The International Community (1/3): Secrets and Treasures of Africa

The Negus

               The term “international community” is overused and sometimes criticized. It nevertheless expresses an ideal, the aspiration to convergent thoughts rising above differences and expressing good and a certain sense of justice. It contains the idea of the meeting and not of the division. It opposes the loneliness of national selfishness. She was often associated with the United Nations, the only global political organization. Despite the criticisms, one could say – paraphrasing what a great statesman said – that it was the worst of the institutions but that no better one had been found.

The international community is not necessarily an abstract reality, a construction of the mind; it is also sometimes tangible, made up of lived experiences, encounters and also dreams that are our software and allow us to move forward. This first part of a series of three publications – to be published soon – will therefore constitute a personal testimony, brought with the hope that it may serve today and tomorrow.

The scope of the United Nations is vast, apart from what is most visible to public opinion, namely the Security Council. It is this diversity that I was able to discover over almost ten years, both in the Central Administration and in the various locations of the United Nations itself or during missions.

I began with economic issues and more specifically with the area of agriculture and food covered by a main specialized agency, FAO, and several other related organizations, WFP (World Food Programme), which was especially concerned with emergency food aid, theWorld Food Council (WFC) and IFAD which, under the aegis of the World Bank, had maintained a certain autonomy from the others mentioned above, even if those who sat on them were often the same experts. All these bodies and organizations were in Rome, the capital open to the South and all the more legitimate to deal with development issues. I therefore went to the Eternal City in tempo with the statutory meetings of these bodies.

I took the FAO very seriously. It was a forum for the “countries of the North”, and also for those whose cereal surpluses were in some cases considerable, and for the countries of the South deprived or afflicted by the plagues, first of all war, to address agricultural development issues together. The problem was complex and was not limited to implementing transfers, for example in the form of endowments in kind, which could have perverse effects leading to the destruction of local production. The organization provided considerable expertise to countries that did not have it, and the « FAO label »  bore weight.

State representatives were responsible for guiding the work of the multilateral institution, conceptualizing it, managing its resources and deciding on its use. The delegations therefore called on mixed teams of generalists and specialists. As for France, the Quai d’Orsay (French Foreign Office) tried to ensure the coordination and also the trade-offs between the Ministry of Agriculture with the interests of the rural world at heart and that of Cooperation and Development whose primary objectives could differ significantly. These structural differences did not hinder the formation of motivated, friendly and closely knit teams, and I do not recall any disputes within them that would have been insurmountable. 

To top it all off, and it was a considerable help, as Michel Rocard was Minister of Agriculture, his intelligence, his open-mindedness and passion for development, must have greatly facilitated things and, more than that, been a powerful driving force. Moreover, in the years immediately following the election of François Mitterrand as President of the Republic, the Ministry of Cooperation was not only that of Africa – in the sense of the «pré carré» (private reserve) of France – and a second wind animated it, stirring passions even within the civil service. In any case, for me, it was a privileged moment when diplomacy was clearly not a game, even if it was sometimes called « Kriegsspiel » or even simply a matter of abstract and immediate interests.

These Roman international organizations brought us to the field, for example to regional FAO conferences. The one devoted to the Middle East was actually held in Cyprus because of the Iran-Iraq conflict that was raging. The one devoted to Africa, the main focus of FAO activities, took place in Zimbabwe. On the way to Harare, the Johannesburg stage, when the apartheid system was still in place in South Africa in the mid-1980s, proved depressing. There was something of the most modern Anglo-Saxon world in the center of the city bristling with skyscrapers. But the whole thing was strange, unbearable. 

While the regime of international sanctions had forced the country to withdraw within itself, the isolation definitely produced a great curiosity with regard to visitors. The kindness was identical in both black and white communities, still completely separated, and the attribute of foreigner made it possible to break down many barriers, despite the inhibitions. A bourgeoisie seemed to emerge within the black community, but the overwhelming majority of the latter left the city centre in the evening to return by bus to the «townships». Johannesburg emptied itself, just as if Manhattan became deserted at the end of the day. It was time to cut short this distressing experience, this «Dry White Season», described by the South African writer André Brink, in order to reach the former Rhodesia as quickly as possible.  

