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close this bookThe Courier N 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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View the documentSalim Ahmed Salim, OAU Secretary-General

Salim Ahmed Salim, OAU Secretary-General

“Individually none of our countries in Africa is in a position to have any serious, meaningful impact on the world scene”

During his recent visit to Brussels, the Secretary-General of the OAU gave an interview to The Courier in which he discussed the political and economic situation in Africa and looked to the future of the continent with a fair amount of optimism.

· Secretary-Gerneral, would you summarise the main objective and results of your visit to Brussels?

- Well, the objective of my visit in Brussels, was, first, to make contact with the ACP Group of States and the OAU Group here, with Belgian government officials and also to establish contact with EEC officials.

I had a very good meeting with the ACP Group and its Secretary-General, Dr Ghebray Berhane, with the Belgian Minister of Cooperation and the Foreign Minister as well as with the Director of the Centre for the Development of Industry, Dr Akinrele.

On the whole, I am satisfied with the visit in the sense that I am able to understand more about the sentiments and the priorities that I touched here in Brussels. I believe I was able, also, to project our own priorities and our own feelings about what is going on.

· On African matters, have you had specific discussions with either the Belgian Authorities or the EEC officials here, and what have you learned from those discussions which could prove useful for your future action?

- With both the Belgian Authorities and with the EEC officials we naturally discussed the changes in Europe and their impact on Africa, and what are the concerns of Africa in general. On both situations, both the Belgian Authorities and the EEC officials made it very clear to me that, with respect to a possible diversion of official assistance from Europe, or from the Community, to Eastern Europe, this is not in the pipeline. The assistance which has been earmarked for Africa will continue, but both also understood our own concern that really it’s not just a question of official development assistance, it is a question of attitudes and the whole perception that people have of Africa. I was told, for example, of something called - it’s the first time I heard it here “Afro-pessimism”, whatever that means. So, my point has been really that we understand, as Africans, that in the final analysis things will be better or worse off depending on how we Africans do - our own action. But we also understand - and it’s a point which has to be made - that Africa is not an island. It is affected by developments in the world, by decisions made by the world, and, to that extent, there are some decisions which are made which affect Africa and over which Africans have no control.

It is those decisions which really sometimes make a difference between the development or otherwise of our continent.

So while we Africans will make our own appraisal of the situation in the continent, and what is to be done to meet with the global changes, it is very important also that it is understood that some of the decisions which are made and which have a direct adverse effect on Africa are also responsible for some of the situations in our continent today. This has been my message here in Brussels, as well as in Paris, and in London, and it’s a message which I will continue to make because it is an important one. We have a problem in getting it through - people talk about the situation in the continent, the lack of democracy, of lack of human rights, the corruption and so on. People really tend to emphasise the negative aspects. I am not in any way justifying these negatives, but there are so many other things that are happening in Africa which are hardly reported or taken into account.

· Such as?

- Well, for one thing, the shattering of the myth that Africans don’t work hard - that if only we would work harder, things would be better. That’s a myth. Our people work hard - and I’m saying our people in every part of the continent. You go to the rural areas, you see how people work under the most difficult conditions and what is the result? Definitely, you have an increase in production, whether it is cotton, coffee, cocoa, groundouts, what have you. Sometimes you double or triple production and what is the result? You earn less, because you do not fix the price of the raw materials and of the commodities. And the reverse is not the case. You tell me if there has ever been an occasion in recent history where an African has been in a position to buy a tractor, or a spare part, or a car, or even fertiliser, at a lesser price than the price at which he bought them last year.

“Two factors have brought about the present changes in South Africa”

· One of the most important African problems is the question of South Africa. How does the OAU view the developments there and what can it do to help Nelson Mandela from now on?

- There are changes in South Africa which have to be encouraged. The release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC organisation, some of the steps taken by Mr De Klerk, are changes which Africa has welcomed; but these changes are not sufficient. They have not yet touched the fundamentals of the problem. The fundamental South African situation is a struggle to end a system which is anachronistic, and which has been characterised by the world community as a crime against humanity. A system where a person is judged not by his contribution but by the colour of his skin. And that system is intact.

So the struggle against apartheid is the actual raison-d’e of the international consensus behind the support for the nationalist struggle in South Africa. We must recognise the changes but we must also recognise what hasn’t changed. What hasn’t changed is that the apartheid system is still intact and that some of the trappings of apartheid, some of its consequences are now beginning to be redressed. But it is very important to maintain the pressure on the South African regime, so that the changes which have been started are not forgotten.

