30 October 2002

West Africa: 'Here to Listen, to See and to Learn': Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah Takes Up New Post

Washington, DC — Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah is an international diplomat whose career to date has involved a diversity of assignments.

He has held senior positions in his home country of Mauritania, including minister of commerce and of foreign affairs and ambassador to the United States and to the European Union.

In 1984, he joined the United Nations as special coordinator for Africa and the least-developed countries, and subsequently (1993-1995) as the special representative of the secretary-general in Burundi. For the past six years, he served as executive secretary of the Global Coalition for Africa, an organization headquartered in Washington DC, which convenes forums of African policymakers and their partners in the international community to debate Africa's priority development issues.

Last month, he became the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for West Africa. Prior to his departure from Washington, he discussed his activities at the Global Coalition and his hopes for his new posting in an interview with AllAfrica's Reed Kramer.

During your tenure, the Global Coalition has been active on several fronts. What are some of the high points for you?

On a personal level, what I liked the most is the flexibility of the work. This organization, which is a north/south forum, has the capacity to adapt to changing environments and to address emerging issues, very difficult issues that most organizations do not take, or are hesitant to take. It is also very interesting by its constituencies. We started with ministers of finance and we ended up with journalists, through parliamentarians, private sector, NGOs, and parliamentarians from north and from south. One interesting thing is the commitment -- and I am not saying this to please them - the active involvement of our co-chairs -- the heads of state and senior officials, who participate [in the forums] without being hindered by their function or title.

On concrete matters, I like the fact that we were first in Africa in addressing corruption in public. It was November 1997, in Maputo, at one of our policy forums, with our chairs recognizing that there is corruption in Africa, and the constituencies - the NGOs and parliamentarians -- saying how to fight it. Also there were the partner countries from North America, Canada and Europe saying: 'you need two to tango'. If we are corrupt in Africa, it is because we have corruption in the North.

To address corruption: you need the press to expose it, because without the press you cannot go far. Same thing with police -- the independent police [needed] to investigate and prosecute. Because the institutions of media, of police, of justice are weak in Africa, corruption goes unpunished and the more unpunished it is, the more it discredits the government, the more it discredits the institutions, schools, hospitals. It has a pervasive, negative effect.

The GCA undertook a mission in eight African countries to try to rally support. We are following up implementation with 11 African countries including South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda, Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Ethiopia and Botswana. I think this is a very important achievement.

Another achievement that is even more difficult and remains to be addressed properly by other organizations is the peaceful hand-over of power [following an election]. Instead of seeing presidents leaving office to be buried or to go under house arrest or into exile, we want to strengthen the democratic process, and you help democracy if you make it acceptable for presidents to step down, and give them assurance through an amnesty at home, an honorable pension and a role for themselves after they leave office.

The meeting took place in November 1999, in Dakar, under the chairmanship of President Abdou Diouf, who was a sitting president and who four months later was defeated and left office peacefully . So to see President Chissano [of Mozambique] chairing the meeting on corruption and President Diouf at this meeting on peaceful transition, for me these were the two most interesting accomplishments I have seen carried out by the board of the Coalition, with the support of the secretary.

So you think the impact on these leaders of their chairing and participating in these meetings is not a diplomatic exercise? You think they actually are affected on a personal level that influences their actions?

I am absolutely convinced that they are not playing a game. In any case, they cannot because the public is not from their country; it is not in their country. For example, the last policy forum was held in Botswana .We had Presidents Museveni from Uganda and Chiluba from Zambia and the prime ministers of Ethiopia and Namibia. At other meetings, we had presidents from different countries, so what is interesting is the direct communication involving a manageable group of Africans and westerners, having a debate between themselves and with African leaders, parliamentarians, cabinet members and also heads of states.

We are also working on the very sensitive issue of security. Since independence, the army has been neglected in most African countries because politically it is not popular to support the army, especially when the armies were making coup d'etats. But with democratization taking place, but not rooted yet, security remains a very dangerous problem in Africa. Not only open civil war, but latent civil war -- how to prevent them. You cannot prevent them if security forces -- armies, police, national guards, gendarmerie -- are not paid and are ill-equipped and mismanaged.

So how do we address this in the framework of Nepad (New African Partnership for Africa's Development), especially when our partners from the north are putting pressure on Africans to address Africa's problems in peace keeping?

Will it be addressed in a future forum?

This will be addressed this year, in the framework of Nepad. [The annual forum has been rescheduled for early next year.]

During your five years as executive secretary, you have traveled widely in Africa and interacted with key actors in government and civil society. I know you feel that Africa is on the path to a better future. What is it that gives you this hope?

