Mahboub Maalim, the former executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), spoke to Victor Kiprop about the organisation’s reforms.
More than three decades since it was formed, Igad remains heavily reliant on donor funding. Do you think this threatens its future?
If there was no Igad today, it would have had to be created. It is important for the region. However, why is there no total ownership by members and they’re not able to pay for programmes and run the institution? This is a major weakness, not just in Igad but other regional economic communities on the continent.
You served for 11 years at the highest capacity of the regional body. What did your work entail?
When I came in, my plan was to create reforms on two fronts — strengthen the body institutionally, and its programmes.
By the time I was leaving, we had moved from not having a payslip to becoming International Public Sector Accounting Standards-compliant. We also grew the organisation from about 40 staff to about 400.
On the programmes front, we were known for our peace processes mainly in South Sudan and Somalia, through our Heads of States summits. But we were considered to be leaning too much towards peace and security. So we brought in other development agendas such as infrastructure and the Igad Drought and Disaster Resilience and Sustainability initiative — a multi-sectoral approach to ending food insecurity, solving environmental issues and regional integration.
When I left, we had a turnover of $10 million worth of programmes.
What challenges did you face?
The biggest was politics. It’s like the oil in the engine of a car. A lot of times when we have problems in regional institutions, it’s just bad politics.
The second major challenge was commitment by member states. How much of what they approve do they actually support with ratifications, approvals, legislative and Cabinet approvals? How much of the in-country civil service would be available for technical support?
Third, multilateral relationships between the international community and different countries that affect Igad.
There has been a perception among some members that Igad is controlled by ‘big states’ such as Ethiopia and Kenya. Is this true?
It’s a perception and I have heard the murmurs for long, but it’s not true. Igad operates under consensus. In my almost 12-year tenure, I was not faced with a situation where there was a stalemate and we did not have consensus. Even the smaller economies had a say. They carry as much weighted vote as the bigger economies.
The advantage of dealing with larger economies is that they have better visibility and a bigger say in the international arena.
But national interests always play out in blocs, threatening or even leading to the collapse of organisations.
It’s not an easy task to balance national interests. Even though the organisation belongs to member states and is run from the highest institutional level — the Heads of States — national interests play out from things as simple as where a road begins and ends to who takes which position. You have to be as neutral as possible while giving background and parameters, and then allow the Heads of States to make decisions.
Eritrea has on a number of times accused Igad of not being neutral, and despite making peace with Ethiopia recently, Asmara is still not keen on Igad.
It’s up to Eritrea to decide when they want to come to the table. There’s no hindrance for them to come back now.
Even when Eritrea was sidelined, and the region was trying to get sanctions against it, I always believed that Igad was not complete without Eritrea. I stand by that today.
Fighting in South Sudan was a constant problem during your tenure. Was it because Igad was imposing ideas of peace or were the leaders not interested in peace as the US government once claimed?
I wouldn’t say there were leaders who were not interested in peace. South Sudan is a fairly young country that had been at war for about 40 to 50 years, meaning the peace negotiators are not very old. So the difficulties we faced were as a result of socialisation.
Many of them know nothing besides war, so they’re naturally socialised to either winning or losing. Their way of life is different from those who of us who have lived peacefully.
There were difficulties in getting the power matrix right, resulting in entrenched interests of political power-sharing. For example, the dispute on the number of states and security arrangements are oriented towards power politics.
But, there is a definite interest in peace. We are now closer than at any other time to attaining this.
Some Igad member states are members of the East African Community, and others are pushing for the formation of a Horn of Africa Alliance. Where does that leave Igad?
If we really want to get things right, then the bigger we are the better. As secretary general of Igad I am on record making a case for the collapsing Igad and the EAC into one entity. There’s no point of having two separate blocs when there’s overlapping membership. We should have started by collapsing the two and having a greater EAC or greater Horn of Africa, so that when we talk about business, politics and other commonalities that people can benefit from, we have a bigger market.
We have prepared papers and presentations on this, but we haven’t reached consensus.
How do we deal with terrorism? Some people have suggested negotiating with al Shabaab.
Fighting terrorism is engaging in a war with people that you don’t know and probably cannot track, so the solution is everything except military. Even if you have the largest military contingent on earth, it’s difficult. You cannot win the war on terror by use of military.
The answer is a community-based approach. This has been done in Kenya before, where we had inter-clan fights and community-based systems were formed, action plans prepared and implemented. We need to get a group of elders from Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia and make a community action plan, and then look for resources to operationalise it.
Current position: Chairman of Kenya Power
Previous positions: Executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development between June 2008 and November 2019.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation and in the Office of the President in Kenya.
Others: District water engineer; Director of Programmes, Arid Lands, Relief and Rehabilitation in the Office of the President
Awards: Order of Grand Warrior of Kenya and Chief of Burning Spear of Kenya
Education: BSc in Civil Engineering, and MSc in Civil Engineering from the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University College