And these pressures include, first and foremost, the economic sanctions. Because what has brought about the present changes in South Africa has two factors: the resistance of the African people and the other anti-apartheid forces in South Africa, and the pressure of the international community. These two pressures must continue. It’s not simply a question of helping Mandela, it’s a question of continuing the struggle for which the world community as a whole has been striving. We have to maintain the momentum of the pressure against this regime. At the same time we have to create conditions which will allow the African National Congress, and other anti-apartheid forces to be able to operate effectively within South Africa in the new atmosphere. In other words, to give them the necessary backup, the necessary assistance and the necessary logistical support which is so useful now in order for this movement to operate as a political organisation in South Africa.

“A question of a system”

· Would you consider that Mr De Klerk’s words are “sweet-sounding words” still?

- The issue is not words. The issue is not whether one has confidence in someone. The issue is not even a question of the integrity of an individual. For example, with Mr De Klerk, Mr Mandela has said repeatedly that he thinks he’s an honest man - he is trying. But Mr Mandela himself has also said, and of course this is a point which has to be emphasised - that, it is not a questions of how good, or how well intentioned Mr De Klerk is; it is a question of a system.

The apartheid system remains, racial laws continue to prevail in South Africa; the various draconian legislations which keep the African people in what is considered to be their place - permanent underdogs, permanent underprivileged people in their own society. This is the struggle, this is the situation. So really what we are interested in is what sort of measures are taken to put into practice the declarations that are made. Mr De Klerk, I would say without any hesitation, compared to his predecessors has really made tremendous changes, but these dramatic changes are in the context of, and in comparison to, what his predecessors have done. In the context of the actual situation in South Africa, things have not fundamentally changed.

· What do you see as the principal preoccupation of your Organisation at present?

- The question of South Africa will continue to be an area of utmost priority and concern for the Organisation of African Unity, first, because without South African freedom, Africa cannot claim to be completely free; secondly, and more fundamentally, the creation in South Africa of a democratic non-racial united State will make a major impact on Africa’s other objective, namely the struggle for the development of our continent.

But apart from South Africa and with the independence of Namibia - the process of decolonisation in the continent is over, and this is one major achievement of the OAU. The major priority of our Organisation right now is the development of our people. That is where we have a very hard and challenging task ahead of us. So our Organisation’s priorities will be clearly devoted to the issues of economic development, the welfare of the African people, to ensuring that Africa is not marginalised in the context of the international scene. And we can only do this by ensuring that the declarations and the decisions which have been made by our leaders, in various fore, on different occasions, are put into practice and, more particularly, the thrust of economic cooperation into African cooperation and the eventual creation of an integrated African community.

To do so, also, we have to look inward and address ourselves seriously to some of the problems facing our continent, particularly the problem of inter-African conflicts. Internal African conflicts will clearly be to the forefront in the agenda of our leaders in our Organisation, because without peace and stability one cannot seriously talk in terms of development. So Africa’s, and the OAU’s, priorities will be to try and settle inter-African problems, to try and promote inter-African cooperation and to really try for the implementation of those decisions which have been taken by our leaders and which so far have remained unimplemented.

· But reports say that the OAU has not been really achieving so much in terms of solving internal conflicts between its Member States. How can you explain that? Is it due to the structure or is there another explanation such as ideological differences between the Member States?

- It is true that, on the issue of conflicts resolution, the OAU has not made the type of progress that we would have liked to make, and to that extent I think our Organisation has to face a serious challenge in this direction. Let me digress a bit. These issues of conflicts among African countries should not be exaggerated. I’m not saying that conflicts in Africa should not be resolved, but it should not be presumed that it is only in Africa where conflicts remain unresolved. There are also cultural conflicts in Asia, in Latin America, even in Europe and they do not stop economic and political cooperation and progress among these countries and continents. Having said that, I will put it to you this way: I don’t think that, as Africans, we can afford these conflicts.

Most of our countries are in extreme economic difficulty. Very little collective attention was devoted to what I would call a continental approach to the inter-African political problem. But also there was a question of one’s interpretation of what the OAU can do or shouldn’t do. In our opinion, with decolonialisation over, with the global changes taking place, with ideology becoming more and more irrelevant in the actual context of world situation and world politics, Africa has no option but to look inward and to try and resolve some of these problems. If we are to have a voice in the world, it is my firm submission that Africa cannot afford to be marginalised. By collective action, through African cooperation and unity, no country and no combination of countries can afford to ignore Africa.

“What we have to do now”

· Do you think that the OAU should now revise its structure in order to focus on economic issues, and should it try, particularly to smooth out ideological clashes within the Member countries?

- Different continents and different organisations have different histories and the OAU history is such that we had first to focus on the political matters, because we are talking in terms of freedom of our people. How could we talk in terms of unity and economic cooperation when at the time of the founding of the Organisation almost one third of the continent was under colonial domination? Clearly the focus was political ... a united position for the onslaught against colonialism. But even then the OAU Charter clearly talked in terms of economic cooperation among the African countries. Even then, there was emphasis on such areas as transport and communications between our countries, and even the creation of specialised Commissions - the Commission for Economic and Social Development, the Commission for Science, Culture and Education, the Military Commission as well as the Commission on Conciliation and Arbitration. The only thing that went wrong is that, because of the politics of the moment, the emphasis was almost exclusively put on the political field, while all these other institutions remain almost dormant.

