Muhammad Najm Akbar
Visionary, controversial, and provocative, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow had the longest innings as the first African head of a UN organization. Opponents to Pakistan’s candidature included this universally distinguished African Muslim. As Director General, M’Bow had annoyed several powerful international actors, including the United States. The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the organization we have known as the African Union since 2001, supported his candidature once again although there was a palpable desire for a change at the top particularly to restore UNESCO’s inclusive character and secure support of its major donors. There was no anti-Islam conspiracy, nonetheless. Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow was as much of a Muslim as Yakub-Khan and had a far more illustrious international career. He had spearheaded the search for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO or NWIO). In the process, the anti-West posture of the organization hurt it because ironically it relied on the financial support of the same bloc of countries it aggravated.
In one of the strongest and fondest coincidences of my personal and professional life, I had an extraordinary meeting with Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow post elections and had an entirely different look at his life. It happened in Senegal which was my second diplomatic assignment after France. Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow was one of the great Senegalese who had become symbols of national and African pride.
My friends in France had so many positive things to say about my move to the westernmost tip of Africa. It was a land of loving people, the sun, and the vast horizons of a desert with majestic sunsets and sunrises, and pristine beaches. It was a country that looked towards the Atlantic with its harbors and architectural orientation. It was also my first direct contact with the history of slavery because Senegal was the home of Gorée island which recounted the centuries-old history of the slave trade. The experience also introduced me to a different perspective of the world. Paris-Dakar car rallies showed one of the many ways the internal combustion engine had brought the world together. I had no concrete idea until then that Africa was so big and a flight there with a stopover in Mali could take a lifetime. I landed in a city along the Corniche, full of life and energy.
Within days of my arrival, one of my first assignments was to hand over a letter to the landlord of the Pakistani ambassador’s residence. I was in for a great surprise. I discovered that the landlord was no one else but Yakub-Khan’s nemesis, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow. It was a pleasant drive to his home, along the sea through a posh neighborhood on the Senegalese beach. The city administration had yet to put up street signs there. The driver claimed that he had been to the place a few times and after a few failed attempts, he found the gate he knew. Someone opened it and allowed the Embassy car to enter. In the next few moments, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow walked into a stylishly decorated living room.
I noticed the combative tone of the communication and the talking points. I learned from the late Mr. Naik to tone down and reduce the querulous rhetoric to actionable issues and suggested solutions while looking after the Iranian Interest Section. Gholam Reza Haddadi, Iranian charge d’affaires then, indulged in long speeches against the French government over minor issues, mostly different interpretations of concessions the two sides had mutually agreed to grant each other. Talking to my French colleagues, I would simply point to the issues and suggested solutions. I had every reason to use those skills with the former Director General of UNESCO. I did that routine with Mr. M’Bow. He reacted softly to the contents of the letter re-emphasizing that he had to restore the place to his personal use. The conversation, therefore, focused on my recollection of the election campaign and the coincidence of this meeting in Dakar.
We talked about the elections both he and Pakistan had lost. He distinctly regretted Yakub-Khan not consulting him beforehand pointing out Pakistan’s campaign in the African capitals. All that was behind him. He was home. I will never meet him again. Besides his dividing the electoral college comprising members of the executive board of UNESCO, there was a severe disconnect there between the criteria the international community preferred and the candidate Pakistan had presented. Pakistan lost ground in UNESCO but the Iranian Interest Section kept the country in the limelight.