Reuben Abati: The Chatham House Effect 

Reuben Abati: The Chatham House Effect [MUST READ]

By Reuben Abati | Op-Ed Contributor on January 18, 2023
Chatham House

There seems to be a scramble, a rush, by Nigerian politicians, and political candidates for appearance at or association with Chatham House in London, the policy think tank established by the British Institute of International Affairs, which for more than a century has served as a forum for the exchange of ideas and open expression, research and knowledge. Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute for International Affairs has hosted a broad spectrum of speakers and world leaders, from different continents of the world. As far back as April 1931, Mahatma Ghandi, the Indian nationalist was at Chatham House, which by the way is also famous for the Chatham House Rule, established in the English vocabulary as a principle of non-attribution in reporting a particular proceeding or engagement. Many Nigerians have of course appeared at Chatham House, but it is noteworthy that when Nigerian politicians do so, there is forever a tinge of self-advertisement and narcissism in their presentations, and this being the case, their opponents are quick to turn such forum into an occasion for combat and pugilism.

We have seen this at play over the years but what is shocking now is how our politicians have turned an opportunity to speak at Chatham House into a badge of honour. One state Governor had to make so much noise about making a speech at Chatham House, you would think he had been knighted at the time by the Queen! When a sitting Government gets wind of information that an opposition member was about to speak at Chatham, it is standard practice to send “our own people there” to “state our own side of the story” This time around, as Nigeria begins the countdown to the 2023 elections, Chatham House is part of the general conversation. On December 5, 2022, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the Presidential Candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), was at Chatham House, an outing that was attended by rather exciting drama as a result of his resort to what he called “team-ship” in responding to questions and comments raised by his audience. The drama overshadowed the subject of his presentation: “Nigeria’s 2023 Elections: Security, Economic and Foreign Policy Imperatives”. He was heavily criticized by commentators at home and abroad. Yesterday, it was the turn of Mr. Peter Obi, the Presidential candidate of the Labour Party addressing the subject: “Nigeria’s 2023 Election: A Vision for Policy Change and Institutional Reforms.”

Today, January 17, Chatham House will host the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmood Yakubu focusing on “Preparations, Challenges, and Priorities for Ensuring Electoral Integrity and Inclusivity.” Tomorrow, January 18 it would be the turn of Dr Rabiu Kwankwaso, Presidential candidate of the New Nigeria People’s Party with particular focus on his policy ideas for Nigeria.  The candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar has not yet shown up at Chatham House this time, although he had been there before on two different occasions – 2007 and 2018. Alex Vines, Director of the Africa Programme at the Institute has however confirmed that Atiku has been invited but he is yet to respond to the invitation.  He probably would do so before the elections too, so he and his aides are not left out of the Chatham House jamboree. When Waziri Atiku Abubakar went to the UK recently, however, it was gleefully reported that he met with some UK officials. No one should be surprised if some other key players in the 2023 electoral process also find their ways to Chatham House, or ask to be invited if only to fulfil the ritual of shaking the hands of one English member of Parliament and parade same as an achievement!   Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised one of these days, with the way things are going, if a Nigerian politician shows up at Chatham House with his entourage all garbed up in the kind of party attire that Nigerians call “aso ebi!”

As an Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House can easily justify its current focus on political developments in Nigeria: Africa’s most populous country, going through another election season that would involve a transition from one administration to the other, with implications for peace, stability and economic growth. As the Institute puts it: “Nigeria stands at a critical juncture, having suffered from two recessions in the past six years, unprecedented levels of physical and food insecurity, persistent fuel scarcity, and high levels of crude oil theft. Civic fatigue also remains an important challenge and Buhari’s three main policy pillars of security, economy and corruption continue to be defining issues for citizens.” But Chatham House’s interest in our affairs is not entirely altruistic; it is a listening post for the British establishment, and as a body that depends on donations as a major source of funding, its managers are fully aware of how vain and generous Nigerian politicians could possibly be at a time like this. This is one area in which the Chatham House Rule would definitely apply in the circumstance, so there may be no point inquiring into how much Nigerian politicians pay when they are granted the podium at 10 James’s Square. Perhaps “pay” is not the right word, so please scratch that, and substitute “donate”.

