Great Nation, Good People Held Hostage

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

That Nigeria has an image problem is common knowledge, owing to observations made by foreigners, formally and informally. It is a problem that the country has been stuck within, almost since its birth. Nothing could be more paradoxical because there was spontaneous sympathy and support for the ethnic fighting for their freedom against a most ruthless regime. Except the western world and of course the ruling party, I mean PDP without exclusion of its oppositions, all the countries in African region praised the bravery, courage and the spirit of fortitude of Yar’Adua administration and the ordinary people behind him. It did not take long to squander the sympathy and support of Nigeria’s friends and will-wishers.

The exemplary image of this country began to be tarnished in suicidal acts of omission and commission, coming thick and fast on deplorable state of the military insincerity and loots, brown-creamed by Obasanjo’s unpoliced national spending as well as uninvented era of undue governance procedure. This actions and inactions tarnished patriotic feelings among the power that got better off by personal greed and aggrandizement. Materials and money, worth billions of dollars, were misused through ineptitude and misappropriated in a binge of corruption. In a spirit of desperation, emergency was declared by the govt. only to be withdrawn under pressure from party apparatchiks. Soon, one of the horsemen of apocalypse, famine, ravaged the country, taking a heavy toll in human lives. Unfriendly foreign powers exacerbated this human tragedy, but the role of Nigeria was not insignificant. It was as if leaders were intent on proving correct the sarcastic epithet of ‘bottomless basket’ used to describe the country’s future.

If day to day management of affairs of this country; Nigeria, seemed to be beyond the capacity and will of the Nigeria Government at the time, its fumbling with the form of government and determining the nature of the state baffled both Nigeria’s and outsiders. This country’s polity alternated between Presidential and legislative forms of government in a state of uncertainty, finally lurching towards a one-party system of governance. It appeared ironic, even tragic, too many, again Nigerians and foreigners alike, that leaders who fought against the exploitative and dictatorial rule by the military junta should sound the death knell of democracy soon after assuming power. Nigeria’s image abroad was badly battered and bruised by delusional acts and worse.

The incarceration of MKO Abiola unto death, The turture to death on Shehu Yar’Adua, The killing of Saro Wiwa of the Ogoni 8 along with most of his family members by a section of the Nigeria Army, the massacre of Odi village, the mysterious death of Sen. Chuba Okadigbo and the disparity in Nigerian leadership, stunned and shocked the world. Whatever our failings, and they were many, Murtala Mohammed was a disciplined rule of the country though military; he represented it to the outside world as a colossus. That he could be murdered by his own people and in such a cold blooded manner beggared the belief of the world. The downward slide of Nigeria’s image accelerated. What followed subsequently did little to salvage the crisis of identity. Coups and counter-coups took place in bizarre twists and turns, with army factions and their leaders vying for the saddle of power. After the dust settled, there were two martial law regimes in quick succession which lasted for about fifteen years, if the civilian camouflage used by them is included. Rule by the army, in any guise, did not contribute to image building for Nigeria because real democracy was kept at bay. On the other hand, no spectacular economic development took place, as happened under Park Chung Hee of South Korea, to redeem the failure in democratic governance. To make matters worse, corruption spread its tentacles, particularly during the second phase of the military rule. When the last military regime was removed from power by an alliance of political parties, a ray of hope shone, indicating possible restoration of democracy and inculcation of accountable governance.

The resumption of democratic rule was marred by extreme polarization of positions and bitter feelings between the two major political parties. No sooner elections were held, than cries of ‘foul’ went up from the camp of the defeated party. Non co-operation degenerated into nasty confrontation both inside and outside the parliament and in the streets of cities and towns. Walk-out and boycott of plenary sessions inside the National Assembly became the rule, while hartals were resorted to recklessly in complete disregard of public welfare. Mediation efforts were made from outside the country and by important personalities, including a former American President, but were of no avail. It would be no exaggeration to say that of all the failures of Nigeria since the restoration of democracy, the confrontational politics of the two major parties {PDP and A(N)PP}has done the greatest damage to our image. For endemic poverty and almost chronic natural disasters, outsiders are not critical of Nigeria, though these hobble the image. Rather, the slow but steady progress in alleviating poverty and managing natural disasters has earned plaudits from this government and multi-lateral institutions. Even the limited progress in empowerment of women has been appreciated by the outside world, though this has left something to desire at the top level. The growth and the influential role of civil society has been the most effective counterblast to the morass in party politics.

