TRANSFORMING NIGERIA: “Am I dreaming?” – Richard Dowden addresses the Nigerian President and cabinet on Independence Day
There were moments when I thought this was a dream. It could not be real. Maybe I was being lured to Nigeria as part of some 419 scam. I was being asked – sounded out rather – to come to Nigeria to give the main speech on Nigeria’s National Day. Furthermore it seemed to be at the request of the President. Indeed he and his entire government would be in the audience. As the emails began to flow faster and longer it did indeed seem to be true.
A few months ago I got a call asking me to sign 40 copies of my book to be sent to Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan had read the chapter on Nigeria and wanted to give copies to all his cabinet. I was naturally flattered but I did wonder whether he was saying: “This is a brilliant analysis of the Nigerian situation” or “My God, see what people out there are saying about us. We had better do something about it!”
So when I received the invitation I wondered which it would be. Having attended many conferences and meetings in, and on, Nigeria I know that the art of praise signing is still very much alive there. Was I really going to stand up and tell the Nigerian cabinet to their faces what I thought of their country and what the problems really are. I checked with my interlocutors. “Don’t pull your punches,” they said.
So last Tuesday I found myself in the Foreign Ministry in Abuja facing an audience of the Present and vice-President, a past president, cabinet ministers, the heads of the armed forces and government departments, parliamentarians, ambassadors and the press corps. The whole event was broadcast live on Nigerian television. I am used to covering such events as a journalist, a species regarded as a lower form of life in most governments and tolerated as a necessary evil. Being reported rather than reporter was a strange experience.
At least I wasn’t alone. My presentation was to be followed by Michela Wrong who wrote It’s Our Turn to Eat, John Githongo’s story about investigating corruption in the Kenyan government, and Odia Ofeimun, a renowned but radical poet and writer. Were we dreaming? We asked ourselves. Governments do not ask critical journalists and a radical poet to address them on their National Day. You can read what I said here
One thing you can be sure of is that a Nigerian audience will let you know how you are doing. They interact like no other. My problem was that at times everyone applauded politely – that’s when I praised Nigerian achievements. But elsewhere a few people clapped or cheered but others murmured disapproval. I noticed that the parliamentarians remained stonily silent when I suggested their salary level of $1 million with another $1 million in expenses was obscene. They are the highest paid parliamentarians in the world but their country has 100 million people living in poverty.
Occasionally I caught the President’s eye and he was nodding in approval so I kept going. At the end I got standing ovation but I think some of the ministers remained unconvinced.
After Michela and Odia had spoken it was announced that there would be no questions but the President overruled the MC. Four ministers responded but made speeches which seemed to me to fall into the praise singing genre – and it wasn’t me they were praising. Then the President himself stood up and chastised them for not asking questions.
I began to understand where Goodluck Jonathan is coming from. He spoke without notes commenting on some of the things we had said and asking more questions about the implications. What he said he liked was that we had not reported from hearsay, but had walked the walk on the ground in places in the Niger Delta he himself knew. At the end of the meeting he did not stand on ceremony, happy to stay on the platform for a few minutes to chat and muse about the issues and decisions which face Nigeria. So I took the opportunity to invite him to give the Royal African Society Annual Lecture next year. He accepted. Watch this space.
My impression of President Goodluck Jonathan is that he is Nigeria’s first intellectual president – a laid back former academic who wants to walk round a problem before deciding what to do about it. He likes to listen and ask questions – taking his time to understand and reframe the problem. He has committed to reorganizing the oil industry and the financial sector and has built a very progressive team, bringing back Ngozi Iweala Nkonjo from the World Bank and keeping Bala Sanussi and Segun Aganga on board.
But when events happen and snap decisions are needed will he be able to take good ones? Does he have good advisors? Judging by what I saw, he is gathering a smart, effective team around him. The other question is whether he will have the strength to stand up to the big beasts of Nigerian politics? Having seen off the likes of former president, Ibrahim Babangida, Atiku Abubakar, his rival for the party leadership, and Muhammadu Buhari, another former head of state who he beat in the election, I think the answer is yes.
Richard Dowden is Director the Royal African Society – he writes a regular blog for African Arguments