When Nigeria and Cote D’Ivoire almost had a spat over who should succeed Javier Pérez de Cuéllar de la Guerra as the UN Secretary General, it underscored how far a country can, should and must go to fill a vacancy in a foreign organisation.
Abuja had put forward Joe Garba, while Abidjan had presented Amara Essy to head the world body. Here we were ignoring at best or even excoriating Dr James Jonah for what some deemed as his snub at the time for his native Sierra Leone. Whatever that meant!
No disregard for the late Garba (who was president of the UN General Assembly), Essy who was foreign minister of Ivory Coast and President of the UN Security Council, or even Dr Boutrous Boutrous Ghalli who emerged the winner. But Dr Jonah was perhaps best placed for the job. He was Under-Secretary-General of the organisation and, more crucially, had risen through the ranks. Excepting, of course, that Dr Ghalli, then Egypt’s foreign minister had his country fully behind him. Of course no comparing the diplomatic clout of Cairo and Freetown! But if the latter had backed Dr Jonah, one western diplomat told me some time ago, that could have made him a more serious contender that he probably would have benefited from what Kofi Annan later benefited from – having been in the UN system.
So Dr Jonah never had the chance to become the first black UN chief. But his was not the same as that which befell the Tanzanian diplomat Salim Ahmed Salim, who got the whole world voting for him to succeed Kurt Waldheim, thanks to his country. But the United States vetoed his candidacy.
Dr Salim later returned to become the last secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity and oversaw its transition to the African Union. It is the failure of Sierra Leone to lead that Union last month that has marked the first foreign policy blunder of the Ernest Koroma presidency and probably the worst since the AFRC regime that led to international sanctions against the country.
Sickeningly, because of the political bigotry that has taken the best of the thinking of many a Sierra Leonean, some may be rubbing their hands with glee that Dr Abdulai O Conteh failed to become President of the AU Commission. Or for the same reason that some are postulating that the AFRC coup was the best to happen to this country. How sad!
Anyway! I first heard of the candidacy of Dr Abdulai O Conteh to succeed Alpha Omar Konare, only on the eve of the summit of African heads of state. By the way the post went to Jean Ping, Gabon’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister. A francophone succeeding another francophone. It is probably one of those self-restraining unwritten rules that such giants like Nigeria and South Africa do not vie for such a post. In the same way as no citizen of such world powers as the US, UK, Russia or Germany has ever become Secretary-General of the United Nations.
So there was Sierra Leone, submitting the only west African candidate for the continent’s top diplomatic job, and losing out. Yet nobody has bothered to explain to us as a nation, what went wrong! In fact, one west African diplomat in Freetown told me that he only learned of Dr Conteh’s candidacy two days before the summit. Typical Muammar Ghadaffi style, eh?
Dr Abdulai Conteh is such a brilliant and selfless citizen of the world, I think, that if Freetown had sold him well the rest of the continent would have bought him with their last penny. His contribution to the continent and country, and now to Belize where he is chief justice, is no mean feat. One thing that has not dawned on most of us is that we are now a proud member of what I will call the League of Democratic Countries, alongside Ghana, Benin, South Africa and Botswana among not too many on the continent. That is definitely a high ground on which to stand tall.
One may be tempted to think that the government is less than five months in office; hence not much time for an entente cordiale with other counties. But it has already attended several international meetings among them the Commonwealth summit, another organisation apart from ECOWAS that we should have canvassed to change the official address of Dr Conteh. President Koroma and his foreign minister, Zainab Bangura also attended the ECOWAS summit. The government’s apparent cosy relationship with Burkina Fasso and Senegal, plus our long-standing relations with Guinea are all plusses. In the absence of another West African candidate, why could they not market Dr Conteh? It almost burns to cinders our foreign policy acumen.
I would imagine if the government was not prepared enough, they should have held on to presenting a candidate for the post, in stead of doing so without adequate prior ground work. We cannot afford to be embarking on enterprises that we know we cannot succeed in. We want well calculated foreign policy odysseys, not strolls. Deliberately planned with a view to giving us the clout we deserve internationally. Have we ever asked ourselves why, if the Senegalese president for example says something about international affairs it carries far more weight than if our president does? That perception that Dakar is more democratic than Freetown is fast becoming a myth, I think. We enjoy far more freedom here than Senegalese do. Our elections were far more democratic than theirs were. The difference probably is that they have a far superior foreign policy strategy. In our case, for many years, it has always been higgledy-piggledy. This MUST change!
By Umaru Fofana