Haleemah Ahmad is a 2023 recipient of Hesburgh Global Fellowship from the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. She recently graduated with a master’s degree in global affairs with a concentration in international peace studies and will return to the Da’wah Institute in Nigeria, in the role of senior technical advisor for the organisation’s Peacebuilding and Justice Programme. Ahmad speaks with Edugist on how her work in peacebuilding and justice can contribute to addressing Nigeria’s various social, political and economic challenges. Excerpts:
Please share with Edugist, a little about yourself and your background.
I am Haleemah Oladamade Ahmad. I work in the peacebuilding and development sector, and I recently graduated with a master of global affairs from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States specialising in international peace studies. I am happily married and blessed with four adorable children.
Congratulations on winning the prestigious Hesburgh Global Fellowship of Keough School of Global Affairs. How do you feel about this incredible achievement?
Thank you very much. It definitely feels great to win the fellowship, and I am grateful to my recommenders and the fellowship committee for finding me worthy even though it was highly contested. I believe my other colleagues are equally qualified. Alhamdulillah (praise be to God), I feel very happy about it.
Can you tell us more about your educational background?
Ten years ago, I graduated from the University of Ilorin with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. However, even before my graduation then, I already knew that I would not be practising as a computer scientist. What I was not sure about was which other field I would be venturing into. While I was doing well in my studies, I was not comfortable with my level of practical knowledge of the field. The tech industry is ever-evolving, and I did not think that I was keeping up with the pace as I would have liked. I am personally allergic to mediocrity so I strive for excellence in anything I am involved in. I can be a perfectionist sometimes and do not accept less than the best from myself.
So, even though I graduated with a 4.08/5.00 CGPA in computer science, I still chose to leave the field for another where I feel more confident about maximising my potential for the benefit of humanity. In determining what to do next, I initially thought of going back for a bachelor’s degree in Guidance and Counselling as I knew that I wanted to work more with people than with machines and gadgets. However, following consultations and some self-assessment, I eventually decided to do a postgraduate diploma in journalism due to my flair for writing and my communication acumen.
What motivated you to pursue a master’s degree in global affairs with a concentration in international peace studies?
As I earlier mentioned, I did a postgraduate diploma in journalism and shortly thereafter, I stumbled upon an opportunity to work with a peacebuilding organisation. I was hired as an editor and publications officer. While my role was initially about editing and communications, I quickly gained skills and experience in supporting religious and community leaders involved in grassroots peacebuilding efforts. I found myself becoming increasingly passionate about becoming a peacebuilder myself and supporting like-minded individuals across different regions.
Considering that my undergraduate study was not in peace studies, I started nursing the idea of pursuing a master’s degree in peace studies. My motivation was borne out of the need to further build my capacity and learn from renowned scholars and peace practitioners. I am grateful for the opportunity to do that through my studies at one of the foremost peace studies institutes globally, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
Can you share any experiences or instances during your studies that significantly shaped your perspective on international peace and conflict resolution?
I think my cohort went through the peace programme at a very significant time in history which has had a great impact on our perspective on issues. First, we started the programme in August 2021, right after the pandemic. In fact, it was still the era of compulsory masking, sanitisers and shots, and my cohort was unable to take the usual group cohort picture during orientation week due to social distancing. Covid-19 taught us several lessons, and as peacebuilders, it highlighted further how unequal our world is, and how far we are, as a race, from ensuring that we “leave no one behind”. Despite the fact that the world was facing a common enemy, the accessibility of important and needed resources, including vaccines, treatment protocol, medications, and supplies was obviously not equitable for many developing countries.
Another significant event has been the Russia-Ukraine war which unfolded right before our eyes. Many regions of the world have been suffering different crises and civil wars over the last few decades, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, but this is the first full-blown war between two sovereign countries in Europe in a long time. Again, there have been several dimensions to the war and various lessons which are significant to peacebuilders, such as the anti-Black sentiments experienced by some people of colour trying to flee Ukraine in the early weeks of the war. These instances, amongst many others, were useful for intellectually stimulating discussions in several of my classes.
Nigeria faces various social, political and economic challenges. How do you believe your work in peacebuilding and justice can contribute to addressing these challenges?
Hydra-headed problems require holistic, multi-stakeholders approaches and solutions. Hence, I am not going to pretend that peacebuilders are all we need to solve all the social, political, and economic challenges faced in the country. Rather, we need peacebuilders amongst other necessary stakeholders as we work to overcome these challenges.
