President Muhammadu Buhari joined other world leaders in New York, United States of America, last week for the high-level events of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly.
The 193-member UN General Assembly serves as the “main deliberative, policy-making and representative organ” of the UN, even though its decisions are not legally binding.
Buhari arrived in New York on Sunday and on Tuesday addressed the General Assembly during the General Debate. The theme for this year’s debate is ‘Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet’.
Buhari has since then come under severe criticism by those who said his speech was laden with sheer hypocrisy. While he preached the gospel of peaceful engagement and dialogue abroad, they contend, the president practiced the direct opposite back home.
What Buhari told the General Assembly
In the speech that lasted 12.57 minutes, Buhari commended the UN for its role in helping to settle thousands of innocent civilians caught in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In particular, he thanked Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey for assisting refugees escaping war-torn countries and praised the international community for the exemplary show of solidarity in assisting the countries and communities in the Sahel and the Lake Chad regions to contain the threats posed by Al Qaida and Boko Haram.
Buhari thanked the Security Council for visiting the countries of the Lake Chad Basin to assess the security situation and humanitarian needs, and for pledging assistance to rebuild lives and livelihoods, and highlighted Nigeria’s efforts to provide relief and humanitarian assistance to millions of citizens displaced by terrorism, drought, floods and other natural disasters.
He mentioned the international community’s effort to promote gender equality, youth empowerment, social inclusion, education, creativity and innovation.
The president said the frontiers of good governance, democracy and the rule of law were expanding everywhere, especially in Africa, and emphasized the proactive role played by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in upholding democratic principles in The Gambia, as it had done previously in Cote D’Ivoire.
He stressed the importance of international cooperation in confronting corruption and transnational crimes such as human trafficking and urged the international community to similarly embrace cooperation in combating international terrorism and preventing the Islamic State from spreading to the Lake Chad and Sahel regions, where there are insufficient resources and weak response capacity.
“This will require strong UN cooperation with regional organisations, such as the African Union, in conflict prevention and management,” he said.
He urged the UN to continue to take primary leadership of the maintenance of international peace and security “by providing, in a predictable and sustainable manner, adequate funding and other enablers to regional initiatives and peacekeeping operations authorized by the Security Council”.
The president said new conflicts should not deflect focus on ongoing unresolved old conflicts and drew attention to unimplemented UN Security Council Resolutions on the Middle East crisis since 1967 and the continued suffering of the Palestinian people and the blockade of Gaza.
He pointed to the crises in Yemen and Myanmar, likening the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to the crises in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and pledged Nigeria’s support for the Secretary-General’s call on Myanmar to stop its ethnic cleansing of Rohingya.
In his remarks at the opening of the General Assembly on September 12, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had called on Myanmar’s government to recognize the Muslim minority’s rights in Myanmar and asked the authorities “to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law, and recognize the right of return of all those who had to leave the country”.
Similarly, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein described the actions of Myanmar’s armed forces as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.According to UNICEF, more than 400,000 Rohingya – 60 percent of them children – have fled to Bangladesh since August 25.
Buhari called attention to the widening inequalities within societies and the gap between the rich and the poor nations which, he said, “are part of the underlining root causes of competition for resources, frustration and anger leading to spiralling instability”.
He expressed concern over North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which he described as “the most pressing threat to international peace and security today”, and proposed that a strong UN delegation be urgently sent to engage the North Korean leader. He also urged all UN member states, “guided by the spirit of enthroning a safer and more peaceful world”, to ratify without delay a treaty prohibiting nuclear proliferation.
Buhari ended his remarks by reaffirming Nigeria’ commitment to the foundational principles and goals of the UN in order to bring about global peace, security and development.
Speech laden with hypocrisy
Quartz Africa, a US-based online media, in its critique of the speech cast a headline that simply said, “The anti-violence speech by Nigeria’s President Buhari at the UN was deeply ironic”.
