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Adekeye Adebajo | Boutros Boutros-Ghali: Remembering an African scholar-diplomat

Published:Friday | April 30, 2021 | 12:06 AM
Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his office.
Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his office.
Adekeye Adebajo
Adekeye Adebajo

Five years ago, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, one of Africa’s foremost scholar-diplomats, died in Cairo. He served as the sixth United Nations (UN) secretary general between 1992 and 1997, helping to build the foundations of the post-Cold War security architecture. By 1994, the world body had deployed 75,000 peacekeepers to 17 trouble spots, compared to 13 in the previous four decades. Despite being the most intellectually accomplished of the eight UN secretaries general – and the first African and Arab in the post – no biography currently exists in English on the Egyptian.

Boutros-Ghali was born in Cairo on November 14, 1922. He attended the French secondary school in the Egyptian capital, living in the family mansion. He often visited Tahrir Square in his youth, and embraced Egypt’s rich heritage, frequently touting the 1,000-year Al-Azhar theological university and ancient Pharaonic civilisations. The Cairo in which Boutros grew up was not dissimilar to many of the evocative descriptions of Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said’s own Cairene childhood. The city’s ornate Victorian and Mediterranean architecture mixed with bustling bazaars, minareted mosques, and the allegorical alleys so vividly depicted by Egyptian Nobel literature laureate, Naguib Mahfouz.

Boutros’ grandfather, after whom he was named, had served as prime minister of Egypt, and was assassinated by a political extremist in February 1910. Two uncles had also served as foreign minister. Boutros respected his Christian Coptic faith, but was neither active in the church nor overtly religious. After completing his undergraduate law degree at the University of Cairo, he finished his postgraduate studies at Sciences Po and the University of Paris. Boutros was a self-described cosmopolitan Arab federalist who looked to Germany’s Otto von Bismarck as his model for Pan-Arab unity.


He became a professor at 27, eventually teaching for 28 years at Cairo University. He published the first book on the UN in Arabic, and also wrote prolifically on the Organisation of African Unity and Third World politics. Boutros directed Egypt’s Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies, before swapping the world of theory for practice by serving as Egypt’s deputy foreign minister between 1977 and 1991. Here, he played a central role in peacemaking with Israel between 1977 and 1981. During these negotiations, as a Coptic Christian minority, he took huge personal risks and was a prime target for assassination.

As UN secretary general, Boutros-Ghali achieved peacekeeping successes in Mozambique, Cambodia, and El Salvador, while spectacular failures occurred in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Angola. Peacebuilding missions were also pioneered in Namibia and Haiti. Boutros-Ghali’s landmark 1992, An Agenda for Peace, remains an indispensable guide to the tools and techniques employed by the UN. As the “Pope on the East River”, he consistently championed issues of development, democratisation, and human rights.

After stepping down as UN secretary general amid unrelenting American opposition, the 74-year-old Boutros-Ghali served as secretary general of the Paris-based Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie between 1997 and 2002, promoting French language and culture across the globe. Borrowing from his UN experience, he broadened the organisation’s mandate to include issues of peace, development, and democratisation.

After leaving La Francophonie, Boutros-Ghali chaired the Geneva-based South Centre between 2003 and 2006. This was a think tank dedicated to the “right to development”: an issue he had vigorously pursued at the UN. Always with an eye to posterity and worried that his papers would not be well preserved in Egypt, Boutros placed his official documents at Stanford University in the US. He fell badly at his home in Cairo in February 2016, and died in hospital shortly after at the age of 93. Boutros-Ghali was granted a state funeral in a ceremony attended by Egypt’s political elite. He was buried at the Boutrosiya family church alongside his grandfather with whom he shared a stubborn devotion to public service in the true spirit of noblesse oblige.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Global African Affairs (IGAA) in South Africa, a joint initiative with the University of the West Indies. Send feedback to