These days Nigeria is treated as either the continent’s worst joke or the world’s laggard for democracy. From Nairobi to Brussels and from London to Washington, we’re getting lengthy lectures on how not to run a country. And we’re laughing them off and forwarding the messages.
There’s a stinging joke about corruption in Nigeria by Raila Odinga making the rounds. The former Kenyan prime minister chose the opening of an anti-corruption summit to share a joke about how a Nigerian minister bested his Malaysian counterpart in pocketing public funds set aside to build bridges.
I didn’t find the joke funny. Not because of any sense of denial, but because Odinga should know that it was in his country, Kenya, that a certain John Githongo, had to run for his life when corruption fought back demanding Githongo’s head on a plate.
‘Our turn to eat’
It’s all there in Michela Wrong’s book, “Our turn to eat,” how Kenya’s politicians right to the top, threatened to kill Githongo who was, among other things, investigating the $1billion Anglo Leasing case, one of the uglier corruption cases on the continent. If Odinga’s fabled Malaysian minister read Wrong’s book, which carefully detailed how systemic corruption brought Kenya to its knees, he’ll find that Nairobi offers lessons in corruption, with a peculiarly Asian transnational network, that is difficult to find elsewhere.
But Odinga conveniently forgot that. Instead, he chose Nigeria – the world’s favourite doormat – as the butt of his joke. It’s obvious that apart from his deadly skills in identity politics, Odinga is also gifted to see the speck in his neighbour’s eye, not minding the mote in his own.
Odinga is not alone. Recently, Nigeria has been the subject of interest elsewhere, with a staccato of warning letters from the embassies of the US and the UK, and the office of the European Union.
I read the US statement twice. Not because the language was not clear, but because I had serious difficulty understanding why the US, which has been a bad example in elections in recent years, can look Nigeria in the eye and moralise about free, fair and credible elections.
As former President Bill Clinton visits Nigeria on the eve of the election to drive home US concerns, we also remember the not-so-flattering US record on elections.
Mote in their eye
Let’s not go back to the 2000 election and the scandalous Florida recount that left Al Gore high and dry and many believing, even to date, that the election did not provide a clear winner. That happened nearly 20 years ago; yet echoes of the dodgy recount still haunts the US resurfacing again in Florida’s mid-term governorship elections only last November.
There’s even a much bigger question mark over the victory of Donald Trump three years ago; a question mark that can’t be lost on Bill Clinton. Was the process that led to the election of Trump as the 45th US President free, fair and credible?
It has been argued, quite reasonably, in some quarters for example that the outcome of the 2016 elections might have been different if former FBI director James Comey did not make the unprecedented and brazenly damaging comment about Hilary Clinton’s emails on the eve of the election.
That foot-in-the-mouth moment changed the 2016 presidential contest between Hilary and Trump forever. It not only interfered with what might have potentially been a different outcome, it was exactly the boost that the flagging Trump campaign needed to carry him over the line.
If Comey had been a Nigerian, it is not inconceivable that the US embassy would have expressed grave concern about an interference so close to the poll that it was certain to hand over victory to one party to the disadvantage of the other.
The losing party, on its own part, would have labelled Comey an agent of the other party and written letters to all major countries around the world including, of course, the International Criminal Court, to immediately put Comey on trial.
Hubris as gift
But since US shenanigans are supposed to best practices for the rest of the world, the Comey nonsense was treated as largely an American internal affair. Not only was the world obliged to suffer Comey’s brazen interference gladly, mounting evidence of Russia’s meddling in the elections has also become the biggest political soap opera since Watergate. And no one dares pontificate!
As hypocrisy goes, where the US leads, the UK is never far behind. So, just on the heels of the US statement expressing concern about the prospects of a free and fair election in Nigeria, the UK and the EU followed the US embassy’s coattails.
These folks whose self-interest and poorly-thought-out military misadventures in Libya and the middle-east, especially in Syria, have led to one of the worst political destabilisations in recent times, causing waves of migration and incredible human misery, also had a thing or two to say about free, fair and credible elections.
They conveniently forget that the indirect consequences of their actions have undermined – and continue to undermine – the stability and political destinies of many countries. Yet, how they love to pontificate – not facing – but backing the mirror.
But we must be careful not to put all the blame on foreign doorsteps. We must also avoid the danger of moral equivalence or threatening foreigners with body bags. It is the wayward child that gives the insolent neighbour something to say.
We don’t need anyone to tell us that free, fair and credible elections are, first of all, for our own benefit. But since we have had generations of leaders who would die for foreign approval and validation, we can’t blame foreigners too much for meddling.
Consider, for example, the misery that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, had to go through just for his recent trip to the US. After months of enduring the taunting, jeering and sniggering of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), that he was persona non grata in the US, Atiku officially paid $540,000 and sacrificed an arm and a leg, for a temporary pass to the US. And that was after saying many times – and quite correctly too – that he did not need a trip to the US to become Nigeria’s president.
At the time current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected, he could not enter the US for alleged violations of religious freedom when he was the first minister of the Indian state of Gujarat.
But the denial of US visa didn’t bother Modi. If it was an issue during his campaign, it was an issue in the US, not in India. After his election in 2014 – nine years after he had been denied a visa – the US laid out the red carpet for him, as it also did for Uhuru Kenyatta who had been blacklisted before his election for his first term as president six years ago.
But our case is different. We’re not what we are but what others, especially the Oyinbo, say we are. So, we have become the butt of jokes for corruption and we accept them as normal; we have become the lecture theatre for free, fair and credible elections and we’re not outraged that foreigners don’t think we can mind our business and mind it well.
When will Nigeria come of age? When?
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network.