Syrian Arab Republic: Syria overshadows African conflicts at UN General Assembly debate

On the first anniversary of the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), African leaders at the 71st United Nations (UN) General Assembly warned that the success or failure to implement these goals could determine the future security of the continent.

The conflicts in South Sudan and Libya both warranted separate meetings by the Peace and Security Council (PSC). Overall, however, the conflict in Syria and the recent failed ceasefire loomed larger than any other discussion.

The recent outbreak of violence in South Sudan was the African conflict uppermost in the minds of many leaders at last month’s UN General Assembly from 13–26 September 2016. South Sudanese Vice-President Taban Deng Gai’s presence in New York was seen as a bid to seek endorsement for his leadership. He took over from Riek Machar, who went into self-imposed exile after fresh violence had broken out in July. However, many in the international community dispute Deng’s appointment, saying Machar should return to his post for the August 2015 peace agreement to be restored.

Deng explained that his party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In-Opposition (SPLM-IO) had appointed him ‘to allow peace and stability to prevail’ and to allow the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to have a partner in the implementation of the peace agreement. He hinted that South Sudan’s transitional government of national unity still had issues with the UN-mandated Regional Protection Force. More engagement was needed to ‘avoid derailing national healing and reconciliation. External intervention often affects negatively internal reconciliation,’ he said.

Deng said South Sudan was ‘stable [and] peaceful’, and added that the ‘government is functioning and life is returning back to normal’. He told leaders he bore a ‘white bull’ from President Salva Kiir to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as ‘a sign of peace, and it has grown now ready to be delivered’.

Ban, however, accused the South Sudanese leaders of betraying their people.

Deng was also present at the PSC meeting on South Sudan on 19 September. South Africa’s permanent representative at the UN, Jerry Matjila, said African leaders accepted Deng’s appointment in the hope that this would move the peace process forward. ‘People have very difficult choices to make, and Deng was best under the circumstances. It was more realistic [to accept him]. We all hope things will improve and go back to normalcy,’ he said.

New initiative for reconciliation in Libya

Three days after its meeting on South Sudan, the PSC called an unscheduled meeting to find continental mechanisms to establish reconciliation in Libya. South African government officials said Libya was considering a reconciliation model similar to the one South Africa had used before 1994, and the intervention could be similar to the AU high-level panel established before former ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s death.

President Fayez al-Sarraj told the UN General Assembly efforts had been made to bring together the different voices in the country, and that the government would continue with peaceful dialogue. The fragmented country has been struggling to establish a government since the killing of Gaddafi in 2011, with the UN-backed Government of National Accord failing to get the endorsement of all the groups in the country.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma said a fractured Libya also ‘provided a fertile ground for the terrorists to carry out their unjustified terrorist activities’.

Call for leaders to end war and poverty

In their farewell speeches to the UN General Assembly, Ban and United States President Barack Obama ­– both of whom are at the end of their terms – had strong words about recent election-related conflicts and controversies, many of which took place in Africa.

In a forceful speech Ban said after his 10 years in office he was convinced world leaders had it in their power to end wars and poverty, and prevent conflict. However, leaders all too often were seen ‘rewriting constitutions, manipulating elections and taking other desperate steps to cling to power’.

Obama similarly criticised strongmen and advocated a liberal political order. ‘I know that some countries, which now recognise the power of free markets, still reject the model of free societies,’ he said.

The AU’s Agenda 2030

It was too early to report back on real progress in the SDGs, launched last year, but with this year’s assembly themed ‘Sustainable development goals: a universal push to transform our world’, African leaders incorporated the topic into their speeches.

Many reported that they had already incorporated the goals into their national plans and linked them to the AU’s Agenda 2063. The goals are aimed at ensuring that economic development does not just favour small elites.

Leaders also pointed out stumbling blocks. Senegalese President Macky Sall said the electricity question was one such problem holding Africa back. ‘Without competitively priced energy, there can be no industrialisation and development,’ he said. ‘Africa can not enlighten other continents with its resources while remaining itself in the dark.’

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said poor countries were ‘making every possible effort’ to improve people’s lives while faced with crises such as an influx of migrants and droughts.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has seen various protests against his government in recent months, said ‘the burden of sanctions, notably imposed by the United States and other Western countries for 16 years’ kept his country from realising the SDGs.

Several leaders linked the SDGs to security. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou urged for ‘a new kind of economic governance’ in the world to ‘strike a balance between speculative financial capital and industrial capital’, which would give the least-developed countries the money to invest in economic growth.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said corruption ‘freezes development’ and undermined the achievement of the SDGs, and urged governments to fight it on all levels, channelling the recovered money into development. He started his speech saying his country was experiencing a financial crisis but was implementing reforms in an attempt to diversify the economy.

Justifying a clampdown on social media to fight terrorism

Much of the focus in talks around terrorism was on Syria and Libya, with some calls for a clampdown on media used to propagate extremist ideas. Ethiopia, which had shut down some social media communications during recent protests, said while social media could enhance information exchanges and public participation, it also had negative impacts.

‘We are seeing how misinformation could easily go viral via social media and mislead many people, especially the youth, who are our future. Social media has certainly empowered populists and other extremists to exploit people's genuine concerns and spread their message of hate and bigotry,’ Desalegn said. He implied that social media ‘and other media outlets financed by friendly governments’ were used to destabilise his country.

**Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi asked the international community to prevent terrorists from using new information technology ‘which have contributed to endowing the phenomena of terrorism and ideological extremism with dangerous new dimensions that have gained them global reach’. He called for a clampdown on the hosting of websites that incite violence and extremism. Egypt has seen various protests in recent years fuelled by social media.

Obama said terrorist networks ‘use social media to prey upon the minds of our youth, endangering open societies and spurring anger against innocent immigrants and Muslims’, but in the same breath he spoke out against governments censoring the flow of information and quashing dissent. He said: ‘An explosion of social media has given ordinary people more ways to express themselves, and has raised people’s expectations for those of us in power.’ African leaders were also unanimous about the need for UN and UN Security Council reforms to give the continent representation on decision-making bodies. Some praised the current efforts to increase transparency in the appointment of the next secretary general, but said more needed to be done.

Urgent need to mitigate the effects of climate change**

African leaders hailed the Paris Agreement on climate change signed earlier this year, but said developed countries could do more. Nigeria, Malawi, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Namibia were among the countries reporting that the recent drought brought about by climate change has affected them adversely.

Angolan Vice President Manuel Domingos Vicente said his country was only responsible for 0.17% of greenhouse emissions, ‘but the effects of climate change are already being felt among us in many ways’.

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