TranscriptCNN International interview with Nigeria'sPresident Obasanjo and Publisher Chido Nwangwu onDemocracyand Security Issues


Nigeria: a good country led on thewrong path

By Ken Kemnagum Okorie
Special to USAfricaonline.comand USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston

January29, 2004: Nigeria's Education Minister, Professor Fabian Osuji, wasrecently quoted as relaying a UNESCO report which classified Nigeriaamong nine countries with the highest rate of illiteracy. What areputation, rather notoriety - after almost 44 years of independencefrom Britain!

When will Nigeria's leaders realize the depth of harm they have doneto this country? This is a country that once was the pride of theworld in quality education! Recall that Nigeria produced the famousDMGS Onitsha, Kings College Lagos, Hope Waddell Institute Calabar,Queens Colleges in Lagos and Enugu, various regional GovernmentColleges, among others. Where the quality of education was such thatindividuals typically scored on the top quartile of mostinternational tests (GCE, Advanced Papers, Bar Exams, etc.) and oftenqualified for and gotcalled to the British Bar from private tuition.

I remember my undergraduate days at the University of South Floridawhen Professors lobbied Nigerian students to their classes. Thereason was that Nigerian students were scholastically reputed toelevate the level and quality of intellectual discourse in theclassroom. That was typical of most American universities at thetime.

Problem began when Nigeria started to fix a system that was notbroken by introducing a National Universities Commission (NUC), whoseusefulness has remained unclear. A group of inexperienced anduninformed goons were seated to set policy to guide the intellectualdevelopment of Nigeria's young minds. Among the appointed policymakers where persons who wangled questionably through their ownacademic programs and/or never previously had mere clericalexperience, much less the capacity to understand higher education.Almost twenty five years later, it is clear that all that the NUC hasdone is hold still the educationally progressive sections of thecountry and bring them down to the levels of those parts thatpreviously were uninterested in education or had given it littlepriority.

Enter the Babangida dictatorship (1985-1993). Education wasdrastically degraded during this era. Students spent much of theirschool year on strikes and school closure than actually studying. Onecouldn't help but wonder the type of graduates or productivecitizenry the government expected out of institutions that were neveropen or teaching!

Add to that the fact that the Babangida administration, although didnot introduce corruption in Nigeria, embraced and legitimized as aninstrument of governance. Persons who disagreed with or criticizedthat administration were "settled", often in a manner and with theintent to a set-up for later use as self-implicating evidence or forblackmail.

As an outgrowth of that environment, America began to see a new cropof "Nigerian students" for whom education was far from an interestmuch less a priority. Not surprisingly, these Nigerians began beingassociated with credit card fraud, check fraud, mail fraud, drugtrafficking (including swallowing balloons of heroine, cocaine andother potent drugs). The red carpet previously enjoyed by Nigerianstudents in welcoming American homes during Thanksgiving and othernational holidays gave way for suspicion, blanket categorization andtargeted harassment by the police. In some American locales, beingNigerian became the virtual equivalence of being a criminal. A young,quiet Nigeria, Martin Nana, shot by Houston Police for allegedlyplaying music loud in his apartment was an apparent a victim of thatenvironment.

With the government having set this tone in our public life, a newcrop of Nigerians began to grow up believing that industry anddiscipline were no longer essential to earning a living, but that onecould gamble or crook one's way through life! The polity gotcomfortable with the notion that public service was aboutself-enrichment and no longer about serving the people; the entitycalled Nigeria became practically forgotten as each person focused onwhat he/she could get into his pocket. In this environment, moretankers bunkered Nigeria's oil wealth illegally on the high seas forthe Generals and their cohorts than made their way legally into themarkets or official coffers of the government.

Signs were openly displayed at busy international airports in Americaand elsewhere warning travelers about how corrupt and dangerousNigeria was! As sitting Nigerian Head of State, General Babangida,while attending the UN General Assembly in New York, was reportedlyrestricted within few blocks of the UN Headquarters......a treatmentbefitting a common criminal! Under the circumstances prevailing atthe time, there was not much one could quarrel with regarding suchtreatment of a Nigerian leader. To some extent it might even havebeen deserved, considering that American-trained Nigerian journalistDele Giwa (of Newswatch) painfully reminds that the Babangida regimesummarily eliminated those it could not win over or "settle".

