Comfort Ero knew that her appointment as the president and chief executive of the International Crisis Group, a New York City-based think tank working to prevent wars, would be arduous. But taking up the role in December, two months before Russia invaded Ukraine, is not exactly what she envisaged.
“It is a reminder of what it means to be president of Crisis Group as well,” Ero said, talking about her experiences as the first Black woman to lead the organization since its inception in 1995.
Yet Ero, who was born in England to Nigerian parents, is familiar with the great difficulties associated with war. She grew up with parents and an extended family who bore the cost of the 1967 Biafran war in Nigeria. Her parents, she said, could not return to Nigeria after they finished university in Britain because it was no longer safe to do so.
“I read the letters exchanged between my mother and her father,” Ero said in a Zoom call with PassBlue in March, from London. “And my father and his father-in-law, my grandfather, . . . it was a message of ‘This is not a good time to come home, people are suffering, . . . the moment for you to return will come. But this is not the right time, because of the pain and suffering that people are going through.'”
When relative calm returned to Nigeria after the war, and Ero’s grandparents considered the country safe again, she and her older brother were sent to live in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, when Ero was two years old.
“My parents wanted me to know, experience, understand Nigeria as a child and to have those cultural and disciplinary mannerisms instilled in me at an early age,” she said. “So myself and my older brother, we were both sort of raised in our formative years in Nigeria.”
Ero returned to Britain just in time for her primary education. She would later earn a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, University of London. Before joining the International Crisis Group in 2011 as the Africa program director, she worked at the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia as a political affairs officer and policy adviser to the special representative of the secretary-general.
In this interview for PassBlue’s Women as Changemakers column, Ero discussed her childhood, the continuing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the expectations of her new role. The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
PassBlue: It’s been a couple of months since you were appointed head of the International Crisis Group. How has the role been for you so far?
Ero: It’s been exciting and challenging at the same time. Exactly two months to the day was the day of the Russian invasion [Feb. 24], and it was a reality check. I knew that there were a number of challenges that I would have to confront. And we had been warning about the likelihood that President Putin would go ahead with some kind of military operation; the extent of it, one was making a guess. Nonetheless, it’s a wake-up call. So, on that level, it is a reminder of what it means to be president of Crisis Group as well. But I’ve also been excited by the prospect of leading the organization at a time of seismic and transformative developments and the opportunity to focus on other regions. And look at certain things through the lens of lessons that I’ve learned, having worked on African affairs within a global context. So, it’s exciting but daunting.
PassBlue: Have you always known you wanted to be involved in international relations, in conflict resolution? Or did you have other childhood ambitions that you let go of for this particular one?
Ero: Oh, wow, that’s a good question. It’s funny, but I always dreamt of being an interior designer, and yet nothing about how I put my home together suggests that I took it seriously. I was always interested in the idea of the international society of states, the rules that govern states and the games states play. I grew up under the era of Margaret Thatcher, the era of Reagan and Gorbachev. I wrote one of my dissertations at the time on the collapse of the Cold War. All these things reinforced my interest in international relations, the community of states, and how we respond to these major upheavals.
PassBlue: Let’s talk a bit about Nigeria: I was reading your inaugural message when you were named president of the Crisis Group, and you mentioned that you lived part of your life in Nigeria. You were only two years old when your parents took you there, from England, so how long did you stay?
Ero: I stayed for about four years. I came back in time [to England] for primary school. And then, as a young adult, I moved back and forth to Nigeria. I thought that I never left Nigeria because my aunts, my uncles and other relatives were constantly in and out of the UK, and they brought stories from Nigeria with them. But also there’s a strong bias here in the UK, there’s a sense of a mini Lagos, a mini Ibadan, or a mini Benin City. So, there’s a sense in which Nigeria was in London. And if you know London, you know that in every corner, you’d find a Nigerian community, whether it’s over the weekend or at school or at college, church; we’re big in numbers both at home and overseas. So, constantly bumping into one another and constantly being informed of developments back home gave you a sense that you were there. But my parents wanted me to know, experience, understand Nigeria as a child and to have those cultural and disciplinary mannerisms instilled in me at an early age.
