Monday, October 20, 2014

The Opposition's Dilemma

The APC confronts a significant dilemma as it weighs its options and nominates its presidential flag-bearer for next year’s polls. Thus far, the primaries look to be a three horse-race between Muhammadu Buhari, Atiku Abubakar and Rabiu Kwankwaso. These three contenders bring formidable strengths as well as weaknesses to the table.

Buhari commands the allegiance of the northern street and the fanatical adulation of millions who see him as the only one courageous and incorruptible enough to slay the dragon of official graft. A septuagenarian and a former Head of State, Buhari is experienced and also enjoys the peculiar benefit of having a public record that has been burnished by the passage of time. A significant percentage of the electorate were either too young or had not even been born when he was a military ruler. This “demographic dividend”, in addition to a national amnesia about our collective history, has aided his remarkable transformation from dictator to democrat.

Atiku Abubakar is a former Vice President, an experienced and thoroughbred politician with a formidable national political machine oiled by his savvy for wheeling and dealing and his immense wealth. Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso comes to the table with youth on his side, and more importantly, a very impressive stint as governor of Kano, one of Nigeria’s complex and most volatile states. Kwankwaso has shown himself to be both an adept administrator and an adroit politician – a very useful combination in a clime in which governance and politics exist in an uneasy tension.

In an ideal world, the APC would blend Buhari’s popularity, Atiku’s political savvy and machine with Kwankwaso’s progressive energy and drive to create its perfect flag-bearer. It is precisely because it cannot do this that it must reconcile the weaknesses and strengths of these contenders and ensure that its primaries are not so fractious that they fatally damage whoever emerges as the winner.

At 72, this is clearly Buhari’s swan song in elective politics after three previous unsuccessful presidential bids. Elements within the APC leadership favour him because his haul of 12 million votes in the 2011 polls make him a bankable vote magnet particularly in the far north. But there are two problems here. Buhari, for all his popularity in the north, has found it difficult to become a national brand. The manual for defeating him was written in 2003 when President Olusegun Obasanjo’s campaign successfully tarred him as a religious extremist and ethnic bigot. It was slanderous nonsense but the charge has proven potent in our polarized times not least because of Buhari’s occasional flair for untimely verbal own goals and self-subverting soundbytes. It did not help matters that in 2003 and 2007, his party, the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party campaigned as an “Islamic” party in the North.

Secondly, Buhari has never actually won an open and fair presidential primary contest. In 2003 and 2007, he was virtually muscled in as a consensus candidate by ANPP apparatchiks which alienated influential party operatives on both occasions. In 2011, the Congress for Progressive Change which was practically set up as a vehicle for his presidential ambition floundered because it was manifestly a personality cult and lacked the organizational acumen as well as the fiscal and human resources to mount an effective national campaign.

Primary contests are not about popularity. Rather, they test a candidate’s ability to rally party delegates. Buhari disdains the sort of wheeling and dealing that characterizes a nomination process. He perceives himself as being above politics and is frequently condescending to politicians. Thus, he has never been able to win over the political operatives that can secure party tickets in an open contest and has instead typically relied on the anointment of party elders. The fact that his military regime jailed many Second Republic politicians has fuelled a residual elite suspicion of his agenda. The APC’s adoption of a modified direct system for its primaries will allow 300, 000 delegates to participate and this widening of the pool could enable Buhari be more competitive than he might ordinarily have been.

Atiku, on the other hand, is an adept veteran of primary contests since 1993 and is endowed with the sort of personal and political diplomacy that sways delegates. His accessibility is in contrast to Buhari’s aloofness. Kwankwaso also has keen political instincts in this terrain. Both Atiku and Kwankwaso would be far more comfortable in this arena than Buhari but neither of them possesses Buhari’s name recognition or that bankable fund of fanatical devotion that would be crucial in the general election.

It is quite the conundrum. Buhari may be a fairly competitive brand for national elections but lacks the transactional skills for primary contests. Atiku and Kwankwaso have what it takes to fare well in the primaries but do not have Buhari’s following which would be crucial for the national polls. Atiku lacks Buhari’s reputation for incorruptibility and Kwankwaso, despite his impressive work in Kano, must work hard to stamp himself in the national consciousness. In truth, none of these candidates is certain to defeat the incumbent president next year.  

