Friday, July 29, 2011

Religion, Controversy and Hypocrisy

Every now and then, some furious disputation inflames our fault lines and calls into question the prospects of a true and enduring unity. The most recent trigger of such contention is the Central Bank of Nigeria’s introduction of Islamic (non-interest) banking.

In summary, some Christian individuals and groups oppose the initiative because it allegedly contravenes Nigeria’s secularity. More vehement opponents say it is a grand plot to “Islamize” the country. Conversely, Muslims lament their demonization in the media, argue the virtues of Islamic banking and bemoan the Islamophobia that has gripped non-Muslims.

In fact, there is nothing wrong with Islamic banking. It is merely a facet of non-interest financing, the introduction of which is a laudable attempt to expand the range of financial services available to Nigerians. Islamic banking and non-interest financing in general are available in several nations across the world including those of a Judeo-Christian heritage.
Some critics say that the CBN handled the affair poorly. By emphasizing the particularity of Islamic banking rather than the universality of non-interest financing, it ensured that a religiously-charged controversy would greet the initiative. But the CBN’s purported mismanagement of the new initiative surely does not account for the spate of sectarian name-calling and faith-baiting seasoned with ignorance, paranoia and hysteria.

In truth, the current controversy is not about banking. It is about the perceived institutional and symbolic primacy of competing religious identities in the public domain. It is about an irrational fear of all things Islamic and the insensate tenor of public conversation in a climate of incivility. These are the obstacles to the honest but civil conversations needed to bridge the divides of our society.

Non-interest banking poses no legal or constitutional affront to Nigeria’s secular status as its opponents claim. Yet, even this appeal to secularity requires scrutiny. Nigeria’s secularity has always been so loosely defined as to be practically meaningless. This accounts for inconsistencies in state-faith relations such as the state sponsorship of pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem. Every year, federal and state governments spend billions of naira on pilgrimages. Obviously, secular countries do not use public funds to subsidize private spirituality. This contradiction is mostly unchallenged because Christian and Muslim Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards are lucrative bureaucracies which offer access to national oil wealth. Both faith establishments see patronage through these bureaucracies as part of the great contest for primacy in the public square.  
It would be more intellectually honest for secularists to advocate the abolition of pilgrimages and other forms of state involvement in religion.   

Nigerian religiousity possesses the quantitative width of zealous proselytization but not the qualitative contemplative depth of knowledge and reason. Most Muslims and Christians are ignorant of theirs and each others’ faiths. Indeed, they are increasingly raised to be mutually antagonistic.

And Islamophobia exists. 80 percent of our media is based in the so-called Lagos-Ibadan axis and is dominated by southerners and Christians. A subliminal prejudice taints reportage and commentary due to both genuine ignorance and fearful malice. Because sensationalism sells papers, the press opts to highlight the most extreme elements in the interfaith debate. Firebrands on both sides who can provide searing belligerent front page quotes are preferred to communicators of measured faith who can offer calm coherence. Derogatory sound bites are exalted above rational analysis. Extremists are promoted at the expense of moderates, fault lines deepen, and prejudicial attitudes harden. Thus, the media profits from conflict while assisting politicians and public figures whose claim to credibility is their opposition to “Islamization” or “Christianization.”

Most Muslims are rightfully and genuinely bewildered by their vilification in the media. A trustworthy axiom of social analysis and journalism is that it is wrong to judge an entire category of faith (or any identity) by its most extreme fringes. Reverend Chukwuemeka King, the homicidal pastor sentenced to death for murder no more represents mainstream Christianity than Boko Haram represents mainstream Islam.

But the feigned incredulity and recourse to victimhood by some Muslims are also disingenuous. In the past sixty years, sectarian violence has assumed a normative presence in northern Nigeria. Church-burnings, killings of Christians, and the destruction of property have been wrought in the name of Islam. Obviously, violence manifests all over Nigeria but its frequency, scale and incendiary alchemy of religious and ethnic animosities make it particularly distinctive in the north. Tens of thousands carry psychological and emotional scars from these serial holocausts. In the southern consciousness, the north is a feral wasteland patrolled by bloodthirsty mobs that practice the ritual mass murder of “unbelievers.”

Islam’s bad press is also the legacy of Muslim-dominated military dictatorships. Ordinarily, the fact that Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha were Muslims should have been incidental. But they cast themselves as devout Muslims and legitimized their juntas by cultivating a pseudo-Islamic solidarity. This perverse brand of politicized Islam, buttressed by armies of homicidal vagrants on northern streets, has engendered a reciprocal Christian militancy that discerns conspiracies to Islamize the country in everything.  