PassBlue: What would you say is your fondest memory of Nigeria?
Ero: Oh, goodness, I have so many. I think living on campus, Lagos, my aunt and uncle, my mom’s eldest sister, she and her husband. My uncle was a registrar at Unilag [Unversity of Lagos]. So, hanging out there, but also just getting to know my cousins. I felt that I had another six or seven siblings. Switching and living in between Lagos and Ibadan [a major city in southwest Nigeria] was great. And even though you’re raised in the UK and it’s very different, the sense of belonging is even stronger when you’re with your own people.
PassBlue: Could you talk about your parents and the Biafra war?
Ero: My parents, like many other parents of that generation, came to the UK for educational advancement. When they passed away, I read the letters exchanged between my mother and her father. And my father and his father-in-law, my grandfather, my maternal grandfather; and the message was a sad message. It was a message of “This is not a good time to come home, people are suffering, we managed to give you an opportunity to get educated, stay outside, educate your children, the moment for you to return will come. But this is not the right time, because of the pain and suffering that people are going through.” And when the situation got better, true to what my grandparents said, their grandchildren were able to come home. I have a fortunate story to tell, but my parents knew friends in London who fled and came here as refugees, and when you listened to their stories, that’s when you really feel the pain.
PassBlue: From reading your CV, I see you’ve spent a considerable number of years working in conflict-affected countries. How has that shaped your worldview?
Ero: Dramatically. Because you’re in the cold phase, you see human beings suffering. Sometimes, you’re struck by the meaninglessness and the banality of war. And a constant is that innocent citizens are caught in these leadership struggles, caught in the struggles of strongmen, of people who want power and will go to any length to claim that power, including putting their civilians in harm’s way. Ordinary women, children, boys, girls, then get caught in that stampede for the race to the presidency, the statehouse. And the winner-takes-all mentality. In one of my early experiences, I had to do a conflict assessment in the Solomon Islands, and you see the grievances between communities in the nature of governance; you go to Fiji and see that tension over natural resources. One of the conflicts that I dealt with was Bosnia-Herzegovina, and to see 25 years since the Dayton Peace Agreement on the verge of unraveling again. . . . It’s grim. It’s sad.
PassBlue: You interface with conflict-affected countries, so how do you disassociate from it for your mental health? How do you detox?
Ero: I will say that I wouldn’t do what I am doing if I didn’t believe that we could effect change or that we can influence and nudge decision-makers in the right direction. I wouldn’t have spent time at the UN and other places if I didn’t fundamentally believe that we can work together, across various frontiers. . . . But in terms of how I detox, you’re useless to everybody if you don’t pull away, right? I like walking. I sing in the choir, my church. There are times when just the urgency of the situation forces you to feel the need to stay, to carry on working and working and working and working because of the gravity of the issue. Because while you’re trying to think of taking a break, there are people who are caught up in the conflict or dying. And so you feel the need on their behalf to just carry on going and going until you can make that breakthrough.
PassBlue: Let’s talk about the UN. What patterns do you see with how the countries voted in the March 2 UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which 141 countries voted yes (including 28 African nations), 5 countries voted no (Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria and Russia); and 35 abstained. Are there global implications for how countries voted?
Ero: I think there was a lot of concern in the lead-up to the vote, especially because Russia has allies internationally, a number of them on the African continent. But in the end, I think that the Kenyan ambassador [Martin Kimani] really summed it up well [speaking in an emergency Security Council on the Ukraine crisis on Feb. 21]. I understood completely the concerns of a number of the nonaligned countries and a number of African countries, who felt the double standards and the hypocrisy . . . we saw the appearance of racism as people fled Ukraine early on. But 141 states backed the [General Assembly] resolution, declaring this an invasion; for me, that is a fundamental indictment of what Russia has done. By the way, we saw similar support in the Human Rights Council for a commission of inquiry into the war.
For me, it was an opportunity to start an important conversation about international norms and multilateral cooperation in a global crisis. I think it was an important message for me, for example, on the African continent, 28 countries supported the vote, the one predictable country for as far as I’m concerned that supported Russia was Eritrea; 17 abstained and 8 did not vote. So, you know, we do have a lot more work to do in these regions, but nonetheless, it lays the foundations for conversations to be had in these regions about what happened.
