Friday, December 27, 2013

The Price of Immortality

“Now he belongs to the ages.” Those were Edwin Stanton’s words upon the passing of Abraham Lincoln and they seem an apt epitaph for the late Nelson Mandela, the world’s last great political icon. Belonging to the ages is a state of post-mortem immortality in which the deceased figure is claimed and counterclaimed by various factions for various purposes. Madiba’s name and image will become even more ubiquitous, gracing everything from t-shirts and currency notes to airports, stadiums and universities. His story will be told and retold in books, movies and songs assuming the resonance of legend and popular mythology.
With his place in the pantheon of immortals established, Mandela’s spirit will be invoked by a bewildering range of diverse and even opposing interests to sanctify their own aims and ideologies. This is part of the price of immortality. Lincoln is invoked in this way by both Democrats and Republicans and cast either as a liberal conservative or a conservative liberal depending on the argument being made. This is the posthumous fate of many political icons. The African-American scholar Michael Eric Dyson once remarked that Martin Luther King Jr., another immortal, has been given “a national birthday, iconic ubiquity and endless encomiums” but has also “been idealized into uselessness…immortalized into a niceness that dilutes the radical politics he endorsed. His justice agenda has been smothered by adulation.” King’s critiques of structural poverty, inequality and militarism – the sinews of American imperialism – have been subsumed in the vortex of popular cultural iconography.

Che Guevara who died trying to spread Marxist revolution in South America is now a hip revolutionary figure idolized in the distinctly capitalist trafficking of merchandise and memorabilia. Being banalized, trivialized and commoditized is part of the price of immortality. Six months before his death, Mahatma Gandhi complained, “Everyone is eager to garland my photos and statues – nobody really wants to follow my advice.”

In South Africa, where Gandhi first encountered repression and the earliest stirrings of the compulsion to fight it, Mandela’s political legacy will be contested by various groups. Both the African National Congress and a clutch of opposition parties will attempt to appropriate Mandela as the guiding spirit of their competing political projects. The ANC still casts itself as the liberation movement which Mandela led to the attainment of black majority rule. The opposition parties will invoke Mandela’s moral stature as a rebuke against the ANC’s cronyism. The country’s restive youths will also appropriate Mandela’s earlier incarnation as a young militant leader who eluded apartheid authorities while masterminding sabotage operations directed at the white supremacist state. Mandela in this guise becomes the prophet and portent of black youth revolt against the as yet unfulfilled socioeconomic promise of the post-apartheid era.

But Madiba’s legacy possesses an enduring resilience that resists any attempt to conform it to a narrow and permanently partisan mould. He belongs to the ages not to any tendency; his ultimate significance is universal not sectarian; temporal and national but also transcendent and global. If Mandela were an idea, he would belong in the public domain but as a person, he has entered into the cosmic domain where he cannot be patented or copyrighted.
Much is said about how Mandela readily relinquished power when he could have clung on as South Africa’s president. In so doing, he avoided the trajectory of many once esteemed liberation fighters who have become autocrats desperately clinging to their thrones. Yet Mandela’s lessons are for the world at large.

It is too soon to forget that the Western governments that released odes to Mandela preferred him in the dungeon at the time that they favoured maniacs such as Idi Amin and Mobutu. Or that their countries led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (two acclaimed champions of freedom whose vision of liberty did not extend to black South Africans) essentially supported the apartheid regime. The White House considered Mandela a terrorist at precisely the time that it was collaborating with real terrorists like Angola’s Jonas Savimbi and more scandalously, a certain Osama Bin Laden.

His spirit of compromise and progressive pragmatism is distinctly missing from Washington where partisan recalcitrance has gridlocked American politics. It is often said that the Israeli – Palestine conflict would have been resolved if either side had a Mandela-type figure. 

Black majority rule could so easily have become an occasion for vengeance against whites. The Afrikaner nightmare was that black rule would ignite a racial holocaust directed against the former overlords. This is the path that Mandela averted for his country. His genius was intuiting when to beat his sword into a plowshare. He discerned that militancy had done its work and had created conditions conducive to negotiations. To have continued to push the revolutionary card further would have been to invoke anarchy. By initiating dialogue with the apartheid regime while still in prison, he moved ahead of the curve establishing his leadership among a very distinguished cast of liberation luminaries such as Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, as well as younger lions like Chris Hani and Thabo Mbeki. Mandela’s transformation from militant to peacemaker in many ways prefigured his country’s transformation.

