However, as I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue on this rainy November day, my thoughts went to my own country, Nigeria. I thought of how the Americans could let me into their halls of power, their most prestigious institutions and I could meet their leaders and discuss a wide range of issues, simply by virtue of me being a seen as a Nigerian/African intellectual who had something valuable to say. Would this have happened to me at home? I remembered how as a Londoner (until I moved back to Lagos, Nigeria in 2007), I had been invited by the Queen and her Husband to Buckingham Palace and also by the erstwhile Prime Minister of the UK to Number 10 Downing Street. I thought of the Ministers I had dined with and the diverse high-level policy fora I had been invited to speak at including at the UK House of Parliament and at some of the country’s most prestigious think tanks and Universities. However having returned home to Nigeria, this kind of engagement with our own leaders and institutions at home has proven impossible thus far. To see the people you know is hard enough, not to mention those you do not know, especially if you are nothing but a mere intellectual, not a BIG man.
I wondered why doors and opportunities like those I mentioned above can open up to us in other people’s countries, while one has to scale a multitude of social, cultural, economic and political mountains at home just to be heard, not to mention being seen. Would I, and other young African thinkers, ever be granted such dignified access to our own leaders and institutions at our own versions of Capitol Hill, the US Supreme Court, the White House, Downing Street, Buckingham Palace or the UK House of Parliament, simply by virtue of just being thinkers with constructive ideas? Can we be deemed relevant if one is not a ‘big man / big madam’, ‘somebody who is the son/daughter of a big somebody’, or ‘somebody who knows a big somebody’? Would simply being just as a young woman or man with useful ideas about how our societies, our countries, our continent and our world should be governed ever be good enough? Soon the spring in my step faded with the realisation of how much we still needed to do at home for our democracies to become enablers of good and open leadership, to be accessible, to be inclusive, to reward merit, to empower competence and become the mid-wives of the many dreams which our talented, yet sidelined, youth are pregnant with. I wondered, when will our generation have our own Obama in Africa? The irony in that question dawned on me and I as walked on, I was unsure as to whether I should either be tickled, irritated or dejected.
During the 2005 Gleneagles G8 meeting that instigated a global focus on Africa’s development, coinciding with the mid-term review of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS), Nigeria played a most prominent role. During this period, Nigeria had returned to civilian rule and President Obasanjo of Nigeria had began a wave of domestic reforms –many on combating corruption- that won international confidence and also spearheaded the drive for a new Africa governance architecture characterised by the ideas embodied in the goals of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and a restructured and re-energised Africa Union. At these G8 summits and other high-level international fora on African development, President Obasanjo was often one of the only African Presidents invited to represent Africa and attend G8 meetings. He was often placed right next to the American president at photo shoots. This was international diplomatic speak for ‘you are a relevant country in the global scheme of things’. Nigeria was recognised as a key global player, even though its democracy was imperfect, and its economy comparatively low in the economic global pecking order. Nigeria’s international clout and respect reached new peaks, since its dark days of military rule, and it was thrust into the circle of the global power elite insofar as global governance and international diplomacy was concerned. Now, it’s nowhere to be seen and fading off the map of relevance in global governance and international diplomacy. Why?
Well, on the same day that the outcomes of the G20 meeting was being disseminated in the media – for example that developing countries would be given a larger role in decision-making in the structures of global governance - CNN America ran a special programme called ‘How To Rob A Bank’. The ‘award-winning’ characters in this investigative news programme were Nigerian fraudsters in the US. The evidence against these disgraceful Nigerians was overwhelming. Camera footage, fingerprints on forged documents, their diverse forged identities, their green passports and even the tricks they used to sneak themselves in out of America and defraud financial systems were broadcast across America and indeed across the world. A similar programme also aired on CNN earlier this year focussing on prostitution and trafficking in Europe. Again, it featured Nigerians prominently both as perpetrators and victims. So, while the world watched South Africa, India and Brazil making key decisions with global leaders about crucial issues that would affect the lives of their citizens, the lives of the developing world and the wider world, Nigeria was making headlines on a programme called ‘How To Rob A Bank’. A representative from the Nigerian Embassy in the US, who should have been at the G20 meeting was instead, like an embattled solider, valiantly defending Nigeria’s image on this programme. We must recollect, that this was also the week in which the video of the opprobrious beating and disrobing of a private Nigerian citizen Ms. Uzoma Okeke by members of the Nigerian Navy, made the rounds on the internet and international protests were organised in New Jersey and London. With these examples of the kind of information and ideas that members of the international community have about us, are we still surprised and asking why we are losing international clout and respect?
