Heart of Africa Project: Another Drain Pipe?

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

Unfortunately, ours is a country where some fellows, with an exaggerated notion of their smartness, have mastered the very grievous and self-demeaning art of wasting precious time and resources that could have been deployed to productive use on some meaningless exercises and getting paid for such prodigal endeavours. Or else, how can one possibly explain the stubborn insistence of the Federal Government of Nigeria through its Information And National Orientation Minister, Mr. Frank Nweke Jnr., to still go on with its Image Laundering Project, when even from the outset, it was all too clear to everyone, that the whole thing was not only wasteful, but capable of making the country look foolish and grossly diminished before the outside world.

In this internet age when the latest news from Nigeria could immediately be read in Australia, China, Malaysia, Taiwan or just anywhere in the world, long before most Nigerians are even able to do so, what possibly could any self-respecting fellow be wasting his time and the nation’s resources telling the outside world about Nigeria that they do not already know? If Nigeria, under the present Administration, has not truly failed, as is now widely believed by both Nigerians and foreigners, the outside world would not require the effort of Frank Nweke and his gaggle of image launderers to make up its mind about that. Nigeria is bare before the whole wide world!

When in 2004, the then Minister of Information, Mr. Chukwuemeka Chikelu, came up with the Nigeria Image (Laundering) Project, I was one of those who felt highly scandalized that the very thing that had failed late military dictator, Gen Sani Abacha, in his moment of distress and estrangement was what the Obasanjo Administration had gone all out to dredge up, in a clearly doomed attempt to secure for itself an unearned image. In my column in Daily Independent of Wednesday, August 11, 2004, entitled, “Chikelu: Deodorizing Dog-shit?“, I had advised the Minister to excuse himself from the very wasteful and utterly useless project, for which the Federal Government had voted N600 million at that time.

I was so baffled that anyone in his right mind would be willing to stake his reputation and dignity to embark on a project to burnish the horribly, self-battered image of a government, that was always too eager to behave in ways that seemed to suggest that its very life was wholly dependent on the countless scandals it submerged itself in almost every other day.

“What I am telling Chikelu today,” I wrote, “is what I think he already knows too well, namely, that when a  room is horribly messed up with the indiscriminate droppings of a very reckless dog, what you must do is to bend down and carefully wash the place with  active detergent.  Only then would you get back the fresh, pleasant air that makes a room worth inhabiting. But if you take the unhealthy short cut of spraying the dog-shit with heavy dose of deodorant, then you will get a putrid scent that will make the room more repelling than ever before. Nigeria does not need an image-burnishing project. I sincerely urge Chikelu not to be party to a profligate venture he already knows would return no positive dividend.”

Now, I do not know whether the Minister took my advice or not, but what became clear soon after that piece was published was that all the irritating noise about the wasteful project suddenly disappeared from the public domain. And not long after that, the Minister, too, lost his job, but with his honour and reputation in tact. Now we have Frank Nweke Jnr. on the saddle and the controversial project has shown its irremediably ugly face again, this time, with a new name: “Nigeria: Heart Of Africa Project.”

And so, recently, at huge expense to the nation, the Nigerian government took its undying folly to the Queen Elizabeth 11 Conference Hall, Westminster in London, to launch the Image Laundering Project, all in a clearly futile attempt to burnish with a few drab addresses and unappetizing slogans, the horrible image it had willfully accumulated for itself since it was imposed on Nigerians by the most diseased elements of the nation’s political class in 1999. Now, I am not concerned here with the disruption of Nweke’s speech at the occasion by protesters led by the UK arm of the Movement For The Actualization Of The Sovereign State Of Biafra (MASSOB) which called him a liar and other unprintable names; my business really is with the folly of the whole wasteful enterprise, and the crude pigheadedness that motivated its enactment in the first place. The next phase of the launch is billed for the United States in the next couple of days, and, a statement from the Ministry of Information has already alerted us to alleged plans by some Nigerians in the United States to protest at the venue of the launch. 

What every sane Nigerian should be asking at this time is: why are these heartless people so bent on squandering the nation’s resources to carry out this impossible and self-serving mission while majority of Nigerians whose lot could be improved with the funds they are wasting are trapped in grinding poverty? Why is the Nigerian Government so disdainful of the feelings and opinions of Nigerians – the very people at the receiving end of its countless anti-people policies and actions, while it spends so much to attract even the slightest hint of (mostly insincere) approval from foreigners? How can a government with an incredible mass of impoverished and aggrieved people at home, convince itself that what is most important to it is to try to purchase meretricious credibility for itself by making some insincere and unverifiable claims about its phantom records of achievement abroad?

