ILC Ideas | Timothy Musa Kabba

In a September 27, 2023 interview, H.E. Timothy Musa Kabba, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Sierra Leone discusses coups, climate change, and conflict minerals — and his own remarkable journey from a child soldier in his country’s civil war all the way to the UN Security Council.

You’ve had a remarkable journey. You’re the first former child soldier to become a foreign minister — and hopefully the last! Looking back, you must ask yourself, how did I do this?

Well, I would say I’ve been really blessed and lucky because children in conflict areas rarely get de-traumatized and realize their greatest potential, because of the horror they experience. In the case of Sierra Leone, you’ve seen all of these horrendous act orchestrated right in front of you. It is very difficult sometimes to psychologically depart from those experiences. For me, I was lucky that in the communities that I lived in, people were supportive and we had Christian organizations, government itself, all the international partners, that made effort in transforming our lives through education and through counseling.

At the end of the war, the government also made an effort in providing free education for victims of the conflict. I was able to take advantage of that opportunity and I got myself educated. I also put in all the energy that I had, because I wanted to change my story. And then I was fortunate enough to perform very well in my terminal exam, which also gave me the opportunity to be selected for a bursary with the Russian government. So I went to the Russian Federation when I was a teenager. I went to a society that was quite different from mine. But the innate strength that I developed during the war made it quite possible for me to live through the difficulties of Russia. And I was able to be obtain some qualifications. And then I got a job. The same attitude of hard work, the same attitude of endurance, patience, humility. I was also able to perform very well in all the jobs that I had working in different communities. And that is why, in fact, I speak several languages, because everywhere I find myself, I try to socialize very well and to be part of that society. And when you are part of a society, you perform very well. But if you feel that you’re not part of the society, then you find it very difficult to realize your greatest opportunities. And so going through from being a child soldier to where I am today, it’s been resilience. Hard work. Fate. God.

You mention the constructive role of international partners in your own story. Today so many people are down on that term, the “international community,” after our collective failures on Syria and elsewhere. What do you think, especially now as you're going into the United Nations Security Council?

Before, during the Cold War, it was the Soviet and the United States. But today you have the Russians, you have the Chinese. You have the Brazilians coming up, the Indians. And so there are very many big players now in the international space, which calls for adjustment, which calls for a reform in multilateralism. Gone are the days when the global order was just dictated by a few people, if not only the United States and the Western world. Today, there seem to be alternatives in terms of bilateral cooperation for countries. And so this has actually shaken up the international space. We don’t seem to have one leadership in the world. Everybody is trying to show their might and wealth and strength and military prowess.

And today in Africa, in some of the conflicts in the Sahel, we have seen mercenaries coming from Russia, for instance — the Wagner group. Before, African conflicts were fought by Africans. But now you have foreign mercenaries and the world is sitting and and looking at this. I mean, mercenaries are coming from Russia to fight alongside national forces in Africa. So these are all signs and and indications that the world is not how it used to be. And therefore, the international organizations must be reformed to reflect the realities of today.

You are the coordinator for the African position on U.N. Security Council reform. What is your position? What do you see as the future of that institution?

Now, African countries have started asking the question: Is the U.N. Security Council effective? Does it actually represent the interests of Africa, in that over 70% of the insecurity and conflicts and all of those issues that are discussed in the U.N. Security Council have a bearing on Africa, but Africa has no permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council and only two or three seats in the nonpermanent category. So we are now saying we need to reform the U.N. Security Council. There is an African common position, and that African common position is calling for the U.N. Security Council to take on board and give to Africa two permanent seats and five nonpermanent seats. This is the effort that we are pushing. Of course, people are calling for the holistic reform of the U.N. Security Council. But we believe Africa has suffered a historical injustice and therefore we must raise the African voice in the U.N. Security Council. We must call the attention of the permanent members and the nonpermanent members and draw their attention to the conflicts that are affecting Africa. There’s so much going on in Africa, but it seems as if the U.N. Security Council is not doing anything. Take, for instance, when the coup occurred in Guinea. It passed on. Nobody actually took action. And then we had Burkina Faso, and then we had Mali. And then we have Niger, Sudan, Chad, and recently Gabon. This is not the U.N. Security Council we used to know. So, therefore, we’re calling for the reform of the U.N. Security Council so that we can speak loud and clear in the Council to to draw attention to the issues that are affecting Africa.

But I think that the issue might not be just that Africa doesn't have a voice. It's the obstructionism of the veto powers in the council. It's the fact that the whole Council is held hostage to great power politics. But I’m also curious, when you say the Council was toothless in its response to these coups in the Sahel, does that mean you’d like it to authorize force and the international community to go in and reverse the coups?

