The curtain fell on the long diplomatic career of UN-Habitat Executive Director Anna Tibaijuka after she retired last Tuesday.
Mrs Tibaijuka was the second highest ranking African woman in the United Nations system. She had become a familiar figure in Kenyan diplomatic circles for her forceful advocacy for improvement of housing for the urban poor.
Speaking at a luncheon in her honour, Mrs Tibaijuka announced she was taking up a new career as a politician in Tanzania. The former University of Dar es Salaam don is the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) candidate in Bukoba, which means she is all but certain to be elected to the Tanzanian parliament.
Mrs Tibaijuka’s tenure at UN-Habitat will be remembered mainly for her efforts to raise the profile of the agency to a level at par with that of other UN agencies. The Tanzanian was the first African woman elected by the United Nations to serve as under-secretary general of a United Nations programme.
According to a profile of her on the UN-Habitat website, Mrs Tibaijuka was born to small holder banana and coffee farmers in Muleba, Tanzania and received her tertiary education at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science in Uppsala. She later served as a lecturer in Dar es Salaam before taking up a job in the United Nations system.
Mrs Tibaijuka was appointed to head what was then known as the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements in 2000. Her work in trying to raise awareness of the problem of unplanned urban settlement contributed to the elevation of the agency to a fully-fledged UN programme in December 2001.
She also lobbied African governments to establish the African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development and similar bodies in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean to help raise the profile of urban housing issues and push governments to take action.
The world urban forum began during her tenure. In July 2005, Mr Moon’s predecessor, Kofi Annan appointed Mrs Tibaijuka as his special envoy on human settlement issues in Zimbabwe following a programme of mass evictions carried out by President Robert Mugabe.
The evictions in Harare were seen as aimed at punishing supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which enjoys solid support in urban centres in Zimbabwe. Mrs Tibaijuka’s achievements at UN-Habitat were briefly shadowed by controversy last year after she was removed from the position of head of the United Nations Office in Nairobi and replaced by German Achim Steiner.
Local employees of UN agencies cried foul and said she was the victim of a racist conspiracy. They held demonstrations at the normally quiet Gigiri headquarters of the UN and demanded her reinstatement. According to a story in the East African, Mrs Tibaijuka had faced consistent opposition from some senior UN officials who objected to her appointment to head the Nairobi office by Mr Annan.
They are said to have sent a petition to New York seeking to block her appointment by claiming she had misused an official vehicle.
Mr Annan ignored those claims but the decision by his successor Mr Ban to oust her was greeted with vociferous criticism from local employees and the Tanzanian government. Mrs Tibaijuka eventually left the post and is now set to tackle a new challenge in politics.
Speaking at a farewell ceremony in her honour, Prime Minister Raila Odinga thanked Mrs Tibaijuka for her service and said he was certain that after the elections in Tanzania, he would be meeting her in a new role as a Cabinet minister. If she is appointed to Mr Jakaya Kikwete’s next Cabinet, it will be interesting to see what position she gets.
Given her long career as a diplomat, she could be in contention for the Foreign Affairs post. And that would set tongues wagging about the Kikwete succession because in Tanzania, the Foreign Affairs minister is traditionally viewed as the president-in-waiting.
Those considerations were not at the top of her mind on Tuesday, however, as Mrs Tibaijuka bid an emotional farewell to the staff of an agency that has often been synonymous with the feisty Tanzanian scholar.