Elected last year to preside over the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, Prof. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria spoke with Africa Renewal’s Zipporah Musau to reflect on his tenure and the 75th anniversary of the UN. Here are the excerpts:
Africa Renewal: In 2019 you were elected by acclamation to preside over the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. As your tenure comes to an end in 2020, how has the journey been?
Prof. Muhammad-Bande: Well, it's a big question. Obviously, the very fact that most meetings are now held virtually suggests the change in the way things are being done. It was not the intention of any of us to be in this situation.
During the initial months of my tenure, things were conducted in the traditional way - we met in the Assembly Hall to take decisions and traveled to countries to conduct activities connected to the work of the General Assembly in particular and the United Nations in general.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, several things are clear. The vulnerability of all of us—rich and poor—and of course the prime importance of common approaches of solidarity in relation to urgent matters of transportation, communication, education and health.
At the beginning of your presidency of the GA, you said your priorities would be poverty eradication, quality education, and inclusion. What are some of your successes so far and what challenges did you face?
Let me talk of education. We know how important education for all is and people are very concerned that it has now been interrupted. We worry about how these interruptions have been mitigated in some countries, and not in others, suggesting the need to deal with the technological divide, which is also related to poverty.
Fighting poverty was also my priority as the President of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. To push it to the front burner, I recently launched the Poverty Eradication Alliance to serve as a one-stop networking, information sharing and bridge-building centre. The Alliance will pull together all the factors and interests in poverty eradication and provide a mechanism for interrogating the poverty challenge from all possible, or at least, multi-disciplinary, angles. There is no amount of time and attention given to poverty eradication that is too much.
This is important because in our view, probably one half of the world’s problems would be solved if we address the poverty.
I also launched the Financial Accountability Transparency and Integrity (FACTI) Panel, together with the then President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Ambassador Mona Juul of Norway. This initiative is a response to the problem of the financing gap in relation to the implementation of the SDGs. It invites Member States to give appropriate consideration to the importance of combatting illicit financial flows and strengthening good practices on assets return to foster sustainable development. No one is immune from this scourge: these gaps or other leakages to government revenues have real consequences in all countries, from developing to developed. So, the panel will generate ideas and recommendations that Member States can get behind. It will also open up the conversation, and find ways to accelerate progress.
The disruptions in tourism, transportation, and many other economic activities also have shown the urgency to give support, especially to countries that, even before the pandemic, were struggling.
Overall, we succeeded in ensuring business continuity at the UN General Assembly during this unprecedented time due to COVID-19. This required leadership, hard work and constant consultation and collaboration with Member States and the UN Secretariat.
This coordination enabled the UN General Assembly to take crucial decisions to ensure the continuity of work of peacekeeping missions. For instance, during this period, it adopted a decision approving the budget of the United Nations Africa Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).
Also, we were able to successfully hold the elections of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the incoming President of the General Assembly via an unprecedented virtual format and on schedule.
What about the issue of inclusion?
In whatever you do, people need to be included, not only because of their right as individual human beings, but also for the contribution that they can make, when included. Be it inclusion in relation to gender or in relation to poverty or those who are marginalized because of race or a disability.
I think the hallmark of the modern world must be the issue of inclusion, of rights of individuals to dignity, the right to have a life that is meaningful for them.
So, inclusion is, again, something that must be there in whatever aspect we do, whether we are dealing with issues of peace, education, or any other element. Inclusion is key.
It is during your UNGA presidency that the world is dealing with one of the biggest threats of our time, COVID-19. What are the biggest challenges Africa faces in fighting this pandemic?
First, Africa has had the experience of dealing with pandemics before. Ebola and others were battled on the African continent.
But the current COVID-19 crisis came at a time when many African and other developing countries were already struggling to meet the SDGs. The health systems of many countries were also struggling.
However, the African continent connected very well with the World Health Organization (WHO), whose leadership has been very clear about the need for cooperation. But because of the ‘pre-existing conditions’ of health systems, Africa must worry if the numbers continue to rise.
Promises made in the context of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda [a 2015 global framework for financing sustainable development by aligning all financing flows and policies with economic, social and environmental priorities] were unmet. Financing for development had been key, including dealing with illicit financial flows.
There are some parts of the continent where conflicts have lasted far longer than anybody would have liked.
These are the issues the continent was also dealing with.
At the same time, look at the experience of the continent - the regional and sub-regional collaboration - and the outreach of the continent to other parts of the world to guarantee sharing of information and ideas. Also, to better ensure that as everyone is looking for a vaccine, or other therapeutics, that they must work for everyone, and must be accessible to everyone.
We should stay focused on the public health issue and its impact on economic and other activities. The sooner we can deal with the pandemic, the sooner we begin to build back our systems.
And of course, it is no longer just about building back because the [current] systems have been shown to be ridden with a lot of fault lines. So, let us build back better in terms of better systems that can address the issue inclusion and related to education that is available to all children.
In October 2020 the UN turns 75. What, in your view, is the biggest achievement of the organization so far, especially in Africa?
