By Rotimi Fasan
ONE wouldn’t know if the Jonathan administration has made any official pronouncement on the matter but the issue seems serious enough to warrant a response from senior members of the Obama administration.
This was on the planned visit of the American president to Africa, the second since his inauguration as the first American leader of African descent in January 2009.
In his first visit to the Continent Mr. Obama felt Ghana was more central to America’s interest than Nigeria and promptly flew into the waiting arms of our smaller but more respectable neighbour where he was given a once-in-a-lifetime welcome.
The country rose as one to receive their respected visitor even if only for a few hours. Nigeria chafed but kept her grumblings to herself and the rest of the world pretended not to notice the apparent snub. During his earlier visit as senator, Nigeria was not on Mr. Obama’s itinerary.
On his 2009 visit to Egypt during his first visit as president, he made a major policy statement on America’s relations with the Arab and Islamic world and the rest of the world cheered. That visit was a major milestone for the president and America.
On this his second visit, the American president has once more made it clear that his country’s strategic interest is better served elsewhere on the continent. And he did draw up an itinerary that did not include Nigeria even if Senegal, Nigeria’s smaller, French-speaking neighbour in the West African sub-region made the bill. So did Tanzania in the east and South Africa that has been catching a cold from sneezes induced by Mandela’s ill-health.
If one could explain away Obama’s snub on his first two visits, his third is one too many and the thick-skinned bulls of Abuja appear bruised.
But as I said above, I can’t be sure if Abuja has said anything about this officially. But Nigerians and other embarrassed observers are not keeping quiet, perhaps in the hope of reminding Abuja that there is something the matter with the way we view ourselves and how others view us.
Yet the Americans would want us to believe that all is well between their country and ours. The only problem, they claim, is security- or the lack of it. Which is why, they say, Obama would not be shaking hands with Goodluck Jonathan.
In a joint briefing by Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor, Grant Harris, the Senior Director for African Affairs and Gayle Smith, Senior Director for Development and Democracy, the Americans cite Nigeria’s security issue, no doubt caused by extremist groups operating mostly in the North, as responsible for their president’s reluctance to step on Nigerian soil.
But we do not all have to be trained diplomats to know this is a lie or just a nice way to say something ugly. American presidents have demonstrated support for countries faced with difficult security issues but of strategic interest to them by carefully scheduled visits. Details of such visits are often left till the last moment or are simply left unannounced until the visit is over.
But they are nevertheless made. Can Nigeria pose more security challenge to the safety of Obama than Afghanistan or Iraq? But Obama has visited both countries, the former on at least three occasions. George W Bush visited Iraq in the heat of the post Saddam Hussein difficulties. The question is one of strategic interest- how much of this does Nigeria represent to America?
We are not here saying that America must be sure it can, say, exploit our oil for her president to find ours an attractive diplomatic destination. No, the point doesn’t have to be that starkly self-serving.
But even in Africa itself, how much of leadership does Nigeria provide as to command the attention of the world? Which of our leaders possess the kind of charisma or political stature as will direct attention to their words? In what way does this so-called giant of Africa prove it’s a leader to be taken seriously beyond her huge demography?
Is big just for nothing? How well do our leaders respect the democratic options of the people as expressed through the ballot when ‘the power of incumbency’ that ensures a sitting politician is never defeated in an election is as rife as ever? Both Ghana and Senegal only recently had elections in which a popular party and/or incumbent candidate were defeated.
Can this happen in the Nigeria of today where President Jonathan turns the heat on an elected governor on mere suspicion he harbours presidential ambitions? What type of democracy do we hawk where 36 governors cannot elect their own chairperson without secret videos emerging as to how somebody voted or did not vote? Or where the president brazenly shows his hands in the confusion that is rocking his own party?
What are we doing about corruption where thieves who pocketed so-called oil subsidies are best friends with our leading politicians? Would a visit by Obama not be taken by our small-minded politicians, no better than tribal warlords at the best of time- would an American president’s visit not be taken by these mere politicians as endorsement of their corrupt ways?
You can be sure that some fecund-minded politician would turn the photograph of a handshake with Obama into a campaign poster- evidence of America’s support for their candidacy or validation of the amount of ‘dividends of democracy’ they have brought to their communities where they build a public toilet or village borehole and declare public holidays to celebrate their mediocrity.
On the issue of insecurity, how ready or serious is the government to take on the cowards masked as religious activists when many of our politicians are known sponsors or sympathisers of these terrorists? How can Obama feel safe in such company of potential suicide bombers?
That we are chafing under the imagined slight of not being considered fit host of an American president says much about our fatuous claim of being Africa’s giant. We are a middling giant, too desperate for attention we have done too little to deserve. The best of our tantrums could only make us look like a snubbed first wife not the youthful favourite.