In spite of ups and downs, a sort of balance between the civil society and the fledgling polity seemed possible, even probable. But the emergence and flourishing of ‘militants’ of different vintage appeared as formidable road blocs. “Militant” activities in the Niger Delta for pecuniary motive caused social and economic disruptions, threatening the pursuits of daily nature by ordinary people and businessmen. The law enforcement agency was seen as having failed to discharge their normal duties, either willingly or because of extraneous pressure. The situation was ripe for rampant corruption where almost everyone came to have a price. Whether Nigeria deserves to be number one in the Corruption Indext of TI or not may be a moot point, but that corruption has become pandemic is beyond a shadow of a doubt.

This government has taken measures to contain anti-social elements that go by colourful names, often prefixed by the name of colours. Operation Flush-Out was launched to catch hold of them by units of army assigned with this task. Frequent deaths in ‘heart attacks’ after interrogation by the captors gave rise to criticisms over human rights violation. Though similar accusations are normally made against police, the number of deaths in custody rose so sharply under the Operation Flush Out and the Joint Task Force (JTF) On Niger Delta Restiveness that it became the focus of criticisms by many human rights organizations, nationally and internationally. At present new agencies have been established by the govt. among which Rapid Action Squad (RAS) has been in the limelight almost on daily basis since its inception.

The Minister For Information & Communication, Prof. Akunyili, in recent months, have cheerfully gone about bashing the media for what they see as their contributions to a belittling of the national image abroad. That kind of criticism has been as spurious as it has been laughable. As a participant at the discussion pointed out, it is difficult for the media to highlight the national image when the government fails on nearly every front. So, in short, what the authorities have been doing is to cover up their own failures and then pin the blame for the entire negative image on the press. That is convenient. On a bigger plane, it is also a dangerous attitude.

It looks funny, but brutally killing innocent Nigerians for keeping dome

stic criticism under check, or for any other domestic political reason, has become the order of the day. This highly dangerous trend has to be checked immediately, for prosperous Nigeria. With twenty journalists killed and more than a hundred and fifty wounded in the last fifteen years, it makes little sense for anyone to condemn the media for reporting truthfully on everything that has been going wrong in the country. As we see it, the media today are in the firing line from a number of quarters. On the one hand, there are the mafia, especially in the south-western region of the country, who have never flinched from murdering newsmen reporting bravely on their misdeeds. On the other, there are the religious extremists in the Northern region of this country ready to condemn journalists with charges of apostasy every time the media have spoken of the need to uphold ethics, and there are cult activities in the Niger Delta region, delight in signaling peace off the region.

there is the government, with its ministers not quite realizing that when they attack the press, they are not only landing a blow on press freedom but are also making it easier for others to begin considering the media as the enemy. A powerful sign of just how beleaguered journalists have become in Nigeria can be had from the ecstatic manner in which the police go after the media as they try to cover political happenings on the streets. Photo journalists have had their cameras smashed and journalists have been physically attacked by such forces as the police and members of the Rapid Response Battalion. Inside this country, newsmen reporting on political and administrative corruption have been frequent targets of politicians and their local goons, to the extent that a good number of these newsmen have often been forced to live away from their families and homes. When to all this is added the rather new phenomenon of individuals aggrieved by news reports hauling editors and publishers to court rather than filing a complaint before the Press Council, one has a pretty disturbing picture of just how endangered a species journalists have turned into in this country. Security of journalists, did we say? We can only expect it from those who place full, unambiguous faith in democracy, in the thought that ethics is part of life. It is something that governments whose ministers take immeasurable pride in denigrating journalists are poorly equipped to ensure.

