For the first time in a long time, I was proud to be a Nigerian living and practicing journalism in America. And as I flew into the triple-digit heat of Washington DC from the excellent Los Angeles’ weather, I was unsure what to expect from the Nigerian government delegation led by the new helmsman in Abuja, Muhammadu Buhari that was in town for crucial meetings with the Barack Obama administration, given the theatre of shame and serial disappointments to which we had been subjected by Nigerian government officials whenever they show up in America. On this occasion, I was in DC as a guest of the US Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Council For Africa, and by extension the Nigerian mission in the United States.
In 1999, I had a similar privilege to have been ’embedded’ in the high-powered government delegation under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration to the Bill Clinton White House for bilateral talks shortly after Obasanjo’s return to power as president. For political expediency, the delegation had included faces from the past – T. Y Danjuma, David Jemibewon, Bola Ige, Chuba Okadigbo, Sule Lamido, Patrick Dele Cole, and such then new ones as Dapo Sarumi and Dubem Onyia, Andy Uba among many others – who were to form the bulwark of the first Obasanjo administration.
In comparison, the Buhari delegation to the US on the week of July 20th was lean. And without the usual fanfare and with all the wives and mistresses in tow. Not discounting the annoying presence of all the political jobbers, hustlers and court jesters who always invade the destination. In contrast, this delegation was made up of top civil servants and a handful of serving state governors. Only Governor Oshiomhole showed up with his trophy wife who by the way conducted herself with decorum. There was on hand in the delegation former Governor Rotimi Amaechi, the stormy petrel of Niger Delta politics whose role leading up to the national elections is said to have been catalytic to the success of President Buhari at the polls. The team I saw in DC was well coordinated, disciplined and very business-like. The President himself set the tone with his dress code – a simple kaftan and cap to match. Buhari was poised, focused, dignified and stayed on message all of the time. I watched with delight the air of aristocracy and charisma he unassumingly projected in all of the meetings I was privileged to attend. His responses to questions and remarks at the different fora were deliberate, intelligent and not rushed.
His speeches were well delivered with poise and self-assured confidence, and at times laced with appropriate humour. Overall, he came across as a man who is comfortable in his own skin and new role. And there was a Mandela-like aura about him and for several moments I was reminded of Madiba as I watched Buhari in DC – a visionary on a mission. In the presence of President Obama, Buhari looked every bit presidential and I dare say that only very few African presidents could match the comportment and honour that he brought with him to the White House, and invariably to all the other meetings he had with high US government officials, the media, and US business leaders.
That is why I am miffed by some of the puerile commentaries in local Nigerian press about the Buhari visit to the United States. What is at times lost on most Nigerians at home is the abyss to which Nigeria’s image abroad as a nation had sunk, and the incalculable damage that has been done to the corporate profile of the nation. Some are wont to dismiss it as mere Western propaganda and a vestige of Afro-pessimism. Right and wrong. Right in the sense that Nigerians as a people are intimidating by their very nature, flamboyant, aggressive and loud for no fault of theirs. Wrong because Nigerians and Nigeria have not managed their image well. They have over time allowed others to define them in the marketplace of ideas. Hence, their best traits as a people have been subverted by the tyranny of the minority of few bad apples in the bunch. And in today’s world, perception is everything!
Many years of totalitarian regimes have equally not helped the Nigerian image. Eventually, totalitarianism gave birth to unmitigated corruption, highhandedness in high and low places leading to the attendant impoverishment of the citizenry. That is the face of Nigeria in today’s marketplace – and from the White House to Whitehall and from Wall Street to Main Street around the world.
Given the foregoing, my verdict is that Buhari’s US visit was a master stroke in image-making especially at a time when Nigeria is still reeling from the after shock of a long list of diplomatic snafus by the immediate past administration of Goodluck Jonathan. Without fixing the image problem of Nigeria as a serious player on the world stage, the successful execution of the war on terrorism (Boko Haram), providing adequate power supply and solutions to the overarching issue of mass unemployment will remain unattainable. In my considered opinion, this trip was well worth every kobo of it!
I believe that with the beating that the Nigerian image has taken over the years, the presidency must capitalise on the credits generated by Buhari’s US visit. I suggest that a marshall plan be drawn up to engage world opinion on behalf of Nigeria. The momentum generated from this trip has to be seized to project the new face of the country. The goodwill of the enormously powerful Nigerian Diaspora should come handy in this regard. That is how Israel has done it by tapping into the vast resources of the Diaspora Jewry. India is on that roll too. Former President Obasanjo recognised that dynamic and it led to the formation of the quasi-government Nigerians In The Diaspora Organisation (NIDO) under the superintendence of Ambassadors Dele Cole and Joe Keshi who was the then Nigerian Consul General in Atlanta. I also had a front-row seat to the birthing of that entity. As it is presently constituted however, NIDO will need some re-engineering as I am of the subjective opinion that the Jonathan administration tampered with NIDO to no good effect.
At the Town Hall meeting with the Diaspora Nigerians during this visit, I could sense the groundswell of support for Buhari from an audience that was at first apathetic, some of who had been apologists of the Jonathan administration with its well documented strategy of bribing every pressure group around the world, of which NIDO and the various Nigerian associations in the US can be categorised. I counted at least three or four times when they rose to their feet to cheer Buhari. Most of the guests later confessed their confidence in and support for the new president. Some of them told me that their unfavorable opinion of the man had dramatically changed after listening to him, and that their hope for the future of the country had been restored. There was gone the hollow and hopeless look on the faces of Nigerians in America after an event such as was held July 21 at the Nigerian embassy premises in Washington DC.
However, as much as the embassy staff struggled to put on a hitch-free event perhaps because the “fear” of Buhari which I am told is the beginning of wisdom for Nigerians was evident, the Town Hall meeting was yet marred by poor logistical planning. Seating arrangement was atrocious with the hall overflowing beyond legal capacity. Many guests with valid invitation from the embassy were subsequently turned away at the gates. Some of them, I was told had flown into DC from other states but were barred for lack of space.
And if it is not already in the new administration’s plan, I recommend that all of Nigeria’s mission abroad must be restructured in line with the Buhari posture which I saw in DC. It cannot be business as usual at our embassies if Nigeria has to win the war on the burnishing of her badly battered image which I believe is central to the revival of the economy. At the US Chamber of Commerce dinner, President Buhari asked for American investors to take interest in the agriculture and solid mineral mining sectors of Nigeria’s economy. And I can assure you that these investors will not lift a finger for Nigeria until she takes concrete steps to re-do her image as a corrupt, inept, violence-prone and unstable investment and tourism destination. Truth be told, Nigerians, especially the Diaspora, must be empowered to tell our own story, or others will continue to define who we are.
Perception. That should be the name of the game as Nigeria undoubtedly steps into a new era under Muhammadu Buhari.
Charles Anyiam is Editor-In-Chief of The African Times-USA.
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