By Donu Kogbara
AS I write, President Muhammadu Buhari is in London attending the first Anti-Corruption Summit that has ever been hosted in the United Kingdom.
This pioneering Summit, the brainchild of David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has been bogged down in controversy because Cameron was overheard, on Tuesday, describing Nigeria and Afghanistan as “fantastically corrupt……” while he was chatting informally to Queen Elizabeth II, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Justin Welby) and the Speaker of the House of Commons (John Bercow), at an official function to celebrate the monarch’s 90th birthday.
Many Nigerians were deeply offended by Cameron’s remark and said that Buhari (who arrived in London at the precise moment when it was being widely reported by British, Nigerian and international publications and TV/radio channels) should get back on his plane and boycott the Summit. But I did not share this view.
The British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, interviewed me on Tuesday evening, thinking that I’d be as outraged as many of my compatriots. But I told the programme presenter that I didn’t think we should get into a major strop about a supposedly private conversation that Cameron didn’t intend the world to hear.
This is, in a nutshell, is what I said:
Let’s face it: Most of us, including me, say tactless things from time to time, when we are talking to people we trust. But, yes, Cameron has been undiplomatic.
Cameron was also being unfair when he singled Nigeria out, given that 167 nations are listed on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and that Nigeria is Number 136, while Afghanistan is Number 166.
In other words, we shouldn’t really have been mentioned in the same breath as Afghanistan because we are considerably less corrupt than Afghanistan, and above quite a few other countries that Cameron did not bother to mention.
Having said this, though Buhari is not a thief, I can’t vouch for everyone around him and feel that we have a long way to go because Nigeria IS still very corrupt.
Buhari himself later adopted a similarly nonchalant stance.
On Wednesday, he gave the keynote speech at a pre-Cameron-Summit conference titled “Tackling Corruption Together” (this event was hosted by Baroness Patricia Scotland, the wonderful black British Commonwealth Secretary-General).
And when he was asked whether he would demand an apology from Cameron, he charmed everyone present by saying, with a smile on his face and while facetiously rubbing his thumb and forefingers together to show that the bottom line was cash:
“What will I do with apologies? I will only demand the return of assets!”
And this is, of course, the main issue.
Global corruption menace
Buhari hit the nail on the head by making it clear that if Britain (which is not totally clean itself and is Number 10 on the Transparency International list) is sincere about confronting the global corruption menace and serious about supporting Buhari’s efforts, the British authorities should help us repatriate stolen funds that have been lodged in British banks or used to buy properties in the UK.
Buhari speaks very well sometimes and is good at cracking self-deprecating jokes that make the audiences he is addressing warm to him. The comment about the return of assets inspired a lot of laughter, as did the following observation:
He said that he’d had to adjust his mindset and behaviour when he became an elected head of state last year (having been a military head of state in l984/85).
In those bygone days, he told us with a chuckle, he could get away with assuming that people were guilty until proven innocent, whereas nowadays, he had to accept (even when he saw seemingly dubious individuals driving around in Rolls Royces that could probably only have been purchased with the proceeds of ill-gotten gains) the “tolerant” democratic attitude that people are innocent until proven guilty!
By the way, Welby was also overheard – informing Cameron that Buhari is a decent man who is trying very hard to eradicate corruption. Bercow was also overheard – saying that he hoped that the leaders of corrupt countries who were coming to London to attend the Summit were paying for their own airline tickets.
I thanked Welby, during my BBC slot, for defending our President. As for Bercow, he is a patronizing idiot. And I was angered by his impudent suggestion that we are silly, child-like leeches who may expect the UK government to cover our President’s travel costs. Cameron’s remark was, in my opinion, no big deal by comparison.
After the Commonwealth conference, Mr President spoke to several journalists, including me; and I asked him what he was going to do about the chronic insecurity in the Niger Delta. He said that he had appointed a Niger Deltan – Brigadier General Paul Boroh (retired) – to deal with militancy-related Amnesty issues and that other measures would be undertaken to make the Niger Delta safe.
ANYWAY, I must say that I am immensely glad that I had the opportunity to interact with Mr President in London yesterday…not least because the physical proximity to him had a surprisingly positive effect on me, psychologically.
Regular readers of this column will be aware that I have expressed a lot of frustration about Buhari’s administration in the past few weeks because of my concerns about the economy, fuel shortages, electricity cuts, etc.
And I’m still worried about these problems that are putting Nigerians under so much pressure and inflicting countless hardships.
But Buhari oozes integrity and has a reassuring fatherly aura; and seeing him up close – for the first time since I encountered him on the election campaign trail in 2014 – has cheered me up, made me feel that we CAN get out of current doldrums with him at the helm and reminded me why I put my trust in him and voted for him.
Millions of other Nigerians are feeling pretty depressed at the moment; and I often hear people saying that they are fed up with Buhari and his Team.
I would therefore strongly advise Mr President to travel less and spend more time touring the country, so that suffering Nigerians can see him in the flesh, because he possesses a powerful low-key charisma that can truly inspire the disillusioned; and the Personal Touch can work wonders at home as well as abroad!