Despite not being the first African country whose politicians have been hosted by London’s Chatham House, Nigeria’s presidential candidates and electoral umpire have been criticised for gracing the stage in London.
Since December 2022, three of Nigeria’s 18 presidential candidates, and electoral chief Mahmood Yakubu, have appeared at Chatham House to promote their bids and work to Nigerians and the world.
In response to the criticisms, Chatham House said Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is not the first to make an appearance on its stage ahead of an election.
Since its inception in 2002, the Africa Programme at Chatham House has convened over 1,200 events, hosting political leaders – both sitting presidents and those in opposition – from the vast majority of African countries.
“In the last 12 months, in addition to the Nigeria Elections series, Chatham House hosted the leaders of the two frontrunners in last year’s Kenyan elections, William Ruto and Raila Odinga; the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Félix Tshisekedi; and Former President of Ghana, John Mahama,” Chatham House said in an email response to PREMIUM TIMES.
Also, while some sections of Nigerian society have criticised the appearance insisting it is bad optics for Nigeria, others see nothing wrong.
One of those who have criticised the appearances is Jide Osuntokun, a retired diplomat.
“Other African countries will be laughing at us seeing that we are going to the UK to talk about elections in Nigeria,” Mr Osuntokun, a former Nigerian ambassador to Germany, said.
He noted that if Nigerians in the diaspora could vote in the election, it would make sense to appeal to them and thus appear at events like that of the Chatham House.
“They should be telling us here in Nigeria and not going to Europe or elsewhere, it is a hangover from colonialism; it is an inferiority complex,” he said.
Rhetorically, Mr Osuntokun asked: “Why are you going to tell the British or Americans what you will do for Nigeria? It shows total misplacement of emphasis.”
We have organisations like Chatham House in Nigeria, he continued, and if the candidates were serious, they would have contacted organisations like ours to organise a press conference.
“It just shows that they have too much money and little sense. When have any British or American politician come to Nigeria to tell us what they would do for their people?’’ the retired diplomat said.
In the same vein, Owei Lakemfa, an international affairs expert, said Nigerian politicians and electoral officials travelling to speak at Chatham House will be as “silly” as expecting Theresa May, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson or Rishi Sunak to travel Lagos to address British matters at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA).
“Wasting money travelling with an entourage to go speak in London, cannot but be the product of neo-colonial thought process,” he said. “With IT, you can speak from your bedroom and the world will hear you.”
He noted that Nigeria has a foreign affairs body, NIIA, as do the British.
“Interestingly, despite the pilgrimages to Chatham House, none of the main political parties has campaigned on the basis of a coherent marriage of foreign and domestic policies as serious countries do,” he added.
Conversely, Joe Keshi, a former permanent secretary of Nigeria’s ministry of foreign affairs, said the candidates are not the first Nigerian leaders to appear at Chatham House and will not be the last.
“This election concerns all Nigerians whether you live in Nigeria or you live abroad. So if they go out to talk to Nigerians abroad who by the way are supporting different presidential candidates… they are opening the doors for them to be involved in the democratic process and that helps to strengthen the process,” he said.
He noted that it was hypocritical to describe the appearances as smacking of colonial mentality when support from the same groups is accepted with open hands.
“The same people are also helping fund the election, so why don’t you reject the money under the guise of colonial mentality that you do not want help,” he queried, adding that “we have to be very objective and look at this in a very clear light no matter what anybody says.”
According to Mr Keshi, going out to speak to people is part of the campaign. He further compared it to trips to Africa by former US president Barack Obama.
A search by PREMIUM TIMES showed that Mr Obama visited Ghana and Egypt in 2009 during his first term in office but not during his campaign.
Additionally, Mr Keshi noted that leaders from “the other side”, given the importance of Nigeria, want to understand and establish relationships with the next leaders of Nigeria.
Parties defend Action
Political parties whose candidates have appeared at Chatham Houdefended the decision to do so.
The parties spoke to PREMIUM TIMES reporters across the country, explaining why their candidates prioritised the Chatham House appearance.
All Progressive Congress (APC)
“Why not?” Dele Alake, adviser APC Presidential Campaign Council (APC PCC) asked rhetorically when asked why Bola Tinubu, the first candidate to speak at Chatham House, made the appearance.
“Chatham House has a tradition, Buhari, Obasanjo, went, I do not remember if Jonathan went… everybody is going and in any case whether you like it or not, it may smack of colonial mentality but they are actually our colonial overlords.”
Mr Alake added that Chatham House is just like every other platform and any politician who is astute will use any platform they adjudge beneficial to their campaign.
“Chatham House has a global reputation as a platform for adumbrating programmes, policies and aggregating views and opinions; through Chatham House, you also reach a global audience. So, what is wrong with it?” he asked.
In defence of his principal, Mr Alake insisted that Nigerians in the diaspora have an influence on their people in Nigeria.
“They contribute and help the party in various ways including donating souvenirs that are distributed at campaign rallies. Every member of the APC that is outside the country has their families in Nigeria.
“Do not forget that many of them are the breadwinners of their families back home, so they wield enormous influence. You put your money where your mouth is… the most critical thing is that they are effective and they influence voting direction back home (Nigeria),” he argued.
Labour Party (LP)
Peter Obi on 16 January became the second presidential candidate to appear at Chatham House’s stage to speak about his ambition.
