Chibok Girls, A Foreign Policy Failure –Adagbo Onoja Interview
Mr Adagbo Onoja is a journalist and an intellectual of note.He has just written a new book:The Media Imagination in Nigerian Foreign Policy.It draws a lot of insight from his close encounters while serving as media aide to Nigeria’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs,Alhaji Sule Lamido who is also an ex governor of Jigawa State.In this interview with Newsdiaryonline the author shares some key lessons in foreign policy.Excerpts
Q: You have just authored this book, (The Media Imagination in Nigerian Foreign Policy). As a member of this family by association, Newsdiaryonline congratulates you. My first question is, from the author’s point of view, what can we take this book to be about?
A:Now, how do I answer you? I am one of those mindful of the strong claim about the death of the author. By that, some people are saying seriously that books write the author, not the other way round. So, if you are mindful of that kind of argument, then an author should not get into the habit of saying this is what the book is all about. That should not come from the head of the person you call the author. It should come from the reader.
Q: And if a reader says this book is nonsensical, what happens?
A:That should make my day. That should not please or displease me although it doesn’t mean that I would ignore such a position. I will still look at the argument and see what it adds or subtract from the main argument of the book. That is how we enrich knowledge.
Q: But you wrote the book, right!
A:Yea but I did so standing on other books, other arguments, completely dependent on language. As they say, it is language that uses you rather than what you think because at any single time or place, there are certain expressions or words that are permissible. If you use certain language at a certain place or time, they will simply look at you as a mad man and God helps you with the outcome. So, was I writing the book or was the book writing me?
A: Is this book then without an author?
Well, it is not without an author but am just drawing your attention to it that there is an argument against the author, you know this idea of the author as the hero who started and ended the book and is the sole repository of what the book is all about. That is an old idea because a book is a social process and the author is just a tiny dot in that process. If that is true then the author’s point of view could amount to an imposition.
Q: Let us call it your insider’s view of the book,would that do?
A: I know a journalist when I see one. Let me just say that what the book tried to do is to propose the media as a strategy of social transformation for Nigeria because the media, especially in its current enhanced status after the information technology revolution, is now the most dominant domain for images, representations and discourses. As these are what translate into power, it means the media can be a power resource in Nigeria’s self-projection or foreign policy. So, the question is how has Nigeria engaged this facility since the post Cold War? What I tried to do is to use the Ministry of Foreign Affairs whose own media dynamics I have been fairly familiar at some point to argue that Nigeria’s engagement with the media is still elementary when you consider what the media is being used for or has been used for by many of the countries that are the key global players today, including the media as a weapon of war fighting. I specifically used the UK, the US and China.
Q: I understand but has Nigeria got the ability to play the media politics of the countries you are mentioning?
A: Nigeria does not have to have any special abilities to mobilise the media instrument. Even this your online portal alone can do wonderful things. The challenge is for all of us to keep reinforcing the idea of the media as a power resource and to move Nigeria to appreciate it properly. I used the UK, US and China not as models of use of media power but as examples of how central the media or discourse was to the process of their rise to great power status or the sustenance of their global primacy. So, there is no contradiction. Nigeria can.
Q: How do you rate Nigeria on that at this moment that we are talking?
A: Well, in terms of what is on the ground, Nigeria’s media infrastructure is vast. Whether they are competitive is a different question. But even on competitiveness, just check the websites, it was almost shocking to me that even the BBC has very high rating of the FRCN, NTA. This is not to talk of NAN which is about the only truly global media from Nigeria in the modern sense. So, the outlay is vast when you add to this the daily newspapers, weeklies and the magazines. The problem is the foreign policy paradigm or the self-representation. You can also call it the geopolitical consciousness question in Nigerian foreign policy. In the book, I called it the self-imagination. If you haven’t settled the self-imagination, you can have twenty CNN stations and it won’t help you. Right now, I would say the self-imagination is generally weak across the media, partly it is problematic. We talk about Africa as centre of our foreign piece but what sort of Africa?
Q: How do we get it right?