The southern winter was not the season of bougainvillea and jacaranda trees in bloom but these highlands brought a greater sweetness that was not only climatic. The country had already evolved into a power where the minority no longer dominated without sharing. I liked Harare from the start. I have always loved, in all places, the feeling of the highlands, whatever their elevation, in Kenya, Ethiopia or Vietnam. I appreciated the distance they seemed to give to the hustle and bustle of the world, the sense of calm to which they contributed.


Victoria Falls by David Trickett, Harare

In comparison to the deep tensions felt in South Africa, Harare with its large avenues a little deserted and thus oversized, sparcely developed and close to nature, seemed provincial and peaceful in the very pure light of the season. Scattered Mozambican refugees, having fled violence, who were looking for work, nevertheless recalled that we were in the eye of a cyclone marking the ultimate end of the colonial empires and the passage from one world to another. Frederick Willem de Clerk’s time, subsequently sometimes called « the Gorbachev of Southern Africa », would soon come. But Zimbabwe was ahead of the game, perhaps because the separation of communities had not been institutionalized there, and also probably because the geostrategic issues were less important there.

The FAO Regional Conference for Africa was the first I attended on the ground. We could subsequently compare our reflections, our ideas on development and the concepts elaborated in Rome in cenacles that were relatively disconnected from reality. All our African colleagues, essential partners of this vast enterprise in favor of development were there to enlighten us, to question us but above all to teach us. The country, where agriculture was sophisticated and diversified, was the best suited to this experience. White and black ministers from former Rhodesia were already sitting together in the gallery. They too began as I did, when I was somewhat intimidated by the first speech I had to make on behalf of my country in an international forum. Their presence increased my sense of responsibility at the time, but it also encouraged me. It was not possible to disappoint them. This Harare speech was to usher in a happy and exciting professional period. 

The Eastern and Southern Africa I had to travel through for a few years was grandiose. This must be said and it is important to talk about such beauty. From the massive herds of elephants from Hwange National Park, as large as Switzerland, where you landed on a track cut through the forest, to the waterfalls at the Zambezi river, nearly two kilometers wide and twice the height of the Niagara Falls, whose rumbling shakes the very ground where Livingstone walked, to the Ethiopian plateau and the gorges of the Blue Nile up to the ice-cap of Kilimanjaro, still preserved at the time, which emerged in the early morning from an intense mist over the savannah, all of this was a source of wonder. 

We must preserve these images and sensations caused by a superpowerful nature, rich in species and populated by an exciting humanity, a kind of Eden to be rediscovered or restored that had its coherence and was a world in itself. We were focused on agriculture, but this essential human activity could not be dissociated from the state of nature and its preservation. It was a question of ecological balance and also of our own serenity. The Promethean enterprise of a world entirely shaped by man could only lead to disaster for the whole of creation. 

My Africa led me also to Kenya and Ethiopia at other conferences. I accompanied Minister Yvette Roudy to the World Conference on Women in Nairobi. I had a special duty within the delegation to ensure that there was no shift in the debates to subjects outside the agenda and sensitive to us, in particular the questioning of our country for the continuation of nuclear tests. The conference was of great interest as the number of remarkable women, known or unknown, was significant. So the daughter of Ronald Reagan, the former Vice President of the Vietnamese GRP, Nguyen Thi Binh and the first female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova were on the stage. 

Among the French delegation was the widow of the Chilean President Salvador Allende while chance had placed us in the huge plenary room in the immediate vicinity of the official Chilean delegation. Ms. Allende, by her very presence, seemed to bring back a painful and shameful past for this government representation, which was paralyzed. Because it was Ms. Allende who was on the side of the law, which gave her immense moral strength in such a setting. It was France’s great honour to have invited her.

