Just when I was reflecting on the attitude of the Nigerian government to the ill-treatment of Nigerians within and without the country I came across a report in The Guardian of Monday, January 8, 2001. Written by the paper’s correspondent in New York, Laolu Akande, the story presented the moves being made by the Nigerian embassy in Washington, D.C., to corral enthusiastic and politically-minded Nigerians, particularly in the US and Europe into a non-governmental organization. The group, already christened Nigerians in Diaspora Organization, NIDO, by the embassy “would be a non-profit, self-sustaining organization… [to] be established in Washington for Nigerians in the Americas and [in] London for those in Europe, while the one in Abuja, under the Presidency will coordinate the activities of those in Washington and London.”
The Guardian report attributed the ideas behind the organization to the meeting between President Olusegun Obasanjo and Nigerians in the US during the president’s visit to Atlanta, Georgia, last September. It also located the kernel of the enthusiasm into which government officials in Abuja and Washington are tapping in the existence of an Internet site, Nigeriaworld.com, where thousands of Nigerians from all over the world engage in discussions of political and social issues on an hourly basis. The site, formerly called Odili.net, is the creation of Chuck Odili, a Nigerian based in North Carolina. It is a phenomenal success, an exceedingly vibrant site owing to the conjunction of several factors, the most immediate being advances in communications and the extreme radicalization of Nigerians in the aftermath of the annulment of June 12 polls.
The news item reflected the lack of unanimity amongst Nigerians who regularly visit the site. While some people drew attention to the absurdity of a government establishing and coordinating ‘a non-government organization’, others balked at the overt nature of the announcement with its undertones of espionage which could compromise the work of Nigerians in public service in the US. A Nigerian, Jumoke Ogunkeyede who spearheaded the institution of the Kudirat Abiola’s Corner in New York, said that some unnamed persons belonging to the NIDO worked assiduously for the regime of General Sani Abacha.
I am not a frequent visitor to the Nigeriaworld.com site, and I’m able to access its contents through some other means. But I’m aware of its enormous vibrancy, its seriousness having displaced the Face-Me-I-Face-You-Tenement kind of squabble dominant in the older site, Naijanet. Recently, a group of sixty-eight Nigerians, domiciled in the US, Europe, and Asia signed a petition addressed to President Obasanjo on “The Invasion of Okigwe Township by a combined team of the Military and Police Forces”, and rightly condemned what it perceived as a vestige of the Civil-War mentality. The group was brought together in instantaneous communication by the magic of the cyberspace. Because the association is loose, voluntary, and answers only to rules as determined by the Internet, it could only call itself ‘Concerned Nigerian Citizens in Cyberspace’. This kind of enthusiasm and numerical strength is what the promoters of NIDO are trying to exploit.
It is a very absurd initiative, though, and the responses from Nigerians abroad have made this clear. As some of the interlocutors have said, a government has no business creating a non-governmental group, an idea philosophically rooted in the inadequacies of a government as an institution. Lack of transparency and of political reflex, excessive bureaucracy, authoritarianism, entrenched interests, and the need for neutrality are some of the reasons for the advent of NGOs. It is true that such distinctions need not be cast in stone, since NGOs by their very nature acknowledge the presence of governments and are increasingly borrowing some of the features of formal government. Yet, there is something annoyingly devious and arrogant about this approach by the Nigerian government and its officials, and such presumptuous paternalism should be resisted.
It is funny that a government that does not adequately attend to the ordinary needs of its citizens-such basic statutory functions like water, light, food, housing, security-is pretending to organize people whose presence in America, Europe and elsewhere is by and large a result of the failure of the Nigeria state. As I said earlier, I have been outraged at the incidence of attacks on Nigerians living abroad, most recently the killings and harassment in Abidjan following the successful uprising against the regime of Robert Guei. The death of three (maybe more) Nigerians in London last year, the deportation of hundreds of economic refugees from Libya, the singling out of Nigerians in Azanian townships as causes of crime and economic hardship-these situations have led me to wonder whether there is a plot to perpetually stigmatize these compatriots wherever they go. I pay heed to Nigerians’ predilection for scams, within the country and without, a negative streak that is indefensible despite all hot air about reparations and victims’ gullibility. Aside from pockets of success which tend not to get much press the international reputation of Nigerians is one of abrasive and dubious individuals, and this notion was validated by the roguish and murderous tendencies of the Abacha junta.
The government of Nigeria has never been known to take a serious interest in the welfare of these citizens. During the military troubles in Liberia and Sierra Leone, when a country like the US had evacuated its citizens long before the onset of indiscriminate shooting, Nigerians were left to their own devices and were eventually caught in crossfire. A Nigerian immigrant in Austria died while being deported. Another was being forced out of Paris, and it took the intervention of compatriots aboard the plane to check the brutality of the French police deporting him. Even then, only after several petitions and editorials from newspapers in Lagos did the Foreign Affairs ministry tender a letter of protest to the French government. The statement credited to the Nigerian High Commission in London after the death of Damilola Taylor was one of the most asinine I read throughout the period, and I couldn’t help wondering if Bola Ajibola actually saw that statement before it went out. When hundreds of Nigerians from Libyan towns were loaded into planes and dumped in Lagos, Dapo Sarumi, the minister for Co-operation and Integration in Africa said the deportees were criminals and prostitutes.
With this sort of attitude, it is refreshing that the government is proud enough of its citizens to associate with them in the manner suggested by the formation of NIDO. But it is the wrong sort of interest. It is founded on a dubious assumption that there is unanimity of views among Nigerians. The excitement generated by the demise of military rule, the realization by many relocated Nigerians that their dignity is tied to political and economic stability back home and the articulation of both in close attention to government business have been misconstrued as a quest for political patronage.
I can’t suppress the suspicion that the move to form NIDO is hatched between officials in Washington-Abuja and certain Nigerians abroad-potential contractors and carpetbaggers. I can imagine that some-including but not limited to those said to have worked for Abacha-would actually cherish an opportunity to fly frequently between Abuja and Washington, pocketing cushy estacodes, purporting to speak for people as widely different in their pursuits and political inclinations as Gabriel Gbadamosi and Ify Amadiume or Nubi Achebo and Ruby Bell-Gam or Bernardette Akintoye and Godwin Ede. Yet I would insist that this is dubious: even when they do not claim to speak for others, or can not force others to join them, their ploy must be exposed as cheap buccaneering. Those who want to be patronized by politicians should very well make themselves available, but they shouldn’t do so as representatives of Nigerians in diaspora.
Such arguments as are advanced by persons quoted in The Guardian report-for example the danger of the enterprise being perceived as an espionage network-are secondary. (It is sufficient to say that arguing for a covert operation renders the move even more reprehensible upon discovery.) For me the real issues are quite straightforward. Nigerian rulers should make their society less hostile. Nigeria is, without question, one of the most unfriendly places on our planet. Its citizens feel relieved when they get out of it, although the places where they relocate are not without their inconveniences. The exodus of Nigerians since the mid-1980s is activated by the breakdown of the Nigerian state. Their enthusiasm is an expression of the hope that the present opportunity to rebuild is not frittered away. As an individual I would work to help realize that hope. This isn’t to be understood as a yearning for co-option.