Friday, April 29, 2016

About herders

              A person who sells eggs should not start a fight in the market. African proverb.

          In the last one week alone, the ambigious and amorphous killing machine under the popular label of Fulani herdsmen has reportedly killed many people and destroyed villages in many parts of the country. Going by media reports, Fulani herdsmen are fast spreading to the south, attacking innocent villagers at will. There is hardly any mention of casualties on the part of these herders-turned-killers, and if there are arrests from the ranks of these apparently distinctly-identifiable killers, they are not made to public. Fulani organization spokesmen routinely distance their people from these spreading attacks, with little effect. The nation is being led down a very dangerous path, unless some urgent and decisive measures are taken. There is a danger that broad opinion is being polarized between those who see a sinister motive and official indifference behind these killings, and those who refuse to accept the broad label of Fulani herdsmen being slapped on groups that kill and destroy villages.
 What is needed at this stage is not to succumb to hysteria either way. Obviously there are killings going on in many parts of the country that appear to fit into a pattern, and victims will not be consoled by arguments over identity of perpetrators. Large and heavily armed gangs lurking in forests or around villages may pose a challenge to police and other security agents, but they must be flushed out and dealt with.
Next, we need to work towards some broad understanding of the nature of this threat. The amorphous label of Fulani herdsmen needs to be critically scrutinized against all known parameters, including common sense. The objectives of the attackers, if they have any, needs to be understood. Their grievances, if they exist, need to be identified. The sociological and economic contexts of existence of Fulani herdsmen need to be appreciated in a setting isolated from stereotyping and hysteria. The massive changes imposed on lifestyles of herders by ecology, economy, politics and security in Nigeria in the last four decades need to be understood. The point of all these enquiries will not be to make excuses for behavior of Fulani herdsmen, if indeed they are responsible for these attacks. It is to isolate what can be done now to arrest a problem that has frightening implications for national unity and security, as well as adopt strategies and policies that will mitigate the danger and eliminate the problem in the long run.
There is an urgent need to put this problem on the table and understand its nature and dimensions. It is also important to appreciate certain realities even as the nation attempts to make sense of a looming crisis. One of these is that Fulani will continue to herd cattle to all places where their livelihood is assured, and, as they have done for centuries, they are bound to come into conflicts with farmers and communities. There is no magic wand the nation can wave that will reform and domesticate animal husbandry in the next few months, and only the worst threats and disasters will stop Fulani from herding their cattle across the entire length and breadth of Nigeria. Secondly, many communities will now relate with Fulani herdsmen from suspicious and hostile perspectives, no thanks to the politicization and negative publicity they have been exposed to. Thirdly, the magnitude of the failure of basic policing, community cohesion and influence of local traditional structures in Nigeria in the last few decades, as well as widespread access to firearms among citizens should caution against tendencies to assume that Fulani herdsmen are the sole source of many of the problems in local communities that have suffered from conflicts.
Northern governors, Fulani organizations and security agencies should, as a matter of urgency, tap into expert and relevant knowledge on this relatively new phenomenon. There will be benefits from starting with rather basic questions. For instance, if these attackers are Fulani herders, where are their cattle? What do they gain by fighting communities on whose goodwill they absolutely depend on to survive? Are these genuine herders, or hoards of Fulani whose herds have been stolen in an industrial-scale pillage by organized crime or other communities in the last few years? Is there an emerging spicie of Fulani that is armed and experienced in crimes of cattle rustling, armed robbery, kidnappings and sustained attacks on villages and communities? Are there genuine grounds for believing the theory that foreign Fulani are involved in violent attacks on communities in many parts of the middle belt, south west, south south and south east? If there are, what are their motivations?
Beyond asking difficult questions, there is a major responsibility for northern leaders and the federal government to adopt emergency and long-term solutions to problems relating to animal husbandry. Many Fulani will rather live in local, secure environments than risk hostility in distant communities. There is no state in the north where, with political will, substantial grazing reserves and routes cannot be created in the next few months. These need to be accorded the highest priority in the context of national security and obligation of political leadership to core northern interests.
At the national level, answers will need to be sought for possible links between a fragmenting insurgency, armed bands seemingly fighting communities with no visible goals other than to trigger larger ethnic conflicts, and the manner armed groups succeed in infiltrating Nigerian communities. Conflicts between herdsmen and local communities should not divert attention from endemic conflicts between and within communities, and the tendency for these conflicts to assume more intense and destructive violence should be a major source of concern.
There will be opportunistic attempts to link President Buhari’s person with the appearance of bold Fulani herdsmen who fight and kill locals in communities far from their traditional locations. There will also be attempts to pitch local communities against every Fulani, to rupture age-old bonds of goodwill and co-habitation and trigger large-scale expulsion of Fulani herdsmen from many parts of Nigeria. President Buhari has already given marching orders for this phenomenon to be arrested. Governors and other leaders and security agencies should agree on strategies which lower tensions and improve relations between Fulani and local communities. Security and intelligence services should be more diligent in arresting and exposing the people who operate behind the franchise of Fulani herdsmen.
The rising, if justified indignation over the exploits of herdsmen is a major threat to national security. Left to the sorry state of the institutions of state responsible for maintenance of basic security, law and order, the nation will be confronted with a serious and complex problem that will compound our multiple security challenges. In addition to decisive action by all governments, leaders of opinion should also exercise responsible restraint. There is nothing inherent in the Fulani that makes them immune to temptations to take up arms to defend themselves, or to commit crimes.
Fulani who commit crimes are not above the law, and security intelligence should address the pressing imperative of demystifying the mask behind the generic band of killers labelled Fulani herdsmen. Defending Fulani herdsmen from being unjustly branded is also an obligation, if peace and justice remain key national values. Those with responsibility today should rise to the challenge to find solutions to the livelihood and lifestyle of the law-abiding Fulani herdsman, because clearly, his lot is being made worse by the perception that being Fulani herdsman alone is a security threat to other Nigerians. Those communities which are hurt have a right to be protected, to know their attackers and why they are being attacked. The stakes are too high for ambiguities to be tolerated.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Saraki Matters

