Interview with Kofi Annan at Tana Forum: armed conflict now a smaller risk to most Africans than traffic accidents

In Harare, Annan's address elicited gasps of disbelief from his aides, deathly silence from the heads of state and applause from African civil society

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was last week in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia for the Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa. Mail & Guardian Africa deputy editor Lee Mwiti caught up with him on the sidelines for an interview ranging from Africa’s current state  to its prospects for the future.

FOR a man universally acknowledged as the consummate diplomat, debonair both in speech and tact, the blunt-talking side of Kofi Annan is rare—and well worth the wait.

Nowhere is it as impassioned as when he is speaking about Africa, a continent that inspires deeply, but also frustrates for the slow pace of delivering on its potential. He leaves no doubt about the causes of this—inadequate leadership - and in keeping with his ‘Mr Fixit’ image, what the path forward could be.  

“We have problems with governance, we have problems with leadership. Leaders often try to hang on for too long; in fact I was the first to go to the African Union and urge them not to accept coup leaders in their midst, and that military leaders should stay in their barracks,” he says.

The 1997 speech

He is referring to his ground-breaking—many would say seminal—June 2, 1997 address to African heads of state attending an Organisation for African Unity (precursor to the African Union) meeting in Zimbabwe, where he caused a huge stir.

“Africa can no longer tolerate, and accept as faits accomplis, coups against elected governments, and the illegal seizure of power by military leaders who sometimes act for sectional interests, sometimes simply their own,” he told  the audience, which included several leaders who were in office through the use of force.

“Let us dedicate ourselves to a new doctrine for African politics. Where democracy has been usurped, let us do whatever is in our power to restore it to its rightful owners: the people.”  

It was a speech that set a new tone for both the UN’s and the developed world’s engagement with Africa with the new UN chief, and the first black African to hold the seat, he was shortly commissioned by the Security Council to develop a blueprint to tackle conflicts in the continent—the result of which was described as “almost un-UN”.

But  in Harare, the address elicited gasps of disbelief from his aides, deathly silence from the heads of state and applause from representatives of African civil society.

“You are the only one who could have said that and gotten away without being lynched! No other African would dare, and we wouldn’t have taken it from anyone else,” Salim A. Salim, the then secretary general of the OAU would tell him.

“Someone had to,” Annan replied, in a conversation captured in his book, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace. Five years later, the newly-launched AU in its charter for the first time prescribed sanctions for unconstitutional take-overs of power.

Déjà vu of sorts

Perhaps there is a déjà vu of sorts—at the Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa, which he was attending for the first time, he was back among Africans; both good friends and targets of criticism—such as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, about whom he wrote not so flatteringly of his role in the Darfur conflict, for which the Sudanese president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court.

But there was also a key difference: now in its fifth year, the increasingly prestigious invite-only meeting prides and sells itself on blunt and frank talk about the causes of African conflicts, and innovative ways to tackle them.

Burundi’s succesful pushback at the African Union is for example described by a top leader as showing up the bloc, and making the continent ‘“a laughing stock”.

  At the Tana Forum, CLOCKWISE: Ethiopia’s prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Somalia president Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud with economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin, the much-heralded founder of the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange, and former Botswana president Festus Mogae. (Photo/Tana Forum/FB).

Annan puts down the resilience of the threats to regional security to a lack of political leadership, as he has consistently done.

“Leaders who hang on to power indefinitely by gaming elections and suppressing criticism and opposition are sowing the seeds of violence and instability,” he said in his speech to the high-profile audience in the north-western Ethiopian city of Bahir Dar.

He expounded on this in the interview.  “The tendency may be the only way to get [such leaders] out is through a coup or people taking to the streets. Neither approach can be seen as an alternative to democracy, to elections or to parliamentary rule.”

Kenya post-election violence

He said the zero-sum approach to politics in African countries is a cause of tension and conflict, as the winner takes all the spoils and election losers feel they are out in the cold. He made reference to the fall-out over the Kenya presidential election in 2007, in which he had to step in as a mediator following the country’s worst electoral violence on record.

To this he says the agency of the Kenyan people was the game-changer. “If we were able to bring them from the brink, it’s because of the attitude of the people and the support we got from them.”

The resolution of the Kenya case was widely referred to in conversations at the two-day forum, where it was celebrated as proof that conflicts on the continent can be resolved without resorting to militaries.

The African Union struggled to insert itself into the mediation effort, and it was the overwhelming pressure exerted on the country’s leadership by global powers that brought the rival sides to the table—and kept them there.

A large part of this is due a lack of wherewithal by the 54-member bloc, a situation that came in for much criticism including by host Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister of Ethiopia, who said the organisation should take a share of the blame.

The AU’s budget is largely funded by non-African donors, with African countries meeting about 9% of its needs, according to its own data. This informed the recurrent theme at the Tana forum for the bloc to wean itself off external money—a conversation that has been going on for nearly a decade now.

Annan had his take on this.  “As you heard, budgetary issues are extremely importance for the African Union, and when you don’t have the resources, you have to be creative in meeting the challenges you meet, and stretching the resources you have.

“Often it means working with others, establishing linkages and partnerships and through that you are sometimes able to expand your capacity without necessarily needing additional dollars.

“I was happy to hear them [African leaders] say, ‘we must be prepared to pay for what we want; we must be prepared to put our own money on the table and fund issues that are of great importance to us.”

Some tough love

But he again reserves tough love for the AU, which while accepting donor money, is defensive when its benefactors naturally seek to further their interests. 

“I think first of all governments must pay their assessment. I mean, if you have a club and you are a proud member and you want it to be effective you start by paying your dues in full and on time.”

“Once we commit our own pockets and do it in a consistent and serious manner we can [then] reach out to others for support and that support will be much more forthcoming when they see how serious and committed we are.”  

“We cannot always pass a hat around and insist we want to be sovereign, we want to be independent. We should lead get others to support us, the solutions to issues have come from here.”

He says creativity is needed in developing other sources of funding (a proposal to levy hotel stays and air tickets was railroaded by African finance ministers in 2013, with little other initiatives under consideration).

The forum’s theme this year was about helping the continent grow its position in the global security architecture, where it is said to be on the periphery despite most decisions by powerful organs such as the UN Security Council affecting the region.

(Rwanda foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo described this as “sitting on the edge of the chair when we should be in the middle”—to which convenor Olusegun Obasanjo said the continent must demand, not ask, and create more space for itself.)

Annan in his keynote speech said that there is good news around regional threats. “Africa is actually doing better than many people may realise in terms of the security of the citizenry. Today, and despite a few egregious exceptions, armed conflict is actually a smaller risk to most Africans than traffic accidents.”

This, he says, helped set the stage for the rapid economic growth of the last 15 years. “In general, our continent is generally heading in the right direction.”

But he had a warning. This is “very cold comfort for those millions of people who are still living every day in the shadow of violent conflict and abject poverty.

The continent’s well documented growth has not been inclusive or fair, creating grievances exploited by those who feel left out, from rebel groups and transnational terrorists to millions of young people out of work.

“As I constantly repeat, you cannot have peace and security without inclusive development, the rule of law and the respect for human rights. These are the three pillars of all successful societies.”

Towards this, he urged citizens to constantly keep leaders and governments under pressure to deliver on their promises—“put fire under them”.

There is a surefire tool. “We have to use our vote responsibly to check leaders who are not doing what we expect of them.

“We as individuals have power but we often don’t realise it or use it well; if we do we will get action on the ground.”


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