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From tiny schoolgirl to Unep big boss

By | Updated Sun, August 14th 2011 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Lillian Aluanga

She was once the tiniest and youngest pupil in class, but today stands tall among her peers.

While Ambassador Amina Mohamed is tall, in a literal sense, (over five foot ten) her appointment as Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) also gives her a vertical boost in one of the world’s top international organisations.

Ambassador Amina Mohamed. [PHOTO: EVANS HABIL/STANDARD]

Under her new posting, which she took up two weeks ago, Mohamed will also serve as an Assistant Secretary General at the UN, making her the senior-most Kenyan at the organisation.

The new posting has seen Mohamed leave her perch as Permanent Secretary at the Justice Ministry, as well as relinquish her seat as president of the Conference of State Parties to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime. But these aren’t the only bodies she has headed in a career spanning 25 years.

In 2002, Mohamed made history as the first woman and first African to be elected chair to the Council of the International Organisation for Migration.

Three years later, she became Chairman of the General Council of the World Trade Organisation between 2005 and 2006. Not only was Mohamed the first woman to do so, but her performance quickly earned her a reputation at the organisation as one who ran things with "a steel fist inside a velvet glove".

Impressive CV

Yet despite her impressive CV Mohamed remains modest, describing her beginnings as ‘humble’ and crediting her successes to her parents, mentors and colleagues. Kitted in a brown trouser suit and sheer scarf loosely tied around her neck, Mohamed straightens herself in her seat and gives a dimpled smile to reveal a set of milky white teeth. Her hair is pulled back from the face and held in a ponytail, which sways gently with each nod of her head as she delves into her past.

Mohamed’s journey to the top began in western Kenya, where she was born as the eighth child in a family of nine.

She talks fondly about her childhood in Amalemba estate, Kakamega town. For a family that survived on a shoestring budget, there were no luxuries like television. Instead, Mohamed spent her free time reading detective series novels like Sherlock Holmes, but later developed interest in international affairs.

Mohamed chuckles as she recalls the snipping, tucking and cutting that often preceded the start of a new school year.

"I had to have my uniform stitched at home because the available sizes were always too big for me," she says. A former pupil at Township Primary School, Kakamega, and later Butere Girls and Highlands (Now Moi Girls Eldoret) schools, Mohamed worked hard to keep her grades up and has been reaping the results.

"I will always be indebted to my mother who though not formally educated, strongly believed in education," says the diplomat. As a student at Butere Girls, Mohamed got used to the impromptu visits by her mother "to check on her performance".

"My mother wouldn’t wait for Parent’s Day but often dropped by to see how I was doing," she says, of a mother who resisted pressure to marry her off at an early age.

On completion of high school, the offer of a full scholarship from the Kiev University School of International Law and International Relations in Ukraine (formerly part of the Soviet Union) sent the young Mohamed to Eastern Europe.

"The training in Kiev was intense. I had to learn very fast and was speaking Russian within the first year," she says.

Five years later Mohamed returned to Kenya with a degree in comparative law and a Masters in international law, to land her first job in the Ministry of Local Government. That was in 1985, where as a legal officer, her job largely entailed drafting city by-laws and evaluating World Bank projects under the ministry. Six months later, she was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where her career blossomed. At the ministry Mohamed was involved in negotiating and drafting international and bilateral instruments, including Bilateral Air Services Agreements with the United Kingdom, Oman, Sharjah, Iran, and other regional agreements including, the African Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"There were openings for postings abroad, but I did not want to leave at the time because my father was ill and I wanted to stay close to my mother," she says.

Between 1990 and 1993, Mohamed served in Kenya’s mission to the UN headquarters in Geneva, before making a brief detour to Oxford University. She then returned to Geneva before moving on to New York, where she was at one point the only woman in the Kenyan team to the UN Security Council. That was in 1997. Her stay in Geneva would see her work closely with several organisations, including the International Labour Organisation, World Health Organisation, and the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade and later World Trade Organisation.

She describes her experience in Geneva as challenging but life changing, and one she is thankful for.

Conference on racism

In 2000, Mohamed was appointed Kenya’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva.

She was also elected co-coordinator of the African Group on Human Rights, and spokesperson of the African Group for the preparatory sessions as well as at the World Conference on Racism in South Africa. Mohamed credits a great deal of her success to husband, Khalid Ahmed. Married in 2002, the couple has two children and support four orphans, ranging between ages 21 to three and a half months.

Says the lithe diplomat who loves to cook and finds it hard to resist a platter of vegetables. "I love my red meat too but I also exercise regularly to keep fit."

In his welcoming speech to Mohamed, UNEP executive Director Achim Steiner described her as one who would bring ‘a wealth of experience to the position at the national and international level as a distinguished diplomat, lawyer, manager and policymaker working across the sustainable development and environment policy agendas’. It was this experience that helped Mohamed navigate the path of reform when she was appointed PS when the country was bleeding from the wounds of post-election violence.

"I was humbled to think the president had confidence in me to take up the position in a ministry that would drive reforms," she says. Mohamed talks of her elation on the night Kenyans voted for a new Constitution, but also acknowledges it wasn’t all smooth sailing. "Each segment in society including politicians, the civil society, and general population had different expectations of the Constitution and wanted all of them met. But it wasn’t possible to accommodate all views," she says.

Overall, however, Mohamed says the ministry has done its best to ensure minimal delays in implementation of the new laws, especially in respect of legislation that falls within its mandate. She however cautions the public on its expectations of the new Constitution. "Let us remember this is a five year plus process. While some things will be done in a shorter time, others will takelonger," she says.

Although she maintains that Kenya has fully co operated with the ICC, Mohamed says more could have been done by setting up a local mechanism to try other suspects.Her take on debate over Kenya’s next election?

"The Constitution is clear on the date but there are issues that must first be ironed out. Transitional Clauses will fall off after the next election and the only time to make reference to, or use of them is now," she says.