Baba Sala needs no introduction unless you came around in the age of iPods, iTunes, and music files. The dinosaurs among us who are more at home with LP records will remember him. He is one of Nigeria’s greatest artists in my book. In one of his memorable radio skits, Baba Sala decides to learn the English language. A friend’s son offers to help with home lessons in basic English conversation. The scenario is classic: the teacher reads a simple sentence from a grammar primer and the student repeats the sentence. We all went through that “repeat after me” ritual in primary school. If you were in French class, your teacher, often from Togo or Benin, screamed “répétez après moi” as you struggled to memorize the antics of Aja Dudu and Monsieur Mayaki.
“My father has a motor car,” says Baba Sala’s teacher, reading from the primer. “My father is a motor car,” choruses Baba Sala. Naturally, the teacher is dissatisfied. He reads the correct sentence again, Baba Sala repeats the error, and a back and forth ensues between the determined teacher and the stubborn student. Frustrated, Baba Sala finally asks the teacher for a Yoruba translation of that problematic sentence. “Baba mi ni moto ayokele kan – my father has a motor car”, replies the teacher. “Excuse me, come again” thunders an incredulous Baba Sala. The perplexed teacher obliges him: “Baba mi ni moto ayokele kan”.
A furious Baba Sala summons the ritualized protocols of the familiar – what we call “see finish” in popular culture – to upbraid his teacher, giving him a long, sanctimonious lecture about lying, lies, and liars. Baba Sala knows the teacher’s family. E don see dem finish, as the popular saying goes. “Your father did what? Bought a motor car? Look at this small boy o! You really must think that I am dumb! Ibo ni Baba re ra moto ohun si? When and where did your father buy a motor car? Have you forgotten that your father and I used to trek to oko egan (the farm) together? Until he died, your father was never able to afford an ordinary bicycle let alone a car. How dare you look me straight in the face and lie to me? You dare to tell me that your father is a motor car. What’s the world coming to?”
The teacher stands his ground and tries to explain to Baba Sala that the sentence comes from the grammar primer they are using for the English lesson. This is where Baba Sala delivers one of the most memorable lines of his career. Says Baba Sala to the teacher: since I have absolutely no doubt that there is a lie hanging ominously in the air, the question is, who is telling that lie, you or the book that you are reading?
These scenarios came to mind as I monitored the recent faceoff between Sahara Reporters’ Omoyele Sowore and Dr. Reuben Abati, a former progressive intellectual who, sadly, is now in charge of President Goodluck Jonathan’s Ministry of Truth. The first cause of disagreement between the two men needs no further elaboration beyond the necessary reiteration of Sowore’s demand for the full list of President Jonathan’s official entourage to Addis Ababa. Dr Abati has not denied reports that he claimed to have forgotten the list in his hotel room in Addis Ababa at the time of Sowore’s initial request last week. We are still waiting and I hope the goats of Addis Ababa are not as ravenous as the goats of Yoruba land. The truant kid who fails his exam can return home at the end of the term and claim that a goat ate his report card. Perhaps a goat invaded Dr Abati’s hotel room in Addis Ababa and ate the list?
While we wait for him to make good on his promise to release the list and thereby prove that the President’s entourage to Addis comprised “not more than 32 people”, as opposed to the higher figures that had been reported, I must again express considerable sadness that this is what Dr Abati has been reduced to: an unrecognizable marionette who must now split hairs to explain the difference between stealing a cow and stealing a goat to the Nigerian people. No, we were about thirty-two people on the trip and not fifty-seven as was reported, as if it was okay to jamboree thirty-two people to Addis Ababa in the first place.
In Addis Ababa, they characteristically mismanaged everything including the question of President Jonathan’s woolly-headed moves for the AU Presidency. Why an incompetent President, whose leadership report card, is evidenced by the distraught condition of Nigeria and ECOWAS, would get ambitious about leading the AU is beyond me. Moreover, the moment news of that scuttled ambition filtered out of Addis, I knew that his Ministry of Truth would enter panic and crisis mode and swing into action. That much was predictable. What I couldn’t predict was the format of the damage control. Would Dr. Abati dare to depart from Aso Rock’s compulsive recourse to irritating lies in every situation?
Spinning, nuancing, and glossing come with the territory of statecraft. Those with no temperament for euphemisms call it deniability. There are countless occasions when the Presidency or the President must not be disgraced, humiliated, or embarrassed, hence the recourse to spin, nuance, and gloss by spokespersons of a given administration as they retail talking points to the public. That much we understand. In advanced democracies, officials of the state try as much as possible to spin, nuance, gloss or stretch the truth with considerable circumspection. You want to make sure that the spin does not cross the border into the province of outright lies because there are consequences for lying to the people. If you lie under oath, that is perjury; if you lie ex-oath and you are caught, the people will wait for you and your principal at the ballot box.
Alas, Federal statehood in Nigeria comes with the sort of unbridled impunity that I described in my essay, “The Nigerian Presidency: Assault with a Deadly Weapon.” Impunity translates to the absence of consequences for even the most grievous travesties committed by the agents of an omnipotent presidency. The absence of consequences means that the Nigerian presidency enjoys the luxury of telling endless lies without repercussion. And who wants to deal with the strictures of spinning, glossing, or nuancing your way out of tight situations when an outright lie would do the trick without unsavoury consequences? This explains why the Nigerian presidency does not just lie primordially, she lies needlessly and continuously about the obvious and the unnecessary. As far as institutions of state go, the Nigerian presidency is a lie telling lies as I explained in my essay, “iro n paro fun ro”. Precisely because that institution has enshrined lying and lies as the singular basis of her social contract with the Nigerian people since October 1, 1960, she has created a citizenry that knows the opposite to be true of whatever she has to say.