It does not matter here whether sectarian violence is rooted more in social and economic factors, as I believe, or whether dictators flaunting their Islamic faith were simply defrauding the public. Mainstream Muslims have been largely unwilling or at best reluctant to rescue their faith’s reputation from lynch mobs, duplicitous politicians and religious demagogues. This may be due to apathy, cowardice, denial or a misconceived sense of solidarity with those who appropriate Islam for nefarious ends. Just as it is unfair to judge a religion by its extremities, its adherents must not let extremists become their faith’s most vociferous public representatives. Otherwise they license caricatures of their beliefs in the public mind. As long as this is the case, traducers of the faith, however ignorant and hate-filled, will continue to appeal to the fearful and uninformed. Despite this, we should also note that there are Muslims who have condemned groups like Boko Haram at great personal risk.

It is no coincidence that the growth of religion has paralleled the increase in sectarian violence and corruption in our public life. Dubious clerics intensify inter-religious antipathies because group solidarity is often strengthened by creating a common enemy. So the faithful are rallied against “Islamization” or against “infidels” and distracted from questioning the relationship between clerics, corporate elites and kleptocrats in our society. In the age of pastor-tycoons and Imams subsidized by a degenerate political class, these questions would pierce through the fabric of mass deception.

The pursuit of shallow symbolic victories also obscures the necessity of interrogating the status quo. We chose to debate the Ajami inscriptions on the naira when the currency’s functional worth to millions of Nigerians, both Muslim and Christian, was being reduced by government’s policy of devaluation. Some fought to keep the inscriptions on the naira when a more worthy priority should have been getting all Nigerians literate in the official language and learned enough to participate in a modern economy.

Clerics who have been so equivocal about the implication of prominent Christian entrepreneurs in the scandal of the financial sector – slave wages, casual labour, executive theft, unhinged profiteering and fraud – are speaking with incandescent conviction against Islamic banking which holds redemptive economic possibilities for the poor.

Christians have no theological reason to oppose Islamic or non-interest banking. Until the 16th century, the Christian church prohibited usury so strictly that moneylenders were barred from having a Christian burial. Based on its doctrine of Just Price, the Church saw usury as unearned income. In Dante’s Inferno, usurers are in the same circle of hell as the inhabitants of Sodom and other practitioners of unnatural vice. The papacy eventually relented and lifted the outright ban on usury but greed and the charging of exorbitant interest are still forbidden. Indeed, Judaism, Christianity and Islam hold significant critiques of capitalism and its unqualified conception of profit.

It is no accident that after the global financial crisis, nations are looking to the great ethical traditions for alternative models of finance. However, bigotry threatens to overwhelm our moral imagination. In an absurd inversion, those who should defend the poor and champion socioeconomic justice have become unwitting advocates of profiteering.

Clearly, Nigerians need to talk to each other more and know more about each other’s faiths. It takes conversation to humanize each other and to build bridges instead of walls. If moderates do not choreograph this conversation, extremists will continue to do so with catastrophic results.   

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Presidential Power and Its Discontents II

Apart from his personal limitations, President Jonathan also faces systemic constraints. The constitution stipulates that the president must appoint a minister from each of the 36 states. Given that the constitution already provides for a bicameral legislature as well as a majoritarian presidency that embodies the will of the greatest number of Nigerians, having a minister from each state is superfluous. For one thing, it adds to the bloat of government. For another, it unnecessarily bestows on ministers a representative function that properly belongs to the National Assembly. The ministers belong to the executive branch whose mandate is to execute. The National Assembly scrutinizes what and how the executive is executing.  
Ideally, a president could appoint all or most of his ministers from any state. Where they come from is inconsequential. Performance should be the only yardstick for judging their conduct.

Clearly, the constitution’s framers doubted that politicians would act fairly if allowed to freely select their ministers without any regulatory constraint. The stipulation emanated from a legitimate concern with ensuring fairness in the distribution of government posts. However, politicians now use the constitution’s concern for representational equity as a basis for patronage by insisting that state governors nominate candidates to represent their states in the federal cabinet. The result is a systemic paradox that cripples presidential decision-making.
A representative cabinet evokes the collegial atmospherics of a parliamentary system’s dynamic of shared responsibility but it is illusory. By appearing to incorporate collective responsibility into our presidential system, we have inherited the worst of both worlds – a limited liability presidency where the president has great power but can distribute culpability for failures among ministers whom he can legitimately claim were foisted on him; and a nominally representative council of ministers constituted by politicians who typically represent only themselves and their political benefactors, and who are rarely competent enough to execute. Their loyalties are frequently divided between the president who appointed them and the godfathers who nominated them.

