“A Continent in Crisis”: Kofi Annan Reflects on Africa
By Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
As secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan is arguably the most politically influential African in the world. Harvard professor and Africana.com co-founder Henry Louis Gates, Jr. spoke to Annan in an exclusive interview before an audience at The Princeton Club in New York City on May 6, 2000, at an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of New Yorker magazine. Africana.com is proud to publish a complete transcript of their extensive conversation as a three-part series that will that will run through the next two weeks.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you very much for coming out this afternoon. It is my pleasure to introduce the secretary general of the United Nations. The first person from sub-Saharan Africa to head the United Nations, Kofi Annan is also the first secretary general to have risen through the ranks of that organization. A lifelong diplomat, Annan assumed the UN’s top post in January 1997 to serve a term ending December 31st 2001. As Kate Tuttle puts it [in Encarta Africana], Annan had impressed the international diplomatic community while serving as under-secretary general for peace keeping, a job in which he coordinated efforts to help such tortured areas as Rwanda, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia, of course. He began his term as secretary general under pressure to reform the large and economically troubled UN bureaucracy. Following his appointment, Annan pledged to improve the effectiveness of UN programs in poor countries,
saying, and I quote, “Economic development is not merely a matter of projects and statistics, it is above all a matter of people. Real people with basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.”
Kofi Annan was born into one of Ghana’s most prominent and influential families. His father was a hereditary chief, a chief of the Fante people and a high-ranking civil servant. After studying science and technology in Ghana, in 1959 Annan traveled to the United States where he matriculated at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. “It was an exciting period,” says Annan. To say the least, we can add. Two years earlier, Ghana had declared its independence, and in America the Civil Rights Movement was gaining vast momentum. He graduated from Macalester in 1961 with a degree in economics, saying that his American years had taught him, if it taught him anything, “that you should never walk into a situation and believe that you know
better than the natives.” It was a lesson Annan would apply often during is diplomatic career.
After graduate studies in economics in Geneva, Annan took his first UN job at the World Health Organization. After more than a decade of diplomatic work, he took a break to serve from 1974 to ’76 as director of the Ghana Tourist Development Company. Four years later, he received his first high-level UN post as deputy director of administration and head of personnel at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He worked there until 1983, when he became director of budget in the office of financial services. By 1990 he had risen to the office of assistant secretary general for program planning, budget,
and finance. Annan’s 1993 appointment as the head of peacekeeping operations made him one of the UN’s most visible, and also controversial, leaders. UN peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia had recently provoked widespread criticism, and raised doubts about the agency’s future.
But he gained an international reputation, not only for shrewd diplomacy, but also for his candor, and, as you’ll see, for his great personal charm. When the United States publicly campaigned against a second term for then secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, it was to Kofi Annan that it turned.
Ladies and gentleman, please join me in welcoming to the stage, the seventh secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. (applause)
HLG: So you’ve been busy?
Kofi Annan: You can say that again.
HLG: Well, it’s only appropriate, I think, that we start with the news from Africa.
Yesterday [May 5, 2000], certainly, will be remembered, I think, as a banner
day for what we might call “Afro-pessimists.” Three hundred UN workers held
hostage in Sierra Leone; war, once again, between Rwanda and Uganda, but
this time in the middle of the Congo; the collapse of peace talks between
Eritrea and Ethiopia; more black opposition members murdered in Zimbabwe.
Recently, in an apt if unfortunate phrase, you said that Africa, far too often, was
“a cocktail of disasters.” Why is this so, do you think? Why are all these things
happening on the continent now?
KA: I think there are many reasons, and as a secretary general of the United
Nations, and also as an African, I have been particularly concerned about the
situation on the continent in several ways. First of all, there’s been this
proliferation of conflicts, wars on the continent, even though there are individual
African countries that are doing well, and there’s good news coming out of the
continent as well. Recently, we all saw the excellent elections in Senegal,
where there was a democratic changeover. We’ve seen it in Nigeria, we’ve seen
it in South Africa, there is positive economic news out of Botswana, and
Mozambique until the floods, but we do have these crises, which in a way
affects the entire continent. And if you mention Africa today, people see it as a
continent in crisis. It affects the investment climate, nobody wants to invest in a
bad neighborhood. So I’ve been trying to work with the African leaders to calm
these troubled waters, and be able to focus on economic and social issues.
I think the reasons for the crisis you’re seeing on the continent – one is a
question of management. It’s a question of leadership. It’s a question of greed.
It’s a question of ethnic conflicts, which are sometimes based on one group’s
perception that they are not being treated fairly, they are being discriminated
against by the state, or by the group that wields power, sort of a “winner take
all” approach to political process.
After the elections, we did an interesting study, the UN did an interesting
study, and discovered that one of the main reasons why we have these
conflicts is that one ethnic group or religious group may feel discriminated
against by the government. The existence of the group discrimination itself
does not provoke conflicts, but it is often exploited – by leaders, by the elite –
to political advantage, and it often leads to explosion. And it is important for
governments to treat their citizens fairly and get the message across to each
group, and each citizen, that the government belongs to them too, and that
they can expect to share fairly in the economic welfare of the country, and that
the law works for them as well. If you have that sort of situation, the likelihood
of getting into a conflict situation is limited.
