Kenya has put forward Amina Mohamed’s candidature as Chairperson of the African Union Commission. The Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Kenya has had an outstanding diplomatic career and is set on taking Africa to the future. A summarised version of the transcript below first appeared in Forbes Woman Africa and is republished with its permission. Subscribe today by contacting Shanna Jacobsen [email protected]

Kenya is rallying behind Ambassador Dr Amina Mohamed to be the next Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, and Africa has warmly received her nomination. Elections are set to be held in January.

With a stellar diplomatic career of over three decades, Mohamed, a Kenyan, is known as an excellent strategist with proven negotiation and managerial skills, having demonstrated solid leadership in every domestic and international post she has held. 

She is the serving Chair of the 10th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference, which is the topmost decision-making body of the WTO.

Mohamed rose through the ranks in Kenya’s diplomatic service from legal advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Kenya’s Missions to Geneva and New York, to the highest level of Ambassador/Permanent Representative, Kenya Mission, to the United Nations (UN) in Geneva from 2000 to 2006.

She served as Director, Europe and the Commonwealth and Director Diaspora from 2006 to 2007 and was Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs in 2008.

In July 2011, she joined the UN as Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) based in Nairobi. 


In April 2013, she was appointed by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta as Cabinet Secretary (Minister) for Foreign Affairs and International Trade of Kenya. 

Weeks before the AU Commission elections, Mohamed spoke toCNBC Africa:

Q: You’ve had many firsts as a woman in leadership in Africa; just walk us through your journey?

A:The first time I did something that I guess laid the road-map for whatever else came after was when I was elected to chair the International Organization for Migration Conference which is a council for migration. At that time, Kenya was actually the only African country that was a member of the International Organization for Migration. And when I was approached, I told them that the only reason I would agree to be put up as a candidate for the chairmanship would be if they would open up the organization for Africa, and would be able to attract more countries into the organization.

So we reached an understanding and I chaired it and during my chairmanship, that one year, I brought in a few African countries, and the rest is actually history, because now I think the largest group of countries that are members of the IOM are African countries, and from then on, I think in especially the kind of job that we do as ambassadors, you are called upon to show your commitment to the continent by agreeing to chair different bodies.

And so I was fortunate, I was privileged that the African group in the cities that I served in saw it fit to elect me over and over again, and so it’s something that I enjoyed doing, I was committed to doing and I think the record is not a bad one.


Q: You are now running to be chairperson of the AU Commission, tell us about the drive behind this decision?

A:Kenya has put up my candidateship for the position of Chairman of the African Union Commission. Why am I running? I think we have a lot of value that we can bring to the table; we are also at a good time in the history of this continent. The first thing that comes to mind is the framework that we have. We have a framework that was agreed on by all African countries that needs a faithful implementer to put in place.

It’s a framework called Agenda 2063, for inclusive growth and sustainable development and it has a number of amazing aspirations for the continent. I think it’s actually time for East Africa because of the track record we have also set as a community, as an East African Community in what we have done.

We created a model for others to emulate and so there’s just a feeling that it was time for us to run for this position and I would be a good candidate for that because again I can bring people together, I have never come across a challenge that cannot be resolved, I look at challenges actually as opportunities. And I believe that we all know what we need as a continent to move us forward. One should look at the leaps we have made.

We are a young continent, we have done amazing things, we – many of us – have come up with new constitutions, constitutions that are based on our own realities, not on realities that come from elsewhere, also we look at our own specificities, our own individualities as countries.

For us as a continent, it’s actually excellent that we have such a young population.


It’s a young population that’s creative and innovative that are drivers of the economy and they are also the future and the present and therefore whatever they do, they know what they would like to put in place, for themselves and for their own children and for posterity I guess.

So we actually are in a situation where we can lead and not follow, because the problem is ours, the challenge is ours and it’s a wonderful opportunity to use, to propel the continent to the greatest possible heights.

Q: Briefly take us through what an AU Commission led by you will focus on, looking at the challenges Africa is facing…

A:I think industrialization, without any doubt. It is the only one that has the ability to reduce poverty, create the jobs that we need and to move the continent [forward]. And I think following that, trade, because trade brings us together, which is a unifier if you like.

We need to make sure that our infrastructure, whether it’s land, sea or air, is seamless. It doesn’t take a day, it’s a process but we need to get on with it. We need to remove the obstacles that are low-lying fruit… they can be removed easily.

One of those is allowing the easier movement of people, business people, of capital, services and goods. There is no reason why Kenya should import; and I am using as an example, if we did not have the dairy sector and we needed butter, milk or cheese, there is no reason why we should import that from 10,000 miles away; if we can just go across the border, into the next country and import from our neighbors.


