On the surface it had all the trappings of a gathering of current and former heads of state: Legions of presidential bodyguards speaking into their sleeves, electronic security at every entrance, rooftop snipers, road closures and a small army of waiters serving snacks and coffee on the banks of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana.
To the casual observer it was indistinguishable from any meeting of African Union (AU) luminaries, but at the opening session of the inaugural 14-15 April Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa, chaired by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, it became apparent diplomatic protocols were to be dispensed with: In an act of pure theatre Obasanjo removed his formal traditional robe to highlight the intent of informality.
The Tana conference, coordinated by Addis Ababa University’s Institute for Peace and Security Studies, borrowed elements from the Munich Security Conference founded by German publisher Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin, who recognized diplomatic protocol can often stymie debate.
Oliver Rolofs, spokesperson for the Munich conference, told IRIN the meeting provides an “open forum and free discussion” and acts as a “catalyst” for security issues providing fresh ideas and insights for when participants return to the niceties and strictures of diplomacy.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in his welcoming speech to the delegates acknowledged he had been influenced by the style of the German conference and hoped for more of the same at the Tana gathering.
A soft approach
The architecture of Africa’s peace and security structures since the launch of the AU in 2002 and the subsequent May 2004 ratification of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) endowed the continent with a comprehensive security armoury allowing for intervention in states to resolve or prevent conflicts, using such instruments as the yet-to-be-constituted African Standby Force (ASF) and the Panel of the Wise - an AU five-member consultative body drawn from the continent’s five geographical regions, to provide views and opinions for conflict prevention and resolution.
A delegate at the Tana conference lauded the AU’s peace and security structures, but noted these were rigid and “hard”, that did not allow for a “soft” approach to the issues, and the Tana conference was envisaged to provide such a layer of interaction, where there was equal access to debate for presidents, ambassadors, academics, activists and AU officials.
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Hesphina Rukato, the forum’s coordinator, said in an opening address: “We wanted to create a different type of gathering, more a retreat than a conference, and with the wide participation of people who are concerned and open to share their experiences.”
The discussions were off-limits to the media, apart from the opening and closing sessions, in the interests of garnering an intimacy among the participants that was designed to flow from the meeting room, to the corridors and dinners - under the two guiding themes of managing diversity and state fragility.
Alex de Waal, a veteran Africa analyst and executive director of the World Peace Foundation, was effusive about the format. “What was great about this was the extent to which there was a conversation. There were a couple people there who you just felt were giving their government position. But that was very exceptional. There was real substance as to what was being said. And the issues were really coming out in the discussion and that was very unusual.”
Among present and past leaders were host Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, President Ismail Guelleh of Djibouti, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed of Somalia, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, and Mozambique’s past prime minister Luisa Diogo, although the flattening of hierarchies came as a shock for some.
Museveni makes waves
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was not scheduled in the programme to make a speech, nor was he selected as a panellist, but he eventually made an off-the-cuff address from the podium following intense lobbying by his aides.
He questioned the West’s penchant for sanctions against countries for their treatment of homosexuals, or disrespect for women’s rights, and asked why they did not impose similar economic measures on states that failed to provide such social services as electricity to their citizens. He then managed to provoke a walk-out by a Libyan national after slamming the 2011 “unconstitutional removal” of Muammar Gaddafi, creating a “diplomatic incident” in the absence of diplomatic protocols.
Brig-Gen Hadi Ali Gibril, executive secretary of the North African Regional Capability (NARC), walked out as a Libyan and not in his capacity as an official of the regional ASF. “Although I respect his [Museveni’s] friendship with Gaddafi, there are many things he does not know,” he told IRIN.
“Libyan people were suffering for 42 years. There was no freedom. And when the people said they wanted freedom, he killed them and ordered his soldiers to rape the women. Do you know the capital of Libya [Tripoli] with two million citizens has no sewage and no water system,” he said.
There was a sharp exchange between a sitting president and a past president, the latter accusing the former of “taking his country to hell”, according to a source privy to the discussions.
The diverse array of delegates made for odd-bedfellows, Mahmood Mamdani, the executive director of Uganda’s Makerere Institute for Social Research, told IRIN. “[Politicians] by their very nature are very present minded and fixed on the moment and are impatient with scholarly talk, and scholars think practitioners and policymakers are always rushing to solutions and just never solving the problem, because they never really understand it.”
He said politicians used consultants “who know which side their bread is buttered and tread softly when it comes to critiques. By getting them in touch with scholars who are not employed by them and who have much more freedom to talk, I think that is useful”.
Governor of Nigeria’s Ekiti State, Kayode Fayemi, told IRIN the conference’s billing was “to speak truth to power and I am not sure we have successfully done that. It was meant to be a no-holds bar conversation.
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“Hierarchy by its very nature is recognized in Africa. We respect age, we respect authority and order and those representations of authority are notionally assumed to also have wisdom and knowledge, which is not necessarily true, and we have seen that replicated here. Those in political office are not necessarily the smartest in the room,” he said.
Daniel Adugna, youth programme manager at the AU commission, told IRIN the difference between the 17th AU Summit in the capital of Equatorial Guinea, Malabo, in June 2011 and the Tana conference “was we were not able to engage leaders and talk to them directly because of certain procedures the [AU] summit has. But here we could raise our hands together with our leaders and make a comment.”
When the delegates overlooked youth in the diversity debate, Adugna said he was able to put it back on the agenda. “The opportunities I would have to sit and speak in the same room as the prime minister were probably impossible, close to zero and it has never happened until today… Having no protocols is a big advantage, as you are able to understand how structures, institutions and certain personalities think.”
Francis Deng, special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the prevention of genocide, told IRIN the diversity theme was discussed at length “as the way we deal with our mandate on genocide prevention is to demystify genocide and see it as an extreme form of identity related conflicts that result from denial of rights, inequality [and] marginalization… and this is connected with the fragile states [theme].”
He said “there was decent informality… people were very candid on sensitive issues and all in all it was a good beginning… As Obasanjo said, within the AU if you mentioned a country negatively there would immediately be responses of hands raised and people saying point of order. Here there were no such sensitivities and it is a good model to be continued with.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions