Mohamed Sahnoun

Robin Wright, who covers global issues for the Times, spent seven years in Africa. She traveled frequently to Zaire and covered the 1977 and 1978 wars in Shaba province

Mohamed Sahnoun may have the world’s most challenging diplomatic job. Every time an African nation succumbs to chaos, he is summoned to figure out a way to patch the crumbling state back together again. Time and again, the odds have been against him. Strategic Somalia in East Africa’s horn. Tiny Congo bordering the Atlantic on the west coast. And now Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi in the Great Lakes region of Africa’s lush belly.

Soft-spoken but stubborn, skilled at both gentle persuasion and diplomatic pressure, Sahnoun has been asked by both the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to oversee peace talks between Zaire’s government and the rebel faction led by Laurent Kabila, due to begin in South Africa this week. “We’ve made some progress in getting the two sides to meet for the first time in Lome [Togo] last month. They shook hands and agreed to talk,” he says. “Now the hard work begins.”

After new U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Sahnoun is one of Africa’s best-known and widely respected diplomats. He served on a host of U.N. political, cultural and environmental commissions and as deputy secretary-general of the OAU and the Arab League. A graduate of both the Sorbonne and New York University, he served as Algeria’s ambassador to the United Nations, United States, Germany and France. In Washington, the parties he hosted at The Elms, Perle Mesta’s former home, were legendary for the array of prominent names who turned up--most unusual for an African diplomatic function. After retiring from the diplomatic service, Sahnoun was also a senior fellow at the U.S. Peace Institute, the congressional think tank in Washington, and then its Canadian equivalent.

But Sahnoun has had his own battles to fight, including one with former U.N. chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali over the future of Somalia. Though they had been close friends in Arab intellectual circles, Sahnoun was often critical of the U.N.--his then employer--in helping him deal with Somalia’s famine and warlords in 1992. He found the death toll from starvation was triple estimates, which he called “the price of neglect.” He became outspoken about the delay in sending U.N. troops--and then without the right arms to do the job. In a comment that has applied to every assignment he has taken, Sahnoun said at the time, “The greatest difficulty is that we did not try to cope with the situation earlier. The divisions and antagonisms have deepened and taken on dimensions that are almost inextricable. Now we are left with the law of the jungle.”


But despite winning the confidence of all Somali factions and making significant inroads in creating a new political order, he was fired by Boutros-Ghali--over protestations by the United States, many other major powers and the Somali factions. Sahnoun first heard it on the radio. “By firing Sahnoun, the U.N. made a full-blown military occupation a practical necessity. In the bargain, it introduced a whole host of difficulties . . .that otherwise might have been avoided. The Americans, meanwhile, stepped right into the middle of the U.N. mess,” Foreign Policy magazine wrote in 1993. Kofi Annan obviously agreed. One of his first acts on becoming secretary-general was to give the top job in mediating African crises back to Sahnoun.


Question: What is at stake in Zaire? Given its enormous size and central location, what impact will events in Zaire have on the rest of the continent?

Answer: There is no part of the world where more people are dying from political violence than in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. But more than Zaire is at stake. Zaire is the second largest country in sub-Sahara Africa; it borders nine countries. If it implodes, it will set a bad precedent for countries such as Nigeria, Sudan, Mali and other large African countries that have had internal trouble. If Zaire implodes, countries on all borders and nearby--from Angola right across the continent to Somalia in the Horn of Africa--may also be affected in terms of borders.

Tribes in Zaire also have links in neighboring countries. So if Zaire implodes, people are likely to seek refuge in neighboring countries that are unable to help or cope with them. Neighboring Congo only has 2.5 million people; it won’t take many crossing borders to affect that country. So the destabilization of Zaire means destabilization of the whole region.

It is especially a tragedy because of Zaire’s potential as one of the richest countries. It has very important mineral resources such as gold, diamonds and copper. But the area with the most fighting is also the granary for the whole region.

Q: So why has the crisis been allowed to get to the point the whole country could break down?

A: For a long time the government in Kinshasa tended to describe the challenges and upheavals as aggressions of neighboring countries--Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola--and not a genuine indigenous problem. That was its position until recently and it tried hard to convince friends, including major powers, that it was not internal. The old political guard tried to convince other African states that it had to deal with aggression and challenges to sovereignty. African heads of state are sensitive to this issue and therefore sided with Kinshasa. Only recently has the problem of internal governance been recognized and accepted by all parties.


But Zaire’s troubles are also a legacy of the Cold War. For so many years, governments in Africa were manipulated or rewarded by one major power or another based on their readiness to serve one camp or the other, not because of their human-rights records or democratic practices. There was no incentive or interest to improve. This has been a big factor in the cases of Somalia, Ethiopia, Angola and Zaire--some of the most important cases in Africa.

The world has also been benefiting from access to Zaire’s resources and mining wealth. So many quarters were willing to quietly condone the prevailing government system. Instead of making stronger demands for improvement in governance and accountability, they were, in effect, participating.

Q: Zaire is made up of dozens of tribes, some of whom had not been aware of membership in a common border until 25 years ago--or less. How important is it for Zaire to stay together as one country?

