A couple of years ago, President Olushegun Obasanjo of Nigeria was the Chief guest at Uganda's independence celebrations. As to be expected the Nigerian High Commission in Uganda held a reception for him and invited the Nigerian community in the country to lunch with the president. For most of my time in Uganda, I was in the unusual position of being one of the prominent Nigerians’ in the country. Even when I could not go to the country during the Military dictatorship the High commission was still kind enough to consider me worthy of being invited to meet all kinds of delegations from Nigeria. Their attitude was quite different from those of the Nigerian High Commission in London with which I had only public demonstration and picketing engagemernt throughout the same period. What pass for Nigerian community in Uganda is actually mostly West African citizens resident in the country. Since Nigeria is the only West African country with diplomatic representation in East Africa and Central Africa its High commissions or embassies serve as a West African Diplomatic Mission. For me that is the clearest proof, if any is needed, that Pan Africanism is common sense, not only desirable but cost effective, efficient and pervades all our lives consciously and unconsciously among our peoples and between our states both deliberately but often out of necessity. The only obstacle is our artificial states created to serve other people's interests. They are illegitimate in the lives of many Africans. They often demonstrate their presence through the numerous inconveniences they can put in the way of their citizens. Many of them are so insecure about their existence they try to proof their independence and sovereignty in everything including declaring themselves independent of the truth!
At the Obasanjo reception there was a group of Nigerian Boys’ (mostly serial adventurers in transit in search of greener pastures) carrying placards protesting against exorbitant fees for acquiring the then newly introduced computerised Nigerian passports and the long bureaucracy in getting them. Obasanjo, speaking after the lunch, in a mixture of standard English laced with Yoruba accent and the more universal Nigerian Pidgin English, in the spacious grounds of the High Commissioner's residence, confronted the demonstrators directly. He assured them that he was not trying to make money for the government of Nigeria through a hike in money paid for passports. He said the hike in the fees was due to the high standards of technical design of the new passports, which cost more to produce. It was computerised with a requirement for fingerprints. All these were necessary not just to catch up with latest technology but because according to the President "I am tired of being a 419 President" . 419 is a decree passed by a military government in Nigeria meant to punish people who are engaged in advance fees fraud on contracts allegedly awarded by Nigerian governments, its agencies and parastatals. Any user of the Internet will now know that there is nothing Nigerian about these scams anymore. All kinds of fraudsters from other countries in Africa through the middle east and other parts of the world have joined in usually claiming to be sons, daughters, wives, concubines, etc, of one big man or the other who recently died but left the putative relative the secret code to huge sums of money which he / she now wants to pass through your account! The original Nigerian scam was straight forward . It played on the corrupt contractocracy (government of contractors by contractors and for contractors that the country had become). The perpetrators usually claim to have secured a huge contract from the ministry of Defence, National Oil Parastatals or being a big person in the Central Bank or any other leading Bank. They will then quote fantastic figures to a recent contract that they have secured . However there will always be a snagg, some cobs in the greasy wheel that has to be oiled. Someone needs to be ‘given something’ so that the monies can be released quickly. That is where, if you are a bent greedy person yourself, you will be roped in. they will suggest you help with x amount of money to speed up the process and bingo, you can laugh your way to the bank!
Obasanjo was candid with his audience and explained how he had met two young men in Yola prison where he was imprisoned by Abacha who had given him tutorials on how 419 worked. He always also expressed his indignation at being informed of Nigerians in prisons in very distant shores he had travelled to. Therefore the computerised passport was part of the government's strategy to control the access to the passports which were previously available to the highest bidder. I am not sure if computerisation has changed anything. The President believed that the new passports were difficult to forge and required fingerprints that was to make it difficult for multiple claims. Trying to be more catholic than his Pope, the High commissioner went further than his Boss by stating that the new passport was “impossible to forge”. In one of those crude frankness that Obasanjo is famous for he looked at his Uganda representative with a bemusement that made all of us listening to laugh and retorted “Mr Ambassador, it is difficult but not impossible ¦nothing is impossible for a Nigerian”. Even the placard bearing demonstrators fell about laughing and threw away their placards.
Obasanjo was being realistic about the ingenuity and the negative creativity of his compatriots but still determined to be one step up fighting the corruption (perpetrated by a few) that has become a bye word for the country. His current anti corruption crusade that has already claimed two ministers and also the dismissal of the Inspector General of Police recently are part of this war against corruption. It may not end corruption but hopefully bring about some fear and sense of shame that may make the Nigerian elite to think twice before plunging their troughs into the national treasury. It is a long way from reversing the culture of graft in public office but the spectacle of seeing the former Inspector of Police in handcuffs being matched into a courthouse may send signals that no one is untouchable. This week another trial began of the former Federal Minister for Education, Prof. Fabian Osuji (definitely no connection with the more noble British Fabian Socialists), the former President of the Senate (the third in line of succession in the country) and other top officials of the Education Ministry and some national Legislators. The Minister had bribed members of a subcommittee of the National Assembly in order to get his Ministry's budget passed without alteration and even some top up while they were at it!. Many Nigerians are very cynical about the trials, the timing and the motives of their president. I am no admirer of Obasanjo and his 'I-know all' executive insecurities and his Babacrazy school of governance but the baby and the birth water should be separated. The fact that all thieves may not be caught should not mean that those caught should not be punished. The Law may not catch up with all lawbreakers but there must be certainty that those caught will be punished according to the law without any fear or favour.