Under-Secretary of the United Nations Zainab Hawa Bangura is the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON), a position she has held since 30 December 2019. Before her current appointment, she was the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. In this interview with Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor, Ms. Bangura discusses gender and youth empowerment, the AU’s “Silencing the Guns by 2020” initiative, among other issues. These are excerpts.
Let’s begin with the elephant in the room—COVID-19. Given the current situation of the pandemic in Africa, what message do you have for Africans at this time?
My message is that Africa can defeat this deadly virus and recover even better. Africans are resilient. But the deaths, the dislocation to our way of life and the devastation to economies are enormous.
Many reports released so far, including the UN Secretary-General’s policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 in Africa, indicate that tens of thousands of lives could be lost as well as billions of dollars of economic activity. The SG has for called for a debt freeze and up to $200 billion in support for poor countries to stimulate their economies. I believe too that a post-pandemic recovery is an opportunity for Africa to recover better.
Therefore, we must focus on sustainable development projects, including environmentally friendly ones, and pay greater attention to the empowerment of women, youth and the vulnerable population.
As the Director-General (DG) of UNON, what are your priority areas?
As you probably know, before my appointment UNON was without a full-time leader for over a year, so my first task was realigning divisions and departments into one cohesive unit to allow for shared strategies to meet the organization’s objectives.
Second, we are building on the work of the previous DGs to bring recognition to UNON, which is the only UN headquarters in the Global South. Such recognition will of course attract the media, international conferences and other events. We have a clear vision and have set out our priorities and these include to help implement the Secretary-General’s organization-wide reform initiatives. It also includes to raise public awareness of the UN’s work in Kenya and in East Africa, to support other UN entities and to strengthen cooperation with other regional organizations.
As the DG, I am also available to help advance the SG’s good offices in this region and preventive diplomacy, that is to mediate crises before they get out of hand.
How has your previous experience and work at the UN prepared you for your current job?
I used to be a civil society activist and was a minister of government in my country Sierra Leone [Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and then Minister of Health].
I had also worked with the UN in peacekeeping and later as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. These experiences reaffirm my passion for and commitment to women’s issues, to good governance and sustainable development. For women in particular, we cannot make any advances in the areas of human rights, peace and security and development, without their contributions.
I consistently remind myself and my colleagues that our priorities and our work must uphold the principles of the UN Charter, which has at its core a focus on people, not just some abstract, impersonal processes.
What is the strategic importance of having a UN headquarters in the Global South?
The services the UN renders in the areas of peace, security, humanitarian response, human rights and development are brought closer to beneficiaries who live mostly in the global south.
UNON is unique in the sense that it has a mix of global headquarters, country and regional offices, Special Political Missions and peace support operations. It is the headquarters of the UN in Africa as well as the global headquarters for both UN Habitat and the UN Environment Programme. The work of the Nairobi-based UN entities contributes significantly to advancing UN goals and values—in Kenya, in the region and around the world.
One of the UN Secretary-General’s priorities is gender parity within the UN system. How do you hope to achieve this goal at UNON?
We have a gender policy document that is widely disseminated among staff so everyone understands what the principles are. Senior managers regularly undertake training, including those administered by UN Women, on dealing with unconscious bias in recruitment of staff. Top managers are also requested to include in their workplans measures they hope to implement to achieve gender parity. Research has shown that expressing a number of years of experience as “desired” rather than “required” in job openings is more inviting for women.
In addition, our job openings include language that strongly encourages women to apply. We also try to more proactively reach out to qualified female candidates and to promote mobility options that support decisions by female applicants to come to Nairobi. So, on gender issues, we are making progress on many fronts.
As a former civil society activist, how do you see the role of women in Africa’s development?
As I mentioned earlier, women have an important, even indispensable role, to play in countries’ development. When women are absent at the negotiating table, you have entrenched mindsets. But when women are present, chances of an agreement are high. And let’s remember women’s role in global multilateral agenda.
The Secretary-General [António Guterres] remarked during the “She Stands for Peace” book launch last February that the advocacy of women peacebuilders, particularly those in Africa, helped create the momentum 20 years ago that resulted in the Security Council’s Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).
That was the first time that women were recognized not only as victims of war but as people with agency and expertise who could help find peaceful solutions to conflict. Since then, there have been nine additional Security Council resolutions on WPS, in addition to several African Union instruments. Gender inequality is, as we know, a question of power.
It is very important that more women are in positions of responsibility, in both the public and private sectors, to unlock dormant socioeconomic and peace dividends that will advance Africa’s development.
The UN is supporting the African Union’s Silencing the Guns by 2020 campaign. Given your experience coming from a post-conflict country, why do you think the guns must be silent in Africa?
There can be no development without peace and security, which is why the AU launched the “Silencing the Guns by 2020” initiative. To be fair, considerable progress has been made in silencing the guns in many parts of Africa, but at the same time we have witnessed just how difficult the task is because we still have many intractable conflicts.
The UN supports the AU’s initiative—there are ongoing joint efforts between the UN and the African Peace and Security Architecture of the AU to strengthen the conflict prevention capacities of member states.
To fully silence the guns will require addressing the root causes of conflict and these include issues such as the illicit proliferation of arms on the continent, the impact of climate change, inequitable management of countries’ natural resources, socioeconomic inequalities and other governance issues such as the exclusion of women and youth in the electoral process.
What role could young people play in peace and development of Africa?
I will echo what the Secretary-General said last year at the AU Summit, which is that Africa’s youth need to be engaged and empowered because they are agents of change. We cannot achieve sustainable development without the partnership and participation of young people. I believe, strongly, that young people have an important role to play in achieving peace, security, stability and good governance in Africa. We need their ideas and their energy. We have seen what young people can do in terms of, for example, using technology to solve problems. Their ability to mobilise using technology, to raise awareness among the wider population of important social issues, is incredible.
Many African states are low-income and fragile, and there are continuing threats to peace and security, including in the form of ethnic disputes. So, we must equally realise that many groups wishing to foment trouble in countries begin by enlisting young people. Countries and development-focused institutions such as the African Development Bank and the World Bank must therefore invest in the youth in terms of quality education and skills acquisition.
We must recognise the need for the creation of an enabling economic environment, including providing employment opportunities and services such as energy, healthcare, modern transport infrastructure that young people need to enable them flourish. Commendably, the AU’s silencing the guns initiative includes a strong focus on youth. I’m confident in the potential of Africa’s youth to change the development narrative of the continent.