We’ve been trying to work with the governments to strengthen their institutions,
come up with the right regulatory system, and to help avoid the kinds of
situations I have described. But there is also greed. In fact, most countries
where you have natural resources, be it diamonds or oil, it’s a blessing, but in
some of the African countries this has also become a curse; a curse in the
sense that special interests sometimes provoke wars and exploit the situation.
You have war profiteers who are gaining from wars in Africa, and are not really
particularly interested in peace, and I think the first [Security] Council report on
sanction-busting in Angola [which exposed the international network UNITA
uses to traffic arms and diamonds] was quite revealing. We are also going to
set up another group to look into exploitation of resources in the Congo, which
we also consider as part of the reason for the prolonged war in the Congo, and
we have the same situation in Sierra Leone. It’s diamonds again at the bottom
HLG: Considering the fact that most of the boundaries obtained today between
African nations more or less reflect arbitrary decisions made in Berlin in
1884-85, do you think that we need border reform in Africa or not?
KA: I think it’ll make matters worse, quite frankly. I think any attempt to change
the borders of Africa will lead to greater conflict, and I think the OAU rightly
recognizes and decided as early as ’63,’64 that there would be no border
changes, and in fact the only border change that has taken place in Africa is
the one between Eritrea and Ethiopia. There was a secondary one where the
Aozou strip was taken away from Libya and given to Chad. But that was as a
result of a court decision, a decision by the international court of justice. But
beyond that, since the independence era there have been no border changes,
and I think it is wise.
I think what we need to try and do is to find a way of getting the governments to
work together, and of course you are beginning to see sub-regional groupings.
You have SADC for southern Africa, ECOWAS for West Africa, and the central
African region has also created one, and the East Africans have been making
an effort. We [need to] get the governments to work together, and in fact get
them to exploit resources, which sometimes straddle their borders and often
lead into war, jointly rather than competitively. We have a situation today
between Nigeria and Cameroon on the Bakassi peninsula where there is oil,
and both countries are claiming it, and of course the case is a headache at the
international court of justice. And we are trying to keep them away from each
other, but that is a typical situation where eventually they should do a joint
exploitation of the resources rather than fight over it. So I will be against border
changes in Africa.
HLG: The Times yesterday editorialized, and I quote, “Sierra Leone
demonstrates the dangers of sending a weak and inadequately trained
peacekeeping force into a country where there is not yet a peace to keep. The
UN’s mistake should not be repeated in the Congo.” In fact, when I woke up
this morning I was expecting from David Remnick anytime a call saying this
whole thing is off because the secretary general is too busy solving these
problems in Africa, and thank goodness you were able to come. But tell us
what the latest news is out of Sierra Leone and the Congo, and frankly how you
reacted to the Times’s little lecture there.
KA: Let me say that I’m here, but I’m still busy, on Sierra Leone and a couple
of other crises. I think there is a measure of justification in what the Times
editorial said in that if you take on these oppressions you ought to go in with a
force that is capable of defending itself and its mandate. Obviously, we go in to
maintain peace, not to impose peace, and if you’re going in to maintain peace
as a peacekeeper there is a tendency to go in an entirely different kind of
mode. And we should not forget that we went into Sierra Leone after a peace
agreement, ostensibly signed by everybody and with the commitment that they
will honor it. So the Council put in the peacekeepers to help maintain the peace
that the protagonists had signed. We did not go there to make peace in the
combative mode. Now we are confronted with the situation where one of the
signatories to the peace agreement for Sankoh and the rebel movement has
challenged the UN in three specific locations and taken some of the people
hostage or prevented them from joining their units. What we are now trying to
do for the moment, the emphasis is on getting everyone to safety, getting our
people to safety and then take measures. We are going to take measures to
strengthen the force, the force is not up to full strength yet. We were just in the
process of deploying, we are three battalions short, but we are going to get
them in there as quickly as we can.
The leaders in the region, particularly those with influence on Sankoh, have
been very busy during the past forty-eight hours putting pressure on him to be
responsible and honor the agreement he signed. I’ve been on the phone with
several of them who believe that in the next forty-eight hours we may see some
positive development but I wait to see that. So we need to work with the leaders
in the region who brokered the agreement, as well as take steps to strengthen
our own military presence to be able to contain the situation and carry on. If the
peace unravels in Sierra Leone, in a very fragile situation it can have an impact
in the whole sub-region and it is important that we take charge of it and make
sure that we get over this hiccup that we are having at the moment. But we are
determined to overcome it, but to overcome it we need help, we need support,
we need resources from countries with capability, and here some of them are
hesitant at the moment but we are talking to them.
