Just a few hours after arriving in Dakar, Senegal, from an AU summit in South Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas is back on a sweltering tarmac waiting to board a small UN plane headed for Conakry, the capital of Guinea. It’s 15 June 2015, and the government and opposition in Guinea are preparing for a national dialogue to discuss, among other issues, how elections will be conducted in the country later in the year. Mr Ibn Chambas, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative (SRSG) for West Africa is going to the country to observe that process.
Mr Ibn Chambas has been doing a lot of this kind of work this year, having played a key role in helping Nigeria conduct peaceful and credible polls back in March 2015. And he’s going to be doing a lot more of it in the coming months.
“It’s clear that 2015 is the year of elections in West Africa”, said Special Representative Ibn Chambas on his way to Guinea. “Since I’ve been in the job, elections have been a major preoccupation, working with various countries and partners to see how we can all work together to support these countries to conduct inclusive and credible elections.”
In Guinea, the government and the opposition are still debating how to establish a level playing field for the elections. A major point of contention was the sequencing of the elections – whether to only hold presidential elections, or coupled with local elections, or first to hold presidential elections and later on organize local elections. That issue has now been overcome thanks to the national dialogue.
Mr Ibn Chambas arrived in Conakry as the country waited for the rainy season and Ramadan to start – one day before the scheduled kick off of the national dialogue. “I’m here to support the Guinean efforts, encourage them to engage in dialogue, accompany them, and work together with other parties to ensure that we are able to have credible, inclusive and peaceful elections in Guinea,“ Mr Ibn Chambas said as his plane landed in Conakry.
His efforts are part of the Secretary General’s good offices, to carry out timely initiatives in preventive diplomacy and to contribute to regional responses to political crises in the 16 countries in West Africa that the United Nations Regional Office for West Africa (UNOWA) covers. The region as a whole is in transition. Many of its democracies are young, and the existing and potential divides – regional, ethnic, religious, demographic – mean that relatively minor problems can easily deteriorate.
“That means we have to anticipate and remain active all the time”, stressed Mr Ibn Chambas.
But Mr Ibn Chambas and other UN envoys working on conflict prevention have to take care to avoid their active diplomacy being perceived as interference. In Guinea, there is some apprehension about the UN’s and the international community’s involvement in creating conducive conditions for elections.
“Our effort has been to reassure them that far from seeking to interfere, we simply want to underline the interest that the international community has in this country and our willingness and our ability to mobilize support for them in a constructive way to ensure peaceful and credible elections,” Mr Chambas emphasized.
The key, Mr Ibn Chambas underlined, is keeping an equal distance from all sides and reaching out to all, while being constructive and positive. This has helped Guineans increasingly accept the UN’s role. Indeed, the UN was initially meant only to observe the national dialogue, but as talks started the Government facilitators and the parties requested Mr Chambas to assume an informal facilitation role.
“We hope that in Guinea also, as we have seen so far in Burkina Faso and Nigeria, that our efforts will be crowned with success.”
Mr Ibn Chambas’ last visit to Guinea ended two days ago. But the related work continues today, as he briefs the Security Council on that mission and on the work of UNOWA for the last six months. He will, of course, be bringing his analysis and information from the ground. But importantly, he will also be looking to the Council for support for his efforts in the region.