Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reclaiming Nigeria’s Clout in the International Arena

Having spent most of last week in Washington attending meetings and functions at Capitol Hill, the US Supreme Court and the World Bank, I decided to top it up with what is soon to become the Obama White House. As I ogled its pristine white exterior and its impeccably manicured lawns, I could not help but think that in a few months time, the family in there would not have a full blooded indigenous American name like Lincoln, Washington, Clinton or Bush, as African a name as an African name can be: Obama. O-B-A-M-A. I had to spelt it out loud and then say it phonetically to myself just to be sure that what I was saying was real. I am still stupefied by the surrealism of this reality, especially as I see the sidewalks of Washington filled with street hawkers selling T-shirts and paraphernalia of an all black First Family set against a backdrop of an effervescent White House. It’s like watching a special edition of the Cosby Show when the Huxtables wake up in the White House as the First Family and towards the end of the show, we find out it was all a dream. But this is no dream. Its reality. It’s the sweetest reality ever tasted by the black race in centuries. I can’t help but salivate at this new promise of the possibility of greater global racial respect for the black race. I even walk the streets of America with a new nimble spring to my step.

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.

As diverse siren blearing motorcades of Heads of State whizzed past me with their miniature national flags hoisted proudly on their bonnets and fluttering fervently in the wind, as if to pronounce the greatness of their nations and the eminence of their leaders, I realised it was an important weekend here in Washington. It was the meeting of the G-20 (20 countries from the developed world, economically buoyant developing countries - otherwise referred to as ‘emerging markets’ , and heads of international finance institutions). As I engaged in a personal game of trivia trying to mention the countries represented by the flags of the motorcades that sped past, I subconsciously waited to see my own national flag, the Nigerian flag. But my hope was dashed. Motorcade after motorcade, there was no glorious Green-white-Green flag waving proudly in the American wind. From the ‘developing’ world, we saw India, Brazil and wait for it, South Africa. That’s right. The only African country was South Africa -one of the youngest African countries in terms of independence, while countries like Ghana and Nigeria who gained their independence in 1957 and 1960 respectively, where nowhere to be seen on the world stage at a time of global crisis. What does this say? Well, it’s says that in the global economy, relevance comes from the depth of your pockets and not necessarily the length of your independence. South Africa’s economy (est. GDP $ 282.6 billion in 2007) trumps both that of Nigeria (est. GDP $166.8 billion in 2007) and Ghana (est. GDP $14.86 billion in 2007). It’s also more integrated into the international financial system than most African countries, thus on that basis, they end up representing Africa at the rich countries’ club.

Now, there is a new proposal that this group called the G-20 transforms into the L-20, being the Leaders of 20 most influential countries across the globe that will essentially deal with issues related to global economic governance, as well as other issues of global import. This new group, if it comes to fruition will possibly overshadow the anachronistic G-8, which mostly reflected yesterday’s post-cold war international order and power realignments, as opposed to today’s ‘post-September 11’, ‘post- US financial crises’, ‘post-China rising’ contemporary realities. The world has changed radically since the end of the cold war, thus it makes sense that the institutions of global governance, also change to reflect new realties, power bases and challenges. So clearly, it makes sense that if the G20 Economic Summit was about the economy, that the attendees are countries that significantly impact the global economy, and this is what leads to my question: Why is an African country that is almost half a century old; is the most population African nation; a regional hegemon in keeping peace and stability; one of the top ten producers of oil in the world and a key player in OPEC, not relevant enough as an economic player to be at such a meeting?

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.

Later that weekend at Grand Central Station, on my way back to Yale in Connecticut, I walked into Hudson News - the mini stores at most US train stations- and Barack Obama was smiling at me from the pages of almost all the leading magazines, as well as the tabloids. I wondered when our political system will empower a young Nigerian to reach for the greatest heights, achieve great feats and in doing so, inspire the world. We have what it takes I thought, but the environment is what need to change. There is no doubt, that if Nigeria is to regain its lost glory in the diplomatic sphere and on the global stage, first we need to put our house in order. Our economy needs to be revamped and that is impossible without tackling corruption, reducing bureaucracy, building necessary infrastructure, addressing the challenges of security and providing regular power supply. The crucial necessity for competent governance and management goes without saying. Tackling fraudsters and criminal networks must be at the peak of our national security, economic and foreign policy agendas and we must more actively and visibly cooperate with INTERPOL and other international police agencies to end this criminal scourge of international financial fraud which now seems to have Nigeria as its poster child. Agencies like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commissions (EFCC) should be further empowered within the framework of the constitution and not beyond the law, but with a level of independence and autonomy that insulates it from politicisation and allows it to maintain organisational integrity and effectiveness.