Loyalty is a fine quality, but in excess it fills political graveyards. Neil Kinnock
Of all the ghosts from the past that haunt the All Progressives Congress the (APC) none is as significant as the person and circumstances surrounding Senate President Bukola Saraki. In fact, it is safe to say he embodies all the complex elements and nuances that are captured in the phenomenon that became the APC, and the nation is witnessing their unfolding. His conviction by the Code of Conduct Tribunal is (CCT) is one possible outcome out of many, as the past catches up with a present and a threatens to shape a future that appears poorly prepared to handle the impact. 
History of the APC will accord substantial place to Saraki and other members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) who defected into a fledgling APC, giving it muscle, numbers and resources. Even more significantly, their defection mortally wounded the PDP, making it even weaker to resist the onslaught of a party that promised Nigerians major changes in their lives. Saraki’s hand was in every move from the original but historic walk out by some governors from the PDP, to his decision not to stand against General Buhari for the party’s flag, to the campaigns and the victory of the APC. For them, the stakes were very high for both victory and defeat of the APC. Defeat by the PDP would have confronted the defectors with serious threats to their personal and political fortunes as a vengeful PDP visited its anger and muscle over their betrayal. Success would earn them new leases of political life and front seats in an administration that was wrested from the PDP without asking too many questions over who joined in the historic struggle and why.
The heat of the battle to unseat PDP drowned voices that cautioned against wholesale and unquestioning accommodation of all elements, their resources, their records against the very opposition they are joining and their ambitions in the new party. Not that anyone would have listened, given the key objective of the battle: change the PDP as the ruling party. The difficult issue involving the exact nature of the change and its drivers was assumed to be one that will be easier to sort out under the massive influence of President Buhari and the army of party generals who gave the party its clout, and tapped into the unprecedented desire for new leadership in the nation.
The rather simplistic assumption that everyone will play by the rules, and wait for the starters’ gun was breached in a scramble led by Saraki, whose political antenna for opportunity pointed at some vulnerable points in President Buhari’s politics. Defying Buhari, the party and the unwritten philosophy of the new party which hinted at respect for leaders and chieftains, restraining personal ambitions, reinforcing the boundaries between the APC and PDP and generally not raising your flags higher than others’, Saraki moved quickly to secure the Senate Presidency. Not the claim of innocence, or compliance with due process, or the pledge of loyalty to President Buhari and the party, or the legions of mediators, peacemakers or palliatives would remove from Saraki the toga of betrayal and rehabilitate him as a trusted and important ally with whom the President and the party could be comfortable.
From there on, the story began to be told in tongues and in a manner less visible to simpler sights. President Buhari put up a brave face and said he would work with Saraki, the Senate President. When the grounds began to sink under Saraki’s feet with the reincarnation of his case with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the presidency distanced itself from the matter, and the President specifically insisted, against many appeals from different sources, that he will not interfere with a judicial process. The trial itself set the cat among many different pigeons. The PDP, a major facilitator and beneficiary of Saraki’s emergence as Senate President found new and additional uses as his protector and potentially the winner at the end of what appears to be an undeclared civil war. Many of the Senators with huge files at the EFCC saw themselves in the image of Saraki, and rallied around him. APC Senators were split right down the middle, as patronage politics and the manipulation of the many avenues available to leadership of the Senate to keep Senators loyal, combined to keep many either staying out of the battle entirely, or joining Saraki’s ranks in the absence of strong pull in the other direction.
The judicial process has been stretched and tested to its limits over Saraki’s trial, and the fact that the trial is going on at all is either an indictment or an evidence of the integrity of the judicial process, depending on which opinion you defer to. The party has been largely consigned to an observer status, hamstrung by the very forces which made it unable to influence the emergence of the source of the problem in the first place. The 2016 budget has suffered from the stresses and strains of the saga, and relations between the executive and the legislature, particularly the Senate, have been badly affected.
Little will be gained by a blame game at this stage, unless it is meant to help the APC learn valuable lessons and undertake essential damage control. There are, however, key issues that need careful handling. The reckless attempt by the Senate to repeal the laws setting up the CCT and amend criminal administration provisions has mercifully been halted. The President’s steadfast commitment not to interfere with the judicial process to operate as designed should be complemented by vigilance over other powerful interests that many want to tinker with it, either in pursuance of his interests, or theirs’. The APC should prepare for all eventualities. If Saraki in convicted and ceases to be Senate President, it should expect the type of turbulence that could quite possibly deprive it of the Senate Presidency. Many of its Senators would quite happily work with a Senate President who is from the PDP, and the upper chamber on the whole could become more difficult to do business with. Not enough work is being done to keep APC Senators in line, and the anti-corruption war is daily obliterating the partisan division.
At this stage, the die is cast in terms of the conduct of the trial to its logical conclusion. No major interest is, however, likely to wait for the outcome to act. Even as he faces a trial he had fought hard to avoid, Saraki is not a finished man. Between him and his friends in and outside the Senate, he could do some serious damage to the house. PDP and APC Senators will scheme to exact advantages out of his travails. Powerful interests in the APC will prepare to beat chests over victories in clipping his wings. The fight against corruption will register a casualty, and reinforce greater resistance in quarters that ought to assist it. The party will most likely be weakened by the pervasive influence of powerful individuals who would have had their say in this saga.
President Buhari will have to deal with the consequences of a position that substantially isolates him from processes, even where he has strong interests he needs to protect. With three years to go in its mandate, the APC should learn the right lessons from the Saraki saga. One of these, hopefully, is that the past is the architect of the present, but the future is built by leaders who soil boots in the murky waters of politics to save key goals from being swamped.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Chibok Girls

            "If you cannot hold a child in your arms, hold it in your heart". Ethiopian Proverb.

           The gaping hole in the nation's heart left by the audatious abduction of about 250 girls from their school in Chibok, Borno State two years ago is being revisited with a flurry of activities. Some hope is being rekindled that all or most of the abducted girls are alive and well by a video making the rounds, showing some of the girls in apprently healthy state. This week has been covered in red, the colour of the movement spawned by the fate of the girls. The nation will be reminded that it will have no rest until the girls taken away by Boko Haram and pushed beyond reach by incredible ineptitude and complacency by a leadership that could have snatched them back. This week, parents and the communities of these girls who had thought that the nation and the world had moved away from their plight will be reminded, to borrow language from Dame Patience Jonathan, that no be only dem waka go.
              The abduction of schoolgirls from Chibok secondary school will rank in magnitude of impact with the bombing of the UN Building and Police Headquaters in Abuja by Boko Haram. The UN Building bombing alerted the world to the existence of a group, until then seen as a local band of aggrieved persons, now developing into a lethal force with frightening capabilities. The Police Headquaters and other bombings which took hundreds of lives registered Boko Haram as an organization with the confidence and competence to use terror with maximum effect. While these events could have been explained in terms that suggest intelligence failure and relative novelty of terror as a security threat in Nigeria, the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls was clearly evidence of monumental failure of the Nigerian state to effectively challenge and defeat  Boko Haram after three years of a vicious  war.

