Elk Grove leaders over the weekend abruptly backed out of a proposed sister-city relationship with a Nigerian city after learning of escalating sectarian violence and human rights atrocities in its region.
“It was obvious that this had to be stopped immediately,” Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis said Monday.
Elk Grove had a pending partnership with the northern Nigerian city of Katsina and was expected to host its traditional leader, called an emir, later this month. Emirs do not hold public office in Nigeria, but they are influential figures who hold sway with regional and national political leaders. Katsina is about 335 miles north of the Nigerian capital Abuja.
Elk Grove officials relied on a recommendation by a sister cities advisory committee that falsely claimed support from state and congressional leaders. The city in January formally invited Emir Abdulmumini Usman to the city, according to a copy of a letter provided by city officials Monday.
“A lot of information has come to light – the human rights violations that occurred. It’s not the kind of city we’d want to partner with,” Davis said. “Bottom line, there are certain fundamental ideas that have to be aligned.”
Davis said the council would discuss the committee’s future relationship with the city at its upcoming March 12 meeting to map “a broader concept of how we develop sister-city relationships.”
Northern Nigeria has been seen “spiraling violence” perpetrated by both Islamist militant group Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces, Human Rights Watch said in its daily report Monday. Boko Haram “killed scores of people in new bombings” over the weekend, while “insurgents killed more than 300 people last month, mostly civilians,” the report said.
The independent sister-city committee that proposed the partnership walked back claims that local, state and congressional leaders supported a planned trip to Elk Grove next week by the influential Nigerian leader. The Elk Grove panel formed in 2009 as an affiliate of Sister Cities International, with an eye toward building economic and cultural bonds with cities abroad.
Under the heading “Congressional Support,” the committee’s presentation listed Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove; Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento; Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento; Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg; and Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli.
None of the elected officials had been contacted, lawmakers and their representatives said Monday.
Committee members Ty Sorci and Davies Ononiwu said Monday they reached out unofficially to the lawmakers but had made no official requests asking for support, saying they planned to present their proposal to Elk Grove City Council before seeking endorsements of the trip from elected officials.
“I understand where the city is coming from,” he said. “We started this with good intentions. Hopefully, it’s a lesson learned and a mistake that won’t be repeated.”
But local lawmakers were disturbed that their names were used.
“If someone was going to use my name, I would like that they had contacted my office for permission to do so. That is a little concerning that that happened,” Pan said Monday.
Mark Hedlund, communications director for Steinberg, called use of the senator’s name “strange and disconcerting.” He said Steinberg’s office did not learn of the committee’s Nigeria proposal until late Friday.
“It’s news to us,” Hedlund said. “No one knew a thing about it and we don’t endorse it, simple as that.”
Elk Grove has a sister-city relationship with Concepción de Ataco, El Salvador, dating back to 2011, according to its website.
Ononiwu, who was born in Nigeria, proposed the relationship with Katsina.
“I felt it was a good thing for the city of Elk Grove,” he said. “I got the contact made in Katsina, and they accepted. I thought there was an economic benefit for the city. It was something very unique. It was a very good program to bring economic opportunity and an international relationship to Elk Grove.”
Ononiwu condemned Boko Haram and the violence in northern Nigeria.
“The act of killing innocent souls is unacceptable,” he said, adding that the violence is “not good for the country or the economy of the country.”
Sorci and Ononiwu previously cited a number of California and U.S. cities with sister-city ties to Nigeria. They include Oakland, Stockton, Cleveland and Austin, Texas. They asked the city to put up $14,800 for a weeklong visit by the emir of Katsina scheduled for later this month.
“This part of Africa is very important,” Sorci told council members Wednesday. “It’s a high-visibility thing.”
Criticism came almost immediately after the presentation, with resident Michael Monasky calling Nigeria’s human rights record “abominable.”
“This is a dangerous relationship to get into,” Monasky said. “I’m embarrassed at this.”
By Saturday, Davis had asked City Manager Laura Gill to cancel the proposed relationship with Katsina, saying the proposal was not “properly vetted,” and that the mayor would be “more hands-on in the future so that we don’t get into this situation again.”