The road to leadership for Imrana, a Nigerian activist, began on a bus in the country’s north, when Boko Haram militants came aboard and picked out passengers to haul into the bush. That was when the 23-year-old resolved he had to do something about his country’s bloodshed. Today, an organization he founded seeks to curb the violence that often surrounds Nigerian elections.

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Imrana told his harrowing story last month in Kampala, Uganda, at a training session for 24 young Nigerian civic activists brought together by the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Generation Change program. The initiative helps some of the most accomplished nonprofit and civil society leaders in the Middle East and Africa hone leadership skills and increase their effectiveness.

The event marked a step forward to broaden the program’s impact. This time, 13 fellows from previous gatherings learned how to become Generation Change trainers themselves during a three-day lead-up to the arrival of the new Nigerian members.

The 73 fellows who have come through the program so far are from countries where they often face conflict in their daily lives: Egypt; Kenya; Somalia; Sudan; Yemen; Uganda; Morocco; and Jordan, as well as Nigeria. Generation Change aims to give them tools to help manage the strife. Training sessions focus, for example, on how to clarify purpose and vision, define conflict and teach approaches for dealing with difficult conversations.

A key step in the training is to master the art of storytelling. The acquired skills involve using tone, pitch, pauses, present tense and narrative to sway an audience. The unteachable part, aimed at conveying where the leader wants to take the listeners, springs from deep within the speaker’s experience.   

Like the other participants, Imrana had three minutes to tell his story. His bus was stopped by men who appeared to be government soldiers. They came aboard, checked ID cards, then marched away with selected passengers. A sudden radio call spurred them to leave quickly. At a military checkpoint a few miles further, Imrana learned the armed men had been Boko Haram militants dressed in army uniforms. USIP isn’t using his last name because of the sensitivity of his work.

“He realized how close he had come to a different ending,” said Alison Milofsky, a 13-year member of USIP’s staff who helped lead the sessions last month at the Speke Resort and Conference Center in Kampala. “He didn’t want this to happen to anyone else. The question was, what was he going to do about it? That was the motive for his engagement, [as] he explained, and the challenge he presented to his audience about themselves.”

The selection process for Generation Change participants is rigorous.  USIP sought candidates for the Nigerian program through its partners and social media, harvesting 1,200 applications with five detailed essay questions. Applicants must be under 35 years of age (and over 18) and have worked in the same community for three years in a leadership role. The organizers also seek a gender and geographic balance.

Turning Peers Into Trainers

Generation Change, originally a State Department program revamped after it passed into the hands of USIP, ran sessions last year in Amman, Jordan, and in Istanbul, where the original fellows received their first round of training. Turning the peers into novice trainers themselves enables Generation Change participants to replicate their experience and share new skills and knowledge within their own communities, said Aubrey Cox, the program’s manager at USIP. It also provides a powerful example for the new trainees.

“Listening to the Generation Change trainers from Uganda, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan challenged me to want to take a stand and make an impact in society, no matter how minute it may appear to be,” Imrana said in a written evaluation of the training.

The organization he leads seeks to stem electoral violence in Nigeria, a country with a history of political violence, where voters turned out five-year President Goodluck Jonathan in March in a relatively peaceful election. His successor, Muhammadu Buhari, is in Washington this week and addressing an audience at USIP today. And while the general elections are over for now, the country continues to face periodic balloting at the state levels for governorships.

Direct exposure to violence or living in communities experiencing high levels of violence has spurred other Generation Change Fellows to action, as well. Two Ugandans, Hassan Ndugwa, 28, and Ahmed Hadji, 33, were at the Kyadondo Rugby Club in Kampala, watching a screening of the FIFA World Cup Final in July 2010, when suicide bombers associated with the Somali extremist group al-Shabab set off two blasts, killing 74 people. The two friends, among the 70 injured, later learned that someone Hassan knew casually was among the suspects charged in connection with the bombings.

Their dismay led to the formation of the Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum, an organization working to counter violent extremism, specifically aiming to forestall the recruitment of marginalized youth into militant groups like al-Shabab and the self-styled “Islamic State.” The forum recently expanded its work to help imams enhance a variety of communications skills to dampen the attraction of extremism. They are using USIP’s Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators as they lead conflict management workshops in a six-month training program for imams, Cox said.

Other fellows focus on topics such as gender issues. Shubey Nantege, 23, founded “Go Girl Africa,” a group that prepares and encourages young women for leadership roles.  Nulu Naluyombya runs a leadership camp for girls in Uganda that “uses the same exercises we teach in Generation Change,” Cox said. 

“We select participants working in civil society based on the idea that they can create a ripple effect,” she said.

Tone and Body Language

Whatever their target issues, the young leaders said the skills imparted through Generation Change improved their effectiveness.

“I always thought I could rely 100 percent on words in communicating to others, only to see that it carries little weight compared to one's tone and body language,” said Victoria Ibiwoye, 21, the founder and executive director of One African Child Foundation in Nigeria. “I learnt about the distinction between “open” and “closed” questions as part of active listening.” She said she knows now that open questions yield more information.

The fellows meeting in Kampala also practiced how to engage in dialogue as opposed to debate; how to manage negotiations in place of arguments; how to define leadership; and how to formulate a “vision statement,” a two-minute explanation of your goal for change, a roadmap for making it, as well as your own role in the process.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Milofsky, who is director of curriculum and training design in USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. “It’s teaching established leaders to approach their audiences with new techniques.”

The end of formal training marks the beginning of the next phase – bringing the graduates into a community of leaders who can bolster each other’s efforts and spirits, as well as get continuing support from USIP. The hardships of working for change in the Middle East and Africa can easily lead to burnout and fatigue, Cox said. Besides facing hostile governments and deadly militants, the demands of fundraising and program management can weigh down the best-intentioned activists in these regions, she said.

So through a private Facebook page, listservs, Whatsapp groups and e-mails, Abdullah Saleh Ali, 25, can receive kudos for his plans to relocate and continue working after his group’s offices were bombed in Yemen. In Kenya, Mohammed Wangusi, 35, can share the difficulty of speaking as a Muslim at the funerals of Christian college students slaughtered by al-Shabab. There are practical questions about running an organization and deeper ones about communal conflicts. And advice from USIP trainers.

“They create bonds around shared experience,” said Cox. “Those bonds and USIP’s ongoing support help to build resilience and sustainability. And that can be the hardest part.”

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