Chatham House. Chatham House. And so what? We have a similar body here in Nigeria; the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), which is Nigeria’s top think tank on public affairs, established in 1961, and since then has proven to be a major centre for research and analysis. Were the NIIA to invite Nigerian politicians to come and speak at the platform, they are not likely to show up. They would give excuses. And that is why no major politician has gone there to engage the Nigerian intelligentsia. They would rather go to London. This says something about our relationship with the West. The average Nigerian suffers from a terrible colonial mentality. Even for elections that will be decided by the Nigerian electorate, there is so much concentration on London. Our leaders go to London for medical treatment. They go to Dubai for tourism. And they don’t go alone. Every trip is an opportunity for over-excited aides to pose for photographs, sometimes with wives and girlfriends and their children. Nigerian leaders have a strong appetite for everything foreign. That is how they killed Nigeria’s education sector. That is how they killed the health sector. Now, they want to kill our politics! In the absence of diaspora voting all the showmanship by Nigerians at Chatham House amounts to nothing.  The delivery of 1, 000 speeches at Chatham House cannot influence the Nigerian electorate in any way. Has anyone paused to ask why British politicians do not come to Nigeria to sell their campaign plans? And why other politicians around the world do not turn London into a major campaign centre?

It is possible to argue that many Nigerians live in the UK, and they could influence their kith and kin back home even if they themselves may not have a PVC. But such Nigerians are not likely to be found at Chatham House. Any Nigerian politician seeking the people’s votes through such strategy is better off holding Town Hall meetings in parts of the UK and Ireland where there is a large concentration of Nigerians, especially those neighbourhoods where if you stay by the window and you shout “Good Morning” in Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, you are likely to hear many voices greeting you back loud and clear in the same language especially in South London:  Elephant and Castle, Camberwell, Peckham, Croydon, Lewisham… There are also many Nigerians in Dublin. Since diaspora remittances mean a lot to Nigerians back home, it may be good sense to carry Nigerians in diaspora along, but certainly not inside Chatham House. But we may ask by way of further interrogation: does a speech at Chatham House give a Nigerian politician global recognition and acceptability? Or is it meant to show that the particular candidate has a programme that the international community can buy into? Does the platform confer legitimacy of any sort? It beggars the question whether that is what the Nigerian electorate needs.

There is one more point: the idea of Chatham House as a tourist centre by our political leaders and their aides is most unfortunate. For more than 100 years, it has been seen as a centre for rigorous thinking, and yet Nigerian leaders go there to say mundane things and their aides make a song and dance out of that. Let us stop disgracing ourselves and keep our mundane chatter among ourselves. Nobody gets a certificate or extra votes for going to Chatham House.  It is ironic that the same politicians that do not want to attend debates at home are ever ready to be seen in foreign capitals. They can only have that global recognition that they seek when after winning the election, they then put up such performance that would recommend them for global acclaim.

In the weeks leading to the 2023 Nigerian elections, Nigerians deserve to see their Presidential candidates engage each other in debates. Some of the candidates have opted for stage-managed town hall meetings of their own where they and their aides set all the questions and provide the answers that they consider most convenient. It is true that presidential debates are not a Constitutional requirement but they have evolved over time as a means of assessing the candidate’s level of preparedness, capacity in comparison with other candidates, and the creation of a level playing field for the electorate to make an informed choice. The kind of charade that is going on in the name of rallies and self-promoting town hall meetings is akin to a situation where a job seeker insists on setting the criteria by himself, for himself and on his own terms. In a country of over 200 million people, this amounts to an act of contempt and disrespect. We must begin to modify the campaign system. Rallies are at best carnivals, the risks involved are too high. Years back, a wise politician told me that based on his experience, he had deduced that six months to a Presidential election in Nigeria, it was always possible to predict the outcome. This time around, all the wise men are uncertain about the future, which makes this 2023 election, one of the strangest that has been held in this country since the return to democracy in 1999.

What is certain is the resilience of the same centrifugal forces that have held the country down. Those who want to behead existing gods and hegemonies of Nigerian politics may well discover that the elections may be determined in a familiar fashion: Yoruba people will vote for a Yoruba candidate, Fulanis will vote for Fulani, Muslims will vote for Muslims, Christians will support their fellow Christians, and most ironically, women who constitute a dominant percentage (about 47.5%) of the voting population will vote for men. The swing factor may well be the youths of Nigeria, who represent 39.65% of voters between the ages of 18 and 34, out of a total of 93.4 million registered voters. But will the youths of Nigeria get their voter’s cards despite the extension of the collection of PVCs by one week till January 29? Would the youths of Nigeria be able to vote in parts of the country where violence is so rife that even the security agencies appear helpless? INEC continues to affirm that the elections will be held without hitches, “come rain, come shine.”  What is the basis of that optimism, even as INEC offices remain under assault, the most recent being the attack on INEC’s Area Office in Enugu South Local Government Area? It would be a great shame indeed and most disappointing if the agents of retrogression are allowed to hijack the 2023 elections.

The main challenge is here at home, not on the streets of London. And to all the political gladiators: there is an urgent need to focus more on the issues, rather than engaging in mud-slinging, polluting and fouling the environment. The ongoing politics of hate would make healing and reconciliation difficult when the election is won and lost.  Nigeria cannot afford that.

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