Basketball, public transport reforms, food and medicine were among the key discussions and deals reached by East African leaders attending the UN General Assembly this week.

But those did not mask the continual beef between African leaders and the United Nations “system,” which they think is stuck in the past, and has failed to attain the goals it set.

Kenya’s President William Ruto and Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame spoke at various summits and side events on global issues, met counterparts from across the world and discussed ideas with leading industry captains.

On September 18, President Kagame met with Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of pharmaceutical company Pfizer, on strengthening cooperation, on the sidelines of the UN’s Digital Day and the General Debate.

Kenya signed a deal with the National Basketball Association (NBA) to help train local coaches. The NBA will open an office in Nairobi.

Dr Ruto also inked a $60 million deal with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an American development agency.

“The grant is the largest to be implemented with a partner country,” MCC CEO Alice Albright said.

Grain hub

And coming to the UN on the backdrop of continual high food prices, Dr Ruto met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who promised to work with Nairobi for a grain hub in Mombasa for redistribution to poor African countries.

This wasn’t a free lunch, however. In July, Russia, Ukraine’s enemy number one, offered free grain to six African countries: Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea.

Then it donated some 30,000 tonnes of fertiliser to Kenya. Kenya accepted it with both hands.

The Ukrainian leader said his country wants to continue with the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which Russia pulled out of in July, and is trying alternative routes. The Initiative was brokered by the UN and Turkey to allow Ukraine to export grain via some of the ports blockaded by Russia. Moscow later pulled out protesting blockades on its own grain by the West.

“Several ships with grain have already successfully passed through these routes despite the difficult situation,” President Zelenskyy said.

“Ukraine food exports have reached the shores of Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco, Somalia, Tunisia, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Iraq, Oman, Pakistan, Türkiye, Yemen and others.”

Russia invaded Ukraine last year in February, an incident that saw Kenya give a rousing speech in the UN Security Council condemning Moscow. Since then, Nairobi has taken its path in choosing where to stand: President Ruto said he backs the African Union proposal on ending the conflict peacefully.

Back at the UN General Assembly, the East African leaders were protesting the apparent lack of motion on reforming the system to make it work for their countries.

One such area is what to change in the UN Security Council, the UN’s most powerful organ but, which has no veto-wielding member from Africa. Five permanent members — US, UK, France, China and Russia — have remained so since 1945, when they had world’s biggest wealth and largest population.

“If any confirmation was ever needed that the United Nations Security Council is dysfunctional, undemocratic, non-inclusive, unrepresentative and therefore incapable of delivering meaningful progress in our world as presently constituted, the rampant impunity of its actors on the global scene settles the matter,” Dr Ruto said.

His speech titled “Multilateralism on Trial” lampooned the UN body for dodging crucial challenges while protecting itself from change. All the five permanent members must agree for any additions on veto-wielding members, or even the formation of the Council itself. In the past, they have agreed on the expansion of membership, but no change on powers.

G4 calls

Ruto was making his second speech at the UNGA and, just as last year, he argued that the global community must transform the UN system to achieve a consensus-driven rule-based multilateral system that works for the people of the world in their diversity.

Africa believes it has been the biggest subject of decisions by the UN Security Council in the past 30 years but has had little say on how those are arrived at.

Germany, India, Japan and Brazil have made similar calls. Known as G4, they were this week expected to make another statement, endorsing one another for a permanent seat and to reflect “realities of the 21st century,” according to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. For Africa, however, the reforms go beyond the Council. On Friday, for example, leaders were expected to meet and debate whether UN-assessed contributions can fund peace operations on the continent.

It has been a sticky issue since 2016 when a proposal was made to guarantee such operations on a case-by-case basis, rather than depending on donors.

Ghana, Gabon and Mozambique – the three African members in the Council – have been pushing for such an arrangement by end of this year.

If it passes, it could fill voids in Somalia, the Sahel, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other places with conflict.

The US government and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has backed the proposal, but the Council must reach consensus.

