By Tolu Ogunlesi
[originally published in Ongoing Concerns, a weekly column in NEXT newspaper, May 2011)
In one corner is John Campbell, diplomat, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria between 2004 and 2007, and now a Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
In the other corner is Jeffrey Sachs, economist, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and a Special Adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
I have chosen to name the Campbell camp “The BRINKS” – coined from the title of Mr Campbell’s unambiguously-titled book, “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink” (2010).
The Sachs camp I will refer to as “The BRINCS.” In a May 30 New York Times op-ed, Sachs wrote: “In practical terms, Nigeria would like to make the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the BRINCS by the end of the decade. To those who only know Nigeria as a country that squanders its oil wealth, this ambition might seem outlandish. But for those of us who have had the chance to work with its leadership, this goal seems fully within reach.”
Weeks before Sachs’ piece (May 2), Mr Campbell wrote an op-ed piece for the same paper, titled: “Nigeria: The Morning After” (which I somehow keep misreading as “The Mourning After”).
Coming from the author of “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink”, it is not a piece that will surprise many. When Campbell writes that “the elections have polarized Nigeria and resulted in likely underreported bloodshed in the northern parts of the country”, he unwittingly gives the impression that until April 2011, Nigeria was polarisation-free and the North was a haven of peace.
The pre-eminent weakness of Mr Campbell’s position, in my opinion, is his insistence on viewing Nigeria – and interpreting his observations – through a “predominantly Christian South versus predominantly Moslem North” frame.
I find that perspective utterly misleading, ignoring, for example, the fact that the not-insignificant south west (which includes the uber-populous Lagos) is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims.
Mr Sachs’ perspective is refreshingly different. In the opening paragraph of his piece, titled “Nigeria’s Historic Opportunity”, he declares:
“This country of nearly 160 million people, about one in five of sub-Saharan Africa, is on to something historic. The people feel it. After a sometimes agonizing half-century since independence, Nigeria is on the verge of a takeoff.”
He goes on to list “five solid reasons for optimism” (I’m sure you could easily pick “five solid reasons for pessimism” from any Campbell article).
Perhaps aware that those comments make him liable to accusations of being overly-optimistic, Sachs adds: “Of course, Nigeria still faces very real risks. The country’s population is enormously diverse, with sharp regional and religious divisions. Violence continues to flare…”
This helps create a much more balanced and nuanced picture than Mr Campbell’s jeremiad.
Nevertheless, you can’t help thinking that perhaps Sachs is still guilty of misreading the situation in some way, even if not as grievously as Campbell.
Sachs writes: “The president’s senior adviser on the Millennium Development Goals, working with the National Assembly, has been leading a bold mechanism to transfer federal funds to state and local governments in a robust and accountable manner. All over the country, schools, clinics and water points are being built.”
While there may be no doubt about the impressive work Amina az Zubair is doing with the MDGs (she has been publicly commended by Bill Gates, and NEXT columnist Jibrin Ibrahim recently wrote a tribute in which he referred to her as “a shining star”), I’m curious about that “bold mechanism to transfer federal funds to state and local governments in a robust and accountable manner.”
And which National Assembly is Sachs referring to? The same loan-and-allowance-and-contract-loving House-of-Bankole? I’d also like to know more about those schools and clinics being built “all over the country.”
While I essentially share Sachs’ optimistic stance, I am tempted to dissociate myself from some of his pronouncements. My own optimism is, at the moment, founded less on concrete achievement than on the ordinary, yet powerful possibilities for change that a relatively fresh beginning offers. (Hope-for-the-sake-of-hope is how I described it in a recent column).
Anyway, there we have them: Sachs versus Campbell. Two influential Americans, putting forward their thoughts about Africa’s most populous country and one of the leading exporters of crude oil to theirs.
One thinks Nigeria is falling apart (and his voice is unfailingly loudest whenever signs emerge that the end is near), the other thinks Nigeria is coming together.
Let’s make one thing clear: sentiments will always be involved in the business of argument and debate. From his article we get a hint of Sachs’ closeness to Nigeria’s corridors of power, and specifically to Goodluck Jonathan.
Mr Campbell on his own part is closely associated with Jonathan-opponent Atiku Abubakar, and is a member of the board of Abubakar’s American University of Nigeria in Yola.
Perhaps that partly explains where both men are coming from.
So, back to the ring. Where do you belong? Are you a ‘BRINK’ or a ‘BRINC’? Is Nigeria coming together – or falling apart?
In 2015, which of these two Americans – Jeffrey Sachs and John Campbell – will say: “I told you so!”?
And, most important question of all, what role will President Jonathan play in the ring: Bricklayer – or Demolition Man?