Following are United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS — University of London) Africa Development Forum, in London, today:
Thank you for inviting me to this gathering. I am especially inspired to know that this forum, now in its eighth year, is a student-driven undertaking. Thirty years ago, my friend brought me here to listen to various African activists.
Let me start by thanking my friend and former colleague, Baroness Valerie Amos, for her leadership at SOAS and previously at the United Nations when she headed our relief operations. We were together during a period when the world faced multiple humanitarian crises and also when the international community was shaping the Sustainable Development Goals. Her voice was invaluable across the board. Let me also welcome the good ties between SOAS and the United Nations. As you know, Secretary-General António Guterres was here in November 2017 to deliver a major speech on preventing terrorism. So, I am pleased to be with you and feel very much at home.
You are focusing today on “in.security” in Africa — insecurity in the broadest sense, not only in terms of armed conflict, but also matters such as food, jobs, climate change, natural resources and the digital world. Africans are taking determined steps to boost security in these and many other dimensions. There is enormous dynamism across the continent, not least thanks to young people. Entrepreneurship is up, and e-commerce is expanding. More women are serving in parliaments.
Africans have set forth their own vision in the African Union’s Agenda 2063 — a blueprint aligned with but more ambitious than the 2030 Agenda [for Sustainable Development] — for building an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, “the Africa we want”. The African Continental Free Trade Area will advance economic empowerment and create one of the world’s largest markets, with 1.2 billion consumers.
Africans have also committed to “silencing the guns” by 2020. Ethiopia and Eritrea have reached a historic peace agreement. Peace processes in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, along with peaceful elections in Madagascar and Guinea Bissau, are encouraging signs of progress. Long-running peacekeeping missions have closed down in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, marking a new phase in the transition of those countries out of conflict. A peacekeeping mission in Darfur, which not too long ago was the largest in the world, is gradually drawing down, reflecting a marked decrease in violent conflict in the area.
Indeed, this is why the Secretary-General talks about “strong winds of hope” blowing across the African continent and has taken strong steps to strengthen ties with the African Union. Africa shows remarkable generosity and solidarity in hosting nearly a third of the world’s refugees and internally displaced persons — far greater than we see in other regions. African countries are also major contributors to United Nations peacekeeping.
Sadly, much of this is rarely seen or acknowledged. Views of Africa often remain fixed, outdated and derogatory. The “glass half full” is rarely acknowledged. Our shared challenge is to bring these pieces together.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge serious challenges. African ecosystems are under stress, compounded by the worsening impacts of climate change. We see extremist attacks and gender-based violence. Corruption continues to rob desperately needed resources for development. African economies remain overly dependent on commodities, leaving them vulnerable to market shocks and volatility. And each year, millions of young people enter the job market, with mixed prospects for building the future they want.
At this time when inequality is rising and trust is on the decline, the benefits of globalization must be shared more equitably. In this era when many challenges transcend borders, we need to show that multilateralism can deliver, including by reforming and updating our institutions. At a time when people are on the move as never before, in search of safety or opportunity, we need to strengthen solidarity and build societies of opportunity for all. And at a moment when we need all hands on deck, we need to mobilize all those who are too often marginalized but who, empowered, can turn our world around. I am thinking of the world’s women, and I am thinking of you, and other young people everywhere, who continue to find it hard to gain a seat at the table.
As a window onto these challenges, I would like to say a few words about the Sahel region — which includes my home, northern Nigeria. The Sahel offers a good test case for what you are trying to do here at SOAS — turning policy to practice, translating academic discussions into real-life impact on the ground. The Sahel has, in recent times, claimed its place in the global spotlight, but for all the wrong reasons. Ravaged by insecurity and marked by fragility and vulnerability to climate change, the Sahel’s long history of protracted conflicts and poor governance continues to inordinately shape the region’s economic and social landscape.
The narrative of a Sahel plagued by violent extremism, trafficking, irregular migration, and crippled by food insecurity has been told time and again. Headlines, reports and studies warn that the reverberations of this complex crisis will be felt in the region and beyond. We see old and new factors at play — including porous borders, cross-border notions of identity, transnational migrations, rapid population growth, poor governance, organized crime, and the activities of armed and terrorist groups. All of this, of course, chases investment away.