Buhari’s partisans will argue that the party leadership ought to do all it can to ensure Buhari clinches the ticket since he can pull in the numbers. But Atiku and Kwankwaso could counter that the ability to sway delegates in the primaries is not to be scoffed at. It is, after all, a predictor of the ability to mobilize the ground troops for the general elections. They will also point at the rather limited geography of Buhari’s appeal. Having 12 million votes is of no consequence if they are sequestered almost entirely in one region. They will observe that Buhari, despite his adoring legions, has lost thrice to three different ruling party candidates in a decade, and quite rightly suggest that a persistent defect in his brand, whether perceptual or actual, makes him nationally unelectable.

Certain actors within the APC would prefer a “bloodless” non-acrimonious primary process in which Atiku and Kwankwaso step down for Buhari. This is unlikely and Kwankwaso has already reportedly rebuffed overtures to concede the ticket to Buhari. This is fair. The APC needs an open primary contest if it is to avoid self-destructive internecine recrimination afterwards and its leadership will have to avoid the temptation to stage a victory for a favoured contender. From all indications, the primaries will be keenly contested. What happens next will be interesting. 

  Images sourced from  (in order of appearance)   

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Lynching of Nuhu Ribadu

Nuhu Ribadu’s defection from the All Progressive Congress to the ruling People’s Democratic Party has been greeted with savage personal attacks that have condemned him as a perfidious and opportunistic turncoat. By joining the PDP, the former anti-corruption czar is said to have betrayed his principles. Ribadu, it appears, is being held to a very rigorous standard of consistency – one that could only possibly be met by a political clairvoyant.

The absurdity and unfairness of the moral standard being applied to Ribadu become apparent when applied to the broader political landscape. Take Muhammadu Buhari who is widely lionized by his supporters as an incorruptible paragon. In 1998, he had told the BBC that he believed politics was “full of fraudulent acts.” “I cannot join people who will go and loot the treasury,” he insisted, “I have no plans to participate in politics” (Tell, March 16, 1998). In October 2000, Buhari stridently denied any interest in politics saying, “I have no desire to take part in partisan politics.” He was adamant that he would “not take part in partisan politics” despite being approached to do so (The Guardian, October 6, 2000). Within a few years, Buhari was seeking the grandest prize in Nigerian politics.

After his failed 2007 presidential bid, Buhari told the BBC, “I have been deceived by politicians, by the people who drafted me into politics. I have discovered that the people who drafted me into politics were not sincere after all; they only wanted to use me to get appointments or for their personal aggrandizement and not to serve the nation or the masses” (The News, September 24, 2007). Buhari was referring to, among other people, the All Nigeria People’s Party chairman Edwin Ume-Ezeoke and the then Kano State Governor Ibrahim Shekarau.

Should we not denounce Buhari for lacking discernment and for being serially deceived by corrupt politicians or for being unprincipled enough to team up with the same politicians he had vilified for being rogues? Is he not an inconsistent hypocrite for allying with Shekarau once again in the APC? No doubt, his supporters would prefer to see this as evidence of his forgiving spirit. No matter. After losing the 2011 polls, Buhari called time on his political career stating that there would be no more presidential bids. But yet again, he reneged on this promise. By the measure with which Ribadu has been judged, Buhari would have to be condemned as a congenital liar; a typical politician who cannot keep his word and is therefore no different from the much maligned Goodluck Jonathan who pledged to govern for only one term but has since reviewed his stance.

By the rigorous standards of political morality applied to Ribadu, it would be impossible for the APC itself (or indeed any of our political parties) to have come into existence. It would be unethical for veterans of the 1990 pro-democracy movement like Bola Tinubu and Kayode Fayemi to countenance making common cause with Tom Ikimi, who served as General Sani Abacha’s foreign minister, and Buhari who also served in that junta and persistently claims that Abacha was not the thieving despot that he undeniably was.

In late 2009, Ume-Ezeoke paid a solidarity visit to Shekarau, then governor of Kano State and lauded him for resolutely refusing to jump ship like other ANPP governors that had defected to the PDP – a strange remark since Ume-Ezeoke himself had championed his party’s alliance with the PDP in a so-called government of national unity two years earlier. Shekarau replied that Nigerians were in dire need of redemption from what he derisively called the “property development party” – a party which he said was suffering from a “cancerous ego and political jaundice” (The News, December 7, 2009).  Shekarau is now a PDP chieftain.

The APC chieftain, Nasir El-Rufai, who came to fame while serving in a PDP government, evinces little discomfort at being in the same party with Atiku Abubakar, the former vice-president whom he criticized for corruption in his memoirs. Abubakar’s trajectory in the last seven years has seen him migrate from the PDP to the Action Congress back to the PDP and now to the APC.

