A lie, any straightforward, flat out lie, has younger brothers known as “aburo iro”. Nowhere is this phenomenon better illustrated than in the actualities of American political life and practices. In the late capitalist democracy that is the United States of America, there are two things you don’t do in government: (1) you cannot be overly parsimonious with information about how you run the affairs of the country and the lives of your citizens; (2) you cannot form a habit of trafficking in straightforward, outright lies. Lying to the American people over even trifle always has grievous consequences if you are caught.
Yet, there are always tricky and embarrassing situations in the daily business of governance. Government and her officials often find themselves in slippery situations where telling the plain, unvarnished truth is no easy option. This explains why American politics is the world’s most prolific manufacturer of the younger brothers of lying. In American political culture, when a lie is dangerous, you seek solace with its younger siblings. The lexicon and the registers of American politics boast the world’s largest collection of euphemisms for lying. Because he cannot be seen to be lying outright to the American people, because he fears consequences, an American government official has options such as “spinning”, “misspeaking”, “misstating”, “misrecollecting”, “telling an untruth” or, as I learned recently in a magazine article, “having an unstable relationship with facts”: anything but lying outright. And, of course, when a misstatement, misspeak, or misrecollection has been exposed, the American official scrambles to “walk back” the fib.
Now, why is “aburo iro” – the younger brother of an outright lie – so crucial to the relationship between the American government and the American citizen? Why don’t American government officials make life easy for themselves by lying outright in every situation and every circumstance? The answer is simple. There is not just the fear of consequences. There is an underlying civic culture which makes you respect the citizen so much that you don’t look straight into the camera and lie to them. When you flat out lie to the citizen, you are doing more than insulting his intelligence. You are, in fact, undermining his civic agency. In a funny, ironic way, the younger brother of lying is affirmation of the government’s respect for me as a citizen. They are so scared of me, of consequences, of the power I wield at the ballot box, that they dare not tell me outright lies, even when they are in a terrible bind. In this circumstance, the public official who, like Paul Ryan, makes a habit of telling outright, straightforward lies, becomes an oddity, an exception to a political culture which privileges the younger siblings of lying. In American political culture, you have to be a mythomaniac like Paul Ryan to prefer a straightforward lie to its less harmful and more deniable younger brothers.
And that is the trouble with Nigeria. Mythomania in governance and public life is not an exception to the rule. It is the rule. Make no mstake about this: American officials are not morally superior to their Nigerian counterparts. Given the chance, they would probably lie as frequently as the Nigerians. The difference lies squarely in the domain of consequences. The political costs are enormous when an American official is caught lying but in Nigeria, the lying and corrupt official is often on his way to the national honours list. Because of the total lack of political consequences, Nigerian public officials do not even bother to approach the younger brothers of lying in trepidation. They and their convoys hurry to the full embrace of outright lies in full public glare. In some cases, their lawless convoy may even crush a journalist as they hurry to embrace lies. Worse, in Nigeria, there is no such thing as respecting the people enough to walk back your lies when caught. Rather, when caught, double down on the lies. Witness the recent example of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s “invitation” to Charlotte by President Obama. Caught in a web of lies and deceit, Governor Kayode Fayemi, Asiwaju’s Man Friday during the US trip, doubles down on the lies. This Governor isn’t going to respect the Nigerian people enough by walking back anything. Such is the stupidity, the arrogance of Nigerian officials.
The Presidency, as usual, takes the cake. More than any other President before him, Goodluck Jonathan and his wife have assembled some of Nigeria’s most incompetent liars in their harem of aides. And these aides don’t even respect us enough to tell us the younger brother of lies. Although Okey Ndibe has addressed this brilliantly, Ayo Osinlu’s management of information concerning Mrs. Patience Jonathan’s health crisis is still a good place to start any analysis of the rudeness of Presidency aides to the Nigerian people. Indeed, it is rude to tell those kinds of silly lies to 160 million people. No attempt to spin, misstate, misspeak, or misrecollect the facts. That would be granting too much consideration to the Nigerian people. Ayo Osinlu simply lied emphatically that his boss had gone to Germany for “a moment’s rest” because she had not rested since her husband’s election. Trust Reuben Abati to double down on his colleague’s stupidity. He joined the fray and said there was absolutely nothing to the news that Patience Jonathan was ill. Of course, the collective children of anger must be responsible for the rumour. And since their lies about Patience Jonathan were exposed, have Ayo Osinlu and Reuben Abati even pretended to have the decency to walk things back a bit? For where?
But Abati was not done with telling the Nigerian people outright lies. He went on to publish an essay about the gains of President Jonathan’s largely useless foreign jamborees. Rudolf Okonkwo has brilliantly put together the itinerary that Abati set out to justify. Writes Rudolf: “Here is an incomplete snap shot of his travels after he was sworn into office on May 29. On June 6, he was in South Africa. On June 21, he was in Brazil. On June 26, he was in Brussels. On July 30, he was in Trinidad and Tobago. On July 31, he was in Jamaica. On August 9, he was in Ghana. On August 22, he was in Senegal. On September 3, he was in Ethiopia. On September 9, he was in Malawi. On September 10, he travelled to Botswana. And by next Thursday, he will be in the United States.”