Moreover, I must emphasise the importance of justice in overcoming these issues, for as long as injustice persists, and some section of the society is marginalised, cheated or treated unfairly, we cannot have true peace. Peace is the work of justice and justice is the work of peace. As a peacebuilder, my work helps individuals and communities to rise above predisposing factors to conflict, aggression and violence; and instead, exercise their agency and adopt peaceful approaches to addressing their issues. In addition, there is a need for structural and institutional changes, and all hands need to be on deck as society charts a path towards sustainable peace. Hence, the government and its officials must be held accountable in order to ensure that these challenges are tackled headlong and that individuals and communities can flourish and thrive successfully.
How do you envision applying the knowledge and skills you gained during your studies to your role as a senior technical advisor at the Da’wah Institute in Nigeria’s Peacebuilding and Justice Programme?
I previously worked with the Da’wah Institute before going for my master’s programme. Returning to the organisation as a senior technical advisor means that I can utilise the knowledge, skills and experience which I have acquired over the last two years to benefit the organisation. For example, my coursework in strategic peacebuilding has equipped me with the ability to conduct in-depth conflict analysis and integrate a holistic approach to designing peacebuilding programmes.
Additionally, while the Da’wah Institute already has extensive experience in project delivery, the course I took on programme design, management, and evaluation has given me insight into areas where the DIN’s work could be improved by implementing best practices in project management and reporting.
What do you see as the most pressing peace and justice issues in Nigeria, and how do you plan to tackle them through your role as a senior technical advisor?
This is quite a challenging question to answer as there are several peace and justice issues plaguing the country from environmental justice issues to violent extremism to violence against women and girls. These, amongst many others, are all pressing issues and need different stakeholders to be working on addressing them simultaneously. Hence, we cannot afford to cherry-pick which issue is most pressing.
Instead, everybody needs to play their part in making the country, and indeed the world, a better place. Personally though, my research interests and expertise has been in building resilience against violent extremism, promoting interfaith harmony and freedom of religion or belief, as well as gender justice and promotion of the rights of women and girls. These are areas I shall continue to work on both as part of my fellowship as well as in other capacities.
Could you describe any previous experiences or projects you’ve been involved in that are relevant to your work in peacebuilding and justice?
I have been involved in several projects related to building resilience against violent extremism, promoting interfaith harmony and freedom of religion or belief, as well as gender justice and promotion of the rights of women and girls. On a personal level, I have also implemented projects related to the prevention of electoral violence, youth capacity building for peace, and I have conducted workshops for teachers of primary and secondary schools on “catch them young” approaches towards helping children develop and sustain a peacebuilding paradigm from their childhood.
I have shared my insights from these initiatives at different local and international fora in Nigeria, Kenya, the US, the UK, and Switzerland, amongst others. I have also been consulted by different international organisations and Federal Foreign Offices supporting peacebuilding programmes in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.
What strategies or approaches do you think are most effective in fostering sustainable peace in conflict-affected regions?
There is no silver bullet one-size-fits-all strategy for fostering sustainable peace in conflict-affected regions. While there are some conflict-sensitivity considerations that would cut across board, such as the “do-no-harm” principle, actual strategies to tackle the menace would vary largely due to context.
For example, the strategies needed to address farmer-herder conflicts in the Middle Belt would be different from those needed to tackle violent extremism in the Northeast. Despite these differences however, there are some common considerations such as the need for a comprehensive and inclusive conflict assessment that would help to identify all necessary components of the conflict, including identifying the root causes of the conflict and pointers towards solutions. Also, it is necessary to ensure the inclusion of all critical stakeholders or their representatives including women, youths, people living with disabilities, ethnic or religious minorities, religious and traditional leaders, amongst others.
Share your thoughts about the culture of excellence, or the lack thereof, among Nigerian graduates.
I think that this would be very subjective, and while there would be outliers on either extreme, I think that many Nigerian graduates are capable of doing great if they have the enabling environment. I have found myself in gatherings in the diaspora where people from other countries have told me that most of the Nigerians they have met are smart. There are some factors which hinder this such as a lack of soft skills, an entitlement mentality, and a lackadaisical attitude. Thus, while having an enabling environment can be quite helpful, having a culture of excellence is also a very personal thing and it is a trait that individuals should cultivate and have as part of them wherever they go.
What are your aspirations for the future in the field of global affairs and peace studies?
I plan to continue to advance my work in peacebuilding while also taking time to bond and spend time with my family. I have plans to pursue my PhD in the nearest future inshaAllah (God-willing), but for now, I am focusing on my family and work.