Prof Tijjani Bande is Nigeria’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative in the United Nations. A former Director-General of the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, Bande was also a Vice-Chancellor of the Uthman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto, where he rose from being a graduate assistant in 1980 to Professor in 1998. In this encounter with HANNAH OJO, he discusses Nigeria’s priorities at the United Nations, the dangers of the desperation among young Nigerians to travel abroad without asking proper questions only to be hiding from the law, among other sundry issues.
You were appointed into this position in 2017, how will you describe the present perception of Nigeria in the comity of nations here at the United Nations?
IT is a very difficult question for me to answer. Perhaps you should get that from the UN because what I have may be a subjective approach. It is subjective in that as far as I know, we are a very important member of the community here. We play our own role as Nigeria; we also have roles as a member of the African group and we also coordinate as part of other groups in the UN system. We are not a very large machine and we are also not a very small machine by the standards I can see. We are represented on all major committees; we also have a clear voice and we cultivate a good relationship with other countries, even countries we disagree with. As far as I know, we have a good reputation here.
We also play by the rules. Our issues are also important; the current issues are those of security matters; we are dealing with this collectively and we are being supported. We have worked with the African groups on almost all the issues. We have worked with others as well because we are dealing with illicit financial flows and Nigeria has been supported by other countries because it is a very important issue. In reference to the newly drawn Global Compact on migration, Nigeria played an important role in defining what should be the environment of the compact and President Muhammadu Buhari attended the negotiations. Nigeria has played an important role in the Paris Accord. So we are accorded great importance here in New York and also in Geneva.
How would you rate Nigeria’s appearance at the recently concluded United Nations 73rd General Assembly, would you say Nigeria achieved the outlined priorities? What the president of Nigeria did is what every head of state will do for her country, which is to look for her country in terms of importance to itself and its importance to the global system and present its aspirations in terms of the global agenda. One is the question of how Nigeria is addressing the current security challenges it has been facing since the last 10 years, to Boko Haram in particular. Nigeria has done well to degrade Boko Haram not only within the rules that are applicable but within the ambit of human rights and also in cooperation with neighboring countries.
Boko Haram affects Nigeria, but it also affects other countries in the sub-region; so President Buhari indicated what Nigeria has done by itself but also in collaboration with other countries, especially Niger, Chad and Cameroun. United Nations itself has committed a lot of resources and also helped in fighting the Boko Haram insurgency. Nigeria has also had an opportunity to speak about events around the world; those events included climate change, because climate change evidently has negative implications for countries in the Lake Chad region and also the question of environmental degradation and our responsibilities to the global compact on migration. Nigeria also needed to speak in relation to the right of others outside the Nigerian territory and of course, the speech of the president dealt with the problems minorities are having in Myanmar. Nigeria also had to talk about what is happening in the Korean peninsula.
Nigeria had to talk about its own views relating to the problem in the Middle East. Syria, Yemen all featured in the president’s statement at the General Assembly. Is there any commitment reached regarding the issue of illicit financial flows because it is one of the issues the president mentioned during his address to the General Assembly? There are resolutions already adopted. Norway has been a good partner, even the UK, US, and all countries have seen that this is important for us as part of our own push against corruption. President Buhari also addressed the need to expand the permanent seat membership of the Security C. Is there hope that Nigeria, taking into cognizance its size and role in the African continent, could be admitted? The president of Nigeria did not come to say Nigeria is going to have to be a member of the Security Council, but Nigeria spoke on behalf of the continent in the statement and on behalf of those excluded.
The idea that the Security Council and the UN generally cannot remain with the same structures it was established in 1945. The issue of the Security Council and Nigeria connects with the African position that Africa should have in an extended Security Council both permanent and non-permanent membership. The debate internally within Africa is ongoing as to which country should or would represent Africa when eventually that is agreed to. Of course, there is a good reason for people to hold that Nigeria, given its contribution to the UN and its own responsibilities, has shown over the years that it is a perfect candidate for any position.
The President’s statement was about the principle itself that Africa has been marginalized and needs to be represented properly within the structure of the UN, including membership of the Security Council, be it permanent or non-permanent category. What is true is that Africa and many members are getting upset because the process was launched 25 years ago and there has not been a conclusion to it and it is not clear if in the next two years, for example, that it would happen. But work is continuing, a lot of discussion is ongoing but there is an urgency that it should be done quickly.
The United States declared that it will not sign the global compact for migration, how do you think this will impact Nigeria, given the number of citizens who are migrating to other parts of the world? Countries have a right- even if we disagree with them- to take their natural position. We don’t think as a member of the United Nations, that approach is very helpful, but it is the right of any country to disagree. Nigeria is a signatory to the agreement. On migration, there are conventions and treaties as to how the people ought to be treated, so it is not about the U.S. alone, it is about other countries and Nigeria is part of the many countries affected. As you know, we are both an origin country and some people migrate to Nigeria.
