Interviews West Africa

The overthrow of Gaddafi lit the tinderbox in the Sahel, says Mohamed Ibn Chambas

The overthrow of Gaddafi lit the tinderbox in the Sahel, says Mohamed Ibn Chambas
  • PublishedMay 27, 2021

Recently retired as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas is one of Africa’s most seasoned diplomats. He talks to Omar Ben Yedder about the way forward in the Sahel and the pressing need for Africa to have a place on the UN Security Council.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas is one of Africa’s most seasoned diplomats. The affable Ghanaian, a lawyer by training, has seen it all, serving in government, as the first president of the Ecowas commission, in Brussels as Secretary-General for the ACP Group of States, and more recently as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel. He retired from his latest position in April 2021, where he was busy until his last hour, attending the inauguration of Mohamed Bazoum, the newly elected president of Niger, as well as urgent meetings about rising insurgencies in the Sahel.

Mali, Burkina Faso, the Sahel. Why has the region become so unstable? What are the underlying problems?

First of all, there are a lot of grievances around poverty, widening inequalities and the lack of a government presence delivering effective services, such as health, education, water – all of which have always been there.

Then you have the cataclysmic overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. That unleashed the opening up of armouries and the pouring of so many weapons into a context like that. It’s almost as if one threw a lit match into a tinder box.

This coincided with an already volatile and unstable political and economic environment with weak state institutions. There should be little wonder that we see the kind of instability that we are witnessing in Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel as a whole.

There seemed to be a time when ECOWAS member states were able to solve their own issues, but this doesn’t seem to be the case any more.

In West Africa, at one time, there was a strong sense of the harmonisation of constitutional approaches, of government approaches and a broader consensus around the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Governance.

This had wide acceptance by the leaders of the region at the time. They all came to understand that the sources of the conflicts that were raging in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and later in Côte d’Ivoire and in Guinea-Bissau, were frequently to do with coup d’états, military interventions, lack of accountability and lack of basic rights for the population.

Regional documents were adopted after wide consultations and agreements.  By the early 2000s, there seemed to be harmonisation around governance. They all said: “No more coups.  Let us try to have agreement on term limitations; we should agree that trying to hang on to power for too long creates resentment among the populace and people then begin to rebel and trigger civil wars.” There was a general acceptance we needed to improve on governance.

There were strong leaders such as President Obasanjo in Nigeria, President John Kufuor in Ghana and President Wade in Senegal who saw things along the same lines. This common understanding helped to forge this common position. 

I feel that today this broad consensus is lacking and you see countries not adhering so much to the protocols. That has weakened the common position that we used to see.

Would you say that the dynamics therefore, between the different leaders, are not what they used to be?

It is very evident that this seems to be the case. The kind of regional solidarity, or consensus, which used to exist, is no longer there. 

That is also manifested in the closures of borders which have become more frequent and which is not in sync with the movement towards greater regional integration and regional solidarity.

70% of decisions at the UN Security Council relate to Africa. Yet, we have no seat on the council. How can we have more influence over global decisions that impact our well-being? 

There is improving collaboration between the UN and the African Union. There are regular meetings between the president of the AU Commission and the Secretary-General. There are respective teams that meet at least twice a year to agree common positions on different African conflicts and also on issues such as climate change. We have also seen it around Covid-19 and how to harmonise UN and AU positions.

Sub-regional organisations are also increasingly collaborating with UN offices. The one I was leading had a mandate to work closely with sub-regional organisations such as ECOWAS, and the Group of Five in the Sahel.

The issue of the African voice at the Security Council remains relevant. It has been a historic grievance and it is one that needs to be addressed. The UN, when it was created, was designed by colonial powers and Africa was not at the table. Therefore, Africa was completely marginalised.

Now 75 years later, obviously this design is no longer fit for purpose and it is evident in the woeful failures that we witness often, in dealing with some of the crises.

Certainly, as far as Africa is concerned, we are totally missing, we don’t have a place in the Security Council. That is my view and it is the view of the African Union. It needs to be corrected. I think the time is overdue for restructuring the UN, particularly the Security Council, in such a way that it can now reflect
today’s world instead of the world of 1945.

We love to be invited to big summits and to have a seat at the top table but it seems that we go there without a plan. Is this a fair criticism?

We do have secretariats to prepare for those meetings. The AU will normally have a position paper prepared. But what is disappointing is that when there are legitimate grievances, our partners come and make pledges but then the pledges are not lived up to. 

There is still a huge gap there between plans that are presented, pledges that are made and delivery by partners on pledges that are made.

We’re told that African leaders are under pressure from the West. Did you ever come under pressure to decide for Western interests against African ones?

The truth is that different countries and different groups of countries have their own defined interests, for which they would lobby. In a way, that is probably the nature of international relations. 

Similarly, we in Africa ought to be clear in our minds about the point of view that we are working for a regional or continental organisation, and you have to be very clear in your mind about what the interests of Africans are, continentally, regionally and sub-regionally, or for that matter, even at the state level. 

These interests will sometimes clash with the interests of others including Western countries.

In that case, in the frame of pan-Africansim, one is obliged to defend the supreme interests of Africa and not succumb to working with and advancing the interests of others.

But are we being smart about it? We’ve got so many votes at the UN and on the international stage; can we not push back enough against these supposedly bigger powers?

In the past, we have achieved many important victories at the UN when we have acted in solidarity and utilised our numbers to the maximum. Lately, we have not been as effective.

The task is to remain vigilant and to mobilise all our resources at all levels – including African think-tanks, active and organised civil societies, women and youth, the intellectuals, to pressurise leaders to promote a just and fairer outcome. 

What gives you reason for hope and optimism in the region?

One reason is that the younger generation is becoming more educated than previous generations. It is true that we still have an unacceptably high level of lack of education and opportunities, but the African youth give me a lot of hope and encouragement that all is not lost. I am completely hopeful and reliant on their dynamism for change in the status quo.

Are there any other issues that really kept you awake at night?

In the last few years, the security issue that we’ve talked about was very much at the top of the agenda. One aspect of the security issue that has become concerning has been piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. We have a situation today where the Gulf of Guinea has been described as the piracy capital of the world. Also, and most importantly, the decline of democracy in Africa is worrying. Pervasive poverty and growing inequalities are also sources of concern.

How do you view politics in Ghana, are you interested in throwing your hat in the ring?

What I hear a lot is that politics has become extremely polarised and that we need to find ways to build consensus and for people, in spite of their political differences, to still find common ground in working for the national interest. 

I hope that in my retirement I’ll be a positive force in contributing to building this national consensus.

But no, I’m not going back into active politics. 

Written By
Omar Ben Yedder

Omar Ben Yedder is the Publisher and Managing Director of IC Publications. After a short stint at investment bank Merrill Lynch, London, Omar joined the group in 2003. Omar's work and personal interests include media, development economics, leadership and education. Omar studied Economics and Languages at Durham University and also is a chartered management accountant. Omar is Tunisian, and is based out of London, spending two weeks a month on the road.

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