitious new things to come, but let’s come back to what is left behind and the lessons learned. Kakoma will of course miss the Finnish classics: sauna, Sibelius and raw-salted salmon. More than that, though, he will miss the sense of belonging – his southern Helsinki community.

Kakoma moved to Finland in November of 2016, and was assured that if he could endure the dark winter, he could withstand anything. Despite being used to winters in his home country, the United States, running on the frozen Baltic Sea at minus 15 degrees Celsius was like a cosmic drama – an extreme sport as he describes. “Finland has changed me as a person. I always felt welcome. My story is a positive story of Finland – how non-Finns can enjoy life here and participate in society.” Kakoma doesn’t say that lightly. He has lived in five countries and visited more than 60. “In Finland, one can safely disagree and seek solutions, without fear. Your birthplace does not determine your future.”

For the past year, the shutdown of society in response to the Covid-19 pandemic provided Kakoma a deeper insight into Finnish life. In normal times, Kakoma was travelling well over half of his time, and home in Helsinki was just a stopping-off point between journeys. “Now the real Finland opened up to me – the deep-rooted values, the egalitarian system, the fact that no one has to stress about their health and safety, and the greater sense of societal belonging. Finland is a truly resilient society – the happiest country by every measure.” As Kakoma sees it, the extent of the trust in institutions and in their ability to function well is truly unique in Finland. Given these societal underpinnings, it is no coincidence that CMI is a Finnish organisation, one that reflects the values and legacy of its founder, former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari.

Kakoma was part of CMI for seven years, first two of which he was based out of Arusha, Tanzania heading the Sub-Saharan region. There he worked with considerable time on the South Sudan peace process. “That was a high-level peace process. There CMI, an independent actor, faced limitations. We failed to understand a major political shift that took place at the time of the process. In peace processes like that, you need to get the dance right.” According toKakoma, in the South Sudan process CMI learned a valuable lesson about timing, and much else. “We learned a hard lesson on the importance of complementarity and collaboration.”

Prior to CMI, Kakoma served as the Assistant Director for conflict resolution at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “When I left to join CMI, a mentor said to me – once a Carter man, always a Carter man. Now I will say the same thing about CMI.” Working at CMI has enabled Kakoma to further develop his self-confidence as a leader, he says, as well as providing plenty of opportunity to learn about organizational processes. In his last year with CMI, Kakoma was responsible for leading the organization’s 10-year strategy, which also involved a broad base of CMI staff, supporters and partners.

Kakoma accompanied President Ahtisaari on his trip to New York in 2018, pictured here with former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

For many Finns, over the years Kakoma has become the public face of CMI. His calm demeanour, deep expertise and warm smile have made him a highly valued presenter and interviewee both in Finland and further afield. He has facilitated dozens of high-level seminars and discussions, and has accompanied President Martti Ahtisaari on many work trips. This included accompanying President Ahtisaari visit to the United Nations in New York in 2018, when the leadership of CMI met the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres. After exchanging pleasantries, Guterres asked Ahtisaari: “So what do you want to discuss?” Ahtisaari turned to Kakoma, sitting close to him, and asked him to provide the Secretary-General with details of CMI’s work in peacemaking. “I was prepared”, Kakoma recalls. “These were files we had been working on. I was honoured that President Ahtisaari trusted me. I cannot emphasise enough the significance of preparedness. It is the key to professionalism.” The most important wisdom Kakoma has learned from Ahtisaari, who likes to remind: “You cannot do a damn thing alone.” In line with this wisdom, Kakoma believes that in the future even more trusted partners will be needed to navigate uncertain times. It is for this reason, for example, that fostering complementary relationships is one of the main principles of CMI’s new strategy.

Itonde Kakoma

Director for Global Strategy, a position established in 2019 to ensure sustainable growth, risk management, and strategy execution. Kakoma joined CMI in 2014, initially serving as Head for Sub-Saharan Africa before being promoted as Programme Director responsible for Africa (Sub-Sahara, Sahel, and North Africa). Prior to CMI, Kakoma was the Assistant Director, Conflict Resolution Program at The Carter Center, managing a portfolio of the Center’s peace initiatives and supporting President Carter’s diplomatic efforts in and between Sudan and South Sudan.

Kakoma was selected as a 2020 Global Fellow (Executive in Residence) at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). Kakoma is a member of the Board of Directors for The Fulbright Finland Foundation.

May 2021 is a transformational month for CMI: it will change in organizational form to a foundation, a new CEO will take office, and the new strategy is ready to be implemented. With these changes, CMI will be in a strong position to advance towards new frontiers.

“I am ready to move on and proud to see CMI blossom”, Kakoma says convincingly as he is making the transition from peacemaking to humanitarian diplomacy, although the two fields ultimately have the same goal of alleviating the suffering of the most vulnerable populations. As the Head of Delegation and Permanent Representative to the African Union, Kakoma will be able to draw on his formidable skills and experience in mediation and networking. And, as usual, he will face new challenges with curiosity, preparation and charming smile. It is time to build a new community.