The fact that a ‘neutral forum’ must be sought outside of Nigeria, can only be a reflection of a deep mistrust of the country that many of the speakers themselves have pledged to snatch from the jaws of corruption.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Godfathers: An Introduction. Buy the issue here.
Since Buhari’s successful 2015 campaign for the presidency included an appearance at Chatham House, Nigerian presidential candidates have made it a pit stop during the race. In the lead up to this month’s general elections, we have seen three out of four frontrunners of the Nigerian presidential candidates speak at London’s Chatham House; Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All-Progressives Congress (APC); Peter Obi of the Labour Party and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party.
If Atiku Abubakar, the PDP presidential hopeful, speaks at Chatham House ahead of the polls in February, it will be the second time he does so; the first being in April 2018 ahead of the 2019 presidential election.
WHAT IS CHATHAM HOUSE?
The Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, is a London-based non-profit think tank, founded in 1920. It is an independent institution that concerns itself with governments, the private sector and civil society, as a means of fostering debates around developments in the international sphere.
Historically, Chatham House has attracted those who wish to have their voices amplified via a well-established and esteemed platform. Here, the various speakers seek the kind of ‘legitimacy’ that comes about through Western recognition. Arguably, for the three frontrunners of next month’s general elections that have spoken there this election cycle, therein lies the appeal of Chatham House.
A NEW FOCUS ON NIGERIA
Chatham House has held itself out to be ‘integral to the study of the complexities of transition,’ dating back to the 1960s, when Africa began to advance and abandon colonial rule. In the decades since, it has not maintained that pivotal position in Nigeria’s politics as subsequent military regimes and the brief democratic periods did not see increased engagement on Nigeria in particular.
In recent years, Chatham House’s position has changed. So much that Buhari’s visit in 2015 marked the first time that a Nigerian presidential candidate was given an audience at there. In retrospect, Buhari’s speech contributed immensely towards establishing the well-known culture of bold pre-election promises coupled with feeble post-election follow-through.
In 2011, Bola Tinubu gave a speech on the rebirth of the opposition in Nigerian politics after the elections. At the time, the campaign trail was dominated by rumours of a proposed deal between the major opposition blocs—Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change and Tinubu’s Action Congress of Nigeria. While that arrangement did not succeed, and the PDP’s Jonathan was able to secure a full term, Tinubu’s speech was prescient, predicting that a unified opposition party could unseat the incumbent and his party. You say that speech predicted the subsequent rise of the APC.
Chatham House still maintains an interest in Africa and more specifically, Nigeria. In 2022, THE Chatham House Africa Programme received an $800,000 renewal award through the MacArthur Foundation dedicated to research in Nigeria. Perhaps its interest remains as Nigeria continues to be a major contributor to the British economy, with Nigerian students and dependents contributing a staggering £1.93 billion to the economy as at 2021. A legacy of Chathams House’s increased involvement in Nigerian politics is the establishment of its Africa Programme’s ‘Next Generation Nigeria’ series, which has led to more Nigerian politicians speaking at Chatham House’s podium, at least before potential presidential bids.
QUID PRO QUO?
Perhaps as a sign of his personal estimation of the role his foreign engagements played in his election, Buhari shunned national media outlets after assuming office, opting instead for international soapboxes to address Nigerians. This stonewalling of the Nigerian press has meant that the poignant questions and observations of civil society that every leader ought to be subject in any healthy democracy, have had no real means through which to meet him. Instead, he has often been subjected to questions posed in international fora that do not go to the heart of the issues experiences by those he leads.
In Chatham House’s case, it is not far-fetched to suggest that a symbiotic relationship exists between it and key Nigerian actors, both in the political sphere and those in civil society. On one hand, Chatham House gains more visibility as Nigerians who were not conscious of the goings-on in the lead up to the previous general elections, are now aware of its existence. On the other, Nigerian politicians appear more ‘legitimate’ and ‘transparent’ when making an appearance at Chatham House by being able, as is the hope, to withstand the tirade of questions being fired at them.
