Just when the entire world had turned a blind eye to what was happening in Rwanda, as a global debate ensued on whether it was a Genocide or just ethnic violence, a Nigerian diplomat warned the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that their inaction was going to make the world body a laughing stock.
Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, currently the Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, was his country’s Permanent Representative to the UN when the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi broke out in Rwanda. He was also sitting in the UNSC as a non-permanent member and later chaired it.
As the debate ensued on whether to reduce the number of Peacekeepers under the United Nations Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) and change the mandate of the mission, Prof. Gambari warned members that the decision would be catastrophic.
He is often recognised for his effort, alongside Colin Keating of New Zealand, and Karel Kovanda of the Czech Republic, for consistently calling for action, despite the resistance of more powerful states, such as the United Kingdom and the U.S, which had the means to act but did not.
In his speech at Kigali Arena on April 7, to commemorate 27 years after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, President Paul Kagame made a reference to Prof. Gambari and Nigeria, pointing out that Rwanda will never forget their contribution towards stopping the Genocide.
President Kagame said that while some people were having problems of calling it genocide at the United Nations — among those having problems at the time was even the Secretary-General of the United Nations, some amazing countries and their representatives stood up and stood out, and said no. This is what it is.
“And one of them is an African country that we shall always be proud to call a good friend, represented by a man I remember, called Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria. Nigeria stood out and said no. There is a problem and we must call it what it is,”
“Professor Gambari was there, and we shall always be proud of Nigeria,” President Kagame said.
Prof. Gambari, who replaced Keating of New Zealand as the chair of UNSC, is remembered for calling for action as the debate ensued at the UN, warning that the Security Council risked becoming ‘a laughing stock’ for failing to take prompt action in Rwanda.
Gambari and Keating shared the frustration of inaction, with the New Zealand diplomat pointing out on April 20, 1994, when killings had become full scale, that the ‘silence of the council was becoming difficult to explain’.
Gambari, Keating and others who were in favour of intervention in Rwanda, were up against permanent members of the council, who were the real decision makers. The UK Permanent Representative at the UN, Sir David Hannay said that protecting civilians in Rwanda “was simply not achievable.”
The UK diplomat said that the UN did not have the resources to respond in Rwanda, adding that “there was no point in promising what we could not deliver”.
In a 2004 interview when he was the UN Under Secretary-General and the first Special Adviser on Africa to the UN Secretary General, Prof. Gambari said that non-permanent members of the Security Council often were regarded like “guests” and their views didn’t matter as much as those of the five permanent members.
Prof. Gambari revealed that it became apparent that Rwanda was not high on the priority list for the U.S during a meeting with the U.S head of mission to the UN at the time, Madeleine Albright. Washington was more focused on the events in Iraq and the Middle East at the time.
The Nigerian diplomat revealed that at the time, the countries were looking at their own interests and Rwanda just wasn’t important for them.
Though the non-permanent members were mostly side-lined and didn’t have the privileges of permanent members, Prof. Gambari made it clear to them that the signs plus a warning fax from the UNAMIR head General Dallaire, were all pointing towards planned ethnic massacres.
It took weeks and months as the ‘big boys’ engaged in debates of whether the massacres could be termed as a genocide or not and even when the full scale of the tragedy became evident, they still were not willing to do something tangible to stop the killings.
Prof. Gambari argued in favour of an expanded peacekeeping mission with a robust mandate to save lives, as Gen. Dallaire had requested. As the debates ensued in New York and Washington, thousands of lives were being lost, with no chance of rapid action in sight.
The Nigerian diplomat also opposed the idea of drawing down the existing blue helmets in Rwanda, expressing frustration that even some African countries voted in favour of reducing the forces, something he blamed on the persuasiveness of the Secretary General’s report and pressure from decision making countries.
Asked why Nigeria didn’t go into Rwanda to intervene if other countries had not acted, Prof. Gambari said that the West African country didn’t have the capability for airlifting and to do it in a quick manner and that the likes of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) didn’t even ask.
Looking back, he believes Africa should have done a lot more to stop the genocide, without having to rely on the UN or ‘big’ countries.
An illustrious career
Prof. Gambari, 76, is regarded highly in academics and diplomacy, having served in different high-ranking capacities. He previously served as Nigeria’s Foreign Minister from 1984 to 1985 and he holds the record of being the longest serving Nigerian Ambassador to the United Nations, serving under five Heads of State and Presidents, from 1990 to 1999.
Born in the western Kwara State, Prof. Gambari is also a prince from the Ilorin Emirate ruling house. He served as the director general of The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) and was the Founder/Chairman of the Board of Directors of Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, a non-governmental think-tank.
He was the first UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Africa from 1999 to 2005) and also served as the Chairman of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid from 1990 to 1994 and on Peace-Keeping Operations (1990—1999).
He was Head of the UN Department of Political Affairs (2005-2007) and also operated as UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Cyprus, Zimbabwe and Myanmar and Special Representative in Angola. He was also the President of UNICEF.
He is currently a chairperson of the Panel of Eminent Persons of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), a position he took on since March 2020.
He holds a BSc (Econs) degree from the London School of Economics (1968) and his MA and PhD in Political Science/International Relations (1970, 1974) from Columbia University, US. He has taught at universities in the US, Nigeria and Singapore and has authored a number of books.
He is described as an amiable and approachable person with strong leadership skills.