At the same time, we know that the Sahel is endowed with an overwhelming abundance of natural resources. It is home to the continent’s top producers of oil, gold and uranium. Not long ago, the Lake Chad Basin was a food basket, trading with Sudan and providing many with sustenance. If managed equitably and sustainably, these resources and assets could turn the region’s fortunes around.
But, to realize this potential, we need more targeted efforts. We need to work coherently. Yet, recently one could count at least 17 separate international strategies — a recipe for working at cross purposes. And we need to get our priorities straight. Certainly, we need to ensure basic security, without which there can be no development. But, we must equally on governance, infrastructure and other factors for long-term resilience. Otherwise, basic needs will starve, generating frustration and opening the door for extremist groups.
I saw this for myself when I visited the region last year and talked with women’s groups and others on the frontlines. I was told that some young people were choosing to join Boko Haram — including young women, many whom see their participation as an expression of opportunity that is otherwise missing in their life. Let me tell you about one young woman I met in Chad by the name of Halima. She was a child bride — married off to a member of a horrific extremist group. She was brainwashed into becoming a suicide bomber. She ultimately escaped that fate, but not before she watched two of her friends blown up and suffered grievous physical injuries herself.
Halima’s experience exposed, in the most tragic way, the interconnection between inequality, peace and security and basic human rights. All of the key decisions about her life — her education, her marriage, even her death — were made for her. Now, with support, she’s getting her life back on track. But, this denial of rights is being exploited every single day. And it’s people like Halima we need to keep foremost in our minds as we think about the left behind.
Her story — and the wider plight of the Sahel — show where and why we must do more to move from policy to practice. We need to help the States of the region reassert their authority. This means effective steps on security and governance that uphold human rights, rather than infringing on them. We need to reverse the marginalization of poor, rural societies, and of women and youth. This means investments not only in education, health and job creation, but also in participation in decision-making. These are some of the building blocks the region needs.
Indeed, through an integrated strategy for the Sahel, the United Nations is taking an integrated approach to these challenges, so these key sectors — economic revival, governance, security and human rights — can reinforce each other. In parallel, we are striving to generate interest in the region from external development partners and investors and to mobilize the joint efforts of Sahel countries themselves. If this sounds daunting, it is. But, I have hope. I had moving meetings with traditional leaders, grassroots organizations, women and others who are often not on the international radar, but who are taking important steps towards peace and sustainable development. Our duty is to help them.
What also gives me hope is seeing the world’s young people seize the mantle of leadership and action. Yes, there were towering leaders like Nelson Mandela. But, leadership is crucial at all levels. And indeed, we are seeing communities and individuals at all levels doing their best to build lives of prosperity, resilience and dignity for all. Young people are helping to drive the “#MeToo” movement. In Nigeria and elsewhere, women are speaking out despite the trauma and the backlash — Arewa Me Too movement.
We can be inspired by them and by Nadia Murad, the remarkable Yazidi survivor of sexual violence who was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Peace. We can be encouraged by the young people and leaders who are standing up against child marriage, which affects millions around the world. In Africa, progress is still too slow, but the movement against it is growing.
Let us also recognize the passion of the young people who, just yesterday, marched in massive numbers around the world calling for urgent action on climate change — at the United Nations they staged a “die in” to protest climate inaction. Thousands of people turned out, sparked by the example of Greta Thunberg of Sweden, 16 years old, who is demanding climate action for her future — and ours. I have vivid memories of the speech she delivered at last December’s climate conference in Poland.
The United Nations wants to amplify these voices. We recognize that young people remain largely invisible at the table and in decision making. In politics they are an endangered species. Many are ready to run — passionate, knowledgeable, committed to public service — but are often barred by laws that set a high threshold. In some countries, minimum ages for candidates are as high as 45! The world needs a serious discussion around the removal of structural barriers to participation, such as inflated minimum ages to run for office.
Young people cannot wait — and our world cannot wait — to have you at the table — in office and bringing your remarkable power to bear on the challenges of our time! These are testing times for the human family. Progress is possible, but painstakingly slow; hard-won gains can be overturned in an instant. Global challenges are becoming more integrated, yet polarization is driving people apart.
But, despite the tensions we know so well, despite the rhetoric of those who thrive on division, despite the pushback against gender equality and democratic freedoms, we know that when we work together we can break cycles of violence, unite behind common causes, and get things done. With investments, commitment and partnership, we can build the future we want, in Africa and around the world. In conclusion, I ask: Why go back to Africa? What impact can you make if you do, given the challenges and opportunities that currently exist?