War-weary yet battle-hardened soldiers, vigilant veterans tempered by the unremitting toll of conflict and the limits of violence as a political tool, often make the most dogged peacemakers yet they also pay a steep price for their conversion. Anwar Sadat who made peace with Israel was assassinated by Egyptian extremists who saw his peacemaking as treason against the Arab cause. Yitzhak Rabin was killed by an Israeli zealot for conceding Israeli land in a peace deal with Palestine. Sadat and Rabin were both veteran warriors. They were also Nobel Peace Prize laureates as was Martin Luther King. In opting for non-violence and dialogue, Mandela rendered himself vulnerable to both black and white extremists intent on a racial apocalypse.
In a world of extremists, zealots and military-industrial complexes, peacemakers are an endangered species precisely because they threaten the powers built on the perpetuation of hate and strife as well as the fortunes based on the commercialization of conflict.

It takes courage to fight for one’s beliefs. It takes courage and wisdom to change tactics when violence has exhausted its usefulness and yield to other means. Sometimes, it can become far easier to kill and die for one’s principles than to live by them. Violence can easily become its own motive, purpose and reward. Mandela moved from Gandhian non-violence to armed struggle in response to the brutish totalitarianism of the apartheid state and, even so, chose sabotage operations because they did not involve loss of life and offered the best hope for future racial reconciliation. Mandela’s violence was not a fundamental blood thirst and when the utility of violence had expired, he was courageous enough to change his tactics again.   

The hardest thing to ask of the victimized is that they relinquish their right to morally justifiable vengeance. Forbearance is lovely in theory but fiendishly difficult in practice. Mandela undertook this task on behalf of himself and his people with grace and dignity, forgiving enemies, and releasing his country’s destiny from the spectre of interminable cycles of racial violence. In this he equaled the prophetic stature of Dr King whose valiant pacific labours ensured that a black intifada or for that matter, a black al Qaeda, did not arise as an entirely understandable response to the atrocities of white supremacy in America.

It is profoundly significant that while South Africa was transiting from apartheid state to rainbow nation in 1994, Rwanda was showcasing the catastrophe that South Africa had narrowly avoided by the grace of Mandela as that small nation surrendered to the demons of ethnic hatred and genocidal depravity. These two possibilities – multiracial democracy and sectarian hate – continue to stalk our age.

Madiba’s passage, for which the world stood still these past weeks, leaves our planet starved off authentic heroes but populated by vacuous celebrities; one in which redemptive activism is often overshadowed by cynical politicking. But the fact that he walked this earth has left us open doors of possibility for heroism and moral courage. His shimmering example is his greatest legacy.  

All images sourced online 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The War on the Poor

What keeps Nigeria going in spite of her often manifestly dysfunctional government is not the savvy statecraft of her reigning politicians but the ingenuity of ordinary Nigerians. The state is remote from the people. A vast gulf separates policy architecture from the very citizens it is supposed to serve. Despite chronic mismanagement and graft, our informal sector’s dynamism and improvisation is why Nigeria lumbers on. She is powered by honest Nigerians who have refused to let the absence of infrastructure and the vagaries of life in an under-institutionalized environment become an excuse for sloth or crime. These are Nigeria’s real heroes and are the fulcrum of the country’s legendary resilience.

In the absence of a formal welfare apparatus, kinship and social networks serve as alternate social security mechanisms. Intrepid entrepreneurs virtually create their own infrastructure. In the absence of a social contract, Nigerians operate with a number of informal transactional and relational covenants most powerfully exemplified by the open air markets and roadside stores and workshops that are fixtures of urban life. The size of the informal sector indicates excessive government intervention and bureaucratic red tape with people generally preferring to carry on their socio-economic pursuits beneath the radar of an ineptly intrusive state.

This trading culture is an attribute shared by our diverse peoples. Nigeria is in every respect a nation of shopkeepers. The social ingenuity of our people and their impressive aptitude for exchanging goods and services is the last line of defence against hopelessness and anarchy; it is the solitary buffer separating dysfunctional governance from massive social unrest. Sadly, the government is enamoured with policies which degrade the informal sector. When government agents demolish a barber’s shop or a mechanic’s work shed, they are attacking the entrepreneurial genius which with proper support can lift millions out of poverty. When authorities outlaw commercial motorcycle operators without adequate public transport infrastructure in place or without establishing alternative structures to absorb the newly unemployed brigades, they alienate huge numbers of citizens and shrink the distance between official callousness and popular uprising.

Nigerians generally accept that their government will not necessarily work for them but demand that it at least gets out of their way. It is a different matter entirely when the government, so derelict in its other duties, aggressively invades and disrupts the havens that ordinary Nigerians have created for themselves. Often, the state is encountered as a hindrance rather than a help; an oppressive and coercive nuisance rather than a co-creator with the people of a shared prosperity.

