Saturday, September 15, 2007
By Farooq A. Kperogi
This article is a sequel to my piece on Oprah Winfrey’s alleged condemnation of Nigerians. If you recall, a letter to the editor in a Nigerian newspaper accused Oprah of saying that all Nigerians, irrespective of their social status, are criminals. This sequel did not come immediately after my Oprah piece because I was distracted by other issues.
I showed in my previous piece that the statement attributed to Oprah was a cheap fabrication by a Nigerian resident in the United States who was probably discomfited by the negative attention that Oprah’s show on 419 scams drew to Nigerians.
So what has this got to do with Orji Uzor Kalu, the boisterous former governor of Abia State who is standing trial (or is he?) for allegedly laundering 3.1 billion naira belonging to his state? Everything, if you ask me.
In what seemed like an uncanny self-fulfilling prophecy, about the time Oprah allegedly said all Nigerians are criminals irrespective of their education and social status, news filtered through that the former governor forged a letter from the Brigham Women’s Hospital in the state of Massachusetts in northeastern United States. The letter, purportedly written by a Dr. Black to Orji Kalu, requested the former governor’s presence in America for his wife’s surgery.
The letter reads in part:
“The Brain Tumour Programme at Brigham and Women‘s Hospital and Dana Farber Cancer Institute provides a multi-disciplinary brain tumour clinics in radiation therapy, chemotherapy and neurosurgery, a tumour board and radio surgery evaluation and is a closely-coordinated effort between Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women‘s Hospital.
“A comprehensive evaluation and long-time management of your spouse‘s present health condition… necessitates a repeat of neurosurgery of the nervous system….
“This decision was reached at our board meeting on Friday, July 27, 2007.
“At present, based on our evaluation, Ifeoma‘s basic cognition is inadequate to offer consent for this surgery to proceed.
“We, therefore, as required by Massachusetts General Law, request your presence to offer your consent as next-of-kin for this immediate needed care to proceed.
“Please be advised that your immediate attention is required as the surgery is scheduled for Wednesday, August 8, 2007 at 6.30 a.m. ....”
On the basis of this fraudulent letter, Kalu asked the Federal High Court in Abuja to grant him permission to travel to the United States. “I have just received information through Victor Onochie (by fax) to the effect that my wife is due for a major surgery on 8th August in Brigham and Women‘s Hospital in Massachusetts, USA,” he has been quoted to have said in many Nigerian newspapers.
But a U.S.-based, Nigerian-owned muckraking online news outlet called pointblanknews.com found out that the letter from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital was, in fact, a forgery. “When Pointblanknews.com confronted the Hospital with the letter,” the online news outlet said, “Dr. Kwan said, ‘that is not Dr. Peter Black’s signature. It is obviously forged. This hospital does not issue such letters.’” It further quoted the doctor to have said, “This is strange and we are not taking it lightly. We are looking into it and we might require the police to come in.”
The Punch newspaper, apparently instigated by the pointblanknews.com scoop, did a follow-up and found exactly the same information: that the letter was forged. (The Punch story can be found here: (http://www.punchontheweb.com/Articl.aspx?theartic=Art2007081323505068).
It was, of course, easy to tell straight away that the letter was counterfeit. The spellings in the letter are decidedly British. Tumor is spelled as “tumour” and program is spelled as “programme.” From my experience, most Americans are not even familiar with these alternative British spellings, much less use them even in error.
What is more, there is a lot in the language of the letter that reminds one of the ubiquitous 419 email propositions that promise people unimaginable fortunes if only they can part with a little “advance fee.” I have done a rhetorical and linguistic analysis of Nigerian 419 email scams elsewhere, and I am not about to bore you with that here.
So, about the same time that a US-based Nigerian letter writer alleged that Oprah said all Nigerians are fraudulent regardless of their social status, a former Nigerian state governor was caught pants down in a sensationally criminal falsification of the documents of another country’s hospital. Supposing Oprah actually said what she was falsely accused to have said, would Kalu’s embarrassing forgery not be an eloquent vulgar empiricist endorsement of that statement?
Interestingly, it is a Nigerian who has been circulating and giving wider significance to this stereotype by falsely ascribing it to Oprah Winfrey. As psychologists have known for ages, the potential for self-fulfilling stereotyping is often great. The influential American eugenicist Arthur Jensen characterizes this as the "stereotype threat" by which he means that people who feel stereotyped, who have been stereotyped all their lives, tend to act according to that stereotype, or inadvertently authorize it, often despite themselves.
If the American news media get hold of this story, they will certainly have a field day with it, and this will only fertilize the misleading stereotype that Nigerians, irrespective of their social status, are corrupt. And it’s only a matter of time before this happens. Our international reputational capital is up for another diminution.
It is truly a tragedy that someone with Orji Kalu’s antecedents and quality of mind can rise to become governor of a state. The rumor mills in Nigeria have been rife with stories of how Orji Kalu became rich, and I am not about to repeat them here lest I should be sued for libel.
But what kind of human being will childishly forge a letter from America in this age of dizzying cross-border data flow on the information superhighway that makes it exceedingly possible for just about everything to be confirmed or disconfirmed with the mere click of the mouse? If this man gives a clue to the quality of minds of the people who govern us, it is little wonder that we are stuck in perpetual infancy as a nation.
Sadly, I have not read a lot of editorial commentaries in the Nigerian media on this truly disturbing development. And, worse, our government appears to be either unaware of or simply insouciant about this ponderous transnational crime by a Nigerian as politically consequential as a former state governor. What does this say about us as a country?
How can we convince anyone that we are not a nation of scammers when a former state governor willfully forges a letter from another country’s institutions and tenders it to a court of law without any consequences? This is an embarrassing international relations fiasco that the Yar’Adua administration cannot afford to ignore. It is at the core of any effort to recoup our fast depleting international reputation.
The truth is that most human beings are vulgar empiricists. They form inferences and conclusions on the basis of few, unrepresentative instances. The stereotype of Indians as miserly bums, of southeast Asians as smart people, of Germans as cold, of Britons as humorless, of Americans as ignorant of the world outside their domestic confines, etc are based on inaccurate generalizations to whole populations on the basis of the actions of a few prominent people. It is unrealistic to expect people not think the way they do about us given the notoriety of a few prominent people among us in scams and high-profile forgeries.
But we can do something about it: confront the problem frontally. The EFCC, in spite of its severe limitations which I have had cause to point out in the past, did a great job of giving hell to fraudsters who defile our image abroad. But we now have an exuberant and apparently ignorant and power-drunk attorney-general who is determined to hamstring the EFCC and reverse the modest gains it has recorded over the past couple of years. Where does that leave us?