The president, who must define his administration’s mission, finds himself working with lieutenants that owe him less than total allegiance. Consequently, the unity of command and purpose that should characterize presidential governance is often lacking. The operational swiftness that comes from executive cohesion is distinctly absent. If ever a mode of government was designed to fail, this is it. But this is not solely a constitutional flaw. The constitutional requirement of 36 ministers is bad enough, but opportunistic politicians exploit it for pork barrel politics and subvert the executive responsibility ethic of presidential democracy.  In practice, it is an equal opportunity kleptocracy as a perverse brand of affirmative action.

Thus, one of a president’s most arduous struggles is to assert ownership of his presidency by picking his own team. President Shehu Shagari surrendered his cabinet appointments to the prebendal calculations of his party and lost control of his administration. Obasanjo’s absolute grip on his presidency enabled him pursue his reform agenda. A major concern is that Jonathan conceded too much to governors and other interests in constituting his cabinet.

Will the president’s languid style be enough to manage his cabinet and umpire the potential friction, for instance, between the Finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who has unprecedented latitude over economic matters and the Petroleum minister, Diezani Allison-Madueke who directly oversees Nigeria’s cash cow? Both women technocrats are strong personalities and lay claim to primacy in the administration’s cosmology – Allison-Madueke as a presidential favourite and confidante and Okonjo-Iweala as Jonathan’s economic czarina and guarantor of international credibility for his economic agenda.

Presidents must quickly assert their authority over special interests. They must show that, in General Ibrahim Babangida’s words, they “are not only in office but also in power.” Shagari was unable to curb his party’s profligacy and was overshadowed by the powerful rice importation czar Umaru Dikko. Obasanjo retired military officers who had held political appointments in previous military dictatorships thus securing his administration against the wiles of a politicized military. President Yar’Adua attempted the same by firing Obasanjo-era centurions like Nasir El-Rufai and Nuhu Ribadu who were deemed too powerful but his presidency was hobbled by the influence of fiendish cronies like Michael Aondoakaa and James Ibori.

Asserting his leadership will require Jonathan to defy influential interests as well as power blocs within the PDP, the National Assembly and the increasingly powerful governors’ forum. His vaunted transformational agenda cannot thrive in the nursery of politics as usual. Jonathan’s strengths are as a conciliator and a dealmaker. His natural instinct is to please everyone in the room and harmonize opposing forces often by redistributing portions of the national cake. “I have no enemies to fight,” he said constantly in the course of his campaign. However, at this point in our history, a pacific temperament guiding the presidency is not always a virtue. In fact, Nigeria has enemies that have to be fought and the presidency is a sovereign weapon fashioned to actualize the possibilities of our republic. When a president with convictions brings the moral, institutional and political weight of his office to bear on an issue, things get done. But the presidency is a blunt sword in the hands of the feckless, cowardly, pork-sharing pacifism often relished by Nigerian politicians.

Precisely because the presidency is so powerful, it either possesses its occupant or is possessed by him. Obasanjo’s military background predisposed him towards autocratic behaviour that often injured our institutions. For reluctant leaders like Shagari and Yar’Adua, the presidency was a black hole that swallowed them alive, leaving their aides to indulge in unhinged delinquency. Could Jonathan find the golden mean in the exercise of presidential power?

Psychology offers ample reason for apprehension. Confronted by contemptuous rivals as well as rising extremism and terrorism, Jonathan may be tempted to overcompensate for his perceived weakness by delving into the presidential armoury of repressive devices. He could be persuaded by hawkish political operatives to adopt more authoritarian measures to deal with dissent in the guise of a tougher posture on law and order.

Some politicians are temperamentally unsuited for the presidency. Shagari, who had been schooled in the conciliatory craft of parliamentary governance during the First Republic, seemed distinctly uncomfortable with presidential power. Remarking upon Shagari’s famed lifelong ambivalence about seeking office, his biographer David Williams wrote, “He has never sought high office; it has always been thrust upon him…his own ambitions have been for useful but narrow offices.” Shagari attributed this reticence to his deep distrust “of secular power” and his belief that “whoever lusts for political leadership should be rebuffed.” But he also believed that “whoever the community asks to lead is duty bound to accept the invitation.” This self-effacing modesty is incompatible with presidential power.