A: That is a question for the Nigerian State. The state is the leading force anywhere in the world. It is an evil but the most necessary evil in human history. People talk about the private sector but who will mobilise the private sector and give them coherence and focus if not the state? There is no private sector anywhere in the world that has even half of the creativity of the state. Look at the complex web called diplomacy and how powerful an instrument it is in managing international relations when it is allowed to work. It has to be the Nigerian State to the extent that it is Nigerian. That is where the problem is. After all, which of the media organisations dominating the global media space is not state owned or a tight beneficiary of state power?
Q: There are a number of them like CNN and others?
A: Even CNN. Where did the satellite facility that gave it globality come from? Was it not research in the US military and the military is a state institution. Aljazeera, BBC, France 24, CCTV, RT and a host of them are run by the owner states. BBC is a bit complex but, ultimately, it is a state institution.
Q: What do you want to see Nigeria doing then?
A: In the Nigerian case, three things are needed. One is to make existing ones like FRCN, NTA, VON and NAN competitive through geopolitical re-orientation of the journalists, take a look at their technological infrastructure and give them editorial autonomy. Free them from this idea that the first item of the news must be about the villa even when nothing happened there worthy of such news treatment. Haba! Second is to invest more if necessary and then coordinate other actors with interest in media investment. If the state finds that AIT or Channels needs state power to expand or penetrate the world, find a way of identifying and extending such assistance. It is about the Nigerian State, not about little, little quarrels in Nigerian politics. After all, if you look at the BBC’s series of assessments, Ray Power is so highly rated. There are a number of these suggestions in the last chapter of the book we are discussing.
Q: Have you pushed the suggestions to the government?
A: The government is not ignorant of these things. It is just that Nigerian governments behave typically. And then since IBB’s time when they started this jaga-jaga privatisation, they said oh no, government has no business in business, bla, bla, bla. It takes us back to this threat of universal meaning that we talked about earlier. When you have a word like privatisation, you have to put it in context. I am sure they were embarrassed when Obama doled out trillions of dollars as bailouts. Yet, the US is the hub of this so called dichotomy between the state and the private sector. As no government since IBB has discarded the SAP regime and its components like wholesale privatisation, it stands to reason that there is no point stressing oneself. It remains unclear under Buhari because he is the one we thought would formally abrogate that direction. Although he said recently that there is nothing wrong for Nigeria to go against the IMF, but he is implementing huge dose of IMF inspired reforms. I don’t understand why he doesn’t appear to see the huge contradiction there.
A: You appear to like Buhari regime
A: Politically, I do not like anyone all by himself. I take people on the basis of what drives them. As long as Buhari appears to subscribe to statism, I am inclined to treat him with kid gloves. Outside that, I have been quite critical of him in the past, especially when he turned down mediation in Boko Haram. Well, he has come round to having to confront Boko Haram at last.
Q: Now, mentioning Boko Haram, what did you come away with watching the CNN video of the Chibok girls yesterday?
Q: How nothing?
A: You tell me what you went away with. If you want to be honest, you went away with nothing more than emotions and horror. That is the normal human feeling at that kind of sight. But there are other questions that I think the whole Chibok drama has raised. One is that we have been able to absorb it in this country. That’s terrible. It shouldn’t have been possible. But it is true. Apart from the bring back our girls campaigners, what other voices are out there insisting on getting the girls back? Out of the whole Nigeria, they are the only people. Doesn’t that indict all the rest of us? Now, if you go further, you are talking of the abduction of over 200 girls from a school. A school is a special place. Something like that should not have lasted more than a month. Now, it has lasted two years. Honestly, the number of persons, their age and the gender involved is such that it ought not to have lasted beyond one month, at the worst. What are we talking about? When does a nation state mobilise to take an emergency head on? What bigger question mark on the idea of the modern state in Nigeria can you get? And when you still take it further down, it can only be a global scandal because you ask yourself, where is the humanitarian intervention or we have been chattering about? Chibok girls is not strictly about Nigeria. It is also about human beings. It is about humanity. So, why are those with the capacity to make the difference able to sleep well, across the world? We know that if some people agree today, the Chibok girls story would be a different story tomorrow. If after the Chibok girls Nigeria does not sit down to rethink itself beyond the little quarrels of this our over pampered elite, then that is where the real trouble might be. It should be clear that if we allow any misguided power seekers to let us into trouble, we would stew in our own juice. The world would just go on. Look at the scars that two insurgencies have imposed on Nigeria in the past decade.