The environment and mentality of the Babangida regime was one which,rather than prevent and punish white-collar crime and fraud, placedthe burden on foreigners to secure their own investments andfinancial interests within Nigeria. Under that "investor beware"mentality, a foreign investor who was defrauded by a Nigerian hadhimself to blame and was without recourse. That policy soontransformed into the infamous Decree No. 419 that has since givenNigeria its worst notoriety as a nation of fraudsters whose citizenscannot be trusted in business. Every Nigerian today is victim of the419 mentality and those who have made a career from living up toit

It was an environment ripe to take advantage of Nigeria at theinternational level. The IMF and the World Bank quickly came callingon the one hand; on the other hand, the masses were fedpseudo-patriotic acronyms such as the MAMSER campaign in the guise ofstreamlining the Nigerian economy. But indeed, these were no morethan the typical IMF/World Bank one-pill-cures-all prescription forevery ailing Third World economy, no matter the underlying facts orcircumstances. It is intended to satisfy the economic and financialinterests of affiliate investor banks and institutions, not alleviatelocal economic woes. The outcome for Nigeria was no different becausethese campaigns only perpetuated the people's misery and our nationalservitude through inextinguishable debt servicing. This was thehallmark of the Babangida economic policy. Looking back over twentyyears later, one wonders what we have to show for it other than themortgaging of our nation's future!

It was in this era that previously glorified citizenship of theCommonwealth of Nations was lost and Nigerians began having to payfor visas, not to enter British or other European towns orcountryside, but to simply pass through their Airports. BritishCaledonian, KLM, and other European carriers began spraying theiraircrafts soon after Nigerians boarded (an experience never seen onother foreign routes)!

In sum, I believe it is fair to conclude that, perhaps more than anyother leader, General Babangida elevated corruption to itsinstitutionalized stature in today's Nigeria. Of course he didinherit the Import License mentality from President Shagari's 2ndRepublic. In that scheme, buffoons paraded as business people,acquiring import licenses for services and goods about which they hadno clue only to sell the licenses to third parties at increased costto Nigerians.

Gen. Babangida capped his record by annulling what many still believewas one of Nigeria's fairest elections. Strangely Nigerians neverlearned from the June 12 experience, as many of the same crooks andcronies used by Babangida in that evil adventure have remained closeto the seat of power even as we speak.

Transit forward to Gen. Abacha, and it was more of the same.Everything Abacha did or attempted he learned or carried forward fromGen. Babangida, his co-conspirator for many years. Things got so badNigeria became the pariah to the civilized world.

But to Abacha none of that mattered. He only cared about few thingsas he further brutalized Nigeria. He paid no attention to anyone butclosed his eyes to the suffering of the people; he killed or lockedup anyone whose complaint got a bit loud; shifted whatever lookedmost attractive to his private Swiss and other bank accounts, andbalanced the budget through zero spending. It did not matter to himthe state of the economy or its consequence on the population. Simplystated, there is no accurate way to fully or properly explain theabsurdity that was Abacha. Yet he believed he was the perfect answerfor Nigeria, and that Nigerians were having it so good he had toperpetuate himself in office. And so he indulged in a fancifulmission to transform himself from military dictator to civilian rulerof Nigeria. And true to form, there were the Kanus and many othersycophants who yearned for more. Reflecting on the actions of thesefolks and others of their ilk, one could conceive that there is a bitof sadism that comes with being Nigerian, for money alone does notseem to explain certain of the extremes in the behavior ofNigerians

From crediting certain imported super models from India or theircounterpart home-grown hotties from East of the Niger, Abacha'asabuse of power was matched only by the mystery of his demise. Throughit all, Nigerians, and I mean all 200 or so million of us, seemedutterly powerless as the brute raged on till his last breadth!

One would think that a man who survived Abacha's archipelago wouldhave been most suited to right his wrongs and heal the wounds of ourbattered nation. More so, when that survivor was getting a raresecond bite at the plum! As George W. Bush was assuming the WhiteHouse in 2000, the acclaimed Authoritative Link between America andAfrica,'s publisher
ChidoNwangwu advised in aHouston Chronicle op-ed that "the problem with Nigeria was sittingacross the table" from the President there at the White House. At thetime, many did not think Chido's was being sufficiently kind orcourteous to Obasanjo's on his first official visit after becomingcivilian President of Nigeria in 1999. Fouryears later, in January 2004, the voices of the former Secretary toNigeria's government Chief Olu Falae and the highly respected formerMinister and retired military governor of Kaduna State, Col. Umar,all reaffirm that apt assessment. Indeed it seems that every voice inNigeria today echoes Obasanjo performance as gross failure (Obasanjois in the picture with hands raised).

In a recent outing with the Nigerian community in Houston, TexasObasanjo spent his time reminiscing about how much worse things werewhen he came back in 1999 from where he had left them in 1979. But Ido not believe that to be the dividend of democracy Nigeriansexpected from this born-again former prisoner and third timepresident. Indeed for there to be any dividend, Nigerians first musthave democracy, which is the privilege
Obasanjohas consistently denied themthe most. While it may be true that once a general always a general,self-acclaimed born-again Obasanjo cannot forget that there is timefor everything.....I hope his version of the Bible contains thatverse.

