UN SPECIAL INTERVIEW WITH THE PERMANENT OBSERVER OF THE AFRICAN UNION TO THE UNITED NATIONS, MADAME AMBASSADOR SOPHIE ASIMENYE KALINDE
UN Special: Madame Ambassador, thank you very much for accepting to be interviewed by the UN Special . I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate you for being chosen to represent the African continent at the United Nations Office in Geneva.
Thank you very much for the interest you have shown in the African Union by coming to visit its Representational Office in Geneva.
The African Union is serious to see economic development and peace, which has eluded Africa for so long to take root on the continent. Please allow me to thank you sincerely for providing me an opportunity to have a chat with you on the African Union.
Please tell us about your background and how you were chosen to fill this important post, and if there are other women representatives assigned to similar positions elsewhere in the AU?
Thank you very much. To begin let me acknowledge the Gifts of God to me as I have journeyed on this earth. Indeed it is a position of privilege as you rightly said earlier and I feel deeply honored serving the African peoples. It is also a great challenge Africa being what it is. I have a background in the private sector and diplomacy. After University education, I spent 18 years working in different sections of the holding company as well as in different subsidiary and associated companies. It gave me a chance to accumulate experience in human resources management, management training, operations management, to general management. I can claim that I know a company so well that I would have no difficulty in starting it to all systems go.
In diplomacy, it was really a political statement as there had been no women at the level of an Ambassador since independence in 1964. After the change from a one party system to pluralistic system, it was important for the ruling party to fulfill its political campaign promises in the involvement of women at decision-making levels. I was Ambassador of my country, Malawi to the OAU, UNECA, to the host country, Ethiopia and of course was accredited to other countries. I found my private sector experience and diplomacy greatly complementing my work at this multilateral station. The combined experience has added advantage for me to serve the continent as an AU representative.
Do you believe that career for diplomacy in Africa, which was assumed to be the manís world, is changing to include more women?
Oh yes indeed! That is a correct summation. It is in fact a pity on the part of anyone to think that diplomacy is a task of men. Diplomacy is an inborn ability for women. How else do we survive the many intricate situations that traverse our daily lives be it in the family or at work? Women are masters at diplomacy otherwise men would have become an endangered species. Women are wonderful mediators and many manage impossible situations. I would safely say that women have hands-on practical experience in diplomacy from quite a tender age.
The Organisation of Africa Unity, I must say, did not do a good job in recognising womenís talent and allowing them to rise to challenging positions. The African Union however has corrected this grave imbalance. In July 2002, the Heads of State and Government made it clear that fifty percent should be women in the Commission including at Commissioner levels during the Summit in Durban, South Africa. What is gratifying is to see the numbers of women representatives at Ambassador level rising considerably in Member States. This is a wonderful outcome.
Could you explain briefly the background of the AU, how it was initiated and came into being.
Let me read to you an excerpt from the speech delivered by Dr. Kwame Nkruma of Ghana at the 1963 summit in Addis Ababa. This is how he saw the African Union. He said, without necessarily sacrificing sovereignty, great and small alike can here and now forge a political union based on common defence policies, common diplomacy and diplomatic representation, common citizenship, an African monetary zone and an African central bank. We must unite to bring about the complete liberation of our continent.
We need a common system of defense, with an African high command. Why not at that time? It was too early in the history of African States. The fight for independence was at individual country level and not as a continent in suffrage. The psychology of leading and leadership was to avoid neo-colonialism and of course the sheer excitement of leading within their countries. Why did we move to AU? It is an idea whose time has come. First it is time for the fulfillment of the vision of the Founding Fathers as contained in the OAU charter and the Abuja Treaty.
Second, it is the only possible road for Africa to survive the increasingly global liberalised economy and governance that is moving at Internet speed. The Abuja Treaty signed in 1991 by the African Heads of States and Government in Abuja, Nigeria is the road map for economic integration for African States, which gave 34 years gestation period for the birth of African Union. Colonel Al-Gaddafi, the Libyan leader initiated the reduction of the 34-year period by selflessly financing the meetings that culminated in the Sirte Declaration of 9.9.1999 that saw the completion of the Constitutive Act that would allow the transformation of the OAU to The African Union.
The signing and ratification by two thirds majority as well as coming into force of the Act was completed within a year. The declaration took on board the institutions of the African Parliament, African financial institutions, African Court of Justice and specialised technical committees etc. that would enable the realisation of the objectives of economic, political, and social integration as a means to the development of the African peoples. It was also the realisation of a long cherished desire for Africans to finally embark on the fulfillment the vision of the Founding Fathers as enshrined in the Abuja Treaty.
