Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Requiem for a diplomat

As Egyptian foreign minister and then as UN secretary-general, the late Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s diplomatic interests focussed on the African continent, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s political career took off during the leadership of the late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat, who came to regard him as indispensable in African affairs in particular and international politics in general. True to type, when Boutros-Ghali served as Egypt’s minister of state for foreign affairs from 1977 until early 1991, Africa was his top priority.

It must be said from the outset that this aristocrat — his grandfather was Egypt’s first prime minister — was no enfant gâté. No vindication of Boutros-Ghali can let such a negative perception stand. He understood that history repeats itself, and he discerned this notion from a peculiarly African perspective. He also knew that Egypt did not have the resources to assist African countries financially as they were by and large bankrolled by the former European colonial masters.

It was a different ball game from the days of African liberation in the 1950s and 1960s. African countries were independent only in name, and in reality they were subjugated to neo-colonialism. Boutros-Ghali grasped the dynamics of the era of neo-colonialism. His detractors often say that he was complicit with European powers, and in particular with Paris.

But Boutros-Ghali and France were star-crossed lovers and especially in the African context. He knew that African revolutionary leaders of the calibre of Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara were doomed. “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future,” Sankara told Swiss journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp in an interview in 1985.

This is where Boutros-Ghali differed from and was occasionally diametrically opposed to those he designated as “dictators”. But, ironically, it was this “certain amount of madness” that left him bereft of the crowning glory of his career as UN secretary-general. He attempted in vain to turn his back on the “old formulas,” and he had “the courage to invent the future”.

Without Washington’s firm hand, the world reckoned, the underdog would “carry out fundamental change” and chaos would replace the old world order. Elected in 1991 as UN secretary-general, he soon clashed with the United States over international policy issues. His pushy agenda angered the Americans, and the irony is that he believed at that particular historical moment that no one else could do it better. This cavalier miscalculation was his undoing.


AFRICA AND HUMAN RIGHTS: There were two men at work, one a diplomatic Einstein, forgetting the hubris for the moment, and the other a survivor with the gift of a high intellect.

Ultimately, they both eschewed international politics to focus on human rights, working together to resolve the kind of prickly issues that cropped up at the Cairo-based Egyptian National Council for Human Rights (ENCHR). After retiring as the head of the International Organisation of La Francophonie, Boutros-Ghali returned home to focus on domestic issues, becoming head of the ENCHR. Even though he may have been poles apart ideologically with his new colleague, they shared an obsession with improving human rights in Egypt.

The imbalance between rhetoric and romanticism aside, on the face of it, the two men had nothing in common, politically or ideologically. “What we had in common was that we visited African countries south of the Sahara regularly and established close working relationships with African leaders. I was somewhat surprised that his first official visit to Africa south of the Sahara was to what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Boutros-Ghali developed an affinity with the then leader of the country the late Mobutu Sese Seku,” ENCHR Secretary-General Mohamed Fayek told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“We were working in entirely different circumstances. I was working as [then-Egyptian president] Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s personal emissary in Africa, and our main concern at the time was to assist African countries to gain independence from the colonial powers. By the time Boutros-Ghali took over the African affairs file, and I was imprisoned by the late president Anwar Al-Sadat, most African countries were independent. It was a totally different ball game,” Fayek extrapolates.

“He worked closely with France and with Francophone nations in Africa. Moreover, Boutros-Ghali’s African policy was influenced by a number of developments in Africa and the Middle East and he had the full backing of Al-Sadat. The latter gave Boutros-Ghali a free hand in conducting African affairs because he trusted him,” noted Fayek.

Fayek’s main concern was to counter Israeli encroachment in Africa, meaning that he became embroiled in espionage and information gathering as well as countering neo-colonialism and sabotaging the Israeli agenda. Boutros-Ghali was affiliated with Africa at a time when there was an exodus of Israeli technicians from African nations in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Africa and the world had changed beyond recognition, and Boutros-Ghali preferred unctuous wit to suave smoothtalking.

