Tokunbo is a widely traveled journalist and public affairs commentator. The pioneer Washington, D.C. bureau Chief of Thisday and The Anchor Newspapers, Awoshakin uses his cross-sectional experience in media, education and communication to address the issues of community participation in policy making and the political and civil empowerment of minorities and minority organizations. He holds a combined degree in English and Education from the University of Lagos. He also holds an MA in Security, Conflict resolution and International Development and post-graduate certifications in journalism , organizational communication and computer applications. He is a Katherine W.Fanning Fellow in International Journalism and Democracy and a reseach contractor with the Kettering Foundation. Tokunbo is a journalist trainer, trained mediator and Founder of Civic Life International (CLI).
Nigeria is a great country but sometimes, Nigerians can embarrass you. Right now, the Nigerian president, and politicians in my country have successfully put me, and I guess several other Nigerians in and outside the Nigerian shores on the spot. For those of us outside the country, the embarrassment is especially excruciating, as we struggle to give a logical explanation to foreigners who ask us questions about how the hope we expressed May 29, 1999 has so soon be replaced by disillusionment.
As a Nigerian Journalist based in the United States, I have on several occasions been put on the spot as I attempt without success to deny the growing general belief that the architects of Nigeria's present state of disillusionment are the same persons, who three years ago seem to be the tool for restoring hope. In the Washington foreign press center, I have tried without success to defend the alleged ineptitude of President Obasanjo's administration.
The recent U.S State departments travel advisory to American citizens not to go to Nigeria brought the matter to the fore again. Almost everybody, and by this I mean well educated and seasoned international journalists at the foreign press center agreed that Nigeria is a huge bureaucracy bogged down by political infighting, ethnic violence and corruption. Not a few of them also argued that President Obasanjo has proved to be either ill prepared or unsuitable for the job he took on.
The line of argument that is most embarrassing is that the president of my country, Olusegun Obasanjo, is himself a kettle calling the pot black as far as fighting corruption and correcting ethnic mistrust goes. Some say the Nigerian president behaves like a kid in a candy bar when it comes to foreign trips. They add that although he may be angry with the US State Department's warning to Americans not to go to Nigeria, the fact that he hardly stays in Nigeria is the greatest confirmation of the security risk alarm raised by the American authorities.
The State Department's travel advisory on Nigeria is a classical example of one of those occasions when you search for the right words and they just will not come. Do you repeat that your president's numerous trips abroad are to attract foreign investors to Nigeria or that they are in his capacity as chairman of G-77's NEPAD implementation committee, when you know that the man could jet off to Brazil, like a mere ambassador, to participate in a cultural ceremony the following week?
How do you argue that Nigeria is indeed safe for foreigners, especially Americans, when you know that incidents of armed robbery attack on foreigners are as numerous as sand on Lagos Bar Beach in Nigeria. How do you begin to compare the slow or non-existent investigative support from the poorly paid and ill-equipped Nigerian police to the law enforcement these foreigners are used to?
The average American who is used to travelling with credit cards and Travelers checks, would be forced to carry cash in Nigeria where credit cards are rarely accepted beyond a few hotels. In Nigeria where American Express does not even have an office and where only Citibank cashes Travelers checks, the foreigner is doomed to doing business in cash.
Okay, one may argue that like every country, some places are relatively "hot" while others are safer. I tried this argument too but it didn't hold for too long when it got to the question of transportation safety in Nigeria. How was I to explain that it is safe to travel by air when a majority of the commercial aircraft designated for domestic operation are the over-aged BAC 1-II aircraft type that crashed in Kano earlier this year?
The look I got when I mentioned travelling by road was enough to shut my trap. These well traveled media practitioners know that roads in Nigeria are generally in poor condition. They are aware that these roads lack basic maintenance. They know that the vehicles lack safety equipment and that the drivers speed like racetrack drivers.
