BusinessDay

Foreign criticism: Nigeria must stop shooting the messenger

Nigeria is hypersensitive when it comes to foreign criticism. The Economist magazine captured this trait well in an article entitled “Big country, thin skin”.

In the article, published in February 2014, the magazine argued that Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country, was too tetchy, too thin-skinned, too defensive when criticised by outsiders.

The magazine was reacting to President Goodluck Jonathan’s outburst during a meeting with departing foreign diplomats in February 2014.

Jonathan had invited the diplomats to Abuja presumably to thank them for their work. But instead of thanking them, he unleashed an angry broadside, blaming foreign representatives for “misconceptions” abroad about Nigeria.

The Economist took a dig at Jonathan. “Nigeria’s president bemoans the negative image of his country,” the magazine wrote, adding with a tinge of irony: “How odd”!

… people who are very sensitive to anything critical, who are vigilant for any sign of a negative response to them, are said to suffer from avoidant personality disorder

In psychology, people who are very sensitive to anything critical, who are vigilant for any sign of a negative response to them, are said to suffer from avoidant personality disorder.

Well, countries can have the disorder too. And, let’s face it, Nigeria has it! Successive Nigerian governments have been hypersensitive to foreign criticism, however justified.

Nigeria belongs to the global community, but the country behaves as if it’s an island, as if it’s in its own world, as if global norms do not apply to it.

Let’s be honest, Nigeria is too inward-looking and too self-referential. It wants to set and mark its own exam papers; it wants to be the judge and the jury in its own case; it always rejects any attempt, especially by foreigners, to judge it by international standards that underpin global best practices.

Yet, foreign criticisms of Nigeria are almost always fair, just and accurate. For instance, when the Economist wrote that “corruption poisons almost all institutions capable of making Nigeria work well,” was the magazine lying? Of course not.

Or when the Financial Times wrote that “for all its economic might, Nigeria remains a deeply dysfunctional state,” was the newspaper saying the untruth? Of course, it wasn’t!

Recently, in a special report entitled “Investing in Nigeria,” published on February 15, the Financial Times listed the following positive things about Nigeria: Africa’s most populous country; Africa’s biggest economy; Africa’s largest oil producer; “a soft power juggernaut whose film stars, writers, musicians and designers command a global following and whose technocrats hold some of the world’s most influential jobs”; Africa’s single most successful tech hub. Then, the newspaper added: “But, in other terms, Nigeria looks more like a failing state than a superpower.”

Now, can anyone truly disagree with the Financial Times’s assessment? Is Nigeria not a deeply dysfunctional state?

In a recent interview with Arise TV, Osita Chidoka, former Aviation Minister, described Nigeria as “functionally dysfunctional at the base level”, stressing that “the base of Nigeria is not functioning.”

So, what’s wrong with the Financial Times saying what every rational mind knows to be true about Nigeria? I mean, is it not true that, despite its enormous human and natural resources, Nigeria looks more like a failing state than a superpower?

As I once wrote in this column, international indicators show that Nigeria is a deeply fragile state, if not a failed state!

Read also: ‘Nigeria First’ as new foreign policy thrust in a changing world

Truth is, foreign media judge Nigeria, as they judge other countries, including their own, by the world’s prevailing orthodoxies, namely: open-market economy, liberal democracy and rules-based domestic and international orders.

These norms and practices are universally believed to make people richer and freer. And any country that departs from those orthodoxies would face the opprobrium of outsiders, just as Russia is being pummelled for invading Ukraine, an act that violates the norms of the rules-based international order.

So, Nigerian cannot escape foreign censure for bad governance, for disregard for the rule of law, for abuse of power, for endemic corruption etc.

Instead of swatting away fair foreign criticism as misrepresentation, Nigeria should tackle its acute and chronic problems.

Sadly, that’s not the response of successive Nigerian governments; rather, successive Nigerian governments treat every foreign criticism as a conspiracy against the country, while continuing to run Nigeria in a business-as-usual manner, eschewing radical change.

But while successive governments are guilty of such imperviousness and hubris, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is the chief culprit.

The Buhari administration is the civilian government that’s most hypersensitive to foreign criticism and most impervious to change.

There are two reasons for this.

First, unlike previous civilian governments, such as those of Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari’s government lacks ministers of international repute and standing, with truly global perspectives.  His government is made up of career politicians and myopically-localised officials, with biases against globalisation.

Second, the Buhari government is utterly idiosyncratic and self-referential; it sees everything purely from its own predilection and worldview. Thus, the government is deeply inward-looking, detached from global norms and best practices. Take a few examples.

Right from its inception in 2015, the Buhari government engaged in a “toothpick war” with the Economist.

In an article entitled “Toothpick alert”, published in July 2015, the magazine criticised the government for puffing up the exchange rate by banning the allocation of foreign exchange to importers of 41 products, including toothpicks.

The magazine argued, rightly, that the policies of import bans and forex restrictions would harm the economy, hurt manufacturers, raise inflation and pauperise the people by reducing the availability and affordability of essential items.

The Buhari government hit back, accusing The Economist of a conspiracy against Nigeria. Seven years on, the forex ban is still in place but, while local production of some of the banned products, such as palm oil, has increased, their supply has failed to meet demand, fuelling the double-digit inflation and the poverty that have characterised Buhari’s tenure.

Recently, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) went to Abuja to beg, with no avail, President Buhari to give them foreign exchange to import critical intermediate goods. Truth is, the Economist was right seven years ago and the Buhari government was wrong: import bans and forex restrictions harm a country’s economy, industry and people.

Take another example: corruption. It’s an issue on which the Buhari government won’t countenance international criticism but on which it has failed woefully to make any progress, as I wrote in this column last week.

In January this year, Transparency International published its Corruption Perception Index for 2021. The index showed that Nigeria scored 24 out of 100 points and ranked 154 out of 180 countries surveyed, thus dropping five places from its 149th ranking in 2020.

But what was the Buhari government’s response? Well, it challenged the “robustness” of Transparency International’s methodology and the “validity” of its data. Here’s a deeply dysfunctional state, with acute data problems, questioning the methodology and data-set of a reputable international organisation.

Well, the question is: who would foreign investors and foreign media believe: Transparency International or Buhari’s government? Of course, the former! Instead of facing its demons and addressing the message, the Buhari government is attacking the messenger, an international organisation!

Which brings us to the most recent ding-dong. In an opinion piece entitled “What is Nigeria’s government for?” (Financial Times, 31 January 2022), David Pilling, the FT’s respected Africa Editor, wrote that the curtain would soon be drawn on eight years of the administration of President Buhari, “on whose somnolent watch Nigeria has sleepwalked closer to disaster”.

Pilling’s description of Buhari irked the presidency, and the president’s senior media assistant, Garba Shehu, fired back, questioning his knowledge of Nigeria. But was Pilling wrong? Have things not become worse on Buhari’s watch, from inflation to unemployment and poverty, from insecurity to disunity – name it?

Truth is, if Nigeria wants outsiders to see it in good light, it must tackle its manifold governance problems. Better to address the message than shoot the messenger!

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