Of Irresponsible Presidential Convoys and an Imperial Visit

Premium Times and a number of other online news portals reported recently that a presidential convoy was involved in the sort of irresponsible behavior Nigerians have come to expect from Government officials on the move. The convoy was said to be coming back from the Abuja airport. Premium Times speculated that Vice President Namadi Sambo was the culprit. His office has since denied this, claiming that the Vice President was not in the convoy. Interestingly, the Vice President’s people did not deny the fundamental claims of eyewitness accounts. There had indeed been a presidential convoy driving at breakneck speed, clearing Nigerians out of the way in the usual fashion, endangering the lives of ordinary Nigerians, and, eventually, breaking the law by driving on the opposite site of the road into incoming traffic. None of this was denied. They just wanted the public to know that the Vice President was not in the convoy at the time of this particular act of lawlessness and irresponsibility.

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Whether Vice-President Sambo was in the convoy or not is a moot point for me. Sometimes, presidency aides are funnier than they are foolish. What exactly are these clowning aides trying to tell us would have been done differently had the Vice President been in the convoy? That the convoy would have been less irresponsible? That other road users would have been respected and treated like Nigerian citizens who deserve of full human dignity? That the overzealous drivers, security agents, aides, and hangers-on in the convoy wouldn’t have veered onto the opposite lane and broken the law in the process? I think we are sufficiently familiar with the behavior of convoys and the atrocious psychology of Nigeria’s rulers to understand that the Vice President’s presence would not have changed anything. On the contrary, it would even have worsened the irresponsible behaviour of that convoy for his aides, drivers, and security goons would have been far more overzealous.

We know this because the convoy of the Nigerian government official is a universe of lawlessness and irresponsibility unto itself. Here is what I had to say about the sociology of the Nigerian convoy in a lecture I delivered to a Canadian audience back in 2009: “Permit me to enter some details on the psychology of Nigerian convoys for the benefit of our Canadian friends in this audience. That is what you call a motorcade here in Canada and also in the United States. Purely ceremonial here, the motorcade wears a human face and respects ordinary Canadians and extant speed limits. I have always argued that the convoy is Nigeria’s worst postcolonial tragedy. The convoy of the Nigerian government official is obscene ostentation, intimidation, unbridled arrogance, and abject alienation from the people. It is an isle of inebriation by power, an oasis of total lawlessness. In his convoy, the Nigerian government official - often an empty barrel also known locally as a “Big Man”, “Chief”, “Alhaji” or a combination of all three - is no longer human. The speed limit of his convoy is determined by how far the speedometer of each constituent bullet-proof SUV can go.”

In the said public lecture, I stated further that: “President Obama’s convoy comprises his limo, a decoy limo, one or two media buses and a few police outriders on motorcycles. That is the length of the convoy of a self-respecting Local Government Chairman in Nigeria. At higher levels, a respectable convoy should be at least one kilometer long. I am not going to tell you the price they normally invoice for an SUV. You will have a heart attack. I am not going to mention the soldiers and/or stern mobile police men wielding AK-47s and horse whips. I am not going to tell you that many Nigerians have been crushed by the convoys of our lawless and inhumane rulers over the years. The Nigerian convoy of course comes with the sort of siren blaring that you people here associate with the emergency services: police, ambulance, and fire engines. When you see a convoy and hear the wailing siren in Nigeria, you jump into a ditch or drive your car quickly off the road for the man of power to pass undisturbed by the people he is supposed to be serving. When the people of Nigeria eventually wake up, the convoy will be one of the first targets of their ire. It is one symbol of oppression that they need to take out. Violently if necessary.”

