Ibrahim Gambari, a veteran diplomat and scholar who retired from the United Nations in 2012, is now heading a Nigerian-based think tank ‘with a difference’. The Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD), located in Abuja, focuses on the inter-connection between peacemaking, democracy and economic development. Professor Gambari earned a bachelor’s degree from The London School of Economics and Masters and Doctorate degrees in political science and international relations from Columbia University in New York. He has taught at several American universities and Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria, and he serves as Chancellor of Kwara State University in Ilorin, Nigeria. His diplomatic career began when he was tapped from academia in 1984 to be foreign minister by then head-of-state Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. After serving as Nigeria’s ambassador at the United Nations, he became an Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and held a succession of senior UN posts. During an interview with Allafrica’s Reed Kramer, Gambari outlined what is required for Nigeria to hold a successful election and how the Savannah Centre can contribute, and he reflects on how the recent National Conference demonstrates that consensus is attainable.

You’ve been at this diplomatic business for a while!

Yes, I was privileged to become Foreign Minister of Nigeria at the age of 39, a civilian in a military government and I had the honor of serving for almost 10 years as the Nigerian Ambassador to the United Nations – under five Heads of State/Presidents and seven Foreign Ministers. I went to the United Nations Secretariat first as the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Africa, then Special Representative of the Secretary-General/Head of the United Nations Mission in Angola, and later became the first non-Western Head of the Department of Political Affairs in its present configuration. Subsequently, I served as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Myanmar and for the Iraq Compact. Finally, I was the Head of the first and only joint peacekeeping operation between the United Nations and the African Union, UNAMID – the African Union – United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur. And I retired from the UN two years ago.

Having done all that, why are you now turning your energy towards establishing a think tank in Nigeria?

My primary background is as an academician. The opportunity to train, to teach and inform, was the basis of my desire to establish the Savannah Center to focus on the nexus between peace, democracy and development. I’ve called it Savannah because it is located in Abuja and that part of Nigeria is a savannah. I was inspired by two UN Secretaries-General, both Africans – Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan. They both wrote seminal reports. Boutros-Ghali issued a report in 1992 called “An Agenda for Peace” in which he laid out a post-Cold War agenda and argued that there can be no development without peace and emphasized the need for preventative diplomacy and conflict resolution. He followed that in 1994 with “Agenda for Development”, wherein he further argued that there can be no durable peace without sustainable development. In 2005, Annan issued “In Larger Freedom” in which he argued that there can neither be peace nor development unless people have the right to decide who will rule them and how.

That is what helped inspire me to establish a think tank that will pull the three together. Peace, development and democracy are inextricably linked. Other think tanks deal with one or other of these three, but I’m arguing that it is vital to examine the nexus between them. We are starting small but thinking big. We want to be a world class think tank. We presently have an office and a skeletal staff, and we have three main projects. The first is the 2015 elections in Nigeria because we’re convinced that a free and fair election is an absolute prerequisite for peace and stability, for socio-economic development as well as for the development of democracy in Nigeria. And the impact will not be limited to Nigeria. We’re working with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and also with the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) in Nigeria to see how we can convene people to sit down to look at the rules of the game, to examine the conditions for a free and fair election in Nigeria, so that the outcome will win broad acceptance because it respects the will of the people.

The second focus is the security situation in the North-east. We feel the efforts that have been made tend to be piecemeal. We recommend a comprehensive, carefully calibrated and sustained program to deal with the insurgency and extremism. This is a national issue. The insurgency and terrorism there are not sectional issues, nor are they regional issues, because the impact is not going to be limited to the North-east. Finally – and this is very dear to my heart – we are developing a training program for diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We want to help in re-professionalizing the Ministry. Professionalism has slipped there, like in so many other institutions in Nigeria.

What’s your timetable?

I would say that within a year we will be fully-functioning. Eventually, of course, there will be a permanent site for this think tank. But we are not concerned now with the physical building, rather we are concentrating on programs. We’re getting some very good interest from potential funders for our programs, and that is what we are concentrating on now.

Concerning the 2015 election, what do you think has to happen to ensure that voting is free and fair and that the outcome is recognized in Nigeria and internationally?

There are three aspects. First, there’s the technical aspect. Professor Jega (the INEC Chairman) is an academic colleague and someone I respect. INEC is establishing a growing credibility in terms of technical proficiency in conducting elections. They have experience now – Ekiti and Osun State in the South-west of Nigeria. But of course these were state elections. The challenge is how to establish technical competence in all the states of Nigeria in multiple elections within a very short period. Time is not on anybody’s side because state and national elections will be held in February 2015.

