THE LAST DANCE AT UNGA
By FEMI ADESINA
“This is the last that we shall dance together,” Wole Soyinka wrote in Kongi’s Harvest. And that was what President Muhammadu Buhari did Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, United States of America.
The President had his last dance, and how dainty and dignified were the steps. He didn’t do the one Lagbaja described as ‘hands on the road to Ilesa, and legs on the way to Port Harcourt.’ He was Speaker Number 1 on the second day of the General Debate, and he presented Nigeria’s National Statement with calm, dignity and panache. It was the last dance, and a fitting denouement to eight years of appearance at UNGA, the global and influential stage.
Seven of the eight appearances were done physically. One, in 2020, was on the virtual platform, due to the perils and ravages of COVID-19. And for those of us, who have been privileged to make all the appearances with the President, it was a special time of thanksgiving. For, indeed, “this is the last that we shall dance together” at UNGA. And it was time to appreciate the Almighty for grace and goodness.
It was the 77th session of the General Assembly, and President Buhari began by going down the memory lane:
“The first time I could have addressed this August Assembly was in 1984, when I was the Military Head of State of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Thirty one years later, I had the great privilege to personally address the Assembly in 2015, as the democratically elected President of my country. As I approach the end of my second and final four-year term, I am reminded of how much has changed in Nigeria, in Africa, and in the world, and yet, how some challenges remain.
“We are now more severely tested by these enduring and new global challenges, paramount among which are conflicts increasingly being driven by non-state actors, proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons, terrorism, violent extremism, malignant use of technology, climate change, irregular migration, and disparities in opportunities for improved standards of living.”
The United Nations General Assembly is opportunity for world leaders to talk about their national challenges that have global dimension, and also international issues that affect their countries. And that was what the President did, as briskly as possible.
“Despite the challenging international environment, the United Nations has proved that it can be strong when the will of its members is harnessed for positive collective action. The guiding principles of this extraordinary institution is the promotion of peace and security, development and human rights. Latest in a chain of events challenging these principles is the Ukraine conflict which has already created strains that are perhaps unprecedented for a generation.
“Such a conflict will have adverse consequences for us all, hindering our capacity to work together to resolve conflicts elsewhere, especially in Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. Indeed, the ongoing war in Ukraine is making it more difficult to tackle the perennial issues that feature each year in the deliberations of this Assembly, such as nuclear disarmament, the right of the Rohingya refugees to return to their homes in Myanmar, and the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for statehood and reduction of inequalities within and amongst nations.”
And the President dovetails into an issue he had always dwelt on in his international appearances. Nuclear non-proliferation: “The danger of escalation of the war in Ukraine further justifies Nigeria’s resolute calls for a nuclear-free world and a universal Arms Trade Treaty, which are also necessary measures to prevent global human disasters. In this regards we must find quick means to reach consensus on the Nuclear non-proliferation Treaty with related commitments by nuclear weapon states.”
Equally, President Buhari had always spoken about the structure of the UN, and the need for reforms. Would he let this opportunity pass? Nah. Said he: “I remain firmly convinced that the challenges that have come so sharply into focus in recent years and months emphasize the call by Nigeria and many other Member-States for the reform of the Security Council and other UN Agencies. We need more effective and representative structures to meet today’s demands that have since outgrown a system designed for the very different world that prevailed at its foundation in 1945. CHANGE IS LONG OVERDUE. “ True. Long, long overdue.
It was the first meeting in New York without the restrictions that characterised the last three years. “The COVID-19 pandemic ripped across National borders like a toxic whirlwind, leaving in its wake a legacy of pain and loss,” the President said, and of course, he took the opportunity to ‘buga’ about the strides of his country in combating the pandemic, earlier feared to be a grim reaper, which could kill people in their millions.
“I am happy to note that in Nigeria, our healthcare agencies were able to form effective local management and engaged international partnerships with multinational initiatives like COVAX and private groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These efforts helped mitigate the impact of the pandemic and we were mercifully spared the images of overwhelmed hospitals, overworked healthcare personnel and high mortality which sadly we saw elsewhere.” Hallelujah. To God be the glory.
Another favorite topic for the President is climate change, a phenomenon that has reduced the Lake Chad to less than one third of its usual size, rendering about 30 million people bereft of their livelihood; fishing, farming, animal husbandry, and spawning all forms of criminality, and encouraging irregular migration. What did the President say about it?
“Climate change reduces opportunity and prosperity which, in Africa, Latin America and some parts of Asia also contribute to transnational organized crimes.
“As part of Nigeria’s efforts at achieving our Global Net-zero aspiration, the current Administration last year adopted a National Climate Change Strategy that aims to deliver climate change mitigation in a sustainable manner.