It is still unclear why PDP’s poaching of Jimi Agbaje or Ribadu provokes diatribes against these gentlemen while the APC’s recruitment of PDP stalwarts like Rabiu Kwankwaso, Rotimi Amaechi and Bukola Saraki is hailed as a victory for progressives. What exactly makes Ali Modu Sherriff or the catastrophically inept Murtala Nyako progressive? We may now await the defection to the APC of Aminu Tambuwal, a leader of one of the most avaricious legislatures in parliamentary history and his consequent baptism as a “progressive.”  It is worth noting that some of the elements now castigating Ribadu were involved in the ACN’s betrayal of his presidential candidacy in 2011 in favour enabling the PDP’s victory in the southwest.   

In October 2010, El-Rufai issued a scathing public statement asserting that Buhari “remained perpetually unelectable” and that his “insensitivity to Nigeria’s diversity and his parochial focus” are already well known. He cited the draconian record of Buhari’s military regime as proof of “the essence of his intolerance” and rubbished Buhari’s presidential aspirations saying that it was now “time for a new generation of leaders with new thinking and wholesome democratic attitudes to move our nation forward.” Buhari’s ill-tempered reaction to his suggestion that he abandon his presidential quest was “proof enough that a Buhari, the new Democrat, tolerant of views different from his own, is yet to evolve” but it would “take more than attacks on personalities to become electable. Having seen his version of discipline, Nigerians are not likely to cherish an encore.”(  

El-Rufai’s acidic comments on Buhari’s electability would later be seized upon by Jonathan’s campaign team. In his memoirs, The Accidental Public Servant, published in 2013, El-Rufai (now a Buhari ally) lamented that his comments on the former head of state were still being brought up incessantly “as if I could not change my views based on new facts, information or emerging circumstances” (p.450). Herein lies the central lesson. Politicians change their views all the time based on “new facts, information or emerging circumstances.” Like Ribadu, Buhari, El-Rufai, Atiku and any political personage we care to name have at various times exercised the prerogative of changing their own minds.

It remains only for voters to decide whether or not these changes in perspective constitute such egregious reversals that they permanently place the politicians in question in terminal disrepute. In making this judgment, it is important that we do not hold politicians to a standard higher than that to which we are willing to subject ourselves. Nor should we confuse prideful inflexibility and our delusions of infallibility for a noble fidelity to principle. Being flexible enough to learn, adapt, and change one’s ways is, after all, also a principle, and a worthy one at that.

It would take people who have never changed their views and never will; people who are either incapable of learning or unwilling to do so, to insist on the exacting standards of consistency with which Ribadu is being bludgeoned. Inflexibility and infallibility are dangerous.

Of course, utterances matter and public figures should be called out on their perceived inconsistencies as a means of keeping them honest. Here, for example, is a scorcher from that erstwhile scourge of corrupt and inept power-brokers, Reuben Abati in The Guardian of October 2, 2005: “Even when a Nigerian leader is openly stupid, a Nigerian in search of his or her own share of the national cake, and who has been invited to come and eat, cannot summon the courage to tell him so. The unfortunate thing is that the people who manage to get to the corridors of power are ever so grateful that they dare not speak the truth.” As self-indicting, self-fulfilling prophecies go, this statement is probably unparalleled.          

Given the melodrama surrounding Ribadu’s defection, it is perhaps necessary to seek electoral reforms that would allow independent candidacies. Letting individuals run on their personal antecedents rather than on nebulous party platforms may give us more clarity in judging their worthiness for public office. It will also save us the histrionics that accompanies these defections. In the meantime, we should weigh the choices before us and vote for good governance regardless of what party label it comes under.

Political nomadism is to be expected in an environment where ideological distinctions are still ill-defined and where self-interest, patriotism, idealism and Faustian pragmatism must necessarily co-exist.  We must also grasp the distinction between political expediency and administrative acumen. The fact that Kwankwaso and Amaechi were once in the PDP does not detract from their administrative accomplishments. Similarly, in or out of the APC, Ribadu remains a superior alternative to Nyako.  

Our addiction to cartoonish heroes and villains warps our electoral choices. Democratic politics is not about canonizing saints. At worst, it is a calculus of greater and lesser evils. At best, it offers a choice between competence and incompetence. The important thing is to choose, on balance, the best man or woman for the job.

(All images sourced online) 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

State of Denial

With each terrorist outrage, opposing partisans volley conspiracy theories back and forth, accusing either the federal government or the opposition of masterminding the attacks. Confronted by an unprecedented threat and unable to respond effectively, we have resorted to conspiracy theorizing. We seem to be in denial that a terrorist insurgency is upon us.
This denial stems from a typically Nigerian hubris. During the 1970s and the 1980s, Nigerians believed that their country was too sophisticated to produce an Idi Amin or Mobutu and were blind to that possibility right until General Sani Abacha seized power and plumbed hitherto uncharted depths of savagery. Similarly, we have long believed that terrorism and suicide bombings are exotic lunacies confined to foreign lands even though our social indices and derelict governance all pointed towards the eventual emergence of an organized insurrection as we have since witnessed in the Niger Delta and the Northeast. 