We are asking for Africa to have two seats in the permanent category. If the U.N. reform holds intact the veto power, then Africa can also have an effective veto power in the Council. As for the coups in the subregion, we are calling for the restoration of constitutional order in all of these countries. And the military should be in their barracks and allow political parties to run the politics of the country. But it is also now time for African leaders to understand that gone are the days when they will act like invisible forces, when they will subvert the constitution of their country and and impose themselves on the people. There’s this increasing youth bulge and and the difficulties in the war will not entertain dictatorship. The world is more enlightened. There’s so much information at the disposal of the young population. And so people are demanding equality. And African leaders should also look at that as as as a warning for them to remain democratic and for them to stick to the dictates of their national constitutions.

With ECOWAS and the coups, there was the military threat in Niger and there's the sense that they never acted on the threat, so it showed the other players in the region that they can get by with impunity. So that was part of what contributed to this domino effect. In that case, maybe it should have been more more decisive and should have acted on the military threat?

Well, I guess every regional organization actually draws its inspiration from the decisions of the U.N. Security Council. In the 1990s, when Sierra Leone, for instance, was engulfed in its civil conflict, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution for ECOWAS  to intervene in Sierra Leone and Liberia. That instruction was followed through. ECOWAS was resourced and they were able to, for instance, bring the war to an end in Sierra Leone and Liberia. So these subsidiary or what you call the subregional organizations can only be more effective or potent if the U.N. Security Council itself, which makes the overarching decisions on international peace and security, is effective and efficient.

On Ukraine, your country is in a really interesting position, because you import almost all of your foodstuffs. You’re uniquely vulnerable to the food price shocks emanating from the conflict. Your president at some point made headlines when he said he and other African leaders are exerting pressure over Putin to end the conflict. How is that? What leverage do you have? Are you acting as a grouping of like-minded regional countries facing these same issues? Is it because you're playing these great powers off each other in the new geopolitical landscape? There seems to be this dissonance: you’re the third-parties suffering the most and you're very vulnerable, and on the other hand, maybe you feel you have more of a voice and a mediating role than in the past.

The effects of the Ukraine- Russia conflict is affecting every nation of the world ,whether it is through energy prices or food shortages. But especially Africa. You know, we are at a time when climate change is affecting most African countries and compounding our social problems as well. For instance, my country, Sierra Leone, is among the 20 most vulnerable countries in the world affected by climate change. While we have to grapple with food insecurity, we also have climate change as an existential problem. And so the African representatives in the Security Council, there three countries referred to as the A3 group, we are now trying to consolidate our African position, to work together to raise our voice in the U.N. Security Council. And there are also nonpermanent members from other regions that are affected by the impact of the conflict. We are speaking with them. Because we want to work together to put pressure on the P5 so that the P5 will pay attention to the effect of the conflict and to find a diplomatic means to resolve that conflict. Every day, every month, every week, we have billions of dollars committed to the conflict in Ukraine. And we have not seen anywhere in the 21st century where military intervention, where the supply of arms and ammunition, has quieted a conflict. For example, Afghanistan. So I think we have to consider using other means to bring that conflict to an end, because that conflict is causing immeasurable suffering on the people of the African continent and elsewhere in the world.

You’ve mentioned that you're going to use your position in the Security Council to really address issues of climate and security. Given your own civil war in the 1990s, one thing that your country can teach the world about is natural resources and minerals and their linkages to security, especially now as critical minerals become a hot-button issue in the energy transition. So what what do you think the world can learn, as we look hotspots that are the resource bottlenecks for the energy transition? What can learn from Sierra Leone's experience with conflict minerals?

Yes, I mean, it’s very important to make the minerals part of development and also to de-politicize the governance of the minerals. And I think that’s what we did by enacting laws that promote and protect the interests of the people, but also the interest of investors. Transition minerals like coltan, uranium and zircon, we have them in Sierra Leone, but we treat them like any other mineral. The laws are clear. When you come in and apply for mineral rights, you must disclose the beneficial ownership in the arrangement of the company. So we see the owners of the company to prevent these strategic minerals from landing into the hands of rogues. Sierra Leone during the conflict became notorious for its blood diamonds simply because we had criminals who would buy or even bribe diamonds and supply them to Hezbollah, for instance, which they use to finance their terrorist activities.

Now we are very much compliant to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative to ensure that our minerals do not land in the wrong hands. And I also mentioned our investment environment, that we don’t discriminate against companies based on their origin. We have Chinese companies, we have Russian companies, we’ve got American companies. We have European companies. But what we do is subject investments to international law and to the laws of our country to make sure that our minerals do not fuel any conflict anywhere in the world. And so we also want to take advantage of those transition metals properly, managed in such that they don’t become a source for international conflict in our country. In Niger today, uranium and petroleum products have become the big attraction for the coup and for the other parties interested in prolonging the conflict in Niger. Born from my experience of the blood diamond conflict, we are very proactive and we are deliberate in promoting transparency and accountability and to equitably distribute deposits of our minerals.