By Owei Lakemfa
THE government of President Muhammadu Buhari could hardly contain its excitement. Professor Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations was going to be elected the President of the United Nations General Assembly, UNGA. It appeared a major diplomatic achievement. Like a groom stretching its neck to find out when the bride would step into the registry, the government strained its neck to look into the UNGA.
It invited the out-going UNGA president, Ecuador’s Maria Fernanda Espinosa, to visit on May 6. The essence of the invitation seemed pointless; if she is out-going, what powers do we expect her to exercise? This was more so that the in-coming UNGA president is going to be a Nigerian.
It was not to lobby her to vote for the Nigerian because the issue was settled. In fact, in the government’s excitement, the impression was given that Professor Muhammad-Bande was president-elect, and congratulatory messages were pouring in.
However, the facts are that the Presidency of the UNGA is based on annual regional rotation amongst African, Caribbean, Asia-Pacific, Western European, Eastern European, Latin American and other states. Secondly, it is Africa’s turn to produce the 2019/2020 President. Thirdly, the African group had selected and presented Nigeria as its sole candidate. Fourthly, as is traditional, all that remained, was for the UNGA to pronounce the anointed candidate, its president by acclamation.
The formal process of acclamation was carried out on Tuesday, May 4 and the professor is to assume duties in September. So there was no need for the drama or spending state resources to host Maria Fernanda Espinosa. That is not to say that the election of a Nigerian diplomat to such position is not salutary, more so when after Ecuador and Argentina, Nigeria will be the third country that would twice preside over the UNGA.
The first Nigerian to do so was Joseph Nanven Garba, who was elected in 1989, that is 30 years ago. Garba, a General, was Foreign Minister from 1975 and was elected president of the United Nations Security Council, UNSC, in January 1978.
In 1984, he was appointed Nigeria’s permanent representative to the United Nations by then military head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari. He was elected UNGA president in 1989. His presidency was characterised by two main events. First, a stranglehold on Apartheid South Africa which with the military victories of Cuba against the Apartheid military in Angola, led to the independence of Namibia on March 21, 1990. The other, was the passing of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Professor Muhammad-Bande will not be alone in the hallowed chambers of the UN as another Nigerian, Ms. Amina Jane Mohammed holds the post of the UN Deputy Secretary General. Perhaps this is what calls for celebration. The professor who was the vice-chancellor of the Usman Danfodiyo University, Sokoto and the Director General of the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies in Kuru, has promised to hit the ground running, hoping to push the UN to move from its snail speed to a walk, if not a run.
Responding to a veiled taunt by Italy’s permanent representative, Mariangela Zappia, he replied: “A lot of people are talking as if this again is just UN talk, nothing happens. This is not what should happen in this hall. Reform is important because it helps achieve results. I will work with you all on appropriate solutions, as I believe we must make the UN more efficient, effective and accountable to the people we serve”.
He believes that the United Nations is “the world’s best hope for peace and security, sustainable development and the promotion and protection of human rights and social progress.”
The UNGA president-elect wants to promote partnerships and ensure peace and prosperity, “particularly, for the most vulnerable”. In order to make the UN less an assembly of states, and more a union of peoples, he wants to strengthen the relationship between the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC.
He also hopes to use his Presidency to push for consensus amongst member-states on major issues, promote human rights, gender parity and the empowerment of women and youths.
Muhammad-Bande said of his programmes: “Peace and security, poverty eradication, zero hunger, quality education, climate action and inclusion…”. The hope is that he would stand by Nigeria’s position on issues like climate change, even if they conflict with those of the powerful countries.
In 1961, when our Minister of Labour, Chief Joseph Modupe Johnson, JMJ, was presiding over the International Labour Organisation, ILO and Nigeria moved a motion to expel Apartheid South Africa, he stepped down to allow another country preside while he led the charge against the racists.
The UNGA president-elect’s promises, declarations and programmes are sweet to the ears, but I am not sure, if, like the high expectations of his fellow Nigerians, he is not carried away by the high sounding title of his new office rather than its substance or the reality that the office is primarily, ceremonial.
For the specific functions, roles and powers of the UNGA president, the UN Charter in Article 21 states that: “The General Assembly shall adopt its own rules of procedure. It shall elect its president for each session.” While its Rules of Procedure states in Rule 36 that: “The president, in the exercise of his functions, remains under the authority of the General Assembly.”
Since it is ceremonial without real power or salaries, developed countries like the United Kingdom, France, China, Japan, the United States and Russia, have never been UNGA President. Real power as we know, resides in the 15-Member UNSC. So, it is much more rewarding for a country to be a member of that Council even if non-permanent.
That non-permanent seat is for two years while the UNGA is for a non-renewable one year. More importantly, it is in the UNSC serious and binding decisions are taken in the name of humanity.
As for the UN reforms Muhammad-Bande promises, I think it is good to carry on the struggles of Uganda’s Sam Kutesa, the UNGA President in 2014/15 who made it his priority. But given the UN power structure, any serious reform, will come not from the General Assembly, but from the Security Council. I think our Presidency of the UNGA may give Nigeria some intangible gains like more visibility, higher profile and prestige in the UN.
Given these realities, and the multiple public holidays we have awarded ourselves, we should get back to work and face the challenges of mass hunger, mass unemployment, serious insecurity, growing poverty and insecurity. For Professor Muhammad-Bande, my congratulations as he presides into next year, the 75th Anniversary of the UN.