The African Union places the issues of women and gender at a high level. We are looking at a bigger picture of the mechanisms put together to challenge the challenges of Africa. The poverty of Africa made up of the poverty of individuals, villages governments, regional economic communities adding up to that of the continent. After the address of this core problem I believe issues like human rights, good governance, corruption etc. etc. will fall into place as the cake will have grown and the sharing made e a s i e r. Until the Africans have eradicated poverty the gap with developed countries will continue to grow and remain very wide indeed. It is this poverty that has led to lack of infrastructure, ignorance, conflicts, flight of masses, it is poverty of industries, roads and communication infrastructure and so and so on.
What are the critical areas and challenges to be expected by the new organization?
All areas are critical for Africa. However, for the sake of prioritisation, areas of infrastructure, information, technology, human development, agriculture and diversification are the few areas to be met head on by the AU. At the end of the day, finance is really the determinant of the challenges.
There is a talk that the AU is based in the European Union (EU) model. Is this true ? Could you tell us more about this?
The AU could not have invented the wheel especially when other organizations are already in existence. We need to take that which is relevant to us and to leave out those which are not relevant to us. It was made clear though in various meetings that AU should be something new with an African experience and identity. Yes a number of interesting debates took place as to which type of Union, Africa however will look for its own identity.
The birth of the AU and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), which is an African programme for development, are launched at about the same time. Are there any links between them? If so, what are the links?
Oh yes, the African Union was launched and NEPA D endorsed and later adopted by the Heads of State and Government more or less at the same time. NEPAD is a child of the AU in that it is a way thought and conceived by Africans for Africans in defining the instrument they want to use in indicating the way we think we should take as we move forward if we are to achieve the goals of the AU. The link is that NEPAD is the programme of the Africans. On 9th September 1999, the Heads of States and governments took a radical decision in the declaration that they are going to form an AU. In the year 2000 the Assemblies were formed.
How does NEPAD work? Does it have its own secretariat ? What is its overall vision ? How is it financed?
The NEPAD program is dependent on other organs including the African Union that are in the early stages, hence the small Secretariat based in South Africa. Why this small Secretariat in South Africa? The AU is in its formation and therefore not in a position to administer and supervise NEPAD from its Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Secretariat in South Africa enables the sensitisation and polarisation of NEPAD both in Africa and abroad as well as render to NEPAD issues that merit attention. It is envisaged that once the AU has reached its full operational capacity, it shall be able to take up the responsibility of managing NEPAD. Let me summarise the objective of this programme that is to rid poverty on the Continent and set the countries on the path to sustainable growth and development. Its vision is to see Africa participate effectively and competitively in the world economy. The financing of NEPAD will be partly from the AU budgetary resources as soon as it is put in place by the Assembly and partly from extra budgetary resources.
What are the reasons, if any, for the African people and the rest of the world for that matter, to believe that the new African Initiative, NEPAD would not suffer the same fate as its predecessors such as the United Nations New Agenda for the Development of Africa in the 1990s (UNNADAF), especially when it is launched in a climate whereby the official development assistance (ODA) has fallen by 43 per cent from some $28.6 billion in 1990 to $16.3 billion in 2000, when by the year 2000, only four African countries had reached the prescribed level of debt cancellation and that there had been little progress on the trade front ?
Regional Economic Communities are pillars of the AU. Consultations are under way with the RECs so that the implications of the Constitutive Act of AU on the Protocol between the OAU and the Regional Economic Communities can be examined. Review will lead to amendment or preparation of a new protocol and the various cooperating programmes for exclusion of what is no longer relevant and include that which is compatible with the Constitutive Act of the African Union.
The OAU had a special relationship with the United Nations for the last 39 years among others, in the decolonisation process of Africa. Is the AU going to continue the existing framework for cooperation or is it going to change ? If so are new guidelines being developed?
The AU is primarily taking over all the assets and liabilities of the OAU. The interim Commission is in the process of reviewing all relevant relationships of the OAU.
It seems that both the AU, which is the political body, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), which is the regional arm of the United Nations, mandated to support the economic and social development of Africa are coming closer in their functions and responsibilities. Will there be a special cooperation agreement between the two organizations?