I've said it a number of times, 75 years on [since UN was born], we have not had a world war. We may have had destructive regional conflicts, but they would have been worse if they involved everyone. The United Nations must be given credit for the protocols it has to avoid a world war, to rein in member states and still have a chance of dealing with nuclear weaponry.
The next issue is the whole notion of human rights, the rights of human beings as individuals.
As an African, obviously, the contribution of the United Nations in making apartheid clearly a crime against humanity and unacceptable, is something that emanates from norms that are critical to our common world and our common humanity.
The United Nations has been indispensable. There are many things that are very positive, for example, self-governance and independence for countries. The major pillars of the United Nations’ work are human rights, development and peace, and if you look at each one of them, there are successes.
Of course, there are also challenges, because try as we might, there are occasional cases where raw power plays a hand larger than it should, making some problems more intractable than others.
The UN has been indispensable. Looking at the main pillars of the organizations work – peace, develop and human rights - there are successes.
Colleagues also point to some failures. As an African, Rwanda comes to mind – failure to act quickly. Also, the continuing lack of progress in solving the Palestinian problem. I think these are things that nobody should be happy about. We have enough knowledge and skills to have compromises that will give us peace in the Middle East, once and for all.
There are elements that we are not happy about, but again were it not for the United Nations, imagine the anarchy that would be let loose on the world and on all of us?
So, this is why I think 75 years on, we have a lot to celebrate. We also have a lot to reflect deeply about and work even harder to solve these [pending] issues.
In this 75th anniversary of the United Nations, what reflections should be critical in terms of the organization’s approaches, methods, and what ambitions should it have?
Certainly, we were able to agree on a declaration to mark the occasion that reflects the thoughts of the membership. Consensus among Member States for the Declaration for the Commemoration of the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the United Nations was achieved in July 2020 and it will be formally adopted on 21 September 2020, during the commemoration event of the 75th anniversary of the UN.
But of course, we also are worried over emerging divisions.
Frankly, we have to do much more to remind ourselves that no country is, or can be an island unto itself. And that collaboration, cooperation and pursuit of peace and justice, are ever more important.
We must ensure no relapse to the past where hate and injustice became too frequent for the ordinary people because the organization [UN] is all States, but its purpose is for the people in terms of peace, justice, and development.
We would like to deal with this pandemic as quickly as possible. Of course, the situation we are in has exposed some of the difficulties of countries and regions and organizations.
The African Union theme for this year, 2020, is ‘Silencing the Guns in Africa’. Where do we seem to have a challenge?
Most conflicts in Africa are largely internal. There was a time when many conflicts on the continent had support, in strong ways, from outside the continent. I think the Organization of African Unity then, and the African Union now has worked very hard to get us out of this idea of ‘sponsored conflicts’ from outside the continent. Now, it is really conflict within nations, and within neighborhoods, that the AU is focused on.
We recently celebrated one very positive development in the East Africa region, relating to Eritrea and Ethiopia [Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement in 2018 to end two decades of dispute between the two Horn of Africa countries].
There are also major positive achievements in Sudan and the region. We are glad to see that Burundi is now calm and that they were able to hold an election with no major issue there.
But of course, we still have continuing problems in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and in Central African Republic that we are dealing with. Libya is still a worry, but we do see a bit of progress there and we hope this continues. Then we have the extra-territorial issues relating with terrorism in parts of central, west and eastern Africa.
In all this, the AU has tried hard to make it an African conversation. Even as it has a good partnership with the United Nations, it is very clear that Africa is, more and more, stepping up to own its issues.
There are, of course, challenges occasionally, not because of lack of capacity, but tied to resources.
But even with [these constraints], take a look at 20 or 30 years of analysis and you see the positive things that are happening, first of all, related to peace movements on the continent.
NGOs are putting their voices forward for peace, women’s movements too, including related to peace in their communities. And where there is a problem you see village communities trying to take action. This is positive.
But again, any conflict is worrisome, and silencing the guns is an important objective. It means focusing on many things - conflict resolution, peace, development, justice, and the causes of the conflict itself.
Earlier this year, you also served as the chair of the committee that picked the two laureates of the UN Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize 2020. How did you come up with the winners and how does their work promote the legacy of Mandela?
We have, in the male and female laureates, very good candidates. When you look at the life of Mandela, you can see efforts of these ordinary people trying to achieve great things, especially for those who are often ignored, marginalized or oppressed.
Given your experience as PGA, what future do you think multilateralism holds as an avenue for solving global problems?
The world needs an inclusive multilateralism fully engaged with all stakeholders. The people in whose name we work, deserve a revitalized UN which is fit for purpose. We need to be results-focused, action-orientated, and less bureaucratic in nature. For effective governance to work, we need a more inclusive multilateralism guided by the rights of individuals.
The general debate of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly held last September was a remarkable demonstration of the relevance of the UN. Many world leaders spoke about the need to uphold multilateralism and support joint actions to address global issues and challenges, such as sustainable development, climate change and peace and security.