Issa DIALLO, Acting Executive Secretary of the ECA
“Have you ever known - foreigners to build your country for you?’”
‘Yet Africans believe they do!’, says Issa Diallo in disbelief. In this interview with The Courier, he poses this rhetorical question and expounds on it, as well as on numerous other ideas. They all point in the same direction - that the African train has to be got back on the rails.
Issa Ben Yacine Diallo was born in Guinea in 1939 and has spent most of his career in the UN on the passport of another country, Mali. Such things are not uncommon among African intellectuals who, like him, have found themselves opposed to a non-democratic regime, (Sekou Toure’s in this case) and exiled.
Issa Diallo, once an official with the Foreign Ministry in Conakry, took a doctorate in higher international studies at the University of Geneva and then taught there. In 1978, he left for New York, where he became deputy director of training at UNITAR, the UN Institute of Training and Research. He left this post in 1982 to go to the nerve-centre of the UN system, the cabinet of the Secretary-General himself, Perez de Cuellar. He began as General Administrator of the Cabinet, became Director and then, in 1986, Special Assistant - more or less the right hand man of the person he calls ‘the conscience of the world’.
He took over from Adebayo Adedeji as acting head of the Economic Commission for Africa in August 1991. Tradition has it that he cannot be confirmed in the post until the new Secretary-General - Boutros Boutros-Ghali, another African - takes over.
As he says in this interview, he wants to make the ECA ‘s management and skill competitively credible without spending forever on it. He is convinced of the continent’s potential (‘How can you call Africa poor?’), pleading, above all, for support in the difficult transition to democracy.
• Mr Diallo, it cannot be easy to take over from Mr Adedji, who is almost instinctively associated wish the Economic Commission for Africa. What sort of Africa did you find when you took over and what priorities will you be setting in your new career?
- You are right to say it isn’t easy to take over from someone like Professor Adedeji, who ran the ECA for 16 years and who obviously left his mark on the institution. He did it by giving it breathing space when one or two remarkable analyses were made of the economic and social development of Africa, including the Lagos Plan.
I have been lucky enough to arrive at a time when Africa is at a crossroads; where the States are taking stock after a quarter of a century of independence. One of the first things they want is an alternative to the single party and to constraints and bad management, typically with greater popular involvement in the Government’s decisions - democracy, in other words. But, as you know, you can’t eat democracy. It’s a cooking pot and the food has to be put into it. For the Africans, that means that people have to have more to eat. They have to be able to feed themselves better and be fed better, they have to have better health care and they have to have better education. That is democracy. There is a very precise meaning to it. It isn’t just the constitution and the institutions. There is something else as well. It also means that Africa is going to find itself with new people and they include businessmen we want free enterprise and they include non-governmental organisations, with decisions and parliamentary debates. And then there is a free press - no longer ‘His Master’s Voice’, as we call it. Fresh ground is being conquered in Africa and it is being conquered peacefully, thank goodness. The old guard - what Senghor called the ‘ukase’ generation - who were bogged down and defending an unchanging situation, are now more or less accepting the new order. There is a certain amount of reluctance, of course over the fact that we are going straight for greater involvement by the people. That is inevitable.
I should like to go further - which is no bad thing - and say that what the people want is an alternative. We don’t say that democracy will solve all our problems, but we do want something else. We want something else to drive us. It’s reasonable, I think, and it carries hope with it. We have more and more Presidents and Prime Ministers running our countries now who have been properly trained in better schools and have good experience. There are going to be more and more of them and we have to give them a chance. The ECA is determined to help all this take practical shape. When you have new people, Governments sometimes worry about it because they think ‘they’re taking some of our power away’. What I say is that they should be reassured. All they need to do is give more space to people who are quite legitimately entitled to take part in the development of our countries. Individual freedom and private initiative are what create wealth. That has been proven all over the world, in other places and at other times. Why should Africa be left out? It’s a trend, I think, in which we can have hope.
Our States can and must understand that these new people aren’t enemies. Just think about traffic and the rules of the road. You have one-way streets and you have roundabouts. There are places where you can’t park and there are policemen. And you have the constitution too, you have laws and the policeman has to make sure they are obeyed. That’s what the State is all about. The African State still has a major role to play, as a referee, if you like, or a policeman - although the policeman has to realise his job is to keep the traffic moving and not cause jams. Reassurance is vital. The new people have to be helped to get organised. There is more to it than saying: ‘Free enterprise? Get on with it! Parliamentary discussion? Off you go! Freedom of the press? And so on’. Freedom of the press, for example, is an enterprise. It has to live. From society’s point of view, there must be somebody to make sure the press is independent, so there is a whole state of mind which must look to the laws which govern our relations. And that is where institutions, the EEC for example, which have the good fortune to be able to take a step backwards and see what is going on and do not have the urgent everyday problems that Governments have, can help.
