Im­age-laun­der­ing at the UN

How does he rec­on­cile his pa­tron­age of the United King­dom health­care for over 150 days this year alone at pub­lic ex­pense with his ban of Nige­rian pub­lic of­fi­cials from med­i­cal tourism? What does he say to the naysay­ers who cite sev­eral in­ex­pli­ca­ble holes

Sunday Trust - - FEVER PITCH -

To­mor­row, Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari will par­tic­i­pate in his third United Na­tions rit­ual known as the gen­eral de­bate. His pres­ence in New York will also be some­thing of a mir­a­cle, given that just one month ago, it was un­clear he was even alive. I con­grat­u­late him on his re­cov­ery, and hope the ex­pe­ri­ence has given him a fresh ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Time.

His­tory: speak­ing at his in­au­gu­ra­tion in 2015, Mr. Buhari cel­e­brated the out­burst of in­ter­na­tional good­will for Nige­ria fol­low­ing his elec­tion, say­ing the coun­try had en­joyed no bet­ter time.

“The mes­sages I re­ceived from East and West, from pow­er­ful and small coun­tries are in­dica­tive of in­ter­na­tional ex­pec­ta­tions on us,” he said. “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 re­al­iz­ing our mis­sion as a great na­tion.”

It was a his­tor­i­cal win­dow in his hands as leader of the new govern­ment he wanted the world to know he was wor­thy of. He said it re­minded him of Shake­speare’s Julius Ceasar:

“There is a tide in the af­fairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to for­tune; Omit­ted, all the voy­age of their life, is bound in shal­lows and mis­eries.”

“We have an op­por­tu­nity,” the new Nige­ria leader added. “Let us take it.”

When he reads his third speech at the 72nd Gen­eral Assem­bly gen­eral de­bate, Mr. Buhari will hope to strike the im­age of a states­man, and, I sus­pect, to per­suade the world he has taken that op­por­tu­nity.

I do not know who in­vented the term, gen­eral de­bate, for the nine days of speeches in which Heads of State and govern­ment or some other se­nior of­fi­cial speak but in which no­body re­ally de­bates. But it is an es­tab­lished prac­tice which makes far more noise in the home coun­tries, thanks to dili­gent ef­forts to bring the press, than within the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, and is of far greater con­se­quence to the New York hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try than to any­one else. This week, it makes far more money than in any other dur­ing the year.

And while Buhari will speak on the first day and be gone within a few, there will be many lead­ers speak­ing to near-empty halls by the week­end, with most mem­o­ries-if any-be­ing some­thing of what was said on the first day by the Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral about the world, and by who­ever leads the United States.

The truth is that for most, the gen­eral de­bate is an over­rated and ex­tremely ex­pen­sive im­age-laun­der­ing ex­er­cise.

If the speech-mak­ing is ever to be of greater con­se­quence than a veiled ex­cuse for vast del­e­ga­tions from poor coun­tries to travel to the United States to en­rich the world’s rich­est coun­try, the ap­proach must change: world lead­ers at the de­bate should speak with­out writ­ten state­ments or teleprompters.

Yes, they can have notes and notepads, but any­one seek­ing to speak about the world and es­pe­cially his own coun­try ought to do so from the depths of his or her pa­tri­otic heart. You don’t need lay­ers of bu­reau­crats, spe­cial­ists, min­is­ters and hired con­sul­tants to de­scribe your­self or your mis­sion, or to say how much you love your coun­try or what serv­ing her means to you.

In such a sce­nario then, we would learn from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump who Don­ald Trump re­ally is, and not just what he thinks, but how he thinks. Per­haps we would hear from Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin what he re­ally thinks about Ukraine, North Korea, Mr. Trump, or what is widely-de­scribed as Rus­sia’s med­dling in the 2016 US elec­tions.

