11 July 2001

Africa: Amara Essy - A New Man for OAU and Africa

analysis

Luska, Zambia — Eight gruelling rounds of voting propelled the former foreign minister of Côte d’Ivoire, Amara Essy, into Africa's top job this week at the OAU summit.

The gracious 57 year old Ivorian diplomat, as the new interim secretary general of the Organisation of African Union (OAU), will be Africa’s new helmsman, steering the continent's nations through the transition to the Africa Union.

Essy’s allies quietly and effectively lobbied for him to become the OAU secretary-general at a crucial time in the organization’s history.

After hours of negotiating among African leaders, Essy saw off a challenge from the Namibian foreign minister, Theo Ben Gurirab, and Lansana Kouyate, a former executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), from Guinea.

"I have been elected to build the structure of the African Union. We will try to do our best," Essy told reporters, adding, "The main task, I think, is clear, because the mandate of the new secretary general is to transform the OAU into the African Union."

The Ivorian also had to defeat what observers said was a concerted campaign spearheaded by the Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi to extend, by one year, the contract of the outgoing Tanzanian head of the OAU, Salim Ahmed Salim.

Big guns from Ivory Coast, including Simeon Ake who was for years foreign minister under the late President Felix Houphouet Boigny, were wheeled out to support Essy.

Softly-spoken, with a ready, warm smile and impeccable credentials after 13 years steering diplomacy in Ivory Coast, Essy told reporters after his election that the wait had been rather long, though he looked relaxed walking the corridors of the Mulungushi International Conference Centre in Lusaka before the announcement was made.

The Ivorian will begin the daunting task of steering Africa’s leading continental organization into uncharted waters in September, at the end of Salim’s third four year term. "We have many things to put in place. We will have to see what will be our priorities," he told allAfrica.com.

Essy, who lost out to Ghana’s Kofi Annan for the post of secretary-general of the United Nations, first challenged Salim for the leadership of the OAU in 1997, but pulled out before the summit that year. He said he preferred not to divide Africa on the issue.

On Tuesday, Annan welcomed Essy’s appointment saying he was "particularly well-qualified to lead the organization during this challenging period," adding, "he brings to the OAU his extensive regional and international diplomatic experience. He facilitated the peaceful resolution of many conflicts in Africa. These skills will be critical in his new assignment at the OAU."

Essy was Annan’s special envoy to the Central African Republic in 2000. The UN secretary-general described him as a consensus builder, offering effective leadership.

As foreign minister of Côte d’Ivoire, first under Houphouet Boigny and then under his successor, Henri Konan Bedie, Essy dealt first hand with the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. He shuttled between West African capitals trying to help bring peace to a region increasingly in turmoil.

In a recent interview, he said: "In Africa, nobody can succeed alone without others. There will be no economic recovery if we don’t resolve our security problems."

The Ivorian diplomat survived the fall of Bedie in a coup d’etat on 24 December 1999. He was abroad at the time, but returned to Ivory Coast and emerged untainted by the scandals that came in the wake of Bedie’s departure.

Essy spent much of his diplomatic life at the United Nations in New York, where he served in several capacities as ambassador and was notably the president of the 49th session of the UN General Assembly. He was also a diplomatic envoy to other countries and international institutions.

But he began life in less illustrious circumstances. "At age 7, I sold the bread my mother baked. Then I did the minimum number of years at school, but my teacher encouraged me to continue and not to stop and get a job."

Essy’s studies took him far afield, via a ship from Vientiane, the Laotian capital, and Tierra del Fuego (at the tip of Chile) and onto further studies and to his first diplomatic post in Brazil, where he fell in love with the music and the salsa beat.

Amara Essy is a practising Muslim, from the central city of Bouake in Côte d’Ivoire. He is married to Lucie a Christian, and they have six children.

He bears a striking likeness to the Brazilian footballing legend, Pele and was once mistaken for the soccer star after he kicked off his diplomatic career in Brazil in 1971. "One time, I walked into a reception and the whole room got up and started to cheer. I then understood they had taken me for Pele."

He will need all Pele's fancy footwork, as well as his own consummate diplomatic skills, to navigate the months ahead

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