As Stanley Macebuh wrote ten days after Shagari’s inauguration in 1979, “Only those congenitally desirous of power can be comfortable with the prospect of the degree of loneliness which every president must live with. Prime ministerial government has at least the advantage of collegiality. The prime minister can share responsibility with his colleagues, if not with the legislature, when things go wrong. But a president has no one else to blame when he makes disastrous mistakes.” Shagari, he observed, “had not shown any great desire for the sort of imperial power that could compensate for his inevitable loneliness.” Successful leaders embrace the solitude that comes from not seeking to please every interest.

Of course, seeking power is not a sin. What matters is whether one perceives power as an ultimate goal and therefore as something to be worshipped and pursued at any and all costs, or as a tool, a means to an end, regulated by a high moral purpose. Power without purpose and vision is the chronic affliction of Nigerian governance.  

Shagari’s preference for a communal draft rather than an individual’s voluntary pursuit of power has since become a template for leadership selection. It casts politicians as reluctant messiahs beseeched by benighted communities to undertake their deliverance. Not only does this create a dangerous dependency on the president, it inverts democratic responsibility by indebting the people to the government instead of holding government accountable to the people. The tragic irony is that Nigerian politics often anoints those who possess neither the desire nor the equipment for public office while relegating the ambitious and the prepared to the political wilderness.

Political fortune seems to consistently favour the unprepared and the unwilling. Yar’Adua was poised to take a university teaching appointment before Obasanjo virtually conscripted him into the presidential race in 2007. Obasanjo himself had described his invitation to run for the presidency by several retired generals and politicians shortly after his release from prison in 1998 as an “ambush.” It took a first term of trial and error for him to establish an agenda for his second term and assemble a team of able lieutenants. However, Jonathan does not have the luxury of a probationary period. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Presidential Power and Its Discontents I

Goodluck Jonathan won the presidency chiefly on the strength of three things: an engaging narrative, the vast resources that inhered in his incumbency and a genial non-threatening persona that endeared him to far more Nigerians than his rivals could manage. Jonathan’s feel-good “anyone can be president” narrative mattered. His implausible ascent from bureaucratic anonymity to the political pinnacle in just over a decade marked with preternatural good fortune resonated in a society that loves miracles. In recent times, only Olusegun Obasanjo’s march from prison to presidency in the space of a year offered similar thrills.

However the skills required for a successful presidential campaign are acutely different from those necessary for a successful presidency. The shape-shifting equivocations, chameleonic posturing, intentional vagueness, expansive accommodation of all interests and infinite promises that pave the path to the presidency are actually incompatible with running the office. The president cannot long remain “all things to all men” as in the campaign. In time, his actions must reveal where the needle of his internal compass is pointing. The presidency itself calls for decisiveness, clarity, single-minded focus, and the distillation of broad, imprecise agendas into specific deliverables. The transition from campaigning to governing has to be swift and seamless.  

Jonathan’s challenges are equal parts personal as well as systemic. His public career yields no oral or written records of strongly and consistently held positions on the pressing national issues he must now contend with. Jonathan was picked as Vice President to President Umar Musa Yar’Adua because as an Ijaw, it was presumed that his presence on the ticket would placate the restive youths of the Niger Delta. But his thoughts on the great cause célèbre of Niger Delta militancy – resource control, and its ancillary concept, fiscal federalism – are cloudy at best.

His ideological and philosophical orientations, if any, are unclear. He comes across less as a person of conviction than as an opportunist whose ethics are entirely situational, contingent upon circumstances, and directed by expediency rather than conscience. During his campaign, Jonathan vowed to transform Nigeria but transformative leadership is enabled by deeply held political convictions of which Jonathan appears genuinely bereft.

As far back as the 1980s, Olusegun Obasanjo had advocated a one-party system for Nigeria and argued its advantages in writing and in lectures. Thus, the way he ran both the presidency and his party reflected his core belief in the efficacy of a one-party state. The moral credentials of the belief itself are inconsequential to our inquiry. The point is that Obasanjo came to the office with some convictions and they shaped the way he wielded the presidency.

In Jonathan, we have a president who might have to hurriedly and belatedly develop core beliefs. When a leader has no convictions, it typically indicates either a lack of prior intellectual investment in grasping national issues or a congenital infidelity to principle – neither of which can possibly generate transformative outcomes. At best, he could be a pragmatist.       

This is surely not an unfair assessment. Jonathan had effectively been president for over a year before his own inauguration. His ideological vagueness has already created the first signs of policy incoherence. Weeks after his inauguration, he ordered cement manufacturers to reduce their prices or face unspecified sanctions. That decree would seem to indicate a preference for bold governmental activism to modulate the interplay of market forces. Yet, it conflicts with a liberalized economic regime in which the government plays no role, let alone setting commodity prices by fiat.

