Conflict & Resilience Monitor

Dr Salim Ahmed Salim: an African transformational leader and a consensus builder

10 Feb 2022

UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto
UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto

On the occasion of Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim’s 80th birthday, many of his friends took part recently in an online celebration and paid tribute to him for his exceptional contribution to his home country Tanzania, the UN, and the OAU.

On the occasion of Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim’s 80th birthday, many of his friends took part recently in an online celebration and paid tribute to him for his exceptional contribution to his home country Tanzania, the United Nations (UN), and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Some highlighted Salim’s role in support of decolonisation, especially during his tenure as the Chairman of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation from 1972 to 1980. Others commended his successful and unprecedented three terms at the helm of the OAU. In this article, I would like to succinctly give my testimony on the period of his professional life that I know best, having assisted Salim for 12 years at the OAU as his Chief of staff for ten years and then as the Assistant Secretary General in charge of political affairs.

Soon after becoming Secretary General, Salim realised that, as the decolonisation period reached an end, the OAU needed a new agenda @djinnitsaid

Salim setting a new agenda for the OAU

Soon after assuming his role as Secretary General, Salim realised that, as the decolonisation process was coming to an end, the OAU needed a new agenda that could continue to bring together the African countries and their peoples in addressing common challenges. In July 1990, Salim articulated his vision for a revamped continental organisation in a report “on the Fundamental Changes taking place in the World and their Implications for Africa: Proposals for an African Response” which generated an intense debate at the Council of Ministers. After a night session, a Declaration on “the Political and Socio- Economic Situation in Africa and the Fundamental Changes Taking Place in the World” was finally adopted and subsequently endorsed by the Summit. 

Settling internal conflicts: African solutions to African problems 

In the past, the OAU did not meet expectations in dealing with conflicts on the African continent due to lack of political will, including its full commitment to the core principle of “non-interference in internal affairs of member states”. The OAU also lacked capacity and an effective mechanism to address the growing challenge of internal conflicts in the early 90’s. In his 1990 report, Salim proposed that member states should “make more use of the permanent institutions established within the Organisation for purposes of settlement of disputes” and suggested that Member States “may deem it appropriate to make fuller use of the good offices of the Secretary General”. 

The principle of non-indifference 

Salim believed that respecting the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of member states, should not mean that the continental organisation and its collective leadership should remain indifferent to the problems and suffering of African peoples affected by conflicts. In his 1990 report, he argued that “While the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Member States should continue to be observed, it should, however, not be construed to mean or used to justify indifference on the part of the OAU”. This notion was later known under the African Union as its founding principle of “non-indifference by opposition to the principle of “non-interference”.

Promoting human rights and democracy in Africa 

Salim held the view that human rights were not the monopoly of Western countries and that the struggles for decolonisation were a quest for human rights in Africa. In this regard, he proposed that Africans should protect and promote human rights as their own value, and not as an imposed or imported one. In his 1990 report, he stated that “the protection and promotion of human and peoples’ rights and democracy will allow not only for the full participation of the people but would also facilitate the release of the energies of the African people which can be harnessed and applied positively to economic recovery and development”. Salim also considered that it was essential to ensure openness within government institutions “by establishing and maintaining the strict observance of the rule of law which would guarantee high standards of probity and accountability on the part of those who hold public office and take decisions on behalf of the people”. 

African economic integration 

Having attended meetings and discussions on the New International Economic Order (NIEO) promoted by the third world countries in the 70’s Salim was well aware that the efforts at recovery in Africa were undermined by the absence of sound and realistic socio-economic policies and poor economic management in addition to an adverse International Economic Environment. In his 1990 report, he therefore considered it imperative that “Africa should explore the possibilities of establishing new forms of economic cooperation, including trade, especially intra-African trade” and encouraged Member States to incorporate the objectives and policy measures of the Lagos Plan of Action in their national planning structures. This proposal found its right place in the Abuja treaty establishing the African Economic Community adopted by the OAU summit in June 1991.

Full participation of Women and Youth in societies 

Salim called for inclusive economic and political processes in Africa which should include women and youth’. In this regard he extended his support to the African women networks supporting peace efforts and together with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the OAU supported the African Women Committee on Peace and Development (AWCPD) which was established in 1998. 

Reform of the OAU 

For the OAU to face the new challenges and deliver its mandate, Salim realised that the OUA Secretariat needed to be reformed and suggested a set of measures including: 

  1. Reducing the number of decisions by the legislative organs of the OAU and focusing on the implementation of these resolutions and decisions. 
  2. Reviewing the structures of the Organisation to ensure better efficiency of the General Secretariat in implementing the decisions. 
  3. Rationalising the organisation of work by avoiding proliferation and duplication of organs and conferences. 
  4. Reviewing and rationalising the existence as well as the functioning and effectiveness of the Specialised Agencies of the OAU 
  5. Enhancing the resource base, credibility and capacity of the Organisation to perform by Member States meeting their financial obligations. 

These proposals were endorsed by the policy organs of the Organisation and have received an adequate level of implementation.

Salim argued, already in 1990, that while the principle of non-interference should continue to be observed, it should, not be construed to mean or justify indifference on the part of the OAU @djinnitsaid

Salim, the father of the African Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution. 

