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‘Yes, we had to restore order within the OIF’, says Louise Mushikiwabo

By François Soudan, Olivier Caslin
Posted on Thursday, 4 March 2021 08:41

Louise Mushikiwabo, secretary-general of the International Organisation of La Francophonie, in March 2020 in Paris. © Vincent Fournier / JA

Halfway through her term, the secretary-general of the International Organisation of la Francophonie (OIF) looks back on its track record, its projects, and responds to criticisms of her management style.

2021 will be a year of celebration for Louise Mushikiwabo. The secretary-general of the International Organisation of la Francophonie (OIF) will celebrate her 60th birthday at the end of May, and the institution she has been in charge of since January 2019 will mark its 50th anniversary in November, during the summit organised on the island of Djerba, in Tunisia.

It will be at this occasion, which will be attended by the heads of state of the member countries, that the former Rwandan foreign affairs minister – who is halfway through her term – will speak about what she has achieved so far and her remaining goals. These include modernising the OIF and strengthening its role on the international diplomatic scene.

Before flying to Chisinau, Moldova to promote a Covid-19 vaccination campaign, Mushikiwabo looks back on her first two years at the head of the OIF where, in her own words, she still has “a lot to do.”

Now halfway through your term, do you feel that you have managed to stick to your schedule and introduce the reforms you have wanted to so far? 

Louise Mushikiwabo: Yes, for the most part. But the “human resources” part remains the most complex. Multilateral organisations do not have a sense of urgency. Of course we have excellent people, but for some of our staff, it’s not a big deal if things take six months instead of one. That’s where the difficulty lies.

After two years at its head, I am still convinced that the organisation’s potential is enormous but that it must move much faster than it has done so far.

They say that you manage your teams the Anglo-Saxon way. Is this compatible with the French-speaking world?

Absolutely! When there is an emergency, there is an emergency. There is no need to rush either, but I don’t see why the OIF, which strives to be a modern international organisation, should remain a prisoner of its procedures. We have to remain cautious in order to do things well. However, it is also important that we have a clear objective and results that we want to achieve.

Making the OIF more effective was precisely the objective of the KPMG audit carried out at the end of 2020, which resulted in some 20 redundancies. Was this painful for an organisation that had rarely experienced downsizing?

While we need specialists to work in the field, we can’t have 60 people here at headquarters out of the 340 people in the OIF, some of whom are in functions that the organisation doesn’t need. So these posts have been abolished, full stop!

What surprised me is that some employees put their personal interests before those of the organisation. Instead, they should understand that if IFM does not improve, many more people may have to leave. Countries may one day refuse to invest in such an organisation.

Did you have your hands free to do what you wanted?

Of course I had to face some outside interventions, but I know how to remain impervious to this kind of pressure. The Member States have given me the task of modernising and restructuring the organisation, the same cannot now ask me to do the opposite.

My good fortune is that I have managed to build an excellent relationship with all these countries. I have invested a lot in these relations because I know that they are indispensable for the proper functioning of a multilateral organisation.

You have also cleaned up your management and your office…

This organisation is in the midst of a transformation. It seems perfectly normal to me that there have been departures in management and in my firm. We have to adjust to each other. As for my former chief of staff [Jean-Marc Berthon], he is the one who wanted to leave. Berthon is now working as a special advisor in the French government. He seized this opportunity and I understand why.

So there is no awkwardness, despite what some people have said? 

I don’t think so, but I can understand why some people might think this given that hardly anyone had ever left this organisation before. I also wanted to promote young people, who have been present for many years and who work hard for the OIF. Some of them are only in their thirties, but I consider it very important to reward those who believe in our organisation at a time when it is modernising. Today I have a very fine team around me.

The OIF is very committed to the issue of universal distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. What initiatives has it taken?

Countries of the Global South are struggling to access vaccines, partly because Northern ones have placed huge orders. Even those that are ready in Africa, such as Senegal or Rwanda, have to pay three to four times more than the big countries and yet, still have to queue up behind them.

