Perspective – Tijjani Muhammad-Bande as President of 74th UN General Assembly: lessons learned and COVID-19 Updated for 2021

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Updated: March 2, 2021

“There is no African agenda, other than there is a global agenda,” explains Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly and Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the world body, in an interview with Today News Africa’s Simon Ateba at the start of his term. 

How did Muhammad-Bande live up to this statement? Reflecting on his one-year term, there are successes and challenges that shaped his legacy at the United Nations and lessons learned.

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The United Nations’ agenda as global agenda is the idea that individual country members will remember that parallel to the advocacy they’re charged with, in support of their own countries, they must remember cooperation and unifying goals is a stronger way forward for all. 

“There is no African agenda, other than there is a global agenda, and that is already embedded for all of us in the SDGs. What the SDGs push to do, and have been agreed to by all of us, and the SDGs largely synonymous for Africa with the 2063 agenda of Africa. So, no African will look at the goals and the SDGs and look at them as alien. They stick to Africa’s needs for security, unity, and for development,” Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the 74th session.

As Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (2018-2019), Mohammad-Bande also led the assembly at the onset of the Coronavirus, marking significant challenges. His plans to improve and support the United Nation’s SDG framework from a baseline that he believed he had started with might have shifted dramatically. 

The pandemic’s challenges highlighted the prevalence of poverty, weak health systems, lack of education, and sub-optimal global cooperation, exacerbating the crisis. António Guterres released the report ‘Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals’ 2020, spotlighting failures and setbacks. “Continued unevenness of progress and the many areas where significant improvement is required. As of 2019, less than half of primary and lower secondary schools in Sub-Saharan Africa had access to electricity, computers, the internet and basic hand washing facilities,” the report states. 

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande
Tijjani Muhammad-Bande

Who or what is to blame for the failed goals, promises, and financial mismanagement that exposed what we now know is a far worse state of SDG progress since the pandemic began? These failures were a work in progress, resting on the shoulders of Muhammad-Bande and all leaders that came before him. 

The results of slow and no progress in certain countries and within specific SDG areas were exposed, creating more urgency for the 74th UNGA President, a situation he might not have ever imagined he’d be facing. A lesson for future United Nations General Assembly Presidents’ not to rest the idea of projected-progress but demanding actionable proof of results, readying for the next unknown crisis. 

“The 74th Session has attracted a lot of interest. Also, affirmations from delegations and we think because of the real understanding of all countries of the importance of the United Nations and the need for us, as countries, to work together to deal with those important challenges confronting all of us,” Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the 74th session.

PRESIDENT BUHARI RECEIVES 74TH UN PRESIDENT 1 President Muhammadu Buhari receives the 74Th United Nations General Assembly President Prof Tijjani Muhammad-Bande during a courtesy visit at the State House in Abuja PHOTO; SUNDAY AGHAEZE. NOV 25 2019
PRESIDENT BUHARI RECEIVES 74TH UN PRESIDENT 1 President Muhammadu Buhari receives the 74Th United Nations General Assembly President Prof Tijjani Muhammad-Bande during a courtesy visit at the State House in Abuja PHOTO; SUNDAY AGHAEZE. NOV 25 2019

Was Muhammad-Bande able to inspire a multilateralism commitment during his term, reinforcing the 2015 General Assembly membership pledge of leaving no one behind? 

At the onset of the crisis, the reaction that seemed to happen was countries turning inward, enforcing travel bans, implementing export controls, sheltering, or blocking information from other countries. However, we also saw countries sharing ventilators and supplying PPE and masks with countries in need.

A report published, September 2020 by the International Rescue Committee “details how the absence of global leadership, insufficient funding, and lack of coordination between countries further exacerbated challenges for people within conflict settings.” The report lays out a case for a “knock-on effect” where the most vulnerable suffered due to shortcomings of multilateralism. Within the first few months of lockdown, around 15 million cases of gender-based violence were reported, 70 to 100 million people were pushed into extreme poverty, and ten of the world’s most fragile countries were on the brink of famine by the first quarter of 2021. 

It’s a very complex set of issues, set against a crisis, requiring complex solutions at warp speed.

As former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described the task of Presidents to the General Assembly, “to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.” 

Muhammad Bande, accepted this task, started with a full schedule at the beginning of his term, anticipating successful outcomes for the Climate Action Summit and the Sustainable Development Goals Summit. He prepared to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations while holding office, all opportunities to advocate for international cooperation, and the Charter’s vision. 

And although the 74th UNGA’s term was not necessarily remarkable, it’s not lost on the world that it was marked by a global pandemic, where the measure of success must take on an alternate trajectory.

However, very few people would say that Muhammad Bande was not passionate about the SDGs, fostering cooperation, and about his country, Nigeria.

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Kristi Pelzel
Kristi Pelzel
Kristi Pelzel is a Senior International Correspondent at Today News Africa, working across U.S. and African markets, based in Washington, D.C. Her expertise spans broadcast, digital, and social media communication, nested with policy research, analysis, and writing. A member of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Kristi holds a B.A. from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, California, and an M.A. from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

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