To Speak Or Not To Speak

NIGERIAN MAPI used to believe that Nigerians who reside abroad  especially those in North America, Europe and the UK  were, on the whole, more likely than their home-based fellows to act as catalysts for positive change and good governance in their trouble-prone natal country. There was, I admit, no solid logic behind my conjecture. I never imagined that foreign-based Nigerians were molded from some different clay. I guess it was, in the final analysis, all about hope. I hoped  I dare say that I felt entitled to hope  that those of us living and working outside of Nigeria were spared the real and perceived pressures that often push our compatriots back in Nigeria to sacrifice moral values at the altar of “survival.”

I had imagined that those Nigerians domiciled outside the country of their birth were uniquely positioned to see more clearly the impediments to their country’s realization of its potential. And that, having seen it, that they would be fervent advocates of transparency and accountability, and anxious to set high expectations for their country’s public officials.

In time, I became aware of the naivety of my supposition. I came to realize that, regardless of their location, many Nigerians are susceptible to the same “pressures,” and prone to infection by the same virulent contagion. The pressure is often a desperate desire to be counted among those who are “doing well,” or  as it’s expressed in Igbo  “ndi na eme ofuma.”

What exactly does it mean, in the Nigerian parlance to be “doing well”?

Last weekend, I was in Tampa, Florida, ready to explore that question. The Anambra State Association (ASA-USA) was holding its national convention in the city. Through a high school classmate of mine, the officials of the association had invited me to speak at the event. Since the carrier of the invitation has been a close friend from my teenage years, I did not, at first, insist on a formal, written invitation.

Yet, shortly after arriving in Tampa last Wednesday, I could sense that something was amiss. In so many words, two contacts told me that some officials of ASA-USA were worried about what I might say if given a platform at the convention. It was as if these officials had realized, too late, that I have a reputation for speaking my mind. If they had a choice, it occurred to me, they would rescind the invitation. I had the hunch that it would come to that. I was told that ASA-USA’s president, Allison Anadi, would not sign off on my speaking until he met with me. I could discern no purpose to the meeting beyond a curiosity about what I was going to say, and the tone of it.

I was not going to have any such meeting. I believe that, in any gathering of morally noble men and women, nobody would be anxious for a sliver of a moment over what I (or anybody else, for that matter) might say, or the tone of its delivery. If anybody in ASA-USA’s jamboree in Tampa was jittery about what I might say, it spoke volumes about them, not me. I have a rather public record of what I stand for, the values I champion and celebrate. Yes, I do speak my mind, and without apology. And no, I don’t permit anybody else to dictate or shape what I say. If that made any officials of ASA-USA uncomfortable, I could not help it.

At last, I told my friend that I would not venture anywhere close to the venue of the convention unless I received a written invitation stating that I was scheduled to speak  and detailing time and duration. Instead I received a dodgy email. ASA-USA let me know that they felt “privileged and honored to invite you to the 2013 National Convention of ASA-USA as our guest/active participant.” That was it. I was no longer a speaker; I was a “guest/active participant.” I would never have left my base and travel to Tampa on those terms. I communicated my unwillingness to be seen at the convention.

Again, through my friend, I received an assurance that Mr. Anadi was willing to give me a speaking slot  on condition that I first discussed with him. I was having none of that. I stayed away.

On one hand, I found it interesting that the idea of my speaking at a convention of ASA-USA left some people all twisted up. On the other, I found their disquiet altogether justified.

The association is mired in a lawsuit over issues of accountability. A splinter group has filed a lawsuit in California alleging that some officials took “donations” from some politicians, but failed to give proper account. Had I spoken, I would have touched on that issue. I am dismayed that too many Nigerian diasporic organizations, even those that seek to scrutinize politicians back home, neglect to live to impeccable standards.

Besides, the organization put on the agenda the presentation of “a special recognition and leadership award to His Excellency the Executive Governor of Anambra State Mr. Peter Obi for his exceptional support to ASA-USA, diaspora community and for exemplary good governance and leadership.” This is nothing personal against Mr. Obi, but I regard such awards as hollow. In fact, they are a tribute less to exceptional leadership than to a profound culture of low expectations. Anambra State has not had the fortune of “an exemplary” governor not Chukwuemeka Ezeife, not Chinwoke Mbadinuju, not Chris Ngige, and not Peter Obi.

It’s sad to see Mr. Obi’s handlers count among his achievements the donation of buses, computers, and desks to schools. Point to one serious location in the world where such approach to statecraft is held to be praise worthy. In handing out so-called leadership awards with abandon, organizations like ASA-USA help to fertilize the culture of low expectations. The givers of such awards leave the impression that, despite their exposure and education, they hardly grasp what it means for a leader to be declared outstanding.

Like the rest of Nigeria, Anambra State is a crisis zone. The climate of insecurity is often so dire that newly-weds have taken to celebrating their traditional wedding in far-flung cities like Lagos, Kaduna, and Abuja. Nobody has been able to answer how 19 or more corpses came to be floating down the Ezu River near Amansea. Few, if any, jobs are being created in the state. Throngs of jobless graduates drain out of the state, many ending up in miserable unemployment elsewhere in Nigeria. There’s no question that some of these hopeless graduates succumb to the lure of crime.

The state’s problems are complex, and are of a piece with the larger tragedy that is Nigeria. They are also the kind of problems that engage the vision, enterprise and resourcefulness of truly great leaders. When  if  such a leader arrives, he or she will invest time and energy in finding solutions for the scourge of pervasive insecurity, grinding poverty, infrastructural aridity, environmental degradation, and the absence of employment opportunities. Such a leader would hardly advertise the kilometers of roads s/he has built, or the number of computers, desks and buses donated to schools as achievement. Not in the 21st century!

I was going to touch on these questions as a way of addressing what I see as an increasingly misshapen idea of “ime ofuma,” what it means to be “doing well.” These days, the phrase “ime ofuma” (“doing well”) has become an Igbo/Nigerian shorthand for material accumulation. It doesn’t matter whether one has betrayed some sacred trust in the depraved quest for riches, some people still intone, in an accent of admiration, “So-so and so na eme ofuma/is doing well.” In the face of such feculent culture that holds up conspicuous acquisitiveness and mindless consumption as the exemplars of achievement, I was going to propose that service, disciplined adherence to ethical standards, and a commitment to leaving your space a tad better than you met it remain my unyielding standard for declaring somebody as “onye na eme ofuma”  one who is “doing well.”    

Okey Ndibe

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