Tuesday, May 16, 2017 4:51 pm
By Sylvester Asoya
During Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s first term as a democratically elected president, my editors in TheNEWS sent me on a special assignment to the Republic of Benin. I was instructed to interview Nicephore Soglo, the country’s brilliant former president with a view to understanding how he willingly handed over to his successor without any fuss. I was in addition, mandated to gauge the politics of that small West African country, conduct interviews with Nigerians living there and report night life in Cotonou.
But from my brief, I knew my office was also interested in using Soglo as a model to study the diseased minds of brutal sit-tight dictators in our continent. There were other underlining factors too behind my trip.
On arrival, I headed straight to what looked like ‘journalists’ rendezvous.’ I met a couple of reporters and they were all willing to be of assistance to me. Eventually, I settled for one. This guy, an intelligent and soft spoken journalist named Garcon took me around, explaining and answering all my questions from religion, culture and urbanization to politics, history and development.
After listening to Garcon, it became evident that leaders in the Republic of Benin are above average people who prepare for leadership. They also have long-term plans about everything that affects the lives of their people. For instance, to practice journalism in Benin, according to Garcon, you must be proficient in two international languages with a working knowledge of at least one.
I couldn’t even speak a smattering French or any other international language for that matter. To compound matters, Garcon spoke far better English even with his proficiency in French and Portuguese I really felt like a hopeless illiterate.
Despite what I thought was a triumph of a Beninese journalist over his Nigerian counterpart, I still couldn’t mistake the confusion on this guy’s face. When I demanded to know why he was puzzled, he told me that leaders in his country deliberately support policies that encourage the study of foreign languages. In fact, he added that most politicians in Benin, including Soglo are all polyglots. So he was surprised that I couldn’t even speak French in spite of his country’s proximity to Nigeria. After our our discussion, I came to the conclusion that Nigeria is a grossly overrated country.
When I eventually responded, I was blunt. I told Garcon that Nigeria is not as lucky with leadership. And that our leaders emerge either by accident or imposition. In fact, I added that since 1966, Nigeria has not seen a leader that is comparable to Soglo in intelligence, education, capacity, sophistication or international exposure. I told him that our leaders learn on the job. Therefore, French, or any other international language wouldn’t attract any serious attention from naive and ill-equipped leaders.
For emphasis, I informed him that I had a French teacher for just two terms in my entire secondary education even though I attended good secondary schools.
I repeated the familiar story of Obasanjo’s fatal mission at the United Nations where he failed in his controversial bid to become UN Secretary-General. He was Nigeria’s military leader for over three years and like those before him, he did little or nothing to encourage foreign languages, particularly French. The fact that he couldn’t speak French contributed hugely to his failure to lead the world body.
I must confess; I have met so many Francophone Africans outside our continent and I always marvel at their proficiency in international languages. This proficiency, I must say is borne out of serious planning and enlightened leadership. This is the crux of the matter. Nigeria’s leaders or those aspiring to lead must take language very seriously because it is a critical component of education, development, cooperation and integration.
Finally we got to Soglo’s house and something strange happened. The house, located at what looked like an obscure part of Cotonou contrasted sharply with the exclusive environment and opulence of houses of my country’s leaders. This left a lasting impression. I was shocked at the former president’s modest bungalow; no armed men, no retinue of staff, no hangers-on or thugs. The peace of the compound was however shattered when I was introduced to Soglo’s lanky son, an abrasive and self-conscious young man who served as his father’s media consultant.
There was no internet, so I actually came with a letter to Soglo’s house. On sighting my letter addressed to his father as “Chief Nicephore Soglo”, the young man charged. He wouldn’t see any of that. He was visibly angry and couldn’t hide his irritation as he thundered: “Why did you address my father as “Chief”? You (Nigerians) are our big brothers no doubt, but a chieftaincy title in your country is worthless; it is less than a penny. I personally feel insulted by this “Chief” title and for this reason; you will not interview my father today. Just go and come back”, he shouted.