Friday, July 22, 2016

Democracy: Some Small Prints

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Winston Churchill.

As it is has the power to do, the dominant western media has grabbed and focussed recent global attention on the soft under bellies of advanced and advancing democracies. Twice now within the last few weeks, Britain captured world attention in the manner its citizens and democratic institutions dramatically altered major settings in a world with very little room for nations seeking longer leg rooms for autonomy. First, its citizens voted to leave the European Union, taking a major decision that will impact on their nation's economy and society in forms and shapes that are still largely hazy. Immediate fallouts of that decision included the emergence of a new Prime Minister, significantly only the second female in that position, but one that is not likely to not veer away from the conservative path of her famous trail blazer; as well as the appointment of a Foreign Secretary with all the wrong credentials for the position. For the next one year or more, Britain, EU and the world will attempt to navigate around unfamiliar consequences of a democracy that placed the wheels in the hands of simple folk for whom only the colours black and white are real.
Then, two weeks ago, the long-awaited Sir John Chilcot report of the enquiry into Britain's infamous role in the regime change misadventure in Iraq was published. Consistent with suspicion that it will reveal one of the worst kept secrets, the report also lived up to its expected status as an authoritative study in the abuse and manipulation of power by Prime Minister Tony Blair. It painstakingly chronicled a cynical and calculated descent into fraudulent subservience by the British leadership in support of a US government that had arrogated to itself the power to define enemies and change regimes. It revealed how two of the most mature democracies in the world were hijacked by their leaders and, fueled by egos and manipulated fears of citizens, driven to achieve short-term goals, leaving the world at the mercy of long-term effects. Today, citizens of these two countries and the entire world rue the consequences of decisions of leaders who thought power charts its own course and determines outcomes. ISIS, the collapse of the Iraqi and Libyan states, the war in Syria and turbulence in much of the Middle East and the Muslim World are products of leaders of democratic nations behaving in manners that transform problems into global disasters. Tony Blair and George Bush will avoid prosecution for crimes against humanity for which other leaders, particularly from aspiring democracies will be dragged before the international justice system. Leaders from advanced democracies and others who lead militarily-powerful nations can disregard the rule of international morality, basic legal standards, conventions and institutions meant to make the world a safer place for humanity. Democratic systems and military might do not necessarily guarantee that leaders will have higher levels of wisdom, discipline and commitment to security of citizens and the global community than leaders from weaker and aspiring democracies.
In many parts of Europe, panic levels and barricades are going up as citizens and residents who have been indoctrinated and trained by ISIS, or have sympathies for its ideology attack other citizens, making statements that confirm that many countries now have homegrown terrorists.  A combination of historical legacies and contemporary tendencies have combined to create a pool of massively-alienated Europeans who will challenge European democracies to find some ground around protecting all citizens and preserving basic freedoms and liberties without which democracies are no better than benevolent fascism. Populations are demanding for firm action to stop further migrations, and looking suspiciously at stereo-typed enemies within. Far-right ideologies and parties are encroaching onto mainstream political space. Britain's decision to leave the EU is being sold as a control measure to be exercised by states that want to limit racial, cultural and religious mixes in countries that are already deeply mixed. Citizens believe that somehow, or by any means necessary, their leaders must find a way to insulate and protect them from fires lit by democracies whose leaders thought force could solve the world's problems by removing other leaders and toppling regimes.
The US feels the heat of this fire, and now has to deal with an entirely homegrown product of its history in addition. Constitutionally-guaranteed rights to bear arms is combining dangerously with residual resentments around institutionalized and deep-rooted racism to create an armed nation with many grievances. American democracy has always been bullet-tipped, and it is unlikely ever to be without this characteristic. As its leaders quarrel over a firearm-bearing citizenry among the defining elements of American democracy, black communities are rising in anger at police killings, and some black people appear to have decided to fight back by killing police. Racial tensions will rise and feed a democratic process that is about to submit the presidency to either of two candidates. One is likely to preserve the increasingly suspect narrative of a common and united US citizenry. The other is likely to feed hate and more violence. Those who thought a Trump presidency was unthinkable a few weeks ago are now a lot less sure.
Nations looking up to mature democracies for guidance and as models will be stressed and challenged by their mixed records and contemporary challenges. Developing your own democratic system on the basis of peculiarities and needs will sound good in classrooms. In a world where a handful of dominant nations set the rules, issue labels and decide who stays and who goes, it is a lot more complicated. The people of South Sudan, hundreds of whom have fallen to bullets and bombs in the last few weeks will be hard-pressed to link their fate today with the efforts to create for them a democratic system by nations that barely understood the nature of their prolonged conflicts and society. Citizens of Turkey whose nation was, only a few days ago, in what appeared to be in the imminent grasp of military dictatorship will take a while to unravel the meaning and import of what just transpired.
The world over, evidence litters streets, prisons and libraries, of corrupt and despotic elected leaders, and leaders in democracies who dragged their nations to ruins. Millions of citizens bled or died in pursuit of the freedoms and development which democratic systems promise. Many of the same people also bleed under the very democratic systems they struggled to establish. These are difficult days for a global community that will have to come to terms with the reality that democracy as a form of government into which everyone is being shepherded is a lot more complicated and challenging system to run than the textbooks suggest. The perennial contest between a global community of nations on the one hand, and nations which offend the community of mankind on the other will continue to detract from the benefits of democratic systems. The small prints on democratic systems will warn that they have many variations and require time, patience and commitment to develop into imperfect arrangements that are susceptible to setbacks and emergence of severely-limiting contradictions. Managers of our nation's relations with Africa in particular will benefit from a sober reflection on our complacency and poor reading of the dynamics of power. Nigeria's rather embarrassing outing at the recent African Union(AU) Summit should teach us that not all power flows from size, and strength has to be cultivated with vigilance, intelligence and resources.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bare-knuckled politics

