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Boutros-Ghali: The African child

By Owei Lakemfa
AFRICA was virtually absent in the League of Nations which was founded on January 10, 1920 following the First World War.

Only four African countries were members. South Africa, a colony of white racists, was one, emergent Egypt, made the list as did the only two African countries that were never colonised; Liberia and Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia.

So Africa was on the margins. When after the Second World War, the United Nations (UN) was created on October 24, 1945, Africa remained a sea of colonies.

Thirty six years later, the continent, tired of being used as a foot mat and merely earning a mention in the footnote, decided it was time for it to produce the Secretary General of the UN. Hitherto, there had been four scribes; Trygve Halvdan Lie was Norwegian, Dag Hammarskjold, Swedish and Kurt Waldheim, German. The only non-European was U Thant from Myanmar (Burma)

Africa had a very good candidate; a young, bright and matchless 39-year old diplomat in Tanzania’s Salim Ahmed Salim. He had made history when at 22, he was appointed ambassador to Egypt by Zanzibar’s President Abeid Karume.

He was emissary of one of Africa’s most progressive and intellectually sound presidents, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. Salim had very good credentials and with the overwhelming backing of Asia, Africa, Latin America and South Pacific, and a fair number of European countries like France, he seemed unstoppable. But the United States (US), uncomfortable with Salim’s progressive credentials, Pan Africanist and independent ideas, decided to stop him , not through the ballot, but by wielding the veto power.

Lacking a strong and credible candidate to defeat Salim, the US preferred Kurt Waldheim who had already been UN Secretary General for nine years. Rather than allow Salim, US pushed for a third term for Waldheim which China vetoed.

Boutros Ghali
Boutros Ghali
In later years, it was revealed that Waldheim as a lieutenant in the intelligence arm of the Nazi Army and had belonged to German military units which executed thousands of Yugoslav partisans in the Second World War and was also responsible for the deportation of thousands of Greek Jews to death camps.

Back in 1981, Salim was presented sixteen times in five weeks to head the UN, sixteen times did the US veto him. Tired of the tantrums, he decided not to be presented again, which paved the way for the appointment of a compromise candidate; Javier Perez de Cuella of Peru.

In 1991, Africa presented a new candidate in Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, and he became the first African UN Secretary General. America did not veto him perhaps because he was part of the Egyptian government considered pro-America. He had been Minister of State for Foreign Affairs when President Anwar Sadat negotiated and signed the Camp David Peace Accord with Israel. Born on November 14, 1922, his grandfather Boutros Ghali had been Prime Minister from 1908 – 1910 when he was assassinated; the same faith that awaited President Sadat. Boutros was a professor of international law and president of the African Society of Political Studies.

He came to the UN with an agenda for peace, and indeed, grew the UN Peace Corps. But his tenure was determined by four wars which were also responsible for his being the only UN scribe that had no second term. The Socialist Bloc had collapsed which gave birth to the bloody wars in the old Yugoslavia. The January 17 – February 28, 1991 Gulf War had occurred the year he was elected, but the repercussions remained.

Boutros-Ghali formally took over in 1992 and that was the only year of respite he had. The fractious war in Somalia had been on, and the UN had in 1993, given cover to the US-ran United Nations Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM II). American troops had then decided to go after factional leader, Mohammed Farah Aidid. In a firefight on October 3, 1993, eighteen American troops were killed. Shocked Americans watched on television, corpses of American soldiers dragged on the streets of Mogadishu. The US decided to withdraw its troops from that country, and with that, the UN peace operations collapsed.

It was a humiliation for the US and the Boutros-Ghali led UN. Six months later, the civil war in Rwanda escalated, and given the experiences in Somalia, the UN’s call for peacekeepers was almost completely ignored. Even when countries like Ghana responded, the big powers refused to provide basic equipment like armoured personnel carriers, or air support.

A frustrated Boutros-Ghali on June 19, 1994 made another report on the Rwandan situation to the UN Security Council lamenting that “…none of those governments possessing the capability to provide fully trained and equipped military units have offered to do so…Meanwhile, the situation in Rwanda has continued to degenerate and the killing of innocent civilians has not stopped”. But he was pointedly ignored, Rwanda was of no strategic benefit.

The powerful countries were primarily interested in talking about ceasefire rather than stopping or preventing genocide. Few UN troops were sent with no mandate or power to stop the unfolding genocide. A few foreign troops including the French, stood for a while before withdrawing, leaving Rwandans to their fate.

At least 850,000 Rwandans were massacred and many turned round to blame the Boutrous-Ghali leadership of the UN for failing to stop the genocide. Then there were the wars in old Yugoslavia which sealed Boutrous-Ghali’s fate. He opposed the NATO bombings in Bosnia. An angry US decided that contrary to tradition, he must not get a second term. So although Boutros-Ghali had quite some support, the US vetoed his second term.

Some have argued that the UN failure in Rwanda cost him a second term; but if this were so, why did the UN appoint as his successor, Kofi Anan who was his Head of Peacekeeping Operations during the failed mission in Somalia and the Rwandan genocide?

In his old age, Boutros-Ghali watched an increasingly fractionalised world defined by a globalisation beneficial to a few, the rise of terrorism and unprecedented refugee crisis. Unfortunately, his country was not spared. This Tuesday, February 16, 2016, at 93, he bade the world, a final goodbye.


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