I delivered this lecture in 2009. Compare what I had to say then with Premium Times’s and other accounts of the behavior of the Vice President’s convoy – whether he was in it or not - and tell me if we have moved an inch from where we were in 2009. The irresponsible behavior of our officials and their convoys, which gave us Elizabeth Udoudo and Uzoma Okere, is still very much a part of our lives. Nothing has changed. In the same vein, I also wrote this piece, “Imperial Visit”, back in 2009 as a weekly columnist for Dele Olojede’s NEXT, after the Emperor and Empress of Japan visited my school, Carleton University, in Ottawa. Please read it and see how relevant the piece is to this discussion of Vice President Sambo’s convoy – and other issues such as the treatment of Nigerians whenever Patience Jonathan and her convoy comes to town, the irresponsible closure of air spaces because of VIP movement, which endangers the lives of ordinary Nigerians. I feel very sad that a lecture I delivered and an op-ed I wrote in 2009 still read like a mirror of our lives in 2012. No movement. No motion. Nothing! Enjoy “Imperial Visit”.

Imperial Visit
By Pius Adesanmi

July 10, 2009

I am a sad and angry man. As I write, the Emperor and Empress of Japan are one floor above my office. My employer, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, is hosting Japan’s royal couple today. My office is located on the 19th floor of Dunton Tower, the tallest building on campus. The Emperor and his wife are being feted on the 20th floor. And I only got to know about this because I bumped into a colleague in the elevator (lift) while going downstairs for coffee break.

I should have known the moment I drove into campus but I was too preoccupied reviewing the things I have to do today as I walked from the car lot to my office building. My handler at NEXT had already sent her usual friendly reminder that this column was due and I was doing a mental review of the topic I have now jettisoned. When I got to my office, two emails from University Communications entitled “Imperial Visit” were in my inbox. I didn’t even open them. University Communications is always clogging your inbox with endless announcements, most of which I consider junk!

I was thus taken aback when my colleague jokingly asked in the elevator why I was going downstairs for coffee instead of upstairs for lunch with the imperial visitors. “Oh, you didn’t read the memo?”, he asked on noticing my puzzled expression. We got downstairs and it finally sunk in. Outside the building were the motorcade and several Ottawa police cars and outrider motorcycles. Polite-looking policemen and scores of men in black suit (with “agents” or “secret service” written all over them) were all over the place. Regular people moved around freely. Business as usual. If you were nowhere around Dunton Tower, you could be forgiven for mistaking today for another ordinary day on campus.

I rushed back to my office to read the two emails from University Communications. They were advisories on “movement restriction” during the imperial visit. Only the 20th floor of Dunton Tower would be closed! Those on the 21st and 22nd floors still had access to their offices. I had access to mine on the 19th floor. Something about the tone of the two emails caught my attention: they sounded somewhat apologetic for the minimal inconvenience that the imperial visit would cause to the University community and the public. The entire logistics of the visit had been planned around respecting the humanity and dignity of every member of the campus community. The story is told of a Nigerian here who went to the cinema in the evening and kept wondering why the man sitting beside him seemed so familiar. Film over, the lights came on and the Nigerian discovered that his neighbor in the cinema hall was no other than Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada! I have not been able to verify this story but it is entirely plausible.

My mind wandered to Nigeria and I pictured what our friends in Abuja would have done to our people were they the ones hosting the couple having lunch just one floor above me! That’s when sadness and anger engulfed me. I thought about how many streets in Abuja they would have cleared and closed; I thought about their koboko and AK-47-wielding soldiers and mobile police men, high on paraga, flogging and jack-booting our people out of the way; I thought about the atrocious psychology of mediocre rulers who treat their people like dung that must be hidden from the sophisticated vision of every visitor in a convoy.

Whenever our friends in Abuja host even an ordinary European Union representative or some low-level officials of Western donor agencies, their mental reflex is how to flog our people out of the way. It is as if something tells them that official visits are incompatible with the humanity and dignity of the ordinary Nigerian. I went to get coffee and came back to my office with the Emperor and Empress of Japan one floor above me. Try the misfortune of being caught up in the convoy of a Nigerian Minister hosting a junior Minister from Burkina Faso! Tragically, our rulers are blissfully ignorant of the fact that some of the “foreign dignitaries” for whom they ruthlessly clear the eyesore that are Nigerians actually despise them precisely for doing that. In Paris, I’ve been privileged to have conversations along these lines with highly placed French officials who have tasted the splendor of Abuja’s convoys. They despise their hosts and it is not racism!