Friday 13 May 2016

#MustRead: Contrasting Narratives of Nigeria’s Image

Nigeria - Good People, Great Nation
by: Ayo Olukotun

“The two quite different events, one in Washington DC, the other in London, suggest that if Nigerians are fantastically corrupt, they also are demonstrably brilliant” —Tiwa Olugbade, May 11, 2016.

Two recent events of global resonance, one at Howard University in Washington DC, the other in the London venue of the ongoing anti-corruption summit provide contrasting narratives of Nigeria’s image abroad. 

On Saturday, at Howard University, in the full glare of the world, 43 Nigerians out of a total graduating class of 96 clinched the Doctor of Pharmacy degree. Astonishingly, for a nation starved of good reports, 16 out of the 27 award winners are Nigerians reinforcing a recent observation by distinguished Political Science Professor, Richard Joseph, that Nigerians are one of the highest achieving immigrant groups in the United States. 

The second event, indicated in the opening quite sourced from Tiwa Olugbade, a Professor of Pharmacy at the Obafemi Awolowo University, was triggered by reference to Nigeria by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in the course of a meeting with Queen Elizabeth on Tuesday that “Nigeria is fantastically corrupt”.

The scathing remark although moderated subsequently in the course of a conversation in the House of Commons, sparked widespread consternation coming as it did when President Muhammadu Buhari had already arrived in London for both the preparatory commonwealth meeting and the anticorruption Summit being hosted by Cameron. Regarding the obviously undiplomatic statement by Cameron who, given his involvement in the recent Panama Papers scandal is not exactly an exemplar of probity, Buhari’s pregnant riposte that what he needed was not an apology but for Britain to assist Nigeria in recovering assets looted by Nigerian politicians is statesmanlike. It broaches, without directly making the point that Britain, as indeed other western countries are complicit in the stashing away of huge fortunes in British and American banks, by Nigeria’s monumentally corrupt leaders.

There is growing evidence that corruption is on an increasing scale in Britain and the European countries as a recent report inaugurated by the European Union testifies. That notwithstanding, the fact that corruption is a matter of scale suggests that, as many have observed, Cameron’s remark is in substance correct even if highly undiplomatic. If we raise the question why Cameron made his controversial remark at the time he did, we get a couple of answers ranging from The PUNCH columnist, Abimbola Adelakun’s afro-pessimist stereotype of a pervasively corrupt Nigeria to Ekiti State Governor Ayodele Fayose’s argument that Buhari started it all by “demarketing Nigeria” through constantly referring to it as a heavily corrupt country.

There is another dimension to the matter however as a close reading of British newspapers in the last one month suggests. Early in April, the UK-based Telegraph came down hard on Buhari’s reformism by alleging that his government is “misusing British funds to persecute political opponents”. British funds in this context refer to the funding given to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission as well as British aid to Nigeria’s security infrastructure to more effectively combat Boko Haram. The Telegraph article quoted a senior United States official as saying “there is no doubt the growing strength of Boko Haram is because President Buhari is far more interested in settling scores with political opponents than concentrating energy on defeating terrorists”. It went on to lament that Nigeria had taken on some of the features of a police state. In a quick rebuttal, the Presidency decried the article as “full of inaccuracies and betrays a shocking sense of ignorance of Nigeria and the ongoing war against terrorism.”

That statement however did not put the matter to rest considering that the Mail Online a few days ago described Nigeria’s reforms as a witch-hunt alleging that Buhari committed £26,000 a year to educate one of his daughters in an English school and another £15,000 to paying the fees of another daughter at the University of Surrey. The tabloid even went so far as to mock Buhari as “a self-proclaimed people’s president”. If we situate Cameron’s comment within this narrative of the ambiguities of the Nigerian government’s reformism, then it can be interpreted as growing anxieties in British official circles about the character, direction and possible lopsidedness of Buhari’s reform programme.

In other words, there are international resonances in the global public sphere about some aspects of Nigeria’s reformism. To be sure, Nigeria should not need to be bound by the opinions of western leaders but it must take them to account especially as it depends on the west in critical areas. Although adversarial and irritating, Cameron’s comment can be used to refine and redefine Buhari’s anti-corruption strategies by addressing criticisms made of it both at home and abroad. The government can also consider a wider strategy of institutional reforms in order to free it from fixation on particular cases and individuals belonging to the opposition.

The second narrative constitutes an elixir because it puts Nigeria in the global spotlight by showcasing the aptitude and distinction of students who bagged a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, several of them winning awards at Howard University. Given that the degree is a professional postgraduate one in Pharmacy, the event signals the coming of age of a Nigerian technocracy in the US. As known, Nigeria has the highest enrolment of university students from Africa in the US, a trend which has been accentuated in the last five years. For example, two years ago, one-quarter of Black students at the Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry while Nigerians increasingly feature in diverse areas of human learning and achievements.

In other words, the Nigerian bustle and achievement orientation are increasingly released in the propitious, knowledge driven climes of the Diaspora. The challenge however, is to leverage on this development to fast track Nigeria’s entry into modernity as the Chinese and Indians have done. There is the additional challenge posed to the Nigerian project, namely; how to build a motivational environment where the Nigerian dream can be actualised. The current situation where dysfunction in our educational system has turned Nigerians who can afford it to migrants abroad should be reversed. We should aim at building systems which attract nationals of other countries rather than become the site of a haemorrhage of talents abroad.

All too often, potential stars in our country are frustrated out of the ladder of success by an inclement environment, just as it takes too much heroism to stay on course or make a mark. A topical illustration of this disabling trend is the ripple effects of the raising of the price of petrol by over 100 per cent, to N145 per litre on Wednesday by the Buhari administration. Whatever the merits of this high jump, it will become more difficult for Nigerians who are already browbeaten to survive. We cannot expect outstanding achievement, innovation and productivity where the country increasingly resembles an economic war zone.

In conclusion, the two narratives on Nigeria one sobering, the other uplifting, suggest that more attention and better imagination need to be paid by the current government to governance and the welfare of the people. The anti-corruption struggle, noble in intention, must be re-imagined and reinvented while we should pursue policies that will optimise Nigerian productivity not just abroad but at home as well.

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