New CMI Senior Advisor Alexander Rondos calls for fresh thinking on resolving conflicts: “We need to be creative and open-minded about who we talk to”

Published on Thursday, 11th of November 2021

Alexander Rondos, former EU Special Representative to the Horn of Africa, discusses his experiences in peacemaking during the past 30 years. Rondos stresses that peacemakers need to think outside the box to resolve conflicts and engage with influential businesspeople and radical armed groups. 

Alexander Rondos has extensive experience of peacemaking in the Horn of Africa. From 2012 to 2020 he was the European Union’s Special Representative in the region. Photo: AU-UN

It’s been a year since the civil war in Ethiopia broke out. The humanitarian crisis keeps worsening. The war may also be entering a new phase that could lead to a wider conflict beyond the country’s borders.

“The conflict is at risk of spilling over. I am very worried about the situation at Ethiopia’s borders,” says Rondos.

For instance, the conflict has exposed a long-running dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan over al-Fashaga, an area of fertile borderland. A war between the Horn of Africa’s two biggest countries could destabilise the whole continent.

Therefore, Rondos says, the relationships between Ethiopia and its neighbours should be an immediate focus for peacemaking.

“Have we looked as creatively as possible at how one builds dialogue across borders? This is very pertinent right now in the Horn of Africa, where everything is interconnected. A lot of policies are focused on countries rather than on how one diminishes rivalry and the threat of conflict between countries.”

The vagueness of borders themselves offer potential for conflict. The border regions are rich in natural resources. The people living there are often marginalised from the rest of society.

“That is where the real violence is occurring and where that violence is being used and exploited, often for competing national interests.”

Thinking outside the box

Rondos has extensive experience of peacemaking in the Horn of Africa. From 2012 to 2020 he was the European Union’s Special Representative in the region.

During his  overall peacemaking career, which spans more than 30 years, Rondos has been involved in conflict mediation in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Alexander Rondos

Greek national, born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in 1954.

CMI Senior Advisor as of August 2021.

2012 – 2020 EU Special Representative to the Horn of Africa.

Previously worked as adviser to the Foreign Ministry and the Government of Greece and involved in conflict mediation in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Extensive experience of relief and development work.

When talking about what he has learned during his career as a peacemaker, Rondos repeatedly returns to the notion of people’s sense of belonging – or lack of it – either as a path to peace or as a root cause of violence. This lesson is even more important in today’s fragmented world where large numbers of people feel cut off.

“To stay ahead of the problem, peacemakers need to understand that most crises that end up in violence start very, very locally. It tends to be about groups of people who are marginalised, and who then connect with others who are also marginalised. And so it builds up.”

Peacemakers need to think outside the box to get the right people around the same table in a given conflict to solve problems, Rondos explains. “We need to be very creative and open-minded about who we talk to.”

This means bringing people together who one might not necessarily think of as natural stakeholders in finding a solution to a crisis.

“Women know far more about what is happening in a community than almost anyone else, because they bear the brunt of what is going on and what is going wrong. If we’re not talking to women, we’re missing something.”

Keeping an open mind

Making peace is also about “talking to people who normally you’d be least likely to want to talk to,” Rondos stresses. He says that in this respect peacemakers should make more of a point of following the money. In the Horn of Africa businessmen are heavily involved in the exploitation of natural resources in the conflict-prone areas.

“They may profit from the crisis but they are also the suppliers who keep people going when there’s a crisis. They can make things happen for better or worse.”

The rise of armed groups as key players in conflicts also underlines the need to keep an open-mind. The Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan comes at a time when the African continent is faced with a growing jihadist threat from the Sahel to Mozambique.

Rondos says that the traditional counter terrorism strategies that are based solely on using force must be rethought. “To me bad politics creates terrorists. Bad politics fails to prevent terrorists from becoming terrorists. Terrorism grows out of inequality or oppression, marginalisation, a sense of not belonging.”

“Even with very radicalised groups who turn to violence one has to find a way of engaging them at some point. One has to talk to these people to understand why they got where they are.”

Youth’s touch of kindness

Rondos thinks that independent organisations such as CMI are well placed to help make peacemaking efforts truly inclusive. For instance, engaging with radical armed groups could be off-limits or difficult for official diplomacy because of the political risks involved and from a fear of being seen to legitimise such groups.

“There’s a huge need for entities like CMI to quietly reach out to these people. It’s about creating a neutral space where these groups are not stigmatised.”

For Rondos, treating all people equally reflects the greatest legacy of CMI’s founder, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. “It didn’t matter who he had to talk to, he would talk to them to get to the right place and fix things.”

The key to a more peaceful future is giving young people the respect they deserve, Rondos points out. They are, after all, also the ones who in their frustration can be exploited by others to use violence.

“It’s about creating the next generation of peacemakers. It’s about giving young people space and boosting their ability and confidence to shape their own future. Let’s try and help them liberate themselves to do things that bring a touch of kindness rather than unkindness.”

Antti Ämmälä/CMI