Commonwealth handshake with Welsh legislators

 Published in THE PUNCH on 18 March 2007

Casmir Igbokwe

Mark Lungu will not forget last Tuesday in a hurry. The ranking of his country, Malawi, among the world poorest had saddened him. He had also expressed worry that his country’s government was unstable; and that it had a high rate of corruption, unemployment, inflation, HIV victims and brain drain. But, one thing brought happiness to his soul: He shook hands with Assembly Members in Wales. This may not be any big deal to some people. But, as this PhD student put it, “I have never had a chance to shake hands with parliamentarians in my country.”

Lungu did not just shake hands. He, together with fellow participants, wined and dined with the lawmakers. It was at the celebration of the Commonwealth Day at the National Assembly for Wales. A select group of international students had been invited to mark the day with Assembly Members. The students exchanged banters and showed some pride in their countries’ achievements. Ghanaian friends, for instance, reminded us of the recent defeat of our national team by the Black Stars. We told them that Nigeria had been beating Ghana in the past. But that the recent defeats were just concessions from a big brother with a large heart. We also informed the loquacious Ghanaians that we had been exporting electricity to their country. They agreed, but quickly said it was a temporary measure.

At a point, some of us tried to change the topic. Some slipped away to mingle with other groups. I made as though I wanted to make a phone call but left to join a group from other nationalities. There again, a certain white lady faced me. “Where are you from,” she asked. Immediately I said Nigeria, the lady intoned, “terrible, horrible”.

Brimming with patriotism, I charged her to explain what she meant. She said she had lived in Port Harcourt and Enugu. In Port Harcourt, she recalled, her heart was always in her mouth. In Enugu some gunmen once waylaid her and some others. “And your police always collect money at gunpoint,” she concluded. I attempted to make some laborious explanations. But I was relieved when the organisers asked us to move into the Assembly chambers for the main business of the day.

There, speakers from different Commonwealth countries made presentations to a panel of Assembly Members. Ms Noor Sulaiman painted a glossy picture of Brunei. Marie-Eve Lemieux gave a good account of Canada. Patrena Brooks invited anybody who cares to come to Jamaica and experience what enjoyment means. Shu Li Tan from Malaysia said her country had made some progress in recent times.

African representatives also displayed some patriotism. Dube Hass from South Africa draped himself in his country’s national flag. He spoke glowingly of Dr Nelson Mandela. He narrated some good stories about his country, but regretted that HIV/AIDS had done some damage to it. His aunt, for instance, died of the disease and left behind five children.

Ms Magdeline Mannathoko, a PhD student, gave a good account of Botswana. She recalled that her country was once described as the poorest country in the world. Today, according to her, Botswana is the richest non-oil producing country in Africa. It has moved from a least developed country in 1966 to a mid income status today. The government sponsors students within and outside Botswana. And in 2001, the country was voted the least corrupt African country by Transparency International.

For Uganda, the story is different. Musaazi Namiti started by painting a beautiful image of the country. Part of the success stories of this country, which will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November, is that it is a model for combating AIDS in Africa. However, after some decades in power, President Yoweri Museveni changed the constitution to extend his tenure. He is intolerant of opposition. And, according to Namiti, he authorises the police to disperse political rallies.

Nigeria? Well, we are unique in many ways. While other speakers from other countries were mainly Masters and PhD students, Nigeria’s representative was a 15-year-old secondary school boy. It was as if the organisers were suspicious of what adult Nigerians would say. The boy, Okechukwu Ukachukwu, did not disappoint. Despite being the youngest in the gathering, he exuded confidence and greatness. He extolled Nigeria’s peacekeeping prowess in trouble spots in Africa. He enthused that Heineken was building one of its largest beer factory in Nigeria. And when he asked all Nigerians to stand up for recognition, he proudly said, “As you can see, we are the giant of Africa.”

A few Nigerians in the gathering shouted yea! Akwugo Amucheazi, a postgraduate student, pumped up and raised her hands in a black power salute. At this stage, I eyed my Ghanaian friends and saw some mischievous smiles playing around their lips. Although Ukachukwu also mentioned erratic power supply, corruption, poor infrastructure and preponderance of poverty as ills plaguing Nigeria, we still moved about with pride. After all, if a lion does not roar, even sheep will not recognise its superiority and power. After observing the plenary session of the Assembly, we went back home.

As I opened my e-mail box to check for new messages, a forwarded message from Dr Aminu Garba Magashi of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine confronted me. It was an attached picture of an overnight patient facilities in a comprehensive primary health care centre said to be run by Etche Local Government of Rivers State. Originally sourced from Human Rights Watch, the picture shows some decrepit beds without mattresses. The room looks very dirty and the floor caked with mud. The centre reportedly lacks toilet facilities and other basic amenities. Below this picture is another one showing the aircraft purchased a few years ago by Governor Peter Odili.

As Magashi puts it, “If President Obasanjo, Vice President Atiku, Governor Yar’ Adua, Governor Odili and many others are made to go to hospitals in Nigeria, may be they will fix the health care issues…We shall never give up. We shall continue to raise issues until the right people step in to make changes.”

I quickly shut down my computer and decided to have some rest. Just as I climbed my bed to sleep, two text messages came into my phone simultaneously. The first one was from Joe, my neighbour in Lagos. And the message was short: “Alhaji Anthony (my landlord) is dead. He died yesterday and was buried today.” The second message was from my wife’s friend in Port Harcourt popularly called mama Nneka. Her message was also short: “I lost my younger brother. He has been buried.”

Not wanting to end this supposedly beautiful day on a depressing note, I started humming some Christian songs. That became the lullaby that brought sleep to my tired eyes. I dozed off, singing “we shall overcome” in my dream.                        

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