On Tuesday, President Muhammadu Buhari will speak at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, his fourth and perhaps final appearance. What will he tell world leaders?
Briefing the press about preparations, Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama indicated the trip would be no more than a ritual “an opportunity to engage, interface and share best practices toward reaching common understanding and consensus on key issues of global significance.”
Listen to Onyeama’s telling circumlocution: “Nigeria’s expected outcome at the 73rd UNGA should be to achieve a well-planned, synchronised and successful participation of Nigeria at the 73rd Session, under the guidance of (Buhari).”
It is only in Nigeria that participation is considered an outcome, that is: an achievement.
But where have we tendered the concept of “opportunity,” in the past, and interpreted it as an achievement? Yes, that was at Mr. Buhari’s inauguration, when he said Nigeria had never previously enjoyed as much international goodwill as by his election.
“The messages I received from East and West, from powerful and small countries are indicative of international expectations on us. At home the newly elected government is basking in a reservoir of goodwill and high expectations. Nigeria therefore has a window of opportunity to fulfill our long–standing potential of pulling ourselves together and realising our mission as a great nation.”
Quoting Shakespeare, he spoke about “a tide in the affairs of men…”
“We have an opportunity,” he declared. “Let us take it.”
At the UN General Assembly soon afterwards, Buhari continued to say the right things, including how respectful Nigeria was of the rule of law and The Charter. He said the Boko Haram conflict was “a war about values between progress and chaos; between democracy and the rule of law.”
Last year, he stayed on message, talking about good governance, democracy and the rule of law “expanding everywhere, especially in Africa.”
When he speaks on Tuesday, it will be 12 months and six days since he made those remarks. A lot of strange things have happened in Nigeria since then that would embarrass even those not elected or flying an anti-corruption emblem, and remaining in power has become Job One.
But what will Buhari say about what he has accomplished?
Recently, Buhari announced a new political theory: that sometimes, the rule of law is irrelevant, and must take second place to “the nation’s security and national interest.”
If Buhari expatiates on this on Tuesday, in effect affirming that democracy is definable outside the rule of law, he will change the philosophy of the UN forever.
He would be redefining Nigeria’s international law obligations, in which case he would explain, for instance, how the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the Convention Against Torture fit into his new world view.
The danger would be where he chooses to say nothing about these principles at all, in which case what we have in Nigeria is a festering dictatorship in which political opponents, lawyers, critics and journalists might disappear, be detained or get killed in mysterious accidents related to “national security.”
Or perhaps he will return to the letter and spirit of the Nigerian constitution and affirm that he had made a mistake and that he does intend to shine the law into every nook and corner, towards making security and justice available to everyone.
At his inauguration, Buhari traced the growth of Boko Haram to “official bungling, negligence, complacency or collusion,” vowing he would do everything to rescue the Chibok secondary school students. While some of that objective has been accomplished, a Chibok-style mass kidnap happened last February in Dapchi, with 111 girls snatched.
Curiously, the militants returned most of those girls one month later. In full swagger in broad daylight, an enemy the government said weeks earlier had again been defeated, returned to Dapchi with the girls. It then departed casually, suggesting the same “official bungling…or collusion” Buhari identified in May 2015.
But what will he say about this, particularly now that the United Nations has credibly confirmed that contrary to the claims of his government, a “large ransom” was paid for the girls? Will he tell the world exactly why Leah Sharibu was the only Dapchi girl not returned?
Of greater importance, what should constitute “successful” Nigeria participation in this year’s General Assembly?
The first thing is that Nigeria ought to read the 2018 Goalkeepers Report of the Bill & Melinda Gates’s Foundation, published just five days ago. It is the second in the series, which tracks progress on the United Nations’ 17 SDGs.
Nigeria ought to be concerned that the report suggests that not only will she not meet the SDGs, but that her poverty will grow considerably worse. It states that 30 years from now, about half of the world’s extreme poor will be citizens of Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
What is worse, even a 50 per cent reduction in our poverty rate would leave the number of the poor the same because the population of Africa is projected to nearly double by 2050.
I say Nigeria ought to begin by reading the report because reading is not fashionable in the country, particularly among the powerful. Digesting this report ought to galvanise our UN presence this week from a routine, lukewarm public relations visit to one of alarm. Nigeria should be snatching this opportunity to tell the world her plan to avoid this snake-pit.
The problem is this: where is the commitment?
Reversing the dilemma, as the Goalkeepers report points out, is achievable. In the past 18 years, over one billion people, mostly from India, China and Brazil, have been lifted from poverty. In the hands of a patriotic, committed and visionary leadership, Nigeria can do the same.
That lack of commitment is burying us in all the wrong statistics, and in uncompleted and abandoned projects, programmes and even thinking. For instance, Nigeria’s “best” hospitals were built in Akwa Ibom and Edo in the past few years by men who are now central APC figures. In fact, the Edo Central Hospital was inaugurated two years ago by Buhari. But they are a success only on paper, and our elite obtains medical treatment abroad.
Still less fidelity and attention is paid to education. In government after government, powerful Nigerians send their children to schools abroad and ignore Nigerian schools.
This savage conundrum persists because of a Nigerian mindset in which the poor are held in contempt. We combat poverty only with words. The poor are not entitled to the same opportunities as the powerful.
This is why, in the years to come, more Nigerians will eat out of garbage heaps, defecate on the streets and gutters, and drink dirty water. Their leaders, on the other hand, will fly expensive jets to New York to obtain manicures or massage, spend lavishly, and read incoherent speeches.
The international post-war system, which provides this merry-making multilateral mess without accountability, is the culprit. It nurtures these routine and open-ended PR opportunities for their “Excellencies” without a realistic accounting for their leadership.
Which means that in the most unfortunate cases, those countries are destined for peacekeeping and post-conflict blame-trading.