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
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Thanks for sharing your remarks, any idea of Michela Wrong is publishing hers?
thank u for interesting post! my pleasure to read it!
Interesting post, again another quixotic view of GEJ as someone who possibly knows the right thing to do but refuses to do it. Where is the logic on bringing foreigners in to tell you what every Nigerian knows?
As GEJ failed to mention what his motivation was in inviting critics from abroad to speak, we can only surmise it is another exercise in Nigerian government expat obsession, obviously Nigerian critics are no longer good enough. But at least Mr Dowden put a few hime truths across, hopefully some of them stuck
For how long would we as Nigerians continue to listen to good speech?it comes and goes.
Good work, but are they buying the idea ?
You have played your part as far as Nigeria history is concerned, it is now left for ‘THEM’ to make good your points. What a country my Nigeria !
I think Mr Dowden attempted unsuccessfully to walk a fine line between sycophancy and honest analysis. In the main, his analysis of the Nigerian problems is true; but his assessment of the President is laughably dishonest. Of course, his view of the Nigerian election as â€œthe most transparentâ€ he has ever witnessed is an oversell and so is the attempt to dress the President in borrowed intellectual robes. Just having a PhD does not make you an intellectual and anyone who doubts this can shut my mouth by producing any original intellectual work of the President as an academic or intellectual for us to see.
More crucially, Mr President has never addressed national issues in any intellectual manner. In fact, each time I read his Facebook entries, I despair! I despair not only for the poor quality of grammar (despite the bloated bureaucracy of spindoctors), but poorer quality of thought! Does he have to tiptoe around national problems for eons before implementing solutions? So, how long does Mr Dowden think the President will need to walk around these problems, listen and ask questions before he begins to address them? Iâ€™m sorry, but Jonathan has been in government at the highest executive levels for over 12 years! If heâ€™s still walking around and asking questions in these critical times, then it shows he doesnâ€™t have a plan nor did he come to office with one! What is progressive about bringing back Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to implement a dubious oil subsidy removal? What has Bala Sanussi or Segun Aganga got to offer?
The evidence that stares us and Mr Dowden in the face is the opposite of his claims! When events happen and snap and smart decisions are needed, Mr President has been known to customarily bury himself in the inner recesses of Aso Rock only to appear and elicit loud groans with his speeches! Dowden says he can stand up to the â€œbig beasts of Nigerian politicsâ€, because he saw off Ibrahim Babangida, Atiku Abubakar and Muhammadu Buhari in a charade of an electoral contest? Oh no, her canâ€™t! He is serving the interest of the establishment of which these beasts are part and with him sitting in Aso Rock, their interests (and his) are well protected!
Yes, we can all admire the window-dressing, but the facts on the ground do not lie! Nigeria is going nowhere fast under his leadership. Of course, I have not entirely ruled out his capacity to begin to change things; but the signs arenâ€™t there and Mr Dowden knows this like the back of his hands!
Another waste of time, the dogs on the Nigerian streets know what our problems are. Till we lazy Nigerians get off our posteriors and challenge the status quo, we’ll continue to suffer. Do you think those legislators are unaware their million dollar salaries are obscene and does anyone expect them to go home now and vote for a pay cut!