Africa needs 'a different approach'

UN Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari on the search for peace

By Michael Fleshman

In December 1999 Ibrahim Gambari ended nearly a decade of service as Nigeria’s ambassador to the United Nations to take up new duties as under-secretary-general in the UN Department of Political Affairs and as special adviser on Africa to Secretary General Kofi Annan. As a principal adviser on peace and security issues in war-torn West and Central Africa, Mr. Gambari occupies one of the hottest political seats in the UN.

"It’s quite a challenge to be serving the international community," he said in an interview with Africa Recovery. "When you speak for your country you speak with authority and certainty. You are Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. Now I speak with less certainty. I’m an adviser helping the Secretary-General. It’s a humbling experience." What has not changed, he added, "is that I’m still dealing with African issues."

Ibrahim Gambari: "Except for conflict areas, respect for human rights is improving and many countries are trying to manage their economies better."

Photo: Giddeon Manasseh

If any career can prepare a diplomat for trying to end the intractable conflicts in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is Mr. Gambari’s. An academic by training, he has taught international affairs and political science in the US and Nigeria and served as Nigeria’s foreign minister in the government of Maj. Gen. Mohammadu Buhari during 1984-85. As Nigerian ambassador to the UN from January 1990 to October 1999, he was directly involved in efforts to muster international support for West African regional peacemaking missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and in keeping African peace and security and development issues on the UN agenda.

"The African condition is not good, at least not as good as one would have hoped going into the new millennium," he observed. "There are about 18 conflicts going on in Africa now and the economic growth rate … is falling behind rates of population growth. Africa is still the continent with the least share of foreign direct investment and is the least industrialized continent, with only about 30 per cent of factory [capacity] being utilized. In addition, you have HIV/AIDS, which impacts disproportionately on Africa, with 70 per cent of all infected people being Africans."

He insisted however, that there are reasons for hope. "In the ‘70s and ‘80s most countries in Africa were ruled by non-democratic governments. Now military rule is the exception. Except for conflict areas, respect for human rights is improving and many countries are trying to manage their economies better."

Challenge to African peacekeeping

Peace in Africa, he explained, poses three challenges to the international community: "First, what can the UN do before the guns start, before conflict degenerates into open hostility and shooting? Second, what can the UN do after the guns start, through peacemaking and peacekeeping? And finally what can the UN and international community do after the guns stop? That is post-conflict peace-building." Too often, he noted, "people who are looking at the UN response confuse all these stages."

Compared with earlier wars, Mr. Gambari noted, "Conflicts in Africa are intra-state conflicts rather the inter-state conflicts. You are dealing with non-regular armies … states that have collapsed or are collapsing and institutions that are in a state of decay. They require a different approach."

"The charter of the UN says the Security Council has responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It doesn’t say ‘except when it comes to Africa.’"

Nowhere has peace proven more elusive than in Angola, where rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA movement have battled the government since independence in 1975. With recent battlefield successes, he noted, the government believes it has the upper hand militarily. But clearly UNITA’s "capacity for guerrilla warfare is still there." Therefore, "this war must be brought to an end by some kind of a negotiated settlement. If you had said that a year ago it would have been heresy. But I think there’s a grudging, gradual acceptance by the government."

Another requirement for peace, he said, is to reduce UNITA’s ability to wage war. Security Council sanctions against UNITA have been implemented only haphazardly and half-heartedly. "Recent action by the Council to tighten sanctions against Mr. Savimbi" (see page 6), he observed, has meant that "the resources available to Savimbi to prosecute the war have been sharply reduced."

Finally, Angolan civil society has been organizing. The Catholic Church recently held a peace rally in Luanda of about 20,000 people. This was followed by a peace congress which set up a committee that met with parliament and has asked for permission to contact Mr. Savimbi. "By opening up more political space … and getting civil society involved, then maybe a national dialogue can grow, with peace as a major objective," he said.

Seeking political solutions

In Sierra Leone, where Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels broke a peace agreement in May and attacked and captured UN peacekeepers, "the first priority of the UN is to restore the confidence and strength of the peacekeeping force," so that "a robust presence will be a strong deterrent." So far, however, many potential troop-contributing countries "are not coming forward."

On the political track, with RUF leader Foday Sankoh in detention awaiting trial, he explained, "the intention is to draw the new leadership of RUF into dialogue with the international community. If they stop fighting, hand over their captured UN equipment and honour their commitment to disarm and demobilize … we can talk about their political role in the future of Sierra Leone."