Jonathan has previously indicated that his administration will pursue a private sector-led free market order. He is currently overseeing the privatization of the power sector and at the January PDP convention promised that the establishment of forty new federal universities would be primarily private sector-driven. To seal his fidelity to markets, he has penciled down Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the internationally reputed neoliberal economic technician for a second tour of duty as finance minister after her first stint during the Obasanjo years. In a recent speech in which Jonathan asked Nigerians to brace themselves for tough economic measures, he managed to sound both protectionist and liberal at the same time. 

The question of the president’s true ideological colours inevitably arises. Is he a free market enthusiast, a believer in state economic activism or something in between? If he subscribes to a third way doctrine, some kind of “Jonathanomics,” it is yet to be articulated. Is it possible also that he has no preferences at all and acts out of convenience, out of a sense of the moment? These questions matter because they will affect the tone of his government and policy-making. In the absence of any discernible core values, politicians tend to dance between crass opportunism and fickle populism. But a serious government simply cannot function this way.

The evidence thus far suggests that the president lacks the intellectual and emotional commitment to his own economic agenda required to sell it to the public and to engage the special interests that oppose liberalization. They also predict a scenario in which the president either stalls his economic agenda at the first sign of serious opposition or simply cedes full control (and culpability) over economic matters to his finance minister as a means of evading executive responsibility.

The president’s shape-shifting has already resulted in an early political defeat. In repudiating the PDP’s power rotation (“zoning”) arrangement to run for the presidency, Jonathan hinged his candidacy on constitutionalism as well as the need to overcome divisive ethnic politics and entrench merit in leadership selection. He struck patriotic high notes implying that his presidency signaled the beginning of a new nationalistic and post-sectarian meritocracy in our politics. But after his inauguration, Jonathan reaffirmed zoning while trying to engineer the election of his favourites in the House of Representatives. The move failed. The representatives rebuffed the president’s overtures and elected leaders of their choice. The episode left the president looking like an opportunist who had abandoned zoning when it suited him only to resurrect it for his own selfish purposes. His blatant interference in the internal workings of the house carried out through the instrumentality of the party violated the national assembly’s autonomy and the principle of checks and balances. Its defeat has left him smaller in stature.

Presidential stature is important. Jonathan faces a host of adversaries including a coterie of implacable northern elites who see his presidency as an usurpation of their right to rule and an anarchist terrorist group, Boko Haram, which has declared war on the federal government. To adequately combat these onerous challenges, he has to look to a moral compass rather than the weathervane of expediency. Strength will come from conviction and conscience, rather than convenience. The president must choose his political battles carefully so as to avoid further diminution of his stature. His opponents are sure to quickly capitalize on any signs of weakness on his part.

Jonathan’s understated personality already invites underestimation by political adversaries. Ordinarily, this assessment of a politician who has just clinched the presidency ought to go down as a fatal miscalculation. But because his understated personality evidently does not mask any cast iron principles or keenly held ideas, he is all the more likely to be accurately adjudged as weak. Encouraged by this, special interests are sure to launch niggling nuisance assaults on his presidency in a bid to extract concessions from him. Indeed, extremist groups like Boko Haram will feel emboldened to continue their campaign of terror by what they will see as the president’s lack of resolve (not to mention the government’s lack of adequate armaments).

After the post-election violence in April, Jonathan gave one of his best speeches and among other sterling pronouncements, declared, “Nobody’s political ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian.” But such lofty rhetoric has not been used to craft a new national security doctrine although it should have been obvious since the October 1, 2010 bombings in Abuja that our most urgent national security threat comes from non-state actors. 

All this predicts an embattled presidency besieged by ravenous lobbyists and assailed by cold-hearted opponents; one that will more often than not be on the defensive and more consumed with putting out fires rather than actually getting things done. Jonathan can prevent this quagmire by defining a set of minimum non-negotiable core values that will undergird his administration. These are the values which he must expend political capital to promote and by which he will consistently assert his leadership.  It is necessary but it will not be easy. The presidential virtues of strength and resolve can only be constructed on prior foundational convictions.

By electing Jonathan, it may be said that Nigerians voted for symbolic change, choosing the cosmetic novelty of the fedora hat over the tiresome familiarity of the Shagari cap. Whether Jonathan can transform the symbolism of his presidency into real systemic changes is another matter.