In fact, Nigeria was institutionally unprepared to deal with a terrorist insurgency. There is more than a hint of cognitive dissonance in our evaluation of the situation. Nigerians generally agree that the state is fundamentally inept, incapable of providing basic social services, crippled by endemic corruption, patronage politics and perverse affirmative action gestures. But they inexplicably expect the same state to readily “deal with” a highly adaptive, protean threat like the current insurgency. Officials admit that Nigeria’s borders are unguarded but express amazement at the proliferation of weapons. Nigerians are attributing to malice, several things that are sufficiently explained by incompetence.  

When ineptitude, mediocrity and graft attain epidemic proportions, their manifestations seem like a conspiracy to the unwary eye. But it is really years of institutional decay, inept governance and official kleptomania finally catching up with us. The results are brave but poorly-resourced, ill-motivated troops put in harm’s way, security lapses, failures of intelligence and martial resolve, and mutinous rumblings at the front lines. Insurgencies are fiendishly difficult to fight but corruption, incompetence and incapacity have also ambushed us. It is impossible to swiftly shift gears from institutionalized dysfunction to five-star efficiency in a national emergency. The real “conspiracy” is the pervasive belief that we could continue business as usual in the face of an unusual threat and not run aground. 

Nigeria’s law enforcement and security institutions are weak. The five year old insurgency has consumed over 4,000 lives and multibillion naira security budgets but there is no coherent national security doctrine that synergizes our security agencies. Both the national security adviser and the president have bemoaned the lack of interagency cooperation. Even the government’s response to Boko Haram’s demand for the release of its members in exchange for its release of the girls it abducted a month ago was met with contradictory responses from various functionaries, reflecting the administration’s strategic incoherence.  

Our institutional vulnerabilities are compounded by ineptitude. President Goodluck Jonathan’s defenders insist that he is the victim of a conspiracy aimed at aborting his second term ambitions. Even if such a scheme is afoot, his failure to act decisively against his “enemies” and protect Nigerians does him no credit. 

The nationalist Adegoke Adelabu once wrote, “At the supreme crisis in the history of every nation, there emerges spontaneously from the ranks of the common people, a leader and a saviour to pilot the ship of the state.” National crises often transfigure political leaders, endowing them with steely purpose. Jonathan has not been so endowed. Nigerians, regardless of their partisan, ethnic or religious allegiances, would be rallying round the president if he was providing strong leadership. As St. Paul wrote, “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to battle?” We are at war but Jonathan’s leadership has been uncertain and uninspiring.  

Boko Haram’s indiscriminate blood thirst makes it an enemy against which a more competent politician would have galvanized the whole country. Instead, the administration has opted variously to play the victim, to milk terror acts for political advantage and to libel political opponents with unsubstantiated allegations of treason. It is true that the chain of negligence for many outrages extends beyond the presidency; a host of federal agents and state authorities are also culpable. However, the lack of penalties for official delinquency is telling; as is Jonathan’s preference for raising redundant committees instead of demanding results from his team and firing inept functionaries. 

This indulgence is worlds apart from the stone-cold realities of the front lines where the cost of failure is immediate and unforgiving. A mediocre officialdom has failed even to weave the successes and heroic sacrifices of the military and security services into an inspirational narrative and persisted with its victimhood. 

We are facing challenges that require bold leadership and strong institutions. We need fresh systemic thinking on how to police a population of 170 million people when our men and women under arms number less than 1 million. We need new strategies for urban planning and the protection of critical infrastructure and soft targets. We need to move away from analog security management protocols (roadblocks and checkpoints) and utilize human and electronic intelligence. The insurgency has displaced half a million people who have been abandoned but need to be placed in protected camps.

Boko Haram is eminently beatable but we must overcome our denial and face the reality of rebuilding our institutions, enhancing our crisis management capacities, redefining our leadership selection processes and entrenching meritocracy in public service. Without profound conceptual and practical changes in our approach to governance, our enemies will continue to find joy in fomenting anarchy.  