A: We already have one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history in Rwanda and the Kivu region [of Zaire]. There are about 400,000 refugees in Zaire from Rwanda and Burundi, many of whom are not accounted for. A truly terrible human crisis is unfolding. If we allow Zaire to break up, then this kind of humanitarian crisis will be repeated on a bigger scale. Despite Zaire’s conflict, there is practically no serious movement today asking for the breakup of the country. The governor of Shaba province toned down his request to secede when he found no great public support for his cause and he’s not claiming the right to act anymore. That’s very interesting. Kabila is asking for a change in government, but not for a breakup of the country.


Q: From afar, the prospects for peace look bleak. What do you expect to happen?

A: After I was appointed, I proposed a peace plan that had five points. It was accepted by the Security Council in record time, less than 24 hours. I think it set a precedent--and a good one. The U.N. has needed to act more speedily in crises like these. The peace plan includes five steps: First, secession of hostility. Second, withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries. Third, facilitating access for humanitarian aid. Fourth, reaffirming the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Zaire. Fifth, a political dialogue and international conference.

The negotiations are becoming very tough. One scenario is that the old guard and old political class will make a last-ditch resistance and use more mercenaries to show they can hold. Then the armed opposition will argue that these people are not serious and we can’t get an agreement from them. That will almost surely mean more fighting and a much greater humanitarian tragedy.

The other scenario is that the appointment of a new prime minister, who has called for talks with Kabila, will help determine a new agenda in Kinshasa and lead the government to agree to seriously negotiate. And then Kabila will see the government wants to find a solution. And then we can move forward.


Q: How important is the conference and a role by the outside world to the peace process?

A: Terribly important. The conference is to enhance peace, political stability and economic development of the broader Great Lakes region. It’s what I call the anti-Berlin Conference. In 1884, major European powers met in Berlin to divide up Africa. [King Leopold of Belgium’s quest to secure what is today Zaire was the impetus for the conference]. Many of Africa’s borders date back to that event.

The proposed conference is a broader expression of international political will. It hasn’t been done before. Berlin was to divide Africa between spheres of influence; it ignored the interests of the people. This conference will try to repair the damage done in Berlin. It will go beyond borders and create groupings, a very important step.

It’s the first time the big powers have agreed to create conditions and to help build a whole area. After the political change in South Africa, it’s the most important development on this continent in the post-Cold War world. And it’s a model for what both big powers and individual countries can do for a troubled region. It is designed to reverse the trend of crumbling states and diminishing world interest in this region.


Q: The 1990s have witnessed crisis after crisis in Africa--Somalia’s vast famine and civil war, the collapse of new democracies and ethnic genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, and now the mess in Zaire. Why is Africa so troubled today? What makes it so prone to these apocalyptic disasters?

A: A lot of it has to do with bad governance. But it’s interesting to look across the belt of Africa where many of the troubles have been--Angola, the Congo, Zaire, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia. It’s the only area [in Africa] which has a consistently negative growth domestic product. Most others, though weak, were positive. The Great Lakes region also has some of the most densely populated areas in the world, with tremendous population growth rates. So poverty and the economic situation, environmental degradation and overpopulation are also very important factors.

Q: What is it going to take to solve some of these monumental problems?

A: The solutions play out at different levels. The first is to be stricter on standards of governance. See to it that we require countries to show that they are on the path of reform--giving voice to the people, acknowledging human rights, initiating the democratic process. If there is no move toward good governance, then forget it, Africa will always be in an open or latent crisis situation. Any flash point will open the way to conflict.


Another thing is to strengthen or help regional groups. My appointment, for example, is the first time there has been a joint envoy from the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. It’s historic. The new secretary-general [Kofi Annan of Ghana] has been conscious of the need to have joint actions with regional bodies whenever possible. Regional and subregional groups are also a way to create cooperation among countries for peace and development rather than conflict. We need as often as possible to decentralize the way we deal with conflict management. We tend to think too often that it should all be done from New York. Let regional groups try--with some help with the means.

Another factor is putting more trust in civil society--professional organizations, merchants, women’s groups, business associations, intellectuals--in helping to find answers. There is too much a tendency to talk only to governments. When I dealt with the Congo crisis in 1993, we came to resolution, in part, because of talking with civil society for three or four months. They organized a big forum which forced the government to form a national unity government that included a large component of civil society.

Q: Is there any good news out of Africa to balance the bad?

A: . . . Africa is actually at an extremely important juncture. We’re witnessing the changing of the old guards and the old elites and the corrupt political classes who don’t want to leave or make changes. In their place is a new generation of activists demanding political and human rights. This is a second wave of the independence struggle, in a sense. It is not without problems and tensions because the old guard does not want to leave or will not go easily. In some cases, they are having to be pushed out, which is what constitutes the problem.


The situation in many areas is precarious because of the fragility of states in most of Africa. If we in Africa and the outside world don’t help this new generation, and instead continue to support the old guard and elites that have a vested interest in corrupt and undemocratic practices, then we could have real chaos. I’m afraid that would further awaken the old ethnic, tribal and religious demons. The whole idea of coming anarchy is then possible.

But I actually have hope. I am an optimist about Africa’s future, not in the short term but in the long term, provided the outside world understands that their vested interests are no longer linked to the old guard. The outside world has often make it possible for the old guard to stay longer than it should have in countries particularly critical to Africa’s future.