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
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. • email@example.com •Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense