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Achebe coloquium: The irrelevance of Nigeria-America relations

By Obi Nwakanma
I WAS not at the Chinua Achebe colloquium which took place last week in Rhode Island. But while it was going on in Providence, I was myself at a party in the St. Louis home of the economist, Dr. Remi Onwumere with Dr. Sylvester Ugoh, Harvard-trained economist and Nigerian politician.

Dr. Ugoh began his career after graduate school in Harvard in 1961 as a pioneer lecturer in the Economics Department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and only later senior fellow of the Centre for Development Studies of the University of Nigeria, in its Enugu campus; former governor of the Bank of Biafra, former minister of science and technology and later of education in the Shagari government, and former vice-presidential candidate in the National Republican Party in the June 12 1993 election.

Dr. Ugoh currently resides in Maryland. He could have been a serious contributor to the Achebe colloquium had he been invited. But I was lucky in this respect to reacquaint myself with him, and he did say that night at the party, about Nigeria, “the country shames us all but we cannot give up on it. We need a credible mass to do the work of rescue.”

In my mind, however, the Achebe colloquium used the opportunity to do more of the same thing; that is, talk and talk, and provide stages for more talk of the same kind about the peculiar condition called “Nigerianitis.”

It is a complex disease, and among its more obvious symptoms is loud talk, which then is followed by loud fart, the variation of which I’m told was supplied by Emeka Nwadioha, Chief Whip of the House of Representatives, who incidentally represents my constituency in the Nigerian Federal House. I was told on some good authority, that Emeka, among whose future ambitions is to be governor of Imo State, wore a $38,000 wristwatch and when taken to task justified it by claiming to own some wealth before he ventured into politics.

That claim is an unverifiable one because, as far as I know, Nwadioha did not inherit wealth, nor was he born into one, nor did he do anything of significance prior, other than work for government. He also attempted to justify the mad emoluments that service the lusts of members of the Nigerian political elite, and in his particular case, members of the House of Representatives by asking his audience to compare it with what a US legislator receives.

It is this mindset, of drawing parallels between a poor, backward country like Nigeria whose means are still rather very basic with America, the richest country on earth, with years of mechanisms of scrutiny, that allows the kind of impunity in which, as recently revealed, members of the Nigerian House of Representatives spent N52 billion in two years just for local and international travels!

Fellow Nigerians, please note, that N52 billion naira could provide very high-paying jobs for 30, 000 currently unemployed Nigerian university graduates, and could stimulate the economy in more practical and direct ways, properly channeled. But this is what just a few members of the House of Representatives claim and spend in just two years!

But observe on the flip side, the arrogant self-justification of the Nigerian Speaker of the House, who was invited to the Achebe colloquium, but who chose to send the chief whip, who came to Providence to talk pumpkins. In my view, this blind arrogance is only possible because Nigerians just love to talk, occasionally carry banners into the street, and have very little capacity for real political action. Talk alone cannot do it, because indeed, I suspect that nobody is listening.

The talk also happens more at the elite levels, where we have learnt, as in the colloquium, to speak to ourselves, in the abstract language of logic and with pretention. Among the outcomes of the colloquium was the harsh critique of apparently well-meaning former US ambassadors to Nigeria, who pointed out the increasing irrelevance of Nigeria to America in global and sub-regional politics.

What Ambassador Lyman and co confirmed was my position in my column in July this year on the American president’s visit to Ghana. Nothing new there, I suppose. But as I also said, it would be fool-hardy to ignore, or downgrade Nigeria, even as it is currently going through a terribly rough patch.

But just as the US is downgrading its relationship with Nigeria, and just as the discovery of oil in other parts of Africa is challenging Nigeria’s status as a major supplier to the US, Nigerians themselves are also increasingly downgrading their relationship with the US.

They have increasingly found new directions in China and increasingly also in India, where many Nigerians now go to hospital, and where new potentials for trade and other partnerships are opening up as never before.

As I interview many Nigerians and gauge this development, I am struck by the truly emerging “irrelevance”of America to Nigerians, who also see China particularly as the new kid on the block, and India as a veritable traditional ally with whom they share the colonial and postcolonial experience, and membership of the non-aligned and South-South Commissions.

There are many Indians who have settled and naturalized in Nigeria, and many who have been doctors, teachers, engineers, etc. in Nigeria especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when India was at the heights of its own economic and political crisis.

This growing “irrelevance” of America is incremental, especially among a new generation of Nigerians, whose earlier generation embraced America, inspired by Azikiwe and the Argonauts “to look towards America” but who increasingly feel that US international policies and the activities of its multinationals have been complicit in establishing corruption in Nigeria and sustaining the political crisis associated with underdevelopment.

This has been the feeling since 1999 when many Nigerians felt that the US had a hand in imposing Olusegun Obasanjo and maintaining him in power.


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