The only reason why that has been difficult is because of the infrastructure deficit that we are faced with and we need to address that and address it quickly.

In this country we have tried to do it, in the region we have tried to do it with the SGR, with the road infrastructure that we have put in place, with the modernization with the port that has been done over the last few years, with the modernization of our airport, so those are the things we need to do across the continent so that our young people can move from one country to another, bring ideas, bring creativity, bring innovation, but also find jobs.

So apart from industrialization, and obviously there you have to address the infrastructure deficit, trade and the need to trade amongst ourselves; the intra-Africa trade is at 13%, and there is no reason for that. It should actually be at least at 30%; we should, eventually have 60% of trade within the continent.

This is where the population is, this is where the fastest growing middle-class is, and obviously with that, you have a consumer market, so this is where most of the trading should actually take place.

Q: The outgoing AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has been very vocal about peace and security. Share with us your vision…

A:She’s also been very passionate about agriculture, because agriculture has the ability to transform communities and societies very quickly and there’s a need therefore again as a reason of the youth to make agriculture trendy and productive for the youth.


But you know you cannot undertake development unless you actually have a peaceful, stable and predictable environment. You must have peace and security, without it you can’t have growth.

And so it’s been actually a rallying call of Madam Zuma, to silence the guns and we’ve agreed that we would try to do that at least by 2020, if we can’t do it sooner. I believe that if we all came together and are always committed as she is, we should be able to do that before the 2020 deadline.

Africa does not manufacture ammunition except for a few countries. Africa is resolving most of its conflicts and there are very few countries today, of the 54, that are still engulfed in conflict, in fact there are probably less than five that are engulfed in active conflict, and therefore we are at a place where we should be talking about a peaceful Africa, a secure Africa, a growing Africa, a resilient Africa.

So it’s one of the priorities. We actually addressed most of the issues that were connected to decolonization, that peace and security became a big issue and we started addressing it.

I think if we are focused we can actually deal with it, it’s been successful in the majority of countries and of course there will be hiccups, back and forth, but I think a majority of the countries have gone beyond the stage where conflict is a daily affair, so we need to continue working on it and I think we should be able to get it done.

Q: What’s your vision on driving governance?


A:We have a very comprehensive and all-inclusive agenda. And that is also an issue that is in our Agenda 2063; we are more transparent, we are more open. Again, we are a young continent, the youth is very demanding, we are involving more and more people in leadership – apart from the youth, the women that are coming in jobs now.

So I think today Africa is at a better place, in terms of the rule of law, in terms of governance than it has ever been, and I think the only way forward is to keep improving that.

And as I said before, we [Kenya] enacted our constitution in 2010. Immediately after its enactment – I was in Justice, Permanent Secretary there – we got a dozen requests from countries that wanted to come and look at our constitution and see whether there was anything they could borrow from there that would fit their own circumstances. Because at the end of the day, the instrument is only as good as its implementation.   

And you will only implement something that you are really comfortable with, and so the whole purpose of coming to study and look at what we are doing is, ‘will this fit into my own circumstance, is it something I can do now, is it something that can be delayed a bit’.

As you know, our own constitution had transitional clauses, what we needed to do now, what we could a little later; some of the provisions could only actually be fully implemented in five years, six years, and 10 years. So we had actually time periods in the constitution for implementation of different provisions.

So I think it’s the same everywhere, but the governance situation on the continent is better than it’s ever been and I know it’s going to continue improving.


Q: Let’s talk about the state of the African economy today, using projections that we have the slowest growth in about two decades. According to you, how can we reignite this growth as a continent?

A: Just a few words – industrialization, diversification, value addition, beneficiation. Because we need to move away from the export of primary products. When we do that we actually exploit our jobs also, outside the continent. So you have the young people who don’t have jobs on the continent, but we actually export the value addition, and beneficiation to other parts of the world. So we need to focus on those.

We also need to establish our regional value chains, so that within our regions we can develop a product to the end and continue adding value to it as it goes maybe from one country as a primary product to the next one where a little beneficiation is done, and it moves to the next but we really need to create our own value chains across the continent.

Diversification – we have to stop relying on either our natural resources being exported in their raw form or our primary products being exported in their raw form, if we do that, I think we will get away from these growths that are dependent on high oil prices, high commodity prices and then when the primary commodity price falls, then your economy goes into depression.

