Africa a priority for new UN head

Ban Ki-moon sets African issues high on the global agenda
From Africa Renewal: 
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Mr. Ban Ki-moon visiting the Kibera slum in Nairobi Mr. Ban Ki-moon visiting the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, during his first official trip as the new UN Secretary-General.
Photograph: Reuters / Selome Samuel

During his first official trip as UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon assured Africa’s leaders that the continent will remain a central priority for the organization. Africa has achieved much through “unity of purpose,” he told a summit meeting of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 29 January, just four weeks after taking office. “Unity of purpose is also the foundation of Africa’s partnership with the United Nations,” he emphasized, “as we take on the broad range of challenges we share.”

Those challenges, Mr. Ban continued, include tackling ongoing conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Somalia and Sudan, building peace in countries just emerging from war, combating disease and ill health, reducing poverty, promoting broad-based development and countering the impact of climate change.

He commented to journalists: “My presence here in the first month of my tenure as the Secretary-General of the United Nations is a strong sign of the growing partnership between the United Nations and the African Union and of the high priority I attach to Africa.”

Mr. Ban’s trip, his appointment of an African woman (former Tanzanian Foreign Minister Asha-Rose Migiro) as deputy secretary-general and his numerous affirmations about the continent’s importance came amidst some concern within Africa that the end of the tenure of the former Ghanaian secretary-general, Kofi Annan, might bring a shift in course. As a headline in the independent daily L’Observateur Paalga of Burkina Faso expressed it: “UN: change in men, change in priorities.”

Mr. Ban tacitly acknowledged this worry in his address to the AU summit. After 15 years of being led by Africans (Mr. Annan and his Egyptian predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali), the UN is now led by a non-African, observed Mr. Ban, who is from the Republic of Korea. “But like all human beings,” he told the heads of state, “my origins are in the cradle of humanity, Africa, and I am proud of that.”

Kofi Annan and Ban Ki Moon The outgoing UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, urged
Africans to work with his successor to advance Africa’s cause.
Photograph: UN / Eskinder Debebe

The fundamental reasons for the UN’s emphasis on Africa lie in the continent’s unfortunate realities, noted then Under-Secretary-General for Africa Legwaila Joseph Legwaila. “People are constantly reminded of the carnage in places like Darfur,” he told Africa Renewal. “People are reminded of the AIDS pandemic. And of course we are always described as the poorest of all continents.” The challenges facing Africa will not be different because the UN now has an Asian Secretary-General, he said. “Africa will continue to experience the problems it has been experiencing.”

A built-in focus

Africa became a central priority for the UN years before someone from the continent ascended to the world body’s highest office. At the urging of African countries, the UN General Assembly in 1986 held a special session to find ways for the continent to overcome its unprecedented economic crisis. Delegates from Africa, the rich donor countries and other parts of the world negotiated a five-year UN Programme of Action for African Economic Recovery and Development. It amounted to a pact — unique in UN history for its focus on just one world region — in which African countries pledged to carry out sweeping economic reforms and donors promised to provide more aid and other support.

At the programme’s conclusion, then Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar found that while Africa had undertaken a range of initiatives and achieved “notable progress towards democratization,” the continent’s economic and social conditions “actually worsened” during that period. The General Assembly responded by drawing up another plan, this time lasting a decade, called the UN New Agenda for the Development of Africa in the 1990s. It too achieved disappointing results.

African leaders then decided to take the initiative. In 2001 they adopted the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), an African-led plan to achieve continental peace and development. “The Africans for the first time decided that they were not going to wait for the General Assembly to come up with a plan,” explained Mr. Legwaila. “The Africans realized that they themselves would have to take their destiny into their own hands.”

The General Assembly welcomed this African commitment. Rather than drafting another UN plan, it decided in November 2002 that the international community should instead support Africa’s own efforts, through NEPAD.

In September 2005, leaders from across the globe assembled at UN headquarters to review progress in reducing global poverty and achieving other Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for human well-being. Noting that Africa lags particularly far behind in reaching the MDGs, they included a special section in the summit “outcome document,” highlighting the continent’s specific requirements. They reiterated international support for NEPAD and pledged more aid, debt relief, trade opportunities and other assistance. “We reaffirm our commitment to address the special needs of Africa,” the world leaders declared.

For the many different parts of the UN system, Africa has become a built-in priority. Much of the UN’s peacekeeping and humanitarian work concentrates on Africa. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) devotes about half of all core programme spending to Africa — some $680 mn in 45 sub-Saharan countries in 2005 alone.

Dr. Margaret Chan, who took office as the new director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) in early January, announced that her two chief goals would be to improve the health of women and of Africans. “The people of Africa,” she noted, “carry an enormous and disproportionate burden of ill health and premature death.” She pledged the WHO’s help in strengthening Africa’s weak national health systems.

Passing the torch

As his decade as Secretary-General drew to a close, Mr. Annan reflected on the accomplishments and disappointments of his tenure. Among his greatest achievements, he believed, was focusing global attention on the fight against poverty, through the MDGs campaign.

In an address to the General Assembly in September 2006, Mr. Annan recalled that when he first took office in 1997, he felt that the world faced three main challenges: ensuring that globalization would benefit all humanity, healing the disorder of the post–Cold War period and promoting human rights.

