Dinner With Mr. Speaker

Venue was Parliament Hill, Ottawa, home to the proud Gothic Revival buildings that make up the national Parliament of Canada. Our host was the Honorable Peter Milliken, Speaker of the House of Commons and Canada's equivalent of Dimeji Bankole. Date was Thursday March 3, 2011. The occasion was a dinner prelude to a conference convened to celebrate the life and legacy of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the great African nationalist and former president of Tanzania. Carleton University's Institute of African Studies, in liaison with numerous actors and organizations in Ottawa's Africanist community, especially friends of Tanzania, was organizing the conference. As Julius Nyerere had been a great friend of Canada, it was in order for the Canadian establishment to support the conference.

Because dinner was the Speaker's show, the guest parade was intimidating. A Nigerian journalist writing about it would describe the guests as "dignitaries and top government functionaries from all walks of life." On the Tanzanian side, there was the High Commissioner of Tanzania in Canada. Tanzania's Permanent Representative to the United Nations flew in from New York for the dinner. There was the Honorable Abdulrahman Kinana, a former Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly and a top political figure in Tanzania. On the Canadian side, there were distinguished Members of Parliament (MPs) and leaders of sundry congressional delegations in the areas of international trade and development. There were high ranking Canadian government officials whose job descriptions put Africa on their table every morning. Carleton University's delegation comprised the University President, two Deans, the Director of the Institute of African studies, and a number of African studies professors.

It was a bitterly cold evening. I parked on a street across from the imposing Parliament buildings and ran towards the main entrance of the central building, passing the two casual police cars (often empty) that I have seen decorating parliament grounds since I moved to Ottawa about five years ago. This time, there were police officers in the cars. They smiled and nodded in my direction as I shot past them, probably pitying the poor fellow who had to brave that bitter cold to reach the main building. How were they to know what I thought of the fact that only four police officers, seeping coffee and smiling in their cosy cars were all I had to see (see, not even deal with) before I accessed the centre of Canada's parliamentary democracy? How were they to know that my mind was already in Abuja, visualizing the mean and unfriendly security obstacles that separate the National Assembly from the ordinary Nigerian?

At the main entrance, I met my Dean and a few other guests. We went through metal detectors briskly and were given directions to the Speaker's office by the very friendly staff at the lobby. We made our way to the elevator, up one floor, and into labyrinthine hallways with great ceilings. Fifteen or so odd metres to the Speaker's office, and we were on our own, walking like we were in our fathers' oko egan (farm), totally unharassed, unmolested by anybody. No power show. No do-you-know-who-I-am (apologies to Salisu Suleiman). No overbloated egos. No barking of orders by paraga-drinking and igbo-smoking security guards. No corking of rifles preparatory to accidental discharge. The ÔÇśabnormal' simplicity and humility of that environment was beginning to annoy me. Remember, I was thinking about our friends in Abuja.

We got to the reception area of the Speaker's office for that part where you do a little chitchat and exchange business cards with other guests while picking wine glasses from trays being ferried around by uniformed staff. Canada's High Commissioner in Tanzania was already there with a few MPs and some Directors of Parliamentary offices. The High Commissioner had heard about me and told me he was looking forward to the publication of my Penguin book. I was pleased and told him that I had recently had a meeting in my office with Chris Cooter, Canada's High Commissioner in Nigeria, and he had assured me that he would want to play a role in a possible book launch in Nigeria later this summer. More chitchat and Speaker Milliken breezed in from an inner sanctuary, accompanied by an aide, just one aide. I made a mental note of the fact that anybody in his status bracket in Abuja would have made such an entry accompanied by at least two Ekene Dili Chukwu bus loads of personal assistants and protocol officers.

The Honorable Speaker went round the room, spending time with each guest. Finally somebody I can call "honorable" without puking, unlike the clowns in Abuja. My turn. A handshake. I introduced myself as one of his guests from Carleton University. And he said: "Professor Adesanmi?" I nodded. He smiled, our hands still locked in a handshake, and: "did you say you were from Nigeria? How long have you been in Canada sir?" I gave him the appropriate answers, taking a mental note of that "sir" of politeness and scrutinizing him closely in case the mention of Nigeria gave him a heart attack. Because of a long tradition of respect for learning, Western politicians and government officials always have a way of creating an aura of solemnity and respect when they are in the presence of University professors. Teachers in this culture remind me of the exalted position of teachers in a once-upon-a-time Nigeria. Treasury looters and yahoo boys who hammer to hummer are the new cool in Nigeria, not Professors.

"Thank you for offering your expertise to Canada," the Speaker's voice broke in to my thought. He patted me on the shoulder and moved on to the next handshake with another guest. Soon, we were formally invited to the dining room somewhere down the hall. I looked at the haute cuisine menu and regretted not having had the opportunity to perform a little ritual I always perform before attending upper class oyibo functions. Despite all my years of Frenchification and movement in the circles of culture and haute cuisine in the Western world, I never leave home to eat oyibo food at exclusive gatherings without laying a solid foundation of pounded yam or eba and egusi soup in my stomach. That way, I can look very relaxed when those painfully small servings of five-course menu items with encyclopaedic names arrive in very expensive plates on the trolley of a uniformed chef.