There are more clarifications concerning rules as to how a human system would look like because we need to now identify the best ways we can protect migrants while also protecting the legitimate rights of countries who receive them. We are not the only country affected and we give as we receive. I am not sure how many Nigerians are affected but the problem really has to do with irregular migration. Nigeria pledged a commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and it appears we may lag behind,judging by the present agenda of the government, which has not really placed much priority on education, health and gender equality…? There is an adviser to the president dealing with that and I think they have made two reports to show progress and also see areas where they are having challenges. We are on course; we are in 2018 and we still have 12 years and if you see the success of achieving zero corruption, diversifying the economy, these things are going hand in hand. Progress is made at times quickly because certain bottlenecks are removed.
Quite a bit of our problems has to do with rules which are being redefined. If you have a policy where you do not import what you don’t need, and you stimulate growth through quality efforts locally, you don’t import goods as much as you do. There is less conflict now than there was five years ago. You can now see that it is possible that we would make the goals and also in some, we may still have made a lot of progress. No country will meet fully all the goals perhaps in all the areas, but we are dealing with 17 goals and you can see how if you pick education there is some change; you pick health, there is a bit more of collaboration now in terms of provision of health care. You talk of infrastructure, rights and justice, you can identify progress made in the last three four/five years. Should the economy improve, and the corruption battle be won, and then lesser conflicts, we are likely to achieve the goals. You mentioned education, but the present educational system is in crisis and the government has not deemed it fit to declare a state of emergency or increase budgetary allocation to the sector? I know a little about education.
Since I was a kid, the language is ‘education is in crisis’ and every time I see progress in education and people are still talking about ‘we are in crisis!’ When you talk of the number of people who have degrees and the fields in which they take degrees in from, you obviously can see that this crisis we are talking about may be exaggerated. About 10 years ago, how many people received Ph.Ds in the villages? Now in one family, there are five professors. When I was growing up maybe in my village, there was not a single person with a degree. In my own family, maybe we have how many Ph.Ds and how many professors? Still you want to say nothing has happened? But there is the argument that the present system does not give skills that students need to work in a technologically advanced world? I have heard this story for too long. This is fiction. Education is beyond a skill. I can agree we want to have a lot of people with skills, there is nothing wrong with that.
Vocational education is important but when you talk about that people come here and tell you that we are doing nothing in Nigeria and I see the very best people taken directly from our villages, bringing them to Harvard and they say here we are doing nothing, how? So, when people talk, they don’t reflect. I have spent a lot of my life in education and I have gone on strikes to improve the quality of education because it is important but when people exaggerate to say that nothing is working, all we have in Nigeria is crisis. The engineers we have that are producing have not studied here, they studied in our local schools. The mechanics are trained at home, the farmers that produced are trained at home. Therefore we can always improve. There’s been a lot of professional s moving from Nigeria to relocate to places like Canada and other places, does this not further make the brain drain scenario pathetic? When you hear this story of people leaving in droves, people are also going back in droves. You didn’t hear that one.
I live here, you don’t know what we see. So when you say people are leaving Nigeria in droves, even the young and old are also going back in droves and some are also saying ‘we have already lived here but we want to also reconnect’. Why do they want to reconnect? You don’t reconnect to a place that has nothing to offer; so people have a right to move. We make contributions in locations where we find our ourselves whether in UK, Canada or Sudan. In the same vain, we give something, we take something back. This is normal, there is nothing unusual about Nigerians being elsewhere. I have seen other people from somewhere else in Nigeria before coming here. But there have been recent reports of doctors leaving in droves; does this not pose grave concern to the health sector? This idea that the only important person is the doctor is again a fixation. If you say people are leaving, it is the right of people to move. Doctors leave if they think it’s a trade they want to sell, they still remain Nigerians. There are Nigerian traders leaving to go to places like Ghana and South Africa, they are also important people. You’ve not even asked me how many teachers leave and I don’t think doctors are more important than teachers. This is the whole issue of how our debate is coloured.
