Nigerian Diaspora Turns Mandarin Hotel Into Town Hall Debate

Sandra Dafiaghor made sure that Sunday breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington had a Nigerian feel to it.

She led a group of about 30 Nigerians yesterday who commandeered a dining room at the luxury hotel to make sure that President Goodluck Jonathan heard what they had to say about power shortages, worsening security in the country and the kidnapping of schoolgirls in the northeast by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. Jonathan, 56, is participating in the three-day U.S.-Africa Summit, an initiative of President Barack Obama that aims to bring about 40 African heads of state together with American investors to spur investment and trade.

“We’re working on being recognized,” Dafiaghor, the 47-year-old acting chairwoman of the Nigerians In Diaspora Organization, said in an interview. “We want to be part of the agenda. It would be better served if we were at the table between Obama and Jonathan.”

Jonathan is facing pressure at home for failing to stem the insurgency by Boko Haram, which Human Rights Watch estimates killed at least 2,053 people in the first half of this year. Criticism intensified after more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the group in April and still haven’t been found. The abduction sparked a global campaign, called BringBackOurGirls, spurred on by social media platforms such as Twitter.

Jonathan “needs to show more kindness and empathy to the suffering people that he governs,” Victor Ume-Ukeje, a managing director at Piper Jaffray & Co., the Minneapolis-based investment firm, said in an e-mail today. “Sometimes he seems so overwhelmed.”

Impromptu Talks

Dafiaghor and her associates are on the fringes of the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit because civil-society groups have been mostly excluded from the conference. They are trying to make sure their voices are heard as they follow policy makers around town.

After a two-hour wait yesterday, Doyin Okupe, a spokesman for Jonathan, walked into the breakfast room that overlooks the Potomac River wearing a white tunic. The Nigerian diaspora group hastily re-fashioned the room into a town hall where the audience fired questions to Okupe about Boko Haram, entrepreneurship and governance. Most of the group wore green T-shirts with “BringBackOurGirls” and “UnitedAgainstBokoHaram.”

“The impression that the government was asleep, that the government didn’t act, isn’t correct,” Okupe said. “We are exploring all possibilities and the priority is to get them back alive. We are in a very tricky situation.”

Expanding Cooperation

Jonathan is scheduled to discuss expanding cooperation between Nigeria and the U.S. in areas “including the war against terrorism” with “key” American political, security and business leaders before he returns home on Aug. 6, presidency spokesman Reuben Abati said in a Aug. 2 statement.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also plans to hold talks with U.S. companies in Washington this week to help improve airport security in the country. The government is determined to do whatever it takes to eradicate al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia to prevent East Africa’s biggest economy from becoming enmeshed in fighting a Nigeria-type insurgency, Kenyatta said in an Aug. 2 interview in the capital, Nairobi.

Dafiaghor, who lives in Munster, Indiana, and is one of about 1,000 members of the non-profit group, said she hopes these impromptu talks with government officials graduate to an official discussion.

“We would like a more formal meeting,” she said. “This is a good way to start.”

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