Q: So, what do you think should be done now?
A:What should be done now or what should have been done two years ago?
Q: Better late than never
A:I see! Then perhaps I want to hear that the US, China, the EU and the BRICS are holding a special session tomorrow at the UN to declare that the continued hostage of the Chibok is a threat to international security and then move to do what is done to such a threat by assisting the Nigerian state to either negotiate or do whatever should be done.
Q: Are you blaming the government indirectly?
A: I am not blaming anybody. I am blaming everybody although when Buhari was going the meeting of the G-7 last year, I thought that was a key reason for that. I thought Nigeria was going to put it as a special challenge that could do with an international coalition of the willing. I thought certain clear actions would follow such a meeting. Now, it is CNN video that might be forcing action on Nigeria. It’s a permanent puzzle for me anyway and I don’t even want to think about it.
Q: What’s your assessment of the government now generally?
A:The ebb and flow of Buhari this time is still very confusing. At one point, he makes an enigmatic statement like the one on IMF when Aljazeera interviewed him recently. Then you see different indicators on the ground that do not connect. I keep turning this in my mind. It started with this frightening silence that followed his victory. It was so alarming because that was the period many critical pronouncements ought to have been made from already existing strategy documents. That silence sent the wrong signal and some of us began to give up. Then I began to see signs that look like this man has come to discipline capitalism by asserting sanity over speculation. I could see attempts to recreate the bureaucracy in the image of the civil servants who drafted the 2nd national development plan and so on. Some of us were prepared to brush aside criticism of his initial appointments on the basis of such expectations. Then the groaning in the country became so loud that you pinch yourself secretly. What could be happening? Then the budget scandal followed. But before you could say leadership disaster, he gave Aljazeera an interview and made what I consider a great statement. So, one great statement here, many disturbing trends there. Like this, like that.
Q: You broke with your former boss, Sule Lamido. In this book, no one gets any gist of what happened. When will that story be told?
A:I think there is a problem with that question. When I left Jigawa, I wrote a farewell piece and I said it was time to leave because I could not imagine Lamido and I disagreeing. So, we didn’t break. And if we didn’t break, then where is the story to be told?
Q: But you were going to disagree. You cannot disagree over nothing.
A:I like that because many people who claim to know what the problem was or is have been going about saying their own things. My friend in Kano even told me he heard on radio station that I left because I wasn’t making money. I like that because it means everyone is guessing.
Q: My question is you cannot disagree over nothing. What was that about?
A: If you take it like that, you are still missing it. The disagreement can be an institutional, it can be about the job or cultural. There are many things it could be about. It can even be about ego. My friend went to the Government House and he was asking someone why Onoja left. And the guy he asked said it was a clash of ego and Onoja left because the governor cannot be the one to leave. Ordinarily, I would have called the guy and abuse the hell out of him because he doesn’t even seem to know what that ego means. How can there be a clash of ego between a governor and someone he appointed?
Q: Was it over Buhari?
A: Buhari? How could Buhari be an issue of disagreement between Lamido and 1? I was working in his government and another person will become an issue in the relationship? I don’t think that would make sense.
Q: I asked because it was over Buhari you wrote an open letter to him last year
A: I did not write the open letter because of Buhari as a person. I wrote it to cure this notion of the average PRP person that Buhari came to power in 1983 partly to stop the PRP and change dole. You know the change slogan is originally PRP’s own slogan. So, I said it is great that Lamido was not gravitating to Buhari just because everyone was gravitating there. That’s great but 2015 was a different moment and I didn’t think it should be Lamido who should be crusading for Jonathan in 2015. So this letter was not for Buhari but to warn against possible misreading of history.