And per­haps we might un­der­stand what har­mony means to Mr. Buhari. How, for in­stance, does he ex­plain the dis­si­pa­tion of the “reser­voir of good­will” and the “win­dow of op­por­tu­nity” he iden­ti­fied two years ago, strangely leav­ing only the “high ex­pec­ta­tions.”

How does he rec­on­cile his pa­tron­age of the United King­dom health­care for over 150 days this year alone at pub­lic ex­pense with his ban of Nige­rian pub­lic of­fi­cials from med­i­cal tourism? What does he say to the naysay­ers who cite sev­eral in­ex­pli­ca­ble holes in his anti-cor­rup­tion war? Is his govern­ment stuck in the sand, or has it yet to take off in the first place?

Of course, no­body will hear him ad­dress sub­jects of this na­ture. An im­age-mak­ing speech, pro­cessed by high-stakes po­lit­i­cal GMO-mas­ters, will seek neu­tral ground such as the post-2015 Devel­op­ment Agenda and the Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals (SDGs). In 2015, Mr. Buhari de­scribed the suc­ces­sor frame­works of the Mil­len­nium Devel­op­ment Goals (MDGs) as ar­riv­ing not only with lofty as­pi­ra­tions but also “heroic as­sump­tions.” He ad­vised that if the newlyadopted SDGs were “to be truly global, they must be prac­ti­cal,” for which he called for for­eign as­sis­tance.

The truth is that the MDGs did not fail in many coun­tries as spec­tac­u­larly as they did in Nige­ria. And the rea­son for the fail­ure of the MDGs in Nige­ria-and the prospect of the SDGs, as we shall see-has noth­ing to do with de­ploy­ment of re­sources than their ab­sence. It is sim­ply that no Nige­rian leader as­sumes the bur­den of lead­er­ship. Us­ing the same MDGs plan, sev­eral coun­tries had by 2015 pulled mil­lions and mil­lions of their peo­ple out of poverty; in Nige­ria, such mul­ti­lat­eral com­mit­ments are re­mem­bered by name only when our lead­ers come to the United Na­tions.

I have in­vited Mr. Buhari, for in­stance, to ex­am­ine the mys­tery of the MDGs in Nige­ria, not only to re­cover some of the $1bn per year funds that dis­ap­peared for at least 10 years, but to avoid the same fate for the SDGs.

And, should he re­ally de­sire, he can get the best pos­si­ble help: his for­mer cab­i­net Min­is­ter is the cur­rent UN DeputySec­re­tary-Gen­eral, Amina Mo­hammed. She it was who man­aged the MDGs through its first $6bn, adopt­ing the dis­puted Mil­len­nium Vil­lages (MV) scheme of for­mer Columbia Univer­sity Pro­fes­sor Jef­frey Sachs.

Fol­low­ing a re­port in 2012 that the idea had not al­le­vi­ated poverty in Africa, Ms. Mo­hammed wrote a re­but­tal in the Huff­in­g­ton Post in­sist­ing that Nige­ria was “us­ing the bil­lion dol­lars per an­num that it re­ceives in debt re­lief to take this [MV] project to scale.”

Per­haps. But Nige­ri­ans would like to see the ev­i­dence-projects and doc­u­ments­demon­strat­ing that be­tween 2005 and 2015, some­one spent $10bn in ru­ral Nige­ria. If not, the epi­taph of the SDGs in Nige­ria in 2030 has al­ready been penned.

And while Mr. Buhari is in New York, he might like to know that Nige­ria House, which houses the Con­sulate-Gen­eral and the Per­ma­nent Mis­sion of Nige­ria, is on the same block; he could sleep in the place if his was re­ally a money-sav­ing lead­er­ship. If he wished to visit, which Nige­rian lead­ers never do, he could hear from his com­pa­tri­ots there, and learn a lot. For free.

Yes, there is a tide in the af­fairs of men, and it is wise not to squan­der it on empty speeches. In any event, to preach is not to prac­tice; and to pro­claim is not to per­form. • son­ala.olumhense@gmail.com •Twit­ter: @Son­alaOlumhense

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