Nigerians leave for other parts of the world. Some Nigerians are teachers, some are traders, farmers, whatever their professions, they are Nigerians and if they leave, they take something to where they go to and also hope they bring something back when they return. If they chose not to return, that is still their rights. Nigeria is not going to fold just because we train 1,000 doctors and 100 leave. We’ll remind them that ‘we trained you’! That is the fact! If they chose to stay at home, they operate within the context of Nigeria as it is. If you are going to say Nigeria has failed because the hospitals here are better, that is a completely different argument, but Nigerian doctors leave if they trained further and they have something to offer here, it is good. If they also agree to come back to do something, that is also good. We are the first to take pride in our nationals anywhere in the world but what we will not take is anybody, including Nigerians who find themselves here, to think that they left bad places, it is not acceptable. In the area of gender equality, the World Bank reports that Nigeria has one of the highest gender gaps in the world. In politics, women also appear to be missing in parliament compared to a country like Rwanda? I think there is no question that we have less representation of females in parliament. We have educated women and we’ve even had a woman as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and they are in all the most important courts of the land. In business, especially in the informal sector, at times women even out-number men.
There may be some cultural factors involved but there may not be explicit disconnection as far as the laws are concerned. Even in the army, NDA has been opened to women and several Nigerian women are involved in peace keeping missions. We could do certainly more to improve the ratio, but it is something that is a social matter. In politics, it may be easier when we have less by-laws in our politics. It is much easier for women to really show more interest and compete when there is less violence in campaigning and what have you. Some part of Nigeria has done a bit better than others at the national level. At the local level, women politicians have played important roles. I do not know what the percentage is now in the National Assembly and we are glad that Rwanda is doing well but its own history is different from ours. When it comes to peace issues, women have played extremely important roles in Rwanda, more than many countries, and they have used that as a basis, which is very good, and we hope that other countries are able to lessen the gap.
But it appears the Nigerian government has demonstrated commitment to gender equality, especially as it relates to political appointment? It is not true to say we have not shown commitment. The Nigerian government has given extremely important positions to women. When it comes to the composition of the cabinet, these are political decisions. At times, may be in the campaigning, the contribution people make may determine in certain respect… but nonetheless, Nigeria has a ministry dealing with Women Affairs that is also pushing in the same direction. In the education system in some parts of the country, women even out-number men. In some parts, women have less showing as they go up the ladder and these are challenges that people are addressing in different parts of the country. The UN launched a Youth Strategy; do you think young people bent on leaving the country in search of greener pastures can key into that? There are those who also came here and ran back but you have not read their accounts? People read the media, they have internet, and they have ideals about what it is to be outside Nigeria. So some have tried to come here, and some have come here and decided it is not worth their while and have decided to go back home.
Some have stayed and wished they could go back but couldn’t. I’m not talking to you in abstract. I have sat with a lot of young people in my life around many parts of the world, with some regretting that they have taken that route. When you run into anybody running from the law, there is nothing so demeaning because even if somebody slaps you, you can’t slap the person back because the first thing they’ll ask you is your papers. So when people want to come, it’s good to come legally. Let them ask the proper questions about the rules and the requirements because you want to come here and live in dignity. It’s painful when young people don’t understand this thing because they come here, and they are hiding. Should they hide like rats? That is why it is good for people to have information and NAPTIP is helping with that. You’ve had robust experience as an academia and now you are here at the United Nations as a diplomat, can you trace how the journey has been for you? I tried to avoid any reference to myself.
For me it is still one service, the rules may differ a bit but it is service first to the nation. As a university teacher, you frame your mission because you are dealing with some kind of truths and you taught because you felt teaching was extremely important. I still have not left the platform because I have permanent interest in ensuring that when we produce students, we produce to the world. I tell my students, I am not producing for my village, I want to make sure that if you get a B.Sc in History, that B.Sc in History can be recognized anywhere in the world. I did not see myself in the category of the local teacher, I saw myself at the very best possible and my colleagues in the university will tell you that is how I operated. Being a vice-chancellor was an aside; you had to do it because someone has to administer the university, the main task was really to be a teacher. You taught, you supervised, you fought government to improve the conditions; you fought the community who claimed that you are for the village alone. You fought government to change policy, you respected government and prayed for it to be better, so it is not different with work here.
The different thing I will say is that you don’t do the work at the UN without knowledge, you don’t go to meetings and just sit down. You have to be willing to learn and if you see something different that is also important, you’ll have to say yes, we should learn from this. So, the context varies a bit because the sub cultures are a bit different. You have a bit more leeway as a university person to talk the way you want to but here, you have to be mindful of the conventions of various countries. Was there a personal experience that made you decide to be a teacher? No, I just wanted to be a teacher; all my life I thought it was important to learn. I was born in a school compound, I know about teaching, so it was something I wanted to do. When I was a student, there were only five universities in the country; now I don’t think there are less than 200. So, you can see when people say there is no progress, I ask ‘what are you talking about’? It was an important thing to do and we really wanted to help develop the country through knowledge. Education was critical in the idea that you left your village and embrace something that is quite larger and your friendship and relationships embrace the nation and you find yourself difficult to talk as if it’s only your place that matters.