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As UN marks 75 years, let us work together to realize the opportunities in African unity

Ms. Fatima Kyari Mohammed is the Permanent Observer and Head of Mission of the African Union to the United Nations. She spoke to Africa Renewal about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, marking a milestone year in the fight for women’s rights and reflections on the African Union’s relationship with the UN in its 75th year. Here are the excerpts:

Ms. Fatima Kyari Mohammed is the Permanent Observer and Head of Mission of the African Union to the United Nations

Ms. Fatima Kyari Mohammed is the Permanent Observer and Head of Mission of the African Union to the United Nations

How is COVID-19 affecting Africa’s priorities such as the Sustainable Development Goals and Africa’s Agenda 2063?

As you are aware, Agendas 2030 and 2063 are very much aligned. Priority areas such as ending poverty and hunger, achieving food security and addressing some of the broader socio-economic challenges in health, education and employment, particularly for the most vulnerable, have been greatly impacted in ways that were not foreseen even a year ago. The pandemic has forced us to refocus our attention in some areas and re-allocate resources. COVID-19 has shown us how interconnected the world is. No individual, country or region is immune to this reality.

How has it impacted your work?

Just like everyone else, we have had to reorganize to ensure we are able to deliver on our commitments and our mandate. We shifted some priorities. It was important to understand the pandemic and its implications and try to overcome the hurdles that come with it.

Africa’s continent-wide response slowed the spread of the pandemic earlier this year. How can the countries better deal with this challenge?   

The advantage for Africa with the pandemic has been two-fold. First, drawing lessons from the Ebola outbreak, many African countries quickly put in place measures for curbing the spread of COVID-19 well ahead of time. Second, in terms of timing, the pandemic hit the continent at a time when many other regions were already going through the worst of it. So, we had ample time to learn from the experiences of others.

Currently, through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the African Union (AU) is supporting public health institutions across the continent through innovation and strategic partnerships.

We are coordinating and providing integrated solutions to our public health systems particularly where there is weak or inadequate infrastructure by offering training and equipment so that countries are better prepared to respond to future health emergencies and disasters.

How can Africa recover better from the pandemic?

The biggest blow for most African countries is that socio-economic gains have been hindered. The impact on economic development is devastating. Beyond the impact on health and education, economic stress on people is of major concern.

Countries should use this experience as an opportunity to rebuild better and stronger. The impact on jobs, businesses, and family incomes means that responses and strategies we put in place must focus on ways and means to support those hardest hit. We need smart investments and policies that can eradicate extreme poverty and provide access and equal opportunities for all.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is making a case for the bridging of inequality in a post-COVID-19 development order. How could the AU, including your office, help actualize the SG’s vision for the benefit of the continent?

Partnership between the AU and the UN is a top priority for us. The Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, strongly supports the UN Secretary-General’s appeal for collective action against this scourge and for a global ceasefire. We can only contain the pandemic if we work together. The AU Observer Mission to the UN will continue to support the vision and the priorities of both institutions.

Several studies show that women are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. What is the role of women in the recovery process?

It is true that even before the pandemic hit, we advocated for women’s full participation in decision making. Economies are stronger and peace processes more successful with women’s active participation. Women can achieve success, from the lowest community level and up. I would encourage women to continue to speak up against injustices and for one another. This pandemic has increased incidences of gender-based violence, which should not be tolerated. If we truly want to make a change, we, men and women, must keep advocating, educating and exposing perpetrators of gender-based violence.

2020 is a milestone year for women—with Beijng+25, UNSC Resolution 1325+20, and 15 years since the Maputo Protocol entered into force—all of which challenge old stereotypes about the role of women in society. To what extent have African countries achieved progress in gender equality?

The progress made by Africa since the Beijing 4th Conference on Women in 1995 is commendable, but we still have a long way to go. We have strong, progressive, global and continental policies, strategies and action plans on women, peace and security. Yet women and girls continue to bear the brunt of conflicts in Africa. They are the victims of sexual violence and other forms of abuse and they are underrepresented in peace processes at the local, national and continental levels. The AU’s strategy on gender equality is aligned with the UNSC Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security agenda.

