Poor, Living Large By Okey Ndibe
I don’t know of a single African head of state who made a memorable speech during last week’s United Nations General Assembly. No African leader – and certainly not President Goodluck Jonathan – outlined a bold program for tackling the menace of poverty, or the rampant violence that is, in part, a by-product of deepening destitution. Yet, African delegates to the annual UN talkfest distinguished themselves in one department: living large.
A New York affiliate of NBC, one of America’s three major networks, highlighted the shame of African delegates living it up in New York City even as most of their citizens groan under the weight of poverty. Rather than sum up or paraphrase, I reproduce below the text of the report.
As diplomats congregate for the United Nations General Assembly, delegations from some of the poorest countries in the world are spending extravagantly in New York City while their homelands struggle, NBC 4 New York’s I-Team has discovered.
“The lavish spending is just endemic of autocratic politics as a whole,” said Alastair Smith, a politics professor from New York University and co-author of “The Diplomat’s Handbook.”
He believes the U.N.’s Manhattan address has become a distraction from the intended work of the General Assembly.
“They are here for the shopping, the food the wine, the dining. If it was in a less attractive place, I’m sure fewer people would want to come as hangers-on,” said Smith.
On Monday, I-Team cameras found several visitors with the U.N. delegation from Swaziland walking out of high-end retailer Bergdorf Goodman. The women had Bergdorf Goodman shopping bags, though they said the items inside were just gifts.
According to U.N. data, nearly 70 percent of Swazi people survive on less than $2 a day. The nation has one of the highest AIDS rates: 18 percent of the population is HIV positive.
Despite those struggles back home, numerous members of the Swaziland U.N. entourage are staying at the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the I-Team has learned.
Also staying at the Mandarin Oriental were members of the delegation from Togo. According to one U.N. report, 2.4 million Togolese citizens live on less than $1.25 a day.
Diplomats from Gabon were staying at the Plaza Hotel, where rooms go for a $1,000 to $15,000 a night.
Nigeria’s delegation is keeping five vehicles parked outside the Pierre Hotel where the cheapest room is about $800 a night – or roughly what most Nigerians earn in two years.
At the Waldorf-Astoria, where rooms are between $800 and $9,000 a night, the I-Team found the delegation from Mali, a country where 4.6 million people are battling starvation. A recent U.N. report found Mali is the third poorest nation in the world with a poverty rate near 87 percent.
To be fair, not every poor nation spent so much for hotel accommodations: Members of the Tanzania delegation were found staying at a DoubleTree hotel in Midtown.
Although it may be unseemly for diplomats from poor countries to live ostentatiously during their stays in Manhattan, advocates for business point out there is an undeniable upside to much of the diplomatic extravagance – the boon for New York City’s local economy.
“I don’t think it is really up to us to moderate the type of spending that comes from other countries. That’s their business,” said Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “What I’m concerned with is the economic impact on this city. I like the money. I want the money!”
None of the permanent missions to the UN from Togo, Swaziland, Gabon, Mali or Nigeria returned calls or emails relating to this story.
Nonprofits that monitor developing nations are also becoming increasingly sensitive to the issue of third world rulers spending lavishly abroad.
The group “100 Reporters” is actually holding a contest asking New Yorkers to snap photos of UN diplomats spending ostentatiously.
By one estimate, the ruling classes of third-world nations divert as much as $1 trillion from their developing economies to spend and invest the funds in the U.S. and other Western nations.
“The real underlying motivation for the movement of so much money out of developing countries is the hidden accumulation of wealth,” said Raymond Baker, executive director of Global Financial Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog that monitors capital flows into and out of impoverished countries.
“This is about getting rich secretly and not having to distribute those funds locally,” Baker said.
The report simply underscores why Nigeria and most of Africa’s 54 countries are in wretched shape. And why it’s so easy for American, Asian and European economies to exploit Africans. Notice the tone of indifference and naked self-interest in the statement by Ms. Ploeger of the New York Chamber of Commerce. The woman knows what’s good for her city; she doesn’t give a hoot if contemptible fools from Africa steal food from the lips of their disease-ravaged, impoverished masses to live like emperors in her city. She’s not ashamed to sing, “Come, wretched fools, to my glitzy city – and be parted from your cash!”
When Nigerian workers ask for modest increases in minimum wage, their president, governors and legislators intone that Nigeria is a poor country. When we ask that fuel subsidies be retained, World Bank-accredited government officials warn that we’re virtually broke. If we ask for improvements in infrastructure, we are told that the funds are not there.
But the same excuse-making officials must have presidential jets. They must fly first class to every corner of the globe to attend every conference, consequential or not. We must not tamper with their access to security votes and constituency allowance. If we catch them laundering money, we must never shout thief, thief; we must never interrupt their embezzling activities because the constitution grants them immunity from prosecution.
And so goes the charade. Whether at home or traveling abroad, many members of Africa’s ruling elite come across as tragic figures. I believe it was the late Ken Saro-Wiwa who once berated his fellows as conspicuous consumers of other people’s ideas and products.
In the late 1990s, a senior Nigerian bureaucrat visiting the US was proud to boast that, by looking at the headlights of any Mercedes Benz car, he was able to tell the car’s year and model. He revealed this great prowess of his to a company that included two Caucasian American academics, their Nigerian colleague, and me. In unison, the two Americans said, “Amazing!” The visiting fool thought he had impressed the heck out of them – and so he spent time elaborating on his extraordinary knowledge of Benzes. The rest of us from Nigeria felt ashamed. After the bureaucrat had left, one of the American professors turned to us. A derisive expression on his face, he exclaimed, “What a guy! He knows everything about a German-designed luxury car!”
It all boils down to a deep inferiority complex. When the privileged classes from Africa are let loose on the world’s big cities – whether it’s Paris, London, New York, Toronto, Tokyo, Hong Kong, or Frankfurt – they light up with child-like excitement. They have arrived, they think. They feel themselves set apart from their fellow citizens’ grim experience. They want to stay in the priciest hotels and eat at the most expensive restaurants. They go on a shopping binge, hitting the most exclusive shops.
In all that infantile glee, they forget – these sorry characters – that the cities whose flamboyance, dazzle or fashionable air they relish were conceived, designed and built by men and women like themselves. Incapable of dreaming beyond their greed, hampered by their mental enslavement, they are content to shop as if there would be no tomorrow. They never pause for a moment to consider that their shopping is often underwritten by massive looting. And that the resources they loot and transfer to Europe, America and Asia account for the poverty that crushes millions of their fellow citizens.
The wife of Nigeria’s president is in a hospital in Germany recovering from we know not what. Yet, has it occurred to Mr. Jonathan that the late Ghanaian president, John Atta Mills, was not flown abroad for treatment? Has his wife’s illness instructed Mr. Jonathan to set out a plan to revamp healthcare in Nigeria – to offer other ailing Nigerians access to meaningful care? That remains to be seen.
There are many Malians, Swazis, Togolese and Nigerians living in New York City. Why didn’t they come out to protest the senseless profligacy of their diplomats? Why must it take an American television network to expose the folly of our “leaders” who waste the continent’s scarce funds to live it up?
In the words of the Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah, why are we so blest?