Wednesday, December 24, 2014 2:13 pm
Ibrahim Gambari, Nigeria’s veteran diplomat and scholar who retired from the United Nations in 2012, now heads a Nigerian-based think tank ‘with a difference’. The Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD), located in Abuja, focuses on the inter-connection between peacemaking, democracy and economic development. Professor Gambari earned a bachelor’s degree from The London School of Economics and Masters and Doctorate degrees in political science and international relations from Columbia University in New York. He has taught at several American universities and Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria, and he serves as Chancellor of Kwara State University in Ilorin, Nigeria. His diplomatic career began when he was tapped from academia in 1984 to be foreign minister by then head-of-state Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. After serving as Nigeria’s ambassador at the United Nations, he became an Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and held a succession of senior UN posts. During an interview with Allafrica’s Reed Kramer, Gambari outlined what is required for Nigeria to hold a successful election and how the Savannah Centre can contribute, and he reflects on how the recent National Conference demonstrates that consensus is attainable.
You’ve been at this diplomatic business for a while!
Yes, I was privileged to become Foreign Minister of Nigeria at the age of 39, a civilian in a military government and I had the honor of serving for almost 10 years as the Nigerian Ambassador to the United Nations – under five Heads of State/Presidents and seven Foreign Ministers. I went to the United Nations Secretariat first as the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Africa, then Special Representative of the Secretary-General/Head of the United Nations Mission in Angola, and later became the first non-Western Head of the Department of Political Affairs in its present configuration. Subsequently, I served as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Myanmar and for the Iraq Compact. Finally, I was the Head of the first and only joint peacekeeping operation between the United Nations and the African Union, UNAMID – the African Union – United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur. And I retired from the UN two years ago.
Having done all that, why are you now turning your energy towards establishing a think tank in Nigeria?
My primary background is as an academic. The opportunity to train, to teach and inform, was the basis of my desire to establish the Savannah Center to focus on the nexus between peace, democracy and development. I’ve called it Savannah because it is located in Abuja and that part of Nigeria is a savannah. I was inspired by two UN Secretaries-General, both Africans – Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan. They both wrote seminal reports. Boutros-Ghali issued a report in 1992 called “An Agenda for Peace” in which he laid out a post-Cold War agenda and argued that there can be no development without peace and emphasized the need for preventative diplomacy and conflict resolution. He followed that in 1994 with “Agenda for Development”, wherein he further argued that there can be no durable peace without sustainable development. In 2005, Annan issued “In Larger Freedom” in which he argued that there can neither be peace nor development unless people have the right to decide who will rule them and how.
That is what helped inspire me to establish a think tank that will pull the three together. Peace, development and democracy are inextricably linked. Other think tanks deal with one or other of these three, but I’m arguing that it is vital to examine the nexus between them. We are starting small but thinking big. We want to be a world class think tank. We presently have an office and a skeletal staff, and we have three main projects. The first is the 2015 elections in Nigeria because we’re convinced that a free and fair election is an absolute prerequisite for peace and stability, for socio-economic development as well as for the development of democracy in Nigeria. And the impact will not be limited to Nigeria. We’re working with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and also with the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) in Nigeria to see how we can convene people to sit down to look at the rules of the game, to examine the conditions for a free and fair election in Nigeria, so that the outcome will win broad acceptance because it respects the will of the people.
The second focus is the security situation in the North-east. We feel the efforts that have been made tend to be piecemeal. We recommend a comprehensive, carefully calibrated and sustained program to deal with the insurgency and extremism. This is a national issue. The insurgency and terrorism there are not sectional issues, nor are they regional issues, because the impact is not going to be limited to the North-east. Finally – and this is very dear to my heart – we are developing a training program for diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We want to help in re-professionalizing the Ministry. Professionalism has slipped there, like in so many other institutions in Nigeria.
What’s your timetable?
I would say that within a year we will be fully-functioning. Eventually, of course, there will be a permanent site for this think tank. But we are not concerned now with the physical building, rather we are concentrating on programs. We’re getting some very good interest from potential funders for our programs, and that is what we are concentrating on now.
Concerning the 2015 election, what do you think has to happen to ensure that voting is free and fair and that the outcome is recognized in Nigeria and internationally?
There are three aspects. First, there’s the technical aspect. Professor Jega (the INEC Chairman) is an academic colleague and someone I respect. INEC is establishing a growing credibility in terms of technical proficiency in conducting elections. They have experience now – Ekiti and Osun State in the South-west of Nigeria. But of course these were state elections. The challenge is how to establish technical competence in all the states of Nigeria in multiple elections within a very short period. Time is not on anybody’s side because state and national elections will be held in February 2015.
The second aspect is the security. Some people argue that there was too much militarization of the logistics and the environment for the elections in Ekiti and Osun States. Be that as it may, the security agencies and INEC at least provided a sense of security for those who wanted to cast their votes. The challenge is, how to duplicate that kind of security presence of all over Nigeria and, at the same time. Then there is the third aspect, which is the education – the political education that needs to be done at three levels. First are those logisticians who are supporting the elections – the military, the police, the security services – that their role is not to intimidate. Their role is not to take sides. Their role is to be facilitators. Secondly, the officers of INEC. They have to be like Caesar’s wife – above suspicion. And thirdly and most importantly, the contestants in the elections have to really accept the rules of the game and to therefore educate their supporters against violence – to be peaceful, to conduct themselves in ways that will enhance the environment for the voting and for the counting of the votes.
If you put together all these elements, you would then create the climate whereby the outcome could be acceptable to all and would reflect the true wishes of the people. These are enormous challenges but I believe they can be done. And really, there’s no acceptable alternative. There’s no plan B for the free and fair elections in Nigeria.
Given the unrest and state of emergency in the three worst affected states – Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – can elections be conducted there? So it’s an enormous challenge but it is essential. The Nigerian Constitution is very explicit. To be elected president, you have to not only receive a plurality of votes but you also have to receive not less than 20% of the vote in two-thirds of the states of the Federation. So it is difficult but doable, although you have to have enormous political will on the part of the government and the opposition.