President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is expected to address world leaders at the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting on Monday. The annual high-level general debate of the UNGA is slated to commence on September 18, 2023. Some of the issues on the front burner include climate change, poverty and food insecurity, wars and humanitarian needs, as well as deepening inequality.
The General Assembly is the main legislative body of the United Nations; and in his maiden address to world leaders, President Tinubu will speak on the first day. He is slated as the 14th speaker out of the 20 world leaders to speak on the first day and would be the 5th African leader to mount the platform for his five to 15 minutes presentation, after the presidents of South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Mozambique.
With the theme, “Rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity: Accelerating action on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals towards peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability for all, there are expectations that President Bola Tinubu, as head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will speak on the spread of military coups in West Africa during his presentation.
However, the president’s speech will likely be the least problem for Nigeria’s diplomats in the US and the country’s UN permanent representative who are hoping that this year’s delegation will be lean, to avoid the barrage of embarrassments faced in the past.
This is despite President Tinubu’s recent directive to bar federal government officials with no specific roles from participating in the New York meeting.
The president, through his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Ajuri Ngelale, had directed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to freeze the processing visas for all government officials seeking to travel to New York for this year’s UNGA’s scheduled activities.
“To prevent any sharp practice in this regard, the US Mission in Nigeria is, accordingly, guided on official visa processing while Nigeria’s Permanent Mission in New York is further directed to prevent and stop the accreditation of any government official, who is not placed on the protocol lists forwarded by the approving authority,” the statement from Ngelale noted.
A former diplomat who served in Washington described the president’s move as worthy of commendation. He said when followed strictly, the orders will save the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from a lot of embarrassment.
“The theme of each year’s UNGA and issues to be discussed at the event should ordinarily determine the president’s delegation,” he said.
Also speaking, an Associate Professor of Political Sociology, Abubakar Kari said the directive was in order and commendable. “Over the years, Nigeria stormed the UNGA with the largest contingent, comprising mainly persons who had no business being there, but to whom UNGA was an opportunity to jet out and unwind –like some jamboree,” he said.
Kari described the penchant for Nigeria to send large delegations to the event as unacceptable and indefensible, saying restricting the trip to essential and relevant staff is in order and a major departure from the past.
“It is a clear indication that the present government will not toe the profligate line of its predecessors. Tinubu should ensure that his directives are strictly and fully carried out,” he said.
But the president’s directives had failed to look at the role of state governors who also troop into New York with large delegations, sometimes to meet with the president.
Having served as a diplomat under Nigeria’s democratic dispensation, the ex-diplomat said several governors who may find it challenging to meet with the president in Nigeria find ways to meet with him abroad. “Some of them travel under the cover of delegation,” he said.
He explained that the UN is made up of several committees, which are very active during the General Assembly, adding that the interest of each country on the issues discussed by committees should ordinarily determine the delegation to accompany the president.
“For example, with the situation in Niger, there could be a committee on democracy and governance. So, Nigeria would want to speak with that committee and express its concern about the spread of military coup in West Africa.”
The ex-diplomat, however, said that in a typical Nigerian style, several federal ministries often use the opportunity to travel for the event, accruing huge expenditure for the country to cater for their accommodations and other upkeep.
“Ideally, it should be a Ministry of Foreign Affairs issue and only two to three departments are involved: the first and second UN departments and the multilateral department. These are the principal actors who are in charge of all the issues to be discussed at the Assembly,” he said.
But overtime, Nigeria’s delegation became large because “when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs submits a budget for that purpose, of course the Ministry of Planning would say they have to be factored, finance will say they have to be factored, environment will say there are issues of environment, and so, they will want to be there. This has overtime contributed to the increase in the number of delegations,” he said.
He admitted that though some ministries were clearly justified to attend the event, they should drastically shorten the list of their participants.
The many embarrassments at UNGA
Nigeria’s ex-diplomat to Washington said the president was expected to travel with his key staff.
“For the General Assembly, it is expected that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the state chief protocol, personal physician and domestic staff would travel with him. He may decide to go with the First Lady, and she will also take a few of her staff,” he said.
He said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have the director of UN department and the director, multilateral, as well as specialists on issues that would be discussed.
“If Niger Republic would be discussed, the president could ask the ambassador from there to join. And as the president of ECOWAS, someone from there can join, then a few peace and Security Council members. But this had not been the case in the past,” he said, adding that Nigeria’s large delegation, including state governors had in the past caused accreditation and accommodation problems.
He said that in some instances, state governors hijacked the accommodations meant for other delegates. “Sometimes we had to revolt against it before the president even got his. You would find governors, businessmen, politicians and all sorts of characters.
“Imagine if every state would send a delegation; and the minimum delegation a state governor comes with is 10 persons because he will attend with his aides, commissioners and personal assistants.
“The manifestation of the embarrassment is that you see Nigerians looking for accreditation and they don’t have anything to do. Everyone wants to get the permit by putting pressure on the permanent mission that there is no accreditation,” he said.
He further explained that two ex-governors from the South-South had, during the Goodluck Jonathan administration, arrived with a large delegation, which he said became embarrassing and problematic for accreditation.
But Associate Prof Kari said governors had no business at UNGA and should not travel to New York aside a select few that may be included in the official delegation.
“Their presence is totally needless, unwarranted and can only translate into mindless frittering away of scarce and precious public funds for nothing,” he said, adding that anyone who wants to see the president should devise other cheaper and reasonable ways of meeting him.
Jonathan, Buhari started trimming process
This newspaper gathered that sanitising Nigeria’s delegation for the UNGA started under the Goodluck Jonathan administration as he took interest in trimming down the number of delegates that accompanied him to the event.
The ex-diplomat who served in Washington said at that time, Nigeria’s delegation could be between 200 and 300. “It was like a bazaar because the event spreads over a period of three months,” he added.
He said there were times the president met a very large group waiting for him at his accommodation, adding that the situation gave the feeling that Nigerians had trooped into New York for celebration.
“Goodluck Jonathan made it clear that he didn’t want too many people at the event. There was a time he came and saw a governor and he was surprised and asked what he was doing there. There was a time he (Goodluck Jonathan) went with only 12 people,” he said.
Things had become largely sanitised between 2014 and 2015 during the tail end of the Jonathan administration.
“Part of the reason was due to scarcity of funds,” he said, adding that the immediate past President Muhammadu Buhari had also frowned at the way Nigerians turned the UNGA into a bazaar, by ensuring that only those with primary roles and responsibilities attended.
“To be fair, since Buhari came in, the system had been sanitised to a certain extent. The delegation is the function of the president, and because he is the one that approves all the funds, he can indicate his interest of not wanting a large delegation.”
He, however, said that even with the intervention of President Tinubu at the moment, Nigeria would have a manageable delegation, but added it would nonetheless be larger than normal when compared with many other countries with good traditions.
“It is a good thing that we have a minister. If the cabinet hadn’t been formed, it would have been free-for-all. The minister would be on the watch out and should be able to identify those with the key responsibility,” he said.