Before you milk a cow, tie it up. (African proverb.)

The deepening and damaging rancour involving the Senate on one side and the executive arm and powerful political forces on the other represents a major threat to the current political leadership and the democratic process. It is conceivable that there is a grand objective to be achieved at the end of a fight that seems destined to continue to take casualties from all sides, but it is difficult for most Nigerians to see it. The popular perception is that all sides are involved in a series of related conflicts that no one can win outrightly, or ever. More worrisome is the concern that these unending fights could cause irreparable damage to the administration's capacity to govern, to the cohesiveness and survival of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and to a nation which desperately requires focus, discipline and consensus around strategies and priorities. The beneficiaries in this civil war  will chalk up another plus in an APC Senator reported as threatening to beat up another APC Senator and wife of Asiwaju Tinubu, and in muttered threats to impeach President Buhari if he insists on going ahead with prosecuting Senate leadership and management staff over allegations of forging Senate Rules.
It will serve little purpose to chronicle the major developments, turns and twists in the crises that have characterized federal executive-legislative relations from the word go. It is, nonetheless, important to state some obvious manifestations of these crises. The first is that Senate President Bukola Saraki is at the heart of it all. The manner of his emergence as Senate President appears to have created intense hostility from very powerful interests in circles around President Buhari and in the party. Second, it is now obvious that while Saraki can be threatened and substantially destabilized by investigations and trials, he has roots that go very deep in the Senate, such that his political fate and personal experience will be impossible to isolate from the heart of relations between the two arms of government. Three, there is an obvious weakness in political mediation capacities at the highest levels of the party and the government, a weakness that is fed upon by political opportunism from multiple sources. Four, these crises appear set to continue to sap energy, create higher levels of disharmony and increase the leakages in an administration that should face a host of challenges with all its assets on one side.

