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Nigeria-Biafra Conference and Rebranding Nigeria In Atlanta

By *Victor Ukaogo, Ph.D

Published  November 25th, 2009

In the last week of September, Milwaukee City in the United States hosted an important and well attended International Conference that went unreported in Nigeria’s established press. The Conference titled: The Biafra –Nigeria Civil War. Our Stories and Lessons Learnt ‘ escaped the Nigerian press for three probable reasons. In the fist place, the event as indicated in its title was a recount of Nigeria’s darkest past with possible lessons therefrom and thus seemed set to lampoon the individuals whose rise to eminence could be located in the imbrioglio that ended in 1970. The September Conference was therefore a measured embarassment to the Nigerian ruling class (not ethnic class) whose best interest was to dememorialise the war. Nigeria’s media organizations that at worst are under the hegemony of indigenous autocrats (not in terms of press ownership,but in subtle influence) could not rise above the whims and caprices of this awfully powerful clique to report the event especially when it is thought better not to remember the war in whatever form

The Conference went unreported in the Nigerian press for another related reason. The main stream policy makers in Nigeria would have been more thoroughly embarassed to learn of the unlearnt lessons of the war especially in the area of war technology and scientific advancement which several ex-Biafran scientists and combatants now resident in the United States came to demonstrate to the world at the Conference. Many had wondered aloud why the ingenious and highly scientific attainment of the war remain to date un-useful and unexplored 40 years after. The third probable explanation for the blackout could be explained by the prevailing national security convulsion at the time of the Milwaukee Conference. The Nigerian press were pre-occupied if not imprisoned within the vortex of the ongoing amnesty deal that was about to end. The media, one is tempted to believe, may have forgotten that the Niger-Delta crisis which today is a cash - cow of sorts to many was and still remain an unresolved and ignored aftermath of the events that led to the civil war. The condemnable neglect of the region, the alleged genocide, verifiable marginalisation and evident political exclusion of the region along with the surrounding regions of the South-South and the South-East would seem to be an old song.

The Conference was therefore a missed opportunity to Nigerians that could not follow the proceedings. With attendees from far places such as Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Papau New Guniea, United Kingdom and Nigeria amongst others, an opportunity to reflect on the Nigerian condition and make possible projections for growth was lost. An account and histriography of the war and the nation was on glaring display especially by non-Nigerians such as Professor John Sherman from Indianapolis, Professor Fiona Bateman of National University of Ireland, Professor Paul Bartrop of Deakin University, Melbourne, Victoria-Australia, Professor Timothy McMahon of Marquette University ,Wisconsin amongst many others. Almost immediately after the Conference, repentant Col. Muamer Ghadaffi of Libya came to the UN headquaters in New York, stared the big powers in the face and told them his mind. The Iranian leader also came and said his mind. They both told their stories to the world. Sadly, Nigeria, expousing the new but weird concept of Citizenship Diplomacy with a well merited desire to have a seat within the Security Council conveniently missed the opportunity to tell her own story: a story of how and why the country is so eminently qualified to have such coveted seat at the Security Council. Our President rather preferred to travel to Saudi Arabia, according to reports, to open a private university! We lost that opportunity to tell our own story our own way. The Milwaukee Conference and the New York UN Parley were two of a kind. They presented two great opportunities to ‘rebrand’ Nigeria. We lost these opportunities .

In a predominantly white neighbourhood, the location and venue for such a Conference was indeed thoughtful and purposefully unique. The crowd that came ( I spoke with some folks) were very eager to know or be told those first hand things they should know about the world’s most populous black state. They were thirsty of opportunities in Africa’s largest state especially in the context of exaggerated western media reportage of Africa’s savagery and primitivity. They needed high Nigerian presence to give credibilty or otherwise to whatever they may have heard from several unqualified and biased sources. A certain young student of Marquette University, wearing a Marquette University Basketball T-shirt and an unrepentant lover of Nigeria-type soccer, Cyril Gardener, whose parents migrated from Scotland to New Jersey but resides in Wisconsin asked to know if “you have always had soccer academies where your kids sharpen their skills?” I smiled to myself because unknown to him, while he was asking the question, Nigeria’s team to the Under 20 World Football Championship in Egypt, the Flying Eagles had received painful punishments from both Venezuela and Spain in their first two matches in Egypt. I dreaded what l thought will be the next question, namely why did Nigeria lose so badly. To my relief, the question did not come. And so, l had nothing to explain.