Somebody should, please, ask Mr. Nweke and the government he speaks for to shelve the proposed US jamboree, disperse the growing number of shameless jobbers and unrelenting parasites already milling around him and the so-called Heart of Africa nonsense, and sit back at home to fix Nigeria and earn the respect of its citizens. This option if adopted may require extra and sincere work than the expensive, meaningless noise at world capitals, which the image project is all about, but, at the end of the day, it would prove to be the only realistic way this government can earn all the respect and approval it craves. Any government can earn the respect and confidence of tourists and investors without its officials traveling to anywhere outside its shores. When the people are happy with their government, commentaries and news about it would become more positive, and the outside world would take note. Only then would sincere and genuine investors (not the current fraudsters who are here to milk the country dry with the aid of their highly placed, corrupt friends) will start trouping into the country in droves. 

By the way, what really is Nweke telling his audience at the ‘Heart of Africa Project’ launches around the world? What can a government whose seven years in power have only returned to the citizenry pains and frustrations possibly advertise as its “achievements”? Only recently, Thursday, November 9, 2006, to be precise, “what Nigeria must do to change the course of events and become a model democracy in Africa” was discussed with passion and seriousness on the Voice of America’s Africa Journal. With Host, Vincent Makori, at the studio in Washington were two Nigerians: Sunday Dare, VOA Hausa Chief, and Emmanuel Ogebe, a Special Legal Consultant. Nigeria’s Information Minister, Mr. Frank Nweke, was the Phone-Guest from Abuja. 

I caught the programme at the point Rasheed Ladajo’s case in Oyo State had cropped up in the discussion, and was thoroughly disappointed by the most embarrassing submission of Frank Nweke on the issue. Following the declaration of the Court of Appeal that the impeachment of Gov Ladoja of Oyo Stat

e was unconstitutional and null and void, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Bayo Ojo, had immediately constituted himself into a Superior Court, and issued a counter ruling stating that “though an appeal simplicita does not constitute a stay of execution, Chief Ladoja should still consider the appeal by the other party as a stay of action and should therefore stay home until the Supreme Court makes a pronouncement on the matter.” Note that at this time, the other party were yet to file any appeal before the Supreme Court!

When Frank Nweke was asked to react to this constitutional rascality by Bayo Ojo (who incidentally has just be rewarded by a UN top job), he declared that Nigeria was a federal state and the states were autonomous entities, and so, it was not true that the Federal Government through its Attorney-General had interfered in the legal and constitutional issues in Oyo State. In fact, Frank declared that Bayo Ojo did not stop the implementation of a Court order in Oyo State! I could not believe my ears. Majority of those Frank was speaking to on VOA television were either Nigerians or avid readers of Nigerian newspapers online which duly reported Bayo Ojo’s counter ruling on the Ladoja matter. Now, if this barefaced misrepresentation is Frank’s way of prosecuting his image laundering enterprise, then, the Obasanjo government would always end up a laughing stock before the rest of the civilized world. 

The VOA programme was a public relations disaster for the Nigerian government. Nigerians who called in from different parts of the world were aghast that the government in Abuja has done nothing in the past seven years to improve the lives of ordinary Nigerians. No doubt, all those overwhelming claims Frank was making about “developments” and “progress” in Nigeria can only be accommodated in the realm of fiction. This was a country in which seventy percent of its citizens still lived below poverty level, amidst all the incredible wealth that has come to the nation in the past few years from oil exports, more than at any other time in the nation’s history. In fact, Nigeria seems to be the only country anyone can point to where boundless prosperity has only translated to unspeakable sufferings for the people. Each time Frank was asked about the excruciating situation in Nigeria, his reaction would be to triumphantly point out what he perceived as similar situations existing in Europe and the United States. I wish he had bothered, too, to compare the functional amenities in those places with we have in Nigeria.

What about security? These days, robbers operate for hours, with utmost impunity and without any form of challenge from the police. Recently, there were reports that a band of robbers had seized four banks and had continued to operate and shoot indiscriminately for about four hours. The police were called but they refused to venture near the scene. A   police personnel in the area told a national newspaper: “We were aware that they have been operating since about midnight, singing and dancing, but we can’t confront them because we have no APC (Armoured Personal Carrier) to provide cover for us.”

 If anyone has any other definition of a failed state more or less than what this story graphically illustrates, please let’s have it!

 We live in a country with death traps as roads, erratic power supply, unspeakable hunger and mass unemployment. The recent quarrel between President Olusegun Obasanjo and his deputy, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, threw up incredible, horrible details about boundless corruption in the Presidency one never imagined was possible. The civilized world is thoroughly disgusted that such a horribly muddied and discredited government is still in place, and that instead of standing down, it is rolling out billions to burnish its irredeemable image.

These are issues Frank Nweke and his crowd of whitewashers should be worrying about, not the image laundering jamboree that makes the rest of the world thoroughly sick.

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