Ritual matters at the United Nations

Every September, the world descends on New York City. That is to say the world’s leaders – great and small, from countries you know and others you have never heard of and probably never will – come to New York to take part in an annual speaking ritual called the United Nations General Assembly or UNGA.
Joseph Rwagatare
Joseph Rwagatare

Every September, the world descends on New York City. That is to say the world’s leaders – great and small, from countries you know and others you have never heard of and probably never will – come to New York to take part in an annual speaking ritual called the United Nations General Assembly or UNGA.

East Africans, don’t confuse this with your indispensable staple. This one is not of the edible variety.

This year is not different. All manner of people have come to New York, ordinarily very diverse, and added to the confusion, albeit for only a few days. They come speaking a variety of accents of English, French and Spanish, and other languages.

UN Headquarters might well be the Tower of Babel. And in many ways it actually is.

At the speaking ritual everyone speaks. No one listens. Obviously no one understands. And when it ends, they will go back with the same or worse confusion than they came with.

All the world’s greats are here – in their graded greatness. They meet in a show of equality. That is part of the ritual – in fact, its major attraction. It is fiction, of course.

Equality of this sort exists only in the minds of dreamers or the incorrigibly self-important. It is the wishful thinking of the weak and a lie by the strong. No one really believes it but all are happy to go on with the illusion.

But immediately the speaking starts, the inequality is in evidence. United States President Barack Obama speaks for as long as he wants – usually more than thirty minutes.

The others are allotted a paltry seven minutes. I suppose it is his right as the head of the host nation. Besides, it is an allowance for his love of the spoken word, especially from himself. And he is rather very good at using words.

In the past only former Iranian President Ahmednijad could equal him or his predecessors. How he will be missed this year! The Iranian would match Obama’s soaring rhetoric or George W Bush’s chest-thumping ordinariness with harangue and bashing of the imperialist Satan.

It made for great drama if little meaning.

There used to be Muammar Gaddafi – now sadly no more. He would sweep into town resplendent in flamboyant robes and a bevy of female bodyguards and then pitch his Bedouin tent wherever he pleased. He was equally colourful on the podium.

Gaddafi was, of course, eccentric and quite a curious sight, but he certainly lent colour to an otherwise dull ritual.

Uncle Bob (Robert Mugabe) is getting a little too old and maybe a trifle forgetful and doesn’t pack the punch he used to. Still, he will say the usual things he has always done and for which he has been lauded and vilified in equal measure.

Most of the others drone on through their allotted time unconvinced and unconvincing and depart without a memory. But they will have exercised their right to equality and played a forgettable part in a make-believe drama.

Not everything is dull or exaggerated.  There are those who make an impact without being the powerful host like Obama or GW Bush, or mavericks, clowns or eccentrics. Nor do they have to be disagreeable, nearly anonymous or forgettable to leave a mark.

There is, for instance, Benjamin Netanyahu. He loves talking tough and occasionally drawing diagrams and red lines and daring anyone to cross them. His threats are taken seriously. That’s perhaps why he takes as much time as Obama.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is another. The UN stage doesn’t quite suit him, though. It is too constraining. He tells a good story and a good joke and makes a strong pitch for Runyankore proverbs. He has a thing for history, especially the migration of the human race from Africa to the rest of the world.

And he will tell anyone who cares to listen about the bottlenecks to Africa’s development. He can’t cram all this wealth of knowledge into seven minutes. But he won’t lack what to do in retirement.

Our very own Paul Kagame doesn’t have much time for public story telling. He will tell what he has to say straight. He is not shy to remind the high and mighty about their responsibility and point out their shortcomings even if that makes them uncomfortable.

They always remember what he said and some keep it too dangerously close to heart.

The speaking ritual officially opens today. There will be the usual speakers but new initiates as well. We wait to hear whether they are boring and forgettable or exciting but still ignored; whether they have any real clout or are simply posturing.

Whatever sort they are, what they say will almost certainly be forgotten from the moment it is uttered and the illusion of equality will not be affected.

The author is a political commentator based in Kigali

josephrwagatare.wordpress.com

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