President Buhari, the party and a number of powerful persons see Saraki's position and journey as representing contempt for all core values in the democratic process and due deference to dominant interests, which must be resisted. To tolerate him is to invite further breaches. Pride comes into it because its perception as an audacious effrontery suggests some limitations in powers of persons and interests that should not be condoned. On the other hand, Saraki thinks he won a prize for possessing sharper political instincts, and should not be made to pay a price for the weaknesses of others. Pride is central to his position because he feels most of those opposing him are not his moral superiors, and would have done the same thing, given the same opportunities. He sees himself leading a pack that looks up to him to protect it from an executive arm that wants all scalps. He thinks he is being unfairly persecuted after paying dues and restitution in steering the Senate to accommodate some limitations of the executive arm.
Fear is also a major factor. The existence of a significant portion of the terrain outside the making and influence of the presidency scares some people who think its architects possess a capacity to expand it even further beyond their control. On the other hand, Saraki and his supporters in the Senate see a threat that will muscle them beyond any major significance in the political process, and many among them have long lost the luxury to sleep over the possibility that the fight against corruption will soon knock on their doors. Those without bulging files with EFCC are worried that their elaborate privileges will be decimated, and with them, prospects for oiling avenues for return in 2019.
This fight has been allowed to drag to a point where virtually all parties have no more room for manuever. Everything is at stake, and it will be all or nothing. The rump of the PDP is holding on to Saraki's fortunes and travails as its weapon and benchmark for influencing an APC administration engaged in a civil war. Without Saraki's leadership, it will lose a major political cover and source of power and influence. With Saraki as leader of the National Assembly, it has a foot in the door, and can work to reduce the damage and impact of an APC administration. APC Senators are substatially in disarray, but most want to see an easing of executive pressure and acts of hostility against Saraki. It says a lot about the poor management of the anti-Saraki forces that they have failed to pry away most of the fairly neutral Senators from Saraki.
 Saraki himself has been unable to engineer a truce and some respite from the forces ranged against him. A combination of old and new sins seem to combine to create an endless source of destabilization against him. His expensive army of legal experts have not stopped his prosecution before the Court of Conduct Tribunal(CCT).Just when it appeared that the CCT trial could be re-engineered to reduce stress, the trial over forgery of Senate Rules starts, threatening to deepen the chasm between the executive and the Senate. The Senate itself appears set to dig deeper  and damage boundaries that are vital to management of justice systems. The Minister of Justice, the Justice Ministry and the entire bureaucracy of justice is now in the enemy list of the Senate. If there are parties mediating this deteriorating conflict, they do not appear to be making a dent on it. There are people who insist Saraki must be removed from his position and sent to prison, and they will not rest until this is done. They include senators who are virtual proxies of powerful interests which are themselves deeply interested in the fate of Buhari's presidency. A man like Saraki whose image has embodied so much odium really has no place at the head of a major democratic institution, but he will hang on because it appears the fight has been reduced to his person, and not to higher values.
At this stage, this fight to finish appears set to reach some poorly-defined but definite tragic ends, and voices that should be heard in support of political solutions are intimidated into silence by the fear of appearing either to support corruption and sundry illegalities, or impunity and high-handedness. Saraki is unlikely to step down, with so much of his political and personal life, as well as those of many senators riding on his survival as Senate President. Cessation of hostilities against him will be seen as a major capitulation by the fight against corruption and the imperatives of clipping his political wings. The judicial process will be stretched and stressed all the way, and will bear scars of this fight no matter how it is resolved. Hostile relations between the Senate and the executive will affect critical governance matters. The APC is finding it difficult to come to terms with its real character, and does not appear to possess the clout to knock together disparate interests into a cohesive organization under an identifiable political influence. The   capacity of the APC to consolidate its grip on the political process beyond 2019 will be threatened. Saraki and the forces ranged against him are likely to bring the entire house down. Does any one care?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Lean, hard times

