Let me first thank profusely the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, and all its partners for the invitation to participate in this very timely UN 75 E-Consultation.
It is commendable that this consultation is focusing on collating the views of a diversity of voices on the critical contextual issues of the “Africa We Want, and the United Nations We Need.” The pedestal on which these deliberations have been placed, I am convinced offers a very unique opportunity for citizens and institutions across Africa to look inwards in order to move forward with the push for reforms within the United Nations. Put another way, these consultations provide the platform to reflect on where we are as societies in Africa, even before we pontificate on what shape the United Nations take.
At its founding, the United Nations was driven by certain ideals, which formed the basis for countries around the world to look inwards and make their societies better. As would be gleaned from the preamble of the UN Charter, it articulated the commitment of states to uphold the human rights of citizens. The Charter also outlines a broad set of principles relating to achieving ‘higher standards of living’, addressing ‘economic, social, health, and related problems. For us, these commitments and principles are supposed to diffuse into our national realities on the ground. Those objectives are therefore meant to serve the role of a compass giving us a direction on how to govern our societies within the context of a global best practice. Therefore, the UN was not set up as a talk shop or a multilateral body where nations should merely go and peddle influence or push their foreign policy objectives. This unique global institution could be likened to a mirror from which we can look at ourselves as societies and reach important conclusions on whether we are working towards the realization of those ideals.
I will assert, based on practical experiences as a civil society activist in the frontlines of the struggles for democratic and accountable governance in Nigeria, that the thinking of most African leaders with regards to the reform of the UN has been dominated by an attitude, which discountenances the need for internal reforms within African countries. The African States, congregating through multilateral continental bodies like the African Union have clearly not done enough to derive the legitimacy from their own people with which they would mount a strategic push for a reform of the UN. The key questions of justice and fairness remain unanswered by the leadership in Africa.
This detachment from the ideals, which should be at the heart of any push for reforms has accounted for many mishaps. This is why in the pursuit of the reform of the UN; African leaders have largely put the cart before the horse. In this regard, there is more emphasis on the global optics provided by the yearly congregation at the UN, than in the push for just, equal, and egalitarian African societies. The quality of content and character of the UN would only be determined by the quality of the states, which make up its membership. Therefore, if the UN we want must be just, inclusive, and respectful of diversity, the Africa we need must necessarily reflect those values of inclusion, justice, fairness, and egalitarianism. This is the only legitimate basis on which the reform of the UN can be pursued by African leaders, without the moral burden of urging the global body to practice what the African States themselves are not practicing.
The Africa we need is one in which every citizen has a voice and one in which the democratic process does not stifle the voices of the people. As long as the Africa States continue to constrain the capacity of their citizens for democratic self-expression, they will keep undermining the basis for not only better and stable African societies, they will also make a mockery of any ideas they put forward for reforms and inclusion in the United Nations.
Strengthening the democratic process as a key basis of the Africa we need, and the UN we want
The critical place of democracy in bringing about the Africa we need, and the inclusive UN we want, cannot be overemphasized. It would appear that the vast majority of the people of Africa have tried to embrace democracy as the vehicle for the realization of their developmental aspirations. However, the faith of African citizens in the democratic process is increasingly being eroded by the subversion of the process by the ruling elites. Part of the challenge of democracy in Africa is that the political elite has corrupted and derailed the potentials of the democratic process to bring about stability and good governance. Nigeria presents a clear case of this paradox in which what should have been a democratic, prosperous, and stable system has been misdirected and the voices of citizens completely stifled.
After the advent of Nigeria’s democratic dispensation in 1999, a wave of optimism swept through the camp of pro-democracy campaigners. The feeling of optimism was spurred by the notion that the democratic process would offer citizens the voice, and the space to be a part of the decision-making process after many years of military rule. Unfortunately, those hopes were quickly dashed. As things stand today, democracy in Nigeria is defined more by the level of notoriety for barefaced electoral malfeasance, and the subversion of the will of the people. The projection of the optimists was that the country would go on to build on the foundation started in 1999 has proved to be misplaced.
Over two decades after the advent of democracy therefore, discussions remain fixated on how to clean up the electoral process. Ironically, in the face of the elite assault to undermine the democratic process, there have been very few serious attempts from a continental perspective through a body of African leaders like the African Union to take decisive corrective measures. The efforts of pro-democracy campaigners in speaking truth to power and calling for the sanctity of the vote do not get enough support from the continental body like the AU. This could have helped put pressure on authoritarian leaders, who are bent on short-circuiting the democratic process. This, in turn, produces an authoritarian climate, which is very much intolerant of any process involving democratic accountability.
So too is the trend in some African states to selectively choose, which court orders to obey, the unlawful detention of voices of dissent, and the moves to regulate platforms that support free speech. In recent times, especially in countries like Nigeria, the abridgments of citizens’ rights constitute some of the clear and present dangers to democracy, the rule of law, and orderly governance.
Therefore, the reality is that as an African leader in one country undermines the democratic process, the continental body is largely quiet thereby tacitly supporting acts orchestrated by the political elite to take away the voice of citizens. The result is that politicians in many African states wield political power without the countervailing role played by citizens to ensure democratic accountability. This again points us to the challenge of the rule of law in Africa; there are still many African leaders who carry on with the notion that might is right and refuse to subject themselves to the dictates of the law.
