Why is Vera Songwe leaving the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa?

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Vera Songwe, who has been serving as the Economic Commission for Africa’s executive secretary since April 2017, announced her resignation during a virtual meeting held by the UN body on 22 August. Although no statement has yet been made official, her impending departure has been confirmed on social media by several prominent figures who have commented on the announcement.

Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), praised the Cameroonian economist’s “dynamism and passion” “for advancing groundbreaking policies for Africans across the continent […] in difficult and uncertain times”.

Reacting to the IMF boss’ message, former Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) head John Nkengasong, now the US administration’s global AIDS coordinator and special representative for global health at the State Department, also hailed Songwe’s work. “It was a great honour to work closely with [her] during my tenure at Africa CDC to fight the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa,” he wrote on Twitter.

A situation that has “become untenable”

What do we know about the real reasons for the departure of this woman who is presented as the protégé of Amina Mohammed, the UN deputy secretary-general? Officially, nothing has been published and Songwe did not respond to our questions. However, some of those close to her assure that the Cameroonian economist resigned on her own initiative and that she was not forced to do so.

The graduate in mathematical economics from the University of Leuven (Belgium) has indeed received “an offer for a new position in another organisation”, they tell us, adding that “this new position should be announced very soon”. However, several anonymous sources told us that this departure is also linked to the fact that the situation had become “untenable” at the head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) for the Cameroonians.

The Matt Hancock case

54-year-old Songwe has indeed been at the heart of several controversies during her tenure. The most recent was in October 2021, when she recruited Matt Hancock, a former British minister, as her special representative for financial innovation and climate change. Hounded by the British tabloids, he had been in the news for having an affair and his failure to comply with health measures in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, even though he was the country’s health minister. Forced to resign, Hancock was then recruited by Songwe, who defended the relevance of his experience on social media, provoking a wave of criticism from African and British leaders.

A petition calling for the former minister’s resignation, signed by 62 prominent figures, eventually prompted UN Secretary-General António Guterres to fire Hancock just four days after he was appointed.

“Favouritism” and “dismissal without cause”

The situation was also tense internally. The ECA’s staff union and a group of whistleblowers had several run-ins with their boss, accusing her of “extensive and costly travel”, displaying “favouritism” towards certain employees and “dozens of unnecessary dismissals”.

Among the many institutions attached to the UN, “the Economic Commission for Africa is one of the most difficult to manage”, says one of our sources within the UN. In September 2016, Carlos Lopes, Songwe’s predecessor, also resigned to everyone’s surprise. A few months later, he told us that he had been “often called to order as a UN official”. “In fact, only the Nigerian Adebayo Adedeji was able to impose himself, leading the institution with an iron fist for 13 years, before leaving in 1991,” says our source.

Close to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the current director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Songwe is a pure product of the World Bank (WB). She led the institution’s operations in Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal. In 2016, she was appointed head of the West and Central Africa office of the WB’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), for one year.

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