What's our President doing in Saudi Arabia?
By Reuben Abati
Why would President Umaru Musa Yar'çdua choose to go to Saudi Arabia at this time instead of the 64th UN General Assembly meeting holding in New York? What's so special about Saudi Arabia which the President has visited thrice this year and at least twice in 2008? Which trip would have been of more strategic importance to Nigeria: the junket to Saudi Arabia or Nigeria's presence at the meeting of the world's leaders and diplomats? The answer is straightforward: Mr President should have been in New York promoting Nigeria's interest. But he is not. What we are dealing with is a serious crisis in Nigeria's foreign relations process. It is ocassioned by the failure of a new team of foreign policy managers who have no idea what should be important to Nigeria It is either the President has bad foreign policy advisers or he does not care enough about the message that is being sent across namely that Nigeria is losing its pre-eminent position in African and global politics.
It was this year that President Yar'çdua lamented Nigeria's absence at the London Summit of the G20 and others. He later attended the G8 meeting in Italy. Shouldn't we expect therefore that President Yar'çdua would attend the UN General Assembly Meeting? His presence would have been more useful. Nigeria not only had an invitation to the Summit, President Yar'Adua would have had an opportunity to make a speech and to engage other world leaders one on one, and make a case for Nigeria on many fronts, and to promote issues that are of interest to the country. Who advised the President to shun the UN summit?
If it is thought that this amounts to a snobbery of President Obama as a kind of reciprocal action, then that would be wrong. The UN General Assembly is not about the United States; it is not a visit to Obama. After all, President Obama avoided any contact with Libya's Muammar Ghaddafi and before Ghaddafi made his provocative speech, US foreign policy figures including Hillary Clinton had left the hall. Perhaps the world would have been more interested in listening to President Yar'çdua. He has stories to tell and the world has questions for him too. Besides, Nigeria remains the most strategic country in Africa with its oil and large market.
Last year, President Yar'Adua sent Foreign Affairs Minister Ojo Maduekwe to represent him at the UN General Assembly. He has done so again this year. The way these things work, nobody of serious weight is likely to grant audience to the Nigerian delegation. Okay, Maduekwe and co met with Johnnie Carson, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs! But no one should be surprised that the Nigerian representation has been rather ludicrous with the biggest report so far being Maduekwe's alleged statement about the flawed elections of 2007 and the possibility of Maurice Iwu being removed as INEC chair once his tenure expires, and back home, there has been some response from the Iwu camp, accusing Maduekwe of condemning the election that brought Yar'Adua, his boss, to power! This is the cockfight that the Nigerian delegation has contributed to a meeting where important issues like climate change, the composition of the UN Security Council, global poverty, international terrorism and multilateralism are being discussed by over 100 Heads of States.
Lagos, Nigeria was in fact cited as one of the cities of the world with serious climate change challenges. What did the Nigerian delegation say to that? President Yar'Adua may not have said anything cleverer but with the weight of his office, he would have been in a good position to seek out more friends for Nigeria and do some direct back-room diplomacy for example, over the US rejection of Nigeria's ambassadorial nominee to the United States, bilateral relations with other countries and Nigeria's interest in the UN Security Council seat. Maduekwe or someone else should have been sent to Saudi Arabia! Let our leaders stop ridiculing Nigeria.
Imagine: Newspapers yesterday published our President's photograph as he arrived in Saudi Arabia, looking very happy, being received by the Governor of Makkah! A Governor! Where was the King of Saudi Arabia who reportedly invited him? The King of Saudi Arabia invites our President to the opening of a University of Technology and Science and he jets off and ignores a UN function? And he gets there only to be received by a state Governor. How did Saudi Arabia become so overly important in Nigerian affairs? Our President goes there for medical treatment. Government officials of all ranks visit the same country at least twice a year, for hajj and umrah. When they are not in Saudi Arabia, they are in Dubai!On nearly all fronts in the the past two years, we have consistently played badly in the international arena.
