Adagbo Onoja: Memories of Sandy Berger and ‘The poorest oil-rich country in the world’

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There is no month like December. December is alluring and sleep inducing in its totality even as it compels one to work 25 hours a day or risk going into the next year with works that shouldn’t. So, in its impossible combination of enabling and disabling menu, December leaves one intensely happy but challenged. The pleasant penalty for living to December is having to clear the backlog at the expense of so many other tasks, except when Sandy Berger dies and on the day so many people, including his counterpart in Nigeria, were grabbed for alleged graft involving hair raising sums of money. That calls for stealing even if an hour to try to do just about a thousand word piece without breaking December’s tough demands that makes opinion writing a luxury.
Sandy Berger died a week ago, December 2, 2015. I am not sure there are many Nigerians who would recall Sandy Berger and why. Well, a number of us editing a ministerial publicity stuff in 2000 took note of him when he described Nigeria as “the poorest oil-rich country in the world”. He was speaking as the NSA to President Clinton ahead of Clinton’s visit to Nigeria in August that year. The instinctive attitude of not taking kindly to any outsider making uncomplimentary comments on Nigeria came upon us but, afterwards, we also began to wonder what he could have meant. To be oil rich and be so poor were contradictory imaginaries. Then our production editor argued that the man meant that corruption had taken all of Nigeria’s oil wealth. At the end of the day, we had to eat the humble pie by agreeing that his was not the usual yabbis typified by Colin Powell calling Nigerians scammers but the bitter truth since all the premises of his conclusion were in: Nigeria is blessed with oil, the oil is being sold and paid for, the receipts are substantial and there has been no situation in which any other country overpowered Nigeria and seized the money. So, if oil money wasn’t showing by way of transformation, it must be that oil money has not been used for the Nigerians. Since only a few are citizens when it comes to deciding the use and misuse of oil money, our editor must be right in his interpretation of Berger’s phrase.
It is many years ago now and it is only with the entertaining but equally disturbing revelations within the past one week that the phrase “the poorest oil-rich country in the world” came back to memories. Interestingly, I cannot explain why no one seems to remember or to have made reference to the phrase since 2000 even though Berger was speaking openly to the press. Is it not contradictory enough to have been a subject of public discourse? Or, could that be so because it was the comments of a foreigner?
Let me make myself very clear. I am conscious of how complicated this could be. Nobody has been proved to have stolen the money yet and I am not interested in sitting in judgment over anyone of those named, arrested or speculated in connection with the arms gate. No one should, therefore, read me as condemning or commending anyone. In fact, I am silently praying that it turns out to be a hoax. The reason for that is because, if it turns out to be true, it would not be a case of corruption but something similar to the usefulness that people like Idi Amin were said to serve. According to a former foreign affairs minister who served Amin and who came out with a memoir, Idi Amin lasted so long in power because no foreign or extra African interests wanted to overthrow him even when it became clear that he had become something else in Uganda. No powers wanted to overthrow him because they felt that with people like Amin, the proof that the black African is not going to run a stable state was on the ground, not minding that some foreign interests made Amin possible by organising a coup for him against Milton Obote. Comparing Amin’s experimentation with Uganda with alleged graft of mind boggling sums meant for a counterinsurgency operation is not outrageous or too distant because both are all about carrying things to hair-raising proportions. It is most unlikely that what we have been hearing in the past few months even before the arms gate could happen in many other parts of the world by which we casually reference ourselves. Capitalism and corruption are twins but graft is not how they do it out there.
Or, might it be a case of some kind of reverse statecraft coming from Africa? Is Nigeria contributing an innovation in governance or is this intensification of our degeneration? It had better be a contribution. Otherwise, we should be afraid for ourselves. Of course, nothing can counterbalance our peculiar colonial experience as the primary explanation for the crisis we are in throughout Africa today but framing that crisis reflexively has also become an important part of anti-colonialism, with particular reference to the Nigerian dimension: the poorest oil-rich country in the world! Uhm! What a phrase!
In late 1999, then President Clinton told then President Obasanjo at a Press Conference at the White House that Nigeria was too rich to qualify for debt forgiveness by the US. Sandy Berger had been Clinton’s friend long before he became his NSA. What Clinton verbalised might have been their shared gists for a long time and, by implication, the circle that runs America.
To think that the legacy of graft, brutality and callousness have defined exercise of state power in much of post colonial Africa calls for more innovative approaches to fighting corruption in this country. For instance, if the misery that is common place in Nigeria is not enough to deter anyone from playing around so casually with public money, then there should be a session beyond the courts for all such suspects to be interviewed on television on where and how they might have acquired that capacity for callousness. Lawyers might say that is trial by ordeal, I would say it is expanding the inquiry into the subjective dynamics underpinning the temptation to corruption. Right now, we do not have that.
The second one is to repeat my much argued position that I do not think this regime has done enough deliberate conscientisation on the political economy of corruption in post colonial Africa to underpin the anti-corruption war. There are a number of reasons for this. One, the idea that everyone is incensed by corruption is a weak point of departure. Everyone is entertained by gory details of it as long as it is the other guy. Very few are able to overcome sentimental solidarity and leave everything to the judicial process when it involves someone they know. Two, it warrants repetition that corruption and capitalism go together and since capitalism is a global phenomenon, an anti-graft war in Nigeria is also an ‘everywhere war’, a global scale operation with multiple contradictions. Three, corruption is a power relationship and since power is so diverse and nearly impossible to measure, mass conscientisation offers the more reliable contingency. Assurances and pledges of solidarity from people we may see as powerful, in and outside Nigeria, is not a substitute because the primitive accumulation or “accumulation by dispossession” which explains what we are witnessing has its own logic. Again, it is a global logic, not local as for anybody to say, lets help Nigeria and then leave it like that.
Some years back, some scholars at the Zaria based Centre for Democratic Research and Training (CEDDERT or was it Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria?) did some calculations about what so much money stolen could have provided the people if not stolen. That is the stuff we are talking about, not sketchy recitation of the obvious in arguing the case for a war on corruption.

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