On Congo the Security Council mission is there at the moment. They’ve had
very useful discussions with president Kabila, they are talking to president
Kagame of Rwanda, and I think they’re seeing president Mugabe today. All the
signatories to the Lusaka [peace accords signed in 1999] maintain that they
want peace to move forward, they want the UN forces to be deployed. The UN
has maintained that if you want us to come in, demonstrate that you are
serious about peace, you are going to honor the commitments you took in
Lusaka, and that you will respect in a demonstrable way, for example, by
stopping fighting. If you’ve signed an agreement, and you’ve signed a cease-fire
agreement, there’s no need for you to fight, and you demonstrate your
seriousness and we will come in. Recently the cease-fire has more or less
held. The situation in Kisangani that you referred to, which in a way is between
Uganda and Rwanda, who have been allied against Kabila, is something that
has persisted over a year. I think both are deployed there, and I think it’s a
question of fighting for turf and influence in the Kisangani area. The discussions
I had with leaders in the region yesterday led me to believe that that is going to
be brought under control very quickly, and that it should not impact unduly on
the agreement that they had signed, and this was a family skirmish. We shall
HLG: Well do you agree then with the Times’s implicit criticism that troops
were committed insufficiently?
KA: No, I started by saying that there was a measure of justification in what the
Times had said in that some of the troops that were committed and arrived in
Sierra Leone were not as effectively equipped as we would have liked. Because
the UN has no troops, we borrow them from governments, and we tell the
governments how the troops must be equipped, what they must come with,
they must come self-sustained with the equipment and the materiel. And in
fact, the UN then reimburses the governments providing the troops, roughly at
the rate of $1000 per soldier per month. For some of the governments it doesn’t
cover the cost, in fact it does mean the governments are subsidizing some of
our efforts. And because member states do not pay, and owe the UN, we have
not been able, in all these circumstances, to reimburse the contributors, and
so we owed them about $800 million, which implies that some of these poor
countries who take on these challenges are granting an interest-free loan to the
UN. It is sometimes difficult to get governments to sign on. We must also not
forget that we’re living in an era where most governments do not want any
casualties even when they go into a military operation. That is the attitude of
the Pentagon today, and so they are not going to get into these kinds of
situations, particularly after Somalia. So you have a situation where
governments with capacity do not come forward, those who are willing to do it
may not always have the capacity, but because they are so kind to do it they
don’t always tell you. They say we have it, it’s when they get on the ground and
actually come out of the planes and the boats that you discover they’ll be
HLG: So you don’t know until then?
KA: Some of the situations we’ve gone to check, but in some cases in fact,
even there they tell you it’s a question of national security and we don’t want
you running around our army, checking our materiel. [They say,] “We give you
our word we have it, it’s in our interest to have a well-equipped troop.” But
sometimes when they arrive you discover they don’t have what you have. We’ve
had situations, and I’m sorry I’m taking so long, we’ve had situations where we
were so desperate that we got soldiers without equipment, and then got
equipment from a third country.
A classic example was what happened in Bosnia: we needed troops at the
height of the crisis [but] we could not get them. After the peace agreement was
signed, we got thousands of well-equipped soldiers, the U.S. came in and it
made it clear, “we will come in after the war,” but during the war, when we
needed to really hold off the onslaught, we couldn’t get troops. Eventually,
“country A,” and I’m saying this out of respect for the countries concerned,
country A offered us troops. Understand we have no equipment and we will
need equipment, and then country B offered equipment, and said we will train
them. Well, country A was a third world country, B was a European country.
Just a month before they got there they told us, “Our constitution doesn’t allow
us to train foreign troops on our ground,” and so we started negotiating with
country C, another European country, which said, “we will do it.” They came
back with the same argument, and then country D [offered to do] it, so we had
to move the equipment from country B to country D, and train the troops from
country A, and then inject them into Bosnia. That took about a year. But whose
failure is it when the failure comes? It’s the UN. But the UN is as strong as the
member states, and since we don’t have troops and we have to get it from
them, if they don’t give it to us we are sometimes in a tricky situation.
In the situation in Sierra Leone we have suggested that we, obviously, we need
to bring all political pressure to bear. But it may be necessary at some stage, if
it becomes necessary, to send in a rapid reaction force. We’ve put that on the
table, we will get it or we won’t get it. We shall see.
HLG: So sometimes you’re saying it’s better, given the desperate nature of the
situation, to commit some troops rather than no troops, even if the troops are
KA: Ideally we would want to have well-equipped and well-trained soldiers. The
best peacekeeper is a well-trained and an equipped soldier, even though they
often do not have to fight. And the soldiers will tell you, peacekeeping is much
tougher than fighting in a war because in a war the objective is clear, we know
who the enemy is. In peacekeeping you have to exercise patience and
discipline, and often go between people and talk to them, and it’s much
tougher, but the soldiers enjoy doing it as a challenge. The question you’ve put
to me is a question, which I think maybe is addressed to all of us. When we
see some of these situations, should we stand back as an international
community and do nothing because we don’t have the perfect answer? Or
should we try with the limited resources we have to make a difference? The
Council often has tended to take a decision and say, “Do something, we need
to try to help.” And therefore we move in with the limited, or sometimes
inadequate, resources that we have. But the capacity is there, around the
world. What is lacking is the will to do it. How do you generate that will? I think
the public also has something to say about that.
Kofi Annan: “We have to draw lessons from Rwanda, but we have to draw the
right lessons. And if we do not draw the right lessons we will repeat it.”