With Fayek, it was a question of the quest for African liberation. With Boutros-Ghali, it was rather a matter of defensiveness towards Africa south of the Sahara. He was building bridges with African nations on a new foundation, as an influential conservative politician and decision-maker. Many African nations then severed diplomatic ties with Egypt after it signed a peace treaty with Israel in the late 1970s, putting Boutros-Ghali in an awkward position.

The African states south of the Sahara complied with Arab overtures because of their dire need for Arab oil at concessionary prices and because of Arab pledges of financial and economic assistance. But Boutros-Ghali knew Egypt at the time had little to offer Africa except for solidarity. In his book Egypt’s Road to Jerusalem: a Diplomat’s Story of the Struggle for Peace in the Middle East, published in 1997, Boutros-Ghali touches on certain aspects of the international implications of the unprecedented decision by Al-Sadat to make peace with Israel.

After the October 1973 War, 29 African states severed diplomatic relations with Israel. This move made the job of Boutros-Ghali easier in the sense that it attained something of the old fraternity of Nasser’s day, with a continent united in its interests and aims, but ironically now with the notable difference of a political tilt towards the neo-colonialist powers. The sea change came with the 1978 Camp David Accords and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel.

Zaire’s lead in 1982 in re-establishing diplomatic relations with Israel may explain the special friendship between Boutros-Ghali and Mobutu. It was quite a feat for a seasoned diplomat who preached democracy to African leaders holding tenaciously onto power following deeply flawed elections, as Mobutu was a ruthless dictator. The US website contains a preposterous representation of Boutros-Ghali, saying that he “was not one for political correctness: it exemplified him”. That is not a plausible explanation for the special friendship between Boutros-Ghali and Mobutu.

Boutros-Ghali’s Africa policy was based on a naturally conformist culture of appeasing international capitalism and placating the African comprador classes. This was not a question of a little punning and ideological sparring. It was realpolitik. This was his conclusion about the future if Africa previewed what was to come. He had no qualms about rubbing shoulders with African leaders who had seized power through the barrel of a gun. And he charted Egypt’s African policy at a time when the decade of military takeovers and coup d’états was in full swing.

Esmat Abdel-Maguid took over at the Egyptian foreign office from Boutros-Ghali, who moved on to seemingly greener pastures. Elected in 1991 as UN secretary-general, he soon clashed with the United States over international policy issues. His agenda angered the Americans, and Boutros-Ghali was deemed a demagogue.

“I worked with him for some 20 years, and he was always encouraging. Indeed, he lobbied for me to become the first Egyptian to hold the post of assistant secretary-general of the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU). He was always helpful and freely gave then-young diplomats insightful advice. He was a mentor. He was very knowledgeable about Africa, but his interests were not restricted to the continent. He rekindled old economic and cultural ties with countries as far afield as India, China and Japan,” Ahmed Haggag, secretary-general of the Egyptian Africa Society and former assistant secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity, told the Weekly. “You could say he kick-started my diplomatic career,” Haggag mused.

And indeed, Boutros-Ghali opened new diplomatic vistas for young Egyptians who aspired to enter the world of international politics. But, at the same time he was facing a predicament. Western nations, with the possible exception of France, were beginning to believe their own hype, and Washington and its European allies were flabbergasted at Boutros-Ghali’s supposed “ineptitude” and his failure to end the crises at the cash-strapped and debt-ridden UN.

An imbroglio ensued. Madeleine Albright, the then US ambassador to the UN, insisted the problems the organisation was facing were all Boutros-Ghali’s fault. But was he to blame? As an Egyptian, he was African enough to muster support from most African nations. But his bid to win a second term in office was vetoed by Washington, which installed Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian, in office instead.


AT THE UNITED NATIONS: Speaking at an OAU summit in 1987, Sankara eloquently said, “Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa. It is a reconquest that turns each one of us into a financial slave.” The same could be said of the UN.

