Uzokwe's Searchlight

It is a truism that foreign investors are concerned by the crime rate in the country, but my issue with the ambassador's remarks, is that he is admonishing the people who report the stories rather than the people who commit the crime....
Thursday, June 6, 2002

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe


t seems to me most strange that some public officials in Nigeria have not come to terms with the fact that maximum transparency is sine qua non in the success of our fledgling democracy. They still articulate and advocate positions for Nigeria, which are not only antithetical to the ethos of democracy, but may become inimical to the progress of the nation.

On May 27, 2002, the Daily News reported that Nigeria's ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammed Saliu Abdulwahab, stated that foreign investors are discouraged from coming to Nigeria because of the way crime stories are reported by the press. He added, "crime rate in Nigeria is neither exceptional nor extraordinary compared to other parts of the world, but their press always played down the negative aspect"

It is a truism that foreign investors are concerned by the crime rate in the country, but my issue with the ambassador's remarks, is that he is admonishing the people who report the stories rather than the people who commit the crime or the government that has failed to do any constructive thing about it. This is like shooting the proverbial messenger.

After reading the news story, my first instinct was to call on the honorable ambassador to name the countries that "play down crime". I am almost sure that he was not referring to the United States, United Kingdom or other notable democracies elsewhere in the world. In these countries, crime is reported without adulteration and yet, foreign investors have not disappeared from them. The difference is that they have well established and transparent mechanisms for fighting crime; they have well equipped police and citizens cooperate with them during criminal investigations. As a result of all these, people do not see crime fighting in those countries as lost causes. In Nigeria today, crime-fighting seems like a lost cause because the police is ill-equipped to match AK 47-wielding robbers and citizens do not cooperate during investigations.

My hunch is that when the ambassador made this statement, he was probably trying to compare Nigeria with Lebanon, and my take on that is that if the model he wants Nigeria to emulate is Lebanon of all places, I hasten to say that he is trying to lead us down the wrong path and no sane Nigerian should pay any heed to his misguided call. I also sense that he is trying to hold brief for his boss, Obasanjo, for his failed attempts to attract foreign investors to Nigeria even after out-doing Ajala in his overseas trips. Let me redirect the ambassador's attention to the fact that Nigeria has a multitude of problems that keep foreign investors away; these problems range from unstable economy, a shaky democracy, lack of electricity for powering manufacturing equipment, senseless inflation that makes a mockery of our currency, the unpredictability of the ambitious khaki boys and yes, crime. It would therefore make more sense that rather than sit around blaming the press for doing their job, the ambassador should work in tandem with the president to seek pragmatic ways to solve our myriad of problems including stemming the tide of crime. The ambassador wants the press to suppress the truth about the country all in the name of bringing in foreign investors, yet this administration has not made enough effort to tackle the problem head on. The ambassador should realize that if this malady is rooted out, the press would no longer have crime stories to tell and his fears would be allayed, but if he still insists on whitewashing crime reports, so that the country would superficially look good to the international community, there would be more negative consequences because when foreigners come in and witness the killings themselves, they would never forgive us. Ambassador Abdulwahab should heed Walter Isaacson's admonition that " to withhold information and even allow a listener to be misled…comes close to the definition of deceit". At this stage of her being, Nigeria needs credibility and we should earn it by being true to ourselves and to everyone else. We must learn to start shooting straight, no matter whose ox is gored.

Sometime ago, some foreign workers who came to Nigeria to work on a project were waylaid by robbers and one of the robbers was senselessly killed. The one that escaped later went back to his native country and I am sure that he told even more horrible stories about Nigeria than our honorable ambassador would ever imagine! It is no secret that in some areas of Lagos today, people do not sleep well at night because of robbers and the constant anticipation that they might come calling anytime. Some residential buildings in Lagos are so decked out with iron bars, to ward off robbers, that sometimes, they look like prisons. It is not a secret that some residents impose curfews on themselves because of the dangers of going out at night. Now, what part of this reality would the ambassador want the press to whitewash? Would he want them to say that there is no crime in Lagos? That would be a blatant lie!

The biggest problem we have in Nigeria today is that public officials fail to do what they have been elected to do like fix our roads, boost our economy, check inflation, eradicate armed robbery by any means necessary and more. They instead engage in the business of using scarce resources to attempt to polish Nigeria's image. The money we use for such wasteful ventures could be used to build good roads, arm the police adequately and create better living conditions.

