No. 236: The Oliver Tambo award to Gambari / Adekeye Adebajo / The Guardian, Nigeria
20 December 2012
Last month marked the celebration of Oliver Reginald Tambo: the ninth and longest-serving president of the African National Congress (ANC). Renowned for his gentle humility, punctilious perfectionism and understated wisdom, "OR" led the party between 1967 and 1991. At his funeral in 1993, Nelson Mandela described Tambo as "a great giant who strode the globe like a colossus". He was the political mentor of several ANC leaders, such as Thabo Mbeki and Pallo Jordan, inculcating in them values of integrity, honesty and open debate. He kept the party together in exile during its most difficult period, serving as a roving ambassador for the movement.
It was thus fitting that Nigeria's most eminent scholar-diplomat, Ibrahim Gambari, was last month awarded the Companion of OR Tambo (along with seven other individuals), the country's highest decoration for foreigners. Past winners of this award have included Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda, Ghana's Kofi Annan, Kenya's Ali Mazrui, Nigeria's Emeka Anyaoku, Brazil's Luiz "Lula" da Silva, and the US's Harry Bellafonte. Gambari won the honour chiefly for his role as the last chair of the United Nations (UN) Special Committee Against Apartheid between 1990 and 1994. In this role, Gambari visited South Africa frequently, and warned western governments consistently against a precipitate lifting of economic sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime.
As the 67-year-old Gambari noted in receiving this award from President Jacob Zuma in Tshwane last month: "The honour is not just to me as an individual, but to Nigeria which has played a major role in the struggle against apartheid ...the time has come for history and generations to come to recognise the role the country and the anti-apartheid movements played in Africa". Nigeria established the Southern African Relief Fund (SARF) in 1976 to provide scholarships and other assistance to South African students and refugees. Its civil servants had a "Mandela Tax" deducted directly from their monthly salaries, while hundreds of South African students were trained in Nigerian universities. The country also attended meetings of the Frontline States of Southern Africa, chaired the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid for 25 years, and hosted a UN anti-apartheid conference in 1977.
The Nigerian scholar-diplomat himself is an aristocrat who grew up in the royal palace in Ilorin, where his father was the emir. His immersion in the world of palace intrigue would stand him in good stead in his professional career. As a student at the London School of Economics and New York's Columbia University, Gambari took part in protests against albinocratic regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. He became a professor at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, before being appointed Nigeria's foreign minister at 39. He has published studies on Nigeria's foreign policy; regional integration; and Africa's role at the UN. Gambari became his country's longest-serving ambassador to the UN from 1990 to 1999. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which 800,000 people were killed, his was one of the few voices of reason on the UN Security Council calling for international action to protect innocent people, and expressing profound concern that Africa had fallen off the map of the world's concerns.
After leaving this post, Gambari embarked on an illustrious 13-year career in the UN secretariat, serving as a special adviser on Iraq; special envoy to Myanmar; Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs; and UN Special Representative in Angola and Sudan's Darfur region. In his role as the joint UN/African Union (AU) Special Representative in Darfur between March 2010 and September 2012, Gambari led the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, consisting of 26,000 peacekeepers at an annual cost of $1.8 billion. He lived in the difficult conditions of Darfur's El Fasher, seeking to bring fractious Darfuri rebels together while coaxing the regime of Omar al-Bashir to make peace. He also sought to move the international community to embark on peace-building projects that would tackle the root causes of the conflict by pushing for "quick impact" projects such as clinics, schools, and bore-holes. He urged African, Arab, and Western donors to contribute funds for long-term development. These initiatives, however, met with limited success, as a frugal international community continued to focus its resources on the UN peacekeeping mission and short-term humanitarian assistance.
As UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs between 2005 and 2007, Gambari was credited with improving staff morale; increasing staff capacity; and establishing a Mediation Support Unit. He focused his troubleshooting efforts largely on Zimbabwe, Cyprus and Myanmar. Having served under three military regimes in Nigeria as foreign minister and UN ambassador, Gambari's critics referred to him as "the dictator-whisperer" dispatched to autocrats in Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Sudan. There has, however, been progress in peace processes in all three countries.
With the recent tension in relations between Nigeria and South Africa, the granting of an award commemorating one of South Africa's most able leaders to Nigeria's pre-eminent scholar-diplomat, will hopefully help to build bridges between Africa's two powerhouses.
Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of UN Peacekeeping in Africa.