Martti Ahtisaari: the Finnish peacemaker who played midwife to Namibian independence

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Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, died on 16 October at the age of 86. Born in eastern Finland, he was two years old when his family fled from the Russian invasion at the outbreak of the second world war.

A trained school teacher, he moved in 1960 to the Swedish Pakistani Institute in Karachi. In 1965 he joined the Finnish foreign service. His posting as a diplomat in Tanzania in 1973 was the beginning of lasting bonds to the African continent. Only two years later, he started his commitment to the struggle for self-determination of the Namibian people.

Namibia, then called South West Africa, was under the illegal control of apartheid South Africa. According to the United Nations, it was “a trust betrayed”.

Namibia and its decolonisation process have been among my interests as a scholar. Martti Ahtisaari played a crucial role in the United Nations supervised transition to independence, as documented in his biography, aptly titled The Mediator.

The government of Namibia awarded him honorary Namibian citizenship after independence. Upon the news of his death he was locally praised as a light during Namibia’s dark days.

Namibia’s President Hage Geingob described him as a friend of the Namibian liberation struggle and a leading peacemaker. Through the United Nations, he “played a pivotal role in midwifing the birth of a new Namibia”.

Ahtisaari’s work in Namibia was the beginning of a long and successful engagement in international conflict mediation. Many more diplomatic achievements in various parts of the world followed.

Ahtisaari and Namibia

Ahtisaari’s involvement in Africa began in 1973 when he was appointed Finland’s ambassador to Tanzania. At the time, the anticolonial movements of southern Africa had offices in Dar es Salaam, home to the headquarters of the African Liberation Committee of the Organisation of African Unity.

In 1975 he was appointed as a senator to the council of the United Nations Institute for Namibia. The institute was established in Lusaka by the United Nations Council for Namibia, officially inaugurated in 1976. Its mandate was to prepare for Namibia’s independence by drafting blueprints and training staff. Geingob, at the time representing the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) liberation movement at the United Nations, was appointed as its director.

At the behest of Swapo, Ahtisaari was appointed as UN commissioner for Namibia in March 1977 and relocated from Dar es Salaam to New York.

In July 1978 the UN Security Council asked the UN secretary general to appoint a special representative for Namibia to ensure independence of the country through free elections under the supervision of the UN. With support of the US-American diplomat Don McHenry, Ahtisaari was again the choice. As McHenry was quoted in Ahtisaari’s biography:

I thought why don’t we kill two birds with one stone. Ahtisaari was clearly sensible to the views of the Africans but he was at the same time very practical and got results. He was, then, the very man for the job.

Ahtisaari henceforth wore two hats related to Namibian affairs. His term as commissioner ended in April 1982. In 1987 he was appointed as the UN under-secretary general for administration and management on the condition that he retained his role as special representative for Namibian affairs.

In 1978 UN Security Council Resolution 435 was adopted as the blueprint for Namibia’s transition to independence. But it was shelved after being blocked by US under President Ronald Reagan and the UK under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The resolution was finally implemented more than a decade later, after the global realignments following the end of the Cold War.

The United Nations Transitional Assistance Group (Untag) was tasked with implementing Resolution 435 from April 1989 to March 1990. Under Ahtisaari, with Botswana’s UN ambassador Joseph Legwaila as his deputy, Untag accomplished the mission.

This was due in large part to the skills and credibility of Ahtisaari. As special representative for Namibia more than a decade before the implementation of Resolution 435, he had gained the trust of a variety of stakeholders. This gave him personal leverage, which he was able to apply in critical situations.

Under Untag supervision, a constituent assembly was elected in Namibia in November 1989, chaired by Geingob. In early 1990 its members adopted the country’s constitution as the normative framework. Independence was declared on 21 March 1990.

Ahtisaari remains publicly remembered locally by a school and streets bearing his name.

Mediation beyond Namibia

Ahtisaari’s merits during his international career translated into a successful campaign in domestic politics. Serving his country in government first as foreign minister, he became in 1994 Finland’s president for a six-year term until 2000.

But his heart remained in international conflict mediation. Upon leaving office, he founded the Crisis Management Initiative, an independent non-governmental organisation.

Ahtisaari played an active role in Serbia’s withdrawal from Kosovo in the late 1990s. During the Northern Ireland peace process at the same time, he monitored the Irish Republican Army’s disarmament process. In 2005 he was brokering the autonomy for Aceh province in Indonesia. The same year he was appointed by the UN secretary general Kofi Annan as special envoy for the future status process for Kosovo.

Among the numerous honorary recognitions of his role in mediating conflicts, South Africa awarded him in 2004 the Order of the Companions of Oliver Tambo (Supreme Companion) for his outstanding achievement as a diplomat and commitment to the cause of freedom in Africa and peace in the world.

In October 2008 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize  for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts.

Explicit reference was made to his role in Namibia’s transition towards independence. Between 2009 and 2018 he was a member of The Elders. Founded in 2007 by Nelson Mandela, this group of independent global leaders works for peace, justice, human rights and a sustainable planet.

As Geingob declared: Today, we are not only mourning the loss of Ahtisaari, a friend and one of us, but we are also reaffirming the rich legacy of peace and the outstanding international public service of a Nobel peace laureate with an indelible association with Namibia.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari (C) poses with the diploma and medal after receiving the prize at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in the Oslo City Hall in Oslo, Norway on December 10, 2008. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2008 to Martti Ahtisaari for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts. EPA/LARSEN HAKON MOSVOLD

By Henning Melber, Extraordinary Professor, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria


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