Rescuing the SDGs in Africa

Africa can overcome its challenges, says AU High Representative for Silencing the Guns

Africa can overcome its challenges, says AU High Representative for Silencing the Guns
  • PublishedSeptember 20, 2023

Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas (pictured above), the African Union’s High Representative for Silencing the Guns, talks candidly about the current political and economic status quo of Africa, the decline of democracy, the marginalisation of populations and why insecurity is increasing. Interview by Said Adejumobi, Director of Strategic Planning, Results and Oversight Division at the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

You are a pan-Africanist who has held different high-level positions and led in various capacities, can you paint a picture of how things have evolved on the continent?

Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas: Over the last two decades the African continent has created a new narrative. Beginning from 2000, there was a lot of optimism on the continent. There was the transformation of the OAU to the AU, talk of an African renaissance and the new partnerships for development; all of this was also accompanied by increasing democratisation on the continent.

Yet, despite these positive signs and developments, there were some continuing and persistent crises which some described as intractable. Over these two decades, we also witnessed persistent and deep poverty in many parts of the continent, despite the overall growth.

Currently, we are seeing new crises, new security challenges on the continent such as terrorism, piracy, and the new proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

In some parts of the continent such as the Sahel, very sophisticated weapons are coming in as a result of the collapse of Libya.

Today we have set a vision and targets in Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want and the SDGs. There are strong linkages between, on the one hand ensuring that there is peace and security and good governance, and on the other hand, creating that enabling environment to allow for socio-economic development that will be equitable, that will be fair and that will leave no one behind.

It is in this context that I see that the Silencing the Guns initiative has a role to play. When this initiative was launched, the desire was to ensure that the current generation of Africans, especially African leaders, do not bequeath to future generations a continent in conflict and in crisis.

On the contrary, the vision is to ensure that succeeding generations inherit a continent at peace with itself and at peace with the rest of the world. That is an important vision and if we were to achieve it, we would then create a conducive atmosphere to allow for sustainable growth and development that would benefit all Africans.

Within this context therefore, how do you assess the current security situation on the continent?

There is no question that we are going through a bad patch. Especially when you see where we are coming from and the aspirations of the early 2000s – our ambitions and the progress that was also made in adopting common designed and defined norms for governance. This was backed by protocols that were adopted both at regional and continental levels.

In the case of ECOWAS, there was the protocol on democracy and good governance in 2001. Also, at the AU, the very founding principles, the constitutive acts of the AU defining for us that we were creating a new organisation which would be based on principles of good governance – both political and economic, based on ensuring a peaceful Africa, underscoring the principle of non-indifference.

We were moving into a phase where sovereignty would not be an absolute shield to prevent Africans from commenting when they have to comment on situations in their member states; from acting when they have to act positively to correct things that are happening that are undermining the peace and security of a particular country.

We had agreed that should a crisis emerge in a neighbouring country, there would be a collective effort, collective security measures to ensure the stability of our continent.

This was followed by subsequent instruments such as the African governance architecture, the African peace and security architecture and the African peer review mechanism.

These were the kinds of initiatives that gave hope to African people that they could expect a new leadership which would live by those protocols and govern by the normative values that were being defined – democratic values which would allow for participation for the people to choose their leaders at all levels, local and national.

For the people to enjoy certain basic freedoms including freedom of association, basic human rights, civic rights in their countries, moving away from autocratic regimes, justice for all, a functioning judicial system.

That people would be able to go about their normal activities and be protected by security agencies which would respect the rights of populations and act in a professional and disciplined manner.

This would create that stable environment which would allow for economic growth, for social development, for the provision of education, of health, the socio-economic infrastructure of good roads, railways, ports to really allow Africa to harness its tremendous, rich resources for the benefit of African peoples.

What we saw initially was a trend towards more elections where leaders were chosen from the ballot box, rather than through the barrel of the gun.

The time came when practically all African leaders, certainly an overwhelming majority had, even if they were of military origin, set aside their military guards and transformed into civilian leaders, elected at national polls. This trend, however, has suffered a setback and we are now at the moment where we are talking of a democratic decline and a huge democratic deficit.

There is a belt of coup d’états stretching from Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad all the way to Sudan. We still have African or UN missions in the Central African Republic, DR Congo, Mali, Somalia and South Sudan. Even a giant on the continent such as Ethiopia now has its own internal crisis of worrying proportions.

On the governance front, there is a lot of work to be done to stop this slide backwards.

