By Musa Ilallah
Reading Reuben Abati’s May 2 article (originally published in his ThisDay column, and widely syndicated) about Nigerians in Sudan, drove home again for me the fact that many Nigerian journalists need a masterclass in how not to denigrate their country falsely and needlessly; how not to downplay its positive attributes and commendable actions.
So much of that article feels like a desperate attempt to denigrate Nigeria by unfairly and inaccurately comparing her with other countries, who all happen to be stuck in the same situation as Nigeria, and have been struggling in the same way to figure out what to do about evacuations in a war situation filled with so much uncertainty and tension.
A senior journalist of his calibre, especially someone with high-level government experience, needs to do much better in terms of research and realism. It is not enough to be led by emotions, especially when those emotions are coloured by partisanship.
Abati has very uncomplimentary words for his country, words that are not rooted in fact, or in any reasonable assessment of the situation. He claimed, and I quote: “While the Sudanese are fighting, Nigerians are staging a backward drama of their own… the Nigerian government always disappoints, and that is precisely what they are doing in Sudan.”
None of the thousands of Nigerians who were safely evacuated from Ukraine, or the already close to 1,500 who have been safely evacuated from Sudan, will share this grossly exaggerated sentiment from Abati, especially not now that they are safely back home.
The random incidents he is holding on to can be explained easily in the context of a war. Drivers stopping in the middle of the desert and asking for more money is exactly the kind of opportunistic and exploitative behavior that happens in war zones and other times of crisis.
The fault here is human capacity to take advantage of the vulnerability of others, nothing else. We saw it during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when basic masks and hand sanitizers were being unscrupulously sold at multiples of their normal price.
A bus catching fire in Sudan is also not out of place, considering its one of the hottest countries in the world, with temperatures regularly in the 40s (degrees centigrade). A simple online search would have revealed this, and prevented Abati from exposing his ignorance in this way.
Abati also went on and on complaining about the Nigerian Air Force Hercules C-130, claiming they were “stranded”. This was clearly a hatchet piece by a man who has decided that he will not and is not capable of seeing anything good about anything Nigeria is doing to bring her citizens back home.
He then goes ahead to downplay President Buhari’s direct personal intervention with the Egyptian Government, which finally helped resolve the obstacles being posed by the Egyptians.
He also said: “Nigeria is being snubbed by Egypt… Or are we so hated diplomatically in Africa that nobody would offer our people easy passage […] Every African country treats us shabbily, especially the North African countries.”
On this point, it is very necessary to remind Abati that the last time Nigeria was deeply disrespected as a nation was back when he (Abati) served in Government. That was the era when Chad complained about Nigeria being absent in the fight against Boko Haram, and Morocco embarrassed the Nigerian Government by proving that an official claim that President Jonathan spoke by phone with the Moroccan King was false.
That was also the era when the US could not be convinced to approve critical arms sales for the country, because nobody in the international community trusted that government Abati served.
Under President Buhari, all of that has since changed for the better: one of Nigeria’s biggest agricultural deals has been with Morocco, the US has approved for Nigeria the largest US arms deal ever done in sub-Saharan Africa, and Nigeria has been the major funder and enabler of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF).
As for the question Abati asked, “Do we have a functioning Naval vessel that can provide transportation from Port Sudan to Nigeria, or do we need to hire Navy transportation?”
The answer is a very proud YES. A year ago, Nigeria took delivery of the NNS KADA, a brand-new Landing Ship Tank (LST) that has the capacity to do the needed evacuation work in the Sudan. Abati should be reminded that it is under President Buhari that the Navy is acquiring these important new vessels that were last purchased in the 1970s and 1980s.
It should also be noted that NNS KADA has been on standby just in case it is required. But so far, this has not been necessary – the Air Force supported by local airlines are up to the task, and flying is in these circumstances more efficient than sailing.
For Nigeria to deploy a ship, it is a journey that will go around the northern or southern coast of Africa, covering thousands of nautical miles, and that will take over three weeks to complete. This is why the air option was settled on as the most ideal for Nigeria. In the time that the Navy’s NNS KADA will take to sail to Sudan, the Air Force C-130 would be able to do several trips.
When Abati praises Somalia for being able to “rescue its nationals from Sudan,” and goes on to attack Nigeria, Abati is exposing his shocking ignorance of basic African geography. By reason of geography, countries like Kenya and Somalia will definitely find it much easier and quicker to evacuate their people, ahead of Nigeria, which is in a different region entirely.
I wonder if Abati knows that the US, UK, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, China, and Saudi Arabia maintain permanent Military Bases in Djibouti, right there at the mouth of the Red Sea, and a much shorter sailing distance to Sudan than from West Africa. Which means their deployment time is much less than for countries that do not have bases in the region.
Abati said “my own country is busy telling Moonlight tales.” If anybody is telling moonlight tales here, it is this senior journalist who should know better, but is instead allowing partisan bias and a tendency to believe the worst of his country, to overpower and mislead him.
Just to remind Abati again, as of Monday May 8, 2023, there have been five daily batches of evacuations of Nigerians in Sudan, as follows: 129 on May 8, 834 on May 7, 131 on May 6, 130 on May 5, and 380 on May 3. Making a total of 1,604 so far, with the flights scheduled to continue into the week. Nigeria is doing right for its citizens, despite obstacles, and it should not be a crime to be honest in acknowledging this.
With all of these in mind, the least one expects from Abati, as a responsible and respected journalist, is a more honest and more responsibly-framed update to that hatchet job article.
Musa Ilallah writes from Abuja, Nigeria