In November 2020, at our ministerial meeting, we adopted a resolution centred around equity and living together in these troubled times. We are advocating for equitable access to the vaccine because, for many, the situation is economically unbearable.

What I appreciate is that within La Francophonie, many Northern countries are pushing for equitable access and I must say that President Macron has been really great. Ever since we called for a debt moratorium, he has been demonstrating his commitment to Africa.

Since the continent is not around the big table, it is a great thing to have obtained this intra-Francophone solidarity. It is only natural that between Europe and Africa, which are geographical neighbours, there should be a certain equity. It is also in Europe’s interest to ensure that the neediest people have rapid access to these vaccines.

Presidents Cyril Ramaphosa and Paul Kagame condemned “vaccine nationalism.” Are you relaying this sentiment within the OIF?

Absolutely! In fact, I went to Moldova on 28 February with Charles Michel, president of the Council of Europe, to talk about the need for international solidarity and to encourage vaccination against Covid-19 in all our member states. Moldova is one of the French-speaking countries selected – along with Cape Verde, Tunisia and Rwanda – to take part in the Covax initiative, a campaign launched by the WHO in 18 countries around the world.

The OIF will do everything it can to spread the message. The key word is equity. Everyone must understand that we will not get out of this crisis without equitable sharing.

You have just returned from Chad, where the OIF is due to take part in the presidential election on 11 April. What is your organisation’s position on the issue of electoral governance?

We are ready to go to N’Djamena, but we are waiting for an official request from Chad, which has asked us to get involved at various levels. We always get involved when countries request us to do so.

Presidential elections are due to be held in Djibouti, Benin and the DRC in the coming weeks. We will be ready to support the national electoral structures of these countries, as well as the civil society groups involved in the process, as we have done in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire.

No interference, no sharing of good or bad thoughts? 

We do not interfere in elections. We only invoke certain provisions of the Bamako Declaration when things are going very badly and the credibility of our work is likely to suffer, as was the case in Guinea, where it was better for us to not get involved. That country is still dragging its electoral malaise along and that is exactly what we want to avoid.

We, including myself, believe that we must do everything we can to accompany and advise and, if this does not work, we move on to sanctions. We did this in Mali by placing the country under sanctions from August to November 2020, before reviewing our position in order to encourage the transition authorities to adopt certain measures.

Placing a country under sanctions limits how much positive influence we can exert on it. I went to Bamako the day after the sanctions were lifted to meet with the new authorities, but also to stress the lack of women in Malian politics. This last point obviously had nothing to do with the sanctions, but I believe that Mali has incredible female political leaders and it is not right to have only three women ministers out of 25. I told the authorities this.

Do you want to see more women in decision-making circles?

Yes, because it is very healthy for a country. At the G5 Sahel summit in N’Djamena, there were 24 men and only one woman, me, present to talk about terrorism, development and the measures that should be taken to fight poverty.

It is unacceptable that women are not present when discussing such important subjects. And this presence should not be merely symbolic. Their function should not be “exoticised.” It is important that they occupy important positions because this corresponds to the reality of the population, but they must be judged on their skills and their achievements, not on their looks.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an African woman, has just been appointed president of the WTO. Is this a cause for celebration?

At the head of the WTO, there is now a woman, who is extremely competent, who happens to also be African. She is the right person for this organisation at this time. The fact that she is a capable woman is more important than the fact that she is African.

The OIF’s 50th-anniversary summit at the end of November was due to be held in Tunis. However, President Kaïs Saïed decided that it should take place instead on the island of Djerba.

Yes, Djerba is a very beautiful place where it is very easy to get organised. Logistically, there is everything you need to manage about 50 heads of state. Furthermore, Djerba symbolises living together and that corresponds well to a 50th-anniversary summit.

But some say that holding the summit there instead of in Tunis will end up costing 50% more!

This is not true. Djerba has almost everything you need in terms of infrastructure. Our teams went there. I already know where the group photo will be taken and we have identified the places where we will receive the press. There is little work to be done.

