Maintaining multilateralism in a world hit by COVID-19

Like many organisations around the world, La Francophonie has been forced to change its working methods because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The PSC Report asked Ambassador Boubacar Issa Abdourhamane, permanent representative of the Francophonie to the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa, about his organisation’s strategy for the continent going forward.

What role does the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) play in responding to peace and security challenges in Africa, particularly in its African member states?

Thank you for your interest in the OIF, which, as you know, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The OIF currently consists of 88 states. Its work covers a wide range of issues. In the early 1970s its role was to develop technical and cultural cooperation, prioritising the education sector around the shared French language. Then member states extended its powers to economic issues and questions of democracy, peace and security.

Consequently, La Francophonie is shaped by its member states in line with the evolution of our constantly changing world and in the search for solutions to our common challenges. In the area of ​​peace and security, two instruments are the basis of its actions: the Bamako Declaration adopted in 2000 and the Saint-Boniface Declaration on human security and conflict prevention adopted in 2006. Today, nothing sustainable can be achieved without peace and security.  

However, ensuring peace and security is first and foremost the primary responsibility of states; La Francophonie only supports their efforts, in coordination with regional and international organisations. It is involved in many efforts in the field of prevention and peaceful resolution of crises and conflicts. Mediators and special envoys are often deployed in countries by the secretary general, as the need arises.

What role does the Addis Ababa delegation of the OIF play?

Here in Addis Ababa, our delegation has existed for 20 years and its role at the African level is one of strengthening relations between La Francophonie, the AU and the ECA in a range of areas. With the AU, cooperation covers many subjects, such as questions of peace and security, the fight against terrorism and violent extremism, the promotion of democracy and the rule of law, multilingualism and participation in international consultations. There are regular consultations at the highest level between the chairperson of the AU Commission and the secretary general of La Francophonie. We also have the Group of Francophone Ambassadors in Addis Ababa, which plays an important role in mobilising and promoting the values ​​of La Francophonie, in particular respect for multilingualism in consultations and exchanges. It is also important to mention training activities for capacity building in several areas, in collaboration and with the support of the French embassy, in particular French courses and technical training with the training department of the AU. We are very happy with the quality of the collaboration with the AU and the ECA.

How has the OIF’s work been affected by COVID-19? 

La Francophonie, like all organisations around the world, has been affected by COVID-19 in its day-to-day work. Very quickly, the secretary general of La Francophonie, Louise Mushikiwabo, developed initiatives implemented by the administrator, Catherine Cano. Decisions regarding the protection of staff, ensuring the continuity of operations at headquarters and in external units, were taken quickly. Our secretary general, in consultation with international partners, also initiated an important campaign in favour of member countries, particularly in Africa, for debt relief measures by various creditors in order to allow states to focus their resources on COVID-19 responses and essential services such as health and education. It has also developed initiatives to share online educational resources in French for the benefit of schools, to allow children and young people to continue learning despite the closure of schools.

La Francophonie also recently set up a Francophonie Fund for women: ‘La Francophonie avec Elles’. This is an initiative by the secretary general to support women in precarious situations in the French-speaking world who are feeling the full force of the socioeconomic impacts of crises like the one we are currently experiencing. In order to measure the impact of this crisis on growth and employment in the French-speaking world, the OIF has set up an economic data gathering system, which is a tool to inform and support decision-making and cooperation.

Finally, La Francophonie is developing an important initiative to fight against disinformation, which has become a huge issue during the health crisis. Support and webinars on fact-checking and inbox control tools have been put in place. The OIF also contributes to the COVID-19 Solidarity platform, which has enabled the widespread mobilisation of innovators and the fruitful sharing of innovative solutions, some of which are supported for development on a larger scale.

What do you think states and the continent should do to recover from the impact of COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a serious pandemic. It has made our world in many places a sad one, filled with grieving families. Numerous measures to stop the pandemic, to find an effective vaccine and imagine solutions to the social and economic consequences are being explored. This is thanks to the international cooperation and coordination mechanisms put in place as a response to the pandemic, led by the WHO [World Health Organization] and other organisations.

