This week, we report on the UN secretary-general’s Sahel region trip as he took the message of global peace and security to Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, and the momentous evacuation of civilians from Mariupol, Ukraine.
You are reading This Week @UN, summarizing the most pressing issues before the organization. The information is gathered from UN press briefings, PassBlue reporting and other sources. This week, the UN nuclear watchdog’s justified fears about a nuke plant in Ukraine being held by Russians; can Honduras’s new president really find democracy?; and the Security Council unifies on Ukraine, 10 weeks after Russia began its unremitting terror.
• Leaving media in the dark: UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed did not announce the visit of a wildly popular Nigerian music artist, Damini Ogulu (Burna Boy), to UN headquarters on Mohammed’s public schedule for April 28. Burna Boy, who picked up a Grammy for his album “Twice as Tall” in 2020, made the stopover before his performance at Madison Square Garden that night. The public — and journalists at the UN — found out about his side trip to the UN on Twitter. “I had the opportunity to welcome my compatriot @burnaboy here at the @UN HQ,” Mohammed wrote after he left. “Burna continues to inspire young people around the world with his amazing talents.” In a video posted by the UN as well, Burna, a native of Rivers State in the Niger Delta region in southern Nigeria, was singing of how oil and gas had turned Port Harcourt, the capital of the state, dark. Residents of Port Harcourt, popularly called the “Garden City,” have for years been reporting instances of soot-stained buildings, windowpanes and vehicles. The soot is said to come from gas flares from the petroleum industry that the Nigerian government promised to shut down by 2020. To survive job losses from the divestment of onshore oil assets by multinational oil companies, youths have taken to artisanal refining. In 2017, the vice president of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo, vowed that the government would engage the youths in safe refining, instead of hounding them for illegally purifying the crude oil. That promise has not been kept, and four days before Burna’s visit to the UN, an estimated 100 people were charred at an illegal refinery in neighboring Imo State. Mohammed, a former Nigerian minister of environment, knows these issues. She said in the UN video that Burna was invited to be part of the UN’s effort to take the message of Sustainable Development Goals to the youth in the delta. “We have Burna Boy in the house today,” she said. “And it’s really important to us because we want to bring others from the outside in and to take out the messages of the UN.” Considering the agenda around the visit, observers think that it should have been put on Mohammed’s public schedule and that journalists who report on the UN should have been notified about it. An email from PassBlue to the UN deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, asking why Burna’s appearance was not pre-announced went unanswered. — DAMILOLA BANJO, reporting from Lagos
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Sunday, May 1
• The first announcement about the UN-International Committee of the Red Cross evacuation of civilians in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, was released. Women, children and older people who had been stranded for nearly two months in the plant’s bunkers “will be evacuated to Zaporizka [or Zaporizhzhia] where they will receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services.” The operation began on April 29 with a convoy traveling about 230 kilometers from Zaporizhzhia to Mariupol on the morning of April 30. The ICRC statement.
Monday, May 2
• The UN was closed for the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
Tuesday, May 3
• UN Nuclear Watchdog Is ‘Gravely Concerned’ About Ukraine Plant Held by Russia: From Vienna, Stephanie Liechtenstein reports on the UN agency’s fears about the nuke plant in Zaporzhizhia, Ukraine, being held by Russian forces and related vulnerabilities with other nuclear-energy plants in Ukraine.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: More than 100 civilians have been evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. He is “optimistic that continued coordination with Kyiv and Moscow will lead to the more safe passage” of civilians from hot zones in Ukraine. Also addressing the media virtually during the briefing, the UN humanitarian affairs officer in Ukraine, Osnat Lubrani, said another 58 people were evacuated from Manhush, on the outskirts of Mariupol. All the civilians who have been evacuated so far by the UN-ICRC operation in Mariupol and neighboring towns have been taken to Zaporizhzhia, where they are receiving humanitarian aid, including health and psychological care, the UN said. Lubrani narrated the trauma of women, children and older people who were trapped in the steel plant’s underground barracks. She reiterated that the “UN will continue to engage with the parties to the conflict, return to Mariupol and bring urgent humanitarian support to people living in destroyed buildings with no access to water or electricity.” [Update, May 5: Lubrani said more than 300 civilians evacuated from Mariupol, Manhush, Berdiansk, Tokmak and Vasylivka are now receiving help in Zaporizhzhia. Asked by a journalist why more people have not been rescued from the steelworks in Azovstal, Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson, said the UN would continue to work with the ICRC to ensure more people are rescued from Mariupol and the region but added that “the plant is an extremely challenging place in every aspect.” May 6: Ukrainian forces have accused Russia of firing during the evacuation from the plant and said a car was hit, but Dujarric couldn’t confirm the information. He noted that UN officials are on the ground, supporting a third evacuation with the ICRC, adding, “We are in an extremely delicate phase of this operation, working in close coordination with both the Ukrainian authorities and the Russian authorities, and I don’t want to share any more information until, for the safety of those who are trying to get out and, of course, for our own staff.”]
