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Last Updated: 04/17/2007
Track-II Diplomacy in Barbados, Nigeria and Egypt
Dominic Pkalya, Marcel Fomotar, and Julia Odumuyiwa

The following is an interview with Dr. Linda M. Johnston, Associate Professor of Conflict Management, Kennesaw State University, Georgia on the role of mediation and Track-II diplomacy in resolving conflicts in Barbados, the Niger Delta in Nigeria and in US-Egypt relationship. She has been working in this field for over 16 years and her main areas of interest include diplomacy, negotiations, arbitration and narrative research. Dr. Johnston is the Director of the Centre for Conflict Management and the Master of Science in Conflict Management Program at Kennesaw State University. 


Mediation in Barbados


Can you please tell us more about this mediation initiative in Barbados and what you have learned from it?


We have been designing a mediation project in Barbados for the last three years and I’m happy to note that this project is now operational. This project was initiated after the people of Barbados expressed concern that conflict resolution process in their country had become so legislative that every dispute is referred to the court. They were trying to have a more peaceable kind of approach so that people can work out their differences without necessarily going to court.


Prior to our intervention in designing out-of-court mediation process in Barbados, they had identified some people to train them in mediation but the examples and tools that were used in the trainings were not specific and appropriate to Barbados. For example, they had this conflict over townhouses, but there aren’t any townhouses in Barbados so people couldn’t identify with anything that was specific to conflicts around townhouses as opposed to apartment houses because they don’t have them.


Before we stepped in to help design the mediation process, three of us went to Barbados and interviewed people about the current conflict issues and how they would like for them to be addressed. Based on these interviews, two of my graduate students developed case studies and role-plays for solving the conflicts.  Then we went back to Barbados to do the mediation training using those examples; and it was very nice for us because people told us that it was very unique for them to hear their own statement, identify with the examples that we were giving and being emotionally involved in what was going on in the conflict. We have since turned over all those role-plays and case studies to them so that they can do their own training without necessarily relying on us.


Let us take you back to the mediation program and especially the tools which were developed. How does the mediation process itself work in the community?


To me, it seems that they are going to take two different approaches to implement the mediation process. First, there will be a court referred type of mediation where, for example, a judge handling a case in court can recommend that the case before him/her could be best settled by concerned parties (people) sitting down and talking to each other with help from state identified mediators, people that have been trained in mediation. Secondly, it has been suggested that there is a need to establish community mediation centers where disputes could be resolved before turning to formal courts. These centres would be staffed by people identified by the community and trained on mediation. The centres would be headed by a community leader (village elder) who will oversee the dispute resolution processes and ensure that it resonates very well with the local culture and issues.


This mediation process seems to borrow from the culture of these people, right?


Yes, that’s absolutely right. That was one of the things we insisted on. We told the people that we can teach you what we know about the US mediation model but this will not necessarily work in Barbados. For instance, in the US model most mediation processes are built on basis of neutrality of the mediator. In this model, the parties to the conflict don’t know the mediator and the mediator doesn’t know the parties. This is considered as the best process because the mediator can be totally neutral. But on an island like Barbados, where everybody knows virtually everyone, the concept of neutrality is out of question. So, one of the things that we incorporated into the training was how to build a model where everybody knows each other. During the trainings, we came to the consensus that even though I might know you or your cousin, that doesn’t mean that I am not impartial in finding a solution to the problem. It is important that people trust each other in the community and that the mediators focus on solutions rather than the individual people involved.


What role does the language play? Different people from different cultures have different approaches of answering or addressing questions. To what extent did this affect your work?


Yes, absolutely. Most people in Barbados speak English. So in terms of our communication with them that wasn’t a problem. In terms of the cultural expression of things, it was a real point of caution for us on how we were going to be perceived. Luckily, one of my graduate students who went with us to do the interviews was from the islands. And they loved her. During the interviews, they were much more honest and open with her than they would have been with me. And I wasn’t insulted by that. During the interviews and trainings, there were sensitive issues that came up and she was able to handle them.