The scores of deaths of their detainees in ‘insurgency’ has even brought allegations of ‘extra-judicial killing’. Acts of ‘militancy’ carried out among a few organizations spread scare and shock among local people because of their wanton and brutal nature. Cultural organizations, social functions, leftwing and secular political parties, shrines revered by a section of people, mosque belonging to a sect, a Christian church and several cinema halls have been the targets, of attacks by bombs and grenades. Scores of foreigners have been kidnapped, and extorted, people have died in these barbaric attacks, including government officials, sending shock-waves and alarm to the outside world. Though all the indications pointed fingers at resource control agitators as the perpetrators of these heinous acts, the government was almost in denial. After the death of the former Attorney General/ Justice minister a crescendo of international criticism reached its apogee and pressure was bought to bear on the government to take stern action against militancy. It is no coincidence that two religious organizations have been banned and many of their members and a few leaders have been arrested after the Advisor in Foreign Ministry returned from his discussion in Washington where a donor’s meeting was about to be held. D.C. If these actions were taken by the government without waiting for pressure from outside, this country’s image would have been improved manifold.

Nigeria’s image problem became so acute that for the first time the donors met in Washington DC to discuss the emergent situation. The meeting expressed concern at the unsatisfactory state of law and order, violation of human rights and poor political governance. Though the criticisms fell short of suspending aid, their tone and the circumstances under which these were made spoke volumes about their impression and attitude. The publication of US State Department’s annual human rights report, finding fault with Nigeria on many points, served to corroborate some of the criticisms and therefore could not have come at a worse moment.

The problem with the image of Nigeria has a long history, as described above and it has many facets, as explained. It is the cumulative outcome of many years of failures to which various governments have contributed their share in varying measures. All the governments that have been in power stand in the dock in this respect and taking a ‘holier than thou attitude’ does not help a whit. The bad news is when someone’s or a country’s image starts tumbling down, it gathers pace. It takes a cumulative process to become a recognizable process. From this follows the good news that improvement in the image can be demonstrated by taking discrete steps, one by one, in a determined way. The Aegean’s stable does not have to be cleared all at once to carry conviction; only the process has to start with grit and determination. So the enormity of the problem need not daunt the country and the power that is by its size, provided the will to address it is there.

The first error on our part as a nation was when the literates began to look with suspicion everything an indigenous Nigerian had initiated rather than craftiness of deception. Then also our academia refusing to see the wisdom in our local people and therefore not helping them to improve on their inventions. It’s unfortunate that it took such a long time for our physicians to acknowledge the potency of herbal medicine. Thanks to some present generation of leaders who have seen wisdom in our local people. It need be expedited as it is a potential source of foreign exchange earning, our professionals must help towards maximizing our share of the global market. Our professionals need be thought that as they faithfully commit themselves to the needs of the populace, they will be serving needs and consequently creating wealth. A careful consideration of the life of some of the men revered most today indicates they were chiefly occupied with some needs of their communities or humanity at large.

When solving the needs of our people becomes our preoccupation, it matters not who can be of help. We shall learn to work in teams, something really lacking among Nigerians. Then also appropriately remunerating everyone based on the practical contribution and not laurels. One thing we have to acknowledge in our Nigeria is the place of the various skills in production. These are namely the use of the mind, the use of the hand and the use of strength. In the past the other two arms of production i.e. use of the hand and use of strength have been underrated and exploited. These would not have to continue. This has been responsible for the recent polytechnics strike action.

Can one end the roll call of past heads of government and institutions who have stolen from national coffers? Let’s not talk of those who have been found out but also those who through the magic of the pen escaped detection and prosecution. More important than a publicity blitz are tangible actions taken on the ground. Positive steps taken, one by one, to control the damage and repair it can far out-weigh media hype. This government should reengineer the slogan Nigeria: Good people, great nation to act inside the country in a way it can send signals to international passers-by and interest group, including purported investors. This country may not have to go naked telling the world that the national image is not bad. It has simply to be shown through deeds to be believed.

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