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The small red sea state of Djibouti may well be known for the port services it gives to Ethiopia which acts as a lifeline to the country’s economy, but the country is aiming to adequately represent the interests and needs of Africa and the global south in general at one of the most important United Nations Organizations; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNECSO is a specialized agency of the UN set up for the purpose of contributing to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law and human rights along with fundamental freedoms proclaimed by the UN Charter. Ambassador Rachad Farah, who is running to become the next Director General (DG) since November 7th when Djibouti put him up as a candidate for this position, says its time the organization finally realized its potential in contributions to the global south by electing its second DG from the African continent in its almost seven decades of existence. Africa controversially missed out on the October 2009 election by way of the Egyptian candidate Farouk Hosny, who was defeated by the current Bulgarian DG, Irina Bokova, after the former’s previous anti-Israel stance and pledges, became public. Farah is also the Djiboutian Ambassador to France (with a portfolio covering the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Spain and the Maghreb Countries) as well as representing Djibouti at UNESCO as its permanent Delegate since 2004. Djibouti has been elected to the executive board of UNESCO in 2009, as well as to the position of president of the executive board for Africa, in 2011. Capital’s Elias Gebreselassie sat down with Ambassador Farah to discuss his candidature and what he plans to bring to the table if elected and other related issues.
Capital: What would you say is your contribution as anAmbassador of Djibouti to UNESCO?
Farah: The reason why UNESCO was founded at the end of World War II is to promote peace, culture and understanding. The developments made in these areas are more valid than ever and apply to all countries requiring their cooperation. 80 percent of the effects of war and underdevelopment are now observed to be found in the Global South where instability, ignorance and hunger are quite rampant, I believe it is extremely important that countries should take full responsibility for implementing these objectives. Building peace, pacifying extremists of all sorts and especially addressing the ongoing refugee crisis across the Global South are challenges and clear obstacles, not only to progress, but for ensuring a harmonious existence side by side. It is unacceptable that extremists further burden our future, and we will need to fight this danger with our ideas and the values that we all share. By taking up UNESCO’s objectives as ours we can create a new movement among leaders and across civil societies in our countries; stability, education, culture and science can be developed through the development of peace. Unfortunately, this appears to be more and more the urgency in the South rather than in the North, yet the main actors in the field, be it development experts of all sorts, advisors or those who provide the necessary funds are mostly from the north. Let’s be clear; we obviously need their support, but in order to ensure lasting peace and sustainable development we also need to build up the required capacity ourselves. In recent years, the African Union and African countries have made great progress, especially in the area of peacekeeping, but we must move further along the road in building and maintaining peace. We need to educate our children by providing them with the necessary skills and knowledge to become scientists etc, as well as presenting the stage for our artists to engage in and develop our cultures and live up to their potential.
Capital: What will you bring to the table if you are elected Secretary General of UNESCO?
Farah: UNESCO’s objectives must be implemented in the Global South, we have to fight poverty, educate women, bring people together to fight extremists through ideas and values that we share if we are to have sustainable development. Without adhering to these ideals and objectives, it will be very difficult to accomplish anything. As an example, you can take two refugee camps in Kenya, that house about 700,000 people; 80 percent of them are women and children. If you don’t provide them with the requisite education, they could be a major source of trouble in the future, because they are susceptible to recruitment by extremists. The organization has to be the organization of those that don’t have a voice. We at UNESCO have to be able to face reality by going to the places that are affected and meeting people who are experiencing such problems, because it is by doing this that we can bring solutions to the table. Forums conducted in European countries are essential, but if we use the amount of money spent to conduct two of these forums and instead build two or three schools for refugees, I believe we can help them adjust and grow in a very healthy way and find acceptance in the society we live in. If I am selected to lead UNESCO this will be the direction we will be focussing on. So let’s think about bringing to the Global South, and especially Africa, an ownership of the objectives of UNESCO. If I may say so, in this land, some 14 centuries ago, Ethiopia gave the World its first lesson in humanism and of sharing and accepting our differences with King Negashi of Axum accepting some refugees from Saudi Arabia who arrived, at the time, with a new religion called Islam. After hearing their explanation, he refused to accept gifts of money and said they are welcome to live in peace here, a Christian country, and told them that the difference between Islam and Christianity is minor and that he accepted them as Muslims. This message is even more valid now, after 14 centuries, and we have to bring the culture of peace to our sphere of influence, this culture of understanding and accepting each other, if countries are to develop economically.
Capital: Djibouti being a member of the Arab League (AL), the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), and also IGAD and the African Union (AU) apart from the association of French speaking countries, how would you say the support has been from these organizations in regards to your candidacy?
Farah: Recently, I have received strong support from the 57 OIC member countries, and I believe that my message and vision has been received favourably by IGAD, in which Ethiopia and Djibouti are members. I’m convinced that IGAD will support the candidacy because it is not only a candidacy of Djibouti, but the representation of the six countries, who are members of IGAD. The African Union Summit is in January 2013 and will be held in Addis Ababa where a resolution supporting my candidacy is expected to be approved. After that we are going to the AL for a similar resolution, and lastly, since Djibouti is a francophone country, and because I have good relations with many European countries, we expect get solid support all around.
Capital: Djibouti, recently celebrated its 35th year of independence from French rule. What has Djibouti achieved during these years?
