Interview with UN Special Adviser Ibrahim Gambari

Ibrahim Gambari, Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on the Iraq Compact and Other Issues

25 February 2009 – Since 2007, Mr. Gambari has been Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Adviser on the International Compact with Iraq and Other Issues. The News Centre spoke with the Nigerian national following his latest visit to Myanmar from 31 January to 3 February, as part of the good offices role entrusted to the Secretary-General by the General Assembly to promote national reconciliation and democratization in the South-East Asian nation. A scholar, author and diplomat, Mr. Gambari has served the UN in a number of capacities, most recently as Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Africa. Before joining the Organization, he served as Nigeria’s Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the UN, and held a number of teaching posts both in his country and abroad.

UN News Centre: When did you first become aware of the United Nations?

Ibrahim Gambari: I went to a fairly rural elementary school and so the issue of the UN was really not something that was on the tips of the lips of the teachers or the students or the parents. But by the time I started high school was when I began to hear about the United Nations.

Almost all our teachers were British and they practiced a sort of apartheid. It was a boarding school, so you didn’t have the chance to engage with them outside of school hours because this was still the colonial period before independence in Nigeria. However, a principal source of informatiThe good offices role of the Secretary-General is a process, not an event. You can’t judge it by a few visits. You build on cumulative progress.on about the UN were the Peace Corps volunteers who were in many ways rebels – so they invited us to their homes, and we had discussions with them.

One of the Peace Corps volunteer teachers who had a tremendous impact on my life was a gentleman called Sam Bowles, the son of Chester Bowles who was the Deputy US Secretary of State under President Kennedy. He was born into a family of public affairs and he always engaged us in discussions about the world. And we used to borrow books from his library, including books about the UN.

But I think the first written word that really touched me deeply about the UN was former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s introduction to the annual report of the work of the Organization in 1960. It was quite brilliant because he looked at the UN and was arguing that it could either be seen and used as a ‘tactic diplomatic conference’ … you see I still remember some of the words he used… or a ‘dynamic instrument in the hands of governments’ to address the challenges of the time. I think I was smitten by those words and that’s pretty much how I began to develop interest in it, in international relations in general, US foreign policies and the United Nations.

UN News Centre: You spent much of your early career in academia at LSE in London and then in the US. How did you view the work of the UN at that time?

Ibrahim Gambari: In my first year at the London School of Economics, I took a course in international relations. I had a wonderful professor named F. S. Northedge, who was more of a historian, than a political analyst, of British foreign policy and international relations in general. By that time, there were already issues facing the international community and the UN, such as Rhodesia, apartheid in South Africa. So it was really from my days at LSE, and subsequently at Columbia University, that activism crept in and I used to join demonstrations regularly against Rhodesia House and against apartheid in South Africa.

That continued in Columbia, except that it became more pronounced because then I was in New York, closer to the United Nations. And I was president of the student body at the International House (a residence for graduate students, mostly at Columbia). One of the things I did was to sabotage the speech that was planned for Lord Caradon, who was then the British Permanent Representative to the United Nations. He was supposed to come and give a speech, but because of British support at that time for the apartheid regime in South Africa, I was one of those who sabotaged it just by spreading the word that the lecture had been cancelled. So he came and met an empty hall.

The irony of it is that I never thought I would one day come to chair the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, in my capacity as Ambassador of Nigeria. I never at that time thought that I would find myself in diplomatic life. I made a conscious decision to leave Columbia’s School of International Affairs because I felt the school was tailored to training people who wanted to go into diplomacy and I didn’t want to. So I left to go into the political science department to get a proper MA in political science and a PhD in order to go into teaching.

UN News Centre: Who are the major political figures in Africa whom you consider role models?

Ibrahim Gambari: Well my role models or heroes were not that many in Africa, but they were profound. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was the first to get independence in sub-Saharan Africa. And he was a pan-Africanist, who argued that the independence of any African country would be meaningless or incomplete unless all of Africa was independent. And of course Nelson Mandela is another role model. President Nasser of Egypt, who was a leader of the Non-aligned Movement but also because he also embraced the concept that you could be both Arab and African and there is no contradiction in that.

Ironically, not many Nigerian leaders were my heroes in the sense that we didn’t have, during the period of my own political activism, people who were ideologically minded. Most Nigerian leaders were pragmatists, I guess because they had to run a very big and diverse country. So you have leaders in Nigeria, but not a single leader that was so pre-eminent in the way that Nasser was in his country or Nkrumah was in Ghana. In later years, I began to appreciate the difficulties that Nigerian leaders faced and that their preoccupation was to keep this diverse collection of ethnic groups, languages and religions in one nation. And for good reason because soon the country slipped into military rule, which wasn’t unique in Africa, and also had a very bloody civil war. But they managed to keep the country together, which is no small feat.

UN News Centre: You were the first African to head the UN Department of Political Affairs. What did you attempt to turn around in that capacity?

Ibrahim Gambari: Well, it was from June 2005 to February 2007. There were three things that I tried to do. First, the morale of the staff was a bit low, but I felt that you have to motivate the staff and give everyone a sense of belonging. So fairness, respect and motivation, inclusiveness… I believe that by the time I left, I think objectively, people recognized that there was some progress there.

The second is that the Department was so severely under-staffed. My famous example when I pleaded for increasing the staff was that there are more desk officers in an NGO like the International Crisis Group than the desk officers in the entire Department of Political Affairs, which is supposed to handle all questions in the whole world. It has to do prevention, as well as advise on peacemaking and political processes. So getting additional staff was my priority and I was able to get about 19, which was revolutionary at the time.

