2023: Outcome of polls’ll determine Nigeria’s place globally –Schmale, UN resident coordinator

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From Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja

The United Nations (UN) resident and humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, Mathias Schmale, has said the choices Nigerians make in 2023 will determine the quality of leadership and governance in the country for the next four years.

These, Schmale said, are crucial for change in meeting Nigeria’s development ambitions. He noted that the choices by Nigerians will also determine the level of leadership that Nigeria will occupy in Africa and the comity of nations.

Among other issues, he spoke on the United Nations’ various interventions in the country, saying that, for Nigeria to achieve a brighter future as a after the devastating effects of COVID-19, the nation has to focus on three main policy interventions, namely: innovation, green and regional.

What is your impression of Nigeria and what vision do you have for the country in your role as United Nations resident coordinator?

After only four months in this fascinating and beautiful country, there are many deep and conflicting impressions. On the one hand, there are the dramatic challenges Nigeria is facing, ranging from the devastating impact of the non-international conflict in the NorthEast, to more than 3,000 children dying daily of preventable diseases, to the staggering 80 million people living in poverty. But then, on the other hand, there is not only rich history and culture, but thriving entrepreneurship and innovation, achievements in improving infrastructure and women playing a leading role, for instance, in the vibrant private sector and in the judiciary. There is enormous potential in human and natural resources and Nigeria could be a leader in the world on many fronts.

My vision is for the work of the 24 UN agencies supporting Nigeria to be yet more transformative and catalytic in nature so as to ensure Nigeria “moves the needle” to achieve far greater impact in its development aspirations.

The UN Secretary-General has instituted reforms within the UN system to support countries like Nigeria achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. What are these reforms and what will the UN do differently?

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The Secretary-General’s reform agenda essentially addresses the need for the UN development system to become better at collectively delivering tangible results for member states and the people in host programme countries. An important element of this is establishing an independent and impartial UN leadership at country level through the resident coordinator system. Resident coordinators like myself are tasked around the globe with harnessing the comparative advantages of the diverse UN agencies and entities to ensure greater collaboration and results across the peace and security, development and human rights pillars of our work.

A further important element of the reform is to strengthen partnerships beyond government with various stakeholders, for example, the private sector, academia, youth, women, persons with disabilities, parliaments, civil society organisations, bilateral and multi-lateral donors, etcetera, to ensure effective and efficient SDG action at local, national and regional levels.

How will Nigeria benefit from these reforms?

We hope that through this “New Way of Working,” the Nigerian people will see a shift in the UN’s support towards convening dialogue about development-related issues that matter, including sensitive ones like population management and corruption, and towards catalytic impact at scale through its programmes and services, as well as ensuring that No One is Left Behind, meaning that the most vulnerable such as women and children experiencing violence get identified and supported.

The proportion of youth in Nigeria’s population is very large. They face problems like poverty, unemployment, some lack access to good education and many have actually died on the seas trying to look for a better life in Europe and other regions of the world. What is the UN doing to support Nigeria to address problems faced by the youth in Nigeria?

Within the framework of the Nigeria Youth Employment Action Plan, many UN agencies are working together to try and address the huge problem of youth unemployment. Let me give you some examples. Recently, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) started the Jubilee Fellows Programme. It is an initiative aimed at enabling 20,000 skilled young people to get jobs within the private or public sector and international development agencies. It is one way of enabling the private sector to tap into this large pool of well-trained Nigerian young people. Another initiative is by the United Nations Industrial Development Programme (UNIDO) and it is called the Nigeria Start-Up Centre. This is a platform for enabling young entrepreneurs to deploy technology to start their own digital enterprises. A similar initiative by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) working with the International Telecommunication Union aims to enhance the skills of young people to enable them to start businesses in the tech field. We also have a big initiative led by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) called Generation Unlimited, which aims to connect more than 20 million youths with opportunities to thrive in the digital economy. In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is working with out-of-school youth to integrate them into the agriculture value chain. We will continue to work together to build on these solutions and further increase their impact.

The other major challenge in Nigeria is gender equality. We have a few women in the National Assembly and other key areas of leadership. There are many cases of violence against women and girls. What should Nigeria do to improve the lot of women and girls in the country?

We all know there are cultural problems, discrimination, violence against women and some harmful practices standing in the way of a young girl or woman fulfilling her destiny in life. We have a major project called the Spotlight Initiative funded mainly by the European Union to work on these challenges around the country. My colleagues in UN Women are also working with the government, National Assembly and other stakeholders to ensure that the legal and policy frameworks are supportive of gender equality in all aspects of life, including the political areas you have noted. And my colleagues in the United Nations Office of  Drugs and  Crime (UNODC) are working with the Nigerian Police to ensure more female officers are recruited to contribute to gender equality in the society. Change will inevitably come if we all stay committed to overcoming the obstacles that limit women from realising their potential.