Several Nigerian residents in the United States are so scared to come home and could qualify today as being on involuntary exile abroad. On the first day of the Conference, scores of Nigerians in the US and Canada wanted to know from about five of us that came from Nigeria, the state of insecurity especially kidnapping and armed robbery. They also wanted to know the state of our education system in the light of the then ASUU strike. One agitated single parent told me of her desire to see her only son return to Nigeria for his tertiary education in order to rescue him from cultural assimilation in the United States. She wanted me to advise her what to do next as a university teacher in Nigeria. A highly placed hosiptal administrator wanted to know the state of the health sector in Nigeria but it was a well placed I.T bigwig from downtown Atlanta, a woman married to a Nigerian - trained engineer and American trained pharmacist that got me thinking. She asked me when I transited through Atlanta (at Georgia State University premises), “Is our I.T practise back home limited to only fraud in banks and other sensitive places against fellow Nigerians and foreigners alike?“ She confessed to me in a very passionate voice filled with verifiable patriotism that “with my husband doing well in pharmacy here and my modest knowledge of the I.T world, it is best to see how we can earnestly encourage certain host of ours here to look the way of Nigeria by way of investment and human capital development. In all these enquires, l maintained a firm and familiar response, ‘ back home may be bad but certaintly not as you think. A whole lot of good things are not alien to us in Nigeria’, I sermonised.

But professor Chima Korieh, the convenor of the conference really impressed me most along with the two members of the Igbo League in USA that partly sponsored the Conference namely Dr Obasi and Dr K.K Odeluga, both of whom spoke so commitedly of the Nigerian dream. I was indeed touched by their passion. But for Professor Chima Korieh, living abroad is good only if we remember also to return home to make our own contributions. And by June 2010, a state of the art High School built in the exotic American traditon will be commissioned in Nigeria as his own contribution to the Nigerian project. I do not know how the rebranding project of Professor (Mrs) Dora Akunyili is going or how Chief Ojo Maduekwe’s Citizenship Diplomacy is fairing with the plight of Nigerian traders in Ghana still unresolved, the ceaseless danger Nigerians in Libya face including the impersonal treatment of the Nigerians in several embassies across the world, including our own embassies abroad where Nigerians are treated with contempt. It is uncertain where rebranding and C-Diplomacy is headed. When Professor Akunyili gather people to deliever sermons on rebranding, who and who are invited to listen to her? Do they gather bussinessmen, students, embassy officials and passers-by to listen? Do they assembly TV cameras to take the simulation of their mouths? Or would it be out of place to ask whether such a weighty project have suffered still-birth in implementation occassioned by our drive and zeal to promote eye service to an admirable art. Have they tried anything on inter-govenmental platform where officials and ordinary people from other countries are made to listen to our own story as told by our own spokesmen or women or other agents of government? Would it be more acceptable to assume that the rebranding project is not being properly done as the rebranding enterprise is encumbered by its reductionist approach. Rebranding Nigeria by Nigerians to Nigerians would seem to be largely wasteful and deceptive. Rebranding Nigeria to foreigners in such audiences as in New York and Milwaukee remain most needed in weeks leading to the decision on who comes on board the Security Council.

As l boarded the Delta Airline plane on that cold Monday night of 21st September from Lagos to Atlanta, l promised myself to be curious , inqusitive and observant and to seize every opportunity as an individual to first fly the Nigerian kite and deliever the Nigerian message. In the plane, while many snored in their sleep and others tried to watch personalised films on DVDs , l busied myself following the movement of the plane across countries and cities enroute our destination. I didnt have to wait for days to deliever the Nigerian message. I waited for less than twelve hours and it was at the Atlanta Hartfield International Airport to be precise.

