Will the new UN secretary-general put Africa first?


The election of a new UN secretary-general reaches a crucial stage this week.



Tensions are rising as the race for a new United Nations (UN) secretary-general, to replace the outgoing Ban Ki-moon, enters a decisive phase. A crucial voting session will be held in New York today, 5 October. Bulgaria also entered a surprise last-minute candidate, hoping that she would increase the country’s chances to clinch the position.


Today’s secret straw poll, which is non-binding, will be the first in which the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) are allowed to indicate a veto for one of the candidates through colour-coded ballots. The previous five straw polls were undifferentiated – they only indicated whether members ‘encourage’ or ‘discourage’ a candidate, and there was no difference in votes by permanent or non-permanent members. These are, however, still preliminary votes before a final voting session takes place.


In the current polarised climate, with the United States (US) and Russia facing off over the war in Syria, the election could be another occasion for a show of force between the world’s big powers. If this happens and the final lap becomes a tit-for-tat exchange between the veto-wielding members, it will deal a heavy blow to an organisation already suffering from a lack of credibility due to the delay in reforming the UN Security Council (UNSC).


For now, former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, who has just finished 10 years as head of the UN High Commission for Refugees, is the clear frontrunner. Yet he doesn’t meet the two criteria that many nations want to see fulfilled: he is not from Eastern Europe, and he isn’t a woman.


A confrontation between the big powers could lead to a weak candidate being elected

There has never been UN secretary-general from Eastern Europe. Although there is not a written rule, many members – Russia especially – believe the region is now owed a turn. In the last poll on 26 September, the former Serbian foreign minister, Vuk Jeremić came second after Guterres.


An earlier favourite, Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, the head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, fell back into sixth position out of the remaining nine candidates. Bulgaria last week fielded another candidate, European Union Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, hoping she would do better than Bokova.


Leading gender activists have been campaigning for some time for a woman secretary-general – which would be a first in the history of the organisation. Last week, the campaign to elect a woman UN secretary-general said the outcomes of the last straw poll indicated ‘disgraceful discrimination against women’. Ban Ki-moon and former secretary-general Kofi Annan have also spoken in favour of a woman candidate.


Guterres might also fall foul of the perpetual stand-offs between the permanent members of the UNSC. If, for example, Russia decides to veto him, the US could retaliate against a candidate backed by Russia, like Jeremić or Bokova.


Even though this is the most open and transparent election of the secretary-general in the 70-year history of the organisation, a confrontation between the big powers could lead to a weak candidate being elected as a compromise, which would be very damaging.


Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), says if this happened, the election would once again show that veto power is at the heart of the problem of reforming the UN. ‘Everyone agrees in principle that there should be reform, but it is the detail that counts. We need to get rid of the idea that some countries have absolute power,’ says Cilliers.


Gender activists have been campaigning for a woman secretary-general

Cilliers has been driving Elect the Council, a campaign that proposes radical changes to the UN, which does not merely mean enlarging or adjusting the UNSC to make it more representative. ‘It goes beyond Ezulweni [Africa’s call for two permanent members on the UNSC] and other groupings. We have to redesign the whole system,’ he says.


Africa takes up a lot of the UN’s time and resources. More than half of UN peacekeepers deployed around the world are on the continent: yet Africa doesn’t have a big say, or a candidate, in these elections. Currently Senegal, Egypt and Angola serve as non-permanent members of the UNSC.


Anton du Plessis, ISS Executive Director, says the new secretary-general will play an important role in determining whether African issues are prioritised. Unfortunately this is not the case at the moment, given the focus on the war in Syria and the global migration issue. ‘The UN secretary-general should remind leaders that Africa is key to solving the root causes of many of these problems.’


For Africa, the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by UN members last year was a huge accomplishment. However, it will be the task of the secretary-general to make sure the focus doesn’t remain only on the concerns of Western countries – like counter-terrorism or migration – but will be recalibrated to focus more broadly on development issues, says du Plessis.


Du Plessis agrees that the transparency of the election process is key in getting the buy-in of Africans and restoring some of the credibility of the organisation. The UN has been the target of anti-establishment movements worldwide, including in Africa.


The transparency of the election process is key in getting buy-in from African states

Many African leaders once again called for reform during the UN General Assembly debates in New York last month. These included Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who criticised the ‘opaqueness’ of the election process for a new secretary-general, and the ‘unfair and unjust’ composition of the UNSC. At a news conference, Mugabe reportedly threatened a withdrawal from the UN by African nations if reform doesn’t happen.


Still, Africa relies heavily on the UN for many things – from conflict prevention to humanitarian aid.


For Africa, a crucial issue currently is whether the UN will cooperate more closely with the African Union (AU) when it comes to future peacekeeping efforts. At the AU summit in Kigali earlier this year, heads of states adopted a plan for Africa to finance 25% of AU peacekeeping operations. For the plan to succeed, the UN will have to guarantee that the remaining 75% is covered by assessed UN contributions. This is far from certain, because many big powers have reservations about giving the AU control over peace operations that are largely financed by the UN.


A new secretary-general should also have to ensure that stronger action is taken against peacekeepers accused of sexual abuse. Blue helmets serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic have been accused of sexually exploiting vulnerable women and children – those whom they were supposed to protect.


The current attention on the migration of refugees to Europe is focused mainly on those from Syria – but there are also tens of thousands of Africans who risk their lives to get to Europe every year. Africa should be part of the debate on how to crack down on human smuggling and on ensuring development to help curb economically motivated migration. The position of many African leaders is that migration is a natural, unstoppable phenomenon that should be managed through legal channels, rather than building walls to keep immigrants out.


A crucial issue is whether the UN will cooperate more closely with the AU

Africa’s voice should also be heard when it comes to solving crises like the civil war in Libya. Africa has been largely side-lined since the 2011 intervention in Libya by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and yet it continues to bear the brunt of the fall-out from this crisis, notably with terror networks spreading across the Sahel.


The current secretary-general has been actively involved in trying to solve some of these conflicts, including those in South Sudan, where UN peacekeepers have been accused of standing by while civilians are being slaughtered. He has also spoken out against the extension of mandates by African leaders.


His successor will have to be a strong candidate, elected through a transparent and fair process, in order for him or her to continue with this work and to do even better in ensuring Africa’s voice is heard and its needs are prioritised.


Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant