As the February 2023 presidential election draws closer, the British Royal Institute of International Affairs, popularly known as the Chatham House, has become the political Mecca of the leading presidential contenders in Nigeria. Between 5 December 2022 and 18 January 2023, three leading presidential candidates, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Peter Gregory Obi and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, visited the Chatham House, while the fourth, Atiku Abubakar, opted for a separate meeting with the British government officials in London. This pilgrimage by Nigeria’s frontline presidential candidates to the Chatham House is highly problematic for various reasons.
The Chatham House prides itself on being a world-leading policy institute with a mission to help governments and societies build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world through dialogue, research and leadership. Accordingly, the Chatham House has hosted a broad spectrum of world leaders and speakers, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Uhuru Kenyatta, Benjamin Netanyahu, Joe Biden, Muhammadu Buhari, Atiku Abubakar, William Ruto, Raila Odinga, and so on. With respect to Africa, however, there is more to these events than meets the eye. Beyond its stated mission, and as one of the think tanks largely funded by the British government, the Chatham House continues to serve as a listening post for the British establishment to advance British interests in Africa. Hence, the political pilgrimage, far from elevating the international stature of African politicians, portrays them as servants of the neo-colonial order and perpetuates the idea that only those validated by foreign powerhouses are worthy of leadership positions in Africa.
The evidence of this is how some of the leading presidential candidates in Nigeria, especially Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), have unrepentantly avoided all local media, conferences and presidential debates like a plague. In August 2022, Tinubu did not honour the invitation to attend the annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association, which was attended by Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Labour Party (LP) respectively. One month later, Tinubu refused to attend the 2023 Election Peace Pact organised by the National Peace Committee. It is, therefore, ironical that he was the first presidential candidate to honour the Chatham House invitation on 5 December 2022. Needless to say, his disposition smacks of a loathsome attitude towards the Nigerian media and other domestic structures of political scrutiny, correspondingly launching his adulation of the foreign outlets and platforms. This clearly suggests that Tinubu is rehearsing the same hymn book which President Muhammadu Buhari has been singing from given the latter’s uncompromising preference for granting media interviews to foreign journalists, especially in foreign lands, while often ignoring the opportunity of speaking to the people he’s leading through local media outlets.
To make matters worse, all the candidates who have graced the Chatham event have not considered the Nigerian equivalence of the Chatham House―the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) and the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS)―as worthy platforms to share their campaign manifestoes. Perhaps with the exception of the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Prince Adewole Adebayo, no other candidate has used the NIIA platform to share their political programmes with Nigerian voters ahead of the February and March 2023 elections.
These meetings in foreign lands also reinforce the perception among Africans that these invitations present opportunities for Western power barons to assess various stands relative to their interests and broker behind-the-scene deals with would-be elected African officials – a slippery slope for perpetuating corruption on the continent at the expense of African constituencies.
Worst still, while Nigeria among other African countries boasts of a large diaspora community in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, there is little to no willingness among Nigerian leading presidential candidates to engage these communities and try to win their support. The only exception is Peter Obi of the LP who travelled across Europe and the Americas between August and September 2022 to hold town hall meetings with the Nigerian diaspora communities. Unlike Peter Obi’s 2022 global tour, the futility of the Chatham House jamboree comes to the fore when related to the extant electoral laws in Nigeria which do not recognise diaspora voting. This abnormality and the rush for the Chatham House events among Nigerian politicians betray their insatiable search for neo-colonial validation.
More than 60 years after the European colonial domination of Africa, Nigerian elites still suffer from a seemingly incurable colonial mentality which shows a preference for anything that comes from Europe and America, including medical treatment, education, tourism, fashion, food and beverages, and automobile. Hence, it is not surprising that the Chatham House political extravaganza is glamorised as a major feat by the invited presidential contenders and their army of supporters.
Chatham House provides the intellectual foundation stone for the formulation and implementation of the British foreign policy in Africa and elsewhere. And this is why caution must be exercised given the tumultuous relations between Africa and the British government, especially the latter’s history of political interference in Africa’s internal affairs. In line with its perennial divide-and-rule tactics in Africa, Britain considers opposition politics important to its political and economic calculus because it (opposition politics) is used to control those who win elections in case they choose to become recalcitrant and antagonistic to their neo-colonial patrons. It is, therefore, not surprising that the invitees were the four frontline presidential candidates in Nigeria, who are seen as potential presidents or major opposition figures.
Most importantly, it is unrealistic to expect Africa to command the respect of the international community when its leaders are constantly searching for western validation. No western politician has ever considered African think tanks as worthy platforms to discuss issues that affect their domestic environments. More than 60 years after colonialism, African leaders and politicians should begin to conscientiously address issues that continue to feed into the historical and external manipulation of internal African affairs to the advantage of foreign political and economic interests. This is the surest way to promote a world order where the relationship between Africa and its global partners is based on mutual respect for the sovereign integrity of nation-states rather than patron-clientelism.