Image via Punch Newspapers
BY AYO OLUKOTUN
ABUJA (PUNCH)--Much of the past week was taken up by unfavourable comments about Nigeria made by the United States President, Donald Trump, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, who came visiting. According to a report in the London Financial Times, Trump had allegedly described President Muhammadu Buhari as “lifeless” after a meeting with him at the White House earlier this year. Trump reportedly went on to say that he was not looking forward to another meeting with anyone as “lifeless” as Buhari. On the heels of that controversial remark is the one made by May, to the effect that Nigeria is home to the highest number of the world’s very poor people. May’s statement was made in Cape Town, South Africa, preparatory to her visit to Nigeria on Wednesday.
Obviously, there is little to contend about May’s position, which is based on some of the latest global rankings by such organisations as the Brookings Institution, which, a few weeks ago, categorised Nigeria as the poverty capital of the world. There may be differences of interpretation about the recent global report on worsening poverty and inequality in Nigeria; the point remains nonetheless that the last decade for Nigeria can be regarded as lost opportunities in terms of the agenda to pull people out of poverty as envisaged by the Millennium Development Goals. Even in the boom years of the President Goodluck Jonathan administration, when Nigeria became the world’s capital, so to say, for the accumulation of private jets by our emergent billionaires, the impressive growth rate was far from inclusive, considering that it occurred side by side with grinding poverty of the majority. It was not just jobless growth, considering the soaring unemployment rate, it was also growth without development, given that it excluded millions of Nigerians, who were unaffected by the long running ball enjoyed by the tiny minority.
Matters became worse in the last couple of years, with the plummeting of oil prices, as well as economic recession unequalled in scope and severity in our history. Notwithstanding that the country subsequently peeped out of recession, its hangover can be guaged by such lingering symptoms as the inability of subnational governments to pay salaries for several months, high unemployment, galloping inflation whose harsh edges are being increasingly trimmed, as well, as an astronomical debt hangover occasioned by a heavy borrowing spree.
Politicians prefer to blame their opponents, and to exonerate their own parties for culpability for the country’s lot. The truth, however, is that neither the Jonathan nor Buhari administration, rhetoric aside, has done much about, or paid particular attention to the poverty crisis about which May spoke about. True, there is less overt corruption under Buhari, there is less to steal now anyway, but acknowledging that fact is not the same thing as saying that deliberate policies and systems to reduce poverty have been successful. Unsurprisingly, May’s upbraiding of Nigeria has not been attacked frontally by the ruling party and its publicity machinery. In spite of that, and taking into account that it is an election season, friends of the administration are circulating on social media a recent report in a global media about the new face of poverty in some parts of Britain for instance, Coventry, where hundreds of kids are either going hungry or stretching out for one subsidised meal a day from a youth summer feeding programme. Without necessarily saying so, the publication is being circulated as a counterpunch to May’s criticism of Nigeria’s wildly skewed political economy. Of course, everyone knows that even the richest countries in the world harbour swathes of desperately poor people, an underclass created by reckless right wing neo-conservative policies, and the fallout of a prolonged global recession. It is another matter however, whether that is the same thing as describing the Nigerian scenario, where a demographic surge in the population of youths has tallied ominously with new dimensions of poverty among the overwhelming majority of Nigerians.
Turning now to Trump’s caustic observation, it is amazing that this is only coming to light several months after Buhari’s Washington trip during which the general run of the US President’s speech appears to connote a slight endorsement of Buhari. However that may be, it is important to state that Trump has earned global notoriety, not just for shredding diplomatic etiquette, but for hurling tantrums and abuse, through his Twitter handle at several countries and world leaders. Some of his comments have shaken the US relations with its allies such as Britain, Canada, France among others to their very foundations. A sampler: Trump caused a major diplomatic upset, late last year, by making unsavoury remarks about May, in the course of a diplomatic visit to Britain. In what a British tabloid described as an “astonishing political knifing of Theresa May”, guest, Trump went so far as to suggest that Boris Johnson, the immediate past British Foreign Secretary, who had just then resigned following a major disagreement with May, would make a good Prime Minister.
Trump also called the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, dishonest, weak and mild, causing the Canadian nation across the political spectrum to stand up to Trump in united outrage. Well-known too is Trump’s derogatory reference to ‘shithole nations” of Africa and Latin America. Future historians will spend time psycho-analysing Trump and his penchant for raw and undiplomatic comments. Within Nigeria, it is entirely appropriate that even the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, which had hitherto engaged in predictable and automatic censor of Buhari, this time round, said that it had “ strong reservations” about Trump’s opinion. The party nonetheless went on to blame Buhari for selling Nigeria cheap to the US and for demarketing Nigeria in the international community.
The point in contention, in this instance, is not whether there is a ring of truth to what Trump said, but that Trump had chosen to castigate, or better still deride a visiting President. Buhari can derive some comfort from the fact that he has now joined a distinguished roll call of heads of government and statesmen, about which Trump had tweeted diatribes. Beyond that, there appears to be a kind of low self-esteem in what may have been an overreaction, panic or hysteria on the part of spokespersons for the Buhari administration. While it is legitimate to charge Trump with being tawdry on etiquette, it betrays a lack of confidence to go overboard in reacting to such remarks.
Interestingly, almost all the reactions have come from the publicity machinery of the government and the major parties. There is nothing close to the kind of national outrage that seized the public space, in other countries whose leaders, Trump had carried to the cleaners. This may be a matter for investigation, but for this writer, it indicates the elitist nature of our politics, pointing to a democracy without the demos that is, the people. There is also the suggestion that though impertinent, there is a haunting validity in Trump’s perception of underachievement and a lack of vigour in the handling of governance issues by Buhari.
We can conclude with the paradoxical postulation that Trump goofed on niceties and proper conduct but, in a sense, was not wildly off the mark on purport or substance.