PassBlue: What’s your opinion on the racial coloration that the Russian war took early on?
Ero: One was the sense of racism in getting Africans out of danger [in Ukraine]. A number of African officials told us privately that this aspect also made it very difficult for them to fully endorse the resolution, and I understand it. Fast-forward to today, Russia is rebuilding its relationships on the continent, to show itself as providing an alternative security architecture to Western countries. But again, I think the Kenyan ambassador got it right. He got the tone right. He got the message right. We have to safeguard these important international norms. The Charter, the UN, was born out of the ashes of the second world war and in defense of decolonization.
PassBlue: Still talking about the double-standard: the international community and the superpowers have reacted to the Russian invasion in a way that they didn’t do regarding crises in non-European countries. In Palestine, in the Sahel, for example, there are crises, but they haven’t attracted the positive support that Ukrainians have enjoyed during the Russian invasion. What do you think of this?
Ero: Look, it’s not lost on me the way in which Europe and the US have responded to this. It’s quite dramatic, a very rapid reaction. But I wouldn’t suggest that’s why there should be inaction or why there shouldn’t be a clear denunciation of what’s happened. We’ve got to keep our eye on the prize. And what is the prize? There are human beings, regardless of their nationality, who are caught in the crossfire of a heavy 21st century, blatant, audacious, brazen intervention. And yes, we can criticize the UN and the Security Council for being dysfunctional for not acting in time, for not responding with the same clarity and with the same unity and the same consensus that we’ve seen in Ukraine. We should always be conscious of those issues, but it should never distract from this most important mission, which is how do we avoid this kind of war. I will criticize you for your double standards, but I will not take my eye off this fundamental goal of protecting and finding ways to protect humans from suffering.
PassBlue: How do you see this war ending? Do you think there may still be room for a roundtable resolution?
Ero: Right now, it’s hard to see that. One reason I came to the Crisis Group and I continue to work at Crisis Group and believe fundamentally in the mission, is that there are always moments in which you can shift the needle, in which you can find an avenue, in which you can create avenues for mediation, for a negotiated settlement. Today, it looks out of reach, but it was only last week [in early March], however, that we were having conversations that the Russians and the Ukrainians will come to the border [of Belarus] to have negotiations between both sides. There’s been an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire. And for me, that’s an important opportunity. It’s hard right now because both sides fundamentally believe that they have the upper hand. One has it morally, the other one has it militarily, so both sides still feel that they can fight. But when one of them feels that they can’t continue, when it hurts them more, the prospect of negotiating an end becomes clearer.
PassBlue: What is the current major threat to world peace?
Ero: I think it is a major power competition, this invasion by Russia into Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine is immediate, but there’s a wider geopolitical context. It’s about Russia looking into the past, wanting to rewrite the past, wanting to go back to pre-1997 agreements around NATO expansion, wanting to rewrite and undo the European security architecture. It is a contest between different world visions between Russia and the West. It is also the competition and visions of the world between the US and China. Another threat is climate change. For me, it is a serious one that affects all of us, rich, poor, middle-income, low-income countries, in different ways. And then the pandemic, everybody has been touched by this, and some societies have proven themselves to be more resilient. Are we ready for another pandemic? For me, these are the big threats because they starkly represent the worsening humanitarian conditions, especially in countries that are fragile.
PassBlue: Let’s go back to your new role at Crisis Group. You’re the second woman, after Louise Arbour of Canada, and the first Black to lead the organization. What does this mean for you as an individual, for Africa and for gender equality?
Ero: It’s a proud day, a proud moment. But I’m also humbled by the expectations that come with that because I think the spotlight is greater on you because you’re benefiting from others who have trailed the blaze. Louise Arbour, particularly, was the very first woman president here. It’s also the overwhelming kindness that people have shown me and what it means to other people. . . . I see the joy of other people. Then I begin to realize that it’s not mine alone. So I’m acutely aware that while many people are celebrating what I’ve achieved, they’re also passing me a very clear message: That with this we expect change. We expect transformation, we expect you to do things differently.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.