Youth activist, Kessy Martine Ekomo Soignet, talks about youth and peace in the Central African Republic
By Charalampia Armpounioti
Plagued by decades of instability and brutal conflict, the Central African Republic is slowly making progress towards improving national peace and security. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), established in 2014 to help the country navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace, has been present supporting the extension of State authority, the deployment of security forces, and the preservation of territorial integrity. Acknowledging youth’s great potential to help bring a positive change in the Central African Republic, the mission supports and encourages the engagement of young people in this challenging path towards a more sustainable future.
Kessy Martine Ekomo Soignet is a prime example of a youth activist who works tirelessly to support youth and promote peace in the country. She is a community leader, peacebuilding practitioner and founder and Executive Director of the non-governmental organisation URU, a youth-led NGO leading projects to increase effective engagement of and support for youth in locally-led conflict prevention and reconciliation efforts in the Central African Republic. She is also the founder and Director General of the firm Peace and Development Watch.
Ahead of International Youth Day, we wanted to hear her opinion on the importance of youth’s meaningful engagement in peace processes. Read on to find out how she decided to become a youth activist, how she views youth involvement in peace in the Central African Republic, and what message she wishes to share with young people around the world.
Why did you decide to become a youth peace activist?
I find it very difficult to see myself as an activist. The concept itself is noble, but I prefer to see myself as a citizen committed to the development of Central African youth. I decided to get involved in youth issues because I realized that people under 35 years old represent the largest part of the Central African population (about 75%). In a country locked in conflict and struggling for development such as ours, it is not possible to think about the present and especially the future without this part of the population.
Additionally, socio-cultural constraints represent a challenge that does not allow youth to emerge. The idea of URU comes from there: to create an organization at the service of youth, an organization that equips and gives a voice to young people, to give them a place in society and with decision-makers.
Can you give us an example of the positive impact you had in your community?
The most positive impact for me is the fact that within communities, and with our local leaders and partners in the Central African Republic, the voice of youth is now taken into account. Our project to microfund peace and development initiatives across the country has repositioned youth as an agent of positive change that can influence the transformation of their community. What is more, to think of the youth of today is also to think of the youth of tomorrow. We have succeeded in highlighting young Central Africans as role models for new generations, and we hope to see an even more positive change for our nation through this new generation.
Could you tell us more about some of the projects you are currently working on?
One of our ongoing projects is the “Seeds of Hope” project, which focuses on agriculture and is aimed at young people. It must be understood that the perspective of peace analysis according to young people is part of the dynamics of development, access to training and employment. After various consultations with young people with whom we work in the communities, we realized that the agricultural sector and its value chain offer a huge potential for the creation of jobs that would allow young people to play a greater role in economic recovery, and reduce idleness and youth unemployment, which lead to youth involvement in violence.
All young people talk about income-generating activities as a chance to get out of the crisis in CAR but the real question is, what do we propose to this youth in the face of security, food, environmental and other challenges that we are going through? The plea is to ask decision-makers to reconsider their approach to the employment and training of young people, taking into account their potential as actors that can accelerate the recovery and development of our nation.
How did COVID19 affect your work, and what steps did you take to adapt?
Access has been a big problem. Before COVID-19, it was already difficult to reach people who live in remote areas, but this situation has been exacerbated with the pandemic. The vulnerability of young people and the lack of access to basic services have set us back several months in our efforts. To overcome this, we have taken care to keep in touch by phone with our peers, we have engaged them in efforts to observe and monitor the dynamics in their community to alert us on the harmful trends aggravated by the pandemic. We keep this approach even today.
According to you, what are the main challenges that youth face?
The socio-cultural constraints that limit the place of youth and, more specifically, the place of young women, in the recovery and development of our nation. It is a real challenge, we have had several successes through our actions but there is still a long way to go.
There is also a prejudice that we carry as young people who have grown up in a country in crisis for years. It is a question of combating the idea that we are all either victims, or perpetrators who are easy to manipulate. My experience has taught me that the majority of young people in the Central African Republic want to play a full role in rebuilding our nation.
Why do you think it is important to engage young people in peace processes and decision-making?
How can we move forward without involving those who will lead and must contribute to rebuilding our nation? How long should we consider them too young to understand and act for peace in our country? I believe in change through action and contribution, and this, far beyond the simple participation of young people in the foras which generally serves only to validate the fact that they were present.
In a country like the Central African Republic, you are never too young to act because we have experienced the same atrocities as our parents who are the decision-makers today. The difference is that we have an approach and an understanding of things and solutions that in my opinion only young people can have. We know our communities, we know the threats and opportunities that come to us or that negatively impact our present and our future.
What needs to improve in your community for youth to have a greater role to play in peace processes and decision-making?
I was talking about constraints, but there is also research in the youth sector. Everyone thinks they know youth and their needs, their vision, but I think there is a gap here that would allow us to educate decision-makers on the needs, aspirations and the capacities of youth. This is one of the key components of Peace and Development Watch; to do research about youth to guide and advise policy makers on how to fully benefit from their expertise of the realities we live in.
I also think we need to enhance the contribution of youth in local governance to enable them to influence and act for sustainable and positive change within their communities and in the interest of rebuilding good governance and preventing conflict.
Do you have a message to inspire young people to become involved in peace within their communities?
Dare to start acting where you are. Peacebuilding is not only in countries in conflict, but wherever you are. Surround yourself with people who dare to carry out positive actions because the work of an activist requires to be nourished by positive and stimulating waves. And finally, dare to say what is wrong but go beyond that, propose and implement actions to change the narrative and destroy prejudice about youth.
“How can we move forward without involving those who will contribute to rebuilding our nation?” was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.