But these are issues that have been talked out and I really don’t think the picture is as gloomy as that because I just saw the report that was done by McKinsey,Lions On The Move:II,and it is not such a gloomy picture that is painted but it also focuses on some of the issues I am raising, on diversification of the economies, on infrastructure development that there is easier movements of services of goods, of people, getting rid of some of the bottlenecks that we have like the visas. Wouldn’t it be easier to do what President Uhuru Kenyatta proposed, which is have reciprocal arrangements?

Any country that is willing to have that agreement with us will be allowed into the country, the visas will be issued at the port of entry and we can even agree on a period of time and say that the visas should be issued for a month at a time, until we have built the confidence that we actually need as a continent to move beyond that and say there is complete free movement of people.


We’ve also taken some steps to deal with that, which is the arrangement we have with a number of countries including South Africa and Nigeria, where we agree on a number of business people that will be allowed long-term visas and almost free movement, so that they can invest in the different countries, because that was one of the biggest complaints that we had from the private sector in the continent.

McKinsey looks at how many African companies can actually play in the big league and the number has been going up. So I do think there are things we need to urgently address but we need to address them from a position of strength that we are doing well, we need to do better.

This is what we need to tweak, this is what we need to strengthen, this is what we need to do in order to move forward.

Q: How would an AU Commission, under your leadership, deal with some of these challenges when we talk about the growth in Africa slowing down?

A: You know what the AU has done – look first, we have our own Agenda 2063, and our business is to facilitate and to guide and to process some of the information that comes in from countries, and create models for countries to emulate.

Whether it is model laws, model scenarios, model situations, model countries even, and say look in this country [Kenya], diversification is your card and so you have to reason that it’s highly developed, you have agriculture that is relatively well-developed, you have educational services very developed, you have health services [that are] well-developed, telecommunication services doing well, transport services you know [are] on the way up, so this country is kind of well-diversified, can we use this as the model…


And show other countries it can be done and it can actually be done within a meaningful timeframe. And so borrow from each other’s practices, borrow from each other’s experiences and see whether that way we can work together.

Because honestly, I strongly believe it’s easier to implement what you have borrowed from your neighbor, than what you have borrowed from somebody who is much far away and whose circumstances are different, whose resources are different, whose capacity to implement is different. So we just need to create situations where we are learning from each other, because our situations are similar.

Q: Of course Agenda 2063 is what we are talking about here and one of the highlights is to make sure the resources in Africa benefit Africans and this brings up the question of illicit financial flows, that you say, is very high across the continent. What would be your focus?

A: There is a program already. I think the AU has been talking about this for a while now. There are programs in place, there are initiatives that are undertaken. But also don’t forget that most of the standards we are setting across Africa and across the world are intended to actually deal with that; deal with illicit financial flows to make sure that even the banking systems speak to each other, so that if any resources flow into a Kenyan bank, the information is shared across the board. And basically that is the reason, the reason to stop money laundering and illicit out-flows, not just in-flows but also out-flows.

Q: Let’s talk about regional integration. There is a feeling that the momentum is slowing especially when you talk about unifying entire Africa…?

A: Absolutely. And that is why we started with the five regional economic communities. The idea is you start with the five, they are building blocks, and then you start bringing them together slowly as the foundation gets more solid, more stable, you know then you start moving together.


We have done that with the Tripartite Agreement that was signed… and we are moving forward with it and yes I wish it was faster and I have said this to my counterparts when I was minister for trade also, that we need to speed this up, it’s slow and when it loses momentum, also hope is lost. If it’s faster, there is confidence in the system, it shows that something is happening.

So I was actually urging them to try and do it much faster, but we are actually on track.

We have also signed the Continental Free Trade Area and we have a meeting actually with ministers of trade towards the end of [November] and some of the discussions will be around how fast we can implement that.

We have a deadline of December 2017, it’s a good deadline but we need to work very, very hard to meet it, and so we’ll think about what needs to be done and what will have to be left over for 2018 and 2019.

You know but I think there is a realization across the board and the continent, that the best way that we are going to develop and the fastest way and the smartest way is to do it within the continent.

Q: If you assume the role of Chairperson of the AU Commission, how are you going to make sure people move on the same track because in many cases we have agreements and then at some point, some countries are not very comfortable with it, we have the classic example of the economic partnership agreements between the European Union and East African Community, whereby it’s only half the community that wants to engage and the other half does not want to…

A: First of all, we need to encourage everybody and we also need to convince people that it’s in their best interests to do these things because if it’s not in for your national interest, you will not do it.

Because although we are coming together as a continent, we must also recognize that for most countries, independence was really hard won and so you have to build the confidence that coming together is not going to dilute what they fought so hard for.

