Guterres’ In(equality) Sermon: Who is converted?

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By Issa Aremu

July 18th is the annual Nelson Mandela International Day ( NMD) as   declared by the United Nations in November 2009.  NMD honours and celebrates Nelson Mandela’s birthday  for  his selfless service to humanity, the only to be so recognized.  And he is an African! One human life that matters in terms of selflessness, forgiveness and reconciliation in a polarized divisive world! Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 at Mvezo, Cape Province, Union of South Africa to the Thembu royal family. He was a revolutionary political leader, democratically elected  as the President of non-racist South Africa from 1994 to 1999, having struggled to dismantle apartheid based on  white supremacy.  UN Mandela Day first  held on July 18, 2010. NMD is NOT  a public holiday. On the contrary. It is a working day that highlights Mandela’s   struggle  for social justice, in 67 years,  ( 27 spent in prison, 18 at the notorious Robben Island, for daring to courageously confront apartheid,).  UN rightly declared apartheid a crime against humanity.

The idea of July 18  is that every individual like Madiba has the power to transform the world and to make an impact. The objective is to inspire governments, individuals and organizations to take action to help change the world for the better. Of course,  nobody truly expected NMD be observed by the 45th American President Donald Trump. What with his  insular divisive, bipolar white/black outlook which is at variance with Mandela’s global inclusive reconciliatory actions.?Secondly, America’s dismal history of official racism at home and abroad hunts like spectre. Many  of Donald Trump’s  predecessors were indeed accomplices of successive apartheid chieftains from President Harry Truman when apartheid was officially declared in 1948 to Ronald Reagan when the racist contraption was dismantled in the 90s.  Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were unapologetically in “constructive engagement” with apartheid ( read: no sanctions!). 

But NMD was not officially observed in Nigeria either, a twist of solidarity value this country was noted for. Nigeria was once a frontline state against imperialism in Southern Africa. General Murtala Muhammed’s famous: “Africa Has Come of Age” set the historic liberation agenda for decolonized Angola and Mozambique. Late President Shehu Shagari literally “liberated” Zimbabwe in cash and diplomacy, when Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher almost truncated the Lancaster Agreement. Nigerian workers generously contributed to Solidarity Fund against apartheid. Nigeria and Nigerians were in legitimate excitement seeing dignified Mandela out of prison in 1990. Nigeria actually bankrolled ANC during the 1994 historic election that produced Nelson Mandela as the elected President. Of course the proverbial waters had overflown the solidarity bridge between Nigeria and SA. Mandela once recalled one of his worse moments being part of the 52-member Commonwealth meeting which expelled Nigeria following the judicial murder of the political activist and writer,  Ken Saro-Wiwa executed with ten others in 1995 by military dictator Sanni Abacha. Mandela had agonized to no result through “persuasive diplomacy“ to impress on Abacha that  some Nigerian lives mattered! . Nigerians and many Africans had fallen victims of periodic xenophobia in a liberated South Africa, an issue which agonized  Mandela to the grave .  But still on  2020 NMD!

António Guterres,  United Nations Secretary-General, ably delivered this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture speech entitled “TACKLING THE INEQUALITY PANDEMIC: A NEW SOCIAL CONTRACT FOR A NEW ERA “ in New York. It was truly revolutionary (Mandela-like!) that reminds the world about the  “inequality  (social) pandemic” against the background of the current health pandemic caused by “a microscopic virus”.  António Guterres not only had photo- opportunities with Madiba (as most world leaders did) but he had a mouthful from the fountain of the Icon’s “wisdom, determination and compassion” which most leaders care less for. But who is listening to him in the pack of leaders who are overtaxing the poor and privileging the rich ? There is a saying that when the rich is  worried about the plight of the poor, it is called charity. But when the poor is concerned about the fortunes of the rich, it’s called revolution. The 9th Secretary General of the UN is neither a revolutionary nor a money bag.  It’s therefore important we take his non- ideological sermon on deepening global inequality serious. 

 I searched  in vain to find out how many Heads  of state and governments paused for at least  67 minutes in service of humanity, on July 18 as enjoined by Madiba on his annual birthday. The truth is very  few leaders lead like Nelson Mandela. I agree with the UN Secretary General that with more  “ ..than 70 per cent of the world’s people …living with rising income and wealth inequality”, “Inequality defines our time”. Quotes of  Mandela on poverty and inequality can actually make a book. He damned poverty  right from the time it  was not fashionable to do so. In 2005, Nelson Mandela at London’s Trafalgar Square said “Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.” 

The bane of poverty of poverty discourse is that we often discuss the poor in relations to the poor ignoring the fact that mass poverty is inconceivable without  the complimentary opulence of the few. Undoubtedly,  inverse relation  exists between the growing numbers of the enlisted poor and the ever diminishing but concentrated new mega-rich. 

“Between 1980 and 2016, the world’s richest 1 percent captured 27 percent of the total cumulative growth in income” disclosed   Guterres. This confirms the 2020  data released by  Oxfam ahead of Davis World Economic Forum (WEF) according to which “world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population”. Inequality pandemic is even “grimly pandemic” when it’s disaggregated locally. Every inequality is indeed local! Again according to Oxfam, the “Wealth of five richest men in Nigeria could end extreme poverty in the country yet 5 million face hunger. The combined wealth of Nigeria’s five richest men – $29.9 billion – could end extreme poverty in that country”.  

Inequality pandemic is fueling current insecurity in the country putting both the rich and the poor on the tenterhook just  as much as Coronavirus pandemic does. Think about it! Few rich Nigerians who keep  Jeep farms (remember 76 jeeps of a Governor in the North east!  )  can hardly get sleep no less than millions who go to bed without food: the result is the same: insomnia arising from inequality! Precisely because few can hardly sleep because of gluttony, so also sleep eludes the multitude in hunger and anger! I agree with UN Secretary General that without immediate balance “the  rising inequality sinks all boats”. We should rescind the mantra of “the survival of the corrupt, the “smartest”. And enthrone win-win solidarity Economics, in place of zero-sum Economics in which the crooked takes all. Even If there was no COVID: 19, there is a persistent poverty pandemic which unlike the Virus has cure in wealth and power redistribution. This is the lesson from Guterres’s 2020 NMD lecture. But who among the UN members  is converted to the new gospel? 

Issa Aremu mni

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