What I will do as UN General Assembly president —Bande
Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Professor Tijjani Muhammed Bande, has assumed office as the President of the 74th United Nations General Assembly following his recent unanimous election. In this interview by LEON USIGBE in his New York office, he speaks about his priorities and challenges in the new position.
Congratulations sir on your election as the President of the 74th United Nations General Assembly. I believe this is a proud moment for us as Nigerians. Tell me, what does this mean to you and for Nigeria?
Well, thank you very much for the expression of goodwill. Let me start with the question of what it means for Nigeria. I think that, one, it is important for Nigeria to further prove to those who have doubts that Nigeria is a very important member of the international community and can give leadership to the world organisation and to other organisations. We will work not only as Nigeria but the position is a position for the African continent. And we will also show in the way we conduct the 74th session that Africa is a responsible member of the global community and will give a good account of itself during its stewardship of the Assembly. For me, personally, certainly, I am very grateful that I have the privilege because it is a privilege to be nominated first by my President and also get the assent of all African states and thereafter, the international community represented at the United Nations General Assembly.
What will be your priority during your tenure as the president?
I think our priorities are priorities set in that we have looked at the already agreed to, Sustainable Development Goals or the 2030 agenda by which the international community at the level of the General Assembly, the United Nations generally are committed to the notion of leaving no one behind and transforming the world regardless of location, and those goals are all-encompassing and am working to deepen the implementation of those goals. In particular, the focus is poverty eradication, climate action, quality education and inclusion.
Now, for the United Nations, it can be taken for granted that every Presidency will deal with the issue of peace, and peace, of course, is a permanent matter in terms of prioritisation and of course, conflict issues are also important to resolve.
Specifically, how will these your ideas be of benefit to Nigeria as a country?
Well, the ideas are not for Nigeria. The ideas are for all countries. But let us pick say climate action. President Muhammadu Buhari in the last several years has been drumming the notion in all fora of the importance of climate action, especially in our region. The conflict we have seen especially around North-East which affects not only Nigeria but other countries as well are driven largely by climate issues. So, if we are able as a global community to pull together to address climate action in terms of the implementation of the Paris Agreement in 2015, in terms of including mitigation and financing, I think a lot will benefit Nigeria and the region.
If we talk about say, quality education, of course, it is very obvious, the importance of education for all girls and we have a large number of out of school children in Nigeria which must be reduced. In fact, it must be brought to zero because something like education connects to almost everything of importance. So, this is just along with the two. All others are equally important for Nigeria and what we have done was to use the already agreed goals to deepen them. All that we are talking about are issues that are also very much in line with the agenda of the African Union 2063, the platform for Africa’s development. That one also is very closely allied to the 2030 agenda. So, at a go, we deal with issues that are important to nations; they are important to regions of the world; they are important to us all.
What can you do to make sure that the United Nations becomes more involved in eradicating the Boko Haram conflict in the North-East of Nigeria?
The United Nations is but a partner to Nigeria and to the countries of the region most directly affected by the conflict and by the terrorism. It is a partner because it has been well recognised that terrorism affects us all and hardly national. The Boko Haram issue is clear. It’s not about Nigeria’s North East; it is about Nigeria; it is about Cameroon; it is about the Niger Republic and there are fears also that other terror groups are trying to find a common cause with Boko Haram elements. So, the global community as represented by the United Nations, the Security Council had a visit to the North-East during the Presidency of Britain (United Kingdom) at the time, which was very important. The whole Council undertook that trip to underscore the importance of dealing with terrorism at the level of the United Nations. The Security Council, which has primary responsibility for these matters, was there. But again, it is an issue of partnership. The United Nations is not the sole body that should do this. Nations are also doing their best. You have seen the multi-national Joint Task Force; the efforts they have undertaken have really helped and the Nigerian military has also been at the heels of the group; the same with the militaries of other neighbouring states. So, the question as to the responsibility of the United Nations is, one, to help in whatever way it can, including helping to bring partnership that will certainly bring the conflict to an earlier end. But all countries in the region are doing very well. Equally important rather, they are also coordinating their efforts. That coordination of efforts by the states in the region. I think it is equally important.
Nigeria has been pushing for a permanent place in the Security Council. How will your appointment advance that?
My Presidency will advance, in cooperation with all member states, the quicker and fairer conclusion to the process. The process has been ongoing for a long time. It has taken too long. It is a difficult one but this is the commitment of the United Nations expressed by the heads of state and government. So, all we can do is to continue to work, occasionally, the divide; how the reform will take place in terms of what is really the optimum number that can work without too much bureaucracy but will still be effective and representative. Next is the question whether we will retain the veto (power) of countries or whether new members will have veto. These are some of the issues that are being discussed. So, Nigeria as you know is operating under the AU and the AU has a consensus relating to that reform and that is one group. There are many other groups or groupings who have other ideas. What is interesting is that by and large, no group has come out to oppose the African position and each group recognises that Africa is the most left out of all the major regions in the world in terms of membership of Council. Now, of course, we have three non-permanent members of the council. They tried their best to coordinate African position but still in terms of permanent representation, there isn’t any for the continent.