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted the LP campaign spokesperson, Ndi Kato, she said Chatham House is not the only place Mr Obi has spoken at.
“He is the candidate who has gone to the most places to share his ideas; on TV, in conferences, in town halls, even in religious houses.”
She added that if there is a platform for Peter Obi to share his ideas with Nigerians and the world, he will go and share it.
Ms Kato insisted that there were no traces of colonialism in her candidate’s appearance at Chatham House; rather, like the many other appearances, everything works towards the elections.
“When NIIA sends an invite for their own well thought out programme, like many other platforms have done (and Obi has responded and attended), Peter Obi will go,” she said.
New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP)
The New Nigeria Peoples Party’s (NNPP) Rabiu Kwankwaso became the third candidate to appear at Chatham House on 18 January.
Prior to his appearance, he boasted of an invitation from the London think-tank.
“I will go to London… This Chatham House has also invited me. I’ll go and answer all the questions unlike a candidate that went there recently and failed to say anything reasonable and instead asked his boys to answer the questions,” Mr Kwankwaso had said in a local radio Alfijir Radio interview in Katsina.
Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES, the Director, Contact and Mobilisation of the NNPP Presidential Campaign Council, Buba Galadima, said “the world is now a global village and that no country lives in isolation. We are all interwoven especially since Nigeria and Britain have a historical relationship which impacts positively on both countries. Britain is also a major investor in the Nigerian economy.”
He added that speaking at Chatham House afforded his candidate the privilege of reaching out to “thousands” of global audience where he discussed general issues concerning Nigeria.
Just like the ruling APC, NNPP believes the appearance at Chatham House has a tremendous influence on elections “because it helps in making people understand the policies of a candidate.”
“I think it is not okay for anybody to think that somebody is trying to control Nigeria just by inviting our aspiring leaders to put their views to the world to be assessed so that they can see areas they can interact,” Mr Galadima said, reacting to the fears of neo-colonialism.
Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)
The presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, is one of the major contestants who have yet to appear at Chatham House.
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted the campaign spokesperson, he said Atiku Abubakar, the party’s candidate, received an invitation but at the time of the inquiry, he was not sure their campaign schedule would allow for that.
He said he would revert to PREMIUM TIMES with clear details but did not do so eventually.
Social Democratic Party (SDP)
Similarly, Adewole Adebayo, the SDP presidential candidate, said he did not honour the invitation of the London-based think tank because he has high respect for Nigeria’s sovereignty.
In a report published by Punch, speaking at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) platform for 2023 presidential candidates, Mr Adebayo said his colleagues who went to Chatham House further ridiculed and devalued the nation before the world by their appearances.
African Action Congress (AAC)
Femi Adeyeye, spokesperson of the AAC said their candidate, Omoyele Sowore, did not get any invitation from Chatham House for understandable reasons.
“Asides from the fact that the organisers of the event may have known that our candidate cannot travel outside the country due to the illegal seizure of his international passport by President Buhari, our policies also do not align with Chatham’s. Its stance on political economy is not different from the World Bank and the IMF which don’t align with our political-economic philosophy. Other candidates are in tune with their ideas,” he said.
According to Mr Adeyeye, it is neo-colonial control of a demeaning nature to invite candidates of a supposed sovereign country to come to discuss their policies before a group of “neo-colonial ex-ambassadors” in London.
“When will Britain remove the rope from the necks of its ex-colonies? We don’t ask their candidates to come to Abuja to explain their political agenda when they have elections in the UK, USA or elsewhere?” he asked.
Responding to how the appearances will affect the outcome of the polls, he said voters are wiser now and will not vote for neo-colonial or imperialist puppets anymore.
“I think the focus should be on how it would affect the fortune of Nigerians,” Mr Adeyeye said.
Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) reacts
PREMIUM TIMES contacted the NIIA to ask why presidential candidates prefer Chatham House to its platform. The Director General of the institute, Eghosa Osaghae, said invitations were sent to the candidates but only the SDP candidate responded to the invitation.
He said that the appearances at Chatham House are not new. “All our political leaders of note have been going to Chatham House in fact at a point it felt like a competition over who will be the next to appear at Chatham House.”
Chatham House is important to the extent that it is one of the world’s oldest foreign policy think tanks and has midwived many think tanks around the world including the NIIA, he said.
Mr Osaghae noted that Africa has lost its own sense of validation to the extent that African affairs are now discussed in the capitals of Europe and North America.
He noted that Chatham House could be symbolic for several reasons including Nigeria being a former British colony as well as the close ties it enjoys with its former colonial overlords.
Additionally, it is now difficult for countries to act in isolation anymore and partnership or shared prosperity is the name of the game.
However, “it is difficult to justify why it is Chatham House or any capital outside Nigeria that would be the point of call for our campaign. It is true that Nigeria is very important to the world but elections are domestic matters.”
Mr Osaghae said “the world is not seeing us through what is said at this fora but through what we do and who we are and that ought to matter more.
“We are suggesting (with these trips) that we are more accountable to these external forces than we are to internal forces and yet democracy is about the sovereignty of the citizens.”
PREMIUM TIMES reached out to Rotimi Oyekanmi, chief press secretary to the INEC chairman with questions last Wednesday but received no response at the time of this report.
Mr Oyekanmi had said he would get back but did not.
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