What we have to do now - in the light of the changes in Africa itself, the changes in the world, the fact that we have to focus on economic development and technical and social cooperation - is to revive quickly the machinery which exists within the OAU to ensure that it functions and also to update it, and to make the necessary reforms which will take into account the reality.

We are now preparing a draft for the establishment of the African Economic Community. But the African Economic Community is going to be a product of a result of the many areas of sub-regional cooperation which are taking place. There is already a number of economic subregional groups such as ECOWAS, SADCC, the PTA, the ECAS in Central Africa and there is the UMA in the Maghreb. So really, since the focus is on economic cooperation, we’ll have to see also how the OAU institutions are structured in such a manner as to be able to face this objective.

“The African economies have been more or less mixed “

· What is your feeling about the impact of ideologies, different models of economic development, on the OAU’s action to achieve this very important economic objective you’ve just described?

- I don’t frankly believe the problem in Africa which has militated against African economic integration has been ideological at all. All African economies are either mixed economies or capitalist economies. They have never been any different. I don’t want anyone to tell me which African country could have been described as what I would call purely socialist, scientific socialist. There’s none. There have been declarations on marxism. There have been declarations on one type of political position. But essentially the African economies have been more or less mixed, a combination of state and private enterprise. So really that’s not the issue. The issue is that, all along, African countries have not really focussed seriously and meaningfully on the question of economic cooperation among themselves. We have paid more lip service to the question of economic cooperation than we have really translated into concrete action.

What I’m saying to you now is that we could afford to do that, maybe, in the sixties, maybe in the seventies, in the early eighties. Now we cannot afford to do this because the requirements of the situation in the continent are such that African countries, to be able to make meaningful progress, have to have their own rightful position in the world scene, they have to work as a cohesive unit.

· Do you think that the Lomonvention can help, to a certain extent, in the development of Africa?

- The Lomonvention is going to help us for another 10 years. Naturally, because we are committed to this Convention, we expect, and we have every reason to believe that our desire for intra-African cooperation, for economic integration of African countries, will also be seen by our partners in the Lomonvention as one of the important priority of focus in our economic cooperation.

There is no argument that we are bound by this Convention for the next 10 years, and our partners, also, are saying, notwithstanding whatever is happening in Europe, and in the world, things are going as far as their own commitments are concerned, to be there. So the question is within the context of these commitments. I would like to believe that there would be greater attention and a greater focus on Africa’s efforts towards economic integration.

· To what extent have you solved some of the Organisation’s internal difficulties which were in the headlines of the newspapers before your election - the financial issue for example?

- First, no single person can change an institution, or is required to change an institution. The process for the better is a continuous process. It started with my predecessors and I will continue with this process and my successors will follow.

What we have been trying to do in the last few months is to rationalise our own work programme’ to improve the working methods and efficiency of the Organisation. In terms of the present manpower allocation, we have also been trying to respond more favourably to the needs and requirements of the situation. Again, we have increasingly been impressing issues like economic cooperation upon our Heads of State and to a certain extent, the response has been quite encouraging. This is an African institution, voluntarily created by African States to serve African interests. It is a premier pan-African institution. It is the only institution where Heads of State meet at least once a year. And where foreign ministers meet at least twice a year. It embodies the aspirations of our people, and the collective decisions of our leaders.

This institution must be given the resources. If we are to appear serious to our own people, to say nothing of the outside world, we must first equip our institution with the resources it demands; we must take all our African institutions seriously. If we don’t want these organisations, we can decide to wind them up. But for as long as these institutions are there, they are supposed to serve African interests. And it is Africa’s obligation and responsibility, first and foremost, to ensure that the institution, which they have themselves created, must serve the interests of our people, and they can only do so by being given resources. The question of contribution is still not satisfactory, but there has been a marked improvement. Some Member States have been paying their arrears. So the contributions have been forthcoming, but I am still of the opinion that there is no reason whatsoever for anyone not to be able to pay his or her contribution.

Let me say I understand very clearly the very difficult economic situation which our countries are facing, but obligations are obligations, and this is an institution which was created by the Heads of State. I am confident that, as the months and years go by, more and more countries will live up to their obligations and more and more countries will live up to their responsibilities because, as I said at the beginning, we don’t have an alternative. The OAU is the vehicle which can serve pan-African interests. If we ignore it, if we do not equip the OAU, then we are talking in terms of acting individually - and individually none of our countries in Africa, not even the most powerful, are in a position to have any serious, meaningful impact on the world scene. But through the OAU, through the collective inspiration and expressions of Africa, no country, no power block, no combination in the world, no continent can ignore Africa.

Interview by