In defence of African governments, they have had to deal with the Covid crisis and now a cost-of-living crisis arising from the conflict in Ukraine. Can we apportion these popular uprisings in many cases to rising levels of poverty rather than governments not delivering on their mandate?

Your question is very valid and before I answer directly, I would like to say that indeed, in the last two decades of the African Union, some good efforts have been made at collective security and working to find African solutions for African problems. It is by no means just a story of doom and gloom.

African mediation has been successful in some instances. A number of former African Heads of State have been deployed regularly and constantly in different conflict situations to good advantage.

The AU’s silent diplomacy and good offices have been deployed to avert and resolve many conflicts and prevented escalation in others.

The AU has advanced its early warning mechanisms with more fact-based analysis, and early deployment of mediators.

There has also been promotion of the culture of regular elections, guided by respect for the rule of law. Many post-conflict countries have been stabilised such as Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa.

Even in the area of maritime security we have seen some progress.

You are right, one of the challenges of Africa remains vulnerability to external shocks and also, the unequal international system.

The continent managed to ride through the Covid pandemic with impressive resilience although there is no question that it led to a slowdown in African growth. That was one instance of external shock from which the continent is still suffering.

Soon after that we entered a period of global economic decline from war in Europe, the Russia-Ukraine crisis, which was avoidable, but the global powers failed to act appropriately to prevent this war and Africa is suffering the consequences of it again.

We have seen significant impact, whether it’s in the area of grains or just normal trade, or hikes in insurance costs as a result of sanctions that have been imposed. There has been a general restriction in global trade flowing out of this major war in Europe.

These are some of the challenges and the unfortunate result of it is that a number of African countries, once again, are falling into a debt crisis. This again is a manifestation of an unfair international financial system.

There is a clamour now for reform of the international financial system. First of all, with regard to the rating agencies that are completely unfair to Africa, in the way their assessments lower the ratings of African countries. They do not reflect the real returns on investments in Africa. Everyone admits that. Africa is one of the continents with the highest returns.

Even in countries that may seem to be in crisis, for example the DRC, we know the enormous profits that global companies make in DRC – way above normal rates of return, and yet countries like that get rated very poorly.

Then African countries are given loans at exorbitant interest rates. These are countries that need all the concessions that should be granted, yet they go to the same financial markets and they are borrowing at twice, sometimes thrice the rate at which other countries in the West are able to borrow.

These are the issues that are at play when African countries are now demanding a reform of the international system, particularly the international financial system.

The other aspect of vulnerability comes from the climate crisis and we have seen that Africa is contributing minimally to this crisis, which is now devastating our forests, and we are seeing our rivers dry up.

Undoubtedly it is contributing to the political instability and the crisis we  are witnessing in the Lake Chad basin and the Sahel, the competition over scarce resources.

Yet those developed industrialised countries which have contributed the most to climate change are not living up to their promises when it comes to paying for the damage that has been caused.

Now, the crux of the matter is the damage and who will pay for the damage. That is what African countries have been asking. Let’s now have a frank, concrete discussion and let us ensure that when we sit down at any of these global meetings, it is not business as usual.

Can you discuss the condition of the Sahel and what needs to be done?

We cannot fully understand the dynamics in the Sahel without acknowledging that the collapse of Libya, the inability to solve the Libyan crisis, continues to be a major source of difficulty in containing the wave of terrorist groups, with [their] very sophisticated means with international networks, and their ability to resupply themselves with arms.

Senior Nigerian officials have talked with concern about arms being supplied to Ukraine already making their way into the Chad basin area, where Nigeria and the regional countries there are fighting Boko Haram.

As long as Libya remains unstable and without a government that can assert itself and its authority over its entire territory, it remains a source of rearmament to the terrorist violent extremist groups in the Sahel.

Of course, let us not forget that the Sahel is also one of the regions facing the greatest challenges as far as poverty and climate change are concerned. The climate crisis is drying up rivers and arable lands and leading to competition for scarce resources. Also, in the Sahel, you have several fault-lines.

There is a crisis of the state. If you look at the size of most of the countries in the Sahel, they are huge, often with weak administrations. Governments have not been able to exercise effective control over the entire territories of their countries because of the sheer size.

Many of these countries are one million square kilometres and more. So extremist groups have taken advantage of this to occupy and to exert their own influence and control over the ungoverned space.

The weak state has also meant that in many instances, governments have been unable to provide security, education, health services and other social services for populations.

