I am embarrassed that on his second visit to Africa, United States President Barack Obama again refused to set foot on Nigerian soil. Those who are in the know say Nigeria campaigned extremely hard to be one of Mr. Obama’s stops. His choice of respectable destinations were Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. Actually, he made it all quite clear during his first visit four years ago when he said at the Ghana parliament he favoured responsible, strong and sustainable democratic governments.
“This is about more than holding elections – it’s also about what happens between them,” he noted. “Repression takes many forms, and too many nations are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.” He did not, but could also have said:
“No country is going to make progress when its leader asserts he does not give a damn about personal probity, and in effect, about the content of his own character.
“No business wants to invest in a place where the government confers the nation’s highest honours, in broad daylight, upon the most dishonourable thieves or appoints them to high office.
“No self-respecting person wants to live in a society where transparency and accountability may be spelling challenges for the public, but not performance issues for public servants.
“No country is going to make progress when the hallways and lobbies of the executive and the legislature look more like the Main Wing of a maximum security prison than the revered chambers of men and women trusted with power.
“No business wants to invest in a country where Mr. President is afraid to tell the First Lady that she is not Mrs. President; and that the law does not provide public resources in his name for rabble-rousing of her own definition.
“No person wants to live in a society where governors forget they are not visiting sovereigns who come once in a while to pick up cheques, but are supposed to live and work in their States.
“No country is going to make progress when governance is defined as Wednesday morning contract distribution to friends and cronies, and the rest of the week to conspicuous consumption and travel.
“No self-respecting person wants to live in a country where the leadership grades its own performance and brags about how well it is doing.”
Mr. Obama did not say those things, but they were all implied in his call for change in Africa, especially in Nigeria. Four years later, the danger is not simply that things have worsened; it is that Nigerians are being told they have never had it so good.
Obama did not say those things, but the United States has not fundamentally got around to helping Nigeria, as opposed to the government of Nigeria, either. While the United Kingdom has taken a proactive legal role in challenging corruption and atrocious governance in Nigeria, the United States does not seem uncomfortable when some of Nigeria’s greatest beneficiaries from bad governance and corruption come shopping.
But Obama did say something especially significant in 2009: The triumph of the future, he said, would be won by the youth. “You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people,” he told them.
He assured African youth they can accomplish a lot if they took responsibility for their future. “It won’t be easy,” he warned. “It will take time and effort.”
On the part of the US, he said, “What we will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance – on parliaments, which check abuses of power and ensure that opposition voices are heard; on the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice; on civic participation, so that young people get involved; and on concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting, automating services, strengthening hotlines, and protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability.”
Four years later, while Nigeria rots, the US has not delivered on this critical promise or outlined how it is to be implemented. Partly as a result, while countries like Ghana and Tanzania can at least speak in terms of hope, Nigeria is hurtling in the reverse direction, overrun by the most insipid and cynical government in 53 years.
It is no surprise that, with mediocrity on the ascendancy, incompetence a state value and political promises casually ignored, only the greediest investors come to Nigeria. We guarantee neither life nor limb. We are committed to neither water nor clean air. Today’s story is the same as that of yesterday.
It is no surprise that the youth of Nigeria is surviving on crumbs and leftovers, serving as drivers or thugs, or in kidnapping and assorted crime. Mostly, Nigerian youth is idle, not because it is lazy, but because it lacks opportunity. Governance is a treasure, just as unemployment does not matter.
But it is not by coincidence that Jessica Matthews, co-inventor of the sOccket, the amazing electricity-generating soccer ball that was presented to Obama in Tanzania last week, is a Nigerian-American. In Nigeria, she might have been selling “pure water” in traffic, as are thousands of our educationally-orphaned kids.
The lesson is simple: while the US can achieve a lot in other parts of Africa, unless change takes root in Nigeria, change will not come to Africa. And no change will come to Nigeria unless we liberate and empower its youth.
That is why it is to the youth of Nigeria that SOS is targeted, and dedicated.