I'll be the first to admit it: journalism in Nigeria is a lover, not a fighter. Journalists may not be happy with the state of affairs but they do not necessarily address the most pertinent stories.
For some reason, reporters do not get their bad stories hurled back at them. They do not get tossed back to the streets or to the phone or to the library to in an effort to fill the holes in their stories. That would suggest a newsroom that does not recognize burnt offerings disguised as a king's buffet, or even that the editors are responsible for each culinary catastrophe.
But the most dangerous ailment which can afflict a journalist is not lack of capacity, because training can cure that. The ailment which surpasses all - and is incurable - is amnesia, and that is what currently hounds most of Nigeria's press. Send a story to the press and that is the end of the matter. Everyone treads carefully, avoiding the betrayal of a sneeze that could blow the leaves off the rotting corpse.
Perhaps this is why such an esteemed journalist as Mr. Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times who undertook a "personal" tour of West Africa recently, made Nigeria his first stop.
Once in Abuja, he picked on a larger-than-life first subject: Olusegun Obasanjo (OBJ), two times Nigeria's ruler, who came in for undeserved recognition. Mr. Barber could have welcomed to his interview no bigger traitor of the Nigerian cause.
To begin with, OBJ is not "the father of modern Nigeria;" he is the modern Nigeria menace. The Nigeria of Mr. Lionel Barber's time is worse than the Nigeria of his father's largely because of OBJ.
Indeed, if one must link OBJ with the paternity of "modern Nigeria" in any but a pejorative sense, it is that - especially when confronted by a tiptoeing and ignorant journalist, foreign or domestic - he struts and poses as a significant piece. OBJ is a significant piece of Nigerian history, but it is an intensely criminal one. If Nigeria has failed to gain any development traction in this millennium, OBJ is the sole reason, and his gamble is that history, with the connivance of blindsided journalists, will not recognize this fact.
This is why it is strange to learn from Mr. Barber that OBJ has a "Nigeria First" slogan. I have written for Nigerian newspapers since 1973, when I left secondary school, and it is the first time I am hearing of this claim, obviously because it was manufactured for Mr. Barber's benefit. For OBJ, it has always been OBJ first, and always.
And he is "Baba" only to those who sadly have no father, or who have some seedy relationship him. He had no compunctions leaving anyone without a father. And apart from the contradictions of his public life, the shameful stories of his personal life, as published by some of his closest relatives, have not endeared the man to anyone.
But let me acknowledge the highlights of his political career, or what some people call his achievements:
- In 1979, after three years as military head of state, he supervised the transfer of power to an elected government.
- 20 years later, upon a fortuitous return to office, he set up a couple of anti-corruption bodies, after laboriously identifying corruption as Nigeria's biggest hurdle to development.
- He spearheaded the settlement of Nigeria's so-called debt to the Paris Club
- He tracked down federal funds looted by Sani Abacha, the general who sent him to prison.
- He made an avalanche of speeches.
But scratch a little, and you discover that there was nothing OBJ did that was not for OBJ.
Anyone paying attention ought to know by now that his anti-corruption claims were a ruse. OBJ's objectives in setting up his anti-corruption bodies were two-fold: to have a tool for intimidating his enemies; and to give the international community the impression that he was an anti-corruption champion. In the end, his true achievement on this file was to nourish the Nigeria corruption menace from a mouse to a lion. Even Nuhu Ribadu, whom OBJ put in charge of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in 2003, has publicly confessed that OBJ was far more corrupt than Abacha!
Speaking of Abacha, between $2.5 and $5 billion was recovered of the funds the former general stole. Curiously, almost nothing was recovered from anyone else. In other words, OBJ's war against corruption was no more than vengeance against his jailor.
What is even more striking about the Abacha file, however, is that all - ALL - of the so-called "Abacha loot" vanished even before OBJ left office in 2007. Today, there is no trace of those funds or what was done with them.
Beyond Abacha, it is curious to consider that during his eight years as President, OBJ personally ran the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, and corruption stank from here to London and back. In the past few years, every probe report in the oil sector has yielded the most scandalous of stories, each of them traceable to OBJ's eight year tenure and control.
Beyond oil, probes by the legislature into such areas of the Nigerian economy as the privatization programme, the power sector, and roads, have revealed astonishing levels of corruption and manipulation that legislators of OBJ's own party have traced directly to him.
OBJ has also been heavily implicated in at least one international corruption scheme: Halliburton. Investigations in the United States and Nigeria have reached the same conclusion, that OBJ accepted huge Halliburton bribes, and President Goodluck Jonathan has the reports.
Let me turn to economic reform. The Nigerian Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), was launched by OBJ in 2004 with tremendous fanfare. He swore NEEDS would resolve fundamental problems of unemployment, electricity and inflation. But within months, NEEDS was abandoned, unraveling as the biggest single swindle in the history of economic reform in a country with a long history of economic "reforms."
A word about infrastructure: The entire world knows that, next to corruption, the areas of transportation and electricity are among Nigeria's biggest failures. So did OBJ, and he dragged with him Nigeria's yearning in each field.
By the time he was done, on the electricity file, somewhere between $10 and $16 billion dollars had vanished. Indeed, the House of Representatives found that OBJ often paid money to companies that had not even broken ground for the project for which he had paid them. The funds had disappeared into the hands of his friends and cronies.
Roads? OBJ's government repeatedly voted funds for roads, at least N300 billion in his first term, and close to N1 trillion by the end of his tenure, according to numbers in a column I wrote on December 4, 2006.
How full of hot air was OBJ? Perpetually, but here is one example: On November 21, 2002 when he paid an official visit to Lagos State ahead of the 2003 elections, he swore he would end the city's traffic jams by building new highways and "ring roads."