The Nigerian seat at important international engagements is often vacant or it is occupied by low-ranking officials who arrive late or if they are punctual at all, they lack the weight or the authority to engage other participants and secure important commitments. With the Nigerian voice now muted in foreign policy and with the general concern about the failure of governance in the country, the modest gains of the Obasanjo years in foreign policy are being lost. Nigeria is once again back to its position during the Babangida-Abacha years as the country which everyone likes to treat lightly. In China, there are over 700 Nigerians in prison and there is no evidence that the Nigerian embassy is making any effort to ensure that they get fair hearing. In Libya, it took the intervention of the AU to insist that 22 Nigerians on death row should not be killed because they have not been fairly treated by the Ghaddafi government.
In Darfur, a Rwandese was chosen above a Nigerian for the post of the Commander of the UN-AU peacekeeping force simply because Nigeria did not push hard enough. President Obama during his first historic visit to Africa as US President pointedly ignored Nigeria. Mrs Hillary Clinton visited later in what looked like a make-up visit but that soon ended in a disagreement of sorts between the US Secretary of State and the Nigerian authorities particularly the EFCC. Even diplomats who are serving in Nigeria are not impressed with our domestic policy: they file reports to their home governments about how Nigeria is floundering on all fronts and how so little has been achieved two years after the flawed elections of 2007.
About a fortnight ago, the British High Commissioner felt concerned beyond the call of duty to advise Nigeria to diversify its economy, noting that out of six containers that are imported into Nigeria, only one manages to get sent back as export cargo. Corporate bodies and the cultural community abroad are reinventing stereotypes about Nigeria. Sony Corp in its Playstation 3 advertisement labelled our country, a nation of gangsters and scammers. Nigeria's protest has resulted in the withdrawal of the offensive material but the damage has been done. There is also at the moment a controversial movie, Destiny 9, produced by SONY Entertainment in which Nigerians are portrayed as gangsters. Nigeria's image has always been problematic, it is the more reason why greater energy is required on the foreign policy front to reassure the international community about efforts being made in the domestic sphere to address the challenges of national development.
The Saudi Arabian trip by President Yar'Adua is said to be a working visit. On Thursday, President Yar'Adua was one of the guests at the opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology whose President told the guests: "We have recruited the very best minds from around the world, we have students from more than 60 countries. This is truly the beginning of a very exciting academic enterprise." Shame on Nigeria: President Yar'çdua presides over a country where the academic system is anything but enterprising. While he is in Saudi Arabia shaking hands with the Governor of Makkah, the President of a University of Science and Technology and having tea with the King of Saudi Arabia, Federal universities in Nigeria have remained shut for more than three months due to workers' strike. Secondary and primary schools resumed after a long holiday this week, but the teachers are nowhere to be found in the public schools in many states: they are on strike. Best minds are fleeing the Nigerian school system. Students from other countries are no longer coming to Nigeria to study.
And did President Yar'çdua go on a tour of the King Abdullah university? Does it look like any of the under-funded and poorly managed structures we call universities in Nigeria? Is the Minister of Education part of the President's delegation to Saudi Arabia to take notes? Working visit indeed. Hopefully, Mr President will learn some lessons from his trip to Saudi Arabia. He likes the hospitals in Saudi Arabia. He should try and build similar ones in Nigeria. He likes to attend university functions. When last did he personally attend a university lecture or convocation ceremony in his own country? He admires the Saudi Arabian education system. He should try and build a similar system in Nigeria not one that drives away "the very best minds," because government refuses to negotiate with academic and non-academc staff.
President Yar'Adua has already succeeded in helping to advertise the newly commissioned university in Saudi Arabia, that university may soon attract the very best minds in Nigeria who are seeking a place where they can have quality education. And we hope that a memo will emerge from this trip about the importance of education, and that no one will tell stories, the strange type that we have heard this week, that the weekly Federal Executive Council meeting in Abuja could not hold because Ministers enjoyed the Eid-el-fitri holiday so much they forgot to prepare memos for the meeting!