One sees all sorts of knives on the day an elephant dies.
Yoruba proverb

In my neck of the woods, many adults will tell you that they cannot remember harder times. They will be speaking of their own experiences and those whose lives and circumstances they are familiar with. Muslims in particular will say this is one of the most difficult months of Ramadan they have had to endure. The holy month of Ramadan during which, with few exceptions, all Muslims are commanded to fast from sunrise to sunset, also has many peculiarities, some religious, others social. It is a month in which Muslims live with the highest levels of deprivation, devotion and sacrifice. Those who are well off are encouraged to show generousity and compassion to those less endowed. When comfortable Muslims are unable to sustain their normal lifestyles as well as reach further to make lives of less fortunate others more comfortable, entire communities feel the impact. Faith cushions pain and deprivation, but it also asks deeper questions about them.
No one will say they have been caught unawares. The cost of living has been rising in the last few months, and meeting the cost of basic essentials like food and transportation has been challenging many families. As Ramadan approached, they rose higher. This was, after all, the month in which feeding is both regulated and indulged in, in unusual scales and styles. Food must be available at Iftar, the period when fast is broken. Poverty has not exempted poor Muslims from fasting, so those who have enough splash during Iftar, but they also do enough to make sure that those who cannot feed themselves do get at least this one meal. Sahur, the meal taken just before sunrise is strongly encouraged. Those who can afford it also put out some of it for those who will otherwise start the fast on a depleted stomach the next day. When the cost of food and other essentials rise to the point they did this Ramadan, and the circle of the generous and wealthy shrinks, families cut down drastically on feeding. Those who depend entirely or largely on generosity are cut off from social nets. The elaborate Islamic social and security net is threatened by poverty of faith and, more significantly, by economic poverty.
Millions of Muslims have reached Iftar this year without a morsel to break their fast. The rich had less to give, and everyone was watching stores and pockets to meet only the most essential obligations. Governments that used to engage in Ramadan feeding of the poor cut down drastically, or cancelled the  programme entirely. Many bread winners and family heads had not been paid for months, and credit lines had dried up. Those who had jobs or other sources of income in a shrinking economy would only get a bag of rice for N18,000, and few more essentials in addition will gulp up an entire monthly pay. As they counted the little quantities of a depreciating Naira very carefully, household heads agonised over another vital obligation: the traditional new clothing that has to be made for wives and children and extended family at the end of the Ramadan period. Adults could live without new cloth this Sallah, but for children who equate Sallah with new set(s) of clothing, it was unthinkable. Parents stayed awake nights thinking how they could procure this expensive requirement for familial harmony. The also worried about cost of fertilizer, school fees, medical bills and routine and unanticipated expenses.
As Ramadan came nearer to its end, blood pressures rose as family heads worried more over meeting other social and religious obligations. Household heads had to settle Zakatul Fitr, a specified quantity of food to be given to the poor at the end of Sallah, so that they too can have something to eat on the festive day. It could not have been easy for many household heads as they assessed stores and pockets, to decide whether they should give or receive this Zakat themselves. It must been even more difficult meeting this religious obligation when it had to coincide with the improved feeding that is associated with Sallah days and the extras in cash that is required to keep spirits up, and traditions going. It is very likely that this last month has re-classified many families downwards.
Still, those who could afford the luxury of thinking of others less fortunate will be grateful that they were not among the millions of Muslims living in IDP camps, entirely at the mercy the elements, the generousity of governments and the international community. They too are not exempted from fasting, but cannot go round families and neighborhoods seeking for food for Iftar and Sahur. Children in IDP camps and child beggars in their millions who also fast will not wear new cloth for Sallah. They may hear from an adult or two of sumptuous meals involving disabled persons and I.D.Ps and leaders in capitals, but these stories will fade away as they resume normal lives with an unknown future. Some people will hear that civil servants have received letters of sack this Ramadan after waiting for months to be paid salaries. Some other civil servants will hear definitive statements that salaries cannot be paid in full, or arrears settled. All Nigerians would have heard the plea from President Buhari for patience and support in these times of economic hardship.
In spite of seeming evidence to the contrary, Nigerians are a deeply religious people who believe that God has a decisive hand in their lives. So they will continue to pray, as they did so fervently this Ramadan, that their lot improves soon. They will pray that President Buhari and state governors will find solutions to their hardship. They do hear that the damage we are all paying for was done over a long period, consistently and systematically, and it will take a while to fix things. They know new enemies are being fought; old enemies are resisting; strategies are being redesigned and goals are being adjusted. So even as they pray to God to strengthen leaders, Nigerians will not blame God if leaders fail. They will hold leaders to account. They will say: no matter how bad the situation is, we expect you find ways to reduce our hardship. That is your job. Leaders should listen and act before more than a few lose patience and faith in them.
….And we lost two of our best
In the space of two weeks, the nation lost two of its greatest assets. Chief Ojo Maduekwe died leaving a vacuum in enlightened and responsible leadership, unquestioning patriotism and a persistence in the search for solutions to national problems which will be difficult to fill. Then Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi, (Marafan Sokoto) died two days ago, leaving behind a most distinguished record in public service and a life-long commitment to the interest and security of Nigerians. These losses will be even more painful in a context where fewer and fewer Nigerians live their entire lives for the nation.     

Friday, July 1, 2016

Slippery slopes to self-determination

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. African proverb.

