James Suah Shilue
Having left Liberia in the early 1990s when the country fell deeper into civil war, Jimmy, as he is known, has since returned to play a central role in peacebuilding. Jimmy is working to fulfil what he feels is a moral obligation to make Liberia a peaceful place for all Liberians.
He is also delivering the promise he made to his children: “To build a home they can all come back to”. Today, Jimmy is the Liberia Programme Coordinator for the Interpeace initiative based in Monrovia. In his various roles in the humanitarian and development sector, he has always taken a peacebuilding angle.
20 years of professional experience have given him a comprehensive understanding of the issues, political and social structures and stakeholders from both inside and outside the country.
We spent time with Jimmy on his return from a working visit to Nimba County, an area over 300 kilometers from Monrovia, where the now nationwide programme has been active since 2008 and is widely respected.
How do you use your knowledge and experience to guide you in your work?
There is no level of academic understanding that helps you when it comes to very specific peacebuilding interventions. You simply have to be humble as you approach the issues. You go to the local community and allow them to see you as somebody who respects, recognizes and understands their problems. You need to show them that you are there to learn from them, to listen to them and appreciate them in their uniqueness, you are visiting them as ‘their son.’ You must not behave like a chief, or an academic and certainly not someone who ‘knows it all.’ I also have to be very flexible, as we have a traditional structure here so certain issues are considered private and ones that should not be openly discussed with strangers.
Above all, you say you focus on integrity. Why is this so important and what does it mean in reality?
Irrespective of ethnic or social background, when you work in the field of peacebuilding you have to maintain integrity. You need to be objective, non-judgemental, neutral, honest, respectful and sensitive to cultural, religious and social values. Only then can you expect to earn trust and be widely respected. From that point on, you can work on bringing together people. Typically, they have very different views. Therefore, discussions around the issues of conflict and peace, and reaching consensus at the end of a session takes a lot. But most of all they need to have confidence in you. Then all groups or parties can contribute to the peace process and it can become truly theirs.
You are just back from Nimba County. Why are these visits so important?
As Liberia transitions from war to peace, much developmental work is focused on Monrovia, however it is not the entire country. People living in each of our counties need to be involved to ensure that decisions made in the capital resonate in all parts of the country to ensure sustainable peace and development. I often have to present opinions from our far flung towns and villages to key stakeholders and decision-makers based in Monrovia, the capital. I often think of myself as a messenger, giving our remote villages and marginalized groups a voice. As I navigate the political waters back in Monrovia, I try to remind those in the capital of the benefits of representing everyone – inclusive pluralism.
What is a major challenge you face when working in Liberia ?
People come to dialogue sessions with a long list of problems. Their issues need to be listened to, discussed, analyzed and then reported in a way that captures the essence of what they said, while still condensing their opinions and insights within the allocated timeline. For our last report, we were capturing the opinions of 10,800 Liberians with insufficient financial resources and in extremely challenging geographical locations. Only when the reports are in a digestible format can their words be used for the government, other NGOs and civil society organizations, the United Nations and the donors that fund our work.