After the plane landed and passengers exited, I made my way towards the baggage claim area through the security check points. Several passengers before me passed through the immigration and customs check points with relative ease. The officials were polite and reasonably mannered. And as I journeyed with the rest, a hugely built black American official halted me and asked me to hand over my passport. I was decidedly calm and calculated. I obeyed. He waved me to a seat away from the information section where computer sets were lined up. He flipped open my passport, glanced at me where I was seated and punched some informstion into a system in front of him. Moments later, he walked away for about ten minutes directing some other officials what to do or where to go. He returned to the computer and once again punched some more infos into the system before signalling me to come over. As l made my way to meet him, he looked at me most intensely assessing me most probably on how to go about wrecking me psychologically. Unknown to him, l was more than ready. He had my passport but began by asking me my names. My mission into the US was stated in the visa section of my passport but he preffered to ask me what l came to do in the US. For each of the questions, l calmly gave the answers. Then, with a mischievious smile dancing across his lips and with eye burrowing into my skull (being visibly taller and physically more endowed), he demanded to know where l work. I told him and at the same time handed over to him my University identity card. He adjusted his reading lens and muttered under his breadth as if he has just been punched under the heart. He drew closer and with a clinched teeth said “what do you teach.” ‘ l teach African Politics and Government.” l promptly replied. As if waiting for it, he thundered his response in a very loud and vehement voice proclaiming with all venom, seriousness and resentment that “there is no politics in Africa”. Really? I retorted. “Yes of course”, he replied. I did a fast thinking and told myself that l probably have some work to do here. At worst, l told myself, l have to be what l am – a teacher. As if reading my mind , he began a rather long lecture where he told me about corruption of African leaders especially Nigerian leaders, how billions of Dollars were stolen from state treasury, how the poor Nigerians are left uncared for, how the aged and elderly lack basic health care. He spoke with authority and gesticulated with visible derision and scorn in his baritone voice. “If state resources were frittered away through corruption and similar vices, what do you then teach? Politics and government, you said? “No”. He replied to his own question.

Then sensing that he was done with his lecture, l cleared my voice and calmly thanked him but asked him if he was willing to be my student for a moment. He obliged. I thanked him again for his geniue concern for poor Nigerians but quickly inquired ‘how many corrupt government officials from Nigeria or Africa have you arrested so far, especially those escaping with their loot through Atlanta’. He kept mum and mumbled some unintelligible things. I honestly agreed with him that corruption and misgovernance is bad but l resent his making corruption an African or Nigerian phenomenon because corruption is strongly rooted here in America. This l gladly told him. Americans indeed may have passed on the corruption bug to Africans because document falsification is an integral part of corruption. I needed him to say something but he merely glared at me. For a moment, l figured he was getting angry especially when l said that the US democratises corruption in too many ways than one. He refused to betray any emotions. With reasonable boldness but with genuine fear creeping into my bowels, l decided to poke and prick him futher in my unsolicited lecture. I heard myself trying repeatedly to Americanise my English language to ease this rather laborious encouter. “Ehhh m, you see, “l began, now, tell me who is Andrew Young? For the first time since this encounter began, he looked a bit ruffled and shocked. “Yeah” he began...Ehh m, yeah!, yeah, he is a fine American gentleman. We cherish him enough here in Atlanta. “Good”, I said. “Well”, l continued, “his name is rumored to be in the record books about complicity in a certain inappropriate business relations in Nigeria where large monies remain unaccounted for. His eyelids and jaws dropped at the same time and for some seconds, his eyes could no longer meet mine since this encounter began. He seemed rather punched and throatishly replied rather tamely “you got me there”!! l decided to rub in my latest gain and pressed futher in a well rehearsed sacarsm. I teased him smiling, “Gentlemen like Andrew Young could be good teachers and Nigerian students, l believe do not have much choice than to understand and internalise what they have been taught. Then certainly tired of me, he turned quite friendlier than usual and flashed a grin at me and then muttered repeatedly ... “you got me there..... yes you really got me there..... you’ve got your point” and with that he patted my back, handed over my passport to me and wished me a good stay in the US. “See you soon if possible”, he encourtaged me. In the Lawrenceville County area of Atlanta later that night, l rued over my encounter with the American official and congratulated myself for the Airport “lecture.”

Encounters like the one recounted above is much more potent than what is being presently done. It is commonly said that a people must tell their story themselves, failing which others will tell and distort the facts. Speaking to rented crowds whether at home or abroad is the very wrong way of re-positioning or rebranding Nigeria. A big world audience such as the recently missed UN opportunity is good for our rebranding. The conference in Milwaukee also with large foreign audienece with a Nigerian context cannot but be another avenue to let off the Nigerian message. This is the point which the Nigerian established press and Nigerian policy makers in the ministries of foreign affairs and information including proffessional intellectuals, government free spenders pathetically missed. And this point is the core of the two part article l have started today.

*Dr Victor Ukaogo teaches History and International Relations at Redeemer’s University, Mowe, Ogun-State and lives in Lagos


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