For Nigerians, Obama's Snub Prompts Soul-Searching – Washington Post

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WASHINGTON POST

For Nigerians, Obama’s Snub Prompts Soul-Searching

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 10, 2009 12:12 PM

LAGOS, Nigeria — When the White House announced two months ago that President
Obama would visit Ghana this week, Nigerians read a different, glaring message
between the lines: The American leader was not going to their country.

“The first country to be chosen by the American people should be Nigeria,” said
Samuel Ayankoso, 57, a taxi driver in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. “We are the
giant of Africa.”

That Obama also is not visiting about 50 other African nations seems beside the
point. Here in Africa’s self-enthroned behemoth, Obama’s sojourn to small but
stable Ghana has spawned an outpouring of soul-searching and self-flagellation
about Nigeria’s image and dubious democracy.

“Why would Obama want to come to Nigeria? To lend credence to the putrefying
edifice that the nation has largely become?” one writer asked in the Guardian
newspaper. Wole Soyinka, a Nobel prize-winning writer, said he would “stone”
Obama if he legitimized Nigeria by visiting.

It is unsurprising that Obama’s first visit as president to sub-Saharan Africa,
an Obama-obsessed region that views him as a native son, would inspire
continental envy. But in a country where democratic expression has been stunted
by flawed elections, the move has given critics a fresh opportunity to stick it
to their government. They call it a clear indictment of Nigeria’s ever-present
corruption, President Umaru Yar’Adua’s slow progress, the conflict in the
oil-rich Niger Delta and what some here see as cooled relations with the United
States.

“Most people believe it’s deliberate, not a mere oversight, and it’s a statement
and the message is well conveyed,” said Reuben Abati, editor of the Guardian.
“Nigerians are very angry with their government.”

Nigerian officials, for their part, shrug off the angst. “It was a non-issue,”
Jibrin D. Chinade, Yar’Adua’s special adviser on foreign affairs, said in an
interview. “There is no message.”

Obama arrives for an overnight stop in Ghana on Friday. White House officials
said he will emphasize good governance and U.S. commitment to Africa, to which
President George W. Bush massively increased aid.

An Obama administration official declined to say whether the president
considered visiting Nigeria but said Ghana was chosen because it is “a model for
other countries” in a region beset by “troubled elections and coups.”

But in those words is an essential truth: When it comes to democracy in Africa,
Ghana is a rising star. Nigeria, on the other hand, seems trapped in a black
hole.

Ghana, the first African country to gain independence in 1957, is a poor but
steady nation in a rough corner of Africa. It won international praise last year
for an ultra-close and peaceful election that marked its second transfer of
power since a military ruler re-launched democracy in 1992. Investors praise
Ghana’s open-market economy, which is likely to be boosted by recently
discovered oil.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 150 million people, has long thought
of itself as the continent’s beating heart. Its economy is Africa’s
second-largest, and its international peacekeeping force — the world’s
fourth-biggest — patrols across the region. But corruption that watchdogs rank
among the world’s worst has kept most Nigerians in poverty. Infrastructure is
poor, and generators power much of the country. The Niger Delta is simmering
with low-level warfare over oil.

Still, Nigeria is a key U.S. ally in West Africa, where drug trafficking and
piracy are on the rise. Nigeria also is the fifth-largest oil supplier to the
United States. Bush, whose anti-terrorism efforts were backed by then-Nigerian
President Olusegun Obasanjo, visited the nation in 2003.

U.S. officials say relations remain strong, pointing to joint military training
exercises and a recent visit to Washington by Nigeria’s foreign minister, who
met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Nigeria is, for a variety of reasons, the most important country in sub-Saharan
Africa, bar none,” said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie
Carson.

But the dialogue has chilled since 2007, foreign policy experts say, when the
United States joined a global chorus in criticizing the Nigerian elections that
brought Yar’Adua to power. He took office promising reforms of the electoral
system, electricity sector, the Niger Delta and other problems, but little
progress has been made. Adding insult was Washington’s recent feting of two
fierce Nigeria critics — one a former minister in Obasanjo’s administration,
the other Nigeria’s crusading former anti-corruption czar, who testified before
Congress about being forced from his job after indicting 31 governors for
looting.

“Even in the best of times I don’t know of any Nigerian leader who has access to
Congress,” said Akinjide Osuntokun, an international relations professor and
government adviser.

The announcement about Obama’s visit to Ghana was another blow, he said. That
was followed by one of the more bizarre moments in recent U.S.-Nigerian
relations. In May, a top ruling party official accused the opposition and the
U.S. Embassy of plotting a “diabolical delegation” to meet with Obama in Ghana
in an attempt to undermine the Nigerian government. The ruling party distanced
itself from the allegation, and the U.S. Embassy denied it.

Schemes aside, Osuntokun said, there is a sense among Nigerians that their
nation, which recently launched a “rebranding” effort to polish its image, is
losing influence.

It should be mentioned that at least some of the furor might be rooted in
Nigeria’s friendly rivalry with Ghana.

Although Ghana held the clout of being Africa’s first independent country, it
has also depended much on Nigeria. In the 1970s, millions of Ghanaians fled
their tumbling economy for oil-rich Nigeria. In 1983, as the economy soured in
Nigeria and xenophobia rose, it expelled 1 million Ghanaians. Even now, the
plastic plaid sacks they packed their belongings in are known in Nigeria as
“Ghana Must Go” bags.

Today, Ghana is the draw for thousands of Nigerians seeking more
business-friendly climes and a calmer environment for their families.
International companies including Michelin have decamped from Nigeria for Ghana.
In English-speaking Nigeria, meanwhile, Ghanaian English teachers are in demand
for their more British-sounding tongue.

Nigerian officials insist their country is still a major world player, noting
that while they did not get Obama this time around, they recently received
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and were invited to attend this week’s G-8
summit in Italy.

And not everyone in this busy, dynamic country has time to agonize over Obama’s
stop in Ghana, as evidenced by the attitude of lawyer Cephas Caleb, 24, who was
shopping at a bustling Lagos street market the other day.

“There are more important problems for us as a nation,” Caleb said, “than having
the American president visit for two days or not.”

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