The first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden, from 5-16 June 1972. But the story of UNEP dates back to the 1960s when several developed countries first tried to sabotage the formation of an environmental body within the UN after which they engaged in even greater scheme to keep the headquarters from the Third World.
However, the ambitious spirit of the team that organized the event led by the first director-general of UNEP Maurice Strong trumped any efforts to thwart its success. The first event turned out to be a transforming event not just for the United Nations and its system of agencies, but also for the world as a whole. Attended by the representatives of 113 countries, the conference set up the framework for creating a UN body to deal with environmental problems facing member countries.
As you may have guessed by now, the opportunity to host the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Nairobi was never handed over on a silver platter to Kenya. In fact, it took months of diplomatic negotiations just to consolidate allies and bring the UNEP to Africa let alone in Nairobi in the early 1970s.
Back then, Kenya was just a young nation that had just gained independence from Britain and was yet to assert its place in the complex world of geopolitics. The cold war was at its peak when nations competed vigorously for a chance to host the global environment body with the preferred destinations being Geneva, Kampala, London, Madrid, Mexico City, Monaco, Nicosia, New Delhi, New York, Valetta, and Vienna. This goes on to indicate how hard it was for Kenya to even think of throwing its hat into the ring.
To everyone’s surprise, Kenya’s delegation, led by its respected ambassador & Calcutta-trained economist–Joseph Odero-Jowi–strongly backed by the then Foreign Minister Njoroge Mungai, offered Nairobi as the headquarters of the new organization.
At 43 years old, Odero-Jowi had previously chaired one of the main committees at Stockholm. He was described as a rising star at the UN, a colorful speaker, and an able tactician. While addressing the delegates on this specific matter, he brought his speech to a climax with a defiant bid for Nairobi. Not one agency in the UN system, he pointed out, had its headquarters in the “Third World.” This was unjust and must be rectified, he insisted and called on New York, Geneva, London and Vienna to withdraw.
Njoroge Mungai, on the other hand, lobbied other African states within the Group of 77 to obtain a general agreement that the entity should go to Africa and once that was achieved, he then focused on persuading the non-African countries in the non-aligned grouping.
GLEAMS OF SUCCESS
By November 2, 1972, ambassador Odero-Jowi circulated a draft with the support of 32 African countries. He had moved faster than either Geneva or New York and on Friday, November 3, 1972, the chair of the General Assembly called on Odero-Jowi to introduce his draft resolution. A two-man UN team was dispatched to Nairobi to assess its suitability. They returned a verdict that was highly favorable on the facilities available in the city. Throughout the months that followed, Kenya managed to convince its allies in the north and south that it had the capacity to host the newly created United Nations environmental agency.
On October 2, 1973, there was a fanfare of trumpets Nairobi City as President Jomo Kenyatta took the ceremonial march-past to inaugurate the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme by unfurling the flag of the United Nations on the dais of Nairobi’s Kenyatta International Conference Centre where UNEP’s new offices were located. This was a big win for Kenya, clearly indicated by the flags of all the United Nations 135 Member States fluttered brilliantly in the African sun.
However, the City’s Conference Centre (KICC) was not to be UNEP’s permanent home. With the need to build distinctive structures symbolic of UNEP’S environmental purposes and create a room for the long-term expansion, Maurice located a large coffee farm in an attractive location on the outskirts of Nairobi (known as Gigiri today.) He knew that with enough convincing, it could easily be made available for construction even if it wasn’t the government’s first choice.
MOVE TO GIGIRI
The new headquarters were completed and occupied by the end of the first year after the set-up. The buildings were simple but practical and made full use of the beautiful natural setting and the lush tropical foliage that surrounded them.
However, between the 70s and the 80s that was the only conspicuous building in Gigiri as the rest were just large undeveloped tracts of land. There were a few scattered houses, though still upmarket compared to today’s myriad homes and diplomatic offices.
The transformation began in the late 1990s following the establishment of the United Nations offices in 1996 and relocation of the American Embassy after the 1998 bomb blast attack on its offices in the CBD.
This totally transformed the Gigiri landscape into what is now referred to as the Blue Diplomatic Zone as a result of the various diplomatic missions based there.
To mark UNEP’s 40th anniversary in 2012, UNEP sponsored a 300+ page curation of this history of this Environmental organization. Written by an award-winning conservationist Stanley P Johnson, the book charts the evolution of UNEP from its inception at the landmark Stockholm conference of 1972 to its position today at the heart of the global environmental movement. The book is not an official history but explains in depth UNEP’s role in protecting the environment with its sponsoring and negotiating of a host of international agreements and other actions. The book has been used to reference & factually check this article.
As they say, Nairobi is a brand that we must jelously guard.