BY HENRY UMORU
FROM June 3 to 13, 2018, seven Nigerian journalists were guests of the government of the United States, US, under the International Visitor Leadership Programme, IVLP.
The visit was put together by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State and the Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ, Abuja Council under the leadership of Paul Abechi.
The IVLP, launched in 1940, affords over 4,500 IVLP participants from all over the world, each year, to travel to the US to meet and interact with their professional counterparts.
Through these encounters, the visitors gain a greater understanding of the cultural and political influences in the U.S. society and enjoy a firsthand experience of the US, its people and its culture. Visitors represent government, politics, the media, education, nongovernmental organizations, the arts, public health, international security, business and trade, and other fields.
The topic for IVLP 2018 was Promoting Good Governance and Accountability in the United States: The Role of Journalists, A Project for Nigeria and the Department of State.
The event took place in three states of Washington DC from June 3- 6; Cleveland, Ohio, June 6-9 and Tampa, Florida, June 9-13 and we were accompanied to the venues by the International Visitor Liaison, Ms. France’s Hoffmann. A very interesting woman, she tolerated our good, the bad and the ugly.
Hoffmann taught us how to walk long distances. She would always say “next building”, but the next building may not be near after all. Besides me, other participants were Abechi; Victorson Agbenson, Radio Nigeria; Emeka Nze, Blueprint; Aroluke Ogundele- Arokoyo, AIT; Omotola Omojola, NTA and Rafatu Salami, VON.
While in Washington DC, the following themes were taken: Federal Structure of the U.S. Government, Role and activities of Non- governmental “watchdog” Organisation and tools for Investigative Journalists.
At Cleveland, Ohio, the following themes were addressed: Accountability at state level: a case study; Government and private- sector Institutions that reinforce transparency and Role of the Media in Encouraging Accountability.
In Tampa, Florida, the issues were Professional development for Journalists; Challenges of Contemporary news operations and Public affairs programming in community- based radio.
The team, at the end of the day in Washington DC against the backdrop of what we were exposed to, discovered that Nigeria, which also practices federalism and democracy, has a lot to learn from America. There are checks and balances and the roles of the Executive and the Legislature are completely spelt out.
There is vertical Separation of Power (Executive, Judiciary and Legislature). The US government is not a national central government, it is an entity created and managed by States. The 50 states govern together the US agencies and departments, just as the 50 states must come together to defend the budget, monetary policy, foreign affairs, defence, diplomatic relations , tariff duties, etc.
In America, the Constitution of Florida as a state is different from that of Ohio; there is no national, central legal system; there is no national parliament; its Congress is a conference of states and each congress is sovereign and the independence of the Judiciary is very important.
One lesson is that there are 89, 000 local governments in the US, there is National Police, no national interior, each state has its own independent police, there is no national public education policy, it is a policy of the state , there is no national educational curriculum. A county in the US is the equivalent of local government in Nigeria.
We have in America true federalism that gives more power to the states and citizens’ consciousness to always demand for accountability.
The American democracy works because it is anchored on the rule of law, the federalism is one where all the tiers of government are independent, just as the citizens expect government to address issues and they are addressed and Civil Society Organisations, CSOs, are very vibrant and strong as they partner government and take the initiatives of government. Each CSO is expected to design its own communication strategies to educate the people as there are two million CSOs in the US helping to build correlation and no law governs the CSOs and it takes only two hours to register a CSO.
Another lesson for Nigeria is the fact that establishing partnership with government, advocacy and lobbying are the tools to use. Everything in the US must be done through public hearing because everyone needs to be carried along.
In America, voting is done in the open while lobbying is institutionalized because of transparency for people to put pressure on government and, in this case, the bottom line is that government must be transparent, accountable and open to its citizens.
Another lesson is that there is freedom of speech and the media is absolutely free to hold government accountable. There is no Ministry of Information, there are no national newspapers, and all media houses are owned privately except the Voice of America, VOA, which is owned by government and does not broadcast to America.
Some of the privately owned Newspapers are Tampa Bay Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Plain Dealer and the Weekly Challenger.
There is an effective Newseum which is absent in Nigeria but similar to our National Archive. The Newseum is an interactive museum that promotes free expression and the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Another lesson for Nigeria is that the private sector is the main creator of jobs in the US.
We also found that in America, not a single dollar of public money can be spent by the President unless it has been appropriated by the Congress and the Senate.
In the US, government does not influence security agencies to go after the opposition, there is total adherence to the rule of law as public institutions are strong; it is not about individuals.
During the visit, veteran war reporter, Howard Altman, called on us, visitors, to embark on independent investigations into the situation in Nigeria’s North-East.
Altman, who is the head of military affairs at the Tampa Bay Times Florida and who covered the US – Iraqi war, said such independent reports would bring out the true situation in the North-East and help in the fight against terrorism in Nigeria.
He stressed the need for journalists to always reach out to locals in conflict areas.
In another development, a US based investigative journalism expert, Professor Karl Idsroog, stressed the need for Nigerian journalists to cultivate tools for enforcing accountability among public office holders for the promotion of good governance.
Idsroog, who teaches journalism at Kent University, made the call during a a lecture at Cleveland Ohio, saying that all failures in societies can be traced to poor journalism.
He attributed the US – Iraqi war to poor journalism, urging journalists to use various strategies, including the social media, to stampede public officials who refuse to do what is expected of them.
At the Nigeria House in Washington DC, the Nigeria Ambassador, Sylvanus Nsofor, told us that his doors were always open to all Nigerians and foreigners in line with its mandate of being the country’s face in the US.
Nsofor urged Nigerians to disregard the criticisms trailing his age, explaining that everyone, regardless of his age, loved good things.
The envoy’s appointment last year by President Muhammadu Buhari had been greeted by criticisms in some quarters because of his age, 82.
At Cleveland, Ohio, we were advised to take practical steps to ensure that public office holders were more transparent for the development of the society.
The Inspector General of the Cuyagoha County in Cleveland, Mr. Mark Griffin, who gave the advice when he hosted us, said that the role of journalists in pushing for transparency in public administration was key in the US, a model, he said, ensured that there were checks and balances.
According to him, America’s First Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press which is cherished and protected by all citizens, adding, “We are obliged to give information to anyone who requests it within the shortest possible time regardless of whether the person is a journalist or not.”
Meanwhile, the United States government has reiterated its commitment to ensure that stolen funds were returned to Nigeria.
An official of the Department of State, who pleaded anonymity, stated this while receiving our team in Washington DC, the US capital.
The official noted that America does not want a situation where the funds would be stolen again after it has been returned, just as he said that the country was working on enabling laws to repatriate the stolen funds.
He added that, since 2015, the United States had returned over half a billion dollars to Nigeria.
According to the official, when broken down, the money is 20-30 million dollars monthly, stressing that it partners the Nigerian military and Civil Society Organisations in the fight against insurgency.
The Department of State official, who noted that although Americans know little about Nigeria, however, associated the country with advanced fee fraud, just as he stated that the average American also sees Nigeria as a football-loving nation.
He described Nigeria as Africa’s giant and the largest democracy in the continent, commending the country for the improvement of its electoral process since 2015.
He, however, noted that America was worried by the security situation in North-East Nigeria as well as the killings in the Middle Belt, leading to the displacement of 20million people.
According to him, the US wants to enhance trade with Nigeria now that the country was diversifying the economy especially through agriculture.
The official, who said that America still has investment in the Niger Delta, said that his country was also working with political parties and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to ensure hitch- free elections in 2019.
In a nutshell, the IVLP gave one the opportunity to visit the United States to learn and experience new things and interact Americans.