Field research leads to a model for post-election peace

Faith Okpotor talks on the efforts behind peace during elections.

On Thursday, October 22, the World Affairs Council of the Mid-Hudson Valley teamed up with Marist College’s UN club to present the Fall 2015 Programs with a talk from Faith Okpotor, recipient of the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant and a Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar from the U.S. Institute of Peace. The event, titled “Electing Violence: Explaining Post-Election Violence in Africa” resulted with a packed audience in the Handcock center with mostly students, but a handful of faculty and locals.WACHV-logo-31

Okpotor did not waste time. In fact, she was briefly introduced by the faculty UN club advisor, Dr. Juris Pupcenoks, but then did not expand on anything regarding herself. She dove right into the model – conditioning, then exploitation, and then escalation – which she had created based on her post-election violence research done in Cote D’ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria. The audience followed along with her presentation, which included a detailed flow chart to compliment her explanation of every step. She moved fast, but it was easy to understand because you could tell she was so seasoned in speaking on the topic.

Okpotor took us to Ghana first, where there has been a reduction in electoral violence over the years. Why? Due to public awareness made by the government. “When I talked to leaders there [Ghana] they had all admitted to participating in the violence.” She explained, noting, “Peace is still highly at risk.” She further explained that it was in the 2012 election that societal development for sustained and continuous efforts of peace promotion began.

This is not the case for Cote D’Ivoire. Okpotor paralleled Cote D’ivoire to Ghana because of similar past electoral violence and post-colonialism history. Yet in a country that cannot even declare a singular president after an election, there is less room for societal development to stop post election violence. Okpotor showed the audience how Cote D’Ivoire completely lacked any preventative and preemptive action made from civil society, a key component to ending violence. Instead, the 2010 elections resulted in disputes over resources, a lack of trust for the government by society, and violent mobilization of the youth. She declared, “This was a social cleavage issue between the North and South…People were being treated as second class citizens”

okpotorfaithSo what does this mean for peace? Okpotor compared the two countries in a way that highlighted in the importance of civil society. She also insinuated that in no way has peace been entirely achieved, as it is “a lasting effort”. With an audience full of people who most likely never experienced post-election violence within their own nation, she left a humbling impression. “I can register to vote, I can get out there and participate, and I don’t have to worry about much.” Commented Political Science major and Marist College Senior, Brandon Fleischhacker, who felt as though “her model helped me understand the importance of election and participation in civil society.”

Marist senior Nick Bayer is a political science student and member of the UN club. Bayer was enticed by Okpotor’s model and compared her research to his recent experience in Rwanda, where he traveled as a member of a human rights declaration, Global Youth Connect. “Elections are approaching in Rwanda next year and it will be interesting to see if Okpotor’s model holds there.” He seems to believe that civil society will do it’s part. “Rwanda is likely to create an environment in which post-election violence would be frowned upon.” Bayer, with his educational and field work experience, found Okpotor’s model compelling.

What was truly seamless about Okpotor’s presentation was her confidence in the topic, during both her talk and the question and answer portion. In an informal conversation after the event, she told me: “I couldn’t teach this model without my experience talking to the people there, being on their ground.” Okpotor was able to do extensive research in Ghana, Cote D’iviore and Nigeria due to the prestigious fellowship grants she received. Assistant professor of Political Science at Marist, Dr. Danielle Langfield was present for the talk and has also done extensive fieldwork and active, in-person observation. Based on Okpotor’s argument, she added: “You can have theories and ideas of what you would expect to be rational and logical, but you should ask them.” Langfield’s experience leads her to believe that field interviews with political elites might not always uncover the truth. “You can’t just go to ask. You must find out why.” This, Langfield suggests, takes more than asking questions. Okpotor declared: “They are the experts. I am their analysis and voice”.

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