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.

Friday, November 7, 2008

President-Elect Barack Obama: Expanding the Boundaries of Possibility

President-Elect Barack Obama: Expanding the Boundaries of Possibility

Fourth November 2008 could mark the end of one history and signal the beginning of another future. A new future for America, a new future for Africa, and possibly a new future for the world. As we witness this epic event in American politics and watch as the future unfolds before our eyes, one cannot help but think the world as we knew it may never be the same again. These are great times to live in and we are privileged to bear witness to this seismic evolution in human society, in global politics and in race relations. These are times that have challenged our assumptions about what is either possible or impossible, and perhaps have revealed new lessons on how much can be achieved through the extraordinary powers of courage, clarity, conviction and competence.

Towards the end of the last millennium, we witnessed one gentleman -whom until this year the United States still listed as a "terrorist" - being sworn in as the first black President of a truly democratic South Africa. This man, Nelson Mandela, who is now celebrated as a beacon of hope, integrity and great leadership across the world, had been in jail for 27 years. Upon his eventual release, he led his party the African National Congress (ANC) to a landslide victory that ended one era of South Africa's history and changed the country's future forever.

This was a feat that even the most passionate optimists and committed cynics alike thought impossible. Margaret Thatcher, a pioneer in her own right who also expanded the realms of possibility when she became the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of her party, unfortunately fell into the category of the cynics when she reportedly said that anyone who believed the ANC would ever rule South Africa was "living in cloud cuckoo land". Four years later, Mandela led the ANC into a landslide victory and the ANC has ruled South Africa ever since. 'Cloud cuckoo land' became a reality on planet earth. The boundaries of possibility had been expanded by the conviction of one man standing against the cynicism and pessimism of many others more powerful than he.

Now less than fifteen years after Nelson Mandela made history, another seemingly impossible feat has been achieved. A young man who seemed to have all the odds against him: age, inexperience, race, funds, family background, cultural heritage and even his name, overcame all these gargantuan obstacles to become the first African-American President in US history. This achievement exceeded even the renowned 'dream' of Reverend Martin Luther King of an America without racism. Though Obama's vision was partly inspired, crystallised and catalysed by Reverend King's dream, Obama pushed the boundaries of possibility further. His vision saw far beyond the good Reverend's dream and he pursued it with sagacious clarity, convincing sincerity, intellectual rigour and relentless vigour that inspired our world like nothing else we have seen in recent times. Even the most committed cynics were left speechless. The boundaries of possibility were tested and the unexpected and seemingly impossible emerged. Perhaps the human race is not as bad we often think. Perhaps the fences between us are not as entrenched as we assume. Perhaps the boundaries of possibility are more expandable than we dare to dream.

This is a euphoric and inspirational moment in world history, and it is one that has sparked a new light of hope in a troubled and conflicted world. However, what happens next and how we all react to this event as individuals, groups or nations is what would be most crucial in consolidating and spreading the gains of Obama's victory. Perhaps a good place to start may be in looking at some of the lessons that could be learnt.

For the US, it may be worthy to note that based on how much attention the whole world paid to this election, it is clear that the world has not turned its back against America. If anything at all, many across the world still need and look to the US for leadership. Leadership, not through aggression or unilateralism but through diplomacy and multilateralism; leadership, not through instruction but through inspiration; leadership not just for America's interests but leadership for shared global interests. It is thus encouraging that President-elect Obama stated in his victory speech that "our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, a new dawn of American leadership is at hand" and he acknowledged that there were "alliances to repair." He seemed to understand in his campaign and at his moment of victory, that he was not about to become just the leader of the United States but possibly the leader of a world where majority want to be united in peace and live in dignity.

Now, if America can keep this promise of a new dawn of American leadership and build on the global goodwill that the Obama presidency has attracted from across the world, very much like after September 11, then it just may regain it respect and its crown of global leadership, and find more real 'friends and allies' across the world – both in nation-states and amongst world citizens. If America can respect and protect the lives, rights and dignity of peoples and nations across the world, then it is more likely that these same nations and peoples will respect and protect America and Americans in return. It's now time to invest more in 'hearts and minds', 'notebooks and pencils', 'bread and butter', 'vaccines and medicines' , 'roofs and wells' and less in bullets and bombs.