To be compared to the murderous dictatorAbacha (indeed Obasanjo was recently graded worse by Col Umar) isperhaps the most telling review of leadership in Nigeria. Col. Umarand Publisher Nwangwu are familiarvoices of reason and fairness on contemporary Nigerianaffairs. Nwangwu actively co-hostedObasanjo's first public event in the U.S. (with Obasanjo's kinsmanRaymond Sowemimo) after he (Obasanjo) was released from prisonfollowing Abacha's death. Umar worked hard for Obasanjo to beselected to lead in 1999. Umar's recent comments said all that needsbeing said about Obasanjo's record in office.  Sadly, theimplication of his failures is worsened by the realization that thisman had previously superintended the affairs of this nation from 1976to 1979 as a miliatry dictator. Did he learn or understand anythingabout Nigeria the first time?  That is the billion Nairaquestion.
Attorney Okorie, former secretary-general of the World IgboCongress, is a member of the editorial board of USAfrica TheNewspaper. Responsesare welcome and will be published. He also wrote exclusively forUSAfrica: Is Obasanjoendangering Nigeria'sdemocracy? and the Sagain Anambra, Obasanjo and Nigeria'sfederalism

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Impeachment process shows Nigerian democracy "is alive... being tested." Nigeria's president retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo has said that the impeachment process shows that "democracy is alive, is being tested, and being tried.... What they (the legislators) have tried to do in the democratic way, which is not easy, would probably have been done by taking arms or by -- with bullets. So, but with democracy, of course, some people feel that this is the way this should be, and then I have an opportunity to defend myself. There is discussion. There is dialogue. There is a decision. There is fairness." He made these comments when he appeared on Tuesday September 17, 2002 on CNN International to discuss the issues of impeachment facing him, the allegations of corruption, abuse of the constitution and deployment of soldiers ina civilian environment which led to the "massacre of civilians" in Odi (Bayelsa) and Zaki Biam (Benue). On the charges by international human rights organizations and Nigerian media that his government has been involved in actions which have led to the deaths of thousands of Nigerians, the retired General gave a surprising answer. He was asked that "as many as 10,000 people, it's being reported, have been killed in Nigeria (in) communal rivalries, and the number is believed to be increasing. And people are saying that although President Obasanjo has done a lot of good for Nigeria, you're accused of not -- accused of failing to halt that spiraling violence." Obasanjo: Let me say this to you, when you put the question of 10,000 -- 10,000 people dying in Nigeria, of course, for a population of over 120 million people...." But Founder and recipient of the Journalism Excellence award (1997), Chido Nwangwu, who appeared on the same program as as a CNN International analyst (Africa) pointed out that "when (President Obasanjo) answered that in a country of 100 million that 10,000 people are said to have died, as if that was a small number, that in itself reflects a disconnect with the concerns of Nigerians. The second one is that when the risk is civil disagreement, the police are required to intervene in the country. And the deployment of the armed forces of Nigeria requires at least some consultation, however modest, with the parliament." Nwangwu, former member of the editorial board of Nigeria's Daily Times continued that "the third factor that is equally important to underscore is that the armed forces of Nigeria moved in for a punitive action rather than just containing a civil disagreement." He noted in backgrounder "it was revealing and interesting interesting discussing Nigeria's issues with its leader - under the current circumstances of an increasingly out-of-schedule elections and the gathering storm of an impeachment process by a majority of the members of the National Assembly, predominantly by Obasanjo's party members." See rush transcript of the CNN International news program.
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CONTINENTAL AGENDA Bush's position on Africa is "ill-advised." The position stated by Republican presidential aspirant and Governor of Texas, George Bush where he said that "Africa will not be an area of priority" in his presidency has been questioned by Publisher Chido Nwangwu. He added that Bush's "pre-election position was neither validated by the economic exchanges nor geo-strategic interests of our two continents." These views were stated during an interview CNN's anchor Bernard Shaw and senior analyst Jeff Greenfield had with Mr. Nwangwu on Saturday November 18, 2000 during a special edition of 'Inside Politics 2000.' Nwangwu, adviser to the Mayor of Houston (the 4th largest city in the U.S., and immigrant home to thousands of Africans) argued further that "the issues of the heritage interests of 35 million African-Americans in Africa, the volume and value of oil business between between the U.S and Nigeria and the horrendous AIDS crisis in Africa do not lend any basis for Governor Bush's ill-advised position which removes Africa from fair consideration" were he to be elected president. By Al Johnson
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Index of Founder's Notes (1)

Index of Founder's Notes (2)

Index of other Viewpoints USAfricaonline contributors and columnists on the issues