Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Lunch at the Dorchester

Lunch, last Tuesday at the Dorchester, was an immoveable feast. The tables were laden with food in a sumptuous spread worthy of a royal dinner. The invited guests, try as they did, could not make a dent in the sheer amount of the food made available for them.

Quentin Peel, International Editor for the Financial Times, had promised earlier that the tables were 'groaning' with food, and indeed they were. Mr. Peel was the Chairman of the event, at which Chief Timipre Sylva, the Governor of the oil-producing Bayelsa State, presented a paper. The lecture that preceded the lunch was a much less satisfying affair. It was delivered more in the admonitorial sense than in the professorial sense of the word. (One hardly enjoys being hectored, even as the price for a free lunch.) The Governor’s speech, From Crisis to Development: The Case for the Niger Delta, elicited groans (from this observer, at least) of a different sort, as it was equally laden, but in this case, with glib buzzwords and brassy phrases that rang hollow. It was full of the ferreting out of villains from the usual places, lambasting among others the Western media (present company excepted, the Governor took pains to point out) for their coverage of violence in his region.

Sylva began his assault on media with a quote from former Commonwealth Secretary-General Chief Emeka Anyaoku to the effect that when a thousand people are killed in Africa, it is reported as a massacre, but if the same occurs in the West it is reported simply that they 'died”. Of course, it may be that the distinction is not one of whether the deaths occured in the West or in Africa, but whether they were killed by, say, the mechanical failure of an airline, or by machete. It was not clear whether the offence of the Western media was of inventing violence in the Niger Delta or simply of reporting it.

The Governor next took on oil companies operating in the region (he served a Youth Corps stint at Shell), accusing them of environmental degradation and neglect of their duties to the host community.

Nigeria's Federal Government was next ( not the present one, of course) and the charge was that they had contributed (by failing to contribute more) to underdevelopment in the Niger Delta.

Following that were the foreign goverments (including the UK, which he called the 'mother country') for failing to be sufficiently exercised over the failings of those he previously charged.

Conspicuously absent from his list of villains were the previous Governors of the Delta region, alleged – and in some cases – found to have stolen vast sums from their state coffers; money that could have gone to the development of their communities. But more on that later.

As it happens, this democrat (lower case), elected by the good people of Bayelsa, saved his most stinging criticism for them. After he was asked a question about the reported absence of local government in many areas of Bayelsa, the Governor launched into an unsettling tirade: referring to his citizens as lazy, ungrateful, greedy and manipulative, he informed the guests, (many now staring in disbelief) that the incessant begging for handouts was what made corruption irresistible and inevitable.

He did not say how he has managed to resist the irresistible or avert the inevitable, but did add that although he abhorred the practice [of handouts], he was forced to indulge in it or he would have a 'revolution' to deal with.

Maybe to stave off the revolution yet a few weeks, or to have more opportunity to resist the irresistible, a core tenet of his lecture had been a call for 'fiscal federalism' – that 50% of revenues from mineral resources extracted from a State remain in that State. A brave but tired attempt since the same very concept had been suggested and resoundingly defeated under the rubric 'resource control'. This tenacity would be admirable until one considers that the same energy used by some governors to come up with different names for the same concept would be better spent on figuring out ways in which to manage the resources they can get, given the socio-political realities in Nigeria.

The Governor, a tall, broad man with a deep voice, looks as if he comes straight from central casting. He looks the part but seemed less than warm to the diplomatic niceties one might expect. His tart responses and verbal ripostes to even the most innocuous questions left (unlike the excellent food) a sour taste in the mouth of at least this guest.

Sadly, I must report that I was skewered by the Governor after asking a two-part question about whether he felt that the chronic mismanagement by previous governments forestalled the idea of more money being paid to states, at least for now, until better resource management had been demonstrated. The second part asked that, since his lecture emphasised the necessity and advent of improved governance under his administration, how much of the disbursements or expenditures from state funds – and his decision-making – were filtered through the democratic institutions such as Bayelsa State Assembly?

The Governor became apoplectic. At first, he seemed unsure of how to respond and simply vented his fury on the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which he accused of obstructionism and of manufacturing a case against a previous Bayelsa governor, who had been charged with money laundering in London, arrested and who then jumped bail and fled to Nigeria disguised as a woman. While I was wondering how this related to the EFCC, the Governor scoffed that he had been told that the EFCC had recovered £40million but that he had not seen any of it save for 'only' (yes, he said only) £1 million recovered from the Governor. I was in no hurry to point out that £1 million was far from 'only' or justifiable on the salary of a governor, or that the inability of the EFCC to recover £40 million, is no proof (or evidence, even) that the money had not been stolen in the first place. And then, warming to his topic, the Governor started fulminating against people (read: me) who could not discern the difference between being 'invited in' by the EFCC, and being 'charged' by it, and that Nigerians who have not been home in a long time, such as he presumed me to be,should return home to see things for themselves before asking irrelevant questions of busy public officials such as himself.

Without pausing for water, or even a breath, the Governor then asked rhetorically whether Julius Berger, the giant construction company in Nigeria, a Western company (he added), was lying when it said constructing things such as roads in the Delta cost there three times what it did in the rest of the country. Then the Governor went through a list of his states’ obligations. Perhaps he meant that these left no room for corruption but it might just mean that previous governors all over Nigeria who have been charged with gross corruption only possess a financial wizardry the Governor lacks.

The lasting impression of the event is not of the Governor or anything he said, but of the FT's Quentin Peel, who in full view of the Special Guest, winked at me when I asked the question and then came up to shake my hand.

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