University of Birmingham students entering the office of Paul Jackson could be forgiven for turning round and heading straight back out again. The reason is not so much the large flags on his wall featuring crossed AK-47 assault rifles as the real-life AK-47 propped up on a pile of papers in the corner.
If they dared to ask, they would discover that the gun is, in fact, a fake. “It’s a film prop from the film Lord of War, which is about arms trading. It was a gift from a friend of mine [who said:] ‘I saw this and thought of you,’” Jackson explains. But the fact that it was his name that leaped into his friend’s head when he saw the gun speaks volumes about the kind of projects that the professor of African politics gets involved in.
A political economist working predominantly on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction, Jackson’s work has taken him to numerous politically unstable and war-torn countries, such as Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Uganda. “The only place the university insurance officers turned me down to go to was Somalia, for obvious reasons,” he says.
But the flag is a memento of the important role that Jackson played on another continent, helping to broker peace between Nepal’s government and Maoist rebels with whom it had waged a bloody civil war from 1996 to 2006. (The flag featuring the AK-47s is that of the Maoists, and Jackson also has a government standard.)
It was on the recommendation of two of his former students – Nepalis who were already involved in brokering the peace – that Jackson was recruited as the only international adviser to the Nepali Parliamentary Special Committee on the rehabilitation of the Maoists, on the grounds that, as an academic with little knowledge of Nepal, he would be free of bias.
“The Nepalis are mistrustful of outsiders, and they’d more or less fallen out with most of the [international] donors, and the peace process had been at a stalemate stage for quite a long time, with about 20,000 Maoist combatants still in…military camps,” Jackson explains. “They had thrown the United Nations out…because [they thought that the organisation was] biased towards the Maoists – which was actually slightly unfair because it was the UN’s job to manage the camps the Maoists were in. They used me almost as a last resort to go in and get some sort of conversation going.”
That conversation did not begin straight away, however. Jackson still vividly remembers the first meeting he conducted in Nepal’s central highlands, which was frosty in more ways than one. “Down one side of the room were the Centre, Right and old-fashioned liberal political parties. And on the other side were all the Maoists. And this is in the Nepali winter, so they’re all wearing black North Face puffa jackets, which is what everyone wears in the Himalayas these days: it was like a Maoist uniform. When I said something like, ‘I would like to hear from our Maoist friends on this particular subject’, they’d converse among themselves, smile at me and leave the room to ring the politburo. Then they’d come back with a collective decision.”
Although he maintains that the path to an ultimate resolution was a “Nepali process” that he merely helped to “buffer”, Jackson soon proved his worth as a sounding board and a “kind of human internet. They would have a meeting and say: ‘Paul, what do you think about that?’ Or: ‘Paul, has this happened anywhere else?’ Or: ‘If we do this, what are the implications?’ I wasn’t guiding the discussions, but I was trying to build up areas of consensus.”
A lot of his time, he says, was spent on interpreting the language of agreements proposed by the various governments and non-governmental organisations offering reconstruction funding – and explaining to them that “they were mucking things up because they were using words that weren’t necessarily acceptable to the different groups”. For their part, most of the NGOs, he confesses, assumed he was a spy because he had such good access to the political leaders: “I kept saying a spy wouldn’t have this level of access!”
The negotiations took about two years, but Jackson was present only when the Nepali-led negotiations reached a stage where they needed his further input – at which point he would be flown out at the expense of the UK government and NGO partners, who bought him out of his Birmingham contract for 30 days a year.
“This would happen five times a year, maybe: I would go for a week or two. So I became quite known among the political circles and the press,” Jackson says.
And his interventions paid off: “There were quite a few moments when I was sitting with [his former student, who also acted as his interpreter in Nepal] and he’d be saying: ‘Do you realise what we’ve agreed there? We’ve agreed three parts of the new constitution.’ You begin to think that you have an influence over the direction that a country, or a bit of a country, is going in. This is why I took the role of being fair to the combatants so seriously. I was involved with things like…how many [rebels] could be integrated into the military [and] how many would have to have some sort of pay-off and go home. These are all huge decisions for individuals who spent 10 years in the jungle fighting. If you’ve got any kind of empathy with people, you have to be fair.”