Some would tell you that indeed in many of these communities, there has been an absence of government and governance by the state. These are the kind of challenges that the states in the Sahel have been facing.

On top of this, the response of the international community has proven inadequate to empower and enable the states of the Sahel to tackle this new challenge of violent extremism / terrorism that they face.

There is little surprise that the militaries of these countries that are in the forefront of the fight against terrorism are feeling frustrated because they expect their civilian governments to provide the wherewithal to execute the fight against terrorism.

Most of the civilian governments were spending as much as 20-25%, almost a quarter of their budget, on defence. And yet the scale of the problem has overwhelmed them and this is where you see the military now letting off their frustration.

This frustration has led to the spate of coup d’états we have witnessed. The one in Niger is in some way attributable to this. The military of that country as in other countries in the Sahel has been stretched fully by this widespread and intensified terrorist fight that they have had to confront, creating a political crisis and political instability manifested in a coup d’état.

The international response needs to be better coordinated. In the past there were just too many initiatives, overwhelming the capacities of the countries involved to co-ordinate and achieve optimum benefit.

Are you and the AU speaking to the current military regimes?

The AU never ceases to engage in dialogue with countries that are under military regimes. It has been a long-standing policy of the AU and for that matter ECOWAS and the other regional economic communities.

Yes, the protocols demand that these countries be suspended from the organs of the African Union and that has been done, whether it was Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and now, of course, Niger. That has been the case with the latest coup, which was in Gabon.

Having done that, there is then an engagement with the military to work for a return to normal constitutional rule and as quickly as possible. The principle is that the coup is a violation of AU protocols of which all these countries are signatories.

At the same time, there is a constructive and positive engagement to ensure that there is a return to constitutional democratic governance. That is the case even as there are many different challenges regarding timelines for the duration of transitions. The engagement is there, it is regular. It is constant.

Of course, the most problematic case so far has been in Sudan, where the AU has had difficulty engaging with the parties to obtain a ceasefire and initiate a national dialogue process involving civilian actors.

Have we got institutions that have what it takes to be able to bring peace and encourage military regimes to return to civilian rule?

To be frank with you, the challenge of our African continental and sub-regional institutions is the lack of adequate funding. All the instruments are there, we have the protocols, we have the ground rules, the norms, the value systems agreed.

The challenge always is the means, the financial resources to make them fully and truly operational. This is where there is an over-dependence on external sources of finance.

What do you think of the ECOWAS threats to intervene by force in Niger?

The coup d’état in Niger was one coup too many for ECOWAS. President Mohamed Bazoum was a very active person within ECOWAS, always looking to see how he could work collectively with his peers to advance regional security and also the integration process in the region.

I can understand how there was that desire to do everything to keep him in office. That is what explains the initial regional military intervention approach.

You can see also that this was quickly followed by efforts to find a diplomatic means through dialogue to resolve the Niger crisis, and now President Ahmed Tinubu of Nigeria, Chairman of ECOWAS, has very wisely assigned a very experienced mediator in the person of former Nigerian Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who has a lot of credibility and great experience on issues concerning Niger.

To have somebody like that now leading the diplomatic effort is highly commendable. He is working together with some key traditional religious authorities from northern Nigeria, such as the Sultan of Sokoto.

Let’s not forget the affinity between the peoples of Niger and Nigeria, especially northern Nigeria. So, with people like that leading the diplomatic effort there is hope that we will be able to have a mutually agreeable resolution of the crisis.

How do you explain the jubilation of young people on the coup d’états? Is it to do with poor governance performance?

There are several ongoing discussions and debates about democratic regression. The conclusion being drawn is that in many countries, democracy has been reduced to electoral democracy.

And what we have also noted is that this electoral democracy is being undermined. It is important to build capacity to hold credible, free, inclusive elections.

The second aspect is the manipulation of state institutions by a winner-takes-all approach. The winning government comes in, puts its people in different state institutions and these institutions more or less begin to operate as party organs rather than state institutions.

This instrumentalisation of state institutions for party benefit to entrench ruling governments is what is undermining democracy.

The net effect is that populations are saying, “We are not seeing the dividends of democracy”, as all you see are elections but ultimately there are the same kind of practices and a huge waste of resources on activities that have nothing to do with improving the lives of the people.

Poverty is not reducing significantly, the roads are not improving, educational systems are declining, as are health facilities. Where is the dividend of democracy?