The abductions exposed a leadership lacking in the most elementary capacities to protect citizens. It soon became public that the abductions could have been prevented by an alert military with capabilities to stop it. After it occurred, there were still opportunities to retrieve the girls in the first few days and weeks  of their ordeal. There are likely to be world records in the scale of insensitivity and incompetence to be found in  a President taking weeks to acknowledge and admit that the abductions did take place, and the tragic comedy of his wife holding court, invoking God  and accusing everyone of cooking up the abductions to smear her husband. The outrage against the abductions then spawned a national movement with massive support, and triggered a global indignation no one could ignore.
The #BringBackOurGirls movement grew out of the spontaneous, if naive, expectations that the Jonathan administration could be pressured to free the girls. It soon became evident to parents, activists and the community that Jonathan lacked the decisiveness and commitment necessary to bring the girls back. The world began to move on to the next drama, and the national movement dug in as a major irritant of an administration that needed a constant reminder on its conscience. Jonathan was sunk by an unprecedented array of grievances across the nation, but the sustained efforts of the few women and men who maitained an unbroken vigil over the girls, mobilized and politicised parents and the communities while retaining global attention will be accorded a pride of place in ridding the nation of a leadership that had locked itself up, gobbling the resources of the nation as thousands of women, children and young men were taken away by Boko Haram.
To be sure, the abduction of schoolgirls from Chibok was only one in a long tradition of abductions of women and young men by Boko Haram. Not a few Nigerian communities who had borne the brunt of the atrocities of Boko Haram were suprised by the speed and magnitude of the response by Nigerians and the global community to the Chibok abductions. Parents of schoolchildren murdered while they slept in domitories in Yobe State, or in classrooms in Mubi and other places wondered why their cries failed to register in Washington, Kiev and Pretoria. But then these villagers had not known the powers of social media, the tool that raised the Chibok abductions to the status of an atrocity the world was bound to notice.
One year afte the abductions, Nigerians showed President Jonathan the door. He left, leaving President Buhari with a terrible legacy of thousands of abducted people, including the Chibok girls, in the custody of Boko Haram. A year since he became President, the girls are still with terrorists, and Buhari is having to deal with with a very sensitive and complex problem which time and circumstances have made a lot more difficult. In spite of successes in freeing many communities from the grips of the insurgency and limiting its fighting capacities in many respects, there are still people  who will measure the scale of his success in terms of the freedom of the Chibok girls. They too will be right, because this conflict has many angles and casualties.
President Buhari will now be dealing with a highly mobilized Chibok community with a painfully-developed  capacity for cynicism over governments and leaders. He will contend with a powerful movement that sprung up around the abductions and the plight of the girls, and now operates as a highly visible vigilante in a war in which no side is clean. He will find in this movement a resistance and hostility founded by experience, and a clout fed by the purity of its mission. He will encounter a movement with a mantle of protector of rights and welfare of civilian victims in a conflict that has had very little room for transparency.
The intense outcry over the abductions from Chibok would have alerted Boko Haram that it has in its custody a major asset, raising the stakes for their freedom, and leaving President Buhari with the task of crippling the insurgency and freeing  girls who acquire more value by the day. The endemic quarrels between parents and the community on the one hand, and government on the other, have prevented the utilization of opportutinities and avenues for raising and dealing with important, if uncomfortable matters. These include the need  to influence perceptions, and cultivate an understanding that hardly any of the Chibok girls will come back as abducted. Some may not return at all, and those who do may not all return together. Most who return will require, along with parents and the community, prolonged  and sensitive management and handling for their future. There will be massive adjustments of expectations, much of which needs to be undertaken in rancour-free and supportive enviroment.
It is reasonable to assume that President Buhari is actively seeking all avenues for the release of the girls from Chibok and others in captivity. There  must be many issues to consider, such as genuiness of channels for negotiations, the price of freeing the girls, the state of the current campaigns and how it will be affected by the freedom of the girls by all sides and other strategic considerations. While all these should be accorded serious consideration, it is also important that improvements are made in government-Chibok community relations, and the movement which campaigns for  their release. Rebuilding the school in Chibok should also be accorded a priority. For two years, young females who could have been our very own daughters have been held by terrorists. Many more whose  capture and fate have been less heralded are also wondering if fellow Nigerians still care about them. This is the time to remind ourselves that we will never abandon them.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Fuelling Discontent

          All well-governed states and wise princes have taken care not to reduce the nobility to despair, and the people to discontent.
N. Machiavelli.

These horrendous petrol queues may disappear before 29th of May, the first anniversary of an election that held the hope for an end to a past marked by fuel shortages, incessant power failures, bombings and unspeakable levels of plunder and decay. If they do, they will leave scars that will be reminders that the journey to a nation that has fixed its most basic problems still has a long distance to cover. If they do not, they will serve as more potent sources of discontent and resentment that could unite all classes and segments in hostility to the administration. It will be difficult to hear the drumbeats in celebration of a major watershed in the nation's history through the groans and chaos of citizens searching for expensive fuel.

       On March 28th 2015, President Buhari was transformed from a symbol of hope and faith in good leadership into a political leader. Very few people appreciated the full significance of that transformation. Millions of Nigerians saw a man with an aura and an image untainted  by the prevasive corruption which had become synonymous with political office in Nigeria. The bar set by a Buhari victory involved widespread expectations that Nigerians will soon be safe and secure; the corrupt will be made to account and corruption will be severely curtailed; institutions will be rebuilt and the poor will find relief and comfort from governments that will oversee and manage economies that are poor-friendly.

        The rot was, however, much deeper than anyone had thought. The nation waited patiently as President Buhari, now burdened by what he sought and achieved, laboured with decisions and other challenges of leading a nation through the elementery stages of governance. Where does one begin? What can or cannot be done in a political context with pronounced boundries and barricades, some of them erected by interests that were central to the success of his  transformation from a symbol to a leader? Who can be trusted to work with him? What  will be policy priorities and realistic timelines? How does a larger-than-life image become routinized into governance with a face and a character? What is the nature of the opposition? Where are the potential booby traps?

