“For his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year long civil war to an end!” this is how the Nobel Peace Committee announced the award of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize to Juan Manuel Santos. Santos, the President of Colombia had done the impossible of ending the 50 years protracted war between the Colombian government and the Marxist guerrilla organization FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia”).
Juan Manuel Santos was born on 10 August 1951 in Bogota, Colombia to one of the country’s most influential families. His great-great-grandfather’s siblings fiercely fought against Spanish troops in the early part of the 19th century and were a determining factor in helping to secure Colombian independence. His great-uncle, Eduardo Santos, was president of Colombia in the late 1930s while his father and uncle ran Colombia’s main newspaper El Tiempo, which belonged to their family. Juan attended Colegio San Carlos private school in Bogota and joined the Colombian Navy in 1967. On leaving the navy in 1971, he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Business Administration from the University of Kansas in 1973 and a Master’s in Economic Development from the London School of Economics as well as a Master in Public Administration from Harvard University. His distinguished career includes work as a journalist, editor, Ministerial positions in Foreign Trade, Finance and Defense before becoming president in 2010, a position he held till 2018. Santos began negotiations with the FARC rebels in 2012 and reached a historic peace agreement in 2016.
Juan Manual Santos is a disciplined pragmatist by nature who is committed to his country and has fought for peace throughout his life. As a soldier, he waged war against illegal armed groups and as President secured a peace agreement with Latin America’s oldest and largest insurgency, the FARC against all odds.
As young peacebuilders, we can derive several peacebuilding lessons from Santos when we reflect on his life and work such as:
- Be deliberate and strategic about peacebuilding
Peace is attainable if you can be deliberate and strategic. Previous Colombian governments had attempted peace, like the notable efforts by former President Andrés Pastrana Arango whose 1999–2002 peace talks ended tragically with the FARC hijacking an aeroplane and kidnapping a senator. Given this tense environment, how, then, could one achieve what had seemed impossible and where several people had failed? For many, it is daunting to have to confront such a task with no clear blueprint. Santos began, emphasizing the need to have a goal before taking action. Action without direction rarely takes anyone very far, and those without a goal in mind will be hard-pressed to make the same sort of progress as individuals with a final objective, no matter how realistic. Like many around him, Santos grew up dreaming of peace in his country. However, it seemed like magic, intangible and unlikely to exist. Likewise, youth peacebuilders have always stepped up to the occasion whenever it was needed. During the COVID-19 lockdown in Nigeria, Building Blocks for Peace Foundation swung into action to reduce the impact of the crises on the most vulnerable in the society through the sharing by providing palliatives in local communities in Ibadan, Nigeria.
2. You have to be Different to Make a Difference
Empathy plays a vital role in peace processes. This was portrayed by Santos, by choosing to value the lives of FARC members, unlike his predecessors; he tried to approach the reconciliation process in a new way. First, he chose a different way of tackling the FARC problems that is; he learnt from the mistakes of his predecessors and drew knowledge from the peace process across the globe. Second, he embraced empathy. As Colombia’s first foreign trade minister, Santos changed the business culture by opening the economy to the global market. As Minister of Finance, he oversaw one of the worst economic recessions in the country’s history and made tough choices to rectify it. Later, as Minister of National Defense, he led efforts against the FARC, while changing government tactics towards the guerillas to pave a way toward negotiation. In each role, he learned how to use his present position to influence his ultimate goal and the importance of staying true to his beliefs even when meeting with resistance.
Santos emphasized the need for empathetic leadership. Coming from a politician who wields significant influence, this was extremely refreshing. In many cases, strategic decisions probably look good on paper, for instance in terms of saving money or resources, but lose their lustre when it becomes apparent how they affect real people, particularly the most vulnerable. Leaders on all levels, especially those in our community, should take intentional steps to ensure that empathy is at the core of every decision they make. In creating his way, Santos looked to the wisdom of those who came before him.
3. Look Beyond Setbacks
When Juan Manuel Santos became President of Colombia in a landslide victory, the winds appeared to be in Santos’ favour, cheered by those who favoured his efforts against the guerillas. However, things changed when he again started to push for peace. “I was warned,” he reflected, “and I knew that people were going to try to say, or my opposers would say, you’re a traitor.” Support for Santos shifted, and he noted how he was elected by the right in one election and re-elected by the left in another. Despite the sway in political support, Santos stayed the course toward peace, which appeared to be certain in 2016 when an agreement was brokered between the FARC and the Colombian government. However, Santos was shocked when the Colombian people rejected the agreement. “A flame of hope had been lit in Cartagena when we signed the agreement in the presence of world leaders, and now that flame appeared to be suddenly snuffed out,” he shared during his Nobel lecture. But Santos would not yield. He knew peace was close and remained steadfast in pursuing it. He never allowed the setback to deter him from achieving the set goal which is peace. His perseverance paid off at the end of the day. Juan Manuel Santos, showed the will of a being who is willing to do anything to have a peaceful environment. This is a man who had a goal and set out to achieve this goal. Eventually amidst all challenges victory was achieved. In the same vein, youth peacebuilders are challenging the stereotypes of youth as violence perpetrators and making an impact with their very limited resources in various areas including conflict prevention, climate change, sustainable livelihood and gender empowerment.
Olokeogun, Kemi Sogo.
Building Blocks for Peace Foundation.