Q: Did he reply you?
A:He didn’t need to reply me. It was to get him away from that man called Jonathan. I understand Jonathan as a person is a nice guy but he wasn’t going to be a good president.
Q: Since he didn’t reply you, you wouldn’t know what he thinks of you now
A: Is it now I would know what he thinks of me?
Q: Supposing he changed his mind after the letter?
A: Because I wrote an open letter, then he would change his mind?
Q: Because of any other things
A: No. I think you are overweighing the letter. He will not change his mind because I wrote an open letter. We did not relate like that. The first newspaper article I wrote in Government House, Dutse was titled the trouble with Sule Lamido. Emmanuel Bello was the editor of Leadership on Sunday at the time and he elevated the article to a back page material and people were calling me, are you still the media adviser? They thought he would sack me over that. So, we didn’t relate like that. In any case, who will write the letter if I didn’t write? I was not there anymore but I have had the longest relationship with him and everybody knew me to him and he was moving wrongly. I am the only one who can write that sort of letter to him. Mine will click because he knows me very well. If you write an open letter to him, it will not click because, as a publisher, you are a businessman and as a businessman, you are closer to NPN than PRP (General laughter)
Q: There was no PRP by then, it was PDP versus APC.
A: You are right and wrong at the same time. As a practical entity, you are right that there was no PRP in that contest. But as an idea, PRP is very much alive. It is the broad leftist consciousness that is PRP. Of course, the memory of it that people have is the politics of its symbols in the 2nd Republic, you know, people like Rimi, Balarabe Musa and when they joined their colleagues in NPP and UPN and GNPP and the pool widened to the Solomon Lar, Jim Nwobodos, Bola Iges, Ambrose Alli, Soyinka, Achebe, Jerry Ganas, Chukwumerije and so on. They gave politics a powerful symbolic import. Rimi went to Obafemi Awolowo University to deliver a lecture on the death of north-south dichotomy or something like that. Back in Kano, he ran a government with commissioners from Cross Rivers, Bauchi, Sokoto Plateau, Akwa Ibom and all sorts of place. It was a wonderful thing. We were in secondary school then and it was from far away in Benue I caught the PRP bug.
Q: What do you think might be going on in his mind now?
A: About me?
A: I wouldn’t know. Probably doing what we all do by going over the past and reworking the future.
Q: With all the problems, personal, political, national?
A: Most times, it is not the problems themselves but what we think of the problems that is the bigger problem.
Q: Our readers want to know you, the real you
A:Why? I am not a public officer.
Q : But you have written a book which we are reading.
A: Yea but I don’t know myself and nobody does anyway. We all go about posing our Hausaness, our Yorubaness, our Nupeness, our Idomaness not because it is natural but because the human being carries a baggage. Human beings have this big self-doubt. The academic grammar for it is what they call ontological insecurity. To resolve that doubt, we have to stick to the identity pole. That is what you see in all these assertions of Idomaness, Nupeness, Igboness, Americaness and so on. That is why Professor Edward Said, the late US based Palestinian scholar was so angry when Samuel Huntington came up with his book which he titled The Clash of Civilisation. Said wrote an angry rejoinder which he called The Clash of Ignorance. Am not sure but I think that’s the title. Because Huntington was trying to say that culture or identity is fixed or it is our nature. If identity is not fixed, then you cannot say this is me, the great Tivman, the Hausa warrior, the Yoruba race and all these things we bandy about because they are politically convenient.
Q: Should we dismiss identity or can we dismiss it?
A: No, no! That’s not what I’m saying. I mean if you want anything political tomorrow and you start by saying, hey, it is the turn of my people, everyone would stop and listen. Compare that to if you say I want so, so position to industrialise the state or country, nobody will listen. So, identity is powerful. It works but it has its own problems. Yes, I am Idoma and proud of that but I mean I have just published this book. It was made possible by somebody who does not know anywhere in Idoma land. He is not a Christian and he is not a journalist but a businessman. Or I have just stayed in the UK for two full years. The guy who contributed the most has no idea of Idomaland, is not a Christian and doesn’t belong to Journalism. So, it is not that Idoma people would not help me. It is that the world is so fluid that some of the greatest events in your life may not come from your identity. So, preserve your identity quite alright because it gives you what we talked about before, the ontological security to cope with the world but don’t go and ask people to kill other people because you are fighting for identity. Be a peace maker.
