In Wole Soyinka’s Republic of Liars, the former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, has a permanent place.
The treatise of Professor Wole Soyinka’s book is not my preoccupation at this time.
The real bee in my bonnet is the most recent social and economic lies told by Mr. Obasanjo.
Last week, nearly 15 years after Obasanjo signed the death warrant for innocent Nigerians by defiantly bringing the British American Tobacco to Nigeria against all interventions, and at a time the tobacco multinationals have agreed that their products kill, if used as intended, we are served with another tale from a winebibber. This time, it is about BAT’s milestone, faith and investment in Nigeria.
At the unveiling of the British American Tobacco’s regional headquarters in Lagos last week, the man described as “irredeemable egomaniac and Double-O-Seven” by Soyinka, shocked the world when he said: “Almost a decade and a half after the signing of the MoU, we are again at BAT to witness another milestone. I’m particularly delighted because this head office building showcases faith in Nigeria and BAT’s continued investment in Nigeria. With the warning on cigarette packs, the government and tobacco companies have fully discharged their duties. We cannot sacrifice the huge benefits BAT brings to the economy.”
As I bent my head to check the carefully crafted words used in the newspapers, I chuckled at the egregious claims made by Obasanjo to launder the image of a company that prioritise profits over public health.
Of course, my mind equally raced back to the dubious waiver a killer company like BATN enjoyed in Nigeria at the behest of Obasanjo during his cling to power and after he left office.
I can also relate Obasanjo’s romance with the BATN to why his daughter, Senator Iyabo Obasanjo, who served as the Chair of the Health Committee in 2009 barked at me, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (who was then appearing as a litigation lawyer) and Hajia Maryam Uwais (who showed up for Nigerian kids), Akinbode Oluwafemi, who led the civil society groups and a host of others, when we tried to bring her on the side of the truth during a public hearing on National Tobacco Control Bill at the National Assembly.
Undoubtedly, Obasanjo and the British American Tobacco Nigeria, cleverly choose this time, when Nigeria faces economic downturn to prop up the image of a killer company. I will not be surprised to know that the next thing on Obasanjo’s schedule is to take the BATN Managing Director, Chris McAllister, to the Aso Rock, on a manipulative visit to President Muhammadu Buhari.
Already, McAllister has used the phrase “economic development partner” to make a push for the strategic importance of the BATN to our economy, though BATN is known for its deceit, dishonesty and unethical conduct.
“As an economic development partner, we believe that by highlighting and celebrating the values and attributes that are unique to the Nigerian nation, the private sector can assist the government to achieve its global objectives. We are an ideal model of how, if properly structured, foreign direct investment can spur economic development,” McAllister told bigwigs and reporters at the event.
How can BATN be an “ideal model” for business practice in Nigeria, when the cigarette manufacturer has been mentioned in several reports as undermining the global public health law, the WHO- Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), to which Nigeria is a party, but the country has been unable to implement the law due to BATN’s manipulation on government agencies?
To be clear, Article 5.3 of the FCTC requires Parties to protect public health policies from tobacco industry involvement. So deals with tobacco companies won’t solve the tobacco epidemic.
Smoking-related diseases like cancer continue to cause six million deaths a year globally, making tobacco the largest preventable cause of death, according to health experts.
In Africa BAT is increasing its future fortunes, where the number of adult smokers on the continent is projected to increase from 77 million in 2013 to 572 million by the end of the century and Nigeria is strategic to that increase.
Really, it was disheartening to see the Senate Committee Chairman on Trade and Investment, Senator Sam Egwu, appeared at the unveiling of the BATN headquarters to pay tributes to the killer company.
Did Egwu go to the Senate to undermine public health policies that seek to protect his constituents or how did he descend so low after serving as a minister of education and as a governor not to understand what he was doing when he said “BATN seems to be leading” in growing our economy.
We know by now that Obasanjo and Chief Kola Jamodu have more than a fleeting interest in BATN, but it’s difficult to understand why the new Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, who’s already enjoying great goodwill across the country, will associate himself with a company whose internal documents show that it makes blood money by poisoning our people on a massive scale.
To be sure, internal BAT documents reveal the details of its bad behaviour in Nigeria that this same company will not dare engage in the United States, United Kingdom or other western countries.
For instance, a 1991 marketing report prepared for BAT in the United Kingdom shows the company’s awareness that people in Nigeria tend to start smoking as young children. “New smokers enter the market at a very early age in many cases, as young as 8 or 9 years seems to be quite common. Most of our respondents had started smoking before they left junior school. … Initially, smoking is motivated by curiosity and a desire to ‘look big’, but it rapidly becomes a habit and a necessity,” the document reveals.
BAT also knew how underage youth in Nigeria usually obtain cigarettes, according to the marketing report: “Young illicit smokers prefer to buy sticks [single cigarettes] (except when they are going out for the evening), as they can smoke them straight away in the street and avoid the problem of detection.”
Also, the BAT document acknowledges that “few, if any, [Nigerian] smokers have really taken the dangers of smoking on board.” Ostensibly, Nigeria is a particularly fertile market for marketing cigarettes because of widespread ignorance about the health hazards of smoking.
Documents like the one cited above can be easily found at the BAT Documents Archive by searching for “Nigeria,” “youth” and “marketing.” I personally did, when on a research fellowship at the University of Pretoria in 2004.
Most recently, BAT faces investigation that could see its executives go to jail in the United States, if the allegation that itengaged in widespread bribery of politicians and policymakers in Africa to protect its corporate reputation and to cover up scandals is confirmed.
Finally, I was bemused to hear the Oyo State Deputy Governor, Moses Adeyemo, say that the BAT has “made positive impact” in the state with more than one billion naira paid in taxes, yet the state relies on bailout from the federal government not to shut down.
It is high time Nigeria faced facts: the country must choose between protecting public health by implementing the tobacco control law with the FCTC provisions and taking the blood money.
This article first appeared in THISDAY