Guterres traveled to the Sahel region of West Africa, from April 30-May 4, visiting Senegal, Niger and Nigeria as part of an annual Ramadan visit to conflict zones. On May 3, he was in Borno State, in northeast Nigeria, to show “solidarity with victims of terrorism.” Guterres’s trip to Borno drew on his role as a former UN high commissioner for refugees, as he visited several internally displaced persons camps. “I had the opportunity to visit Borno State,” he said at a press conference in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, on Wednesday (see more on his meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari in May 4 item). “And I must confess that I arrived in Borno with the impression caused by so many years in which I was hearing stories about how dramatic the situation was, how terrible the suffering of the people, how impossible to control the terrorist activities. A sense of despair. But the Borno I met yesterday was the Borno of hope.”
In reality, Borno is more complicated than pictures of hope. According to the Displacement Tracking Matrix, or DTM, periodically recorded by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Nigeria, there were 2,171,652 displaced people living in northeast Nigeria as of Feb. 24, 2022. More than half of the population, 1,960,558 people, had gone home but then returned to the camps, preferring the conditions there to the insecurity of their communities. IOM says the number of individuals who returned to the camps increased by 17,113 from November 2021 till Feb. 24. Despite a decrease in media reports of killings in Borno and elsewhere in the northeast — an area plagued by attacks from Boko Haram and other armed militias — IOM Nigeria said in its May 2021 tracking matrix that the number of people flocking to the IDP camps had increased since October 2018. From then on, the number of displaced people steadily rose until February 2022, when there was a decrease of 28,705 from the report in November 2021. These figures have not deterred the Nigerian government and the governor of Borno State, Babagana Zulum, from pursuing a policy of IDP resettlement. The reduction in the number of IDPs in the last IOM report may not reflect allegations that the Nigerian government is coercing people in the camps to return home or be resettled in unsafe areas. — D.B., reporting from Lagos
Guterres’s remarks in Dakar, Senegal, where he celebrated the eve of Eid al-Fitr with President Macky Sall on May 1; his remarks (in French) in Niamey, Niger, meeting with President Mohamed Bazoum and the media, May 2.
Wednesday, May 4
• Can Honduras’s New President Transform Her Country? The US Sure Hopes So: Maurizio Guerrero examines the enormous, critical problems facing the country’s new president’s ambitious agenda on democratization. Xiomara Castro, who is also Honduras’s first woman chief executive, is backed by the US seemingly 100 percent but that doesn’t guarantee success.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Still on Guterres’s visit to Nigeria, where he met with President Buhari and spoke to the press. ”He reiterated the importance of the partnership between Nigeria and the United Nations, adding that the country is a pillar of continental and global cooperation,” Dujarric said. Guterres also noted how the war in Ukraine is affecting Africa, setting in motion what he termed a “three-dimensional crisis that is a devastating global food, energy and financial systems for the developing world.” Additionally, he met with Jean-Claude Brou, president of the Commission of the Economic Commission of West African States, or Ecowas. They discussed the organization’s efforts to address governance and security challenges in the subregion, including the political transitions in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, which are all led by military juntas after undergoing coups in the last few years. They have agreed to return to democratic rule, though not soon.
• Robert Piper of Australia has been named special adviser on solutions to internal displacements, part of Guterres’s Action Agenda on Internal Displacement, which is meant to help garner solutions for the millions of displaced people globally. Piper will focus on sustainable development. He is an assistant secretary-general who heads the Development Coordination Office in Guterres’s office.
Thursday, May 5
• Order With Gusto: Deborah Baldwin and Irwin Arieff, PassBlue’s resident dining critics, dive into an extraordinary sandwich resto near the UN in Midtown Manhattan that could satisfy all diplomats’ taste buds, from the Habana Cuba to the Nice to Greek You.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres briefed the Security Council on Ukraine after the end of his extended trip to Turkey, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, focusing in the Council on the evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, a joint operation led by the UN and the ICRC. He was joined by the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths (his remarks), and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet (remarks), who both briefed remotely. The war has led to 6,731 deaths so far in Ukraine, the UN reports.
Friday, May 6
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres begins a two-day visit to Moldova on May 9 to “express solidarity and thank the country for its generosity in accommodating a million Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.” In Chisinau, the capital, he will meet with President Maia Sandu, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita and the speaker of Parliament, Igor Grosu. Guterres plans to visit the Refugee Center, run with the support of UN agencies. On May 11, he starts an official visit to Vienna, “with a strong focus on multilateralism, advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and addressing the climate emergency.” He is scheduled to meet with President Alexander Van der Bellen, Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and the president of the National Council, Wolfgang Sobotka.
The UN Security Council released its first statement, promoted by Mexico and Norway and approved by consensus, on the war in Ukraine. Though it doesn’t blame Russia for the annihilation, it “expresses deep concern regarding the maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine.”
• Stating the obvious: A new “rapid gender analysis” by UN Women and Care finds that women and minorities are facing “immense hardship” regarding health, safety and access to food because of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Women are increasingly becoming heads of households and leaders in their communities as men are conscripted, yet women remain largely excluded from formal decision-making processes related to humanitarian efforts, peacemaking and other areas that directly affect their lives.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.