However, implementation still remains a challenge, including the meaningful participation of women in peace and security activities. This milestone should revitalize the need for women’s voices to be heard in the peace and security agenda. There is no doubt that the AU’s partnership with women’s organizations across the continent is the vehicle for concrete actions.

The African Union’s Peace and Security Council recently adopted the Continental Framework on Youth, Peace and Security. How do you envisage the role of young people in the attainment of peace and security in Africa?

Despite the adoption of the framework you referred to, we are still at the very beginning of this journey. Today’s youth—the largest generation of young people in history—are marginalized, excluded, exploited and easily drawn into conflict. Many young people, especially young women, lack resources and opportunities to realize their potential and participate in political, peace and security processes. Instead, they are vulnerable, especially during conflicts.

The framework itself reinforces the call for action on youth, peace and security in Africa. Its adoption is a recognition that young people are Africa’s greatest asset. It helps expand possibilities for active youth involvement in decision-making processes as well as planning and programming.

The UN is supporting the AU’s campaign on ‘Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020.’ What does it mean for Africa when the guns are silent and how is your office working with the international community to achieve this goal?

Let me put the question into context: The Silencing the Guns (STGs) in Africa initiative was a pledge by African leaders in May 2013 to end all wars on the continent by 2020. As you know, STGs is a critical element of Africa’s Agenda 2063, and the AU Peace and Security Council later adopted a Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to silence the guns by 2020. The roadmap emphasizes structural interventions in several areas such as socio-economic development, youth and women’s empowerment, employment, education, climate change and governance.

We are working with partners to shift the narrative and ensure sustainable peace on the continent. But we still have a lot of work to do in carrying the international community along. Silencing the guns in Africa means being able to develop and move forward and build a peaceful and prosperous continent for our people.

As the UN turns 75, how critical has the organization been to Africa’s peace, security and development?

The partnership between the AU and UN in peace and security is very relevant.  The two organizations work together in many areas. We have annual consultations, a joint taskforce, we go on joint field visits and carry out mediation efforts. We also cooperate on electoral matters and governance, as well as the protection of human rights, among others.

Africa continues to make a case for more representation on the UN Security Council (UNSC). What is the strongest argument for such a case?

As you are aware, Africa has a common position on the UNSC reform. Africa has consistently made the case for representation in the “Permanent” category of the Council. Also, there is a need for more African representation in the “non-Permanent” category in order to achieve true and meaningful reform of the UN Security Council. Equitable geographical representation in line with the principles, objectives and ideals of the UN Charter can only lead to a fairer and more equitable world.

At any one time, there are three African states holding non-Permanent seats in the UN Security Council, the so-called A3. What would you say are the three top achievements of the A3 in recent times in advancing Africa’s agenda?

First, there has been stronger coordination among the members, particularly in the last couple of years. This has helped in championing Africa’s common positions, interests and concerns on issues of peace and security that are on the UN Security Council’s agenda.

Second, we have now established annual meetings between AUPSC [African Union Peace and Security Council] and the UNSC. It demonstrates a commitment by the two councils to work together on matters of peace and security in Africa. The A3 ensures effective consultations.

Third, the A3 has helped create opportunities for alliances with other member of the UNSC, ensuring that they support our global cause for world peace.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is touted as Africa’s next big thing. Why should Africans be hopeful?

The objective of the AfCFTA is to leverage the opportunity of a huge population of approximately 1.3 billion people and an estimated combined GDP of $3.4 trillion by creating a single market for goods and services, facilitating free movement of goods and people, accelerating investments and potentially establishing a Customs Union.

The AfCFTA could lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty by 2035. So, why should African not be hopeful? The AfCFTA is our ambition for collective progress and development. Of course, there are policies and regulatory measures that need to be in place, but some of these are already being put in place in countries and the sub-regions.

What message of hope do you have for Africans during this trying period?

As we mark the 75th year of the UN, we must reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic and work together in combating it and cooperating for sustainable recovery. As I said earlier, the pandemic has exposed many gaps, but it has also reinforced the fact that we live in an interconnected world. As Africans, we must recognize the potential and opportunities in African unity and work together.

We are all part of humankind. We cannot ignore the fact that the world is hurting. Collective action, mutual respect, and regard for international rules and norms are crucial if we must achieve our common objectives.  In short, multilateralism matters.

Article first appeared in Africa Renewal on 29 September 2020.