The fact remains that there is the very real possibility of the presidential hopeful’s speech being a ‘charade’ at best and a ‘disgrace’ at worst. Shortly after Tinubu’s Chatham House outing, the People’s Democratic Party Presidential Campaign Council wasted no time in voicing the harsh ramifications of the visit.
A spokesperson for the Atiku campaign stated that Tinubu had:
Confirmed to Nigerians and the world that he has no business contesting the presidential election; that he is grossly incompetent, completely unprepared for leadership and intends to transfer the onerous task of leading our nation to proxies and a cabal that did not seek votes from Nigerians.
A CASE OF NEOCOLONIALISM?
Though there is a significant number of Nigerians living in the UK, the same can be said of the United States. As such, the British end of the diaspora cannot be the only reason why these political candidates choose to visit Chatham House. It could be argued that the increasing obsession with the institute is a vestige of the colonial era; that Nigeria still acknowledges the influence of Britain on its domestic politics. There might be many diplomatic missions, foreign desks and influential trade actors based in London, but the city does not have a monopoly on any of these. It still has the allure and aura of the empire, which might be the irresistible pull that the institute has.
Alternatively, we may consider that a major motivating factor for Nigerian politicians is the search of a so-called ‘neutral forum’. An audience at Chatham House is seen as an imprimatur by foreign press and the British establishment, which comes with tremendous cosmetic value rather than a sincere and meaningful way to engage with those they wish to govern. The fact that a ‘neutral forum’ must be sought outside of Nigeria, can only be a reflection of a deep mistrust of the country that many of the speakers themselves have pledged to snatch from the jaws of corruption. In a very divided landscape, the colonial power is still seen as a mutual arbiter. It is very telling also that most meetings in the lead up to Nigeria’s independence in 1960 were held in London. History continues to repeat itself.
An unfortunate legacy of the Buhari years might be an increasing pivot towards placing more importance on foreign institutions than on national ones. This was made evident through Bola Tinubu’s avoidance of the Arise TV debate, when compared with his determined presence at Chatham House, despite his evident ill-preparedness.
Former Delta State gubernatorial aspirant, Chief Sunny Onuesoke has rightly attributed the dismissal of Nigerian platforms and continued visits of Nigerian politicians at Chatham House to ‘neocolonialism’:
We have similar bodies like Chatham House here in Nigeria. The NIIA and Centre of Democratic Studies among others. Were these bodies to invite Nigerian politicians to come and speak at the platform, they are not likely to show up. They would give excuses. And that is why no major politician has gone there to engage the Nigerian intelligentsia. They would rather go to London.
The irony of these appearances is that Nigerians in the diaspora are not allowed to vote in the upcoming elections. Professor Mahmood Yakubu, the chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), on 17 January 2023, explained why Nigerians in the diaspora cannot vote in the upcoming elections, during his visit to Chatham House. Yakubu disclosed that a policy for diaspora voting has already been completed, but the Commission is awaiting the necessary legal amendments to support this. According to Yakubu, ‘Both the 1999 constitution and the 2022 Electoral Act provide that voters can only be registered and vote within the country.’
The fear that Nigerian media outlets are devoid of freedom of the press is a valid one. However, neutral forums exist, such as universities in the country and other free spaces, where political candidates may address an audience that can actually vote in the upcoming elections, the same cannot be said for much of the audience at Chatham House. If we were to assume the non-existence of these spaces, sufficient political will and motivation could see their establishment.
For civil society, social media is useful and far-reaching tool for a fostering meaningful debate and holding politicians accountable. As candidates often spurn the chance to engage meaningfully in national fora, social media can be used to air these grievances and to question whether power should be given to those who do not see engaging with the electorate as a priority. If we are to break free of the scourge of poor leadership, perhaps leaders who are markedly more concerned with good governance, rather than good optics is the best place to start.
While the think tank’s platform is influential, it might be playing an unmerited and unfairly outsized role in our politics. If Buhari’s 2015 appearance is anything to go on, the Chatham House exercise may continue to be a space for Nigerian leaders who feel they do not need to be held accountable by the citizens they claim to serve.⎈
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