         With two months to his first year as President, most Nigerians have more or less made up their minds about the Buhari administration. The clusters of opinion range from millions who blame past administrations  for all the current  woes of the nation, and see this administration both as its victim and the solution to our problems. These Nigerians retain deep faith that with patience and support, the worst Buhari administration will be better than the best of a past they had just jettisioned. Another cluster acknowledges the potential for real improvements under a Buhari presidency, but are frustrated by seeming inertia in the context of severely limiting economic challenges. A third cluster celebrates appearances of failures to make immediate and sustained impact, even as its champions suffer the same privations shared by all citizens.

         Ordinarily, these clusters of interests and opinions will be substantially preserved, or their boundries will shift on the basis of the manner President Buhari is percieved as a leader, and his administration's capacity to address basic problems are assessed. A worst case scenario is one which unites all three over one or two issues and creates a major, negative perception. This is the scenario that the  current fuel shortage has created for the administration. The vast majority of the poor who were President Buhari's political backbone had never benefitted from the plethora of policies on refined petroleum that have made billionnaires of a few Nigerians. Regulated pump prices have been a fiction preserved over the poverty of 7 out of every 10 Nigerians for decades. Rural populations bought the commodity strictly as offerred, and it is quite possible that this is the only area in the entire industry where the market was influenced by the basic laws of supply and demand.

         Not anymore. In the last few weeks, rural supplies have dried up as speculators sold to elaborate leaks in the system in towns and cities. Where it reaches villages, it  is hardly affordable,and  causes severe distortions in consumer proces,including food prices, making life a lot more intolerable. The high cost of petroleum is compounding a worrying rise in inflation triggered by a weak Naira. In towns and cities, economic production, a small middle class and a burgoening class of economic scavengers are groaning over the audacity of importers, suppliers and distributers who sell to jerrycan owners rather than to vehicle owners. As they wait for hours or days to get petrol at regulated prices, or they squeeze money away from other necessities, millions of Nigerians cannot believe that a Buhari administration will tolerate the situation they are going through. Everyone is at the mercy of events and circumstances which make it difficult to show empathy for leaders and managers of the economy. Life is difficult enough as it is, but this  petrol supply fiasco has made everyone desperate.

         Everyone, that is, except the massive industry that thrives on the nation's misery. Importers, distributers, transporters and regulators make huge amounts as millions of small outlets  jerk up prices as they please. Much of the parasitic layer that feed from the petrol fiasco also believe in, and support President Buhari's commitment to fix the nation, and most of the young men involved would rather have sources of livelihood that last longer than periodic shortages. But  life is good for now, and they do not want it to end.

         The current shortages and leakages that create high cost for petrol have united all classes in massive discontent against an administration that a year ago could confidently have said, never again. President Buhari's tendency to apologise over difficulties does register with many of his supporters, but apologies tend to be double-edged swords. People accept them on the understanding that  things will improve. On the other hand, they provide ammunition for adversaries who use them as evidence of failure. There is also the issue of who offers the apologies,  how often and over what issues. Even the most most committed supporter of President Buhari knows who is the Minister of Petroleum Resources, on whose desk the buck stops. This puts the President directly in the line of anger and frustration of citizens, and in the line of fire of an opposition of many colours, desperate to blunt the edges of the promises for change.

       More than any other issue, this petrol fiasco fast assuming dimensions of a major economic crisis demands a sober and holistic assessment. By all means necessary, these queues must disappear in the next few days. Panic measures that will add to the discontent, such as massive arrests of peddlers of a few liters should be discouraged. Major policy reviews and decisions regarding the structure and operations of the NNPC, deregulation and operations of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and its agencies need to be made as a matter of urgent national priority. Between now and May 29th, this adminstration should convince Nigerians that it has a lot more to offer than apologies and excuses.

Friday, April 1, 2016

If President Buhari Wrote Americans

To remove a fly from a friend's forehead, never use a hatchet.
                                       African Proverb.

