15 June 2005

The appointment of Ibrahim Agboola Gambari as Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs is an indication that Secretary General Kofi Annan was regaining some of his clout and that the African group has finally retrieved some of its lost prestige. Those with institutional memmory will recall the effective role played by Ambassador Gambari in 1991 as chairman of the African group in facilitating the election of the first African Secretary General. When delegates from that continent with varied candidates were about to lose their focus, he ably pulled everyone together behind a consensus shortlist.

It took six months of high pressure diplomatic maneuvers to make the appointment. The British realized that, with two other Under-Secretary Generals in the Cabinet of the Secretary General and Security, they could not hang on to the post vacated by Sir Kieran Prendergast. The Americans, who originally held the post until the late eighties did not seek it. They had already proposed a newly appointed USG for Administration and Management and a new UNICEF chief. Some Europeans went for it on the claim that they had lost UNDP, although a Portuguese was appointed for UNHCR and a Swede for IOIS, the internal oversight office. The Italian ambassador to Paris was mentioned, although the Italians have the Vienna Office and the (almost fictitious) Drug Control Program.

By early June, it came down to two internal names well known and personally appreciated by the Secretary General: Danilo Turk and Ibrahim Gambari. Turk, an Assistant Secretary General and former Permanent Representative of Slovenia was getting such strong support from certain senior officials that one of them, who has contacts with the media and claims the ear of the Secretary General passed on his wishful thinking as a done deal. On Wednesday 8 June, a confident reporter asked during the briefing when will Mr. Turk's appointment be announced. A surprised yet cool spokesman correctly responded that no decision was yet made but that it was expected within days. Obviously, the capable and highly regarded Slovenian diplomat had nothing to do with the ploy to force the Secretary General's hand; neither did the unsuspecting reporter. Two days later, on Friday, Professor Gambari, former Nigerian Foreign Minister and Permanent Representative was officially named to take over as of 1 July.

Despite, or ironically because of, his strong credentials, Mr. Gambari did not have an easy time since he joined the Secretariat as a Special Adviser in 1999. He had to work almost single-handedly together with an experienced and loyal personal assistant while gaining support for two important achievements: the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and a 2003 agreement over Angola where he helped shape the reintegration of ex-soldiers, the organization of the electoral process and the mobilization of resources for a successful international donor's conference. As reported in an earlier issue, that achievement drove some in New York to propose keeping him regularly in Luanda, away from an influential presence at headquarters. Now they have him as the top Political official next to the Secretary General. Good for him.