The respect that Jackson built up with the Nepalis was evident at the ceremony at which the Maoists handed over control of their army to the government.
“There was one big tent for Nepali dignitaries and one big tent for overseas dignitaries and all the ambassadors who had flown in,” Jackson explains. “I was about to go into the internationals tent when the Maoist officer said: ‘No, you’re in here, you’re one of us because you’re a member of our committee.’”
It was also at this ceremony that Jackson was given his pair of flags by the Maoist politburo. And he is “particularly proud” of the letter of thanks, framed on his office wall beside them, from Pushpa Kamal Dahal (commonly known as Prachanda), the Maoist leader and subsequent prime minister of Nepal.
“It’s written on Communist Party of Nepal headed paper with Mao, Marx and Lenin on the top, and a proper hammer and sickle and all of that. It’s very cool,” Jackson says.
For all the impressive mementoes, wasn’t it rather dangerous for a university professor to be travelling to Maoist military camps in the immediate aftermath of a bitter and brutal conflict that had claimed an estimated 17,000 lives? Jackson points out that, given his role as a “post-conflict person”, the situation was peaceful by the time he arrived. But he admits that there are potential risks posed by “former combatants or hangers-on, who turn to criminality. Because there are lots of arms washing around, it’s very easy for them to get hold of stuff like that.”
It is with such risks in mind that he carries a card in his wallet listing his blood group. He also undergoes occasional UK government “hostile environments awareness training” with police officers and soldiers.
“They [teach you] how to get through roadblocks and, effectively, how to talk your way out of a difficult situation,” he says. “That’s quite tough if you’re a British policeman or army officer. For me, it’s actually much easier. [I would say:] ‘Why are you stopping me? I’m just an academic; I’m a man of learning.’ There’s an innate respect for academia and learning that you can play on a bit.”
Although there were “lots of moments” in Nepal when he thought, “What the hell am I doing here? I’m an academic!”, Jackson is adamant that the pleasures of his work far outweigh the risks. “I got into [conflict resolution] partly because I very much enjoy the mixture of being able to do this stuff as well as write about it...I like to think I have impact. You don’t go into development because you want to be a crusty professor: you go into it because you’re motivated to do things.”
His impact was recognised in a case study on his post-conflict work in Nepal and Sierra Leone that was submitted to the 2014 research excellence framework. However, he notes that despite the impact agenda, the pressure on modern academics to publish papers is limiting the ability of his younger colleagues to emulate the average of five foreign trips a year that he has undertaken over the past two decades – even in a department that does not teach undergraduates.
“When I first started, there wasn’t reallythe pressure to write X number of articles in a REF period,” he said. “You did it if you wanted to get promoted, but if you were interested in going off and visiting X number of countries and doing consultancy and development then [you could] do that. We do a lot less of that and a lot more funded research now. In fact, [even] I don’t do a lot of consultancy work that doesn’t lead to papers any more. Most of the stuff we do [involves] evaluations and planning…which means you’re actually doing applied research, in a way. You can turn some of that into a paper.”
But with both his age and his tally of countries visited touching the mid-forties, Jackson is not sure how many more additions there will be to his office memorabilia. He is, he concedes, a “bit expensive to pay to go and do stuff in the field” these days.
No doubt that cost would only be ramped up further if Birmingham’s insurer ever learned that his familiarity with AK-47s is not limited to Hollywood imitations. Asked to describe his hairiest moment, he opts for the time when, being interested in castles, he was offered permission to visit a historic fort in the war-torn north of Uganda. As well as being infested by countless mosquitoes, the area was also plagued by “a few” fighters from the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, which is accused of widespread human rights violations.
“The local district authority designated me an armed guard for the day and took me off to be a tourist,” Jackson recalls. “When I walked into his office, the guy who authorised it had nothing on his desk apart from an AK-47. He kind of smiled at me and said: ‘Just in case, Paul. Just in case.’”