Photo-ops, prop-ups and slip-ups
There was that image of governors with little or no business at the United Nations’ headquarters jostling for prime places behind or beside the President. There was also that of many members of the entourage seeking to outdo each other in appearances at various locations or sessions.
The delegation was gladly smaller than usual and many of the Nigerian attendees may have done some serious business there but the images from Nigeria’s participation at the United Nations General Assembly would seem to suggest the usual predilection of Nigerians for seeing such a serious gathering as mere jamboree.
Aided and abetted by the local media, the thoughts or ideas canvassed have also been tucked in the inside pages or buried in the middle of empty babble while prominently displayed have been the images of our political office holders, business moguls, their spouses and sundry jobbers grinning from ear to ear as they posed in front of flags, statues, with foreign leaders and businessmen from other climes.
If such were attempts at validation, in which our leading lights sought to be identified with those who have substantially fulfilled their own mandate in their homes in the hope of propping themselves up, I only hope that the right lessons were picked. Otherwise, all the appearances would be nothing more than a vainglorious journey from the comic to the ridiculous.
Michelle Obama, whom every African First Lady wanted to be seen with in New York last week, for example, has conferred greater moral authority on the position of a First Lady with her simplicity and graceful personal examples. The other day when an American news journal deemed her two beautiful daughters ‘the most influential teenagers in the world,’ Madam Obama bluntly retorted that they were not! According to her, nothing could be farther from the truth about her girls! “They influence nothing,’ and, pointing to the White House from the garden where she was speaking, she added, ‘they only live here!’ A direct reference to the fact that Sasha’s or Malia’s supposed influence is only because of whose children they are. That was down-to-earth!
While the symbolisms of many foreign trips have questions, more importantly, I am appalled at the lack of any solid message such appearances on the world stage deliver. This may however not be so surprising given the lack of any discernible coherent foreign policy beyond foreign travels at the moment.
Granted, President Muhammadu Buhari has arrived as a big presence on the stage, and he is something of a darling of world leaders, but this would seem to have merely served to elucidate the conspicuous anonymity of the Foreign Minister as well as the absence of a policy.
What underpins our appearances at international forums beyond begging for money, seeking repatriation of stolen ones or explaining our fight against corruption to the same people who keep the money for the looters and probably sneer at our President once he turns his back?
It is, therefore, high time we started asking the question: What enriches us or our image as a nation? And we must find answers in issues, the symbolic and the real.
Suffice to say that Nigeria is not the only poor country or the only one in recession. So many others are worse off than us but they still have their voices on the world stage, and do more than get photo opportunities (photo-ops), on account of their endowments. For instance, America once sent its Peace Corps abroad as a formidable part of its foreign policy. Nigeria now has a Brains Corps abroad that should enhance its standing in world’s affairs.
I hope nothing happens to disprove it but it is worth noting that, last week, as the United Nations General Assembly held, the news of Dr. Oludotun Okunola who was revealed as personal physician to potential President Hillary Clinton of the U.S. boosted Nigeria’s image much more than anything done by the nation’s travelling band. This country has a large number of individual ambassadors, achievers, across the globe who should not only be pulled together to do substantive things for Nigeria, even from their stations abroad, but whose stories alone can be leveraged upon for a different narrative about Nigeria or a different placement of the country.
When I remember the name, Adewale ‘Wally’ Adeyemo, who was appointed Deputy National Security Adviser of the United States by President Barack Obama, the other day, my spirit is not only lifted in these gloomy times, I am reminded that Nigerians are renowned for excellence in every sphere of human endeavour. Adewale Adeyemo, only 35, has been acknowledged as a superstar of the Obama administration and may have even prepped the American president for all his positions at the UNGA but he is a Nigerian! He has been credited with helping to end the global economic recession and Obama’s words were direct in his assessment of Adeyemo’s worth to the U.S. and to the world. “At the Treasury Department, he was part of the team that helped coordinate our response to the global recession, laying the foundation for renewed growth at home and abroad.”
We may have no way of pricing him away from his adoptive home, America, but his name and blood are Nigerian and, to that extent, he will forever remain an unofficial ambassador of Brand Nigeria.
What of many Nigerians who are blazing the trail in medical practice? I have heard the story of Nelson Oyesiku, a famous surgeon in Atlanta, Georgia. I arrived Charlotte, North Carolina in the United States the other day and instantly got the impression that the entire healthcare delivery system of the state is built on the expertise of Nigerians. I then had the privilege of breaking bread in the homes of Mike Etomi, Yele Aluko, Patrick Evivie, Philip Igbinadolor and his wife, Awawu, as well as many other distinguished doctors in Charlotte. And I have testimonies of many American leaders for whom the words of these Nigerians are the closest to the gospel in medicare.
Remember Bennet Omalu, the first pathologist to report chronic traumatic ancephalopathy in professional American footballers, wrestlers and other high impact contact sport athletes as well as military war veterans. He made the discovery by probing the obvious mental and physical degeneration before death of some star athletes and his curiosity led him to this particular form of brain damage they had suffered while plying their trade. Not only has the story of Omalu’s discovery been the subject of the movie, “Concussion,” with the famous actor, Will Smith, playing Omalu, that discovery has spurred better funding for research into a cure for the condition. He is from Enugu-Ukwu but was named Health Hero 2015 in the United States of America.
Jelani Aliyu, from Sokoto State, now acknowledged as one of the best automobile design engineers in the world has just finished the design of a Chevrolet brand, a car projected to be the future of General Motors. He is currently being celebrated across the world and he is particularly anxious to put his talents to use for his country. Indeed, photo-ops by our business leaders with many of these compatriots will do greater good for Nigeria than those they had last week.
Some years ago, I arrived Johannesburg, South Africa, for a short training at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in the University of Witswaterstrand and coming from Kole Omotoso’s country was enough to make me a superstar! Kole, I would be told at almost every turn, ‘is big here,’ as my admirers pointed at billboards carrying his image! Professor Omotoso, the renowned writer, was at that time the iconic face a mobile phone company used to sell its service all over southern and eastern Africa.
In medicine, the arts, humanities, science and technology, Nigerians are breaking new grounds and building the brand.
It is against this background that such stories as these are not only very pleasant reminders of who Nigerians truly are but should also form part of our foreign policy pitches.
Yes, there are serious worries over corruption. Yes, character is so much in short supply, especially in leadership positions. The economy is in recession and poverty has made beggars of the majority of the people.
In these desperate times, however, stories such as those of Nigerians in the Diaspora should be pointers to Nigeria’s potentials. Again, we have a formidable Brains Corps abroad and it is enough to make us less unserious but more assertive on the world stage!
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Indeed the last time we had an assertive leadership in foreign affairs was 1975 till 1979 when Murtala Muhammed/Olusegun Obasanjo sought and achieved not love for Nigeria but respect.
Yet, talking about respect, the United Nations Secretary General, Ban ki Moon, could not have paid a better compliment to President Muhammadu Buhari than he did last week when he said all the world leaders, including himself, respect our president! That is some substance, occasioned by our president’s character and conduct! And its reinforcement should be our goal in every sphere, using everyone or everything Nigerian that is of substance.
Our outings on the world stage need not be overshadowed by comic side-shows of appearances and photo-ops when we have real substance.