In this special interview, one of the UN’s ablest and most experienced diplomats, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for West Africa and the head of the UN Office for West Africa, Said Djinnet, speaks candidly about Africa’s own efforts to preserve democracy and the rule of law, and the challenges still ahead.
Said Djinnit is the UN Secretary-General’s special representative for West Africa in Dakar, Senegal. A seasoned Algerian diplomat, he has been involved with African peace and security issues for over 20 years. During a recent visit to New York he shared with Africa Renewal his thoughts on Africa’s current security challenges.
Question: Do you see progress in the way African governments are coming to grips with undemocratic changes in countries like Guinea and Niger?
Answer: What I consider huge progress in Africa is that today the norm is that people should respect constitutions, and that whoever makes a move that is unconstitutional should be condemned. And not only condemned, but subject to sanctions. That’s big progress.
What we are seeing now [in Niger and Guinea] is a kind of setback, a sliding back. Why? Because institutions are not strong enough to sustain that progress. It’s like when you put up a new building. If you haven’t consolidated the first phase, it’s difficult to go forward with the second level. Africa has engaged, genuinely, on the path of democracy, based on multi-party systems. It’s just that the actors, the institutions involved are not strong.
Question: With a political transition now under way in Guinea, there have been discussions about reforming its security institutions. How do you build up the political momentum for those reforms?
Answer: Everybody, including the junta leadership, fully recognizes that the key problem in Guinea is the army and that the defence institutions need to be reorganized and reformed. They are saying that if you do not reform the army, you will not be able to find a peaceful solution. So there is a consensus, internationally and nationally, of the need for security sector reform.
Question: Guinea seems to be a clear case, an outright military coup. But in some countries ruling parties manipulate democracy by amending the constitution to allow the incumbent to stay in power. Is that something that can also be addressed?
Answer: It’s all unfinished business. With member states, you need to build confidence. You cannot ask them for everything. For the AU, the legal ground [to challenge manipulation] is limited. But…the Protocol on Governance of ECOWAS condemns any review of a constitution which is not done consensually. That was the case in Niger. So this is work in progress. We are in a spirit of testing the new values to move further.
Question: African institutions are all for democracy. But in some countries there remain serious threats to peace and stability. Some argue that in such cases restoring or maintaining peace should take precedence. Is there validity to that view?
Answer: Absolutely. Africa is struggling with a series of dilemmas. It wants peace. It wants development. It wants democracy. It wants justice. Sometimes, these principles could contradict each other. If at any time there is a choice to be made, Africa will always choose first and foremost peace. Peace and stability will always prevail over other things. Not because they don’t like the other things. But they have no option. Every African wants to have something to eat. But to have something to eat, you have to be assured that you can survive and live. If you give me development but you take my life, what is there?
Question: One of the key reforms that many people highlight is women’s empowerment. In some countries, we have seen enormous advances at the political level. But progress in social areas seems more difficult.
Answer: There is a general problem of empowering the people of Africa. Others have been marginalized, but women have been purposefully marginalized. Women have been imprisoned in their countries. They are a huge reservoir of talent and imagination, and a force for peace. So releasing the energies of women in Africa will be a big part of the process of social enhancement and improvement.
Question: Your work in West Africa involves other emerging problems, such as drug trafficking, terrorism and so on. Doesn’t dealing with those come back to addressing the same “root causes” of conflict, such as unemployment and social injustice?
Answer: Absolutely. It goes inevitably to the root causes of the problem. You mentioned them: poverty, and then governance. The little resources we have are not properly managed and governed. The real challenge to peace and stability is governance, political and economic governance, so that the people feel that the power is fairly shared and that the resources are also fairly shared.