The second aspect is the security. Some people argue that there was too much militarization of the logistics and the environment for the elections in Ekiti and Osun States. Be that as it may, the security agencies and INEC at least provided a sense of security for those who wanted to cast their votes. The challenge is, how to duplicate that kind of security presence of all over Nigeria and, at the same time. Then there is the third aspect, which is the education – the political education that needs to be done at three levels. First are those logisticians who are supporting the elections – the military, the police, the security services – that their role is not to intimidate. Their role is not to take sides. Their role is to be facilitators. Secondly, the officers of INEC. They have to be like Caesar’s wife – above suspicion. And thirdly and most importantly, the contestants in the elections have to really accept the rules of the game and to therefore educate their supporters against violence – to be peaceful, to conduct themselves in ways that will enhance the environment for the voting and for the counting of the votes.

If you put together all these elements, you would then create the climate whereby the outcome could be acceptable to all and would reflect the true wishes of the people. These are enormous challenges but I believe they can be done. And really, there’s no acceptable alternative. There’s no plan B for the free and fair elections in Nigeria.

Given the unrest and state of emergency in the three worst affected states – Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – can elections be conducted there?

So it’s an enormous challenge but it is essential. The Nigerian Constitution is very explicit. To be elected president, you have to not only receive a plurality of votes but you also have to receive not less than 20% of the vote in two-thirds of the states of the Federation. So it is difficult but doable, although you have to have enormous political will on the part of the government and the opposition.

What contribution can you and the Savannah Center make to meeting this challenge?

Lack of trust is a major problem in the North-east. There is tremendous distrust between the people and the governments and also between the governments of the states and the Federal Government. There is also the gap between the Nigerian government and those of the neighboring states, although there are growing efforts to bridge the gap and develop more cooperation. Our role can be to exercise the power of convening. We have the trust and confidence of many on both sides. During my diplomatic career, I dealt with conflict situations across the world and with elections in the midst of those conflicts. For example, in Angola, where there had been a long-lasting civil war, they managed to have elections, including in areas controlled by Unita (the opposition movement). Elections were held but of course Jonas Savimbi (the Unita leader) refused to accept the outcome.

I also worked in Myanmar (Burma) where there are 17 ethnic nationalities that have been at war for over 40 years against the central government. They agreed to a ceasefire, with the ethnic nationalities keeping their weapons, and they were able to hold elections. And in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan – situations of conflict – they have managed to hold elections. It’s really possible to do so, but conditions have to be made peaceful enough for elections to be conducted and the outcomes to be credible.

From my years as a diplomat, I have both experience and contacts to help bring opposing parties together. This Savannah Center could help convince people to address these layers of mistrust and help energize conflict resolution within our country, which is essential not only for the elections but also for ending terrorism in the North-east. We could also contribute towards reestablishing trust between the government of Nigeria and the government of the neighboring countries.

Do you think you can find the financial support needed to carry out such an ambitious agenda?

We do – and we want the support to come principally from Nigeria and from Africa. We also welcome external support but we think those with money in Nigeria should be able to recognize the importance of what we are doing and the contribution we can make to creating an environment conducive to peaceful pursuits by the people, including wealth creation.

You were a prominent participant in the National Conference earlier this year. Do you feel that gathering contributed to national reconciliation?

Many people, including myself, were skeptical when the National Conference was convened, and I think for good reasons. Previous National Conferences ended in disarray largely because there have been overt agendas by those who convened those conferences. But previous Conferences never had this kind of collection of 492 Nigerians – elder statesmen, trade union people, employers, civil society, women’s groups, market women, youth, religious leaders, retired and active politicians and civil servants, professional bodies and traditional rulers. The diversity was immense and unprecedented.

We were there for almost five months addressing the issues of Nigeria, and what impressed me the most is that we had 20 committees on various subjects, and all the reports – with the possible exception of one – were adopted by consensus.Even at Plenary Sessions of the Conference where the Committee Reports were deliberated upon, there was no single time we voted, even though we addressed all the issues, including the most complicated ones facing Nigeria.

Political Cooperation is Possible?

There was broad consensus in addressing the issues except on the issues of the derivation principle and revenue allocations, which of course is understandable. We agreed, nonetheless, that there should be an increase [in the percentage of the Federation’s revenue/ account to be distributed to oil producing States] from the current 13 percent, but we couldn’t agree on what the higher percentage should be. We had to recommend to the Federal Government to set up a technical committee to look further into the issue.

Secondly, we also agreed that the current allocation of the Federal Government revenue to the development of solid minerals, which cuts across all states, should be increased from the present three percent. And we suggested a National Intervention Fund for Stabilization, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction of the areas affected by insurrection and terrorism – in the first instance in the North-east and other parts of the North and any other parts of Nigeria that, God forbid, may be affected. The actual percentages of revenues to be assigned, we left to the Federal Government to decide. These formulations would benefit all states.

To me, the real success of the National Conference was that 492 Nigerians managed to discuss all of the most difficult issues, with no walkouts. There were threats. Voices were raised. There were spoken and unspoken fears. But in the end, what prevailed was that spirit of consensus, that spirit of trying to disagree without being disagreeable. It’s very important for the political process – not dodging difficult issues but confronting them and trying to constructively find a way out. Furthermore, the efforts in some quarters to write a new constitution for Nigeria failed. I commend my colleagues in the Conference because it was not our duty to do so. We were not elected, we are not a Constituent Assembly and so it would be inappropriate to draft a constitution for Nigeria.