 Dear Citizens of United States of America,
I have taken this unusual step to write to you directly as citizens of the United States of American on behalf of the people of Nigeria. I hope  that this message will strengthen the bonds between citizens of two countries with major responsibilities for the state of our increasingly interdependent  world. I also draw confidence from the knowledge that your leaders will view this friendly intrusion in a positive light, particularly in the light of recent developments in our relations when we also received direct and useful advise and messages of solidarity and encouragement from leaders of your great country.
I address you at a time when Nigerians nurture very warm and positive memories of the role of the government and citizens of the United States. We cherish the historic support of your government in ensuring that our last elections made history in many respects, being the most peaceful in our history, producing a credible result and the unprecedented defeat of an administration. The US stood by the people of Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, to break a vicious circle of rigged elections that produced incompetent and insensitive leaders. We owe your nation immeasurable gratitude for helping our nation to safely cross over a critical set of challenges, and today our two nations collaborate on the search for an end to a most vicious insurgency because we have earned global trust. At this moment, we share with you the search for global security and peace and a world that shares its wealth and reduces want and desperation.
Your nation had stood and marched with Africa during most of its trying moments. We have told many of our younger generations of your record in assisting our decolonization and anti-Apartheid struggles. Your businesses and governments have reached out to our enterprenuers and our communities, investing and participating in developing our productive capacities. Our nation has the biggest economy in Africa, and is one of the leading trading partners of the US. We see US economic interests in all sectors of our economy, and the growth and development of our two economies have become intricately linked with each others’ fortunes. The US is home and residence to one of the largest black and African populations in the world, and your nation is home to millions of Nigerians contributing to your economy, while representing a tremendous asset to our nation.
As you will be aware, your presidential elections scheduled to hold in November, 2016 are of immense significance to the world. Nigeria and Africa have very high expectations that this election will raise the bar for democratic governance already at a level your nation should be proud of. Your current President is son of an African student, a great American whom you voted into office on his merit. His election for two terms earned you new respect in Africa. You will therefore appreciate why we expect that the President who succeeds him will continue to inspire Africa and the world. 
Nigerians watch the processes leading to the emergence of candidates and the elections themselves with interests that are far more profound than curiousity. Given our history and experiences with political violence and tendencies which detract from free and fair elections, we are anxious that your elections will be conducted without violence or other acts that will damage your credentials as a leading democratic nation. We worry when a candidate threatens that his supporters will riot if he fails to win nomination. We agonize over allegations over delegates-tampering. We are concerned over rhetoric that offends sensitivities and charts a course that is entirely inconsistent with the history and records of the United States in international relations.
Nigerians have labored for a long stretch of our history  to produce leaders on the basis of credible elections. This has imposed upon us the obligation to respect the rights of all people to freely elect leaders. Ultimately, the next President of the United States will be the product only of your collective will. As friends with a major stake in the manner the United State relates with the world, however, it is our duty to offer advise on some issues that are likely to affect the outcome of the contest. Nigerians share with United State citizens a major burden in the fight against global terror, a substantial element of which claims to draw inspiration from Islam. Our contribution to all the contests currently under way is to advise against creating more enemies for the United State and the rest of the world by making terrorist monsters out of every Muslim. The world’s Muslim population is overwhelmingly opposed to terror. An enlightened and constructive approach with all peoples, faiths and nations is central to the ability of the US and other nations of the world to overcome this global threat, and avoid alienating critical allies.
There are concerns in Nigeria that the large population of our citizens in the US are being singled out and portrayed in very negative light in some debates and campaigns. Remarks which hint at limiting gains and opportunities arising from global movement of labour and capital are being noted with some concern here in Nigeria and Africa. At a time when the world is having to adjust to severe economic challenges, these sentiments fail to do justice to a United States that has led the world through solving many of its limiting challenges. On the whole, we share the concerns of billions of people across the globe who are uncomfortable with prospects of a U.S that will create its own space without due respect and regards for friends and allies, as well as the possibility that hostile interests will respond in a manner that makes the world a lot less secure, competitive and compassionate.
As you will know, Nigeria is going through a major transition. It is a year since our historic elections which gave our nation renewed confidence that we can change its course on the strength of its own people and the support of our friends. We are involved in charting a course for a future in which accountable leadership is the norm; corruption is removed from public offices; the poor share in the wealth of our tremendous national resources, and the wealthy are safe to enjoy their wealth. We are making major strides to destroy the Boko Haram insurgency. Our plans are affected by challenging economic fortunes in the short term, but we have a vision of a great future in which our productive capacities and processes for sharing our wealth will be isolated from massive dislocations and uncertainties.
As Nigerians, we cherish our deep relationships with citizens of the United States on many levels. We have faith in the capacity of citizens of the United State to exercise choices that best suit their interests. These interests include the manner our world operates, as well as the global perception that as a global leader, a future President of the United State will represent the best and most noble of the democratic traditions of the United States.
On behalf of the people of Nigeria, I wish you very peaceful congresses and elections.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Troubling religion

I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Any time I have to accept a religion that wont let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion.
Malcom X