Africa, however, wants every global body reformed.

President Kagame, when he addressed a high-level roundtable titled “Towards a Fair International Financial Architecture”, spoke of the need for international lenders to change with the times.

“I agree with those who say we need to change the world, but at least we have to be honest, if we can’t change the world, we have to change ourselves to move along with the world that is changing. But remaining the same in a changing world simply defeats logic and doesn’t make sense,” he said.

In his address, Dr Ruto also faulted the UN over “inadequate development and limited climate action, amidst technological advancement and enormous wealth.”

Then he turned to debt arguing the current lending system is counterproductive in driving the continent’s transformation agenda.

According to IMF data as of last month, 10 low-income countries were in debt distress, and 52 are at high and moderate risk of falling into distress.

“The 3.3 billion people in these countries are trapped in a vicious cycle of emergency responses, reconstruction, and recovery from more frequent climate shocks, which diverts resources away from both development and climate action and sucking vulnerable countries into a downward spiral of debt and environmental stress,” the Kenyan leader said.

“The global community must, therefore, develop a debt restructuring initiative that does not wait for nations to plunge over the cliff before providing relief. Rather, the new sovereign debt architecture should extend the tenure of sovereign debt and provide a 10-year grace period.”

Ruto has been consistent this year, criticising the system of risk assessment and what he calls as opaque methodologies employed by credit rating agencies and risk analysis needs on Africa.

SDG target shortfalls

On September 20, Kagame said there has been lack of progress toward achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), reducing conflict around the globe, and finding ways to boost international cooperation.

“This year’s SDG Summit has once again raised alarm about the slow pace of SDG implementation,” the Rwandan leader said.

“Developing countries are constrained by a debt crisis including higher costs of borrowing. This is causing economic disparities to widen and is slowing down collective progress to SDGs.”

His peers agreed.

Seychelles President Wavel Ramkalawan said, “it is evident that we are falling short of our targets.”

“And the global pandemic has further exacerbated the challenges before us. Now, more than ever, we must renew our commitment to the SDGs and take decisive action to fulfil our promises,” he added, pushing for international financial institutions to embrace reform.

At a side event in New York that also included Bill Gates and Prime Ministers Alexander De Croo (Belgium) and Fumio Kishida (Japan), Dr Ruto warned that debt burdens and an insular global financial system has delayed attainment of SDGs, which are due in 2030.

“It is true that we are off track on the achievement of both SDGs and also climate action. And we came to the conclusion at our Africa Climate Summit that it is no longer possible to discuss development, SDGs and climate separately. These are one and the same,” said Ruto.

“And if there is something we learnt from the Covid-19 it is that there is nobody who is safe. We can all be in trouble.”

According to him, a restructuring to ease the debt burden is urgent and “that is why the international financial system must be refined to serve the purposes of our moment.”

On Wednesday, Dr Ruto had met with Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. The fund is due to hold its annual meetings next month in Marrakech, Morocco.

Sudan problem

As is tradition, the UNGA often brings together all sorts of leaders, including those sanctioned or isolated.

Sudan’s junta leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan used the podium to warn that the war in his country was threatening to become a regional problem. He referred to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group now at war with the Sudan Armed Forces, as rebels receiving support from abroad.

“They have killed, looted, raped, robbed and seized citizens’ homes and properties, and destroyed infrastructure and Government buildings. This war is now a threat to regional and international peace and security as those rebels have sought the support of mercenaries and terrorist groups from different countries and regions of the world,” the Sudanese general said.

RSF leader Mohamed “Hemedti” Daglo also gave a “speech” to the UN via social media channels in which he accused Gen Burhan of allying with members of ousted Omar al-Bashir regime to violate Sudanese people’s rights.

Sudan is suspended at the African Union for leading a coup two years ago but, at the UNGA, he said he was willing to end the war, lead a “short” transition and give power back to Sudanese people and that he was willing to work with mediators.

Source: The East African

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