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Q&A: UNHCR's man at the AU looks back on a long career


Q&A: UNHCR's man at the AU looks back on a long career

Ilunga Ngandu is UNHCR's key interlocutor with the African Union. At the end of this month he will retire and return to his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he expects to continue helping others.
26 December 2008
Regional Liaison Representative Ilunga Ngandu meets the press in Ethiopia.

GENEVA, December 26 (UNHCR) - Regional Liaison Representative Ilunga Ngandu leaves UNHCR at the end of this month after 33 years of distinguished service. Starting as a junior protection officer in the mid-1970s, he ended up as the agency's key interlocutor with the Addis Ababa-based African Union. Ngandu will be returning to his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he expects to continue helping others. He spoke to UNHCR Web Editor Leo Dobbs. Excerpts of the interview:

How has UNHCR changed since you started?

It has changed tremendously. When I joined it was a very, very close-knit family. The total number of staff was close to 600 worldwide. We spoke to each other on a first name basis; we all knew each other, from the High Commissioner [Sadruddin Aga Khan] to the most junior protection officer.

A powerful memory from that time is how the senior staff coached the junior members. There was a fantastic linkage between staff and we were learning a lot from our seniors. They would find time to coach us. Unfortunately, because the organization has become so big, that type of closeness has been diluted a bit. The complexity of our work today, and the number of staff, means that it has changed in that sense. But the spirit is still there and I really admire the dedication that my young new colleagues put into their job.

In your final post, you effectively have two jobs. You are the UNHCR representative in Ethiopia and you are also the main point of contact with the African Union. Tell us a bit about the AU-UNHCR link.

Until 2002, the AU was known as the Organization of African Unity [OAU], which was founded in 1963 and based, as now, in Addis Ababa. When UNHCR opened an office in Addis in 1966 there were no refugees in Ethiopia and the raison d'être of the office was, from the very start, to partner with the OAU. Sadruddin Aga Khan felt it was important to establish a fully dedicated liaison office to build a partnership with this continental body because the phenomenon of refugees in Africa was very complex at that time. You had the apartheid system in South Africa creating displacement; you had the various struggles against colonialism - Mozambique, Rhodesia, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia and so on. There were a lot refugees in Africa at that time and the link between those refugees and the political processes of nation-building in Africa was such that the founding fathers of the OAU immediately decided that they needed to partner with UNHCR.

The secretary general of the OAU at that time, Diallo Telli, sent his deputy to Geneva in 1964 to launch that relationship and start looking at areas in which they could work together. After that it was decided to open the UNHCR office in Addis and then to get the lawyers together to draft what became the 1969 OAU Convention governing the specific problems of refugees in Africa. So it has been a long and very fruitful partnership.

How did this partnership develop and challenges change?

From 1966 until 1985, the old solidarity built around the struggles against colonialism and apartheid ensured that the OAU and its member states regarded refugees as brothers and sisters in need of protection, in need of solidarity.... Then from 1980 to around 1999, there was a very, very tough period when members states started removing themselves. That foundation of solidarity and commonness of purpose, the so-called humanitarian consensus, was eroded. So we had the Rwanda situation, which really challenged old conventional wisdoms about how you look at refugees. That was because there were people involved in genocide among the refugees and armed elements who were holding the refugees hostage.

And you had some AU member themselves carrying out massive violations of human rights, which led to the creation of refugees. So the whole approach of regarding refugees as innocent brothers and sisters, victims of the bad guys - apartheid and colonialism - was no longer there. Refugees became the product of independent African states themselves; lack of political tolerance, bad governance, violations of human rights. So the humanitarian space suffered considerably during that period and UNHCR had a very tough time. The partnership with the OAU also suffered.

But since 2002 we have been seeing a new phenomenon - due to historical reasons, a good number of African heads of state today are former refugees or experienced asylum. From Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to Thabo Mbeki [who stepped down as South African president last September] and others. Ministers belong to the same categories, and the AU ambassadors in Addis Ababa - a good number know what being displaced is like.

Having lived in the AU system during two of those periods, I have witnessed fantastic alliances of people of the same mindset, sympathies. And this has helped make it possible to start rebuilding the humanitarian consensus in Africa that is hopefully going to lead to the adoption of a convention [at a landmark April 2-3 summit meeting in Kampala, Uganda] for the protection and solution of the problem of internally displaced people. But throughout those two periods, some African countries - such as Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana - have shown exemplary asylum traditions.

Is there any mission that sticks out in your mind?

There have been so many, but two really stand out. One was Djibouti, when I was serving as a representative for the first time. This small country had a population of 300,000 but had to cope with close to 40,000 refugees from the bigger brother next door, Ethiopia, during the [1977-1978] Ogaden War. Most of these refugees - 70 percent - were ethnic Issa Somalis from eastern Ethiopia. They were welcomed by Djibouti as brothers, but there were also 10,000 Christian highlanders fleeing from Addis Ababa to escape the urban red terror [during the rule of President Mengistu Haile Mariam].

The challenge for us was to get the leadership of Djibouti, which was French-speaking and Islamic, to host Christian highlanders from Ethiopia. This was a formidable challenge. But although Djibouti's leaders were of Somali and Afar ethnicity, they had long memories and many of the elite used to cross the border and live in Dire Dawa in [eastern Ethiopia] as part of a regular migratory movement. Furthermore, during the First World War there was a British blockade of Djibouti which led to famine, forcing many Djiboutians to seek shelter in Ethiopia, where they were welcomed. So when I met Djibouti's President [Hassan Gouled Aptidon], I had prepared my best speech, my best advocacy presentation as a young lawyer. I thought I would impress him and then urge him to adhere to humanitarian principles while reciting provisions of the OAU Convention. But he stopped me halfway through and said, "Young man, you know, I and many other Djiboutians spent several years as refugees in Ethiopia during the blockade and it is time for pay back. So, don't lecture me about the Convention. These people deserve my hospitality, because I and my people enjoyed their hospitality."

The second memorable experience I had was in Namibia - a little celebrated success story of the United Nations in Africa. There were people from 110 different nationalities. You had peace-keepers overseeing the disarmament of the South African army and armed SWAPO [South-West Africa People's Organization] groups; police monitors dealing with law and order. Their work meant we could move into the electoral process and organize the repatriation of thousands of refugees.

We had UN civil administrators because the United Nations had a mandate to govern Namibia. [Former Finland president and 2008 Nobel Peace Prize winner] Martti Ahtisaari was our overall boss. The UN electoral division prepared the electoral roll for people to be registered.... Because of the huge logistical challenges of bringing people back, including the political players such as SWAPO, the military component provided vehicles. All of the transportation, even of refugees from the airport or from the point of entry to transit centres, to their villages, was done by the military branch.... You had the whole gamut of civilian expertise, the military expertise, the political expertise put to the best use I have ever seen in my whole life. This is an experience I will never forget, and I will write about it.

What will you do now?

The next stage will be to pay back my country. I remember my father coming to see me when I was a guest of [President] Mobutu Sese Soko's prison service after taking part in student riots. He was allowed to talk to me and said: "There are two Republics of Zaire (at that time my country was called Zaire). The first Republic of Zaire is us, the family. So finish your studies, get a job and show us you can take care of that first Republic of Zaire. Once you have done that, then we will set you free to take care of the larger Republic of Zaire."

I think that sense of obligation to the pledge I made to my father is still with me. So I will go back. I don't think it would be right for me, as a person with a bit of expertise and a network of friends around the world, to leave a country in pain like mine and go and lie on the beach, swig beer and have a good time.... I think I will try to help out. They say a small drop of water makes rivers.