As it stands, the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa has done some very good studies and research, but the results have just piled up in store rooms somewhere. We really needed research and analysis, but now, I think, it is probably time to take one or two of these splendid documents - the Lagos Plan, for example, which said it all - and establish one or two priorities and make sure we do something about them. That is the beginning of management. Either you do research for research’s sake, which soon runs out of steam, or you do research with a particular aim in view - i.e. to participate in the economic and social development of the people of Africa, which is where we feel the ECA has a contribution to make. So we have to manage the few resources we have. We have to re-establish our credibility. You have to be credible in an economic situation where there is less and less finance available for development and the different agencies are in heavy competition.
I am always saying that there are far too many doctors round the same bedside, Africa’s bedside, and they don’t cooperate with each other, so the sick man doesn’t get any better in spite of the fact that there are so many of them. That is why we have to be competitive. Management, competence and competitiveness will make the ECA a valuable partner for Africa and the States that make it up, a valuable partner for its regional and sub-regional organizations and a valuable partner outside of Africa, in the UN system and in regional cooperation bodies such as the EEC or the OECD.
That is the way we will be able to get our foreign partners used to the fact that there are credible men and institutions in the field. If we manage to increase the number of credible institutions in Africa, I can assure you that the problems of assistance and cooperation will be far clearer. And that is in everybody’s interest. There is a confused kind of competition at the moment and it is in nobody’s interest. But, as you know, red tape is red tape and there is no point in trying to rationalist in this universe of ours. With a little wisdom behind us, we should be able to join hands. We must cooperate. That is one of the leitmotifs of the ECA today. We are going to cooperate and we are going to turn our backs on confrontation, because, given the economic situation in Africa today, if you aren’t interested in being serious and you want to be vague and you are happy with having bureaucracy at the centre of all your concerns, then you are a loser. We are going to cooperate and we are going to manage. We are going to go for greater credibility and in this we believe we are in the mainstream of the new Africa now taking shape.
We have learnt a lot in 30 years of independence. They haven’t been lost years. Quite the contrary. We are gradually going to get up steam again now and get the African train back on the rails. It’s now or never. It will take time. It will take several generations. But the main thing is to get going. As I have already told my colleagues at the ECA, I have no intentions of staying in one institution forever. What I want to do is take it as it is today and make my contribution, starting with defining the priorities and then doing my bit in the light of them. Then I shall go. I hope that someone else will come afterwards, add his brick to the building and then move on. That’s the way we build huts and it’s the only way. We now know that the idea of sitting back and saying: ‘I’m going to build the hut, the village, the town myself and I’m going to... and so on’ are pipe dreams that soon get nowhere - but unfortunately cost a lot.
- You probably don’t espouse the current fashion for Afro-pessimism - although plenty of African leaders are clearly worried about the fight for resources...
- You are right to say that I don’t share this Afro-pessimism, you know. I would be wrong to share it because I am African and I am still alive and while there’s life there’s hope. Having said that, I don’t see why I should be pessimistic about Africa. Africa is still one of the richest continents in the world and its wealth is still there. I don’t see that there should be any discussion about it.
• The danger is that some people, especially in the North, are turning away from Africa and saying that the wealth is there but no-one is doing anything about it or it has been misused or badly used.
- Listen. Those people are either impatient or ignorant. If you want to understand what is going on in Africa, you have to realise that no country has ever been built in one year, in 20 years or even 100 years. It’s just never happened. Africa has had two and a half centuries of the sort of slave trade and slavery in its recent history that deprive a continent of all its strength. It didn’t take 10 years or 20 years or 30 years. It took two and a half centuries. The damage is enormous. And then there were in some cases 100 years of colonization. Without criticising anybody or being bitter and twisted about anything, that means it’s not my problem. My problem is Africa today and how we are going to move on today and reach tomorrow. How we are going to ensure African solidarity and use that as a foundation for international solidarity? That is the task my generation has to tackle. And what does it all mean? Well, it means that, for three and a half centuries, Africa did not govern itself. Did we have anything to say, even about the States we inherited and live in today? We are inside frontiers and the only thing we were able to say was: ‘Listen. Let us be wise men, not fools. Let us keep the borders as they are and try and build something from them’. So for three and a half centuries Africa was not its own governor and we even forgot what government meant.
