Professor ‘Funmi Olonisakin, 53, has become the first black woman to deliver an Inaugural Lecture in the almost 190-year history of King’s College London, the fourth oldest university in England.
‘Not before now has a black woman grown and risen through the ranks at King’s to become a professor and to give an Inaugural Lecture for the first time in its esteemed history,’ she told a packed auditorium at the university.
The Lecture is usually given by ‘newly-promoted or appointed professors to inform colleagues in the university and the general public, about their research career so far; and update colleagues on their current and future research directions’.
Born to Nigerian parents in South London, Prof Olonisakin spent her formative years in Nigeria where she obtained a BSc in political science at Obafemi Awolowo University in 1984.
Returning to London, she received an MA in War Studies (1990) and a PhD also in War Studies (1996) from King’s College.
At King’s she is currently Professor of Security, Leadership and Development at the African Leadership Centre (ALC) in the School of Global Affairs, and Vice-President/Vice-Principal (International).
She established and acted as the founding director of the ALC in 2010, which aims to build the next generation of African scholars and analysts generating cutting edge knowledge for conflict, security and development in Africa.
A number of Ghanaians have been students at the ALC, which offers a Masters course in London and a Women’s Fellowship programme in Nairobi.
For over 20 years, Prof Olonisakin researched issues at the intersection of security and development, positioning her work to serve as a bridge between academia, policy and practice.
She has contributed to efforts to tackle the structural roots of armed conflict in developing countries, particularly in Africa.
In the last decade, Prof Olonisakin led multi-country research projects on reframing narratives of peace and state building in Africa and on leadership and peacebuilding in Africa.
Her current research is on ‘Future Peace and the role of the State in Africa’.
Prof Olonisakin worked at the UN between 1999 and 2003 before returning to King’s.
In January 2015, she was appointed by the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, as one of seven members of the Advisory Group of Experts on the Review of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture.
She is currently a member of the UN Group of Experts for the Global Study of Youth, Peace and Security.
Not surprisingly, in her inaugural lecture, Prof Olonisakin placed some emphasis on her time at the UN, pointing out that her ‘experience as a staff member of the United Nations… transformed my worldview’.
‘First, Africa’s footprint on the UN Security Council’s agenda was hugely disproportionate to the continent’s representation in the places where decisions about the destiny of Africans were being made,’ she said.
‘Second, the voice of young people was glaringly absent – notwithstanding my own privileged position – particularly African youth (most especially women), who were rarely found among the JPOs [Junior Professional Officers] and interns.
‘Again, power dynamics were at play such that only wealthier member states who provided voluntary contributions and other support to the relevant UN offices had Junior Professional Officers in the Secretariat,’ Prof Olonisakin told her audience.
‘Thirdly, far too few African representatives seemed to grasp these realities and the structural flaws that stunted the progress of the UN in various ways.
‘If they did, it was not apparent in their actions.
‘Fourth and of immediate relevance to the academic environment to which I would return at King’s, I noted that the intellectual project of peace was too policy-driven, ideological and not sufficiently critical in its approach.’
Prof Olonisakin went on: ‘Security Studies and Peace Studies were not always closely integrated notwithstanding that the imperatives of the post-Cold War era aligned their objectives.
‘The pursuit of negative peace that is bringing violence to an end had become an end in itself without corresponding investments in conflict transformation.
‘Fifth and linked to the last point, what has become a peacebuilding dilemma and posed a major challenge for the UN peace and security agenda is the problem of conflict relapse.
‘In about 50 per cent of cases where the UN has intervened to build peace, it has returned to make peace again within 10 years,’ Prof Olonisakin added.
She pointed out that available data also suggested that the UN had mainly deployed its peace intervention in traditional conflict situations.
‘The capacity to respond flexibly to new security threats or low intensity conflicts has been less obvious,’ she continued.
‘Overall, sadly, our orientation as UN staff was almost religiously focused on the perspectives of state officials.
‘I was somewhat unquestioning about the idealised pursuit of a particular kind of democratic state.
‘By seeking a romantic – idealised solution – we risk doing more harm than good or at best doing no good, notwithstanding all of our good intentions,’ Prof Olonisakin said.
The University of Pretoria in South Africa appointed her as an Extra-Ordinary Professor in 2016, following an earlier award as a Mellon Foundation Distinguished Scholar on Peace and Conflict in 2013.
The Geneva Centre for Security Policy also appointed her as a Distinguished Fellow in April 2014.
She was Director of the Conflict, Security and Development Group at King’s from 2003 until 2013.
Prof Olonisakin worked in the Office of the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, overseeing the Africa programme.
In this role, she facilitated the establishment of the National Commission for War-Affected Children in Sierra Leone and the Child Protection Unit in the Economic Community of West African States.