One thing that I noticed is that US culture tends to be much more informal than Bajan culture. People of Bajan culture have formal relationships until they really get to know someone. I think the fact that we were from the university and that we were doing research actually helped the situation. In a lot of these cases people told us that when they were having a conflict, especially with a government agency, no one cared to listen to them. So in a lot of cases we were the first ones to sit down with them and listen to their grievances. Many people rose up to just thank us for listening to them after the end of the interviews.


During the mediation trainings, several people were very surprised to hear the viewpoints of their colleagues/neighbors in the role-plays. In the role-plays, we didn’t quote the persons exactly because of confidentiality but we used the exact expressions of their language.


To us, this mediation process is similar to the Gacaca courts in Rwanda. Human rights organizations and lawyers have been quick to criticize these informal courts for speeding up trials at the expense of justice and that they have infringed rights of the defendants. What is your standpoint on this criticism in relation to the Barbados case?


There is a delicate balance there and you have to deal with people appropriately so that they don’t feel that their cases are dragged through the courts. On the other hand you have to give people enough time to really understand what their own issues are and be able to vocalize them. This is one of the reasons why I encouraged them to start a community mediation centre so that cases can be dealt with more quickly and fairly instead of wasting time in the court system.


I also believe that some cases/disputes can be better handled by the formal courts than alternative mediation processes like Gachacha or the Barbados case. For example, the mediation process might not have the capacity to handle cases involving unscrupulous business people or tax evaders. Such cases should be handled by the established court system so that the convicted are fairly judged and punished. But things like domestic violence, disputes between members of the community or with other communities can be handled by the informal court system very well. So, one of my cautions about having a tie to the legal system is that you have to set precedence with certain cases. There are things that the public does need to know about, meaning that there should be a balancing act.


What I’m trying to say is that both the formal court system and the informal ones have their own advantages and disadvantages. In order to get the best out of the two processes, I think there are times to build consensus and there are times to build right and wrong. It is very important to establish right and wrong in a given case so that the wrong could be discouraged and punished accordingly. For criminal cases, I believe that the formal courts should handle them so that the perpetrators could be punished accordingly. But when you talk about cases involving a large section of the community or with other communities, the formal court system might not work well for it is not necessarily pegged on consensus, healing and reconciliation. This is where truth and reconciliation commissions come in handy. So, where you need to build consensus to move forward in the future then those kinds of things are better mediated. There is a catch to that. Mediation does not always build consensus. It is not all about every guy agreeing and walking off holding hands, but it is also about establishing people’s responsibilities for certain kinds of actions. It is about what are you going to do tomorrow differently from what you did today so people must take responsibility and accountability for their actions otherwise people will not forgive each other.


I attended the 10th anniversary of the truth and reconciliation hearings in South Africa and what was coming out clearly is that if the perpetrators of the Apartheid atrocities are not brought to justice, people will continue feeling uneasy seeing and walking in the streets with the perpetrators especially if they have shown no remorse. So those things can happen in a mediation session, but when it is cultural and when it is something that happened on a societal scale, I do think there has to be some sort of recognition of right and wrong and appropriate reward and punishment respectively.


Track II Diplomacy: The Niger Delta Conflict


We understand you have been part of a team that visited Nigeria, which at the moment is in a conflict over natural resources; we mean the Niger Delta conflict. We’ll like to know the objective of your recent mission and the suggestions you have for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. 


I was invited to Nigeria as a result of the Azikiwe University vice chancellor’s visit to our university. I was requested to go to Nigeria mainly to help them start a graduate degree program in conflict management. One of the exciting things that I saw in Nigeria was how the university was really enthusiastic to get conflict resolution and peace studies programs get started. There was an excitement I haven’t seen anywhere else about getting young people to talk about resolving conflict.


The Azikiwe University had asked me to come to help set up the program but by the time I got there, they had done almost everything. The curriculum and syllabus was already planned and professors identified. But one of the things that I suggested was to apply for some funding to train teams of graduate students to do dialogues and focus groups in the Niger Delta area. First of all, I thought it prudent to train students to do this kind of work so that they can play a critical role in resolving the conflict peacefully. I wanted the students to facilitate a process where people can talk about the conflict freely because it was mentioned to me that local communities affected by the Niger Delta conflict are not involved in the conflict resolution initiatives at all, yet they are the ones affected.


