Posted Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Houston, TX, USA


"It's no longer Business as usual" ...Obasanjo tells Nigerians in Houston

President Olusegun Obasanjo
yril Abani, a Dallas-based Nigerian-American businessman, had never heard Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo speak until Tuesday Nov. 11 in Houston. By the end of the 2-hour townhall meeting Abani was one of the admirers of the General-turned-politician who began his second, and final, term in elective office May 29. Abani, who was in Houston on business when he heard of the meet, said;

"The guy sounded genuine and credible. I'd like to give him a chance."

The townhall meeting, organized by the Nigerian foundation, Inc. held in the posh interiors of the Four Seasons Hotel, Downtown. It drew a diverse crowd of Nigerian professionals, students and children as well as protesters who picketed the hotel. A few American officials, including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, showed up at the meeting where Obasanjo informed Nigerians in Houston of his reform agenda.

"It's no longer business as usual in Nigeria," said the retired General who was first elected president in 1999 after fifteen years of continuous military dictatorships in the world's most populous black nation. Obasanjo, also a former military head-of-state who retired in 1979, was very eloquent, humorous and persuasive. He enumerated the reforms he is instituting as economic, political and social. He cited corruption as the single most pervasive vice in the Nigerian public polity.

"What we found in 1999 was worse than we thought before taking office. Corruption had eaten so deep that it pervaded every government agency."

As an example of the deep mire the country sank into, he cited several cases such as the national shipping line which had 19 ships in 1979 but had only one remaining ship in 1999; the government-owned Nigerian Airways which had 32 full-bodied commercial aircrafts in 1979 but only one in 1999; and, the Nigerian Railway Corporation which is currently unable to fund its payroll.

His first term, therefore, was a period of assessment, improving the country's image, and bringing about inclusion of all parties in his government. He cited success in stabilizing the country, which he said, was on the verge of a breakup when he took office in 1999. Having fully assessed the situation, the next four years, he said, will be marked by wide-ranging reforms. Such reforms, he said, include stepping up his anti-corruption drive; deregulating the energy sector; opening up the budgetary process; and, improving on security.

"These reforms will be painful. But, the results will be a peaceful, stable and prosperous Nigeria. A prosperous Nigeria will generate jobs," he said.

As part of the reforms, the president announced the creation of a road maintenance agency, the rehabilitation of Ajaokuta steel complex and free universal basic education.

A sore point with many of the attendees was the president's inability to take more than four questions. The organizers cited time constraints but this was unacceptable to many Nigerians who had gathered as early as 6 p.m. for the event, which did not begin until eight.

Sir Festus Okere, a Houston-based health administrator, was among the committee selected to screen the written questions. He informed African News Digest that there were more than 60 questions and they were made to screen the questions based on certain criteria such as, no ethnic/sectional questions and no questions about roads.

However, the four questions - mainly on security, job creation, consulate, and international airport for the Southeast zone - reflected the major concerns of the audience. The president abandoned his calm demeanor when he was challenged, from the audience, about the southeast not having an international airport. He had earlier explained that he would give international status to any airport where at least one daily international flight is guaranteed. This status, he said will be conferred by drafting immigration and customs officials to the airport. However, this was not satisfactory to some people in the audience who remarked that merely drafting immigration and customs officials to an airport, without upgrading its facilities, is inadequate. A heated exchange ensued with the president loosing his cool and maintaining that he would not grant such request solely based on demands by a zone.

Without the opportunity to question the president Nigerians were left with varied reactions after his departure. Energy businessman and former official of the Nigerian Foundation, Kenneth Yellowe praised the organizers of the event and noted that it was one of the most peaceful of Nigeria's townhall meetings. Some others dismissed many of the president's claims noting that life for the ordinary Nigerian is still brutish and short, and wondering aloud how long it'll take for Nigerians to get real dividends of democracy.

Two groups of protesters picketed the hotel, one led by NADA LIVE cable show host E.J and the other by another Nigerian who would not give his name to the African News Digest. The first group had several Mexicans among them while the other group was all blacks. They all carried placards denouncing the president and his government. Asked why they were protesting, a Nigerian in the second group, who gave his name as Benson, said they were protesting "the corrupt leadership headed by Obasanjo."

Obasanjo at Baker Institute

President Obasanjo was at the Rice University Baker Institute for Public Policy the next day, Nov. 5, where he gave a speech reiterating his reform agenda and a pan-African vision. He informed the mainly oil-industry executives present that there is now a paradigm shift in African leadership with the institution of NEPAD - the new partnership for Africa - and APRM, African peer review mechanism. The APRM, he said, is a voluntary scheme that will set standards for governmental performance in Africa. Already 16 governments have signed up for periodic voluntary review by their peers, he said. The core challenge for Africans, he said, is the need for positive thinking. No African country, he noted, is beyond redemption.

"Africans can do it, and must do it, as a matter of urgency, as a matter of life and death." 2003