How do I convince an American who is concerned about road safety in Nigeria to drive himself when I know that to obtain a Nigerian drivers license may take months since international driving permit is not recognized? When I know that chronic fuel shortage may get him stranded on the road, vulnerable to armed robbery attack?
Will I not be sending somebody on a suicide mission by asking them to travel by road in my "democratic Nigeria' when I know that should there be an accident, there are no immediate access to health care facilities. How was I to explain that should there be any car breakdown, the road-side mechanic who emerges from nowhere may later be the armed robber who will surely deprive you of your hard-earned money and may kindly spare your life?
How?! Tell me how to argue that the State department is wrong and that President Obasanjo is right? How do I go about even beginning to explain these things to an American who is used to law enforcement, traffic assistance, insurance and social security plans, when I know that the people wearing the police and army uniforms at the check-points in Nigeria could be armed robbers?
When I know that there are no Medicare insurance in Nigeria and the United States' Medicare/ Medicaid programs may not provide payment for medical services outside America. When I know that even if this foreigner is ready to pay, diagnostic equipment and medicines may not be available and although our medical personnel are among the best in the world, this man who has chosen to believe the Nigerian president rather than the state department may just die.
Yes! In Nigeria life is cheap and death comes easy. Nigerian roadways are the easiest way to a hospital morgue. Flying is not any better. To somewhat find one's way out of Lagos for fear of armed robbers is no guarantee of safety from the violence from deservedly angry Niger Delta youths and "naked" women in Port Harcourt.
Staying in Jos, Kano or Kaduna may be asking for death by a dagger, especially if our foreigner is an American Christian and thus anti - Osama or anti-Islam. In the Eastern part of the country some overzealous "Bakassi Boys" may waste lives faster than drug dealers on the streets of Southeast Washington D.C. As for staying in Abuja, our foreigner may be caught up in the middle of a military coup. In Nigeria life is indeed cheap! Cheaper if you are poor.
The mention of military coup brought back horrors, especially as I was a victim of military persecution during the General Sani Abacha days. So let me quickly say that I don't believe in military coups. But how am I sure that what has made the U.S. State Department update their travel advisory and warn Americans against going to Nigeria is not some kind of intelligence report about rumblings in the army barracks?
How do I convince an American that throws this question at me that the deteriorating state of the Nigerian polity and the power struggle between president Obasanjo and the Nigerian lawmakers is not a good reason for those that rule by decree to once again suspend the Nigerian constitution, which the president and the lawmakers always find ways to circumvent?
How do you convince this person that there is no cause for alarm when more Nigerians are hungry, and unable to eat regularly not to talk of buying units into their GSM mobile phones? I should say no cause for alarm when Ibrahim Ogohi, Nigeria's Chief of Defense says the army boys are restless?
Nigeria is indeed a great country but events therein can sometimes embarrass you. The most annoying part of this is that the man Nigerians and the International community thought was going to reverse the decade of military misrule, despite being a former military man himself, has oftentimes behaved like a bull in a china shop.
So I should still find ways to argue against the logic and findings of the U.S. State Department that Nigeria is safe. How? Should I have mentioned how smooth the transition process for the on-coming 2003 election is going, or by listing how credible the body that will conduct the election is? Perhaps I should have told my audience about how the sale of the Nigerian mint and the Nigerian National Theatre was going to give president Obasanjo enough money to end poverty and violence in the Niger Delta area.
Maybe I am not getting it right. I know Nigeria is a great country and I make bold to repeat that but as for safety of life and property, there is a big question mark. I was home just this May and to me there doesn't seem to be much difference in terms of lack of safety from the period of the military. Maybe it has to do with the fact that out president is a former soldier trying harder to be a politician rather than a democrat.
Perhaps it is something I am missing. Do tell me, how do I convince a foreigner, who wants to go experience our natural beaches, exotic food and unique culture, that Nigeria is safe and the State Department is just cracking- up? How do I do this when every day, like every other Nigerian abroad, I am afraid for the life of my family and loved ones who are resident in our country Nigeria?
Previously published in The Monitor