Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem describes his recent visit to Nigeria:
I must begin this piece with a thousand apologies to my readers for the spasmodic and epileptic appearance of this column in the past 5 weeks. IT would have been easier for me to advise my editors and readers that I was going to be on holiday for X number of weeks. But as a ‘good African’ the idea that I should be on holiday was anathematic to the cultural instinct. Whether peasants or presidents we are programmed to work till we die even if the evidence of the work may remain scanty. If you suggest to an African that he / she should go on holiday he / she starts suspecting that you want to get rid of him or her! Annual leave and a period set aside when you throw caution to the winds and just relax are anathematic to many Africans, rich or poor, urban or rural. Our lives are a kind of permanent emergencies needing constant urgent attention. Therefore we keep trying to fit in permanent work without break and the numerous immediate and extended family demands on our time and endless socio –cultural, multi tasked economic coping mechanisms in addition to endless community, and village must do activities!
The other and perhaps more pressing reason has to do with the objective fact of where I have been in the past 5 weeks: Nigeria. Somehow the country is not synonymous with holidays! The hassle and tussle of survival in Africa’s allegedly NO 1 country, self –declared super power is one that will task the best spirits of the most eccentric adventurer. As regular readers of this column will know over the past five years when I became a legal visitor to Nigeria again after more than a decade of being ‘wanted’ by the various caricatures of leaders from neo-fascist Buhari through ‘the original 419’ IBB to the psychopathic moral cripple called Abacha, whenever I am in Nigeria this column is never regular. All kinds of objective and subjective circumstances conspire to make this column less than regular whenever I am in the country. Hence the various editors (whose papers carry this column) have developed a kind of ‘Nigerian discount’ for my lapses in beating deadlines. The amazing thing is that I have written this column without failing from all kinds of places before including blighted war torn Eastern Congo, remote places in Burkina Faso on French keyboards in a Café where people spoke only French or local languages I did not understand; and also newly liberated post Genocide Kigali. Nigeria is on the face of it not at war but not a peace therefore everything is a daunting obstacle race!
Yet this is a country that has proclaimed since independence from the British in 1960, its ‘manifest destiny’ not only to lead Africa but Black people wherever they may be in the world. The irony is that many Africans or even African countries are not disputing this putative leadership. They only wished that Nigeria were able to lead effectively. If anything stands in the way of Nigeria it is its own self –doubt and its inconsistencies that is undermining its claims to leadership.
Take the example of two out of many issues currently occupying the chatters of foreign policy minded academics, policy wonks, sections of the media and some civil society activists: Nigeria’s recent loss of the Africa Development Bank (ADB) presidency to Rwanda and Nigeria’s quest for a permanent seat in UN security Council.
The national pride was greatly hurt that ‘little Rwanda’ despite not having majority African support in most of the tortuous stages of the ADB presidency contest defeated Nigeria in Tunis after a deadlock in Abuja. A number of things counted against Nigeria, which my Nigerian friends are unwilling to come terms with. One, the country’s influence does not go far beyond Abuja itself. If you bring people to Abuja you can have your way but outside of it they may change their minds. Two, Nigeria is too complacent in its diplomacy believing that its case is ‘too clear’. Three, this complacency makes its officials to believe that the country is the only selling point whoever the candidate is. Four, Obasanjo’s obsession with external validation was once again proven to be pointless. He bends backwards (often against national instinct for anti western independence) to please America in particular and the West in general yet when it matters their own geo-political interests dictate clipping Nigeria’s wings in Africa and building sub regional counter checks. Five, it is not only the West that is interested in cutting Nigeria to size there are many seemingly friendly African countries who desire the same though they may not openly articulate this. South Africa is an obvious candidate in this category. So is Egypt, Libya, and many other pretenders to leadership of Africa. There are smaller and less resourced states who cannot make such claim but play the bigger or better resourced African states against each other, buttering their bread in all ways and most of the time going for the highest bidder. It’s a kind of cash and carry diplomacy. Post apartheid South Africa has many reasons to be grateful and friendly towards Nigeria but it has many reasons too to check mate Nigeria’s regional influence as it seeks its own economic and strategic interests on the continent. It wants business with Africa’s largest market and all the countries but also contests the leadership claims of Africa’s sleeping giant. No amount of personal rapport between leaders and diplomatic niceties can hide these contradictions. Nigeria’s folly is in believing that ‘there is no problem’. Six, and perhaps more importantly under Obasanjo Nigeria has developed a more personalised diplomacy around ‘Baba’ and whatever whims caught his eratic moods. Professional, well trained and experienced diplomats of which there are many in Nigeria’s foreign Ministry have been relegated to mostly onlookers or undertakers for a very interventionist and domineering presidency . It is very clear that Obasanjo believes he is own best foreign minister in addition to being the best in everything Nigerian! The BABACRACY (or is it BabaCRAZY?) that undermines Nigeria’s nascent democratic order has been extended to foreign affairs making it impossible for anybody to have any positive influence unless Baba allows them.
There are many more reasons that Nigerians need to wake up to if they are going to realise many of their assumed and oft repeated diplomatic and strategic goals in Africa and the world. Otherwise they will forever be beaten by so called small countries backed by larger interests.
And this is where Nigeria’s immediate foreign policy goal of securing one of the two anticipated African seats on the UN Security council in the ongoing UN reform proposals also run into serious troubles. If Nigeria has its house in order no African country would be bold enough to challenge its claim rather they should have been clamouring for the second seat. However even in West Africa where Nigeria claims to be sub regional power Senegal is also in the race. If Nigeria cannot have the unanimous support of its own backyard why should it expect the unanimous endorsement of the rest of Africa?
The atmosphere is so charged that many of my Nigerian friends and comrades have lost all kinds of objectivity in assessing their situation and think I must be a traitor to be raising doubts about the country’s ineffectual claims to continental leadership when it cannot even lead itself. Some even suggest that I have lost touch and I have no right to comment on Nigerian affairs because I have been away for so long from the country. Yet what we are debating is not domestic affairs but international affairs. They need to persuade others not themselves but somehow this detail is lost in the petty nationalist jingoism that clouds these discussions. And they wonder why ‘foreigners’ cannot accede to their claims! IF they claim that because a Nigerian leaves outside of the country he or she has no right to talk about domestic politics they should at least have a consistence in their own logic by being a little bit humble when discussing matters outside the borders of Nigeria. The ‘foreign’ Nigerians may have more to share with them by way of how others see Nigeria which is far different from how many Nigerians see their country, exergerrate its potential, place and role in both African and global affairs.