Thus, when Reuben Abati rushed out a press statement claiming that Yayi Boni did not defeat Jonathan in Addis Ababa and that the West African caucus did not reject the idea of his leadership, I knew instinctively that the opposite had to be true, given the history of the Nigerian presidency and her integrity-challenged officials. The first thing I did was to make a number of phone calls to strategic contacts in Cotonou, Lomé, Abidjan, and Dakar to get a firsthand assessment of the situation from the viewpoint of our Francophone friends. Was there a prevailing sentiment of a Nigerian ambition in the build-up to the summit in Addis Ababa? How was this ambition reported in the media? As soon as I heard the other side from various sources on the ground, I did next logical thing: scour the internet for my daily dosage of newspapers from Francophone West Africa.
All the Francophone newspapers that I read reported the exact opposite of what Reuben Abati had claimed in his press statement to Nigerians. Even before the summit, on January 26, 2012, the pan-Francophonic weekly magazine, Jeune Afrique, had reported “murmurs” of President Jonathan’s ambition. The report indicates that Cotonou “was surprised” by the information on the Nigerian president’s ambition. In the penultimate paragraph of its own report, Benininfo.com insists that the names of Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh and Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan had made the round as “candidates” in addition to Yayi Boni but the leaders of West African countries decided to support the candidacy of Yayi Boni.
La Nouvelle Tribune was even more detailed in its own account of the intrigues that led to the collapse of President Jonathan’s ambition in Addis Ababa. The newspaper regaled her readers with juicy details of the situation that Abati had tried to deny in his press statement: President Jonathan’s candidacy; behind-the-scene moves by the Beninois delegation to gain a concession from the Nigerians; the decision by Ghana and Burkina Faso to support Benin Republic in the face of the obduracy of the Nigerian delegation; subsequent public announcements of support for Yayi Boni by Ghana and Burkina Faso to checkmate Nigeria.
According to La Nouvelle Tribune, it was only after these public announcements of support for Boni by other West African delegations, and after further pressure by Ghana, that Nigeria finally saw the handwriting on the wall and backed off. All the Francophone radio stations that I listened to on January 29 and 30, from Gabon to Benin Republic, Togo to Senegal, and Mali to Côte d’Ivoire, pretty much confirmed these details as reported in the newspapers. True, they confirmed it in the celebratory tone informed by the usual Francophone/Anglophone rivalry, complete with the usual hints of giant resentment but they were nonetheless all very consistent in terms of the details of Nigeria’s ambition. And Reuben Abati would have us believe that none of this ever happened! President Jonathan was never interested, was never a candidate! He even worked assiduously for Yayi Boni’s election! Somehow, everybody else in Africa made it all up! Waoh.
President Jonathan and his handlers dreamed up the ill-fated ambition to gun for the Presidency of the AU because their juvenile rivalry with a far better governed South Africa. Nigerians should worry about the modes of actuation of that ambition. A few commentators, including yours truly, have grumbled that a President who has so thoroughly malgoverned Nigeria, serving as undertaker for his citizens via Boko Haram, armed robbery, unemployment, fuel subsidy removal, and general economic hardship, should not be gourmandizing for regional leadership. That view is only partly right. The real problem is what the President didn’t do in the months leading to Addis Ababa. We heard of no scrupulously thought-out leadership vision, no carefully planned roadmaps to continental initiatives with actionable results going to Addis Ababa. The possibility of continental leadership thus becomes a function of somebody’s perfunctory, spur of the moment brainwave, possibly over peppersoup and Sapele water. He was going to become AU President first and think later about what to do, maybe constitute a thousand advisory committees along the way, as is his wont. Does that sound familiar about how he rules Nigeria?
There is worse. If we were dealing with reasonable people, one would have hoped that the humiliation suffered in Addis Ababa would be an occasion for serious lessons and sober reflection. What went wrong? Maybe the days of thinking that the rest of Africa would just queue up behind us because we have 160 million people and oil money to throw around are over. Maybe we should try to put our house in order? Maybe we should face corruption, Boko Haram, youth unemployment, comatose infrastructure, deeper questions of Nigerian statehood and federalism and hope to earn the respect of the continent based on how we run our own lives? After all, when someone promises to buy you new clothes, you examine his own vestments. Africa now has responsible democracies to look up to in Ghana, Botswana, Benin Republic and South Africa. What should we do to join that league?
These would be the reasonable working questions of genuine leaders in the wake of the Addis Ababa summit. Alas, the rulers of Nigeria are wired differently. They are wired weirdly. On the flight back to Abuja from Addis, they probably were asking: who did we forget to bribe? Should we have promised President Atta Mills an oil block? Looks like funding for HIV/AIDS clinics is drying up in Ghana and a major international agency is pulling out of Accra. Maybe we should offer to take over the funding of Ghana’s HIV/AIDS programme as the giant of Africa? Will they support us at next year’s summit if we did that? Meanwhile, Reuben, don’t forget to release a statement when we land that this never happened o.
I have written repeatedly in this column that Nigerian government officials – especially those in the Presidency – are not believable. They are utterly contemptible liars, direct descendants of Apate, the famed goddess of lies and deceit in Greek mythology. Even without the benefit of my research into the issue at hand, ain’t no chance in hell that I would have believed an Aso Rock statement anyway. They have lied to the Nigerian people too often for one to grant them such considerations. A lie hangs in the air about what actually transpired in Addis Ababa. There is no doubt in my mind that the account of the Nigerian presidency is a blatant lie. This brings us back to Baba Sala: who is lying about Addis Ababa, Reuben Abati or the press statement he issued?
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