“The measures we took at the national level also require climate justice. Africa and other developing nations produce only a small proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, compared to industrial economies. Yet, we are the hardest hit by the consequences of climate change as we see in the sustained droughts in Somalia and floods of unprecedented severity in Pakistan.
“These and other climate-related occurrences are now sadly becoming widely commonplace in the developing world. We are, in effect, literally paying the price for policies that others pursue. This needs to change.”
Negative use of the social media. The President had always spoken about it. In fact, on a couple of occasions, he had told me; “Don’t mind the nuisance!” when he asked of the source of some information I shared with him, and I said it was from the social media. So, he told the world. “Another feature of the last decade has been the gowing partnership between states and the increasingly influential non-state actors. There was a time when the most important event at this Assembly was the speech by the world’s most powerful leaders. Now a Tweet or Instagram post by an influencer on social or environmental issues may have greater impact.
“Technology offers us nearly limitless opportunities and sometimes runs ahead of the imagination of regulators and legislators. At its best, social media helps strengthen the foundations of our society and our common values. At its worst, it is a corrosive digital version of the mob, bristling with intolerance and division.”
Are you a mobster on social media? Do you deliberately twist what people say, giving it a negative slant to cause hatred, bile and animus? Then President Buhari was talking to you. Think, mobster, think, and have a change of mind, for the good of our country.
But was the President advocating stifling or muzzling of information and freedom of expression? Not by any means. “In confronting these challenges, we must also come together to defend freedom of speech, while upholding other values that we cherish. We must continue to work for a common standard that balances rights with responsibilities to keep the most vulnerable from harm and help strengthen and enrich communities.
“Efforts to protect communities from the scourge of disinformation and misinformation must also be matched with efforts to reduce inequalities and restore hope to our poorer and most vulnerable of our communities as a means to stem the many socio-economic conflict drivers with which we are faced.”
Then the clincher! About 24 hours to the speech, a lawyer and politician had called me from Abuja, pleading that the President should recommit to free and fair polls in his address to the global body. I told him that it goes without saying, he could take it for granted. And President Buhari didn’t disappoint. Here’s what he said:
“Democracy is an idea that crosses time and borders. Certainly, democracy does have its limitations. The wheels of democracy turn slowly. It can demand compromises that dilute decisions. Sometimes, it bends too much to special interests that exercise influence, not always for the general good, in a manner disproportionate to their numbers. But it has been my experience that a democratic culture provides a Government with the legitimacy it needs to deliver positive change.
“In Nigeria, not only have we worked to strengthen our democracy, but we have supported it and promoted the Rule of Law in our sub-region. In The Gambia, we helped guarantee the first democratic transition since independence. In Guinea-Bissau we stood by the democratically elected Government when it faced mutiny. And in the Republic of Chad, following the tragic death of its President, the late Idris Deby Itno in the battlefield, we joined forces with its other neighbours and international partners to stabilize the country and encourage the peaceful transition to democracy, a process which is ongoing.
“We believe in the sanctity of constitutional term limits and we have steadfastly adhered to it in Nigeria. We have seen the corrosive impact on values when leaders elsewhere seek to change the rules to stay on in power. Indeed, we now are preparing for general elections in Nigeria next February. At the 78th UNGA, there will be a new face at this podium speaking for Nigeria.
“Ours is a vast country strengthened by its diversity and its common values of hard work, enduring faith and a sense of community. We have invested heavily to strengthen our framework for free and fair elections. I thank our partners for all the support that they have provided our election institutions.
“As President, I have set the goal that one of the enduring legacies I would like to leave is to entrench a process of free, fair and transparent and credible elections through which Nigerians elect leaders of their choice.”
Don’t you like this President in his simplicity and forthrightness? I do. And that’s one of the reasons I serve him, and believe in him. Whatever he tells you, you can take it to the bank.
And then his parting words to UNGA, the real last dance:
“Let me convey my final reflection from this famous podium. We live in extraordinary times with interdependent challenges but enormous opportunities. The pace of change can seem bewildering, with sometimes a palpable and unsettling sense of uncertainty about our future. But if my years in public service have taught me anything, it is that we must keep faith with those values that endure. These include, but are not limited to such values as justice, honour, integrity, ceaseless endeavour, and partnership within and between nations.
“Our strongest moments have always been when we remain true to the basic principles of tolerance, community, and abiding commitment to peace and goodwill towards all.
“I thank you all.”
We started with a WS (Wole Soyinka). Let’s end with another WS. William Shakespeare, who wrote in Julius Caesar: “If we do meet again, why, we shall smile; if not, why, then this parting was well made.”
For President Buhari, it was a parting well made with UNGA as Nigeria’s President.
*Adesina is Special Adviser to President Buhari on Media and Publicity