At the same time, he continued, a special court is being established to hold people accountable for "the horrendous crimes they have committed, because there can be no peace in Sierra Leone without justice."

"Window of opportunity" in Congo

Mr. Gambari was cautiously optimistic about efforts to end the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the government of President Laurent Désiré Kabila and his Angolan, Namibian and Zimbabwean allies are fighting rebel movements backed by Rwanda and Uganda. "On the face of it, it looks hopeless. All kinds of agreements have not been honoured."

But currently an initiative by South African President Thabo Mbeki, called the Maputo process, "seems to be putting the peace agreement back on track," Mr. Gambari said. The high human and financial cost of the fighting, he noted, also is starting to put pressure on President Kabila’s allies to consider ways to end the conflict.

Fighting between Ugandan and Rwandan forces in DRC territory and the presence in eastern DRC of forces responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda has further complicated the search for peace, Mr. Gambari observed. He added that the two countries "have concerns — some of them legitimate — about their security."

Overall, "the leaders of the region realize that the UN is not going to go ahead" with the planned deployment of peacekeeping troops "unless there is a greater degree of certainty about the cease-fire and willingness to disengage." He believes "there is a window of opportunity now that, if seized, could lead to the deployment" of UN peacekeepers, and "get some form of inter-Congolese dialogue going which will bring us closer to a peaceful resolution."

Supporting African initiatives

The key to making and keeping the peace in Africa, he asserted, "is to listen to the Africans themselves — to work with neighbouring countries which are close to the events and with regional organizations which have the capacity and the willingness to work with the UN." With limited resources, he continued, "the UN is not able to respond fully or adequately to all threats to peace in Africa…." At present, there currently are only four UN operations: Sierra Leone, the DRC, Ethiopia-Eritrea and Western Sahara.

The successful resolution of the conflict in Mozambique, Mr. Gambari said, underscored the importance of international support for peace-building. After the war ended and UN peacekeepers went home, the international community provided major support for disarmament, demobilization and resettlement and for rebuilding infrastructure. "That has helped tremendously to stabilize the situation in Mozambique." However, "the international community did not do the same for Liberia, and the failure of post-conflict peace-building for Liberia is in part responsible for a lot of the insecurity in the [West African] region."

Burden sharing

That failure, Mr. Gambari said, came at a time when "there was a sub-contracting out of peacekeeping to sub-regional organizations, with the Security Council washing its hands" of its African responsibilities. "There are many things Africans are willing to do themselves, but they lack the equipment and money. This is where the international community, spearheaded by the UN, can help with logistical and financial support. But always in a spirit of partnership…. The charter of the UN says the Security Council has responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It doesn’t say ‘except when it comes to Africa.’"

Nigeria, he noted, has a per capita annual income of less than $300, and an external debt of some $30 bn, yet spent billions of dollars on peacemaking operations in West Africa during the 1990s. "They have spent a disproportionate share of money for peace in Liberia and Sierra Leone because they realize that their bigger objective of development in the sub-region will not be realized unless there is peace. But they expect burden sharing between this ‘coalition of the willing’ in West Africa and the international community. And that has not always been honoured." He cited the Netherlands’ use of bilateral debt relief to help a West African country meet the costs of its regional peacekeeping activities as an example of a creative way to lighten Africa’s burden.

"The Security Council itself needs reform," he added. If Africa had one or two permanent members on the Council, Africans would be "encouraged to put more resources and more weight behind its decisions."

Tragedy and triumph

Mr. Gambari’s long career in international affairs has put him centre stage at some of the most momentous events in recent African history. "The worst experience," he acknowledged soberly, "was when Nigeria was a [non-permanent] member of the Security Council and it was decided to reduce the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda from 3,300 to 270 troops at the time of the greatest need. It was so depressing that we had so little influence in the Security Council to call genocide by its name, and to get the international community to do more to save the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost."

The best thing, he said, was the end of apartheid in South Africa. "I was chairman of the UN Special Committee against Apartheid … when apartheid was brought to an end." He was able in May 1994 to personally congratulate Nelson Mandela as the newly elected president of a democratic, nonracial South Africa. "I did that in a dual capacity as chairman of the Special Committee against Apartheid and also, coincidentally, as chairman of the Security Council. To me that was the highlight."

The second highlight was the election of an African Secretary-General of the UN. Mr. Gambari was the representative in 1991 of the then chairman of the Organization of African Unity, Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida, "who spearheaded the campaign to have an African elected, with Boutros Boutros-Ghali being the beneficiary — followed, of course, by Mr. Kofi Annan."