The president of Chicago State University, Dr. Elnora Daniel obviously underestimated the weight of her statement. “The largesse of His Excellency Abdulsalami A. Abubakar has afforded this opportunity to establish this annual program, which is designed to transcend geopolitical and ethnic boundaries in search of human and peaceful transition to democracy.” Largesse, she said, with a gracious, queenly casualness. Largesse! A Nigerian reading this statement, to the effect that the immediate past ruler of his country, a soldier, has given to an American university money so substantial as to be so described cannot afford to be that casual. Largesse: charity, munificence, liberality, generosity, philanthropy, bounteousness, load after load after load of Ghana-Must-Go! Prodigals! Nigerians! So he read over and again, clicked back and forth, scrolled up and down, double-clicked on curious icons. And the story was there, chopped up, properly pigeonholed, packaged with the accustomed rituals of the World Wide Web.
On the university’s home page, the icon still occupies a prominent place, written in flamboyantly golden but ugly calligraphy, unmistakably Third-worldish: The Abdulsalami A. Abubakar Distinguished Lecture Series. Something interesting here. This series will establish a scholarship fund for international students, CSU students and faculty members conducting research on international issues. But the real news doesn’t seem to get on the web-the report that guests at the lecture, slated for Friday February 23, 2001, would include General Ibrahim Babangida. Though unconfirmed, this report made quick impression, and got many Nigerians around the eastern seaboard worked up. By a curious kind of irony, you learnt about the lecture through this piece of news, and in other to get more details you hacked your way into the school’s web-site, only to be confronted by an equally bewildering piece of news: largesse!
By Thursday evening it was still not clear whether Babangida would show up at the lecture, to be delivered by Professor Ali Mazrui of the State University of New York, Binghamton. The university authorities had denied inviting Babangida; the State Department denied any knowledge of his possible visit. Nonetheless, Nigerians in Chicago and environs seemed determined to mount protests at the ceremony. Such is the depth of passion anything concerning Babangida elicits-the same people who protested Abacha’s dictatorship have spoken up in this case. And what’s more interesting, there seems to be very little interest in the Abubakar’s amazing philanthropy; this, to me, is as questionable as the matter of Babangida appearing in the US.
I have written before that retired General Ibrahim Babangida has not answered at all, much less satisfactorily, for his activities as the military ruler of Nigeria from 1985 to 1993, especially the cruel abortion of Nigerians’ democratic aspirations in June 1993. I maintain that until he does this, whether he wants to be Emir of Lapai or Pro-Chancellor of any of the universities he once tried to destroy, people should continue to mount pressures on him. Now he’s supposed to be trying to return as a presidential aspirant in 2003-oh yeah. I believe that the anger against his rumored appearance in Chicago is rooted in this same sense of injury.
But we should also not lose sight of the matter of the largesse. It is amazing how heroes are made in backward places; so perplexing have been the affairs of Nigeria in the past thirty odd months, a time of paradoxical commingling of freedom and chicanery, that it is impossible not to be angry with the state of things. In spite of their posturings and undeserved adulation both retired Abdulsalami Abubakar and President Olusegun Obasanjo best epitomize this painful situation. My concern here is with Abubakar, the dispenser of largesse, benefactor of Chicago State University.
His manner of coming to power at a time when the country’s psyche was so battered by Abacha and cohorts that it had to be managed by all sorts of interlopers cast Abubakar in the role of a coordinator. He visited countries that Abacha’s paranoia had turned against Nigeria, meeting pro-democratic figures and selling a phony story of reconciliation and return to democracy. He was the apostle of half-measures, a second-rate hero of a second-rate epoch. And such was (and remains) the depth of the international community’s interest in democracy in the “Third World” that once any soldier promised “multiparty elections” in a few months, he was seen as qualitatively democratic. Abubakar rode on the wave of this affection.
Little surprise therefore that he became Nigeria’s Man of the Year in 1999; got appointed as a Special Envoy of the United Nations for the crises in the Congo and Zimbabwe. Then there’s the cheap honor of having “graciously handing over power to a democratically elected government” and according to CSU’s home page, he thus becomes one of the most respected political leaders in the world. Another Nelson Mandela, would you say? This was how the school described lecture series: “The purpose of these series is to initiate or strengthen thoughts and dialogues on topics and current issues bearing on the development of democratic institutions, purposive governance and responsive civil society in those parts of the world undergoing political changes.” If ever there was a case of money in search of idea, this is it!
This is the sense in which I see the role of an international ambassador of democracy that Abubakar currently affects. It is a dubious role, but since the world is in need of more democracy, Florida-style, he’s welcome to that role. But where is the largesse coming from? Where did he get the money? President Elnora Daniel obviously does not feel obliged to ask. That was why she could talk so casually about largesse, the way a successful host talks about leftover soda after a Mafia-bankrolled banquet.
For the information of the authorities of Chicago State University and others who would not normally care, General Abubakar became Nigeria’s head of state as a lieutenant-general in early June 1998. He and his team awarded all sorts of contracts during the one year they were in power, they were not sure when again they would chance by so much awoof. These contracts have been reviewed by a constituted panel, and the General stands indicted by the very fact of these reviews. Then, like the proverbial Arab oil prince, he suddenly materializes with an unnamed donation tied to a lecture series in an American college. Never mind that if examined, CSU’s endowments must be bigger than those of several Nigerian universities, which are currently lying-in-state for the Bretton Woods’ undertakers, and which have no endowments! There may be something definitely wrong with an elite or a ruling class that treats its society with such prodigal disrespect, but it is hardly appropriate for Elnora Daniel and her council to preen so shamelessly about the largesse.
Is this a case of money-laundering? Or image-laundering? No, Abubakar does not have the kind of image problem that bedevils his mentor. But he has been indicted over the death of MKO Abiola in detention, as revelations at the Oputa Panel clearly demonstrate. I am not aware that he has responded to any of these not-so-subtle indictments. In the past three weeks, former US president Bill Clinton has been under fire for pardoning Marc Rich, a federal tax offender, at the end of his tenure. Although Clinton isn’t exactly in trouble, he has shown enough respect for his country by speaking to these uneasy questions, and assuming responsibility for his actions. Abubakar, like most Nigerian rulers has said nothing, obviously irritated that he was not being allowed to enjoy his loot in peace.
I used to think that Abubakar was a self-effacing man of modest ambitions who would rather spend his retirement tending livestock in suburban Minna with Justice Fati Abubakar, sporting a peace-of-mind beard after the tension of Aso Rock. I was wrong-a different retirement benefit has presented itself. And Chicago State University is the beneficiary. I strongly believe that this insensitive act of charity calls for as much protest as the issue of Babangida visiting the US.