Politically and diplomatically, the role of the President of UNGA is seen as more complex because of the disagreement among the permanent members of the Security Council. How will you stop this from impacting negatively on the Assembly’s ability to deliver to member states?
I think that you are right that there is a momentary division in terms of reaching agreement on some matters at the Council. This is not completely new but it is still nonetheless worrisome if there is a stalemate, especially when making important decisions where lives, especially of the vulnerable, are involved. That is a big issue. How do we deal with Syria or how do you deal with Iraq? What are the issues? These ones are vitally important. Yet, the Security Council is but one body within the United Nations system. It has a very important position or power but it is part of the whole system of the United Nations and as an organ just like the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. The General Assembly must seek collaboration and cooperation of all other organs and the General Assembly is better suited for outreach to others because it has the membership of all and what we need to do is to continue to urge members to, one, remember the purposes of the organisation and see also what is clear. Just imagine what will be the case of the world were there to be no United Nations! And therefore, this moral suasion is important. We need to continue to work with Council members, especially those who have deep disagreement to narrow their gap of disagreement so that more can be done faster, especially in cases where a lot of people are dying or are facing the threat of death because of squabbles in the Council. But I think conversations are still ongoing and more directly, the General Assembly will continue to reach out to all other organs so that we do not send a message that we are not able to resolve issues even if they are clearly urgent. I think that is what we have to do.
Recently, there was a report that China will fund your office. Tell me about it and what is the disposition of the other permanent members of the Security Council to this idea?
You see, it is true that China has given support to the PGA74 but I think people misunderstand this matter. China and all other countries have been written to as it is the tradition, to help fund the office because the office is funded by contributions voluntarily made by members states who see the priorities of a presidency as important. China has supported many causes of the United Nations. It has funded more than what it has given us. And in terms of financial contributions, China has been very consistent in giving money but it is not necessarily the largest contributor to the fund. But the support of China is welcome, the support of countries. Even Libya has given support but nobody has reported that Libya is funding the Presidency. Libya has funded. Libya was one of the first to say ‘this is an African Presidency. We want to show that this is ours.’ Algeria is giving something, Morocco is giving something, India has given a hundred thousand dollars; Morocco has given US$50,000; Hungary is giving US$60,000. What I’m saying is that, when people report, they should understand a bit first that the notion that one country alone is not involved. Nigeria is also going to fund. Probably, the largest contributor is Nigeria. But I am not going to be the president of the General Assembly to do Nigeria’s work. Every support is given and the funds so given is not managed by my office. It is managed under the normal rules of the United Nations organisation. I don’t control the funds. So, I think it is important for this to be understood. China’s support is welcome. China’s support was not given to me as a condition as President to do anything because it is even not possible. There is no single country that can get the Assembly to go in one direction because we are talking of 193 members, each one has an equal vote. So, all countries are equal in the General Assembly. Some are better able to support particular priorities than others. But there are no pre-conditions. This is just to support the work of the UN in the General Assembly. Qatar has given; UAE has given several times. Other countries have also lined up and in the next three weeks, we will even know how many will give and for how much. As we speak, several others have also contributed to the fund.
You have been strong on gender equality. Are you satisfied with the progress made by the Nigerian government or you think there is much more to be done for instance in the area of key government appointments?
Let me just be clear. I am strongly in support of inclusion. This inclusion is not just gender equity, it is also class issue because there are many basis around which some people are excluded. At times, it is because of the language they speak; at times, it is because of the religion they profess; at times, it is because they are poor; at times, it is because they are of a particular gender. We want to make sure that human beings are treated with the dignity they deserve as human beings regardless of whether they are men, women, young or old, what language or religion they profess, what region of the world. This is a fundamental principle. Now, in relation to women, it is particularly important to raise it as a very important priority. Women constitute roughly one half of humanity and nowhere in the world as we speak now that women are completely equal to men in access to power and resources. We are very happy when we hear that our sister country, Rwanda having women parliamentarians all over. That is important but the next task in that country and also others is to equally see the economic power of women. And in the case of Nigeria, fundamental to this is first of all, let us guarantee that women go to school as far as they wish to just like men. It has happened in many places and in some places, men are going to school far less than others, including Nigeria. What we have to work out is to guarantee especially rural women have less burdensome responsibilities in the home front and they are able to do even more things for themselves and for their community and for our nation in aggregate.
Now, in terms of power, we have made progress in relation to the judiciary. In the judiciary, women move in the same phase as men. We don’t have as many women judges as we have men judges but there is progress there. We even have a Chief Justice (President, Court of Appeal) that is female. But again, in the General Assembly, we have done more.
Go beyond political! In the economy, is there a resurgence or a new push for women to have more economic resources in relation to the men? So, there is a lot of improvement in the issue of gender in Nigeria but the laws as they are basically fair. There are some bottlenecks but in the main, some bottlenecks are cultural that the government as a government will just try to work with communities, local governments, and religious organisations to unblock some of these cultural practices. Yes, there is a lot more we should do to guarantee more equality and to also commit to at least the Beijing (Conference) principle of 35 per cent by whatever means we are able to do this.