Nigeria – Stepping Back From a Major Blunder On World Stage

President Bola Tinubu on September 2, 2023 recalled all Nigerian career and non-career ambassadors across the universe from their duty posts.

His action, he said, is to transfuse his renewed hope agenda into foreign policy and ensure service delivery to all. He, however, made two exceptions: the country’s United Nations, UN, Permanent Representatives in New York and Geneva.

Generally, foreign relations can be quite slippery, so an ambassador is the eyes and ears of his country. Therefore, his recall is a serious matter. But making two exceptions tells of the importance of both missions.

Doubtlessly, the most powerful and influential body in the world is the UN with 193 members. Only three countries are outside it: the Vatican and Palestinian States and Western Sahara.

So powerful is the UN that to be absent from it is like being a ghost gliding around unseen. To address the world from the UN podium in New York is the ambition of many Heads of State.

However, while the importance of the Nigerian UN Representative in New York is quite obvious, that in Geneva is less. It is beyond the fact that there are clusters of UN agencies in Geneva. There is the additional fact that our Representative in Geneva also leads the country’s team at the International Labour Organisation, ILO.

Perhaps next to the UN in terms of power, reach and acceptance, is the ILO. However, the latter has some unique advantages over the UN. First, having been established in 1919 as a global body, it is 26 years older. Secondly, it has exhibited greater flexibility and resilience; although the membership of the UN and ILO are similar, while the League of Nations which was established along with the ILO collapsed under the weight of contradictory world politics, the ILO survived. Thirdly, the ILO is a much more democratic universal institution; while the UN is only an assemblage of states, the ILO is a tripartite assembly of governments, employers and workers from all countries. Fourthly, the ILO is an institution where people, be they employers or workers, can drag their home governments to and such complaints would be discussed by the whole world and the affected governments have no choice but to answer queries and put up their defence.

Fifth, the ILO, unlike the UN, routinely sets standards, calls Conventions, which all member countries are expected to sign up to and domesticate. So, whoever occupies the Chair of the ILO would be one of the most powerful men on earth. It is this position Nigeria’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador Abiodun Richards Adejola, was elected into for a one-year tenure which expires in June 2024.

At first glance, it appeared the Tinubu administration is well-versed in international politics which is why in its clean sweep of the missions, it retained the two UN missions. But a glance at its reason for exempting these missions which is “…in view of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly, holding later this month”, gives the impression that it may not have fully grasped the implications of yanking off the Chair of the ILO within three months of his 12-month tenure.

I was a member of the ILO Governing Board for three years. So I know the enormous prestige its chairman confers on his country. I know the trust and confidence the rest of the world gathered under the ILO places on its chairman to deliver on its core mandate of promoting social justice, human and labour rights and ensuring universal social justice and lasting peace.

Perhaps the Nigerian government needs to be reminded that the ILO is an essential element in the environment for human peace and development.

The ILO was established on June 28, 1919 under the Versailles Peace Treaty which ended World War I. Its establishment was based on the lessons learnt by humanity. These include the fact that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice”. The second reason is the realisation that “conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required”. Lastly, that “the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.”

Twenty five years later, under the Declaration of Philadelphia, humanity gave the ILO four additional tasks. These are to enforce the centrality of human rights to social policy, evolve international economic planning, build the consciousness that “labour is not a commodity” and, to ensure that “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity”. It ended these with the famous declaration that: ” Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”.

So, while the UN plays its politics, the ILO exists like the mythical Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders and ensuring the sky does not fall.

To date, perhaps Nigeria’s greatest contribution to the ILO was at its very first attendance in 1961 as an independent country when it caught the world unawares by moving the motion to expel Apartheid South Africa from the world body. At the ILO Resolutions Committee meeting, 163 delegates voted for the Nigerian resolution, none against, while there were 89 abstentions. It was a long-drawn battle with most European government and employer delegates, including those of United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Australia, Italy, Spain, United States and of course, Apartheid South Africa opposing the motion.

The Nigeria team that secured that monumental foreign relations victory was led by then Labour Minister, Chief Joseph Modupe Johnson, JMJ. Other members were Government representatives: Tom Edogbeji, Aitkins Salubi and Tijani. M. Yusuf; Employer representative: Mrs. Moore, and that of Workers: Comrade Lawrence Borha.

Twenty nine years after Nigeria moved that motion, Nelson Mandela, newly freed from apartheid jail after 27 years, stood before the ILO Conference on Friday June 8, 1990 to thank the ILO for that historic decision.

I, therefore, shudder that Nigeria would shoot itself in the foot by yanking off the Chairman of the ILO Governing Body who is just three months into leading that huge world assembly. I join other Nigerians and well-wishers knowledgeable on these matters in appealing to President Bola Tinubu to in the overall interest of our country, allow Ambassador Adejola complete his term as ILO Governing Body Chairman by leaving him in the Geneva mission for the next nine months.

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