Surely, we all know who a “secretary” is and who a “general” is. Even so, I doubt that if asked who a “secretary general” or even a “general secretary” is, we may not readily give an answer.
The official website of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) attempts a definition of the expression, “secretary general”, by saying this: “the Secretary General is the legally authorized representative of the Organization and Chief Executive of the Secretariat. In this capacity, he administers the affairs of the Organization in accordance with the directions of the Board of Governors.” Similarly, the post of “general secretary” is defined by the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology as one on the Executive Committee and one that “requires energy and sustained commitment…It is demanding in its necessary attention to detail…it is best suited to a person who is well organized, has developed administrative skills and has appropriate, but by no means elaborate, secretarial assistance…it is not suitable for a person who already has significant other demands on his or her time, or who is absent for significant periods.”
We all know of instances where the role of the secretary general is capital for the organization for which the personality works. Among these are the United Nations and the African Union. In Cameroon, the Presidency of the Republic, the Prime Minister’s Office, ministerial departments and regional governors’ offices have secretaries general.
Although all of that may sound obvious to us, let us spare a thought for the unusual situation that pitted the OAU’s first Secretary General, the Guinean Diallo Telli, to Houphouet Boigny, then president of Côte d’Ivoire and a founder member of the OAU. At some point during Telli’s stewardship as secretary general of the pan African organization, some country presidents started feeling that he was overstepping the bounds of his jurisdiction and stepping on their toes. They felt Telli was high-handed in his administration. So one day, Houphouet reacted with an outburst in which he warned Telli that when they, Heads of States, decided to recruit “a secretary general” for the OUA, it was “a secretary” they had in mind, not “a general”.