That is what am drawing attention to. One, that identity is not fixed. And we need to be careful in asking questions like who are you and things like that because people tend to answer it by saying, oh, I am from this or that great ethnic group and all of that. And that is where problem comes from. We cannot dismiss it. Without identity, we cannot find our way but we need to be careful about it.
Q: How do we do that?
A: Well, that is an old question. Marx tried to solve it by saying let us know people by the kind of work or class they belong. The bourgeoisie, the working class, the lumpens and all that. But even Marx didn’t anticipate the complexity that global capitalism has brought about now. So, the new argument is let us not say there is one fixed identity. Identity changes depending on situations. Look at this example. What is the identity of the children of a marriage in which the husband is a Nigerian, the wife is both from the Middle East and Europe but she is also an American citizen and the children are growing up in the US? You would say they belong to the father, yes but in orientation, what do you think will be the identity, the soul of their personality? So, these are very complex things. How careful can we be? That is for politicians to note that yes, there is something called identity, it is very important but it is not such a great reason for people to kill each other.
Q: I know you don’t like that but if we must read this book, then we must know the author.
A: I mean the author is not hidden. Look, I have worked closely with two governors. One says oh, you are not a bad man but you lack protocol. By that, he meant that I can be persistent. The other one says I have never met you before but from your writing, you don’t seem to be someone who can be influenced with money. So, I said Your Excellency, now I am going to be influenced even by money. I said you are going to find me the opposite of what you interpreted from my writing. And we laughed. But I suspect they are all right because Simon Melabu, my editor in Concord, he is late now. He wrote what was supposed to be the supervisor’s report on me which I had to see because the Concord system required that the officer being reported upon must see the report. And it was along the same line as what the two governors said. There are people who gave me my first employment, some of them are still alive and they tell me what they think of me. And I value their own more than what anybody might say now because they knew me much earlier and they have no reasons to praise me if I did not deserve it. So, the author is well known where it matters.
Q: Do you have where it doesn’t matter?
A: (General laughter) Everybody matters but I cannot have the same image everywhere. It will be frightening if that happens. But these quarters I mentioned have a better, original idea of me at a very crucial part of my becoming. So, I only have to worry if they call me today and say, what is wrong with you, this thing you did is horrible, bla, bla, bla. Then it is time for me to be worried.
Q: Are these ideas the outcome of your UK sojourn?
A: No, it has nothing to do with UK. It is ok if you say the intellectual engagements in the UK enhanced the grip but I didn’t go to the UK blank.
Q: In all likelihood, this book benefitted from that experience.
That’s true and untrue. The outline of the book already existed before I went to the UK. I had also commenced an Mphil/PhD at the University of Ibadan before I travelled. So, it won’t be right to say it is a dumbing down of any particular university. What the British universities might have done is the exposure to the literature. There is no doubt about that.
Q: What’s the next stage for you? Academics, politics, journalism?
A: None of the above in the conventional sense of any of them. Academics, yes but not in that conventional sense. I am already involved. Research is a very intriguing but fascinating world. Politics, no. It is doubtful if the current generation can recreate anything in politics to make politics that interesting. I may be wrong but I think there is so much evil in the society today that lofty things like the PRP can be recreated. In those days, even the NPN had something good for the people. We used to abuse Aper Aku a lot when we were in school but the man established 14 industries within the one term he spent as governor before the 1983 coup. Go to Benue now, none of those industries are functioning. You ask yourself, how can a soya factory be allowed to die in a place like Benue?
Q: When is this book to be launched?
A: I am not sure we are launching it. But I think there would be a public presentation. Some people have the details more than me at the moment.