The AU is both a political and economic body that is why I was telling you earlier on the Abuja Treaty and the program of NEPAP. The establishment of joint meetings of ECA, ADB and OAU at the highest level yearly has seen increased cooperation between ECA and OAU. Indeed it is heartening to see the ECA on the ground in the countries more and more as opposed to the early days of working from Addis Ababa.
The OAU Council of Ministers made it clear that the two Secretariats should work jointly and in complementarity m a n n e r. The yearly joint meeting address and discuss a common agenda in order to reduce duplication and the best way forward. The AU will of course continue with the same agenda as well as improve on the commonality of the agenda for African.
Have other United Nations organizations and/or specialized agencies been involved in the process of establishing the AU ? If so in what way were they involved?
I hope not!
The involvement of civil society and non-governmental organizations in carrying out the AU activities was decided at the Lusaka Summit held from 9 to 11 July 2001. Have procedures and criteria been developed for their involvement? If so what are the procedures and criteria for such a partnership?
OAU has so far held two conferences in 2000 and 2001 for Civil Society to prepare and draw a road map of cooperation with the AU. It is very important that Civil Society be part and parcel because the African Union is a peopleís Union. The mechanisms for cooperation are under discussion and it is expected that CSOs will contribute to the process.
The United Nations has decided to include the private sector as one of its partners in its on-going efforts to improve the economic and social disparities around the world. Is the AU envisaging cooperating with the private sector? Is there any plan to encourage and support African entrepreneurs?
As you know the OAU was mainly focused on the political liberation of Africa and postponed economic liberation to the detriment of economic issues. It is only in the late 80ís that the question of the private sector found room of recognition as an important partner for economic growth. You realize that colonial liberation took 31 years of the total 39 years of the OAU life. You recall at the time that the interest of the international economy in Africa as the producer of raw materials. It has taken Africa therefore, a seemingly long time, from the completion of the fight of independence by all Member States, to start serious discussion on the effective functioning of economic issues collectively. Ye s , as I have already said on the question of Civil Society the private sector has to be a major player in the AU, and like other specialised organs the interim Commission has been mandated to look in the mechanisms of cooperation and possible i n c e n t i v e s .
The five priority areas designated by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa 26 August to 4 September 2002 - were water, energy, agriculture productivity, biodiversity and health. All these areas are major concerns of Africa and critical to its economic and social development. What was the role-played by the AU during the Summit to highlight and support the SGís priorities?
The AU at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, participated in all meetings, round tables, and plenary sessions and presented the NEPAD program as well, which includes the five priority areas. It attracted a dynamic discussion and goodwill. At the moment Africa needs more than goodwill. The delegation of the AU also presented the IAEA, which generated a lively debate. The priorities of the Secretary-General of the United Nations could not have come at a better time. The AU wholeheartedly supported the priorities of the UN Secretary General. Our preoccupation however, is the timing of actual implementation of these priorities.
Does the AU foresee to cultivating special relationship with Africans of the Diaspora for example, the Americans and the Pacific Islands, such as offering them observer status?
Africans of the Diaspora and especially those of African decent have waited long for this time. The African Americans looked forward and expected a special relationship soon after the abolition of slave trade. Isnít it interesting that Pan Africanism started outside Africa and yet the question of observer status has taken the entire life of OAU to be addressed? To answer your question, consultants have already submitted a study for the AU to examine and take a position.
Any conclusion to draw and/or a message to pass through this interview?
I want to pass my first message to the Africans of the Diaspora. Africans of the Diaspora have great potential to contribute to the alleviation of poverty in Africa. They are in great numbers with high educational qualifications of which, if it is used collectively, it could influence change on the ground. I am sure many of the Africans in the Diaspora have connections in Africa either by blood, friendship or historical roots. These reasons should be able to motivate them to look back and give something small not necessarily in finance, but perhaps in time and conceptual thinking. Please organise yourselves.
My second message is to the youth of the continent as leaders of tomorrow. Be focused, alert and willing to influence and contribute to shaping of the African Union. It is yours, work for you.
My third message is short to my fellow women. We can talk of quotas, we have been given the quota, we can complain, we can criticize, but as long as the African women are unwilling to influence the decisions of the AU directly by joining the Union, continued complaints of male domination will be null and void. I believe women have great capacity to influence and contribute to change of male decision-making.
My next message is to the private sector. Until the private sector is on its feet, poverty in Africa will continue to rage unabetted. An aggressive and vibrant private sector is necessary for our respective countries to cope with the challenges of a global economy.
Madame Ambassador thank you very much.
Interview by Seble Demeke, Editorial Committee of the UN Special.