It was exciting, but also credible: The day before, BusinessDay reported that his government was negotiating a N20 billion World Bank loan to improve "transport infrastructure" in Lagos. The host governor, Bola Tinubu of the opposing Alliance for Democracy party, was so happy he told OBJ, "We, the five million registered voters in Lagos declare our support for your re-election."
OBJ won Lagos easily, and the promptly turned his back on the state. Not only did he never build one road or one bridge, he sent his Minister of Works into infantile combat with the government of Lagos.
And did Mr. Barber know what great irony it was that that he interviewed OBJ in Abuja's Transcorp Hilton Hotel? OBJ's digs, when he sweeps in, are reported to be the half-a-million Naira per night King Presidential suite, as he is virtually the landlord. That is because he owns 200 million shares of Transcorp, bought with neither shame nor embarrassment when he was the President, in a "national" project he had just launched.
Speaking of shame, a former chairman of his PDP party, Mr. Audu Ogbeh, who is more credible than OBJ by several hundred miles, alleged in 2006 that a top member of the OBJ government walked away with a N60 billion personal "fee" during the Paris Club debt settlement. Mr. Ogbeh actually went to the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, which is now famous for its indolence and lack of character, to make the complaint. OBJ has never denied the allegation, and the commission, typically, never investigated it.
In addition, OBJ was, throughout his presidency, involved in a variety of lot of dubious deals, including the Nigeria Ports Authority, the Presidential Library, and the Petroleum Trust Development Fund.
Despite all of this - indeed, on top of all of this and more - OBJ poses as something special, dropping such notable names as Nelson Mandela and Jim Callaghan and Helmut Schmidt. It is significant, for instance, that OBJ thought that Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade was wrong ["I'll deal with him in the morning," he told Mr. Barber] in not yielding the Senegalese presidency when he appeared to have lost last month's election.
[Mr. Barber, as programmed, went on to sign OBJ's political credit-worthiness certificate: "Sure enough," the Financial Times editor wrote, "he did. Wade stood down within minutes of the general's d├ęmarche."]
But only six years earlier, the same OBJ spent at least N23.45bntrying to bribe members of the National Assembly - at N50m per person - in an effort to gain an illegal third term in office. Several members of the legislature have confirmed these payments. I must note that these numbers do not include what he spent on other "influential" figures, such as traditional rulers.
But perhaps the greatest damage OBJ has inflicted on his country is what he did in 2006 when he found no support to continue in office. He imposed Umaru Yar'Adua, who was dying, and Goodluck Jonathan who - apart from a singular record of lack of performance anywhere - had been indicted that same year by a top-level OBJ anti-corruption panel. Jonathan's wife, Patience, was also alleged by the EFCC to have been involved in two money-laundering incidents within the space of just one month.
OBJ is currently trying to have all of these re-written in his favour, of course. He has a campaign which says that he never tried to obtain a third term in office. And just this week, he loudly lamented the absence of "integrity" in Nigeria's politics, lambasting the national and State legislatures as being peopled by "rogues and armed robbers," and the judiciary as "corrupt."
This is at first serious, then it is hilarious: Many of the people to whom he refers are his own friends, so you know he knows them well. One of them, remember, was the one who used OBJ's presidential jet to launder funds in the United States, and turned around to use about $40,000 of it to buy stuff for OBJ's Otta farm.
And yes, Mr. Barber acknowledges OBJ as Nigeria's "biggest chicken farmer." Truly impressive, when you consider that by 1997, the farm was stinking so badly that the Ado-Odo Ota Local Government Authority issued a public notice about the overwhelming pollution. When OBJ returned from prison, the following year, he was down to his last N20, 000, and owing the banks at least N200 million. Within a couple of years of his presidency - abracadabra!--Obasanjo announced that the farm was making about N30 million per month.
It is this same two-faced creature that Mr. Barber, lacking the decency to report that OBJ twice rigged his way to Nigeria's presidency, also described as having "won two elections marred by fraud."
You do not win by fraud. The truth is that OBJ routinely and repeatedly used the police, the electoral commission and the police to ensure that his party rigged elections. When the notorious Ibadan chieftain, Lamidi Adedibu, was caught with ballot boxes in his home, ready for stuffing, OBJ urged critics to leave the man alone. And it is well known that OBJ institutionalized the PDP's "do or die" policy, repeatedly stating that his part will rule for "100 years."
So far, OBJ has been right: he has maintained the PDP mission, using men and women who are incapacitated physically, intellectually or ethically, while playing the international community like a piano in a rock concert.
Anywhere else in the world, OBJ would have been in a maximum security jail, with no possibility of parole and no conjugal visits; and only undercooked beans for his three meals. But this is Nigeria, where the political elite enforce the policy of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). That is why, no matter how much OBJ insults President Jonathan, for instance ["It is not enough to talk about leadership"], or the rest of the PDP ["rogues and armed robbers,"], he will get away with. In the end, despite all the mayhem and menace OBJ has committed, they are - one and all--deathly scared of a mud-wrestling match with the old man with the fat watch.
Hopefully, journalism in Nigeria will understand that the most important response to these issues is to report them fully, firmly and fervently. It is difficult to see that happening any time soon, however, given the ownership pattern in the business, and the natural desire of professionals to protect themselves and their families from readily-available harm.
But until something of that shift occurs, the media will continue to appear to the world as if it is a part of the mess rather than a reporter or fighter of it. And Nollywood-watching tourist- journalists will visit the country and report the counterfeits and charlatans who, having robbed the bank, return in police uniforms to investigate the crime.