A Chadian Secretary-General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

On November 27, at a meeting in Niamey, Niger, foreign ministers from member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) elected a new secretary-general for the organization, Chadian diplomat Hussein Brahim Taha. He will begin a five-year term in November 2021.

The OIC, formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference, was founded in 1969. As is often noted, it is the second-largest multilateral organization in the world, after the United Nations. It is headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but the general secretariat has not been a Saudi Arabian preserve – of the 11 people to hold the office so far, only two (albeit the most recent two) were Saudi Arabian nationals. Strikingly, the Sahel has been quite well represented on the list, with a Senegalese national serving as secretary-general from 1975-1979 and a Nigerien national serving from 1989-1996 (term lengths, it seems, have been variable). As noted above, moreover, the Council of Ministers meeting that elected Taha took place in the Sahel as well.

The OIC’s secretaries-general have not been clerics/shaykhs, but rather professional government bureaucrats. The outgoing secretary-general, Yousef Bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, holds a Ph.D. in Political Sociology from American University and came up through the Ministry of Social Affairs. Chad’s Taha spent most of his career in the Chadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs where, notably, he served as Chad’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1991-2001 according to this profile. He has also served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as deputy secretary-general of the Chadian presidency.

The sketches of Taha’s biography that I’ve seen indicate someone who is (a) close to Chadian President Idriss Deby and has his confidence, and (b) deeply familiar with Saudi Arabia. Being familiar to or even close to Saudi Arabia, however, should not lead one to the automatic assumption that Taha is a “Wahhabi” – not all of the institutions headquartered in or associated with Saudi Arabia are “Wahhabi” to the same degree, although that’s a longer discussion that goes beyond the scope of this blog.

Turning to that first point, about Deby, I want to expand on something I said on Twitter, namely that to me it is striking that Deby has now placed three of his top diplomats in three key posts at the regional, continental/African, and now global levels:

  • Mahamat Saleh Annadif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Mali and Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) since 2016;
  • Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission since 2017; and
  • Hussein Brahim Taha, incoming Secretary-General of the OIC.

I take a few, admittedly somewhat speculative, conclusions from this. One is that Deby has a pretty solid network of people he trusts and has given space to develop the kinds of resumes that major multilateral organizations take seriously. I assume that no Chadian could take a major diplomatic position like these without Deby’s backing. So on the one hand Deby, like many other long-ruling African heads of state, is infamous for refusing to signal who his successor might be, for reshuffling his cabinets frequently, for playing with term limits and constitutional structures, for creating new posts (a vice president soon, perhaps?) while eliminating others (the prime minister-ship, in 2018). Yet on the other hand, Deby is clearly not so jealous of power that he would cripple others’ careers – and perhaps in particular would not be threatened by professional diplomats who can rise to serious heights without becoming rival politicians per se. Ultimately all this reinforces his power, of course: thrive with the Deby-dominated system and you can have a literally world-class career. This is not me excusing him or praising him, except to say that he has a talent for authoritarianism – he is not as crude or just straight-up dumb about it as many other authoritarians are.

Then there is the question of how Deby positions Chad and Chadians to take these roles. A lot of those dynamics are out of my view, at least. A large part of the answer is the role that Chad has taken on as (one, would-be) guarantor of security in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and that goes a long way to explaining the MINUSMA and African Union Commission appointments. But that role as security guarantor, on its own, is not sufficient to explain an appointment like the OIC’s secretary-general. Another factor there may be the way that the Sahel is a recurring zone of interest for Saudi Arabia, on and off from the 1960s to the present; Chad, additionally, has a number of Arabophone and/or Arab diplomats, and that may be attractive to OIC members as well (see below, where Taha gives his remarks in Arabic). And, finally, perhaps Deby is also skilled at various forms of behind-the-scenes negotiations. I wonder if he committed to anything in exchange for this OIC appointment.

Here is the video of Taha’s acceptance speech:

Guest Post: Interview with Amb. Mouhamadou Doudou Lo

[This guest post comes from Joseph Hammond, a freelance journalist. You can read more of his reporting on the 12th Islamic Summit here. Joseph in on Twitter here. – Alex]

Senegal’s Ambassador Mouhamadou Doudou Lo is one of Senegal’s high profile diplomats. His career has seen postings in a number of Arab capitals and also a stint as Senegal’s ambassador to Brazil. More recently Lo has served as Senegal’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. Lo has subsequently become a key figure in Senegal’s relationship with the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. Senegal has traditionally played a leadership role in the OIC. Founded in 1969, the OIC is the world’s second largest intergovernmental organization after the United Nations and is based in Jeddah. The ambassador spoke with Joseph Hammond on the sidelines of the of the 12th Islamic Summit in Cairo.

Following bilateral meetings on the sidelines Islamic Summit in Cairo, Senegal decided to re-establish relations with Iran. Can you tell us why Senegal chose this as the moment to resume relations with Iran?

We reevaluated the situation with regard to Iran [at the Islamic Summit], the Islamic Republic of Iran is after all a fellow OIC member country and we now realize that it is the time for us to re-establish our relationship[with Iran] because we are moving in the same direction. Thus, our relationship has been re-established in a way that respects our sovereignty and our rights within the framework of the Muslim world and the workings of the OIC.

….As I understand it in 2011 Senegal broke relations with Iran over Iranian arm shipments to rebels in Senegal. Have the issues related to severing of ties with Iran been resolved?

“We don’t want to look backward and on this issue… [from our perspective] it has been resolved. Now we are looking forward and hoping to develop a relationship within the framework of friendship, a forward looking relationship with improved cooperation.

Senegal has been an active member in the OIC since the beginning of the organization. While this was the first time  the Islamic Summit was hosted in Cairo, Senegal has twice hosted the Islamic Summit including the last Islamic Summit held in 2008 in Dakar. What were some of Senegal’s achievements as president of the OIC?

Until the Islamic Summit in Cairo, Senegal had the extraordinary opportunity to hold the presidency of the OIC for an extraordinary 5 years. This is due to the fact that the Islamic Summit was twice postponed before the meeting in Cairo. The last five years during which Senegal has been President of the OIC, have been productive ones. During this period the OIC has seen a number of new achievements including a new logo and the renaming of the OIC from the Organization of the Islamic Conference to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. These are some of the many achievements toward the modernization of the OIC as an organization that Senegal has been a part of. We have also helped in progress toward other goals as well. In particular in the cultural sector, where we held a leadership role in the OIC Standing Committee for Information and Cultural Affairs (COMIAC).

Cultural issues were a big part of the past Islamic Summit. Since the last Islamic Summit, the Muslim world has seen the desecration of a number of historic sites weather in Libya or in Mali. Indeed, Muhammad VI, the King of Morocco touched on attacks on Mali’s “cultural heritage” during his speech to the Islamic Summit. How is the OIC seeking to address this issue?

Historic sites in the Muslim world need to be protected whether in Africa or elsewhere. The resolution on Mali passed at the 12th Islamic Summit in Cairo condemned the destruction of cultural sites in Timbuktu. The OIC must take steps to ensure the situation we have seen in Mali will not be repeated. We must preserve the cultural and historic heritage of [the] world’s Islamic monuments. These are sites important to [the] world’s history and heritage as well.