No. 2: More about Nobel winners / Kaye Whiteman / Business Day, Nigeria / March 2014

Published in: Business Day, Nigeria, 18 March 2014

Africa's Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent, Adekeye Adebajo (ed.), Zed Books, 2014

Last week's examination of Nobel Peace Prize-winners of African descent offered such rich material that I found myself with much more that I wanted to say. Three personalities mentioned in African Peacemakers (edited by Dr Adekeye Adebajo) particularly excited my curiosity, because each of them, for all their achievements, carried flaws in their careers, which deserved scrutiny.

The first case-history is of the African American Ralph Bunche, the first black person to win the prize, in 1950, for his "skilful mediation" in the Middle East, one of several winners concerned with that area which the Nobel jury have rightly sought to concentrate on, as threatening world peace most in the past sixty years. James Jonah's excellently-written chapter relates how he went on to a distinguished career serving the United Nations for another twenty years, although the 1967 crisis imposed intolerable strains on him, bearing in mind that his health had been increasingly problematic. But I was preoccupied with his involvement in the Congo crisis, which erupted after that country's independence in 1960, and which left him near the end of his career with a mounting sense of frustration. I kept wishing for more information on the US pressures on the UN at critical periods of the crisis, especially Bunche's relations with alleged CIA operative Andrew Cordier. One day the whole terrible truths of this period may possibly be revealed, especially on the US involvement with the rise of Mobutu and the death of Lumumba. Meanwhile one can only feel saddened and uncomfortable for an honourable man like Bunche caught up in such a tragic business: Adekeye notes in passing that Bunche and Lumumba had "a terrible relationship".

I cannot help noting that although the UN in the end brought a kind of closure to the immediate crisis by using its troops to end the secession of Katanga in January 1963, the problems of the country, superficially recovered, in fact became worse and worse under the Mobutu dictatorship. After more than fifty years, the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC), as it is now re-baptised, is still a central source of instability in Africa. I can't help noting that no Nobel prize has ever been awarded in connection with even attempting to bring peace to the country.

The second case I find particularly poignant is that of Kofi Annan is, as the Rwanda genocide in which 800,000 mostly Tutsi were massacred in April 1994 took place while Annan was in charge of Peacekeeping Operations, a period of dreadful passivity on the part of both UN and Western powers. It was a burden shared with others, notably the Clinton administration, which was over-influenced by the negative US experience in Somalia, and later threw its weight behind Annan against Boutros-Ghali in the Secretary-Generalship election of 1996.This is covered in Gwendolyn Mikell's chapter, but as a whole she exonerates the full Annan record (not so much supported by Adebajo in his own introductory chapter).

Mikell endorses the view that it was the crucible of Rwanda that put the iron in Annan's soul and his own urgent commitment to peace-making and peace-keeping in his ten years of office, which he has scrupulously maintained since leaving it, especially seen in his valiant peace-making role in the Kenya election crisis of 2009. This was particularly seen in his second term (2001-6) when he had to face the full heat that came from the disastrous invasion of Iraq. From having been the candidate of the US in 1996, he became a demon of the Bush 'neo-cons', seen in the petty and saddening war waged against him by Ambassador John Bolton.

The third case of particular interest to West Africans is that of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, current President of Liberia, to whom the Peace Prize (awarded jointly in 2011 with civil society activist Leymah Gbowee). This caused some eyebrow-raising as it was announced two days before her re-election, and there were those who criticised the award on the basis of her earlier political record in spite of the undeniable peace and recovery of her period in leadership in which she has become the iconic 'Ma Ellen'.

My particular concern is to try and understand her fraught relationship with Liberia's hapless military ruler Samuel Doe. His coming to power in 1980 was a terrible period to live through. Her options in the key position in which she found herself as a senior civil servant in finance were either to give up or to try to participate. Not without angst she did the latter, from hubris, or self-belief, or maybe from duty to her country, in spite of former government colleagues being brutally shot on the beach, and the daunting prospects of trying to hold an administration together when having to handle semi-literate NCOs. Given her own volatile temperament, it is not surprising that in two years she had broken with Doe, calling him an "idiot" to his face. But it is hard to say she was simply being opportunistic.

Kaye Whiteman

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