By Tolu Ogunlesi
Sometimes you want to just focus on the good, happy, cheering news, but the deluge of bad, depressing news just doesn’t let you. Just last week we were caught up in BMWgate; this week there’s the Journey to Jerusalem. You’ve probably seen all the photos surfacing from the presidency, of the pilgrimage – or jamboree, depending on whom you ask – to Jerusalem. From a satirist’s point of view the photos are hilarious: Nigerian officials trying to act like the pious faces they’ve got on are prerequisites for gaining admission into paradise.
One American friend actually sent me a message: “Did you see the photo spread of GEJ – pardon me, GEJ, J.P. – and his entourage gettin’ sacred all over the Holy Land?”; and then went on to describe the photos as “absurd.”
And indeed they are. There’s an especially hilarious photo of a line of Nigerians (including Mr. President) looking all spiritual, and in the foreground a sculpted sage, head turned towards the camera, hands thrown up in a mix of puzzlement and resignation.
One really puzzling thing is this: why is the Presidency suddenly obsessed with pushing out photographs of what should ordinarily be a private spiritual affair? I don’t think we’ve ever seen this many images from any presidential trip in recent history. I recall hunting the Internet for information about the president’s activities, during a state trip to China a few months ago – and finding nothing. Now there’s a trip to Israel and the media is flooded with images from the pilgrimage part of it; of pious-looking, prayerful officials. Clearly the Presidency understands some really key things about the psychology of the Nigerian people; and it seems to me this might be simply an experiment in how the Nigerian love for grand demonstrations of piety can be used to shape the public image of political leaders.
Nigeria is of no doubt a paradise for parodists and satirists. It’s as if every morning our government officials wake up and say: “Look, how can we rile these people? What can we do to get all these yeye activists spraying saliva across the newspaper columns and on social media? How can we keep them busy?”
Let’s pursue that line of thought for a moment, and imagine that every morning, a meeting is summoned in the Presidency. “That BMW matter is getting old. And the appointment of Oga ‘Ali-Must-Go’ to head the National Universities Commission board doesn’t seem to have raised any eyebrows. We need to raise eyebrows, people! What do you suggest?” Ideas will pour out, until one genius says, “I have the idea. Let’s go to Jerusalem.” Slowly but steadily light bulbs will pop on in head after head, as the brilliance of the idea sinks in. “Let’s not go to Jerusalem in any ordinary way – let’s go in style. Let Israel know that the President of the giant of Africa is in town.”
And that was it. Signed and sealed. And then as soon as the news leaked the enemies of the state – rumour-mongers and presidential-memo-stealers and assorted miscreants – wasted no time going to town to announce that the President was travelling with 19 state Governors and 30,000 Nigerians, necessitating the statement from spokesperson Reuben Abati that “reports in the media that he is leading 19 state governors and about 30,000 Nigerians to Israel are a misrepresentation of facts.”
That mischievous fabrication of 30,000 presidential party pilgrims (a tired tactic which the disgruntled elements of the opposition keep resorting to every time the President is travelling) recalls the famous pilgrimage, in 1324, of Malian Emperor Musa 1, to Mecca.
It is recorded that Musa (named last year as the richest human that ever lived) travelled with an entourage of thousands of persons (slaves, aides, hangers-on). He stopped over in Egypt for three months, laden with and spending so much gold that the metal instantly lost value; its prices plunging for many years afterwards.
If reports from the October 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting in Perth, Australia are to be believed, Nigeria found itself caught up in a bid to trump the swagger of Emperor Musa. As one Australia-based Nigerian blogger – who says he was an eyewitness – put it, “You could smell naira notes everywhere you turn (sic) in the shopping mall. Everyone and anyone you can think of, was in Perth for the CHOGM.
From Ministers to businessmen, state governors, Special Advisers, Commissioners, Personal Assistants, Security Guards, houseboys, housegirls, girlfriends, shopping buddies, political jobbers you name it! […] Some of the Nigerian guys I came across on the streets of Perth were no different from urchins that you see regularly on the streets of Lagos. […] The shop owners in the city must have been praying that the CHOGM shouldn’t come to an end. Everywhere you turned, there is (sic) a Nigerian either shopping and changing money at the bureau de change.”
There you have it. Mansa Musa would be proud. Thankfully, as far as we know, the presidential entourage has not yet caused an upheaval in the currency markets of the Holy Land.
Now let’s take a step back, and place this Israel trip – a combination of pilgrimage and state visit, we’ve been told – as well as a number of other recent happenings side-by-side with something the President told the nation, last year.
On Saturday January 7, 2012, in the heat of the national rebellion that accompanied the removal of petrol subsidies, he announced, and I quote:
“To save Nigeria, we must all be prepared to make sacrifices. On the part of Government, we are taking several measures aimed at cutting the size and cost of governance, including on-going and continuous effort to reduce the size of our recurrent expenditure and increase capital spending. In this regard, I have directed that overseas travels by all political office holders, including the President, should be reduced to the barest minimum. The size of delegations on foreign trips will also be drastically reduced; only trips that are absolutely necessary will be approved.”
I’m not making that up; I did not steal a secret presidential document, and I’m not guilty of leaking official secrets (like the enemies of the government did with the BMW documents). Those were the President’s exact words, in a television broadcast.
Now look at everything happening – from this loud trip to Israel to the seemingly casual responses to the ASUU strike and the BMW scandal – and it’s deeply distressing to observe that the near-total absence of prudence or sobriety or commitment to value-driven spending on the part of the Federal Government.
The temptation as a citizen and onlooker is of course to shut up and adopt a siddon-look, whats-the-point approach. There’s so much to complain about that one imagines these noises we keep making eventually start cancelling one another out.
And perhaps, just perhaps, that is the intention of the government. When they wake up every morning and ask the ‘Look, how can we rile these people?’ question, the intention is probably that amidst the deluge of scandals and controversies Nigerians will wear themselves out screaming and ranting.
Years ago I wrote about the establishment, by the Yar’Adua administration, of a National Distraction Commission (NDC). I described it as being “charged with (according to the bill that created it) ‘creating, regulating, reinforcing and institutionalizing significant National Distractions with a view to ensuring that citizens and the mass media are kept occupied to such an extent that they are left with no time or energy to ask relevant questions about the future of the country.’”
If a fraction of the budget and energy that currently go into maintaining this Commission went towards building the moral authority to move Nigeria forward, perhaps we wouldn’t need to be making all these shows of empty religiosity presumably in search of divine transformation.
How long are we going to spend as a country going round in circles, making ourselves the laughing stock of the world? As I write this, a scandal involving expense claims (worth far less than what it cost us to buy two BMWs, by the way) by four Canadian Senators is throwing up heated debate about the legitimacy of the entire Canadian Senate, and triggering intense soul-searching within the government.
Actually, it’s not like we don’t sometimes have our own soul-searching moments in Nigeria. The problem is that everything feels painfully cosmetic. These were President Jonathan’s closing words in that sober January 7, 2012 speech, qualifying his vow to cut unnecessary spending and focus instead on the country’s most pressing issues:
“As I ask for the full understanding of all Nigerians, I also promise that I will keep my word. Thank you. May God bless you; and may God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Almost two years later, you be the judge – has Mr. President kept his word?
Follow Tolu Ogunlesi on Twitter @toluogunlesi