Q&A Interruptor Series, No. 11: Lesley Anne Warner

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This week FPI talked to Lesley Anne Warner, an Africa analyst at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit research and analysis organization just outside Washington, DC. She provides analytic support to U.S. government agencies on dynamics of armed conflict and U.S. military engagement in Africa. In fact, Lesley gave us these answers from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti just as she was wrapping up a project. 

Fun-fact: She sends post-cards to her nephews and niece from every place she travels (Lesley, can you be our Aunt, too?)

FPI: How would you explain your expertise to a third grader?

I help parts of the U.S. military think through how they plan and conduct security cooperation (training, exercises, etc) with African militaries. As a specialist in African security issues, I provide a political-military context to their more functional expertise.

It’s a cool gig because I get to travel (eighteen African countries in the past six years!) and learn a lot about how the United States interacts with these countries’ security sectors. I think the best part of my line of work is that I can be value added not by being the “expert”, but rather by connecting people to the information and contacts that they need to make informed decisions.

FPIWhen it comes to security in Africa, where is the international community getting it wrong? 

I’m concerned that we focus too much on the symptoms of social and political instability at the expense of a more long-term, holistic perspective that seeks to understand the root causes of these maladies. For example, in my own line of work, security cooperation, I’ve realized that while counterterrorism assistance may be necessary, it is not sufficient to address the structural weaknesses that can, with the right catalysts, unravel any progress we’ve made within the partner nation’s security sectors. More times than not, the structural weaknesses – poor governance, uneven development, and government impunity – have nothing to do with, or are much broader than terrorism.

FPI: Your dissertation focuses on “the challenges inherent in South Sudan’s efforts to integrate non-statutory armed forces into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) while simultaneously demobilizing 90,000 soldiers from the SPLA.” Phew. Can you break that down for us? In short: what’s the deal with South Sudan?

My dissertation – oy vey. If I can be selfish for a moment, South Sudan’s political elite has effectively nuked part of my dissertation and I’ve been soul-searching on the way ahead since December. I think my focus now is just on the failure of the military integration process in South Sudan.

But on a serious note, the deal with South Sudan is that fissures that had long been present in the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), finally boiled to the surface in December, causing a split within the SPLM that was reasonably well-anticipated prior to the elections that were supposed to be held in 2015. One of the initial outcomes of this political tension within the SPLM was that the SPLA, which had been comprised of various militias that had been fighting each other during the larger Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), broke apart along ethnic lines. Unfortunately, the peace process in neighboring Ethiopia has lacked momentum, and has not yielded positive results for the population back in South Sudan, which faces displacement and food shortages.

FPI: Whats the deal with CAR? And Kenya? And, while we’re at it, Somalia and Nigeria?

One of the best lessons I’ve learned as an analyst is to be cognizant of where your expertise starts and ends. I’ve worked on and written about several of these places in my blog Lesley on Africa  but I’ve also learned so much about countries from the Sahel to the Great Lakes Region to the Horn from fellow #interrupters such as Aguil Lual Blunt, Census K Lo-liyong, Lauren Blanchard, Semhar Araia, Cara Jones, Rachel Strohm, Laura Seay, Rosebell Kagumire, Rachael Akidi, Celeste Hicks, Louisa Lombard, Akshaya Kumar, Rukmini Callimachi, Laura Hammond, and Zenaida Machado.

FPI: Any book recommendations for people interested in learning more about your line of work?

My favorite book has probably been Chief of Station, Congo: Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone by Larry Devlin, which sheds light on U.S. covert ops in the Congo from the 1960s to the 1980s. (Except I’m not a spy like the author was.)

I’ve also enjoyed reading The Fate of Sudan: The Origins and Consequences of a Flawed Peace Process by John Young, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower by Michaela Wrong, and Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War by Ben Rawlence.

FPI: Any advice for fellow interruptors?

Plenty! But I’ll condense it down to two points. First, you have to ask for what you want out of your career because you can’t assume other people, even if well-intentioned, are looking out for your interests as much as you are.  If you don’t ask for what you want, you run the risk of being a passive participant in your career progression, and you’ll never know what possibilities are open – or closed off – to you.

Second, make sure you invest in growing your professional network, because these are relationships you can’t surge when you need to draw on your social capital. More importantly, these relationships can open up really cool opportunities for you, and can make you a valuable resource in your field. In fact, a running joke on the team I’m working with now is that I’m like Frank in Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia because I “know a guy” for everything we need.