You served in many capacities at the United Nations before returning home. Can you share some of your experiences?
I served as the ambassador of Nigeria to the UN for almost 10 years. I had served with five Nigerian heads of state in that capacity. President Ibrahim Babangida appointed me; in between I served under Chief Ernest Shonekan, then General Sani Abacha, General Abdulsalami Abubakar and President Olusegun Obasanjo.
As I was about to leave, Mr Kofi Annan, the then Secretary-General asked me to stay because he felt I had a lot of experience having served 10 years as Nigerian ambassador, member of the African Group and chairman of the Special Committee Against Apartheid. And I chaired the less well-known but very important Special Committee on Peace Keeping Operations for nine years. I also served as the President of the Governing Board of UNICEF in my last year. With that experience, and since African issues tend to dominate the agenda of the UN, he (Annan) wanted somebody with that experience, an African, to join the secretariat. He then appointed me as Under-Secretary General and Special Adviser on Africa in December 1999. I served as a Special Representative of the Secretary-General and the Head of the UN Mission in Angola. Later on, I was also the Head of the Department of Political Affairs which is the nerve centre of the UN as a political organization. This is a position which most of the western countries regard as their preserve because I was the first non-western person to head the department. And you know after me, it returned to the considered rightful owners.
Then, I served as a special envoy and special adviser on Iraq, on Myanmar, Cyprus, and I did a little bit of work as special envoy on Zimbabwe to the extent that some people called me the United Nations envoy to difficult regimes. But my position is that it is an honour to serve the UN after a national service. Few people get the honour to serve as ambassador and as UN senior staff.
Then, Darfur was my last assignment in that capacity. I was both the Special Envoy of the UN and of the African Union. With all of that, I felt I should come back home and bring some of my experiences in mediation and conflict resolution to bear on the challenges facing our country, our region, West Africa, and of course, the continent as a whole.
It is based on this that I established the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, a non-governmental think-tank in Abuja, devoted to critical analyses of – and solutions to – the problems of conflict prevention, management and resolution, as well as democratization and sustainable development in Africa.
I argue that a number of NGOs should concentrate on one of these themes – democratic issues or conflict resolution issues. But from my UN experience, I know that there is a nexus between peace, democracy and development because two past Secretaries-General of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan, argued and I agree with them that without peace, there can be no development. There will be no peace without democratisation. That nexus is what I want the centre to address. It is here in Abuja. I have a temporary office; I have staff and we have projects that we have already proposed and we are getting a lot of interests from people who are likely to support us.
My entry back into Nigeria has been facilitated by the fact that from the past five months, I have been here in Abuja as a delegate to the National Conference in the category of elder statesmen.
Late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua appointed you as chairman of the Niger Delta Stakeholders’ Summit about 10 years ago. But your appointment was vehemently opposed by the region’s stakeholders. Why?
It came to be as a bit of a surprise. A surprise because I was minding my business at the UN when I got a call from the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan saying that a letter was on its way in which the government under President Yar’Adua was requesting my release from the UN to come and put together a summit on the Niger Delta.
Initially, the Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon refused. He said there would be a conflict of interest to have a UN staff taking on a national assignment. The then foreign minister Chief Ojo Madueke came as a special envoy of President Yar’Adua to plead with the secretary-general to release me for the special assignment.
After a lot of pleading, including by me because I felt as a Nigerian, I owe a responsibility to my country if called upon to serve; a compromise was arrived at whereby: First, I would use all my accumulated leave to do the assignment. Two, that I cannot take a single kobo from the government of Nigeria for the assignment, otherwise, it will be conflict of interest. I agreed to all these. The secretary-general agreed in good faith.
But when I came to begin the consultations with those who wanted me to carry out the assignment, I discovered that there were issues yet to be resolved. For example, not enough consultations have been done by the office of the then vice president with the governors of the Niger Delta. So, they felt that they were not sufficiently consulted before this appointment was made but obviously that was not my responsibility because my assumption was that the consultations had been done.
All kinds of issues were then coming to the fore. Some people said that I didn’t know Nigeria enough and some said I was Hausa-Fulani and that I would take a biased approach. All kinds of issues arose, to the extent that Gambari became the issue. I said no, that’s not fair. I didn’t appoint myself. I had a job and I was not desperate to do this assignment.
I consented and the UN agreed because it was felt that if I chaired this national summit, issues of environmental degradation, piracy, oil production, there is an international dimension that may be enhanced by my participation and to bring my experience as a conflict resolution expert to bear.
But if I became the issue, rather than the Niger Delta, I felt that I should take myself out of this and I wrote to the president to thank him for the honour to serve but that I didn’t want to be the issue and I would want to step down. He replied. He was angry. He felt they have politicised it; they have reduced it to an ethnic thing but reluctantly, he had to agree for me to step down. But he hoped that another opportunity would come where I would be able to serve my nation.
Many years later, I’m very grateful to my country and to the government of President Goodluck Jonathan who put together the National Conference and nominated me to serve as a delegate to the National Conference.
You had been to Myanmar, Cyprus, Darfur and Angola as a UN mediator. Do you think your experience would have catapulted the peace process needed in the Niger Delta at that time?
Well, I thought it would be relevant because there are three aspects of conflict resolution that I think are relevant. First, that as a mediator, you have to bring the various sides together and try to produce a win-win situation. I felt proud of those experiences in Angola because I was the last special representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of UN Mission in Angola. I presided over the joint commission that brought the war in Angola to a formal conclusion and not a single shot has been fired in violation of that ceasefire. I’m extremely proud of that accomplishment.
Also, in Cyprus, the leaders of the two communities didn’t talk to themselves for two and a half years before I was appointed as the special envoy, concurrently with being the Head of Department of Political Affairs of the UN. But I got them together under the so-called ‘Gambari Accord.’ I felt flattered that my name was there and got them to agree on some principles on bi-communal federal system which was the basis for negotiation for settlement.
Later on, in Myammar I also got parties that didn’t talk to each other to talk. These are experiences which I thought would have been very useful. In many of these conflicts, you have interests of oil companies or big multinational companies. So, how to reconcile their interests and the interests of the countries is very important in finding solutions. Many of the conflicts are resource-based. So, I thought the Niger Delta, being about resources, one could bring that to bear.