Following his above-mentioned report and the Summit July 1990 landmark Declaration setting the Organisation’s new agenda, Salim vigorously advocated for establishing a more effective conflict mechanism. He submitted a proposal to the Council of ministers meeting in Dakar in July 1992 which resulted in tense discussions. While most of the delegations had no objection to the principle of establishing a mechanism for conflict prevention, management and resolution, they strongly objected to the tone of the report which abundantly referred to the “intervention of the OAU” in internal disputes. Delegations objected in particular to creating a peacekeeping capacity within the mechanism, and considered that peacekeeping should remain with the UN which had the mandate, the resources and experience. The Council indicated that the OAU should rather limit its role to the deployment of observation missions of limited scope and duration. 

A revised report was re-submitted to the following summit held in Cairo in July 1993 which approved the establishment of the mechanism for conflict prevention, management and resolution (without a peacekeeping component). Through the newly created mechanism, the OAU supported peace processes in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, RDC, Comoros and Ethiopia-Eritrea. It also provided an important supportive role to the peace efforts deployed by Ecowas in Liberia and Sierra Leone. 

Despite the initial resistance by OAU member states to any idea of military deployment, the General Secretariat continued working on establishing ready contingents to be deployed as part of UN or OAU peace operations. In fact, the experience of the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda and the withdrawal of UN troops at a time when they were needed came as a wake-up call to member states who started to realise that the OAU should have some kind of peacekeeping capacity. The possibility for the OAU to intervene in internal conflicts, including through the deployment of troops, was then included in the Constitutive Act of the Union as adopted by the Summit in Lomé in July 2000. This progress was subsequently reflected in the Protocol establishing the Peace and Security Council which replaced the 1993 declaration establishing the OAU Mechanism for conflict prevention, management and resolution. 

Salim opening the OAU chapter on elections and democratisation

Sensing that it would be counter-productive to directly involve the OAU in the democratisation processes, Salim opted to gradually involve the organisation in the observation of elections in Africa. This proved to be a successful strategy and over the years, the OAU dispatched many election observation missions to member states and gained considerable experience in dealing with elections observation. In the process, a number of policy documents were adopted including “the Declaration on Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa” adopted by the 38th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government on 8th July 2002 in Durban, South Africa. This process culminated in the proposal submitted by the interim Commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, during the transition from the OAU to the AU, to prepare a draft Charter on democracy, election and governance

Salim’s other initiative on governance and democracy relates to unconstitutional changes of government. Based on the 1999 Summit decisions condemning unconstitutional changes of government, the position of the OAU was articulated in the 2000 Lomé Declaration  on “ the framework for an OAU response to constitutional changes of government”. But, its involvement in dealing with these situations started in the early 90’s under the leadership of Salim, including amongst others in Burundi following the assassination of President Ndadaye in 1993, in the Comoros after the mercenary led coup in 1995, and in support of ECOWAS in opposing the May 1997 coup in Sierra-Leone. 

Salim opening the continental organisation to civil society

In the early 90’s, Salim understood that an African civil society was emerging. He used every opportunity to consult with African civil society members and extended his full support to them including to think tanks who got access to the Organisation. 

Salim submitted a programme for reform and renewal to the OAU Harare Summit meeting in July 1997 which included a proposal for a greater interaction with civil society in Africa, noting that “the OAU was perceived for too long as a club of Governments”. As part of the implementation of this proposal, the General Secretariat convened two successive meetings with representatives of the African civil society in June 2001 and June 2002 respectively. This effort was vigorously pursued after the solemn declaration at the Conference on Security, Stability, Development and Cooperation in Africa (CSSDCA) was adopted by the Summit in Lome in July 2000. A special unit was established within the General secretariat to support the civil society related activities. With the establishment of the African Union and its launching in 2002, the Organisation’s civil society programme led to the establishment of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) in July 2004.

Conclusion: Salim’s reforms and proposals were a prelude to the establishment of the African Union. 

In the above mentioned July 1997 introductory note to the Council of Ministers and Summit, Salim noted that while the principles and objectives of the OAU charter – which was then 34 years old- were still relevant, some of its provisions were no more adjusted to realities and in some cases, clearly irrelevant. He suggested that the Charter be reviewed to be adapted to the new African and international context. Since the OAU and the African Economic Community (AEC) were expected to be one and served by the same secretariat, he suggested that the two organisations be merged into one single act. The extraordinary summit requested by leader Kadhafi of Libya in September 1999 provided a golden opportunity to effect Salim’s proposed merger of the two organisations. Kadhafi wanted the establishment of the United States of Africa which was rejected by the overwhelming  majority of member states. As a compromise, the Summit decided to establish the African Union “in conformity with the ultimate objectives of the Charter of our Continental Organisation and the provisions of the Treaty establishing the African Economic Community”. In preparing the draft Constitutive Act of the African Union, the proposals that emerged during Salim’s tenure such as the need for a peacekeeping capacity and ready contingents as well as the principle of non-indifference were reflected in the document. 

Ambassador Said Djinnit joined ACCORD in June 2019 as a Special Advisor based in Brussels, Belgium. He has served as the Special Envoy of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region of Africa from September 2014 to March 2019, and as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa from April 2008 to September 2014. Before joining the UN Ambassador Djinnit served as the first Commissioner for Peace and Security at the African Union (AU) from 2003 to 2008. He tweets at @djinnitsaid

Article by:

Said Djinnit
Ambassador Said Djinnit
Special Advisor

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