Ceo forum 2023

Even now, Nigeria can do much better in its neighbourhood

A couple of weeks ago, when I got wind of a story about a 23 year-old girl from Ibadan locked up in a dingy Ivoirien prison on a series of trumped-up charges including “human trafficking,” I could have written an entire story about my own reaction. Unlike what is taught in classical journalistic training which encourages practitioners to always be skeptical of all undocumented information – including that from sources we know or like, I found myself exploring the story not as a dispassionate journalist, but as an aggrieved stakeholder.

It was not so much the details of the case that generated that visceral reaction – not the corrupt Ivorian cops who set Itunu Babalola up on ridiculous charges; not the judge who convicted her based on the testimony of child who was openly coached in the presence of the accused; not the absurdity of sentencing a 23 year-old to 20 years in prison only to review the sentence when she attempted suicide and remove half of the sentence.

Legal and law enforcement systems being woefully inept and dysfunctional is as African as red soil and bass music. A headline could emerge tomorrow stating that a herd of wild elephants from the Serengeti have been hired to serve on the Cameroonian police force or the Malian judiciary and you honestly would not doubt it. Heck, Nigeria itself is no stranger to absurd injustices and incompetent control systems.

The real emotional trigger for me was yet again seeing a Nigerian citizen being trampled underfoot in a malicious manner specially calculated to be as painful and injurious as possible. After all, is it not Nigeria? What are they going to do anyway? Is it not that big-for-nothing country? We will do absolutely whatever we want to these Nigerians and nothing will happen! Serves them right!

Nigeria is NOT this weak!

When trying to illustrate the vast power differential that should exist between Nigeria and its neighbours, it sometimes helps to use numbers to put things into their proper perspective. The BVMAC stock exchange, which aggregates the trading activities of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo (Brazzaville), Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Chad has a total market capitalisation of 30,684,725,300 FCFA, which is just under N23 billion. The Nigeria Stock Exchange alone has a market cap of about N30 trillion.

The BRVM stock exchange aggregating Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire has a total market cap of about $12.5 billion which comes to about N51 trillion. In other words, that building located at the Lagos Marina houses trading activity equivalent to 45 percent of the total stock market activity of eight of Nigeria’s West African neighbours put together.

The comparisons can go on and no but the point is clear- there is no planet on which Nigeria even in its current state should have to tolerate the vast amounts of mistreatment and injustice its citizens face. These anomalies exist in spite of – and not because of – Nigeria’s current status. Ill advised and counterproductive as it was, Nigeria’s recent border closure saga and its effect on West Africa’s economy provided an insight into how powerful Nigeria is in the region, whether anyone likes it or not.

Instead of using this power in aid of its citizens and its wider geostrategic interests in the sub region however, Nigeria has historically been content to sit on its hands and spend all its energies on its internal politics and rivalries. With the amount of conflict going on inside Nigeria, it is easy to forget that there is a clearly-defined identity outside Nigeria called “Nigerian,” and that its interests need to be protected too.

The dog should wag the tail

Through the course of investigating the Itunu saga, the Chair of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa has offered the closest thing I have seen to a ray of hope. Whether born out of sincerity or expedience, Mrs. Dabiri-Erewa has pursued the issue personally, resulting in the very unfamiliar spectacle of the diplomatic organs of the Nigerian state being deployed away from home in service to a regular ordinary Nigerian who is not a child of a ‘somebody.’

From the point of view of a Nigerian citizen living outside the country, it has been extremely gratifying to watch Mrs. Dabiri-Erewa display a commitment to the case that I honestly did not expect. There are not many things I have seen in my 31 years that have made me feel ‘proud’ to be a Nigerian citizen, but the actions of NIDCOM over the past week are definitely right up there. The problem however, is precisely the fact that I have mentioned Abike Dabiri-Erewa four times in this article, and NIDCOM just four times – the Nigerian state does not retain such direction as a matter of institutional routine. Once she is no longer in that position, then what? Back to status quo?

What is more, this is not just about Nigerians being mistreated in Cote d’Ivoire and Benin. This is also about the wider question of what Nigeria sees its interests and ambitions as within its immediate neighbourhood. Take the Cameroonian question for example. Why does Nigeria always seem to end up kowtowing to Cameroon even when it seemingly has nothing to gain by doing so? Putting aside the Bakassi debacle, which effectively delivered a population of English-speaking Nigerians into the hands of hostile Francophone gendarmes, the recent Ambazonia conflict again underscored this.

In 2019, Ambazonia separatist leader Julius Sisuku Ayuk Tabe was living in Nigeria, as many as other well educated Anglophone Cameroonians do. The Nigerian government for whatever reason then arrested him in Abuja and delivered him to the authorities in Yaounde. What was the strategic profit in that decision from Nigeria’s point of view? Is “because Cameroon said so” an acceptable crutch on which to balance foreign policy decisions? Who exactly is the dog and who is the tail in this relationship?

I will end this article with a quote I got from an exclusive chat with the former U.S. ambassador to Cameroon, Peter Barlerin. When I asked him what he thinks Nigeria’s engagement policy with Anglophone Cameroon should be, he said:

“As a friend to Cameroon with a long border, Nigeria can and should play a supporting role, possibly in facilitating dialogue. Anglophone separatists are understandably concerned about travelling to Nigeria, however, out of concern that they be arrested and forcibly deported to Cameroon as has happened in the past.”

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