Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari gives his address at the 71st UN General Assembly, at UN Headquarters New York, New York September 20, 2016
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari gives his address at the 71st UN General Assembly, at UN Headquarters New York, New York September 20, 2016

The United Nations hosts a General Assembly annually for the world’s leaders to discuss pressing matters related to counter-terrorism, human rights, the environment, and an exhaustive list of other issues. Most important for the nations to discuss this year are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 which aims to end poverty by 2030.

Held at the UN Headquarters in New York, New York, United States, on Tuesday leaders from 193 member states gathered for the first plenary session of the assembly. In attendance were African leaders including Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, South Africa‘s President Jacob Zuma, newly re-elected President Edgar Lungu of Zambia, and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Nigeria

President Buhari had already asserted at the assembly that about 600,000 refugees from Nigeria are in bordering countries, while Nigeria is dealing with over 2 million displaced residents in country because of the extremist armed group – Boko Haram.

He had more to say during his opening address at the General Assembly. In regards to the terrorist group, Buhari said Boko Haram is “degraded” and reduced to planning attacks with poorly produced IEDs against “soft targets.” The significant progress the military has made in reducing Boko Haram territory has been internationally recognized. However, the manner in which Nigeria detains, children, women, and men allegedly connected to the militant group remains a great cause for concern.

“Nigerian military forces have arbitrarily arrested at least 20,000 people, including children as young as 9” (2016 Report – Children Detained As National Security Threats, Human Rights Watch).

In regards to Nigeria’s technical recession Buhari said: “Nigeria as a developing country has been adversely affected by the global economic downturn. We are, however, undeterred and have embarked on a wide range of reforms in our efforts to diversify our economy and shift emphasis to mining, agriculture, industrialization, infrastructure development and the creation of the enabling environment for Foreign Direct Investment”.

On the environmental front, the president mentioned his administration’s commitment to clean up Ogoniland, an area in the Niger Delta that has felt the extreme effects of lack of environmental oversight, with private companies not cleaning up repeated oil spills. Buhari said that these companies will have to commit to their “social responsibilities and contribute to cleaning up the environment.”

In addition, no Buhari speech could be completed without reference to his ant-corruption campaign, he said, “Nigeria calls on member states that are yet to sign up to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) to do so. Nigeria will continue to advocate for the facilitation of the recovery of illicit financial assets. Indeed, the speedy and unconditional return of stolen public assets should be the focus.”

On continental matters, the president like President Zuma (South Africa) and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Egypt) among other African leaders addressed the under representation of African countries on the UN’s permanent Security Council, which boasts 15 member states total, including bigger fish like the likes of the United States, Russia and France among its five permanent members. The African countries of Angola, Egypt, and Senegal sit as non-permanent members. Africa currently lobbies for a permanent place on the council.

South Africa

In Zuma’s address to the assembly September 20, he noted that this marked the 40th anniversary of the “youth uprising against apartheid” in South Africa. To close his message:

Inclusive growth, he said, was a peace, security and prosperity imperative, but would only remain a “distant dream” if powerful nations continued to put national interests ahead of global ones.

His country remained committed to the peace and security architecture of the African Union, which had resolved that the continent must “silence its guns” by 2020, and he urged Member States to support that goal.

Beyond Africa, the conflict in Syria bore the “hallmarks of the failure of a regime change agenda”, and questioned whether the United Nations and the Security Council were still fit for their purpose of acting in collective interest rather than that of a few States. His country would continue calling for a transformation of the Organization and the Council in particular to ensure Africa’s representation. “One billion people cannot continue to be denied a voice,” he said. (General Debate of the 71st Session Gadebate.un.org)

Despite his remarks Zuma has been accused of weakening the rule of law in South Africa. He has also been accused of evading criminal prosecution, including his suspicious connections to an arms deal.

Zambia

A topic not far from everyone’s mouths was the issue of migration, instability, and climate change in regions such as Africa. Newly re-minted Lungu co-chaired a round table discussion Monday, September 19, with the President of Slovenia, Borut Pahor. The heads of state addressed the drivers of migration, particularly large movements while highlighting the positive contribution of migrants.

The Zambian president was just sworn in after a controversial election last Tuesday. Despite high levels of economic growth in the past decade, corrupt governing practices leave millions of Zambians in severe poverty. The judicial system is weak and falls short in unbiased enforcement of the law, undermining anti-corruption efforts. Corruption is also a major obstacle and deterrent to foreign investment.

Zimbabwe

The ailing dictator President Mugabe is making his last UN speech as head of state today.

With 90% of citizens polled not feeling free to criticize President Mugabe (Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI), a Harare-based research and polling organization July 2015). Mugabe is expected to still spur on his conspiracy theories of the western world vs Zimbabwe/African nations. This has become one of his frequent talking points.

GDP in country represents only .02 of the world economy (Trading Economics), Zimbabwe also has a highly speculative credit rating, and the refugee and migrant crisis is at an all time high. Mugabe continues to say the “powerful few” are fueling Zimbabwe’s downward spiral.

According to Zimnews.net, “many have cited advanced age and rapidly deteriorating health as the reason for Mugabe’s ‘soon to be announced retirement’”.

barack obama
United States President Barack Obama waits in the speaker’s chair prior to giving his opening address at the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, September 20, 2016.

President Barack Hussein Obama takes his last stand

The first elected United States president from African descent (Kenya) gave his last UN address as president at this year’s assembly.

In his speech he stressed that the United States could not solve the world’s problems alone. Other points of the speech included the successes of his administration including pulling the United States out of a financial catastrophe (2008 recession). This had a direct effect on boosting the global economy. He further opined that the United States was key in Iran disarming most of its nuclear program and lauded opening relations with Cuba.

However, with successes came setbacks, youth unemployment in the United States is still at 10.8%. The European Union is still bouncing back from Brexit and reeling from an unrepresented influx of migrants and refugees. The Middle East is still in conflict, despite the two longest wars known to man conducted under the auspices of the U.S. (Iraq 2003-2001, Afghanistan 2001-2014).

Obama also mentioned censoring the flow of information as an act of injustice against journalists but the Patriot Act is still a pervasive law that allows for the breach of privacy (the NSA is allowed to spy on US citizens and foreigners).

Obama concluded his speech by noting how inspired he was by youth and young “entrepreneurs, activists, and soldiers” in the United States and different parts of the world.

As the leaders continue to attend sessions to best strategize how to carry out global development goals and bridge connections between member states I wonder how disconnected they are from actually reaching their goals.

The middle to lower-income classes globally are continually disenfranchised by a political élite that is not necessarily connected to our issues. With increased student debt in the Western world, with some conflict areas having complete lack of access to higher education, and increasing youth unemployment it seems the development goals could not be reached fast enough.

Conflicts have forced the highest number of migrants in world history out of their homelands. I wonder with these complex issues if the 71st UNGA has moved us any further into a world of peace, economic stability, justice, and lack of malfeasance.