It is no longer news that the president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, was in Cape Town, South Africa from May 8-10, 2013 to address the World Economic Forum. It was a very closely-guarded secret somewhat akin to his clandestine trips to the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq to address American troops.
On the opening day, those who were in the know held their breath in eager expectation that once the curtain was drawn it would reveal the surprise guest – Obama, the most powerful man on earth. He was to deliver his well-rehearsed catch phrase, “Got your back”, which roughly translates as “I am here to support you by covering your back”. Instead, Obama opted to go off and have breakfast with the icon, Nelson Mandela, indisputably the most famous man on earth.
The media blackout was massive. It was in deference to the explicit wishes of the children of Mandela who are thoroughly fed up with visiting dignitaries exploiting Mandela’s huge popularity with cheap photo sessions. The old man will be ninety-six years old next month and he does not always recognise his visitors.
Anyway, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, went to great lengths to explain that the reason Obama did not show up for the opening session of the WEF was entirely for security reasons and besides, his meeting with Mandela was a most exhilarating experience for an obviously elated President Obama. Then he dropped a clanger: “President Obama received the following message from Professor Adebayo Adedeji (of Nigeria), the former executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa: ‘I am tired of advising African leaders. They prefer ignorance to knowledge.’”
The fallout was nuclear. Obama resorted to damage control by seeking to make amends. Apparently, what had pissed off the US president was the stinging commentary from the former US Consul-General in Lagos, Nigeria. Ambassador Brian Browne was on CNN’s “Inside Africa” where he slagged off Obama: “Barack Obama is too fixated on quarter-steps and petite, half-measures given the situation at hand (in America and Africa). As such, he has been a mellifluous troubadour for powerful forces threatening to lay American democracy low while promoting military imperialism abroad. He is not seeking meaningful change in the political economy. Instead, he has been a custodian of the unfair way things are. He is not the apostle of a visionary attempt to turn them into the equitable things they could be.”
That is more than enough provocation to justify launching a drone to teach Brian Browne a black (not brown!) lesson. Anyway, the US Secretary of State John Kerry was summoned from his endless diplomatic shuttles in the Middle East to step into the breach and hold fort for President Obama. He was an excellent choice and he rose to the occasion brilliantly – speaking ‘ex-tempore’: “I bring you felicitations from President Barack Obama. He has asked me to convey his joy and congratulations that we are witnessing in Africa such a moment of exciting transformation. What the World Economic Forum is doing is taking part in this amazing transformation, the new Africa. Six of the ten fastest growing countries in the world are here on the continent of Africa. And over the next twenty to thirty years, 100 million young people will be needing to go to school, an additional 100 million. Africa in the next thirty-five years will represent 40 percent of the world’s workforce and it will have the greatest percentage of any nation on the planet. This is both a challenge but also a huge opportunity. You as the leaders (presidents and prime ministers) have your work cut out.”
John Kerry was rewarded with a spontaneous standing ovation. I missed much of what followed but as always, Philip Asiodu of Nigeria spoke eloquently about the pithy and devastation in Africa in general and Nigeria in particular: “There are good models in Europe and America which we can copy. But the important thing is that everybody concerned with public service and regulation must quickly be motivated to become patriotic, to serve the public good, not to seek to advance personal interest. In fact, they will realise that when you serve well and meritoriously and leave, you probably have people who, even if it is only one out of fifty, appreciate the good work you do, it will open door to your children. You do not need corruption and crude amassment of personal wealth in order to be happy post retirement. This is one bad thing occurring, which is pushing our country almost to become a failed state and into anarchy, where in fact, down the line, nobody seems to be interested in doing something so that Nigeria of tomorrow is better than today; so that our children and their children will even be guaranteed welfare higher than the present one.
“There is too much of self-seeking. The cost of seeking political office is so high, almost compels the man who is elected to go all out to repay his debt and investment and not to serve. And of course, part of it is because having reached there, we have broken all the rules, we do not respect any international conventions in fixing public salaries, salaries for legislatures in particular and some elements in the executive, which are outrageous by international standard, and which then compels people to seek to get it as an investment.
“Everything has to be done by leadership. To make it dear, they must first realise it, and that this route will take us nowhere. It is not possible to sustain what is happening now, where seventy-five percent of our budget at the federal level is to pay a few thousand people, hundred thousand public servants, and money to be made available for investment in critical infrastructure, especially in education and capacity building, because the human resource factor is the most important in development, only a paltry 25 percent.
“Throughout British rule, central government budget never exceeded forty million pounds a year; under Balewa, it reached fifty million pounds. Of course, when we converted from pound to naira, it was one pound to two naira. It was under Gowon that it reached hundred million pounds in the second year, by which time we were in civil war and we fought that war without borrowing. But the important thing is that under British, with only forty million pounds, we built the harbours of Lagos, Port Harcourt, Warri, Sapele, Calabar, the four thousand miles of railway lines; telegraphy facilities across the country and the airports of Lagos and Kano.
“Under the First Republic and Gowon, we added the ring roads and the other airports. It was from such proper frugal management. It was under the British that the schools people of my generation and before went to, from which we went to the best universities in the world, were built.”
Randle is a former president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) and former chairman of KPMG Nigeria and Africa Region. He is currently the chairman, JK Randle Professional Services.
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