Twice as a columnist, in 2011 and 2015, I endorsed the candidature of General Muhammadu Buhari for the presidency, strongly believing he offered us a chance to reinvent ourselves.
Following his victory, and still believing that Buhari was serious about leading Nigeria, when he was scheduled to visit the United States in early 2016, I requested a one-on-one interview. I hoped to help set the tone for robust public engagement.
My request was granted, but eventually the interview could not hold in the United States. Upon further arrangements, I arrived in Abuja on May 21.
To be fair to the presidency, they welcomed me warmly back home, and I was certain I would be able to have my interview.
There was only one problem: President Buhari was preparing to celebrate his first anniversary in office just days away. I was informed there would be not one interview, but two interviews for a total of 90 minutes.
And no, those interviews were not for me, but for six “media houses.” There would be joint interviews of three houses each for 45 minutes.
For the record, the presidency officials who interacted with me were very courteous and professional. But I had not travelled from New York to Abuja at tremendous personal expense to do a group interview, let alone for 45 minutes. As a result, I declined to participate in the exercise, and eventually withdrew my interview application altogether.
Of greater concern, I was devastated that Buhari was clearly treating the Nigerian mass media as an afterthought, choosing to hold batch interviews as a way of avoiding the responsibility altogether. The success of an interview depends on follow-up questions; how many can three journalists from three different organisations explore in 45 minutes?
Remember: that was in May 2016. Buhari has now had five Mays in office as Nigeria leader: five years in which he has demonstrated the same characteristic disrespect for the local media that was responsible for his Decree 4 as Head of State in 1983.
Coming into the 2015 election, Buhari had dressed himself in the robes of a “converted” or “born-again democrat,” just as he professed to be a corruption-general and a believer in the rights of all Nigerians. He asked Nigerians to vote him in so he could prove to them that they could be proud of Nigeria.
These were the thoughts that occupied my mind when it was announced that the Nigerian Press Organisation, which comprises the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigerian Guild of Editors and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) had decided, within four days of the death of Isa Funtua, to rename the Nigeria Institute of Journalism building in Lagos in his honour.
The NPO cited Funtua’s “untiring contributions to the development of journalism and freedom of press in Nigeria and around the world,” and named positions in the media in which he had served. Not only were most of them irrelevant, there was absolutely nothing outstanding in the claims. It ought to take something extraordinary to name an entire industry’s prime real estate after an individual within four days of his death.
That something extraordinary would be character, which relates to an aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of someone.
On the question of character, here is a story about Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, the continent’s premiere multilateral bank. I have never met him, but the records show a man of exemplary accomplishment and character. He joined the ADB in 2015 after serving as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture.
This month, Adesina faces re-election for a second five-year term. In January, anonymous whistleblowers delivered an explosive battery of allegations against him that would not only have torpedoed his chances but blown apart his excellent track record. His chances looked far worse after the United States, the bank’s largest shareholder after Nigeria, seemed to convict Dr. Adesina of the allegations even after ADB’s Ethics Committee reported it had found no evidence against him.
Early in June, the Bureau of the Board of Governors of the bank authorised an Independent Review of the Report of the Ethics Committee.
The Panel was led by Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland, Chair of The Elders and a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whom the Board called “a neutral, high-caliber individual with unquestionable experience, high international reputation and integrity.”
Others were Justice Hassan B Jallow, former Attorney-General of the Gambia and experienced Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals; and Leonard F. McCarthy, a former Director of Public Prosecutions in South Africa who later headed the Integrity Vice-Presidency at the World Bank. They were supported by the retired Irish Supreme Court Judge, Nial Fennelly.
The Panel reviewed all aspects of the work of the Ethics Committee, including its decisions on each of the 16 complaints, which included: unethical conduct, impediment to efficiency, political activity, private gain, impediment to efficiency, and preferential treatment adversely affecting confidence in the integrity of the bank.
It also reviewed Dr. Adesina’s response, which had included 250 pages of documents, including 18 annexes.
Reporting their findings last week, the panel vindicated the President, absolving him on every single one of the allegations. It agreed with the Ethics Committee in its findings and affirmed that it had properly considered and dismissed all the allegations.
And while the committee had not been required to consider Adesina’s responses, the panel, citing the interests of fairness and of due process, did so. On that point also, it found the President’s submissions to be consistent with his innocence.
By that report, Adesina brought great honour and pride to himself and his family. Because character is a treasure. The question is whether it means anything to Nigeria.
Because if you want to know why Nigeria does not work, consider the actions of those who chose to dishonour him by making him an impostor. Like a thief in the night, the NPO disingenuously took what did not belong to them, on behalf of people who did not know they were being violated and used it to crown a king.
Certainly, Funtua had a chance to enjoy such recognition. But he was not an advocate for Nigeria. Instead—in a faltering, government—he pronounced himself a member of a reviled power block.
The man credited with “untiring contributions to the development of journalism” could have advocated a robust press in the nation’s democratic process, but he was neither on record as objecting to a revised Decree 4 nor as advising Buhari that engaging journalists is a duty and not an option.
These are issues of character, not of politics, questions that the NPO, were it being honest or professional, ought to have asked before it ventured into the embarrassing renaming business.
Funtua may have wielded enormous influence in this government, but in a presidency defined by nepotism, how many Akinwumi Adesinas have been allowed to serve Nigeria in the last five years?
Character and contribution. These are the words you are looking for, NPO.
– Olumhense is a respected columnist and writes for The Punch