Rudolf Okonkwo’s list is incomplete and he admits that much. And we really cannot fault Abati for doing what he sold his soul to the devil to do: defend these inanities. I am sure he will write in future to show us the Foreign Direct Investment that poured in from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Senegal, Malawi, Ethiopia, and, perhaps, Chad and Mali. However, we must draw the line for him when he begins to weave outright, despicable lies into his defense. Abati starts his essay with a little detail about the size of President Jonathan’s delegations to his foreign destinations: “The gains of President Jonathan’s diplomacy are often overshadowed by misrepresentations of the size of his delegation, ignorance about the value of his foreign travels, and the positives of his constant engagement with the international community. I have had cause on more than one occasion to expose the lie about published figures about the size of his delegations.”
If you overlook the characteristically arrogant assumption that he is writing for an audience that is ignorant of the value of his boss’s overseas jamborees, Abati tells a flat out lie about the circumstances in which he tried to confuse issues (he says he was exposing lies) with regard to the size of the President’s delegation. The case in point was their trip to Addis Ababa where the President had bungled an attempt to become the Chairman of the African Union. As Reuben Abati was lying through his nose about this bungled attempt, the media in Francophone Africa was awash with news of President Jonathan’s moves and the eventual success of President Yayi Boni of Benin. Abati then turned to Sahara Reporters, claiming that Omoyele Sowore’s figures of the Presidential delegation were wrong. Sowore challenged him to prove his allegation that the size of the delegation was misrepresented. Abati promised to send him the full list of the president’s entourage, claiming to have forgotten the said list in his Addis Ababa hotel room! Subsequent efforts by Sowore and Sahara Reporters to make Abati deliver on his promise to release the list proved abortive. I also learnt later that our friends at Premium Times had equally tried to get him to prove his claim that the figures were exaggerated. Abati tucked his tail between his legs and ran, only to come out now and lie so blatantly in an essay. He was probably banking on the famous short memory of Nigerians. And this is a situation where he could even claim to have misrecollected the facts as they transpired between him and Sowore. That won’t do. Nigerian officials prefer an outright lie to its younger brother.
In the same piece, we encounter another blatant lie. I say it’s a blatant lie – as opposed to not being in possession of all the facts – when somebody who writes so confidently about our Foreign Affairs minister goes on to state that our embassies abroad are better organized. Now, where did Abati get this one from? Apart from the regular woes Nigerians abroad are familiar with when it comes to services at our embassies, how on earth can embassies that are not paid be better organized? Delay in salary payments to our embassy officials was a regular feature of the Obasanjo/Yar’Adua years. In some cases, our missions would owe rent and landlords would be after them in foreign lands. Sadly, this has continued under President Jonathan and his foreign minister. In the past two months, salaries have not been paid – unless they were paid after I finished writing this piece. Now, how can hungry, unpaid embassy officials properly serve Nigerians abroad? How can they better organize our embassies when they are worried about their bills?
I spoke behind the scenes to numerous embassy officials, especially outside of Canada, trying to get to the bottom of this salary wahala. A good number of them pointed in the direction of Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and his Central Bank bureaucracy, claiming that their salaries are somehow held up in the CBN labyrinth. Not having sufficient knowledge about where their salary originates from in Nigeria and how it travels through our bureaucracy until it reaches their respective bank accounts abroad, I sought to verify this charge from Sanusi Lamido Sanusi but he is yet to confirm or deny it. However, what is important is the fact that the Jonathan government has not paid salaries in the last two months to our embassies yet the spokesperson of the same government invades our airwaves with lies about better organized embassies.
Now, we know that a government culture of lying nurtured by successive administrations since October 1, 1960, and tolerated by successive generations of Nigerian citizens since October 1, 1960, is not going to change overnight. So engrained is this culture in our political life that the government official who tells lies does so with a sense of entitlement. Just who are you, citizen, to query my lies? Do you know who I am? Not to believe our foolish officials is to run the risk of being accused of showing disrespect to constituted authority. Not used to being challenged, Nigerian officials are demonstrably unhinged in those rare cases when their lies are exposed. This explains their pathological fear of social media and their sustained, carefully calibrated assault on it. So great is their fear that the ethically-damaged sixty-year-old contract racketeer in the Presidency is even threatening to muzzle netizens with his lawyer, Festus Keyamo. Only in Nigeria can somebody leave his own state of origin, loot two states via contracts, and then turn around to threaten his victims with lawsuits for even talking about it. But it is your civic duty to challenge every lie they tell and expose them wherever you can, especially on the terrain they fear the most – social media. You, citizen, are paying their salary. If you are going to pay people to lie to you, you have the right to insist that they at least lie intelligently.