If we get a headache now, we can go and get some aspirins. Where? The chemist’s, of course... if Bayer has supplied us and we have had the currency to pay for them. If not, we’re lost. That is how we react today, whereas our parents and grandparents and so on just went out and picked a few leaves off the tree in the back yard and boiled them up and then they were cured. That is just to show you that there is such a clear break that we think quite spontaneously that we cannot do anything. We think quite spontaneously that our salvation comes from outside. We make development plans and projects quite spontaneously, thinking that 70-80% of them can be financed by foreigners. Such optimism!Have you ever known foreigners to build your country for you? Yet the Africans believe they do! And why do they believe it? Because of that break, I think. And they believe it to the point where today it is the partners who say: ‘Look here. It’s high time the Africans got on with their own things. We are perfectly willing to help, but we can’t sort their future out for them’. That is where we stand today. You see to just what extent Africans lack confidence in themselves and their culture and their people. That is why we have never tried to organise them over the past 30 years. We just regulated them and imported ideas which had more or less been mastered. We chose the most difficult way of imposing these ideas upon them, for instead of altering them to reflect what our people needed, we tried to do the opposite and failed.
• Are you now saying Africa for the Africans?
- No. No continent belongs to the people on it. That’s not possible. All I say is that it is high time Africans realised that they have the answer to the future in their own hands. It is high time they realised that, however much aid there may be and however much interest our partners may have in our problems, it can all only be a supplement to the main effort; that essential drive which has to come first from Africans themselves. That is the trend we should strive to create. I maintain that the train will get back on the rails, but let me tell you that it will take time. It will take many generations and a great deal of hard work.
There is no point in being acrimonious. Very few people have never been colonised and colonisation is a lesson. You build on what you have at a given time and I think that is what Africa ought to do. The Africans are so convinced they are poor at the moment. They are so convinced, that they go about the world with cap in hand. Why do they do this? Because everyone recognises them. Everyone knows they are Africans, so everyone knows they are poor and everyone thinks it’s all right for them to beg because they are poor. Yet they are sitting on resources that lots of people envy. How can you say that Africa is poor? It’s got sun, the energy without which there can be no life. And it’s got water, the resource without which there can be no life. The greatest civilisations in the world are by the water, all of them. We Africans say that it’s a pity we don’t have any oil and it’s a shame we aren’t Arabs and if only we lived on the Gulf. But think about it for 30 seconds and you realise that this water I was talking about is our oil and our diamonds and even more valuable than yellow gold or black gold. This sun - can you imagine what will happen if we can get solar energy under control? Where is this poverty? On the contrary, Africa is hope and wealth. It has it all. But there is one thing that has gone wrong and I think that is the shock of our history. We haven’t realised it because we are still too close to it. Things will only settle gradually and it will take time. So there is reason to hope.
• There have been some practical attempts at getting Africa hack on the rails, haven’t there? There was PANUREDA particularly, although a lot of people say it was a failure.
- I am one of those who think that PANUREDA could have helped the African train back on to the rails. But it didn’t. It was just one more experiment. Many people are disappointed about it, but I am not. I think that it was a proposal which failed to bear fruit and we have to see why this was. Was it the right strategy? Was it the wrong thing to try and do? Was the approach right? Perhaps Africa’s partners weren’t ready for it. Perhaps the post-PANUREDA situation was not the same as the prePANUREDA one. We have to look at what happened and see where we went wrong and think of something else. But we have no choice. We have to cooperate and we have to work together. Look at what is happening in Eastern Europe. Even they know that if you have an economic, social and political situation in a known context, it takes a lot of time, energy and means if you want to change that context. That is why they are calling on the international community to help them and we in Africa should be doing the same.
• You mentioned means, which brings me to another problem. No one in Africa forgets the priority to be given to regional integration - but virtually all of Africa’s regional institutions are in dire financial straits. You have to put your money where your mouth is, as the English say. If you want the organisations to work, then the States have to pay their contributions and give them the money and the people to keep them going.
- I entirely agree with what the English say and what they mean. You know, I mentioned credibility just now and that is one of the elements of it. You set up an institution and you endow it with conditions in which it cannot possibly work. All you do is let it struggle and that is where you lose your credibility. The African institutions and Africa’s foreign partners have to work together, particularly after the African countries have been to Abuja and signed and then ratified the agreement on the ECA. We in Africa have to be able to sit down with the ADB and the OAU and the ECA and the sub-regional institutions and decide how we are going to work together to implement this document. We have 30 years, but unless we work systematically, they will quickly pass. We make progress reports to the governments every year and we shall have a fine bureaucracy when the 30 years are up, but nothing will actually have happened. So the sub-regional institutions have to be inventoried and their problems have to be inventoried. We have to see what works and what doesn’t and, once we have done that, we have to see how we can fit the schemes of the ADB, the OAU, the ECA and more - and why not foreign partners too? - together.
