A Special Partnership With the UN: An African Perspective

Even before formally assuming office, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had already made it very clear, in a series of public statements, that Africa would be among his highest priorities. He highlighted, inter alia, the crisis in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as well as the situation in Somalia, as major African issues to which he would pay particular attention.

In a clear demonstration of the seriousness of his commitment with regard to Africa, Mr. Ban proceeded to surprise many observers by selecting the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Tanzania, Asha-Rose Migiro, as the UN Deputy Secretary-General. Moreover, in his first extended foreign official mission at the helm of the United Nations, Mr. Ban visited the DRC, Congo (Brazzaville) and Kenya, and attended the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This not only afforded the Secretary-General the opportunity to meet and exchange views with a good number of African Heads of State, but also made possible intensive consultations with key African stakeholders on several urgent situations.

These developments illustrate the extent to which Africa and its many challenges continue to occupy a central position on the UN agenda. Africa remains front and centre in the work of the United Nations, whether in the human rights area, the humanitarian domain, the development arena, or especially in the field of peace and security. However, what is often overlooked is the historic role of the United Nations vis-à-vis Africa, going back to the Organization's beginning, when relevant provisions of the UN Charter enshrined principles and procedures that created an enabling environment for the success of the struggle for independence of many African countries. In this sense, therefore, the United Nations -- of the 1940s to the 1960s -- could be characterized as a kind of midwife to the African liberation process. One could also recall the key role of the Organization in Namibia's evolution to independence, in the struggle against apartheid and in the general fight against racism and racial discrimination.

Today, there is a rapidly growing recognition that peace and security, economic and social development, as well as human rights, are part and parcel of one global agenda. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the work of the United Nations in Africa. Take the UN development agenda, the focus of which is on the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Africa is a priority because it remains the one major region of the developing world, where unless current trends are reversed the MDGs will not be achieved. This stark reality has generated a sense of urgency, a determination on the part of the entire international community, as expressed in relevant resolutions and decisions of the United Nations, to act in a coherent, concerted effort to support Africa's own initiatives so that the fight against hunger, illiteracy and diseases in the continent may be intensified.

In the peace and security agenda of the international community, it is equally striking how much of United Nations peacekeeping is currently focussed on Africa. A few years ago, the largest UN peacekeeping force was stationed in then war-ravaged Sierra Leone; this distinction then moved to the force in Liberia, followed by the one in the DRC. In each instance, the United Nations played a crucial role in accompanying the country's people in the difficult, complex task of ending war and beginning the rebuilding of peace. Currently, the United Nations has the majority of peacekeepers stationed in the continent, and the Security Council spends well over half of its time dealing with African issues. In late March 2007, the Council debated the cooperation with regional organizations -- again the focus was very much on the African Union as the Council's strategic partner in the maintenance of international peace and security in the continent.

What then are the priorities of the United Nations in dealing with Africa? Darfur and its destabilizing impact on neighbouring Chad, as well as the Sudanese north-south peace process, will clearly remain very high on the UN agenda; so will the DRC and the need to assist the consolidation of the peace process in the wake of the recent successful elections. The crisis in the Horn of Africa, especially the situation in Somalia, will also continue to require urgent attention by the United Nations, working in close collaboration with the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. In West Africa, the UN peacekeeping mission in Côte d'Ivoire will have a key role in helping the parties to the civil war implement the new agreements they have reached, while in neighbouring Liberia the mandate of the peacekeeping force has just been extended by the Security Council, in recognition of its crucial, indispensable role in helping maintain the enabling environment for President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's Government as it strives courageously to rehabilitate the country.

As mandated in the Outcome Document of the 2005 World Summit, the United Nations is presently engaged in the preparation of a ten-year capacity-building programme, in close consultation with the African Union, to assist in ensuring that the programme adequately reflects Africa's needs and priorities. Meanwhile, the Peacebuilding Commission has began its important work of helping fill the gap between peacekeeping and recovery in post-conflict countries, especially in Africa, with awards of resources to Sierra Leone and Burundi, respectively.

While the active engagement of the United Nations in Africa in many capacities is widely appreciated, from the perspective of African Member States there is a sense that more needs to be done -- and done more quickly in response to the crisis in the continent.The African constituency recognizes and to a certain extent appreciates the growing trend in the Security Council to defer to Africa's regional peace and security bodies, such as the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States, in the first instance when a threat to international peace and security emerges.

That this trend is a tacit recognition of Africa's preference for "African solutions to African problems'' is seen by the countries in the region as a welcome development, a sign, at long last, that the international community sees the continent taking responsibility for its destiny. What causes serious concern is the delay in international response to the crisis and the inadequate level of that response. The gross disparities in the per capita expenditures on emergency humanitarian assistance are often cited as a case in point.

There is also another dimension to the concern. As far as Africa is concerned, the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security is still in the hands of the Security Council, notwithstanding courageous regional efforts, such as those of the African Union. The readiness of African States to try and resolve their own peace and security problems should therefore not become a pretext or excuse for the international community to shirk its responsibility, African countries stressed.

Another frequent source of concern is the inability of the international community to reach consensus on the restructuring of the composition of the Security Council, so as to more appropriately reflect the realities of the twenty-first century. The feeling is that, especially as the Council devotes too much of its time and energy to African problems, Africa ought to be appropriately represented in the permanent membership of the Council, in order to more effectively make its own case. In response to those who constantly proclaim the need for Africa to be more realistic and set its sights lower, and not to expect to secure a permanent Council seat any time soon, one veteran African Ambassador retorted, ". that's what they told us when we were fighting for freedom; they said we should be realistic, we should recognize that we would never be ready! What if we had listened to that twisted logic?'' he asked rhetorically.

As is singularly appropriate in this period of commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, African Member States not only look back with justifiable satisfaction at what they have accomplished within the United Nations, but also look forward to the many challenges that lie ahead. The United Nations on its part continues to place Africa at the very centre of its work, not only in the areas of peace, security and human rights, but in economic and social development as well.