The pandemic also reminds us of the importance of preserving an effective multilateral system that meets the needs of populations and the need for global consensus on issues that affect the future of our common humanity. As part of its cooperation with the AU, La Francophonie supports the awareness campaign with African artists that was launched on 25 May – Africa Day – in collaboration with the Africa CDC [Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention] and the AU Department of Social Affairs.

The OIF’s stated aims include the promotion of democracy and human rights. What are the challenges African member states are facing in upholding electoral democracy and human rights during COVID-19, and how can some of these challenges be addressed?

The COVID pandemic does pose a challenge to the functioning of democratic systems, which at regular intervals must elect leaders in accordance with constitutional provisions. Electoral participation involves gatherings, logistical organisation, mobilisation and travel for campaigns and voting. The anti-COVID-19 measures taken such as social distancing to avoid the spread of the pandemic, though important for protecting populations, can sometimes restrict these dynamics and this is a new challenge that we must learn to deal with.

It is also a challenge owing to the cost of the additional resources needed, such as masks, to hold elections during the pandemic. So far, elections have been held during the COVID period with protective measures in place. Several elections are planned in the coming months and La Francophonie could provide, at the request of states, its expertise and support, particularly in the field of voter’s rolls and the strengthening of consensus in line with our aims of promoting transparent and peaceful elections.  

What are the major peace and security challenges facing Mali, and how do you think regional organisations and partners such as the OIF and AU could support the country? 

All the countries of the Sahel are members of La Francophonie and it is therefore very aware of the political and security situation in the region. It is a region that faces many structural and environmental challenges. Over the past 10 years it has seen the development of violent extremism with the proliferation of armed terrorist groups that threaten the peace and security of populations and economic development in these states.  

Secretary General Louise Mushikiwabo was at the Nouakchott Summit in July alongside the five Sahelian heads of state, the chairperson of the AU Commission and the French president. She provided support to the member states of this region. La Francophonie also works closely with the G5 Sahel Secretariat.

Regarding recent events in Mali, La Francophonie suspended Mali and reaffirmed its solidarity with the Malian people. However, it maintains its cooperation directly benefiting the civilian population, as well as those contributing to the restoration of democracy.  The secretary general also announced that a high level delegation would visit Bamako to assess the situation.

As you know, in the Sahel region, these tend to be complex problems and complementarity and the coordination of efforts between various partners is important. The commitment of the OIF is to complement existing efforts.

The creation of a radio station for the youth of the Sahel and the Solidarity Fund for Women will also benefit the people of the Sahel.  

The next OIF summit is scheduled to take place sometime later this year. What will be the priority issues addressed at the summit?   

The Francophonie summit takes place every two years. The last one held in October 2018 took place in Yerevan in Armenia and the next one is scheduled in Tunisia. This important meeting allows heads of state and government to develop a shared vision of La Francophonie and to set priorities that the organisation's secretariat implements.

Recently, President of the Republic of Tunisia Kais Saied and Louise Mushikiwabo, Secretary general of La Francophonie, agreed to postpone the XVIII Francophonie Summit to 2021. This summit will be important because of its theme ‘Connectivity in diversity: the digital vector of development and solidarity in the French-speaking world’.  

This is an important question. It is the continuation and strengthening of a long-term commitment. For example, La Francophonie has contributed a lot to the development of free software and made it possible to ensure a certain linguistic balance, because beyond the digital divide, the Internet must also reflect the diversity of the world and the richness of human culture on our planet.

We are moving from ‘big data’ to ‘fast data’, with promising prospects in the development of ‘quantum computing’, which will further accelerate the vast field known as artificial intelligence. The wish of the Francophonie secretary general is that young Francophones, universities and research centres participate and contribute positively to these changes, in all fields, including education, health, energy, agriculture, etc. These positive changes must be supported within the framework of dialogue in the multilateral space, in UN organisations and in regional organisations, particularly in Africa.

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