Farah: Since Djibouti became independent, we have always advocated and worked towards peace and stability in the region. During the Ethio-Somalia war in the Ogaden Djibouti was neutral but tried to mediate by trying to bring the two sides to an agreement. We also pushed for the establishment of IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) because we believed that through this organization peace and stability can be achieved. IGAD is playing a vital role in Sudan, Somalia etc., and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is the product of IGAD where it was able to bring concerned countries together in a joint effort. 14 years ago, in Djibouti, we formed what we called the “fest horn” for the youth in East Africa, especially from IGAD countries, and every December for a week, we bring them together to celebrate, enjoy and share their views, hopes and solidarity for our future. More recently, in 2007, together with UNESCO we created the first think tank, called the Great Horn of Africa, which encompasses the universities of the area and even the Diaspora who live in western countries. Therefore, one of our main objectives in Djibouti is this novel idea of bringing peace. Moreover, we have strengthened our economic relationship with our neighbours, especially with our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia; now we have all our ports at the disposal of Ethiopia and we are modernizing and building railway lines. We are about to build a new port to the north of Djibouti in a place called Tadjourah for phosphate exports from Ethiopia and also we’ve made this electric interconnection between Ethiopia and Djibouti. We are now conducting a study for the provision of water from Ethiopia to Djibouti. I also want to bring up the mega project deal which will allow oil to flow from Juba, South Sudan through Ethiopia and finally to the port of Djibouti for export. Such integration and interconnecting will, in the long run, be good for the region in terms of peace and stability.
Capital: what is your current relationship with France, the former colonial power?
Farah: We have very good relations with France; more than 12,000 French people currently live in Djibouti and about the same number of Djiboutian’s live in France. We both share the French language, which we, in Djibouti, use in conjunction with English and Arabic, and we also have excellent economic, cultural and political relationships with them, which serves the interests of both countries.
Capital: What indications has Ethiopia given regarding your candidacy for UNESCO?
Farah: About my candidacy, I’m only seeing good signs from the government of Ethiopia, This is the country where I began my campaign and I believe Ethiopia has a close relationship with Djibouti. I also consider myself an Ethiopian because my grandmother is from Ethiopia, from around the town of Harar.
Capital: How do you describe Djibouti’s relations with the war-torn Somalia?
Farah: Unfortunately, Somalia fell into chaos after the departure of Ziad Barre, the former ruler of Somalia in 1991. The President of Djibouti, Ismael Omar Guelleh, first went to the United Nations (UN) to submit a request to the international community for some sort of renaissance for Somalia. Since then, we had a conference in the Village of Arta, 45 kms from the capital of Djibouti, and thanks to the efforts of leaders of the area including a very active and prominent role of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, we helped to bring about the first constitution and the first government of Somalia in more than 20 years. Today, we can see that our concerted efforts bringing more stability and an elected government to Somalia with a Somali president willing to continue this progress in the development of peace in a sustained manner with the help of AMISOM.
Capital: To pose a question along this line, what are Djibouti’s relations with the breakaway republic of Somaliland, which it borders on the south?
Farah: we have a good relationship with Somaliland and have extended our cooperation on the economic, political and cultural level. We share the same language and culture; therefore, I believe that it’s an extension of this brotherhood and understanding that we have with other countries in the area.
Capital: Djibouti currently has a difficult relationship with Eritrea, and you also had a border conflict. What is the status of your relations now?
Farah: We didn’t have difficulties; we had a war with Eritrea and now the state of Qatar is mediating between Djibouti and Eritrea. We have requested the release captured prisoners, who number about 13, from an Eritrean jail. Two of them subsequently escaped to Sudan. We are waiting to see the results of mediation. The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), of which we are a member, made a resolution supporting our position on the Prisoners Of War (POW) issue. Qatar has already deployed up to 60 troops, for almost three years now, who are monitoring the border situation between the two countries.
Capital: Djibouti has provided bases for foreign forces. Can you explain why you have done this?
Farah: Djibouti has provided bases for the most important European operation called Atlanta or to be specific, the European Union Naval Force in Somalia (EU-NAVFOR-ATLANTA) against piracy in the area. We have provided bases to the Americans to combat terrorism and ensure regional security. They have about 1000 personnel on the ground, similarly to the French contingent. The Japanese also have a presence with around 300 personnel to fight sea piracy in support of the European Fleet.
Capital: Just across the border lies Yemen, a country embroiled in internecine warfare and with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP.) What has Djibouti done to shield itself from the possible fallout from this conflict and the one in Somalia?
Farah: We in Djibouti are doing our utmost to bring peace and stability in the area, and we have been doing this starting three decades ago now and we will continue to do it, with the efforts of all countries surrounding Djibouti and in the region. I’m saying Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Kenya are all involved actively in IGAD primarily for this purpose. Without peace and stability you can’t bring about sustainable development, because you are always fighting hunger, poverty and especially ignorance, because ignorance is also a major detriment which usually causes wars between countries.
Capital: Any last words?
Farah: My message to our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia is that, if I’m become the Director General of UNESCO, one of my main objectives and concerns will be to bring the culture of peace to our area, Africa as a whole and in particular, to the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, which has a long history and rich culture, has also played a vital role in bringing peace to the whole of Africa. Therefore, its legacy has been and still is a source of inspiration to me all along my mandate at the organization.