Thirdly, was to establish the beginnings of a mediation support unit in the Department. I argued that when we want to do peacekeeping, we have troop contributing countries that have people who are trained and ready to be deployed. To respond to humanitarian catastrophe, there is a body of humanitarian people trained and able to be deployed. When it comes to mediation of conflicts, we are scrambling to find someone to assist with mediation efforts. I felt it was important to have a standby capacity for mediation and to have institutional memory… and now this capacity is up and running.

Finally, as Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, I also felt that you cannot know all issues equally and yet you are supposed to advise the Secretary-General on all political issues. So what I offered to then Secretary-General Kofi Annan was that I would acquire an adequate understanding of my full brief but specialize in about three things. So he picked Zimbabwe, Cyprus and Myanmar and then designated me as special envoy for those three.

Ibrahim Gambari on special mission to Myanmar, with Aung San Suu Kyi.

UN News Centre: You have served since May 2007 as the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Myanmar. Do you believe the media misrepresents you and UN efforts at resolving the situation in that country, and if so, why is that?

Ibrahim Gambari: I think the media has been fairly supportive and fair, on the whole. I can’t complain except in some few cases where you know there’s a specific agenda.

But there’s the case of many people not realizing what the good offices role of the Secretary-General means. In my case, it is authorized by the General Assembly not the Security Council. You cannot even go there unless you are invited by the Government; your programme is not totally in your hands; you have to appeal to the country, use persuasion, encouragement, use the neighbouring countries, ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and all others with influence on both sides. That’s what you try to do and that takes time. The good offices role of the Secretary-General is a process not an event. You can’t judge it by a few visits. You build on cumulative progress. But the Secretary-General has no powers to compel the authorities to do the right thing. He can only persuade, he can only encourage and that’s what we are in the business of doing.

It is not fully understood in some quarters that this is a painstaking process. We cannot focus solely on one issue however important. We have to engage the authorities in a broader way in order for them to work towards our objectives. We also have to give on what interests them in terms of the kind of help they will need from the international community.

UN News Centre: You told reporters after briefing the Security Council that you had not yet seen any tangible outcomes of your latest visit. What had you hoped for going into it?

Ibrahim Gambari: I just returned about two weeks ago and I left a heavy agenda for them to work on – the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, resumption of dialogue between the Government and opposition without conditions and without further delay, working on them with conditions conducive to free and fair elections whenever they are held, a national economic forum to address in a broad-based manner socio-economic matters, and a more regularized form of engagement in the context of the good offices role of the Secretary-General between the Government and my office.

Now this is a huge agenda and I just came back. So what I said was that since I left there had not been tangible results but I sensed there was going to be some movement. And sure enough, a couple of days ago they announced with respect to the first agenda item, the release of some 6,000 prisoners including about 23 political prisoners. I offered to the authorities in Myanmar that they take advantage of the time between when I left and my briefing to the Security Council, to the Group of Friends, to the upcoming meeting of ASEAN to send positive signals that will influence a positive reaction on the part of the international community to the situation in the country. I believe this message is getting through.

UN News Centre: What kind of working relationship have you built with the Myanmar authorities and Ms. Suu Kyi?

Ibrahim Gambari: Well first, the authorities keep inviting me back. There was a time when my predecessor, Razali Ismail, was not even allowed in the country for two and a half years. The last visit was my seventh visit since I took on this dossier. And during three of the seven visits, I’ve met with Senior General Than Swe himself and I’ve met with the Prime Minister every time.

Also, the opposition has stated publicly that they welcome the good offices role of the Secretary-General and my own engagement. Even when they are frustrated that it is not delivering as fast or in big ways, they’ve said they welcome it. And I’ve met with Aung San Suu Kyi on every visit except one, which was last August. During some of the visits, I met with her twice. We have very good and frank discussions. I am, after all, the only voice and window she has to the world. I am probably still the only foreigner allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi in the last four and a half years or even more. As such, I’m able to report her views on A, B and C. I also perform the mediation role which is to convey to the Government her position and to convey the Government’s position to her because, unfortunately, they have not met. There has been no direct dialogue since January of last year. In the previous year, the Government representative met her about five times but that has stalled somewhat. It is one of our priorities to resume this dialogue as soon as possible.

UN News Centre: What do you consider the most difficult task you have had to perform for the UN?

Ibrahim Gambari: Zimbabwe. I visited Zimbabwe as special envoy of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan to try to move the Government along the path of democratization, of human rights, to deal with the issues of the economy, and the aftermath of the land acquisition. It was difficult. They felt that neither myself nor the then Secretary-General were being given or were likely to be given the needed political space to perform the kind of mediation role that I was assigned. They felt that the Western countries have an agenda, it’s about regime change, and that they will not give us the flexibility to do our mediation work. I don’t think that was completely accurate.

The second most difficult is the dossier on Myanmar because the expectations are always very high each time that I visit. We have to manage expectations to see this as a process not as an event. Although even the process is not an end by itself, it’s meant to lead to some tangible results and the goal that we all share, which is a prosperous, united, peaceful and democratic Myanmar with full respect for the human rights of its people. The challenge is to have a shared approach, a common understanding of where we are, what we need to do and a shared approach on how to bring this about. Also, an approach that has buy-in by both parties, the Government and the opposition.

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