Tuesday, March 13, 2012

JFK and Balewa: The First Satellite Telephone Conversation between Heads of State

Recently the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library opened its vaults with huge trove of information about the Kennedy administration. One of the most salient is the transcript and audio of the first satellite telephone conversation between an American president and the head of government of Nigeria-Sir Tafawa Balewa. This historic conversation happened during the launch of the satellite telecommunication system in the United States. The audio conversation was not only saved by the Kennedy White House staff, they also made diligent efforts to transcribe and save the transcript of the conversation. Links to both can be found at Max Siollun’s Website

Few things jumped at me as I listened to the conversation and read the transcript, one as I stated above is the diligence with which those who transcribe the telephone conversation took in ensuring the accuracy of the information. The second is the confidence and erudition of the Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa. This was clearly different from the caricatures portrayed by the Nigerian media, north and south of the prime minister. Most of the post independence press in the north, often portrayed Sir Balewa as a stooge of the Sardauna of Sokoto, while the southern press viewed him as an irredentist ethnic jingoist who is totally disinterested in ruling Nigeria and as such was ignorant of current affairs in any other part of Nigeria. The prime minister, not only speak in a clear and convincing manner about his interest in satellite telecommunication, but went further to celebrate and bragged about the exploits of Dick Tiger, a Nigerian boxer who beats an American boxer. He reminded President Kennedy that it was a very great day for all Nigerian when Tiger beats an American boxer to win the title.

This goes to show that many of the myth Nigerian have about their leadership could be exploded by bold efforts to enforce the Freedom of Information Act, recently signed into law. Our country need to start taking information dissemination seriously. Many polls show that Nigerians do not trust their leaders. Many more believed that Nigerian leadership is riddled with corruption and hardly think about policies before they announce them. It is hard to blame them for such conclusion as we have had presidents who announced many policies with much fanfare only to rolled same policies back when they are suddenly confronted with the negative impact on the public; most of which would have been apparent by a little bit of scrutiny.

As I reiterated in another piece on similar topics it is incumbent on Nigerian political leaders to analyze every public policy before they announce such, examining the alternatives and showing a rational plan that will get us to the goals and objectives of such policies. The Freedom of Information Act will help us learn from our mistakes as it has more upside than downside. The days of making decisions with little or no regards to its impact on the people should be a thing of the past. I doubt if the National Archive have a recording of Balewa ‘s conversation with President Kennedy and even if they do, it may be unreachable to mortals like us. Our presidential system of government needs an extreme makeover with its information management.

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