And so that level of comfort is critically important, so you must actually build on the common interests that you have and then move up the scale if you like, but you have to start building on the things you all agree on and that can work for everybody at the same time…

Look the continent has been moving together for a long time, the creation of the AU, Organization of African Unity, was to make sure we could harmonize our positions and move forward together because the realization is that together we are much stronger and we can move much faster, if each of us is doing their little thing in a corner, then first of all we would not be viable states and not economic entities either.

So our strength lies in our coming together and we’ve seen many examples of that. We came together and were able to defeat colonialism, we came together and were able to do lots of wonderful things so we must continue working together to make sure that happens.

The creation of the economic regional entities was also a result of the Lagos Agreement so basically what we agree on together and actually implement together comes out smelling like a rose if you like, so that is the approach we must also use.

I think we must, going forward also, as we implement Agenda 2063, ensure that there is an integrated approach, where we can, we are not only looking at Agenda 2063 but we are also looking at the global agenda – whether it’s the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the Climate Agenda for instance because we are all very vulnerable to climatic variables so we need to get our act together.

But SDGs, as you know, we were very keenly following the negotiations and we led them as Kenya so we need to make sure what we negotiated for so long and so hard, is not lost and the only way to ensure that is to make sure we have an integrated approach as we move forward.

Q:Talking about population in Africa, it will be about 2.4 billion of us by 2050. How can we sustainably maintain these high figures or rate of growth and I mean getting opportunities for this kind of growth that it doesn’t work against us.

A: Well it’s not an accident, it’s a process, we know it’s happening, so we should be better prepared. We should make sure that we have the educational toolkit, skills development, create opportunities that are required. We should turn it into a dividend and I think this discussion will also be on for a while; this population growth has to become Africa’s opportunity to catch up and catch up quickly.

We are actually not disappointed; we have the most innovative youth on the continent. And just look at this country, what the youth has managed do, you just see innovations. If the Global Entrepreneurship Summit is anything to go by, iHub is anything to by, if some of the innovations that are on the table now are anything to go by, we have not done badly.

So what we need to do is increase the pace but make sure that we not only create jobs but also provide opportunities for these young people to establish themselves and provide the jobs themselves, be job creators, be employment creators.

We are doing that already, in Kenya for instance, with all the programs we’ve put in place, we are addressing the youth directly and yes the results are never visible in one day, so you just need to take the benefits as they come through and look at them and see whether its adequate and if they are not adequate, you weigh them faster or change the model you are using and adopt another one. But I think it’s actually something that we’ll be very supportive of Africa’s growth and must also be looked at as a dividend.

Q: And closely connected to that of course is urbanization. We are seeing a lot of people moving into the cities, hopefully that trend will be fast as governments worked towards centralizing…?

A: …As we turn every rural area into a sustainable habitable space, so that you don’t have to move out of your towns and cities and move into the capitals to look for jobs, to look for some comforts of lives, look for facilities.

We are doing that in Kenya, with the County and Devolution System, turning every space that we have into a self-sustaining space that has all the necessities one requires so that one is not forced to move out to look for them elsewhere and if you move out, you look for markets.

And yes, you come to Nairobi because you want to sell in Nairobi, not because you necessarily think that is the only place where you find a job. So that is what we need to get done, we need to do smart urbanization all over the country and the continent.

Q:Governments today are trying to put huge resources into infrastructure, but how would an AU Commission led by you address this, just making sure we have the infrastructure?

A: Absolutely. And yes we’d need to address that infrastructure deficit. We are all negotiating with different companies for instance to build roads, ports to modernize them, to build airports, if we are able to get to a place where the AU Commission can actually be used to bring together government and companies, so negotiations are not done individually but they are done collectively.

Firstly, it will be much cheaper and also will also be able to maintain exactly the same standard for our roads, ports, airports, railways. There are ways in which this can be done but it can only be done if I get elected… a lot of wonderful work has already gone on, resulting into an agenda that is acceptable to all of us. So there is a lot that is going on there, we need to build on that. I think the foundation is already there, let’s just build on that and get new ideas in, try look for new models that can try work a little bit faster and then focus on a few issues and those done.

Q: Your bid has been warmly accepted across a good number of countries, over 25 African countries. What are your expectations as we head towards January 2017?

A:We are campaigning, I was told by one of our leaders that campaigns are personal, you must ask for a vote and that if you don’t ask for a vote, even your own brother can vote against you, so we are going across the continent asking everybody for their support and trying of course to obviously convince them that we have a good candidate. They have been very receptive, very warmly received, wonderful arrangements put in place for us… we are encouraged by the reception and the support that seems to be coming across as well.

– Gitonga is a news producer at CNBC Africa and interviewed Mohamed at the CNBC Africa studios in Nairobi, Kenya.