I would not normally have kept a precise memory of the debates in Nairobi, focused as I was on my specific mission, but the conference was a key moment of a great movement in progress. It illustrated what purpose the United Nations could serve, an irreplaceable framework, like the General Assembly in New York every year, to come together around major issues. The experience of COP 21 in Paris was a more recent example. Relatively speaking, the Olympic Games also provide comparable experiences due to the physical gathering of people around an ideal and great passions. There is a happiness in being together, even if it means being in competition or confronting, albeit fiercely in discussions trying to promote one’s truth. 

With such experiences, it is difficult not to have Africa under one’s skin. But should we talk about Africa or several Africas? Indeed I discovered on the continent a special country which was a world in itself, a sort of Middle Empire. It was still in fact an empire shortly before I visited it: Ethiopia. This discovery was made on the occasion of a mission of a more political nature than the previous ones at the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa. As in the novel written by my colleague and friend Jacques Boutet, who died prematurely, I also felt like a young diplomat following in Raimbaud’s footsteps.

But let’s stick to this mission. The OAU was then an organization that bore weight in the international system, while the colonial presence and that of foreign troops, including 50,000 Cubans, for which the continent was a battleground, was approaching its end. And then, still having responsibility for agricultural and food issues within the framework of the United Nations, it turned out that the immense Ethiopia, former empire that was sumptuous in some respects and governed at that time by Colonel Mengistu, was then plagued by drought and famine.

It was to my great surprise surprise when the effect of the altitude (Addis is indeed at 2,500 m) and especially intense rain woke me during my first night? The images of starving populations, displaced with their meager herds, in search of water for their survival, which were then conveyed by the media, nevertheless were consistent with the reality of the terrible famine that hit the country in the early 1980s. But in fact, the regional disparities were considerable and accompanied by a wide variety of climates in the country. The province of Shoa alone, at the centre of which the capital Addis Ababa was located, has an area of about 80,000 km2 and being established on the highlands, it is relatively well watered. It is in this region that the Blue Nile cuts the high plateaus to make dizzying gorges before reaching the White Nile in Sudan. On the way to the gorges, we met horseriders riding multicoloured mounts, the shoulders of the riders themselves adorned with a shimmering stole giving them despite the movement a hieratic and quasi-religious attitude despite their movement.

These images were out of time, at least ours, and even beyond our imagination. But the Province of Shoa was also familiar with harshness. The demographic weighing on the capital was an example. As elsewhere in Africa, access to firewood, which was increasingly rare, was vital to the population. In Addis, the expansion of the area of the city, which coincided with the growing population, required the inhabitants to take increasingly distant and grueling daily walks, for the purpose of finding supplies. It was thus necessary to climb to the heights of the city, cross a pass of more than 3,000 m and engage deeply on the high plateau.

The Embassy was located in the heart of this city made of hills and terraces, halfway up. In the 19th century the emperor Menelik II had offered France a vast plot of 42 ha for its diplomatic premises. The eucalyptus trees had grown there and reached considerable heights of several tens of meters. Crossing the compound at night was strongly discouraged due to hyenas prowling around. The Embassy emerged in the highest part of the land that was sloping. The enclosure, made of a high wall, had been weakened by the years and allowed gaping holes to appear in some places. This gave access, which was allowed once a week, to residents of a neighbouring village who came to collect firewood. This was the spectacle that could be seen repeatedly from the offices and meeting rooms. There was a reappearance of our Ancien régime on seigneurial lands. This tolerance was very natural and helped to curb deforestation around Addis, which the competent international organizations were concerned about.  It was also a fair return on the land granted to France.

From the Diplomatic Chancellery, from which one could see these scenes directly out of the Middle Ages, one could no longer hear the lion of the emperor roar as before in the past. The latter had been overthrown in 1974, about ten years before, but his memory remained close and the new practices of the Executive power, tinged with Sovietism, had borrowed from the imperial tradition. As in the book The Emperor by Ryszard Kapusćinski, in which the former Polish press correspondant relates his search, after the revolution, for missing relatives of the emperor, I went to Addis with only a letter addressed to the former news anchor of the only television channel of the time. Had she survived all these upheavals? If so, where was she and what was she doing now? 