What will happen with the Conference recommendations?

What we did in the Conference was to group the enormous number of recommendations on all aspects of our national life into three categories. First are those recommendations that can be implemented by the Executive branch of government. The second set are those recommendations whose implementation requires an amendment to the current laws of Nigeria, which the National Assembly and the State Assemblies have to do. The third set are those that require constitutional amendment.

I understand that President Jonathan has set up a Ministerial Committee headed by the Attorney General to look at the way forward in the implementation of the recommendations of the National Conference. My fear though is the electoral calendar. Between now and February 2015, the attention of the political class, the attention of the Executive, the attention of the National Assembly, I believe will be on the campaign. But we laid a foundation for addressing the issues for whoever comes to power in 2015. If they look at the recommendations of the National Conference, this is enough for them to hit the ground running!

What other outcomes from the Conference would you highlight?

First, we have put paid to the idea that that federated units in Nigeria should be nationalities. We concluded that federated units should be states. You could have as many as 300 or 400 ethnic nationalities, and that’s unwieldy. The Conference decided there should be an additional 18 states in Nigeria. I have serious reservations about that, although I support the idea of an additional state for the South-east for equity purposes. But that was an outcome of the Conference.

Secondly, the conference agreed that there should be state police. The federal police is a unifying force, but Nigeria is far too large and the challenges are so complex that we need to states to be more involved in security matters. For those states that are ready to do so, there is need to have state police. State budgets are already supporting the police, so those are the resources that can be used to create police forces in the states. The history of police in the states has not always been positive; so there have to be safeguards so that politicians, especially the governing parties, will not use state police against their political opponents.

Third – and this one is dear to my heart – involves the adoption of the report that I presented to the Conference as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Diaspora. The Conference agreed on the need for a separate Commission responsible for the Foreign Service. Like many institutions in Nigeria, standards have fallen. The professionalism of the Foreign Service has declined. What is needed is a separate Commission that is responsible for recruitment, discipline and promotion for diplomats – rather than being subsumed in the larger Public Service Commission. There is also the matter of funding. If you look at countries in Africa of comparable size and influence – let’s say Egypt or South Africa – the proportion of the national budget allocated to foreign affairs is much higher than that of Nigeria. The Conference also agreed to increased funding.

Fourth, the Conference recommended the removal of the immunity clause from the Constitution so that elected public officers at all levels, especially the Presidency and Governors in the States, could be prosecuted for offences committed while in office. The Conference also agreed that Nigerians in the Diaspora ought to be able to vote. The World Bank estimates that $22 billion was remitted last year by the Nigerian Diaspora. And it is not just about their money. Nigeria needs these citizens to participate in the development of the country and hence the Conference agreed that a Diaspora Commission should be established without further delay to help facilitate the inputs of and to support Nigerians in the Diaspora.

You overall assessment of the National Conference is positive?

Yes – and this conclusion is not because I was a delegate. Despite the diversity, the way in which the Conference did its work really left me with a very good feeling. Any effort by any group to hijack the Conference was quickly put to rest. And there is the quality of the reports, which I would believe will prove very helpful for the government after the election in 2015. All the committees of the Conference managed to adopt their reports by consensus and the Conference at plenary managed to endorse them. The downside is that, unfortunately, the voice of the youth – the next generation – didn’t really come as strongly as it should have, especially on the issue of massive youth unemployment. The second downside is that the voice of ethnic champions – the people who have made their own careers by championing the interest of ethnic groups – that voice was too strong in the Conference.

I believe that more recognition should have been given to informal groups such as the one that I was privileged to steer – the Consensus Bridge Building Group, with Muslims, Christians, Northerners, Southerners, women and youth – to look at issues that are contentious and try to address them before they arise or once they arise. We met throughout the Conference to see how we could promote consensus by discussing issues beforehand and by making suggestions on how to go forward, and that was found to be quite helpful

What in your view is needed for Nigeria to move forward in a positive direction?

Ours is a country that has so much potential but that has been so poorly led. We must translate that potential into a good life for the majority of our people and the principal responsibility for delivering good governance lies with the leadership in Nigeria. Our major resource is not oil. There was Nigeria before we found oil. In fact, Nigeria was better managed before oil. The hope for Nigeria is our tremendous human resources. The challenge we face is how to restructure Nigeria and how to reeducate the political class in order to provide the kind of leadership that the country needs.

I believe we have people who are prepared, if given the opportunity, to put Nigeria on the path to the kind of greatness it deserves. The people must make the right choices in the coming elections and their votes must count

Ambassador Ibrahim Gambari’s interview was first published on AllAfrica.com, a strategic partner of premiumtimesng.com.