The house arrest of the president of Niger by military officials has taken much of what international media attention there was from the continuing catastrophic conflict in Sudan on the east side of the continent. But the humanitarian crisis in Sudan is growing and the fighting between military factions threatens the stability of the region – as the Niger standoff does in western Africa. President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh of the small nation of Djibouti recently was selected to chair the regional organization IGAD.
Since its founding four decades ago, the U.S. Department of State said on 13 June, “IGAD has been at the center of international efforts to mobilize effective responses to crises in the Horn of Africa, including the ongoing drought and other natural disasters. We also recognize and welcome IGAD’s increasingly active role in conflict resolution in the region”. Djibouti’s representative to the United Nations and ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Siad Doualeh, has long been active in regional fostering peace processes, including the lengthy task of forging an agreement that ended a brutal conflict in Somalia. The ambassador spoke to AllAfrica’s Tami Hultman this week on IGAD and the work that he and the organization are doing to build peace in Sudan.
Good morning, Mr. Ambassador. I know you have a busy schedule in New York this week, so I won’t take much of your time. My first question is about you. Much of your career has focused on conflict prevention, peacebuilding and human rights. Why were you personally drawn to that purpose?
Philosophically, the most important thing for me is preservation of life. I believe that on the continent, too much blood has been shed. Sometimes you take great pains to try and understand why.
It is not an interest that I took personally, but through the duties that were given to me by the government, I got immersed in conflict issues. And hence, in retrospect, I am most fortunate. The human experience, the professional experience that I was able to get, mingling with very interesting people about profound topics that matter for the future of the continent.
Well, the role of peace builder is, of course, an important one. Even though often extremely frustrating, it is satisfying to be engaged, I imagine.
It is satisfying, when the effort that you are deploying seems productive. At other times, it can be painfully frustrating. But it’s always worthwhile. Whatever effort you’re putting in, whatever resources you’re investing, it’s worthwhile.
Your president currently chairs IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development [composed of eight countries – Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda]. IGAD was formed originally to tackle drought and development, but its interests have broadened to encompass critical regional issues such as regional integration, peace and security, free trade, health, food security, women’s empowerment. Could you speak about what Djibouti, acting as chair, hopes to accomplish?
Yes, you’re right. IGADD – with two d’s – was created in 1986. So before climate change became the main subject on the international stage, we dealt with one of the main manifestations of climate change in our part of the world, which is drought. That’s where the two d’s come from: development and drought. As we revitalized, [when heads of state and governments met in Djibouti in 1996 to improve regional cooperation], we planned to focus on development issues. Unfortunately, IGAD had to devote its resources and political muscle to try and solve pressing political and peace and security issues, particularly in Somalia and Sudan.
Djibouti has always played a role – one we see as constructive in the search for peace in Somalia and in the resolution of the conflict in Sudan. The Comprehensive peace Agreement, when the new state of South Sudan was created, was the outcome of a long process that was headed by IGAD. I was sent in the Machakos Protocol [the 2002 peace agreement between Sudan and the new nation of South Sudan], as the Djibouti envoy.
And Djibouti has also played a crucial role in the search for peace in Somalia. You will recall that we launched a major peace initiative back in 1999. When the current president was first elected, he decided something was to be done about Somalia and that the time was right.
We were proven right, because we hosted the Somali National Peace Conference that we held in Arta [30 kilometers from the Djibouti capital, with more than 2500 delegates], which produced the first transitional government, after decades of no government, basically, in Somalia. That conference that Djibouti led produced a government that was able to participate in regional organizations and occupy a seat at the United Nations again. That’s under-reported, and I thought I should use this interview to put it out there.
Djibouti just assumed the chairmanship of IGAD in June. At that conference in Djibouti a new IGAD treaty was adopted, which will broaden and deepen cooperation between member states on development issues and foster greater regional cooperation.
We agree, I think, that media coverage is too little and often misrepresents Africa. I remember reporting on Somalia years ago, trying to help explain that Somalia was not just a nation of violent people fighting each other. As you know, Somalis think of themselves as a nation of poets. I used to phone Somali university professors, and their answering machines would have poems, and I would ring back just to hear the new ones.
Wow, it’s very interesting you mention this. This a nation of proud, proud people. But, you see, sometimes in the journey of a nation major disruption may occur, and we need to mobilize whatever resources we have to put the country back together so that Somalia contributes meaningfully to the community of nations. And, I’m telling you, the human capital in Somalia is huge. It’s a resource rich country, one that the world needs.
So as you alluded to, the whole region is fragile, beset by climate-driven drought and famine – and conflicts that are not solely due to those but are exacerbated by them. Do you see those factors as interrelated?
I believe that whenever you have conflict, the progress you made on human capital development, on the development of physical infrastructure is unraveled. And then it takes it takes a while to rebuild the human capital and rebuild the physical infrastructure. It’s a major endeavor to try to rebuild the hard-won gains on development and rebuild a country that was shattered by years of conflict. If we can create a virtuous cycle; if we are able to invest in those countries, fight poverty, fight food insecurity, and build on the resources, the human capital that those countries have to help them develop – this is the way forward. Though the region is facing numerous challenges, I remain optimistic that we can turn things around.
What did you learn from your extensive work on building peace in Somalia that can now be applied to the current catastrophe in Sudan.
When people fight, trust is eroded. It takes a long time, a lot of effort to try and rebuild that trust. When you look, retrospectively, at the reasons why a conflict started in the first place, the reasons may seem [obscure]. It takes leadership to make compromises. This is what sound, vigorous leadership is all about. You need to have not just your own selfish, personal interest. You have to always look at the bigger picture and the interest of your people. That’s what matters most. If you’re able to do that, then to me, you can always find solutions to any problem, however deep the conflict and the mistrust may be in the first place.
We’re hearing concerns from people in Sudan, whose peaceful protests for democracy led to changes but who have been left out of the peace process. Do you believe there can be a just and durable peace in Sudan without the involvement of civil society in shaping it?
When there is armed confrontation, most of the time it looks like there is no room for civil society, which we call ‘the forces of peace’. But we can still leverage their power, their strength, by mobilizing them in a sort of vigorous pro-peace movement. They exert maximum pressure, they mobilize the Sudanese people, so that we see an end to the armed confrontation that is destroying the country which, if not stopped, may unravel the immense gains that Sudan has had over the past year. So that’s the role I see for them for now, to act as a massive, pro-peace movement – an indomitable pro–peace movement. They can count on IGAD countries.
So you believe civil society needs support from outside? And how do balance that with the need for Africans to find solutions to African problems?
Like I said, first, they have to help themselves and act as a massive pro-peace movement, and mobilize the Sudanese population as a whole, who can easily relate to the demands for an immediate end to the conflict. And that’s where the interests of IGAD countries and the international community and the Sudanese people are aligned. We all are trying to first to stop the war, the conflict, immediately. It can no longer continue. This is a message we can all agree on. So we are partners in that regard, because we want an immediate end to the conflict. And then we start the political negotiations that will help rebuild a pathway to peace and constitutional government in Sudan.
What else would you like to say to the audience of Africa?
Africa has its future in its hands. We have a vision for African renaissance, which is reflected in the policy documents that our leaders have agreed on as Agenda 2063. And silencing the guns. These are major, major, very ambitious goals that are reflected there. But if we do not take seriously the work of mobilizing the resources that we have to accomplish those goals, then they may just remain aspirational. It takes a lot of work. It takes effort, it takes energy, it takes faith, faith in our ability as Africans to transform our continent.