We met by chance on a sweltering hot day recently as I was sitting poolside shooting the breeze in a well-known Abuja hotel, when he sauntered to the table next to me. He was dressed in a white, open-neck shirt, grey linen trousers and black loafers and had the look of an executive of a Forbes 100 corporate organisation.
While waiting for his orders to be taken, he glanced in my direction and saw a newspaper with a bold headline on the proceedings at the 2019 presidential election tribunal. I could see he was interested and, out of courtesy, I offered him the paper. After reading the story, he looked up and asked whether I had read it, and wanted to know my views. For an answer, I did a very Nigerian thing. I asked: “Are you a Journalist?” At that he gave me a wry smile and said: “You are a typical Nigerian. Most times, in informal conversations, I notice that Nigerians instinctively respond to a question with a question.”
As he had just caught me out on this, I did not dispute him. At this point, we introduced ourselves and a very robust and interesting discussion on Nigeria followed, which, for its sheer unexpurgated frankness and insight, I thought to share with my fellow countrymen. It turned out he worked as a country risk consultant for an agency of a multilateral organisation and his area of specialty was to help the organisation assess countries around the world on a range of issues and to recommend areas where the organisation could concentrate when negotiating with countries on their development priorities. In other words, he is the typical “economic hitman” in the realm of international economics, whose task is to analyse the economic potential and strengths of countries for use by his employers in determining how to relate with them. Although that was what I thought him to be, I did not say so to his face. I rather let the conversation go on.
Nigeria, he said, is the richest most endowed country of all the numerous countries he had visited in the course of his job around the world, including those in the developed world. Nigeria is not only rich in hydrocarbons and rare minerals, it is blessed abundantly with some of the most resourceful people on earth and vast arable land to feed them. Since I did not want to embarrass him by saying that was what we heard every day, I kept my face blank to encourage him to go on.
Sensing my indifference, he leaned forward to drill home his point.
“Just recently, in the United States of America, a survey revealed that Nigerian-Americans were the most hardworking ethnic group in America, with outstanding achievements in all fields of endeavour,” he said.
I nodded my acknowledgement, but again as this was already a well-established fact, I still maintained my poker face.
As I could see that he was in an expansive mood, I decided to pose what I thought should come as an inconvenient question to him: “As an International risk consultant with obvious deep knowledge about Nigeria, what advice would you give our government on how to harness these resources you mentioned in order for the country to realise its potential?”
As a rider, I told him that his answer should be realistic, practical and devoid of the well-worn clichés and patronising condescension that is the style of such publications like The Economist, Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal when reporting on non-western countries.
At this question, a pair of steel grey eyes looked up, held gaze at me for what seemed an eternity and without a break in his voice, he said: “I would advise your government not to rush to take on face value whatever advise they get from multilateral agencies, like the one I work for and other international financial institutions.”
Sensing my bewilderment at such a direct answer, he launched into a detailed explanation. He said the brief for people like him, after gathering information from open and not-so-open sources, was to recommend how the information could be used to distort, misinform and ultimately destabilise a given country, making it a willing tool for economic and political manipulation.
“We have a general template for this, which is applied on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the peculiarities of countries,” he said. In the case of Nigeria, he went on: “We look at local and regional differences in culture, religion, incomes, social and economic disparities, environmental issues and the like. Then we look at pressure points and areas and issues that will likely create and exacerbate conflict between and among the various groups in the country at the local and up to the regional and federal levels.”
To provide the spark for this, he said, they feed the information to the main outlets and networks of the international media, knowing that local media would, in turn, feed from and report the information prominently. For Nigeria, the slant of the report is tilted towards highlighting the identified fault lines of the country, injecting phrases like “Muslim North and Christian South,” “rich South, poor North,” etc.
All this, he said, is in aid of capital flight abroad. These negative reports help create lack of confidence and a perpetual atmosphere of uncertainty on the Nigerian economy and Nigeria generally. It leads to a situation where wealthy Nigerians prefer to transfer and keep the bulk of their money abroad, investing in condominiums, real estate and property, hotel chains, company shares, etc, and helping other economies.
“There are billions of dollars’ worth of Nigerian money abroad, which should have been retained here for development of the country. Nigeria’s loss is the gain of others,” he said.
At the level of international economic relations, these reports put Nigeria at disadvantage in economic negotiations: “When Nigerian officials sit down to discuss economic issues, we would have already marked them down to the minutest details of their lives, ensuring that our principals have the upper hand in the proceedings. The reports we generate also help provide the background for foreign companies and entities doing business in Nigeria to set their operational conditions, mostly to the detriment of the country and to the advantage of our economies.
“ From your oil and gas to construction, telecommunications, banking and financial services, commodity trading, mining, entertainment, virtually down to every aspect of your economy, we have it all wired down to our advantage.”
Listening to all these, I was naturally interested in knowing from him whether he knew or had anything to do with preparing the projections that Nigeria was going to disintegrate in the near future. His answer was that the task for the preparation of such reports and projections was farmed out to several agencies leveraging on their strengths, connections and areas of specialisation, ranging from politics to diplomacy, military, finance, etc. The final report and conclusions are usually put together by the organisation that commissioned the project and takes ownership for its distribution and circulation.
He believed that some of the reports and projections on Nigeria would have come from the report and recommendations he and his team forward routinely to his agency.
Does he believe Nigeria will disintegrate sooner or later, I asked him. Again, those steel grey eyes looked intently at me seeming to pierce through me.
“Nigeria does seem to lurch from crisis to crisis and there is always the impression that the country will fall apart from any of its many fault lines. Certainly, Nigeria seems to grow from these crises each time they occur and it always results in some kind of renewal of faith in the country by Nigerians themselves. However, veteran observers of Nigeria, like me, know that there is a very strong streak of resilience about this country, which stems from the ingenuity, self-pride and confidence of the individual Nigerian.
“No country or group of countries can disintegrate Nigeria even if they wished. Nigeria can only be disintegrated by Nigerians and I do think Nigerians are smart enough not to allow that,” he declared.
• Gadu writes from Abuja