Kudos for Anna

“Very good discussions—constructive discussions.” Anna Tibaijuka’s comments to journalists following her meeting with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe earlier this month sounded like the standard diplomatic brush-off. But anyone who had hoped the United Nations secretary general’s special envoy to Zimbabwe was about to tiptoe over the matter of housing demolitions would have been disappointed when her report on the visit was published a few weeks later, full of phrases like “indifference to human suffering”.

One Zimbabwean journalist told the Mail & Guardian that Tibaijuka—who is the executive director of Habitat, the UN housing agency—had come to the country as an “unknown quantity”, with neither the government nor the opposition knowing how she would approach her mission. As it happened, she took no nonsense from anyone.

“The government tried to direct her programme, but she was quite forthright and domineering,” the Zimbabwean journalist recalled.
“When she met the mayor of Bulawayo [an opposition member], she insisted on the government people leaving the meeting. She listened to the NGOs and humanitarian agencies and that is reflected in her report.”

“She speaks her mind—that’s for real,” says Tanzanian journalist Mike Sikawa. “She is someone who is well reputed and well respected.”

A member of the British-sponsored Commission for Africa, and professor of economics at Dar es Salaam University, Tibaijuka is equally well known in Tanzania as a civil society activist, campaigning particularly to overcome discrimination against women. “Unless you organise, expose, name and shame these inequities, the public is normally well-meaning but these things are not articulated to them,” she said in an interview with UN Radio last year.

She founded the Tanzanian National Women’s Council, which developed as a non-party political alternative to the long-established Women’s League of the ruling party. The respect she is accorded in Tanzania has not been clouded by her departure to work for the UN, Sikawa says. “She’s maintained close links with people who make a difference, with people who matter—with women’s organisations in Tanzania.”

Tibaijuka attributes her success, ultimately, to a father who defied convention in their coffee-growing home region of Kagera, in western Tanzania, by insisting that his daughters be educated: “It was a struggle because he had to convince his kinsman about what he was doing.”

She studied at Dar es Salaam University before marrying a Tanzanian diplomat and moving to Sweden. Determined not to be just “a housewife bride”, she pursued her postgraduate studies there, gaining a doctorate in agricultural economics.

Tibaijuka took charge of what was then the UN Centre for Human Settlements in 2000 and, two years later, oversaw its upgrade to a fully-fledged programme, UN Habitat. The change elevated Tibaijuka to the rank of under secretary general, but her style has remained markedly different from that of the former government ministers and corporate executives who typically populate that rung of the UN.

Last year she described as a “shame” the fact that 72% of Africa’s urban population are slum dwellers. Asked in the same interview to give a practical definition of slum living, she replied: “If you are living in overcrowded conditions without access to safe drinking water, without access to sanitation, without home security or secure tenure, and you don’t know whether the mayor is going to come the next day and rip down, bulldoze, your house, then we say you are living in a precarious living environment. That’s how we give it a very practical meaning.”

It was a definition that echoed loudly less than a year later when she was called on to apply her mind to the situation in Zimbabwe.

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