Just the other day, the minister for information, Jerry Gana, was accused of attempting to bribe the international press into writing favorable news stories about Nigeria. Even though he denies this, but the mere fact that he stuffed cash in envelopes and handed them over to the journalists who came to his meeting, was enough reason to adjudge him guilty as charged. This story made international headlines and did not portray the country in good light, instead, it tarnished our image even more. Nigeria's ambassador to Lebanon must have heard all the furor generated by that singular incident; he should have known that tacitly asking Nigerian journalists to resort to jaundiced journalism for the misguided sake of attracting foreign investors would draw the same ire from the public as minister Gana drew. As far as I am concerned, the press is reporting what they see and I am sure that they will not create a story where there is none or say there has been an armed robbery if it did not happen.

Some weeks ago, armed robbers raided the domestic wing of the Murtala Muhammad Airport, Ikeja. The robbers blasted off the heads of three policemen guarding an escort vehicle for conveying money to the bank. This story was reported in the guardian of May 16. Now, how would the honorable ambassador have liked the press to report this story so as not to scare away foreign investors? Would he have wanted the story to be suppressed completely? Would he have wanted the story of the killing of the policemen to be kept quiet? If the press had tucked the story away into an obscure corner of their papers, would he have liked it better? What exactly did he mean by "not playing up the negatives?" There are no positives in a robbery so there is no positive to report. Of course if the police apprehended the robbers, it would have been a positive thing to report but that did not happen!

Simply put, these crimes bring to the fore, the ineptitude of the government in checking crime or equipping the police adequately. It is the duty of the press to, unadulteratedly, report to the citizenry, what is going on in the nation. During the robbery at the Ikeja Airport, it was reported that a police constable who docked for cover when the robbers came, later said he "would have downed one of the robbers" if he had a gun during the robbery. This comes to me as a surprise! I thought that all policemen now carry guns? What happened to the constable's gun during the moment of decision? For a moment, forget about guns, the question is, are constables not equipped with two-way communication devices? Also, I thought that cell phones are all over the place in Nigeria today, how come we cannot equip the police with cell phones to help in combating crime? With a simple communication device, the constable would have been able to alert police headquarters to bring a "crack" unit of anti-crime policemen to checkmate the robbers. This did not happen; the robbers did their thing and left unchallenged.

Obasanjo should see this rising trend in crime as a war, which his government must win summarily, rather than whitewash. Today, the 800-megahertz radio technology is in the market and the government should consider equipping the police with it. In most crimes that have occurred in Nigeria till date, if the police had arrived early, the culprits would have been apprehended or at least killed. But, the police always seemed to arrive after the fact because of lack of adequate communication equipment. Ambassador Abdulwahab should lobby his boss, Gen Obasanjo, for more communication equipment for the police rather than lambaste the press for doing their job.

On a separate but similar note, P.M. News of May 7, reported that four dare devil armed men recently invaded the Lagos home of a minister in the federal government and after carting away a huge amount of money, they raped his wife. Now, how would the honorable ambassador have liked this crime to be reported? Would he have preferred that the part about the robbers being armed be left out in the report? Or would he have preferred that the rape part be suppressed so as not to scare away foreign investors? In other democracies, such crimes are routinely reported so I do not know which country Abdulwahab said covers up crime for the sake of their foreign image.

Someone should please tell ambassador Abdulwahab that reporting these crimes promptly and in an unadulterated way helps would-be victims to take preemptive precautions to avoid becoming statistics themselves. A lot of Nigerians live in the Diaspora and travel home to Nigeria every Christmas; most read what happens in Nigeria with respect to these crimes and so take necessary precautions to avoid falling prey. Some no longer tell their next of kin when they would arrive Nigeria because stories have been told of how next of kins became the proverbial rats in the house that told the rat in the bush that there was fish in the basket at home. I have heard stories of people preferring to sleep in hotels or in alternate locations nightly when they visited their towns during the Christmas holidays. It does not sound good to the ears but these are precautions people take because they know what goes on in Nigeria. A very close family friend had his possessions and those of his family members taken away by armed robbers along Lagos-Onitsha road on a visit to Nnewi from Britain during one of the Christmas holidays. Thank God that their lives were spared, but how does one spend Christmas vacation in Nigeria without money or clothes? That type of experience does not make for a merry Christmas but they are the realities on the ground in Nigeria today and must be reported the way they occur. Anything short of full disclosure, is whitewashing.