On a number of fronts, the endemic frictions between faith and Nigerian politics are becoming more intense. These skirmishes remind us that Nigerians have deep and widespread faith in God, but tend to use Him in manners that suggest that the Supreme is only a weapon in our arsenal to fight for advantages in pursuit of goals He will most likely frown upon. Often, we give the impression that we act in responses to His bidding, but when we fight, as we often do, you have to wonder which God we fight for, or if we have a license to interprete Him in any manner we choose.
It makes no sense to give any credence to the idea that our constitution provides for a harmonious co-existence between different faiths, or between fractions of the same faith. Beyond provisions that we should enjoy freedoms to practice our faith without let or hindrance, and that the state shall operate in such a manner that it favours no religion over others, or adopt a state religion, our positions as a nation have shifted between acknowledging the demand that governance must be deeply involved in faith matters; to attempts to distance the two;  to resolve major conflicts when religions clash, or when religion and state disagree over strategies and goals.
You can go all the way back into the early days of our history to validate the assertion that the Nigerian state has never successfully regulated faith, in spite of its awesome powers to deal with security matters, which is what religion had very often become. Failure or indifference by the state to establish and police boundaries between the practice of religion and related matters such as where and how this is done meant that the state yielded space to all manner of religious leaders and charlatans to decide how God should be worshipped. When those boundries were breached, the state came in with a heavy hand, boots, bullets and laws that bought us some relief, but froze the problem. When it is let out, the nation finds itself in the same, or worse situation. Knee-jerk reactions to provocations dealt with symptoms, and attempts made to look deeper into intra and inter-religions conflicts tended to scare off leaders by their sheer magnitude and complexities.
The nation is now dealing with a number of developments that remind it that faith will continue to be a key element in our endeavours to build a nation where citizens live safely and freely within the laws of the land, and practice their faith without the feeling that their basic rights are being abridged. The Shiite-military clash in Zaria being investigated by a Judicial Commission of Inquiring is being torpedoed by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN)’s insistence that its participation is contingent on its lawyers having access to its leader, El-Zazzagi. There must be some very compelling reasons why this access has become a major stumbling block, and if it is not resolved, the Commission is likely to proceed without the participation of major party in a dispute with frightening dimensions.
The long-term implication of shutting out the IMN from an important process under powers of a Nigerian authority that it barely recognized a few months ago are very serious. The significance of having IMN submit to this process, whatever its motivation, is profound. This is why all steps that should both protect national security and accord the leader of the IMN and the Movement itself deserved rights and facilitation to participate in the preceedings of the Commission should be taken. Needless to say, the work of the Commission without the IMN will be at best an exercise in futility. The Commission’s work should be a critical stepping stone that should begin the process of re-inforcing leadership accountability and re-designing boundaries between religion and the state.
Just as the IMN-state issue is threatening to run away from control, the Kaduna State governor, Malam Nasir el-Rufai begins the process of legislating religious practices and conduct in a State where faith politics has taken more blood than any other. He is running into a storm for all sorts of reasons, principal among them being that people who have been well served by having an entirely unregulated environment do not want it changed. It will be difficult to fault the governor for attempting to curb hate speech clothed in religious preaching, assaults on basic rights of citizens by people who claim to be licensed by God to offend us and set us up against each other, and, on the whole, rid religion of appendages that it had accumulated over the years, owing to weaknesses of the state to draw the line between what is allowed in the name of God and what is not. It is necessary, however, to advise on the need for wider and deeper consultations, (and even engagement with the very people who constitute the problem) before legislation is made that will improve the environment. This will avoid making a mockery of law-making and providing entry points to mischievous characters who have made much in the name of God. There are obviously a number of areas that have been identified as problematic in terms of management of the law by people who mean well. The governor will be well-advised to look at these areas.
Finally, the dust being raised by a group who title themselves Christian Elders, over the decision of President Buhari that Nigeria will join the anti-ISIS coalition will be mentioned even if only to demonstrate how much damage is done to our otherwise genuine commitment to our respective faiths by those who volunteer to police them on our behalf. In saner times, a decision to commit Nigeria to a patently religion-tinted military alliance will be condemned even at the level of contemplation. These, however, are not saner days. The anti-ISIS coalition being put together and led by Saudi Arabia represents a key component in our fight against the insurgency that has ravaged our nation, and claims linkages with similar insurgencies and terrorist groups that also claim to be inspired by Islam. No group of nations are better placed to de-mystify and destroy this coalition of evil that has firm roots in our country. The pretentions to inspirations from Islam has long been abandoned by Boko Haram, and the murderous tendencies which kill and rape Muslims and Christians alike ought to provide support for any initiative that cripples it. Lets be very clear about this: even if it stays firmly at a symbolic level, there is nothing wrong in Nigeria’s participation in any coalition that fights terror, a phenomenon that is miles ahead in establishing global linkages than those who are its victims. If there is a Christian coalition that seeks to fight allies of Boko Haram, we should support it as well. This is one of those occasions when elders are told, rather sadly, to go sit down.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Poor service, rich providers.

              'A bad habit that lasts more than a year may turn into a custom'. Igbo proverb.