It was not about investigating the end of a reign, which had been the end of a world, but simply about helping reconnect the threads of a personal history for which I had been mandated in a friendly capacity. Even if it was a matter of looking for a needle in a haystack, I reached my goals after many adventures. A meeting took place with a beautiful and elegant Eritrean, I handed her my letter and she gave me one in return. I was struck by her apparent serenity and the absence of visible fear in her attitude and speech. She was no longer working on television and had obviously gone through a long barren period. Her new duties had enabled her to travel to “sister countries” in previous years. Married to a lawyer, a member of the imperial family, but herself from a much more modest background, she had been able to help her husband and perhaps even save him during the “events”. 

In reality, even if she did not explain it clearly herself, the last years of Haile Selassie had been complex, even chaotic. Facing the ultra-conservatives and big landlords, present at the Palace but who wanted to maintain their powers in the provinces, the emperor had appealed to an educated youth from modest backgrounds. Its representatives had incidentally been hated by the dignitaries. In the final years, before the ultimate degradation and the seizure of power by a military committee, the Derg, several opposing movements had coexisted up to the highest echelons of power, even encouraged in turn by an emperor refusing to take key decisions unless he became powerless because of his age. The hardliners were led by the emperor’s while the reformers, seeing the catastrophe coming, urgently called for radical transformations.

My discussion partner, heir to both the Empire and the Revolution – in this order which is contrary to ours -, had observed a country crushed under the authoritarianism of the powerful, in recurrent prey to the worst recurring famines, that ended up giving free rein to outbursts of extreme violence. These brutal consequences had even reached the capital but it was impossible to imagine a cosmogony of which the King of Kings was not the centre. Hence the revolution had infiltrated the Palace and it had at first advanced in a masked manner, in the name of the monarch, who had even sometimes supported it if it could bring good to the country. But the arrests had multiplied within the Court, in increasingly massive proportions sparing only the emperor and a few rare, insignificant faithful servants. After his deposition, the Negus remained in the Palace adorned with some of the attributes of his former power. The star was dead but still shone with some sparkles Perhaps Haile Selassie still thought of governing, at least within the limits of a theatrical exercise of power which had been the characteristic of the ultimate phase of his imperium.

In this context of extreme complexity and opacity, what was was my interlocutor’s position? Had she been promoted with the talented youth of the rising social classes destined to contain the lieges? Had her husband been one of those reforming liberals, for the imperial family, a large tribe, had a few of them? Had her Eritrean origins spared her from the fierce confrontation confined her mainly to the dominant Amhara people since the 13th century? The rise of the Tigreans, from 1974, would be a revolution in the revolution. I could only gather partial elements of answers but did a global explanation really exist?

I had only partially opened a door which closed later in an airtight manner. Wasn’t the experience of international donors in the country similar? Did the magnitude of the problems not engulf those with the best intentions?  Thirty years later, this Middle Kingdom is still as obscure to me and incomprehensible. The Eritrean conflict and subsequently the Tigray conflict, sometimes hitting the headlines in fragments, resemble a guerre de Cent Ans (Hundred Years Wars) eluding our contemporary temporal references. Is it possible, then, that at the time of globalization a country could live outside the world when its history is also ours?

The next mission should have taken place in Angola, where the terrible conflict between President Neto’s MPLA and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA movement, supported by South Africa in particular, had gradually lost its intensity as geopolitical developments in the world unfolded. I don’t know what kept me from yielding to the attractions of Luanda Bay. Although a page had already been turned in Africa, it was not however intuition that great things were going to happen elsewhere that led me to Manhattan on the banks of the East River. The dialectics of chance and necessity? 

Horseman’s stole, Ethiopia, detail, private collection© PP

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