Nigeria faces many security challenges in nearly all parts of the country, from terrorism to banditry and kidnapping. Indeed, in the North, many children have been abducted from school. How is the UN supporting Nigeria to overcome these security challenges and make schools safe for teaching and learning?

We know that there can be no development without peace, and no peace without development. The National Peace Committee at federal level and some peace committees at lower levels have been supported by the UN. We also work through political dialogue and the good offices of the UN, for example, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for West Africa, in addition to our support to the security agencies of the government. We will continue other efforts at peace-building, for example, in the Middle Belt and also the continued support of our Counter Terrorism Office at the UN headquarters.

Regarding safety of schools, the Safe School Declaration is a commitment by the government and stakeholders to ensure that schools are protected from attacks and to activate a more comprehensive response to fight insecurity.

In what ways are you helping the many Nigerians who have been displaced from their homes and forced to live in IDP camps for many years?

The humanitarian situation in North-East Nigeria is responded to through the Humanitarian Response Plan on the basis of the Humanitarian Needs Overview. Continued insecurity limits access to affected populations. The UN continues to advocate with relevant authorities, both at the federal and state level, to find lasting solutions to the root causes of the displacement. There is also concrete programme delivery such as UNICEF supporting displaced children and families with the construction of temporary learning spaces, toilets and showers; distribution of hygiene kits to families; construction and rehabilitation of boreholes with batteries of water points; provision of cash vouchers for indigent families; equipping health centres with drugs and the training of health workers, among others. Another example is UNDP supporting government in stabilisation efforts to make locations more secure and viable for the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Education is not only an important goal of the SDGs but also key to human development and poverty eradication. However, in Nigeria, the sector has many challenges, including millions of children out of school. What programmes do you have to support Nigeria to reduce the number of out-of-school children?

To help keep children in school, UNICEF is supporting community mobilization and cash transfers to reduce the number of Almajiri children who are out of school. The rehabilitation and building of infrastructure through micro-grants to Center-based Management Committees is also being supported, alongside support for the mainstreaming of Almajiri into formal public schools, as well as the provision of alternative learning pathways for Almajiri through low-tech options such as community learning hubs. Furthermore, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with the support of Norway and Canada, is supporting over 30,000 girls to enroll and be retained in school and safe spaces.

How are you helping states, especially in the North, to make schools safe for pupils to study without fear of kidnapping?

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This is a vitally important task and UNICEF is leading the way through supporting systemic capacity building on education in emergency through high-level advocacy to increase public investment in school safety and to engender a multi-sectoral coordinated response at federal, state, local government area and school levels. The UN is also advocating costed education sector plans and robust crisis, emergency, and disaster responsive management at the national, state, and local government levels to enhance resilience of the education system.

If Nigeria is to reach a high-income level, the quality of education has to be greatly improved. What is the UN doing to support Nigeria on quality of education?

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UNICEF is supporting quality learning through innovative interventions implemented through partnerships and systemic capacity strengthening on continuous teacher professional development, mentoring, monitoring and supportive supervision; curriculum and assessment reforms; scaling up of Early Childhood Education; and Foundational Literacy and Numeracy, including support for the expansion of digital learning initiatives. The UN is further advocating at federal and state levels for increased financing of Early Childhood Education. Nigeria currently spends 0.07 percent of its education budget on this, while the international benchmark is 10 percent.

There are many opportunities now with online education and probably this will change the way learning happens. Is the UN planning to support Nigeria in this as well?

Yes, indeed; just last month, UNICEF partnered with the government and others to launch the Nigeria Learning Passport, an online, mobile and soon-to-be-offline learning platform that will provide continuous education to three million learners in 2022 alone, and a total of 12 million by 2025. New innovations like this platform can ensure continuity of learning for all children and build reliance against future shocks.

We were speaking about a decade of action for achieving the SDGs by 2030 when the COVID-19 pandemic struck around the world. In what ways will the COVID-19 pandemic impact on Nigeria’s path towards the achievement of the 2030 goals?

There have undoubtedly been adverse socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Nigerian people, communities and businesses. Lockdowns and movement restrictions have led to deleterious effects on economic output, unemployment, poverty, prices and cost (inflation and exchange rate), food security, remittance flows, learning, healthcare, gender inequality and gender and sexual-based violence, social tension and civil unrest. The COVID-19 crisis is expected to roll back some of the progress made against poverty reduction and sustainable development goals over the last two decades, with the greatest impact on those at the base of the economic pyramid. We must all regroup, recommit and build back better towards the 2030 Agenda.

What should Nigeria focus on in this new normal with the pandemic?