You have here in Brussels an extraordinary example of integration. There is nothing theoretical about it. It is highly practical and it sets us examples which we are not forced to follow, but from which we can learn a lot. And there is something we could get right here, just to make sure that the equation of African integration has been set out properly. You are right. We haven’t got very far. Something is happening in the sub-regions, in SADCC, in ECOWAS and in the Maghreb, for example, reflecting what we are pleased to call African economic integration. If we are to be stringent and serious and have vision, then we have to look at what exists here too. We have to strip off the dead branches to let the tree grow stronger. There’s a job to be done and if we pool our brain power we can get it done.
• There has been a lot of talk about you going back into politics in Guinea...
- Yes, there was. I have already had the opportunity of telling both my friends and journalists that we are lucky enough to have had some degree of professional success outside our country. But people must not imagine that we have abandoned it. Our country is our country. It is where we were born, it is where we were nurtured and it may be where we die. We cannot abandon our country, for we owe it so much. This is why-I have already said this and I shall say it again - we must serve the country if it needs us. Alas there are those who think that the only way to serve a country is to be President or Minister or have some other powerful position, but to my mind this is imbecilic over-simplification. You can serve your country anywhere, at any level and, provided you agree with the principle of what is going on there and the sort of society they are aiming for, it’s easy.
• What do you, as an African UN official, think about having an African at the head of the organization?
- I am delighted. It’s news that Africa should be delighted about too, because, as you know, Africa wanted it to happen and it worked to see that it did. We put a lot of candidates forward; two or three of them turned out to be good ones and one of them got it. Jolly good.
• Will it push Africa up the UN list of priorities?
- Not necessarily. As you know, the Secretary-General’s job involves being the world’s conscience and the conscience of the United Nations. It’s rather like electing a Pope. The very nature of the job makes him more important than all of us. And what about Africa? To my mind, there is no doubt that its position cannot be diminished because there is an African in charge and because most of the least developed countries in the world are African countries.
• What is the top African development priority you would like to tackle?
- Political will is going to be shaped by whatever institutions we set up, for it is they which will make it possible to release the people’s energy - it’s a very special train we are going to have now. It’s a priority, necessary but not sufficient, as I said. Then, practically speaking, there are going to be new leaders and new programmes and new debates, so how are we going to manage the transition? That is the question. Well, we have to manage it together. The Africans have to be Africa’s partners - in other words, we have to give democracy a chance. And what are we doing about it? There is no point in watching the new leaders turn out as if it was a football match and cheering if they get it right and booing if they get it wrong. You can’t do that. You have to support them and help them. Every one of us has to try and make their lives easier, because they have inherited 30 years of mismanagement, both of the economy and of society as a whole and they can’t say it isn’t their fault because it is all part of their heritage.
On top of that, they have to promote the principles they believe in - democracy, of course, and the fact that democracy is an alternative to the situation they found when they arrived. These are two huge responsibilites - and they can’t be left to go it alone. They need help. We at the ECA are going to do what is needed to help the Governments realise what it is all about, that it is not necessarily a case of one clan or another taking over, that the new arrivals aren’t going to get rid of them and so on. It has worked elsewhere and they need to know that. They need to know that we are making our own way and that this is an inevitable part of it. It is clear what it will lead to, but we have to give it a chance.
It is important for our partners to realise that we need to go beyond the ‘governance’ slogan. The people of Africa are in the streets. They are the ones who are calling for change. They are the ones who have had enough. They don’t need machine guns in the small of their backs. They tackle machine guns in the streets. So our partners, our serious, democratic partners the world over, who do not just advocate democracy for Eastern Europe, but sincerely believe in it and do not play with economic situations - have to play their part in managing this period of transition to democracy. Gorbachev tried and it isn’t easy. He had his coup d’état and he was lucky, because he came back, but if the coup had succeeded, what would the democrats of the world have done? CNN would have been out there, there would have been a song and dance and then what? He needs help. He needs support. And the new leaders the Africans want need support too, every bit as much. They need people who believe in democracy and who believe there is hope. They must not be abandoned just like that - which is why I tell our partners that we have to take a practical look at what we can do to give these people a chance and to give democracy a chance. Otherwise we may well be cheering the fact that democracy has won the day over communism, but seeing those democratic, freely elected leaders who won fair elections, fall. What will you say to that? I think it must not be allowed to happen. We have to act now.
Interview by Roger DE BACKER
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