There was COVID-19 outbreak in China and that country arrested the first Chinese doctor to break the news. Accused of disseminating false information, the doctor eventually died. What Chinese authorities do to foreigners, especially Africans, in cities with COVID-19 risks is also in the news. Lately, Nigerians were arrested and thrown into the streets. The social media broke the news, showing pictures of how blacks were despicably treated.
In those early days, I expected preliminary remarks from Tafawa Balewa House, Abuja. I thought Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, would remind all nations that ill-treatment of Nigerians, such as the one alleged and shown on social media, wouldn’t be tolerated by Nigeria. There was nothing. When Onyeama spoke much later, after meeting the Chinese ambassador, he gave reasons why China maltreated Nigerians. He said only Nigerians suspected of having COVID-19 but who refused to isolate themselves were manhandled. At a time the Chinese ambassador should face the press and do all the sweating while defending the action of his country, our minister spoke for him. It meant he took the Chinese at their word.
At that stage in the matter, our Foreign Affairs minister shouldn’t have done this. Going by the perception Nigerians have always had when such events occurred, nothing Onyeama said should have been read to mean he believed the Chinese, and that our people were wrong. But it was what happened. I know our people are not easy. But I also know the Chinese too are not easy, and I was fairly familiar with their authoritarian approach since the time I wrote my undergraduate degree project on foreign interventions in the war of independence in Angola decades ago. On April 16, 2020, the BBC showed a Nigerian in China who was locked up like an animal in a zoo. This Nigerian said Americans and Europeans weren’t forcefully locked up, but Africans like him were. Hours before Onyeama explained what the Chinese did to Nigerians, Aljazeera TV aired an interview programme where the manner Africans were treated lately in China was discussed. There was this Chinese discussant who aggressively presented his government as one that could never make mistakes. It’s the usual approach adopted by all Chinese officials; they never admit their government does anything wrong, an approach that delegitimises even any believable argument they might have.
Yet, this was a government that had a Chinese scientist arrested for informing fellow scientists about the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan Province where it first happened. Till date, China didn’t officially acknowledge it was wrong to have had the scientist arrested. Postings on social media of the real situation regarding COVID-19 in their communities were generally taken down by the Chinese government. A one-party state, China aggressively forbids people from really expressing dissenting views. Human rights as we know them in liberal democracies are belittled, and China demonstrates this in its effort to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. The Uighur Chinese Muslims are still trending. This ethnic group was repressed in the name of curbing terrorism. No one approves of terror activities. But when an entire ethnic group was treated as though they were all terrorists, for the offences of a handful of extremists, it should be concerning. Only an authoritarian regime behaves this way, and it’s this government Onyeama takes at its word.
Now, praises have been heaped on the Chinese for their economic achievements. But at what cost? I prefer my liberty to material things. Meanwhile, I’ve always applauded the Chinese for providing an alternative to the West that sometimes conducts itself with arrogance.
So, China isn’t my focus here, but the manner Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs minister chooses to explain their action. This is what we generally get from most of our foreign affairs ministers. I can’t recall one that sounds the kind of firm note which makes Nigerians applaud whenever our citizens are maltreated abroad. Whoever listens to British and American foreign affairs handlers when their citizens are maltreated understand my point. We don’t have the power that those nations have, and I don’t recommend any form of rascal behaviour. But at least, we can reassure our people that our government is on their side, striking a firm pose as the UK and the US do, letting it be known that we’ll pay in the same coin if we investigate an occurrence and find infractions. Generally, maltreatment of our citizens is ever met with indecision, lame excuses from our foreign affairs apparatuses, and then silence. We know offences committed by anyone in any country should follow a legal process. But our foreign affairs handlers generally overlook this. In the event, Nigerians are disappointed, believing their government hasn’t done enough for them and recalcitrant nations get away with high-handedness. How did we arrive at this point? One reason is that we’ve always had Foreign Affairs ministers who look out for themselves more than they look out for Nigerians. I shall explain.
Recently, I noted on this page that a cabinet minister intimidated a journalist, by saying the journalist could get into trouble for mentioning the name of the resident’s Chief of Staff over the COVID-19 outbreak. I pointed out that the minister concerned was looking over his shoulders to ensure he didn’t displease those he considered his employers. I conclude by stating that this situation does more harm to our nation than we reckon. Now, it says something when foreign affairs ministers are too laidback to send preliminary strong signals to any nation, in the face of attacks, that we don’t expect them to maltreat Nigerians. Instead, our foreign affairs ministers wait for approval to even say the first set of firm words that should normally come from a foreign affairs minister who’s not looking over his shoulders for fear of losing his job. I also think they’re concerned about making foreign diplomatic friends so that they can seek other offices in the future more than they are in leaving good impressions on Nigerians.
As for foreign affairs ministers looking in fear over their shoulders, I refer to individuals in high places who have interest in ensuring that Nigeria doesn’t take commensurate measures against nations that maltreat our citizens. It’s in the interest of such individuals that we have foreign affairs ministers who are timid, so that action is never taken against nations they lobby for in our polity. It’s in this kind of atmosphere our foreign affairs ministers operate. Otherwise, what stops Onyeama, as soon as it was established that our citizens were being inhumanely treated, from issuing a preliminary firm but diplomatic statement. In it, he could have called on the Chinese that Nigeria expected internationally accepted humane treatment for her citizens, no matter what their offences were. Instead, on the first occasion Onyeama addressed Nigerians on the matter at a press briefing, he was long on why Chinese officials threw our citizens on the streets. This shouldn’t be the business of our foreign affairs minister.
Onyeama wasn’t at that press briefing to clear the Chinese of any wrongdoing, so he shouldn’t have been long on words. He should have been tactfully brief, stating simply that our government was studying the submission made by the Chinese ambassador, and this would be compared with whatever our embassy in Beijing submitted. In addition, he should have said we equally wanted to hear directly from our maltreated citizens and know what happened in each person’s case; thereafter, our government would make its position known. He should then have reassured Nigerians that their government wouldn’t watch and allow them to be maltreated. None of this was in the short TV footage when Onyeama addressed the press. In the event, he didn’t come across looking good to Nigerians.
Our foreign affairs ministers have always demonstrated how insensitive they are to how Nigerians perceive them when matters of maltreatment of compatriots arise. If they were sensitive they wouldn’t be making the same mistakes all the time. That officials think their approach is diplomatically right isn’t all; there’s also a need to strategically avoid spurring negative feelings among Nigerians on such issues. In the face of established negative perception, Onyeama shouldn’t be taped publicly saying those things in which he practically justified the Chinese. It was a disappointing show that time. One can only wish it doesn’t repeat itself.