(Thisday, Sunday May 25, 2014)
(All images are sourced online)

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Meaning of Chibok

Whether the abduction of over 200 girls from Chibok is a tipping point remains to be seen. It took the self-immolation of a Tunisian street trader to spark off the Arab Spring. The Chibok debacle may yet unleash seismic repercussions. There have, of course, been other abductions by Boko Haram and over the years, several soul-destroying abominations across the land that have gone unremarked. The case of the Chibok girls is remarkable because of the impunity of its perpetrators, the scale of the crime, the number of victims and the mindboggling ineptitude of those in authority.

At first, the government responded with typical indifference. Scenes of President Goodluck Jonathan cavorting at a political rally a day after the April 14, Abuja bombing and the abduction of the girls incensed many. However, there was a deeper institutional psychology at work. The dreary inescapable truth is that defending the sanctity of human life is not a core value of the Nigerian state. The state is an entity that elites compete to capture and privatize for personal gain rather than for public interest. It is government of some people, by some people and for some people.

Consequently, politicians tend to emphasize the chasm between the state and the society. Witness the semiotic violence of officialdom. Reckless motorcades piloted by snarling speed demons and whip-wielding goons are known to run citizens off the road. The unmistakable message is that the powerful are a different breed from “the masses”. This medieval model of governance renders it both alien and alienating. Most Nigerians do not actually expect the government to serve their interests. This is why state governors are serenaded for their rare provision of basic amenities which is seen as the beneficence rather than the obligation, of elected officials. The tribulations of the powerless are hardly the priority of the powerful.

In the three weeks it took Jonathan to speak on the missing girls, foreign leaders had pronounced on the issue with the sort of resolve that Nigerian officialdom is incapable of mustering when Nigerian lives are at stake. Leadership is not only about providing those basics which Nigerian politicians like to preen and brag about. It is about defining the ethical boundaries that separate us from the animal kingdom. Like previous outrages, this debacle was another spurned opportunity for leaders to make emotionally-intelligent and unequivocal moral statements. These silences betray an empathy deficit and belie our claim to belong in the precincts of modern civilization.   

The World Economic Forum (WEF) was supposed to be the administration’s triumphal exhibition on global primetime. Instead it was rightly overshadowed by the missing girls. Having rebased Nigeria’s GDP, we must now revalue Nigerian life. Assuredly, were it not for the rising protests, international pressure and the increasingly global ubiquity of the #bringbackourgirls# campaign, the administration would have ignored the missing girls and steamed ahead.

Yet, it is instructive that the official interventions on the matter have been characterized by defensiveness, dissembling and evasiveness. The subtext of the first lady’s cringe-worthy melodramatic intervention was the accusation that the Chibok community was to blame for the abduction of its daughters. The administration and its sympathizers have shamelessly sought to portray the abductions and the ensuing protests as a plot to embarrass the president. Some promoted a sterile debate about whether the abductions actually happened. It has always been demonstrably difficult for officialdom to empathize with “lesser” compatriots.

This low valuation of life is why the criminally negligent Interior Minister remains in office despite overseeing a fraudulent recruitment exercise in which several young Nigerians died. It is why on May 1, the police was more exercised about dispersing protesters in Lagos than pre-empting the deadly bombing that later shook Abuja’s outskirts; and why communities like Chibok can only dream of seeing the sort of resources expended to fortify Abuja during the WEF. Undoubtedly, if Boko Haram was targeting VIPs, the official response would have possessed more urgency and intensity. Ordinary Nigerians, the denizens of Chibok, Nyanya and other such places, are only marginally less expendable to politicians than they are to terrorists. Politicians, at least, require their votes.

Government functionaries have displayed a puzzled irritation verging on a persecution complex at the scrutiny provoked by the Chibok girls’ inconvenient disappearance. But the real problem is that Nigerians are starting to demand more from their government and that the world is taking keen interest in a heinous atrocity that would have been let slide.

Chibok, a remote nondescript community, represents the sort of plebeian anonymity that is easily forgotten but the travails of its daughters have captured local and international attention. It has survived our weekly news cycle’s payload of body counts. Even in their harrowing captivity, the stolen girls have refused to go away. Their ordeal has rekindled a protest movement that can only deepen our democracy. It has also thrust their captors into international infamy. The video of a gloating and evidently drug-addled Abu Shekau threatening to sell the girls raised hackles worldwide and may have sealed the fate of his anarchist enterprise. Boko Haram will be terminally damned by the girls it has stolen.  

Beyond bringing back our girls, our challenge is to humanize and domesticate the state and convert it to the service of the common good. It is to instill a culture of accountability and responsiveness to public opinion and make officialdom more accessible to the people. It is to affirm the sanctity of life above all other considerations.

(All images are sourced online) 
Thisday, May 11, 2014