While these challenges were global, he said, they also concerned him directly, as an African. “Africa was in great danger of being excluded from the benefits of globalization,” he said. “Africa was also the scene of some of the most protracted and brutal conflicts. And many of Africa’s people felt they were unjustly condemned to be exploited and oppressed, since colonial rule had been replaced by an inequitable economic order on the global level and sometimes by corrupt rulers and warlords at the local level.”

Being from Africa, Mr. Annan had a particular advantage in speaking bluntly to African leaders about issues they were not always comfortable addressing. During his first year in office, he urged African leaders, in especially forceful terms, to do far more to safeguard and advance human rights. Such rights, he said, “are not a luxury of the rich countries for which Africa is not ready.”

Citing the concept of a “responsibility to protect,” he repeatedly encouraged African leaders to act against genocide and other massive human rights violations in neighbouring African states, contrary to their earlier tendency to remain silent about such abuses. And he strongly urged African leaders to speak out frankly and publicly about HIV/AIDS and to devote greater efforts to combating the pandemic.

In December, following Mr. Ban’s selection as the new Secretary-General, Mr. Annan urged Africa’s UN representatives to work with his successor “to advance Africa’s cause and agenda within the organization.” Mr. Ban, in turn, pledged to build on his predecessor’s legacy. He vowed to concentrate on the goals already set for the UN, rather than find “new frontiers to conquer.”

The ravages of war

As Mr. Ban learned firsthand during his Africa trip, the UN’s agenda on the continent is a highly ambitious one. No goal is more important than achieving peace and security, he affirmed. Addressing the AU summit in Addis Ababa, Mr. Ban recalled his own childhood experience in war-torn Korea, which showed him “how war robs individuals of the chance of building a decent life and whole societies of the chance to prosper.”

To help achieve a more peaceful future for Africa, Mr. Ban noted that the UN currently has more than two-thirds of all its peacekeepers worldwide stationed there. As of January 2007, there were nearly 55,100 uniformed peacekeeping troops and police on the ground in six African missions — in CŸte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, Sudan and the Western Sahara, and on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border.

In addition, Mr. Ban reported that the UN had just allocated $35 mn from its new Peacebuilding Fund to help consolidate peace in Burundi (another $35 mn was allocated to Sierra Leone in March). He also reaffirmed the UN’s support for helping the AU build up its own capacities for peacekeeping and conflict resolution.

Some countries are demonstrating notable progress. The DRC, in the wake of its first democratic elections in 40 years, is now a “true source of hope for all of Africa,” Mr. Ban stated during his visit to that Central African country. Liberia also “shines as an example,” he said.

But the conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire and Somalia have been more intractable, the Secretary-General acknowledged, and “bleed like open wounds on the face of the continent.” Most serious at the moment is the crisis in Sudan’s western Darfur region, “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.” Mr. Ban met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during the African summit in an effort to secure the Sudanese government’s support for a hybrid UN-AU peacekeeping force in Darfur. “The people of Darfur have waited much too long,” the Secretary-General stated after the meeting. “This is just unacceptable.”

Because of the spillover of the violence in Darfur into neighbouring Chad, Mr. Ban proposed in a report to the Security Council in February that the UN also authorize a mission of up to 11,000 peacekeepers for eastern Chad, to deter cross-border attacks and protect 120,000 displaced Chadians and 232,000 Sudanese refugees.

From poverty to climate change

Combating poverty and promoting economic and social development are also daunting tasks for Africa, and the new UN Secretary-General took the occasion of a visit to the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, to highlight them. “I feel very much humbled by what I am seeing now,” he said during the visit. “That makes me resolve again my firm commitment to work for the improvement of living conditions, education, water, sanitation, housing — all these are the challenges which we must overcome.”

While some African countries have achieved reasonably strong economic growth rates and are making progress towards at least some of the MDGs, much of the continent lags far behind, Mr. Ban noted in his AU address. He reported that he would soon convene a working group of African stakeholders, international organizations and donors — a “coalition of the willing” — to develop an action plan to advance the MDGs in Africa.

Addressing the effects of climate change will be a major focus of his global agenda, Mr. Ban has affirmed frequently since taking office. In Addis Ababa, he noted that the impact of climate change “will fall disproportionately on some of Africa’s poorest countries.” He cited UN estimates that 30 per cent of Africa’s coastal infrastructure could be inundated by rising sea levels linked to global warming, that more than a quarter of Africa’s habitats could be lost by 2085 and that tens of millions of people could be in jeopardy. “The time has come for the rest of the world to assist African countries in adapting to the effects of a warming planet.”

Given the numerous problems and enormous potential of Africa, Mr. Ban assured Africans that their concerns will be at the top of the international agenda. “The success or failure of the United Nations in the coming years,” he said in Addis Ababa, “will be determined largely on this continent.”

Ban Ki-moon, a seasoned diplomat

Mr. Ban Ki-moon, the eighth UN Secretary-General, has more than 37 years of experience in public service. Among his prior positions, he was the minister of foreign affairs and trade of his native Republic of Korea, as well as chief national security adviser. During the 1970s, he was first secretary for his country’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York and director of the UN Division at the Foreign Ministry’s headquarters in Seoul. While ambassador to the UN in Vienna in 1999, he served as chairman of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization. In 2001-02 he was chef de cabinet of the Republic of Korea’s presidency of the General Assembly. Mr. Ban has also been active in inter-Korean relations, in 1992 as vice-chair of the South-North Joint Nuclear Control Commission and in 2005, while foreign minister, as an architect of a landmark agreement aimed at promoting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.