After dinner came the speeches but my mind was not there. I have never been able to escape a comparative frame of mind in these kinds of situations. Never mind that comparison with what obtains back home always brings misery and migraine. I looked at that room, packed with so many dignitaries from the top of the Canadian establishment and the thought I how casually I had strolled in there depressed me. I thought of what it would take to assemble this calibre of people in one room and at the same event in Abuja. How to manage their ten-kilometre long convoys and the inevitable clashes between their security agents and protocol officers? How to manage the cacophony of their sirens? How to ford their igbo olodumare of special assistants, special advisers, senior special assistants, and senior special advisers? How to massage the anjonu iberu of their bloated egos? How to deal with their competition to arrive two hours late for the event and have the emcee "recognize their presence" according to protocol?

There is so much arrogance of power in Nigeria. So much irresponsibility on the part of the largely empty egos prattling all over the place as Chief or Alhaji in Abuja and the state capitals. How to get the Nigerian government official to embrace an ethos of the ordinariness of power such as I was witnessing in that room has been at the centre of much of my reflections lately. We will make no progress as a nation until we figure out how to demythify and demystify power. I remembered my friend, Bayo Aregbesola, who had worked as a senior parliamentary librarian before being transferred to New Brunswick as a senior manager in a Federal ministry. Bayo had to deal with MPs, Senators, Committee Chairs, and the general leadership of the Parliament every day in his line of work. Seeing all these people take the Ottawa public bus system to work every morning was a source of great sadness for my friend who would remember Nigeria, phone me from work, and scream: "Pius, can you imagine a Nigerian Senator or Rep taking public transportation to work?" And we would agonize to no end about Nigeria's totally indolent National Assembly.

Dinner over, formal speeches began, followed by more small talk, exchange of business cards, and promises of phone calls. Some of the Canadian government officials and Members of Parliament told me that they had been to Nigeria in the past as members of all sorts of delegations and in the context of inter-governmental relations and initiatives. This is the part I like most about my access to Western officials who travel in Africa. This is the part where I get to ask: "so, who did you meet in Nigeria and what did they tell you?" You hear that they met Minister X or Senator Y or Governor Z. You hear that they were also in the Presidency. You hear very nice things about Nigeria and the wonderful things that the government of Nigeria is doing for the good people of Nigeria. Don't blame these Western government officials for these views. Remember, they are telling you what they were told by their hosts in Abuja and the state capitals.

Nigerian officials display two kinds of behaviour when they are hosting their Western counterparts ÔÇô especially if the guest if white. Firstly, they are overly obsequious, grinning from ear to ear, demonstrating a level of sheepish solicitude for western officials ÔÇô no matter how junior ÔÇô that they will never accord the Nigerian people. Secondly, they tend to tell loads of lies for they must prove to their western patrons that they are delivering the "dividends of democracy" to Nigerians. This atrocious psychology and slavish mentality explains why so many of them would begin to sing like a canary the moment an American official steps into their office as we see in the Wikileaks revelations on Dimeji Bankole, Bukola Saraki, Yayale Ahmed, and so many Nigerian officials. They sing and sing and sing, revealing Nigeria's state secrets to these people, and praising their own meretricious service to high heavens.

This explains why I go to meetings with Western officials hoping to hear what they were told in Abuja. My personal policy is: no lie told to a Western official by a Nigerian official ÔÇô especially if they are PDP ÔÇô shall be left standing after a meeting with me. One by one, I shoot down the lies. Painstakingly and meticulously, I tell the story of the Nigerian people. I speak of our travails in the hands of those lying and treasury-looting officials. I warn those Western officials to always do their home work and check in order to know who is credible and who isn't before rushing to Abuja to be lied to by treasury looters. I tell them that the only official they should take seriously for now is Babatunde Fashola in Lagos. Sometimes the lies from Abuja are so overwhelming you don't even know where to start. Here, I apply the Unoka principle and debunk the big lies first. Remember Unoka? That is Mazi Okonkwo's father in Things Fall Apart who subscribes to the principle of paying off his big debts first before attending to the small debts. I shed light on the lies standing before looking at the lies kneeling under them!

In moments of candour, some Western officials tell you that they know all these things but, sadly, in the real world, governments deal with governments. Were Speaker Milliken to visit Nigeria, for instance, it would be impossible for him to avoid Dimeji Bankole, no matter what Nigerians think of their Speaker and the overall leadership of their moribund and money-guzzling National Assembly. Governments deal with governments.

On my way back to my car, the policemen were still in their cars. One wound down his car door window and offered: "chilly night, eh?" I agreed with him. "Hurry home, buddy, and keep warm", he shot after me sympathetically. I didn't have to look over my shoulder. I felt safe.