One of the most controversial aspects of Boutros-Ghali’s tenure in office was the claim that he did not do enough to stop the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s. As a Coptic Christian married to an Egyptian Jewess, Leah, one would have thought that Washington would view him favourably as a man after its own heart. But it was the Americans who vetoed extending Boutros-Ghali’s tenure as secretary-general.

According to Shake Hands with the Devil, an account of the Rwandan genocide by the Canadian retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, we “watched as the devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people we were supposed to protect”. Dallaire chillingly details how the international community chose to ignore the mass hysteria that engulfed Rwanda. He was the highest-ranking UN commander to expose the inertia and ineptitude of the world body.

Dallaire was called on to serve as commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda and he witnessed the savagery of the massacres, but he blamed Washington and its European allies and not Boutros-Ghali for the genocide. According to the Rwandan government, 1.2 million people lost their lives, and Boutros-Ghali, in a retrospective mood, conceded that the Rwandan catastrophe was “my worst failure” at the United Nations.

A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide by UK journalist Linda Melvern is another blood-curdling account of how the West failed to heed the warnings of the impending catastrophe. According to Melvern, a set of secret documents leaked to the author from within the Security Council proves that the circumstances of the genocide were suppressed or ignored.

Boutros-Ghali did not want to overstay in power as the world’s top diplomat, for the sad truth was that he had restricted powers. His detractors accuse him of being responsible for the UN’s failure to act more decisively during the Rwandan genocide, but the logic is wobbly, like Albright’s.

Was the Rwandan Genocide an unforeseen disaster or was it premeditated murder on a mass scale? The world failed Rwanda during the genocide, and it must “deeply repent,” conceded Boutros-Ghali’s successor Annan.

Boutros-Ghali was a prolific writer, and he was certainly no doormat. In Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga, written in 1999, he defends his record at the UN and points an accusing finger at the United States. Washington, he expounds, threatened the fragile fabric of the international organisation. By only selectively consulting the Security Council, the United States frequently condemned the United Nations to the status of a scapegoat in international affairs, notably during peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda.

Some Somalis suspect that Boutros-Ghali was the “mastermind” behind the Somalia crisis, as part of a personal vendetta against the rebel military leader Mohamed Farah Aidid. It was even believed by his suspicious Somali critics that he requested the 12 July 1993 US helicopter attack on a meeting of Habr Gidr clan leaders that led to a vendetta in which, in the words of the US newspaper the Wall Street Journal, “18 soldiers and two Black Hawk helicopters were lost,” making it “often remembered as a tragic fiasco”.

Boutros-Ghali knew that the Somali conundrum was far more complex than the international media made it out to be. Aidid the elder was the recognised leader of the Habr Gidr, one of Somalia’s most influential tribal clans. How did a United States marine, Hussein Mohamed Farah Aidid, son of the assassinated general and who resided in Los Angeles, become the successor to his father?

Why was Boutros-Ghali unable to muster support in the UN for intervention during the Angolan civil war? Why was he reluctant to bomb the Serbs in Bosnia? The US diplomat Richard Holbrooke categorically stated that Washington was opposed to Boutros-Ghali because of the latter’s reluctance to approve the NATO bombing in Bosnia. US commentator Stanley Meisler suggests that then-US President Bill Clinton sought to veto Boutros-Ghali’s second term in office at the UN in order to increase his own popularity.

Ironically, in October 1995 Clinton lavishly praised Boutros-Ghali for his “outstanding leadership” and “vision”. To add insult to injury, while campaigning for the US presidential elections, the Republican candidate Bob Dole zoomed ahead by repeatedly deriding Boutros-Ghali.

In short, Boutros-Ghali’s failure to secure a second term was more to do with American domestic politics than with international blunders. The song and dance about his supposed incompetence was in fact all about the 1996 US presidential elections.

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