The photograph splashed on the front page of virtually all Nigerian newspapers of Tuesday, September 24, was of our President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, finally in a one-on-one with America’s President, Barak Obama. I say ‘finally’ because it is probably the first such opportunity for a private tête-à-tête between the two — something, from all indications, the Nigerian presidency had long longed for.
But it wasn’t a flattering photograph at all. There was President Jonathan obviously avoiding eye contact with Barak Obama who was looking directly into the eyes of Jonathan. I didn’t like it at all. The message, the body language, was unwholesome. In the American culture, it says of only one thing: you are a shifty guy.
However, I can’t knock President Jonathan too hard. The fault is not entirely his. His handlers must bear some of the blame, unless, of course, they prepared him and he just “forgot”! The business of international relations, especially at such high diplomatic level, is a tough and dicey one. Those playing the host are as groomed as those visiting, but the onus is more on the visiting dignitaries to know and respect the norms and culture of the host.
Eyeball to eyeball is a delicate thing. In our Nigerian culture (if one can be permitted to assume one) looking directly into someone’s eyes, especially an elder or boss, is viewed as rude and confrontational. And we grow up generally accustomed to avoiding eye contact as a form of politeness. It is unfortunate because in Europe and America the interpretation is the exact opposite. Eye contact is the rule; making eye contact is interpreted as showing interest, paying attention, and a sign of self-confidence.
But if it makes us feel good, America had their own horror of seeing their president (Obama) bowing to greet Japanese Emperor Akihito when Obama visited Japan in November 2009. Americans called it a “treasonous” bow. For them it was tantamount to treason for an American president to bow (damn diplomatic etiquette) to any other human being! That was an instance of carrying ‘respect of the host’s culture’ one bow too far!
I must admit that, other than his elocution, Dr. Jonathan is lately showing some signs of maturing somewhat into the dignity required of the office. But, please, President Jonathan, these things – body language, et al – are important. You are our President and presidential we want you to look – and talk!
Way back in the early 1990s when the trailblasing weekly newspaper based in the UK, Nigeria HomeNews, was still publishing, a novel regular feature in the paper was a full-page dedicated to showcasing to the world one Nigerian, especially one living in the Diaspora, who the paper recognised as a laudable role model, an outstanding achiever; someone any nation would be proud to lay claim to. We called the column OUR NIGERIAN.
Yours truly was the publisher/editor-in-chief of the newspaper. ‘Our Nigerian’, like the newspaper as a whole, was our bold confrontation of a world perceived to be hostile to Nigeria. The image of the country was at the lowest ebb. It was the onset of 419; and credit card scams, drug trafficking, and whatever else that could earn a country a bad name was associated with the Nigerians abroad. The then Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff of America, Colin Powell, even had the impudence to call Nigeria “a country of scammers.” The “green” passport was despised.
The cardinal policy of the paper, a major rationale for its very existence, was to douse the fire of the bad image and let the world know that the contributions of Nigeria to the world were represented in those we chose to celebrate week in week out. They were in the arts, they were in the sciences, they were in sports, they were in entertainment, they were in space shuttles, they were in medical labs; nay, they could even be the ordinary workers, but those whose dedication to duty and whose persons were ennobled by their integrity and humaneness. And they were in the tens of thousands.
We were to shock the world with the disclosure that many of the great personalities within their midst that had hitherto been thought to be “just another regular citizen” were actually ‘Nigerians’; and in our bold claim anyone was a Nigerian who had any iota of Nigerian blood traceable to him or her, no matter the rank of generation! It worked, well, at least we at HomeNews believed it worked, and that in some little way the Nigerian pride was restored.
Memories of those times come alive to me as I read the news about some America-based group, Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans (CANAN) of which respected New York-based journalist Laolu Akande is an Executive Director, honouring some great Nigerians in the Diaspora at an event tagged, Top Ten (Nigerians in America) Awards Dinner, which held at Mariot Hotel, LaGuardia, New York last Sunday.
According to the organisers, the honourees emerged after a “rigorous search, scrutiny and selection process.” Awardees include the first Nigerian-born California Superior Court Judge, Bunmi Awoniyi, and US Congressman Peter King of New York.
Other recipients were Atlanta-based Dr. Augustine Esogbue, reported to be the first African to become a member of NASA’s Safety Advisory Board; Emmanuel Ohuabunwa, the Nigerian student who is said to be the first black man to emerge as the best graduating student in the renowned Johns Hopkins University with a 3.98 GPA; Ola Akinboboye, a New York-based cardiologist who is leader of black cardiologists in the US; Usua Amanam, founder of Nigeria’s first licensed private refinery; Professor Toyin Falola of the University of Texas, Austin, considered to be by far one of the most decorated Nigerian scholars in the US; Professor Ibrahim Gambari, New York-based Nigerian diplomat and former UN Under-Secretary; and Prof. Ade Adefuye, the Nigerian Ambassador to the United States.
Whilst each and every one of the listed honourees is deserving in his or her right, there are numerous bright stars out there and there are several other categories the organisers have not added that are loud by their absence: Sports; Music; Performing and non-performing Arts; to name but a few.
The truth is that by now the world is aware of the paradox of Nigeria: a country beset with the worst of ills that could afflict a nation – corruption, poor leadership, bad management of resources, infrastructural crudity, degenerate values, debilitating political structures, and many more – yet possessed of some of the brightest minds in the universe scattered in their thousands all over the world, serving and benefitting their various host countries, leaving Nigeria to her fate.
Organising and giving awards is getting to be commonplace, even nauseatingly so. But it is through such recognitions, especially by organisations which are credible, that a torch of hope is beamed on an otherwise dark horizon, and the regenerative seed of emulation is planted in generations desperately in need of role models.
It is to be hoped that the recipients of CANAN’s first Top-Ten Awards, these Our Nigerians, would see the honour beyond themselves, but as a challenge to join hands (and their respected brains and wherewithal) in turning Nigeria into the country all black peoples of the world can be proud of. In the words of the keynote speaker, Prof. BabatundeOsotimehin, Executive Director of UN Population Fund, “Nigerians abroad must be determined to play active roles in lifting the nation.”
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