Ending global apartheid at the UN



SEVENTY years ago (October 24), the United Nations (UN) emerged like the mythical Egyptian phoenix from the ashes of the Second World War. The world body was born “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” African states at the UN, with their Southern, Nordic, and Soviet bloc allies, established new concepts in international law in areas related to self-determination, decolonization, the right to use force in wars of national liberation, and racial discrimination, with apartheid being declared a “crime against humanity”.

As an ally of Pax Africana, about half (29 out of 56) of the UN’s peacekeeping missions in the post-Cold War era have occurred on the continent, while 86 percent of the world body’s peacekeepers today are deployed in Africa. The UN has established sub-regional offices in West and Central Africa; two Africans – Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Ghana’s Kofi Annan – served as Secretaries-General during the critical post-Cold War years of 1992 and 2006, while Boutros-Ghali, Annan, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, and South Sudanese scholar-diplomat, Francis Deng, were involved in leading some of the most important conceptual debates on UN peacekeeping and “the responsibility to protect.” Nairobi – site of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) – remains one of only four UN headquarters around the world, along with New York, Geneva, and Vienna.

However, the UN has also practised a system of “global apartheid.” The paradox of the world body is that, while it embodies ideals of justice and equality, the power politics embodied in its structures often means that the powerful, aristocratic brahmins of international society can manipulate the system to the disadvantage of the dalits. The permanent five members of the powerful 15-member UN Security Council – America, Russia, China, France and Britain – account for 70 percent of arms sales that fuel conflicts around the globe. London, Paris, and Washington insist on drafting all the UN resolutions in 14 out of 18 African cases on the Council. Africa and Latin America remain the only major regions without veto-wielding permanent membership, and in an apartheid system of peacekeeping, Africans and Asians spill most of the blood, while Western donors pay some of the bills.

In the area of socio-economic apartheid, many of the UN’s agencies set up after 1945 to promote such issues as health, labour, refugees, agriculture, and education all had European origins. From the 1960s, African states and their allies expanded on these institutions, leading the creation of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). They sought to use these institutions to promote their own socio-economic development. But despite these efforts, powerful Western governments continue to exert their influence through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which they effectively control.

Since its independence in 1960, over 150,000 Nigerian soldiers have been deployed to international peacekeeping missions, and the country has contributed troops to about 40 major UN and regional peacekeeping missions in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Today, 3,000 Nigerian peacekeepers are deployed to UN missions in Liberia, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti, and Lebanon. This peacekeeping activism has been part of a Pax Nigeriana: Nigeria’s historical quest to pursue a hegemonic leadership role and to secure a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council. Nigeria first contributed 5,000 troops and police to the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC between 1960 and 1964. Between 1978 and 1983, the country contributed 7,000 troops to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Nigerian troops have also served on UN missions in India/Pakistan, Iran/Iraq, Iraq/Kuwait, Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, while the country deployed police contingents to Namibia, Western Sahara, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Burundi, Bosnia, Haiti, East Timor, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

Between 1962 and 1972, the legendary statesman, Simeon Adebo, served with distinction as Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the UN, and then as Executive Director of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Adebayo Adedeji was Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa between 1975 and 1991, establishing sub-regional integration bodies in West, East, and Central Africa, while fighting a titanic, but ultimately unsuccessful, battle against the World Bank and IMF’s destructive Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in Africa. Three Nigerians have served as Special Representatives of the UN Secretary-General: Ibrahim Gambari (Angola and Darfur); Olu Adeniji (Central African Republic [CAR] and Sierra Leone); and Margaret Vogt (CAR). Six Nigerians have also served as UN Force Commanders: Johnson “Ironside” Aguiyi-Ironsi (the Congo); Chris Alli (Angola); Chikadibia Obiakor (Liberia); Joseph Owonibi (Liberia); Martin Luther Agwai (Darfur); and Moses Bisong Obi (South Sudan). Today, two Nigerians currently head UN agencies: Kanayo Nwanze (the International Fund for Agricultural Development), and Babatunde Osotimehin (the UN Population Fund).

Nigeria’s permanent representatives to the UN, Ibrahim Gambari (1990-1999) and Joy Ogwu (since 2007) also chaired the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations. Since 1991, Nigeria has pushed for permanent membership on an expanded UN Security Council (Abuja is currently completing a two-year stint on this body), arguing that the Council must reflect the world’s geographical diversity, include states that are contributing pivotally to maintaining international peace and security, and involve powers that have economic potential and demographic strength.

Nigeria also hosted a UN Anti-Apartheid Conference in Lagos in 1977, and served as chair of its special committee against apartheid until it was disbanded in 1994. It is thus appropriate to end with an acknowledgment of the significance of this struggle. In a speech at the UN to commemorate its 50th anniversary in 1995, then South African president, Nelson Mandela, noted: “We come from Africa and South Africa…. to pay tribute to that founding ideal, and to thank the United Nations for challenging, with us, a system that defined fellow humans as lesser beings. No one, in the North or the South, can escape the cold fact that we are a single humanity.” Africa’s enduring legacy to the UN – as embodied by its most revered global statesman – could well be the concept of ubuntu: the gift of discovering our shared humanity

• Dr. Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa, and Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

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