"African leaders who run to Europe when they have piles or toothaches, send their children to school and buy mansions and expensive jewellery there, do not accept the political structures which make the affluence and stability of this continent possible..."
By Patrick Wilmot

About a year ago an item appeared in an obscure publication concerning the purchase of a presidential jet for Nigeria. This was not unusual, because whenever African countries purchase expensive planes or luxury cars it makes the news, while the deaths of millions from hunger and disease do not. Westerners believe that Africa is cursed, that death is part of living there, thus unworthy of news reports. They also believe that the continent survives only through charity from the West, so get peeved when they see African leaders in limousines more expensive than those of Blair, Prodi or Chirac.

There were references to possible inflation of the price for the particular jet but this made no impression on readers due to Nigeria’s reputation as one of the most corrupt countries on earth. I had completely forgotten about the incident until I read in a Jamaican paper that two Nigerian journalists had been arrested and charged with sedition for printing stories about the jet. I surf the net for news everyday and had not seen the original stories but when the journalists were arrested it was news all over the world.

Press associations started making representations and the news snowballed as people asked how ordinary journalists could conspire to overthrow a Nigerian government protected by hundreds of thousands of soldiers and policemen by printing a story about a plane. I understand that the plane was referred to as a tokunbo but cannot be sure since I could not find the story on line. If the implication was that a second hand jet should not have cost as much the answer should have been a detailed statement from the government’s press office on the purchase.

By coincidence the UK press was swamped for a day about Prime Minister Blair leasing two second hand, therefore tokunbo, jets for use by his government and the royal family. There were criticisms of the cost, of whether the government needed the jets, or whether they were getting value for money. The controversy lasted about a day because the government released information which satisfied the media that showed the jets were needed for the more efficient operation of government and state.

The UK is one of the richest countries on earth and the lease of two jets will add little to the national debt. If Nigeria, one of the poorest, thinks it can afford the purchase of a presidential jet it is the duty of the government to inform the Nigerian people. This is what government press and information offices are for – to educate the people, not to be praise singers for whoever is in office. They are paid from the public purse, not by the proprietor of Otta Farm, and their sole loyalty is to the Nigerian public. The issue of whether a country which cannot afford to fund hospitals, schools or other essential services, can find billions of Naira for Israeli arms or American jets, is one for legitimate discussion.

I know the deficiencies of the Nigerian press, and have been its victim on many occasions. I’ve been ‘quoted’ extensively by journalists I never heard of, and accused of working for the CIA, Israel and Apartheid by people in the pay of Nigerian equivalents of Idi Amin. But I’ve never sued or given these people a second look. Instead I’ve exposed their masters with facts and logic, about their corruption, incompetence and homicidal characters. I’ve never tried to do anything to inhibit the freedom of the press, even when this was abused, because a free press is essential to the welfare of the people and the operation of the government. And the African press is so fragile it needs every protection it can get.

Ironically for President Obasanjo, the press he is now prosecuting matured in opposing his quest for a third term. Despite the fact that many proprietors belonged to his discredited political class, and were vulnerable to pressures from his associates, journalists were unanimous in opposing this project which would have destroyed the future of the country. The President may not accept that the press did him a favour by saving him from disgrace or worse, that instead of seeking revenge he should thank them for ensuring he spends the rest of his life on his farm in relative peace.

His political egotism persuaded him that he was the only man capable of ruling Nigeria but the Westerners he worships saw his attempt as a threat to their economic interests. On my first return to Yale University after forty years of graduation I met many of the men who now rule the world. These people are not noise makers and do not want their names in the New York Times. Fund managers who control billions of dollars had halted investments in Nigeria, especially in the telecommunications sector, until the issue of the third term was sorted out. Politicians, industrialists and financiers wondered if the President had developed the Babangida/Abacha/Museveni sit-tight syndrome designed to destroy countries.

African leaders who run to Europe when they have piles or toothaches, send their children to school and buy mansions and expensive jewellery there, do not accept the political structures which make the affluence and stability of this continent possible. The absolute monarchs of the Middle Ages and dictatorships of modern times were like rabid dogs which were a threat to their owners as well as their people. Few men who exercised absolute, unaccountable power lived to tell the tale with reputations intact. Though he died in poverty Julius Nyerere will be honoured for a thousand years while his thieving contemporaries will be mentioned alongside Caligula and Mobutu in the annals of political criminality.

Friends of the president tell me he wanted to stay in office because he feared what would happen to him if he left. But the only protection for a leader is to make sure the government no longer has the power to punish him arbitrarily when he surrenders power. For Obasanjo this means guaranteeing freedom of the press, autonomy of the judiciary, anti-corruption police and security services, and the strengthening of civil society through the growth of NGOs. As things stand he should be making friends with the press, campuses and other ‘enemies’ less than a year before leaving office. Prosecuting journalists for sedition, using the SSS for harassing his opponents, and associating with the most hated people in Nigeria, is hardly a guarantee for peaceful sleep in his farmhouse at Otta.

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