Of course, Tunis has what is necessary to host such a summit, but there was also work to be done there. For instance, a special place would have had to be set up for the opening ceremony. All in all, it is much cheaper to host the summit in Djerba than in Tunis.

We hope, moreover, that the tension between the Tunisian president and his prime minister will not last because we need to work with several ministries and services. Organising such a summit requires six months of preparation and we must be ready for 20 November, in person, of course. This is a very important date for me because this summit will symbolise the beginning of a new era for our organisation.

You would like to hold more informal summits. How will this happen in practice?

In Yerevan, the opening ceremony lasted four hours, including one hour during which the secretary-general received and greeted all the heads of state and delegations. From now on we will politely greet everyone and I will make sure that everything goes well, but the parades of 60 heads of state are over.

There will also only be three speeches instead of the usual fortnight of them: that of the current presidency, Armenia, that of the incoming presidency, Tunisia, and that of the secretary-general, that’s all. A cultural activity will be offered, and then the discussions will be opened. Then the next day, the heads of state will be able to go home before the end of the day.

I have proposed this new concept at round tables, and all who were present were pleased with it. The 70-page press releases are also over. We are not going to create commissions or institutions without a budget or resources.

How will you deliver your verdict on the OIF?

I will present my report, which will focus on the essentials. I intend to use my time as secretary-general to modernise the organisation and make it more relevant, influential and financially well-managed.

We are going to talk to the heads of state about what we have been able to accomplish, where we are facing difficulties and our new priorities, especially with regards to youth, who want jobs, quality education and a healthy environment. We will put a lot of emphasis on digital, which is an essential ingredient in these times of pandemic. In fact, it will be the theme of the summit.

For the rest, it will be up to the heads of state to discuss among themselves what they want to do with this organisation that has been around for 50 years. I will have the opportunity to show them some of our flagship projects, particularly concerning the teaching of the French language, which is the central aim of our organisation. The French language must be the language that leads young people to success.

Is your ‘acceptability trial’ out of date?

Yes, especially since it was a mock trial. In fact, I never understood why I was not acceptable to some people. I’m about as Francophone as it gets. I think my candidacy was unexpected, especially from those who have a hidden agenda against Rwanda, my country.

But I felt that I was capable of managing this organisation. It’s like a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but for several countries. I felt that it would be a great challenge for me.

Your term in office ends, in principle, at the end of 2022. Will you run again? 

I’m not sure. I know that 2021 is the year of results. I am proud of this because we will begin to see the fruits of our labour over the past two years.

Why aren’t you sure?

Don’t you think I deserve a few holidays after all these years? I ran for office. I do what I have to do until the end of it.

But real reform work is difficult to do in four years…

That’s right, but the foundations have to be laid. The institutional part of the Francophonie is an aspect that has never been a priority. I would therefore like the next secretary-general to find out how to employ it.

Our representatives throughout the world have been brought together. Internally, we are tightening up our programmes, we are stopping the scattering. As far as the influence of the organisation is concerned, we have come a long way. We are involved on several international fronts and I believe that the OIF has more diplomatic weight now.

Does the economic dimension of the Francophonie exist?

La Francophonie needs to have an economic role. It is rather limited, but we have launched major projects which include training 250,000 young people in digital professions and helping them to find employment. We have an ongoing project that connects innovators with financial structures around the world. Commercial and economic cooperation between French-speaking countries is also very much in demand.

We have also facilitated collaboration between Vietnam and several West African countries on cotton and cashew nuts. Quebec and Greece are keen to develop their economic relations with French-speaking Africa, so we are putting the two parties in touch with each other. We must increasingly take on this role of intermediary, of facilitator between countries that do not know each other.

Can the OIF play the role of an observer at summits (Commonwealth, China-Africa, Europe-Africa…)?

Absolutely. It is up to us to make the request. I will go to Kigali in June for the Commonwealth summit, during which a new secretary-general will be elected. Chances are it will be a woman and an African. We will be there to observe.

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