There are brave people in Nigeria. They have just been joined by Adebayo Shittu, the Minister of Communications who is being reported have read the riot act to telecoms service providers. Nigerians will hope that the Minister is reading a different riot act from the one that was read to  these providers by virtually everyone in authority in the last few years. The old riot acts have worn thin through repetition and neglect, or have lost their efficacy or their way because they have been routed through the services of the providers. Now Nigerians will, in their characteristic manner, watch out for radical improvements in the quality of services, a sharp drop in the levels of outright swindles and dramatic improvements in the levels of transparency in the operations of these providers. If these are not observed very clearly and comprehensively, Alhaji Shittu's credibility as a leading Minister in an administration that is committed to changing things for the better, will be severely damaged. Nigerians will then resume cursing the providers while patronizing them with trillions, in spite of overwhelming evidence that these curses have little effect on the providers, and that we can do with less chatter.

Actually, the Minister's bark is likely to feel a bit more like a bite this time because its context has changed. The National Communications Commission(NCC) has a new CEO who went in with very high expectations, supported by strong political muscle to rescue and improve servises of a veritable cash cow that was being milked to its bare bones. Just when you thought that the telecoms sector provided better service and returns than the oil and gas sector  to pilferers, crooked regulators, politicians and service providers, the giant MTN ran into serious turbulence. Few people thought MTN will not shrug off this as routine and resume normal service to Nigerian subscribers and the government. After all it had enjoyed unlimited credit in the past. This brush with the Buhari administration, however, turned out to be a major problem when it was asked to pay a fine in trillions of Naira. Very few Nigerians outside its shareholders shed tears. Though three trillions was difficult to even imagine, it was easier to comprehend when equated to the scale of abuse and contempt with which providers served Nigerians.

The twists and turns which the MTN penalties saga has been taking must have left their toll on the psychology of providers who had competed to outdo each other  in the manner they scammed a garrulous nation that had lost its voice to complain. South African President Jacob Zuma's  recent visit may have interfered with the process of getting MTN to show remorse and pay up huge amounts to the Nigerian government, and the recent lifting of regulatory services on the provider may be evidence that politics may have gained it a little more breathing space.

What Minister Shittu is asking NCC to do is a lot more than police the registration of users. He wants wholesale improvements to arrest or eliminate practices that range from a few that will qualify as out rightly criminal, to shabby services that are tolerated only in Nigeria. There must be large numbers of staff who are employed by the providers for the sole purpose of inventing new and patently illegal or prohibited ways of making more money from subscribers, in addition to the trillions we pay for normal airtime and properly subscribed services. It is a waste of time listing even a few of these scams, but a popular way of alerting subscribers to one of the more popular scams is to ask them to listen to 'their' caller tune. Call their lines in their presence and put them on speaker phone while they hear what all their callers hear when they are called. If you do this, prepare for shocks and profound indignation, and then utter dejection when they find out that they cannot complain. Elders and religious leaders revered in the community have their callers listen to music or religious material that offends their dignity and image. They have no idea that this is what people hear on calling them. They have never requested for it, and they certainly resent having to pay for it. They become livid  when told that the service provider can change the caller tune at will, and once you are locked in, there is no getting out.

The way every manner of offer or service is dumped on Nigerians' phones, you will be forgiven for thinking that we have the most unregulated system in the world. As soon as you delete fifteen unsolicited offers and advertisements, another twenty are sent to you. The phone you purchased with your own money is bruised and filled with junk which you clear at your own cost. God alone knows how many marriages have been threatened by a  strange voice answering a call placed to a spouse. You will not know how poor the service in Nigeria is until you leave its shores. An entire nation lies to itself with the words, 'it is a network problem'. In our entire history, nothing has rendered us so completely hooked and so abjectly impotent as our cell phones.

Yet, it does not have to be this way. We are where we are today because Nigerians who should have enforced compliance  with standards and conduct have been totally compromised. How else could MTN have gotten away with refusing to register millions of lines at a time when blood flowed from atrocities of terrorists who took advantage of laxities in monitoring use of communications? You have to ask, now that MTN is being asked to pay for its contempt for our laws and national security, what happens to those public officers and politicians that failed to enforce directives to register all lines? Indeed, who is supervising the current registration(and the multiple re-registrations) of MTN subscribers to ensure compliance with regulations?

Telecommunication services, particularly cell phones provided by private operators have become a key feature in the lives of Nigerians. No basic infrastructure touches more lives than phones. Unlike other infrastructure such as roads, water, medical facilities, schools etc, this service is entirely un-subsidised. Trillions are being made by providers from a nation that  would rather pay to talk than feed. A lot more than what is legitimate is being made because our regulatory institutions have since defected to the enemy. Minister Shittu is taking on a vital area where quick wins are possible and necessary. This administration must make a major difference in the way citizens and telecoms service providers relate. If they cannot immediately improve the quality of their services, they should be made to stop the elaborate scams that further impoverish Nigerians.