And because citizens have been largely denied the opportunity to reflect their voices in decision making and in choosing those who lead them, the state is constantly dealing with serious challenges to its authority. As would be seen in the case of Nigeria, the capacity of the state to hold together the plurality of interests has been severally undermined by antics, which constrain the capacity of the citizen to get his and her voice heard in the democratic process.
This is not the kind of Africa we need. And this kind of Africa, which deflates the power and capacity of citizens cannot contribute meaningfully to the realization of the UN we want. An Africa, whose leaders would have to be hauled regularly before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on account of wrongdoing, and serious abuse of citizens’ rights because the institutions here in Africa do not have what it takes to dispense justice, can neither create the Africa we need nor the UN we want. The focus of African states as they look forward to reforming the UN, therefore, should be for them to reform themselves. Structurally, African states urgently need to evolve key institutions which are enduring, and which allow the plurality of the voices in the nation-space to be heard. This needs to be a critical precursor to the reform of the UN. It is a much more effective process to reform the African States in order to push for the UN that is needed, instead of the UN carrying the burden of having to host weak states, which have not been able to put their houses in order.
In the light of the foregoing, my position is for African leaders to take a cue from their counterparts in the West especially, which have continued to have a lot of leverage at the UN. A good example is Great Britain, which in spite of its limitation put the question of the future of Britain in EU to the people through a referendum. The people voted to leave. As disruptive and contemptuous of international cooperation as the Brexit vote is, the legitimacy it derives from the fact that it was made by the ordinary people through the democratic process, is a major distinction. This process of democratic decision making is a reliable basis to include all voices. Therefore, African states and their leaders must stop being antagonistic to the task of deepening democracy and letting the people decide. That is the approach that will confer the respect, legitimacy, and eventually the power with which they can influence other actors in the international arena.
The African Union, beyond rhetoric and the finely written commitment to democracy and the rule of law, has a responsibility to become much more decisive in the push to stamp out actions that undermine democracy and citizen voice on the African continent. The AU must be able to summon the political will, especially in moments when democracy is challenged, to call out those leaders, no matter how powerful they are. In the face of the serious abuses, which undermine and de-legitimize the sanctity of the vote and the express choices of the people made at the ballot, the AU cannot afford to stand aside in aloofness. It must summon the courage to stand in support of African citizens everywhere fighting for the protection of their democratic rights by demanding their voices must be heard and that their votes must count.
Another key aspect which States have to work on, to bring about the Africa we need, which will, in turn, produce the UN we want relates to how ready the states are to make the welfare of the peoples of Africa the primary purpose of governance. The imperative of the welfare of the people is well enunciated in the Charter of the UN, which talks of putting in place a set of principles, which would lead to creating higher standards of living, addressing economic, social, health, and related problems. The fundamental question which we should urgently answer is: how committed are the states and leaders of Africa to these key issues? An indication of where we are as a continent may be gleaned from the report of the Washington based Brookings Institution, which in a report titled: Rethinking Global Poverty in 2019 concluded that some 70 percent of the world’s poor will live in Africa. This number is up from 50 percent five years ago. The institution further projects that by 2023, Africa’s share of the world’s poor people will rise to over 80 percent (up from 60 percent in 2016). The report goes on to recommend that for Africa to deal with poverty decisively by 2030, more than one person would have to get out of the trap of poverty every second. Unfortunately, the report notes that instead of the continent taking people out of the poverty trap, it is currently adding to the number of poor people.
Although the report mentioned that there could be opportunities with the enactment of the SDGs, the ability of the continent to take its people out of extreme poverty will very much depend on the focus and commitment of the respective states and the leaders of the continent, and their willingness to come together. African leaders seeking reforms in the UN must come to terms with these issues, which border on the welfare of citizens and evolve a system to tackle the issues from the root causes. As the leader of a civic organization that implements projects on health, education, and jobs, I can relate to how important it is to address issues of poverty, malnutrition, maternal mortality amongst others. As we speak, Nigeria according to its Ministry of Education has over 10 million of its children out of school.
Throughout Nigeria, the telltale signs of the abuse of the rights of children are everywhere to be seen. In many cities of the giant of the African continent, the systemic use of children for the purpose of forced child begging is prevalent. There can be no mincing words about the fact that the reality of having children who should be in schools out on the streets begging, represents the worst and most cruel violation of the rights of children. Yet, they too are children and citizens of a country and are indeed heirs to the global instruments, which supposedly protect their rights and dignity.
This is just one of the many issues, which border on the welfare of citizens in Africa, which the continent’s leaders have a historic duty to galvanize the people to address. It is only when the people of Africa seriously tackle these problems through the required reforms that the world will take them seriously. These reforms, which would solve these problems, are the precursors to helping Africa achieve the confidence and stature to effectively push for reform in the UN. Working to bring about the Africa we need, is a historic burden, which would lead us to achieve the UN we want. My position, therefore, is that charity should begin at home. The pursuit of UN reform is laudable; African states need to however brace up to tackle their domestic challenges. That will be the only legitimate basis to push for reforms of the UN.
Ibrahim M. Zikirullahi, Ph.D (h.c.) FICM, FIMS, FIIM, is the Executive Director of the Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civic Education (CHRICED), a Nigerian non-profit, and a knowledge-driven platform of active citizens working for the promotion of human rights, rule of law, democracy, and accountability.
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