With a small majority, British voters last week dramatically swerved their nation in the direction of a vaguely-defined future. They created one of those turning points that are visible only to those who stubbornly shut their eyes and imagine an end of their own making. Voters that wanted their nation out of the European Union(EU) were poorly prepared to appreciate the full impact of their choice. Those who opposed it were almost smug in their confidence that it will not happen. It is obvious that the tremors of that decision will be felt far and wide for a long time. Initial casualties already include a resigning Prime Minister (PM), a leader of the opposition who will almost certainly be pulled down, massive turbulence in the ruling party, a disturbing disconnect between leaders and citizens, damaging uncertainties regarding the mode and impact of the disengagement process on the economy, labour movement and employment, future relations with Europe and the world and a host of other issues that no one even contemplated. Many voters who wanted out are experiencing a buyer's remorse, that nagging regret that you did not exactly buy what you wanted or needed. Those who voted to stay are involved in a bitter blame game, bracing for a future that will do a lot more than change the number of EU members.
Only in two or three years' time will matters relating to this decision be clearer even to those who are knowledgeable. The manner Britain's exit from the EU would have affected its relations with the rest of Europe would be settled beyond speculation. The anger and indignation in Europe at this moment suggests that this is a most unhappy parting that could involve a lot of throwing things out of windows. It is conceivable that a relationship framework is created that tolerates Britain as an ally of sorts, the type that is useful but not liked. Britain itself could come to terms with the deep roots it shares with Europe, and facilitate a fence-mending process that leaves it some space and influence in European affairs. The EU would have come to terms with the need for vigilance and reform in its operations. It may have had to discourage further exits in a continent witnessing a resurgence of right-wing politics that peddles sentiments around building national walls against foreigners and remote governance. If it survives as a continental body, the EU would have accorded sufficient respect for what just happened in Britain, notwithstanding the tendency to treat the British historically as odd sorts. It would have defined its place more clearly in the lives of citizens of member nations, beyond the impression that it is important beyond question. It may have moved in a direction that acknowledges that migration and security are major issues in a world caught between erecting barriers for security, and lowering them for economic prosperity. This would have placed strains on a body with pronounced disagreements on responding to major crises in parts of the world where Europe has major stakes, in addition to existing pressure to open the gates to poorer cousins, and to a Turkey that could substantially alter the mix.
The EU may survive a British exit better than a Britain outside Europe. Now the flames for full Scottish and Irish independence will burn more intensely. The voting pattern showed many deep cleavages in the UK. More Scots and Irish will now move away from a union that adds a dose of recklessness to a relationship that will not answer to anachronistic. Older Britons pulled back the carpet from under the feet of its future, leaving an angry generation which knew only of being in the EU. Reinventing the pride-in-the-island mentality in generations that grew in a globalized environment and culture with emphasis on individual choices will be difficult, and younger Britons may punish older politicians who led the way into this uncertain and unfamiliar future. Managing a British economy with lesser intimacy with Europe will take a lot of skills and solid political stability, something that is not in the firmament. Productive relations with NATO and the rest of the world will require a lot more than flashing a resume as a former world power. Proud Britons will run into other proud nationals all waving the flag, as nationalism threatens to uproot frontiers of regionalism and globalization. Britain may find out that its security may cost more for a middle power living in a world with rising and contending centers of influence. Today’s security challenges require collective responses, and will defy the bravado of any nation which believes patriotism is still a potent fuel in international relations.
Across the world, Brexit will re-ignite sentiments that  question current national and regional boundries and compositions. Many old and new campaigns will draw inspiration from the British referendum, or find in it new sources of strength to assert rights to self-determination. Those that will choose the democratic path should be reminded that the vote settles major contentions, but it rarely creates a concensus. Brexit is a good example of the limitations of the democratic process: it gives people the right to choose, but throws up other disputes around the choice. Re-drawing boundries or breaking up nations is rarely without massive crises, some so massive, they question the reasoning behind the rationale. Africa can teach the world about state creation and peace. South Sudan, DRC, the Horn of Africa, Saharawi Republic, Biafra (and neo-Biafra),Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi have millions of skeletons of ordinary folks who had no idea why they died. Life in most of those countries has not been better since they were sacrificed by politicians who wanted different arrangements in which they will exercise power. Europe itself leads the world in the record of human sacrifice to nationalism. A 40-year old citizen in the Balkans and Eastern Europe will struggle today to name all the nations born of numerous bloody conflicts that produced the many(and recycled) nations in the region.
It helps to recognize that people will always question the basis of their relationship with others, and express desires to alter the terms of those relationships. This is desire as old as political man, and neither time nor all the force in the world has killed it. What those who seek changes have an obligation to do is to create a genuine and popular desire among citizens for change without impinging on the rights of others to choose their own versions of relations with others. For us in Nigeria, the best case to be made by those who believe in Biafra, or different federal arrangements is to work through the political process and secure a peaceful, broad concensus that Nigerians can go their own ways. The constitutional bits about an indivisible nation was written, and can be re-written by Nigerians, but imposition of a break-up agenda will not work. Just look at the quarrel following the Brexit vote. And to think they created this conundrum democratically and peacefully!