With the exception of my birthday having been the previous day, Sunday, January 15th 2012 would have been like any other Sunday. I would have stayed dressed in my comfy clothes, talked on the phone, and maybe blogged a little bit. But at about 4 PM on this Sunday, I received notification via Facebook that Professor Viola Adaku Onwuliri, Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs was having a town hall kind of meeting with Nigerians in my area. The first instinct was to dismiss the message, but it was only two days earlier – Friday, January 13th 2012 – that I and other patriotic Nigerians braced the twenty degree temperature in Washington, D.C and protested in front of the IMF and World Bank buildings. So I thought, why not?
The meeting was set for 7:30 PM at Agama Kitchen Int’l Restaurant in Bladensburg and was organized by Carter Institute, LLC, a think-tank group in Washington, D.C. At 7:27 PM, I arrived at the location with Seun Akinsanya of The Seun Akinsanya Project. There were about six men, including Harrison Nwozo and the owner, Nnamdi Nwasinoke. Every now and then, more men trooped in until the place was practically filled up. Just when Seun and I were about to call it a day, it was announced that she had just pulled up. It was only 9:19 PM.
The moderator introduced himself and the event commenced. Greetings and pleasantries were exchanged; introductions were made. She came with Mr. Jerry Sonny Ugokwe, Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Austria and with Chinwe Mgbajiaka, her Special Advisor. She spoke a little bit about herself, talked a little bit about the situation in Nigeria, and then, it was time for questions and answers. With the exception of the Minister and her Special Advisor, I was the only other female in the room. By the end, however, there were two other females.
One by one, the men took turns in asking their questions, no one shy or afraid of letting their anger, frustration, and disappointment known in their words and tone. The questions ranged from Boko Haram to electricity to corruption, and of course, to the straw that broke the camel’s back: the removal of fuel subsidy. As people asked questions, she wrote them down. Finally, she gave a long speech that may or may not have answered people’s questions. My question was the shortest and the simplest: are you for or against the removal of fuel subsidy? My question was never answered directly.
On the issue of fuel subsidy, the Minister told us that the extra revenue was going to be used to take care of President Jonathan’s agenda, which includes excellence in education, drinking water, increased food production, and expansion of transportation services. On the issue of the fuel subsidy being removed without warning, she said it was not without warning because the removal had been publicly discussed for a while, because the President met with traditional rulers, religious rulers, and even students, and because each of these groups agreed to the removal, although they failed to touch bases with their followers. She also mentioned countries that have already removed their fuel subsidy, like Ghana, saying, “Fuel subsidy is not sustainable … Nigeria should not lag behind.”
On the issue of the protests, she said it was not half as bad as the media portrayed it, that the media only showed areas where there were protests, and that the media was biased. She justified it by saying, “We have one hundred and sixty million people. If two million are on the streets, then that means one hundred and fifty-eight million are in their homes.”
On the issue of poor security, she said the government was steadily working on it, and that just because the government was currently heavily involved in the fuel subsidy removal does not mean the government is not still working on security. She followed it by reminding us of the 2008 presidential election in America when Wall Street came crashing down and McCain had suggested that they postpone the debate while Obama insisted that they go on because a President should be able to attend to more than one issue at a time. President Jonathan is allegedly still working on security. When asked about the actual cost of producing oil, the Minister read the digits off the many sheets of papers she came with.
When asked why Nigeria – unlike America and even Ghana – cannot provide basic amenities for its citizens, she said, “Let’s not judge someone who is in nursery school with someone who is an undergraduate.” She quickly reminded us that America is over two hundred years old, while Nigeria is only fifty-one. Problem is, not one of us who is living today will live to see Nigeria turn 235. Where does the hope lie for us then?
At some point in the course of this meeting, beers (Guinness and Heineken) and goat meat were served. Anyone that wanted one could have one – or two – for free. Men stretched their hands and necks to partake in the feast. Some even whistled at the waiter to get his attention. They did not want to be left out of the feast. I do not know who paid for the drinks and meat; you may decide that for yourself. But as men ate, drank, and made merry, I could not help but wonder if, like Esau, we were trading our rights and future for a bottle of beer and goat meat. Were we dinning with our oppressors?
Nigeria’s former Ambassador, Jerry Sonny Ugokwe spoke up every now and then. He told us of how he left America and relocated to Nigeria with only $600, how he ran for office two weeks before the election, and how he was shot at after being declared the winner. At times during the meeting, he seemed restless, disturbed. And when speaking on corruption and positive change in Nigeria, he asked the question, what do you do when you are the only one screaming for change and everyone else is just looking at you?
One passionate attendee stated that there are only two gainful career paths in Nigeria: the pastoral path and the political path. And they are both dirty. Another attendee stated that government cannot and should not be stagnant, and that the Nigerian government is currently like a beautiful car, equipped with good music, an air conditioner, and even passengers, ready to move, but with no driver.
When we finally rounded up sometime after 1 AM, some of the people who only a few minutes ago condemned the Nigerian government now walked up to the Minister, shook her hand and the former Ambassador’s hand and told them what a good job they were doing for Nigeria and how they should keep up the good work. One man even prayed for Nigeria and prayed for the leaders because as we know, God has not heard Nigeria’s name in a long time. If only He would give us a little more grace because the one He has given us so far is not sufficient for us.
At the end of the day, the Minister’s stand was well known: she was [is] on the side of her wonderful President. More times than I can count now, she told us about how good a man he is, how intelligent and educated a President he is, and how well-meaning his intentions are. But we know that the road to hell is often paved by good intentions. It is a question of how we will get there, the casualties and collateral damage it will cost us, and the temperature of this hell we are headed to.
So, which way, Nigeria?
Copyright © Vera Ezimora 2012
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