For Africa and its leadership, we need to ask ourselves serious questions. First, if the President-elect of the world's most powerful and wealthiest nation is a direct descendant of an African and bears an African name, then what excuse do we have today as to why we cannot produce the same calibre leaders within Africa, who can lead our own countries into greater, faster and more sustainable growth, stability and development? Secondly, we need to ask, if Barack Obama with all his education, knowledge, skills and passion had been a 'young' forty-seven year old from a modest background and a minority ethnic group in an African country, would he have been given a chance to become President, as he was in America? What was the fate of Raila Odinga in Kenya or Morgan Tsvangrai in Zimbabwe in the last two hotly contested African elections which could have facilitated a generational shift in the leadership of these countries? If Obama had been an Africa-based politician liked Odinga or Tsvangrai would he have been given a chance? Would he have been elected an African President?

Perhaps those who deprive Africa's young emerging leaders from opportunities to lead through service, need to see that the political, economic and cultural fences that we place in the path of our youngest and brightest, only stop us from harnessing the energy, the vitality and the freshness of ideas that younger leaders can bring to the leadership table. For as long as we fence, intimidate, antagonise and hound our young stars out of the political sphere, seeing them as threats and not as opportunities, and continue to relegate them to the hidden corners of society, disempowered and unable to contribute to the leadership and the development of their countries, then we will continue to be trapped in the same vicious cycle of poor governance, instability, underdevelopment and conflict, even though we have all it takes to live in prosperity, peace and development. Unless we reverse this trend and create a more equitable political playing field for all Africans old and young, female and male, irrespective of ethnicity, creed or socio-economic background, we will continue to lose our best and our brightest to other regions of the world who appreciate them more and give them more opportunities to be the very best they can be, and to soar to the highest peaks they can reach. Sometimes new ideas and good leadership comes from change. Africa needs this kind of change. Change we can grow with. Change for development.

For the world, we may want to realise that the foreign policies of the outgoing US government do not wholly reflect the aspirations, the nature or the character of the vast majority of American people. How America voted in this election has told us this in no uncertain terms. These votes were not just votes for Barack Obama, they were also votes against George W. Bush's policies and votes for the rest of the world. Like a political Council of Bishops, the Americans have elected a political Pope for the world and several polls confirm that the world agrees with America's choice. And if the agencies and arms of the American government under President-elect Obama embody the same spirit of change, of dialogue, of responsibility and of global partnerships that Obama espouses, then there is no reason why the world should not give America a chance and support it in this change process. The same way we all need support to get things right, having realised where we went wrong, America will also need the world's support to actualise Obama's change process.

The bottom-line is that all of us from diverse countries, cultures, races and creeds want to live in a world where our dreams can become realties. After all is said and done, and irrespective of America's challenges, America remains the only country where Obama's extraordinary dreams could have become possible. By voting-in Barack Obama in this election, America has chosen to lead once again by showing the world that irrespective of its wealth and its military might that it is still a country that believes in the power of hopes and dreams and of giving ordinary people extraordinary opportunities. Its democracy has worked and it has delivered a new era of hope to the American people. If a 'new' America can afford and support other countries to actualise the kind of hopes, dreams and opportunities it has just allowed itself, then it would have proven itself a credible leader of the 'free world' and its democracy one worthy of emulation. Then it can lead, with less resistance and more global support.

The election of Barack Obama is one of those transformative experiences that will become one of the key milestones of the evolution of human society. Depending on how we all respond, it could also signal a new direction in international relations and global politics. Its ramifications and impacts are multifarious. On an individual level, it expands the boundaries of imagination, broadens the scope of possibilities of human endeavour and inspires one to overcome the most towering of obstacles. On a societal level, it restores a broken faith in our shared humanity and inspires the belief that we can rise above the physical, economic, political and social boundaries that have kept us apart when in actuality, deep within, we are all the same. On a global level, if offers a new ray of hope and the inspiration to believe that perhaps, a new world order is possible.

Barack Obama's story is one that will inspire several generations to come. This man has not just made history, he has made the future. Through his courage, clarity, competence and conviction, Obama has opened new doors not just for African-Americans, wider America or even Africa. He has opened new doors for the future of human society, simply by expanding the boundaries of possibility. The question now is what we do on the individual, societal and global levels with our new found possibilities.