In addition to facilitating dialogues, these students can articulate issues underpinning this conflict and hopefully at one point, have some influence on the conflict itself. Although I don’t like to put students right away in dialogue concerning a conflict of that magnitude, it would be a good thing to do in the long run for they will develop interest and learn practical skills of resolving conflicts.


I am still in conversation with Azikiwe University because we would really like to work on a Niger Delta conflict dialogue project together.


Track-II diplomacy in Egypt


Please can you give us an operational definition of Track-II diplomacy and how it has worked in Egypt?


I view Track-two diplomacy as that level where mid-level people in society or a state, dialogue with others from other country or countries for the sake of peace. In this dialogue, you are not dealing with the government officials nor dealing with grass-root people, but you are dealing with that second grouping of people who have the capacity to relate to grassroots people and also have the capacity to influence policy at the Track-one level. In Egypt, we have a Track-II dialogue project going on right now. We met in February in Cairo for the second time. The first meeting was in the US a year ago.


While designing this dialogue in Egypt, we worked very closely with an Egyptian NGO that was very well respected in the area. They helped us identify Egyptian track-II partners who were mainly teachers, newspaper reporters, small business people, and NGO personnel. These people are not at the official level but definitely had those connections, like I said, to the officials and the grassroots people. So this was very civil society-based. We matched these people up with people in the US; for example, a newspaper reporter with a newspaper reporter. For this case, it was not just talking about issues around the media’s involvement in conflict, but also establishing a relationship between them based on their professions. This has been very successful and we are working on the evaluation project right now because we just finished the dialogue in February.


I was very excited to see relationships and friendships forming in those groups of people, between the professors and between the newspaper people and things like that. I think that the benefit of Track-two work is that the Track-one people don’t have to identify with it until they see it working and bearing some fruits. They don’t want to publicly stick themselves out on a limp until they know that the project is successful. So, the advantage with it is that we can work at civil society level and talk about issues such as education and the role of the media in ongoing conflict without worrying about government interference since Track-II people are not official representatives of the government but just interested human beings talking to another.


We have been able to attract more people in this dialogue than ever before. There were more people at the second dialogue than there were in the first dialogue. In the first dialogue we had 18 people and in the second one we had 30 people so it’s growing and gaining local legitimacy.


We are also hoping to collectively do some sort of research on how people take the experience of dialogue back to their lives. Each of us sits in a dialogue session and come to some sort of agreement in that dialogue session about something, but how do we then take what we learned back to other parts of our lives? How do I teach my students differently because of what I learned in that dialogue? How do I relate to my family differently because of what I learned in that dialogue? So I think at some point we have to document how we live our lives differently as a result of those things. And the Egyptians have told me they are thinking of the same thing so I hope we will be researching and documenting this experience very soon.


Is there something that you would like to tell us that you haven’t mentioned before?

Just in terms of conflict resolution field in general. I am so excited about this field and how it is growing and changing. And how each of you [students of Conflict and Peace Studies] is going out and changing it in a way I couldn’t even imagine 20 years ago. My students are constantly amazing me in what they are doing. They are pushing the field in a direction that I think the field needed to go but maybe my generation of scholars would not even have noticed. When I started in the field nobody was talking about doing dialogues. And now I see a lot of students facilitating dialogue. I see a lot of students getting involved in the political process because a lot of the original people in the field kind of strayed away from the political process; they worked more with the grassroots level. And now a number of my students say if you really want to change things you will have to be involved in the political process. You can’t ignore that. You can do all the grassroots work you want to do, but if you are not involved in the policy you are not going to change anything. So I see some very, very brave peace study students going out and walking into the process.

Dominic Pkalya, Marcel Fomotar, and Julia Odumuyiwa are students in the MA in Media, Conflict, and Peace programme at the University for Peace