Written by Yomi Kazeem, the article said that Buhari, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, touched on one of the world’s most pressing human rights issues – the brutal violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. It added, however, that while Buhari’s comments would appeal to Rohingyas, many Nigerians would be wondering why the president doesn’t practice similar sentiments with similar events back home.
“Back in Dec. 2015, months after Buhari took office, a skirmish between Nigeria’s military and the members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a Shiite Muslim group in Nigeria’s north, saw ‘more than 350 people’, including women and children, unlawfully killed, according to Amnesty International, the human rights group,” Kazeem wrote.
“Amnesty says the military tried to ‘destroy and conceal evidence’ of the killings. Nearly two years after the alleged massacre of the Shiite Muslims and despite a court order for his release, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the leader of the Shiite group, is still being detained by the government. Nigeria’s Muslim community is predominantly Sunni,” he said.
Kazeem also highlighted the recent criticism Buhari has faced for the way he has handled secessionist agitations from the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a group in Nigeria’s southeast.
“Last week, soldiers were deployed to the region to maintain peace but many have viewed it as a needless and brute show of force which worsened an already bad situation. The secessionist agitation is rooted in decades-long belief in the southeast that the region has been marginalized by Nigeria’s federal government. Four people reportedly died in clashes between the soldiers and IPOB,” he wrote on September 20.
Kazeem also pointed out that while Buhari was calling on the UN to be mindful of “widening inequalities within societies” which may cause “frustration and anger leading to spiralling instability”, “the over two million displaced persons in Nigeria’s northeast will likely be puzzled by the president’s sentiments given that inequality, frustration and anger are their daily realities”.
“Since being devastated by the long-running Boko Haram insurgency, displaced persons in the northeast have been forced to live in congested camps where hunger and disease are rife. Nearly half a million children in the region are severely malnourished, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. Most of the internally displaced people’s camps are underfunded by the government and officials have been accused of diverting and selling donated relief materials at local markets for personal gain,” said Kazeem.
Larry Iloh, a Brighton, United Kingdom-based Nigerian lawyer, described Buhari’s speech at the UN General Assembly as “an embarrassment”.
“He wants UN to send powerful delegation to North Korea to resolve the crisis there. He wants UN to intervene to resolve the Yemen crisis. He wants UN to intervene in the Middle East to give Palestinians their freedom. However, back home, he found it offensive and treasonable for Biafrans to demand referendum for self-determination,” Iloh said in a Facebook post.
“He reaffirmed the commitment of Nigeria to abide by the founding values of United Nations but sends the army to murder unarmed civilians in Nigeria. Is that part of the founding values of UN?” he queried.
Femi Fani-Kayode, a former aviation minister and an unrepentant critic of the Buhari administration, said the president’s speech at the United Nations was “pitiful, shameless and uninspiring” and “a cocktail of contradictions, deceit and mendacities”.
“You condemn the killing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar yet you slaughter Igbo Christians and Shiite Muslims in Nigeria and you turn a blind eye as your Salafist Fulani kinsmen and herdsmen butcher northern and southern Christians,” Fani-Kayode said.
“You declare support for the establishment of a Palestinian state yet you reject the idea of Biafra. You condemn N. Korea’s dictatorship yet you have proved to be the most ruthless dictator that Nigeria has ever known,” he said.
‘You’re on course, Mr President’
But there are also those who feel President Buhari had a successful outing at the 72nd Session of UN General Assembly on Tuesday.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), in a statement issued by his media office in Abuja on Wednesday, agreed with Buhari’s message of gratitude to the international community for their efforts in the Lake Chad region and said the president was also right to draw the UN’s attention to the sufferings of Myanmar’s Rohingya people.
“It is my sincere desire that arising from President Buhari’s speech, the UN will increase its support to Nigeria and her neighbours in the Lake Chad Region as we redouble our efforts to rid the region of the scourge of terrorism and restore peace and prosperity to a once thriving zone,” Atiku said.