As the government has acknowledged, Nigeria must make big decisions now with wisdom and courage to achieve its potential. From a UN perspective, the three main policy interventions required to push Nigeria towards a brighter future can be summarised in three words: innovation, green, regional. An economic, social and political transformation built on the culture of innovation would enable Nigeria to leap into the 21st century. Building on this, a push to go green is the right option for Nigeria, resulting in faster growth and better outcomes across the board, for businesses and communities alike. And strong regional leadership, particularly in trade, the key to Nigeria’s growth, will support both directions.

What are your top priorities now in your support to Nigeria, given the new reality?

In this new reality, our collective UN focus is on providing technical and financial support towards the achievement of Nigeria’s Medium Term National Development Plan and making progress on the SDGs at national and sub-national levels.

Another major global challenge is climate change. Nigeria is affected already. In what way is climate change impacting Nigeria?

The most obvious change here is the rising temperatures. In 2020, 22 Nigerian cities recorded temperatures over 40°C with a combined average of about 27 days. In the same year, 17 states experienced high one-day rainfall values of 100mm and above. Other fast onset events such as flash floods, river floods, coastal floods, coastal erosion, ocean surges and swells, windstorms, dust storms occur in various parts of Nigeria. At the same time, desertification continues to pose a threat to the livelihoods of more than 40 million people in 11 northern states constituting about 35 percent of the country’s total land area.

What should Nigeria focus on to limit the damage caused by climate change?

We advise that climate change efforts in Nigeria prioritize at least, some of the following specific actions: Partnering with young population to unleash their creativity for innovative solutions; protecting economic assets along the coastal areas; economic diversification to lessen dependence on fossil fuels and to more towards a greener and more sustainable low carbon development pathway; increasingly adopting clean energy that guarantees more vulnerable people access to reliable and cheap cleaner energy options; harnessing and leveraging Nigeria’s agriculture sustainably for climate smart agriculture and Creating of green jobs and incentives for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMES) Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises  (MSMES).

How is the UN supporting Nigeria to deal with this global emergency – climate change?

We are partnering with the government and other stakeholders on a number of important efforts to combat climate change. These include the implementation of Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement, strengthening national and sub-national capacities for participatory planning, policy formulation and sustainable natural resources management and strengthening national preparedness capacities to access the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility.

The polity in Nigeria is already heating up in the lead-up to the 2023 elections. Is the UN providing support for the electoral process?

An Electoral Needs Assessment Mission is currently in the country, and we are awaiting its recommendations to determine which more specific assistance the UN can provide for 2023 elections. With many others, we are hoping for constructive debate over these coming months on options to solve the country’s big problems and for free and fair elections.

How important is this electoral season for Nigeria and maybe Africa broadly?

Needless to state, the choices that the people will make in 2023 will determine the quality of leadership and governance for the next four years, which are crucial for a step change in meeting the country’s development ambitions. It will also determine the kind of leadership that Nigeria will occupy in Africa and the comity of nations.

What message do you have for Nigerians during this electoral period?

I encourage all eligible Nigerians, especially women and the youth, to seize opportunities presented by the new Electoral Act assented to by the President recently to register and effectively participate in the elections. And on behalf of the UN in Nigeria, I wish the country peaceful and successful elections devoid of violence and rigging in 2023.

I would like to end this interview with your views on the war in Ukraine. In what ways will it impact on Nigeria?

The rise in crude oil prices and OPEC’s increase in Nigeria’s oil production quota should shore up Nigeria’s government revenues and foreign exchange revenue from crude oil sales. Despite the possible windfall gain, Nigeria is likely to experience a net loss of foreign exchange as prices of petroleum products and other commodities such as wheat have increased significantly. Rising import bills, increased subsidy payments for refined petroleum products, and increased debt service payments could potentially draw down government revenues and foreign exchange reserves. These could have adverse implications for the cost of living and doing business in Nigeria. Thus, Nigeria could face serious macroeconomic challenges, including pressures on the naira, high inflation, deteriorating fiscal deficit and higher debt in the months ahead and adverse effects on day to day lives and employment.

What should Nigeria’s government and people do to mitigate any negative impacts from that war?

It would be advisable for the government to resolutely protect and expand domestic revenue generation, as well as to revisit its priorities in government expenditure and service provision. Appropriate macroeconomic measures to control inflation need to be considered by the Central Bank. And it is recommended that the government of Nigeria, in partnership with the private sector, continues to identify actionable measures to augment domestic production and exports beyond crude oil, including improving oil refining capacity to reduce the need for petroleum product importation. These are just some examples of what could be done. The entire globe is steering towards troubled economic waters and governments, including that of Nigeria, will constantly have to revisit and adjust their macroeconomic policies. It will be particularly important, at the same time, to always consider appropriate protection measures to ensure that those already behind in prosperity terms do not fall even further behind. Since we live in an increasingly interconnected world, let me in closing echo our Secretary General’s call “for a New Global Deal in which power, wealth and opportunities are shared more equitably, and governance mechanisms better reflect the realities of today.”

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