I wondered how the Nigerian President would have felt, that is if he had been invited to the G20 Economic Summit, and was sitting in a lounge with some of his esteemed counterparts when any of these stories was aired. Can you imagine the embarrassment, after spending long hours trying to solve the global financial crisis and then the country you are representing features an all star cast in a programme titled How To Rob A Bank? I can imagine the Italian Prime Minister, infamous for his dark humour induced gaffes, declaring that perhaps the world should learn from Nigeria how to solve the global financial crises, since its seems Nigerians have worked out how to solve their personal financial crisis by robbing banks! The joke would have been crude and undiplomatic and people who wanted to laugh would have contained themselves, coughed instead, and possibly excused themselves, sprinting to the restroom to laugh in private. But really, distasteful as it could be, the joke would have landed quite appropriately in our laps. We created the opportunity for it by not putting our own house in order and turning a great country that used to be called the Giant of Africa, into a dwarfed diplomatic laughing stock in the global village square.
So here lies our problem and one of the key causes of our diminished international clout and why we are fast becoming the punch-line of countless jokes – anyone who saw the Election Special of the Colbert Report on Comedy Central knows what I am talking about. The problem is that our house is not in order and if I may borrow a biblical phrase, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Through corruption and poor governance, we have squandered our economic wealth and lost international confidence in our fiscal competence. We have lost credibility as a catalyst of governance reform in Africa, after all our diplomatic posturing just a few years ago about leading the reform process across Africa. We have denied our best minds the opportunity to lead and today, people like our former Finance and then later Foreign Minister Ngonzi Nkonjo-Iweala; and former Solid Minerals Development and later Education Minister Obi Ezekwesili, are now tucked away in Washington DC at the World Bank doing what they could have done for us in Nigeria for others who appreciate them more and give them the opportunity to use their skills and knowledge. We have not provided educational, economic and leadership opportunities for our youth and as a result, they find other means, as illegal as they maybe, to shall I say, demonstrate their ingenuity, and express their intelligence by becoming leaders in ‘other’ fields. As I thought about this, it began to rain. Perhaps the heavens wept at what a mess we had made of our national blessings.
Secondly, we urgently need to create a more enabling environment for our youth to excel in diverse fields of enterprise, be it social, economic or political. If we do not, they will find alternative routes for themselves and this may just result in more crimes that will further undermine our international reputation. We also need to bring government to the people instead of the people always having to go government, and to make government more transparent, inclusive and accessible. For example, how many Nigerians have seen Aso Rock? Do we know what it looks like inside? If we wanted to could we? People have a right to know and see where they leaders live and work since it’s built with taxpayer’s money. What we have now are dark caves of power that only a chosen few can access. This needs to change. Government is for all the people, not just some. Also, the days of ageism, Bigmanism and nepotism have to come to an end. Meritocracy is the only way to let the people that can lead, to lead and lead well. And at this point, this is exactly what we need to move forward. We must promote technical competence in leadership by putting the right people in the right positions.
Thirdly, we need to increase our diplomatic efforts to change our international image and this has to go beyond the slogans of Nigeria being the ‘Heartbeat of Africa’, when the joke on us is that we are the ‘Fraud Capital of Africa’. By ensuring that we have capable, polished and articulate diplomats who are nuanced in engaging in the subtleties of political discourse, handling the international media and mastering the art of diplomatic banter in the international sphere. We must reclaim ownership of the Nigerian story and let the world know much more about the successes, strengths and opportunities in our country, as well as the efforts we are making to address our challenges. A diplomatic charm offensive complimented by an authentic internal reform process and our own economic stimulus process will be needed if Nigeria is to rebound from its economic doldrums and diplomatic demotion in global affairs.
Finally, it’s not enough for us to swagger around in our agbadas demanding to be respected because of our over-flogged credentials of high oil production and population statistics. Thus far these have not yielded respectable outcomes. We will have to earn our right to pride by doing that which is right domestically and internationally. We will need to focus more on economic growth, infrastructure development and wealth distribution. We must strengthen our democratic institutions and processes while tackling both domestic and international crime more aggressively and more effectively. We also have to increase our value in the global arena by contributing more to processes to foster global security, political stability and economic development. All the above must be complimented by sleek, strategic and sophisticated diplomacy built on the confidence that we have put our house in order and we have something valuable to offer the world, beyond oil. If we are to reclaim Nigeria’s clout in the international arena and become the key global player that we have the potential to be, Nigeria will have to eat humble pie, start re-building its foundations and reposition itself internationally with a recognition that success at home, begats success abroad.