There is now even within the African Union some reflection on how to really redesign our constitutions, our democratic norms to ensure that they are results-oriented, that they deliver for the population – their needs and aspirations.

In a recent podcast, Dr Carlos Lopes said that governments are perpetuating the colonial system of rule, which is treating its people like subjects rather than citizens. Do you agree with this thesis?

There is a lot of truth to this thesis. As I said, in many countries, there are huge populations that cannot really be said to be part of the modern state. They are completely marginalised.

As far as they are concerned, independence has not even come yet. The first time they may see an agent of the state, it is maybe the police or gendarmerie or military coming to their community to look for somebody who is supposed to have run to hide there.

We still have to get to that point where we begin to cultivate citizenship in the population because with that will come a sense of both rights and also responsibilities.

In most countries, you have the urban elite capturing most of the wealth. People are told to come and vote but after they have elected the person, do they know that they have rights to demand performance from those that they have elected?

And in the event that those people don’t perform, are they consciously aware that they can withdraw them or refuse to vote for them? But these rights are not properly appreciated by the citizens.

On the other hand, there are responsibilities and I want to emphasise that. Among the responsibilities is the issue of population growth. I know this is controversial and not always accepted properly but frankly, we also need to be aware that the growth of our population cannot be left completely unattended.

If the growth of a population continues to outstrip, as it is doing now, economic growth, then for some countries, the prospects of them emerging from their current poverty levels is on the horizon of maybe 40-50 years’ time, which is not acceptable.

Lastly, how do we strengthen governance on the continent?

One solution is decentralisation from the centre to the regions, to the local communities, to local government. That has not happened sufficiently.

Too much of the national resources is captured at the centre by too few elites. They are using it to improve, to always scale up, to increase their salaries, their living conditions, provide everything in cities and urban centres to the neglect of rural areas.

So, financial decentralisation is key, going forward. For instance, the gap between the village school and city schools is astronomical – that shouldn’t be.

And along with that, too much of our resources are being captured through corrupt practices and means that deprive the population of the benefits of these resources. So [we need] improved accountability to ensure that resources are used for [their true] purposes.

We need more and more public-spirited politicians. Whatever you say about the pioneering leaders of our continent, they were public-spirited, they were fighting for their country to get independence, so they could do something for the population. It manifested itself in the building of schools and clinics. And the gaps were not that wide between politicians and the population. Today the gaps are astronomical and we see politicians living ostentatious lives.

People should be going into politics to serve the people, their communities, not for self-aggrandisement or for the accumulation of wealth.

How do I see the continent going forward? Because I remain an Afro-optimist, I see that we will continue to make progress. The current situation is absolutely unacceptable.

And you can see that across the continent, there are murmurings; people want new and different relationships with former colonial powers. It is no longer acceptable that critical decisions affecting African countries are made outside our continent. Our young people are rejecting that on a daily basis and this is no longer tenable.

So, we have to take more and more our destiny into our own hands and the new approach going forward is going to be that African people should take hold of their resources and process and harness them in a win-win partnership with the international community.

And in doing so, Africa refuses to be boxed into any particular alliance or grouping. We will be friends and partners to all and enemies to none.

With our traditional partners, sure enough, we will maintain our relations. But relationships have to be reformed, they cannot be on a status quo basis because the result of it has been that they have developed and we have remained poor. So obviously, something has not been right and needs to change.

We will build these new partnerships with China, the BRICS, with others but also, cognisant of the lessons we will have learned from past relationships, we will make sure that they don’t have a colonial or neo-colonial dimension.

They will be on terms that will benefit Africa as much as the partner/s. Obviously, any partner coming in has an interest, but then we Africans also have our interests, which we must clearly define, to make sure that there is a mutuality of benefits in the new relationships that we are building.

Rescuing the SDGs in Africa – read more

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a comprehensive set of global goals to end poverty, protect our planet, and improve the living conditions of the global population. To assess where Africa is in obtaining these crucial goals, we invited Antonio Pedro, Acting Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, to guest-edit a Special Issue of New African magazine timed to coincide with the 2023 UN General Assembly. To access more articles click here.

Written By
Prof Said Adejumobi

Said Adejumobi, PhD, is associate professor of political science. Dr. Adejumobi taught at the Lagos State University in Lagos, Nigeria for about two decades, and was formerly governance adviser of the ECOWAS Commission in Abuja, Nigeria. Dr. Adejumobi is currently Director of Strategic Planning, Results and Oversight Division for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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