Barring an unlikely politically negotiated detour, the United States President, Barack Obama, and his wife, Michelle, will not visit Nigeria on their forthcoming African tour, billed to take them to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania between June 26 and July 3.The White House announced last week the exclusion of Nigeria from Obama’s African itinerary, apparently, as a way of delivering a strong message to the country’s rulers on their slack anti-corruption policy and poor human rights record. Subsequent reports on the matter, however, indicate that Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States, Prof. Ade Adefuye, is exploring the possibility of getting the US to change its mind by reinserting Nigeria on the list of countries to be visited by Obama.
Flash back to the twilight months of 1975 when Gen. Murtala Muhammed at the time Nigeria’s Head of State pointedly rebuffed the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who had proposed to visit Nigeria, and see what a sea change had occurred in Nigeria’s foreign policy as well as national self-worth. In that glorious season, we called the bluff of the US; today, we cringe before that same country, beseeching it to consider Nigeria worthy of being visited by its president. By way of explanation, let us recall that Muhammed’s government and to a lesser extent the successor government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo were reformist, nationalist and enjoyed popular legitimacy on account of proven, not rhetorical achievements. Nigeria relished the spotlight as a haven for anti-colonial rebels across the continent including those from apartheid South Africa.
It must be recorded as a touching irony that South Africa, whose liberation was in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, a defining and much-acclaimed credo of our vigorous foreign policy is listed today on Obama’s itinerary while Nigeria, the liberator, is shoved aside. What has changed about Nigeria that it should now become the butt of the derisive snubbing and dismissive scorn around the globe? In the 1970’s, there was a nation around which nationalism could be projected. Today, the nation is imploding, and retreating to its least common denominators. That is why an Asari Dokubo could threaten war, if his kinsman loses the election in 2015; and insurgent Islamists could institute a reign of terror, verging on attempted secession in another part of the country. Nigeria is viewed with the contempt that one reserves for a neighbouring family where husband and wife square up to each other in fisticuffs on the verandah, disturbing the peace of the entire neighbourhood.
That is not all. A diminution of leadership is today superimposed on a crisis of governance, with predictable diminishing returns for governmental output. South Africa, a federation like Nigeria, obviously has its problems but it had as president and now statesman, Nelson Mandela, who put his country on the world map both by bridge-building skills and by quitting office when the ovation was loudest. As the ongoing, tawdry squabble in the Nigerian Governors’ Forum shows, much of it engineered from outside, dishonourable shenanigans and dishonesty rule the political roost, mainly because of what Chief Obafemi Awolowo was fond of calling “tenacity of office”. Let us face it. There is hardly anything in the US’ dressing down of Nigeria that has not been pointed out by the civil society and, permit the self-indulgence, by this columnist. What domestic and international reactions did the Jonathan administration expect when it granted state pardon to a former Bayelsa State governor, who is on the list of wanted persons in several countries around the globe? Should not that decision have been weighed in the light of the government’s loudly advertised anti-corruption policy and of global public opinion?
Now, the rub. As condemnation at home and abroad trailed the state pardon, with a US journalist calling for the impeachment of Jonathan, our President was quoted to have said that he had no regret taking that universally denounced and reprehensible step. In other words, as the Americans would say “in your face”. Could not the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Jonathan’s many advisers have pointed out the implications of exploring the borders of a pariah outlook in the international community and for no other reason than helping out a fallen mentor? I do not defend the US which is not without its own human rights blemishes, symbolised by the excesses of the war on terror and the horrifying narratives that poured out of its naval base in Guantanamo. Yet, it is hard to deny that through our blunders and inaction we have often earned the rebuke of other countries, including those of our better governed, smaller neighbours.
There are occasions as in the example of the 1970’s cited earlier when a reformist government could rally the nation against the big brother insults of a foreign power. But this is not one of them; as we did not need the US to tell us that the anti-corruption agenda of the Jonathan administration has lost its steam, that is if indeed there was any ab initio, and that business-as-usual is the name of the game in our political setting. Our leaders do not expect other democracies to congratulate them for flouting emerging governance norms in the global neighbourhood; or, for treating Nigerians with the contempt reserved for subjects of autocratic rule, rather than citizens of a democracy.
It is not too late, however especially in the light of the current rebuff, for Nigeria’s leaders to begin to do things right as well as enthrone decency in the polity and in state-society relations. Even rogue states within the international system must live with certain restrictions on their conduct as long as they remain in the comity of nations. The administration should consider breathing a new life into the comatose anti-corruption agenda; as well as by the force of example, institute new norms that would stem and slow down the current fiendish and fiery political skirmishes, in the run-up to 2015.
Furthermore, is it not time to recompact this tottering nation by convoking a national conference that will seek to revalidate our eroding sense of nationhood and community or in the alternative, prescribe modalities for nationalities to go their separate ways without needless bloodletting? As argued earlier, there can be no nationalism without a nation; and there can be no nation without the consent of the nationalities. The current federal jamboree favours the emergence of second elevens as state officials and the elevation of mediocrity and visionless government into fundamental directives of state policy. It is time to renegotiate Nigeria. The earlier we toed this line, the better for us all.