You are absolutely right, I am very optimistic, and I am not saying it as the French said, "system coue", meaning the more you say you are optimistic, the more you become optimistic.

I am optimistic because change is taking place. Change is first provided by the end of the cold war. There is much more freedom and openness today in Africa. The 60s, but specially the 70s and 80s, were a disaster in Africa. Everything, even shops, were nationalized; gas stations in many places were nationalized. It was a one-party situation in its glory. It was darkness at noon.

Today, we have a totally different setting. Democracy is advancing. We have much more freedom in the press. The fax played a key role in the development of freedom in Eastern Europe; I am convinced that the Internet and mobile telephones are playing the same role in Africa. I hope that development partners will support Africa in getting more connected in the Internet and mobile telephones because it brings us closer to the rest of the world.

Africans travel more, and we have more businessmen today [who are] more active and better educated. So my optimism is because of democratization, expansion of the media, privatization and more attention to the private sector.

Much more needs to be done. The pressure has to continue for more freedom, not only of association, of thought, but even in business. Many Africans die of Aids, of malnutrition or malaria. This is true. But I think Africa will move faster than expected.

Why do you put an emphasis on the importance of a free press in Africa?

It is my major theme, not one of my major teams, because I have known a generation in the late 60s, 70s and 80s, where the whole population of a country was forced to read only one paper. Those media were mere propaganda, and people were fed up with them and were not reading them. This is why Radio France International, BBC and Voice of America were more listened to.

Now, they are loosing ground because of the emergence of the private press. Freedom of the press has helped connect citizens of the same country. The press gives them a sense of respect for their own country. The media in connecting Africans within themselves and connecting them with the rest of the world plays a major in the democratization and in promoting the economy. And, of course, it helps transparency, in fighting corruption. This is true everywhere -- Japan, North America, Europe.

The press is filling a huge gap. Take, for example, fake medicines sold on the market. Who is going to report it? Now that you have the press reporting, and it helps even the government fight illegal traffickers, whereas the government used to take it as a critique.

I'll give you another example in West Africa -- the fish industry. Most fishermen in West Africa are Europeans. For the governments, it is very difficult to be strong in negotiating with the European Union because it is the provider of most of the assistance they get. Today the press takes up the issue itself, and that helps the governments. Same for agricultural subsidies. The governments may hesitate to ask their partners: 'why are you subsidizing?' But if you have a journalist, he will say no, we have to talk about it. He may be from the opposition, he may be from the majority, but he brings on the table an issue of interest to the nation.

Do you think the press in Africa is getting stronger both professionally and economically?

The press remains very weak professionally because most journalists who own a paper -- I am talking in general -- grew up in a one-party system they were fed up with and so they established their own paper. But their management could be improved.

Second, because the income in Africa is so low, they do not have an adequate market, and the government is the main provider of advertisements. So it is very difficult for them to live on selling their paper, especially since censorship is a permanent feature hanging over their heads. In my opinion, they need encouragement and support, but they remain very weak.

And the role of the Internet?

The Internet plays a crucial role. It connects Africa to the rest of the world. It connects Africans to their diaspora, and it is absolutely crucial to the development of the press and of Africa in general. It is playing the role the fax played in the revolution of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall, and it helps transparency in the economy and management. If the press were economically stronger, we would have less corruption. And better negotiations in world trade and bilaterally, definitely.

What will you be doing as Kofi Anna's special representative for West Africa?

Well, I am first grateful to the Secretary General for his confidence in me and for having appointed me to this high level position. I am convinced that the secretary general, in appointing me, is trying to increase the capacity to help prevent conflict -- to help prevent a small skirmish from becoming a civil war; to help prevent a dispute or misunderstanding or protocol difficulties between two neighbors from escalating into war.

I am looking forward to working in a region where I know many people from civil society, from business, and the leaders themselves. I know from my previous experiences that I plan to work with all segments of the society and with all external partners who have a clear agenda in helping, because I do not believe in working alone.

What do you see as the major challenges?

It seems to me that there are two major impediments in that region. One is the [lack of] resources. The other is that the region generally does not get attention from the media or in world forums. Crises keep going on there and very rarely do they attain high level attention. No one will speak of West Africa if Afghanistan is in the headlines, or Iraq or even, in Africa, the Great lakes region and Congo.

The advantage of not being in the headlines is to try to avoid the crises. I am among those who believe that each crisis is specific and should be addressed on its own merit, whether it is Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Sierra Leone or Liberia. How to address the specificity of each crisis is a major challenge for me. I am coming with an open mind to learn and to listen. It is really a mission to listen, to see and to learn.

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