The demolitions in our cities which target low income neighbourhoods, “illegal” settlements, unauthorized markets and business offices for destruction often for the purpose of “beautifying” the environment suggests an unhealthy obsession with the aesthetics of capitalist modernity rather than the nurture of its substance – the peoples’ entrepreneurial energies. There is little evidence of empathy for the urban poor, who are often viewed as collateral damage by policy planners,

Overwhelmed by the pressures of a fast growing population and the ravenous hunger for infrastructure that characterizes urban growth, governments have opted for economic Darwinism. The welfarist mantras and egalitarian clich├ęs of yore – Housing for all, education for all, health for all – have been dispensed with. Unwilling to honestly and frontally eliminate poverty, they are seeking to eliminate the poor.

The underlying philosophy is trickle down capitalism – empowering a few in the hope that their prosperity will cascade down to the less fortunate multitudes. Nigeria’s middle class is growing but nowhere near quickly enough to match the general population growth rate. In consequence, the well-heeled are increasingly a small fraction of our population. And it is this small minority that state authorities seem inclined to cater for by creating pristine locales where they can work, live and play without the spectacle of the poor to remind us of the scale of inequality in the land.

Urban renewal projects are often implemented at the expense of the informal sector. But rather than destroying it, we should be incorporating the sector and appropriating its raw creative energies and grafting it unto formal support structures and legal frameworks. Surely, we can conduct social policies and urban transformation in a more commonsensical and humane manner.

Gentrification is now creating problematic geographies. In Lagos, Victoria Island, arguably the fastest growing artery of commerce in Africa is being gradually hived off from the more chaotic and “less cool” mainland which is home to the millions of people who still earn their living on the island every day. Abuja is essentially a sprawling upper middle class enclave ensconced in a real estate bubble sustained significantly by the proceeds of official theft and ringed by slums and ghettoes. The spectacle of a few prosperous people encircled by millions of the dispossessed is an unhappy augury of things to come.

We need to move away from trickle down capitalism and focus on empowering the broad generality rather than the chosen few. This goes beyond installing physical infrastructure such as roads to achieving greater access to education, energy and healthcare and enabling citizens with the tools to live productive lives. However much we may seek to make Nigeria attractive to foreign investors, without domestic investments in education, developing human capital, and security – which comes from a population substantially empowered enough to resist the allure of crime – the sort of investments that will flow into Nigeria will be of the extractive and non-value adding variety. A political movement must emerge to speak to these issues and restore the egalitarian language of social and economic rights to the arena of public debate.  

(All Images sourced online) 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Weapon of Mass Distraction

President Jonathan’s decision to float a national dialogue taps into a number of currents in the Nigerian political subconscious. The first is our eternal quest for elixirs that can magically solve all our problems. Other miracle cures including military dictatorship and democracy have been tested in previous generations. The clamour in some quarters for a sovereign national conference is the latest iteration of this chimerical pursuit. The search for quick fixes to problems that require sustained, rigorous engagement with our institutions continues.

Closely anchored to this is the disillusionment with our fledgling democratic institutions. Nigerians generally approach democracy as intense spurts of quadrennial electoral activism demarcated by lengthy spells of hibernation. We vote for our favoured candidates and then promptly abandon them to their devices once they have doled out patronage as reward for our election season exertions. Civic engagement with our institutions is low. The duty of holding politicians accountable is left to a few civil society groups and activists whom ironically we are wont to condemn as “pesky busy bodies” and “trouble makers.” Politicians mostly relish the dissonance between the political and the public realms because it enables them to pursue priorities that are at variance with popular aspirations. This rift between the political and the public can only be bridged by more engagement with our institutions.

Extra-constitutional devices such as a national conference belong to the scrap heap of obsolete tropes. Expectations of a Marxist revolution, so fashionable in the 1980s, have long since expired with the added spectacle of erstwhile leftist academics taking up tenured positions in capitalist countries. Faith in the military’s potential as an enlightened autocracy was equally dashed. Our democracy, however dysfunctional, is all we have left. Improving it requires a sustained involvement in its processes and systems that transcends election year enthusiasms and extra-constitutional devices.

A sovereign national conference is superfluous. Sovereignty is already vested in the extant democratic institutions. Whatever outcomes pressure groups want must be pursued through conventional democratic channels. This means entering or forming a political party, promoting an agenda, gaining the numbers and the political heft required to translate those agendas into policy.

Those who want a conference of whatever description should use political instruments to achieve their goal instead of trying to create a parallel legislative organ. It is a sign of their own weakness that national conference advocates still wait on a government they malign so much to convene this dialogue rather than organizing it themselves. Too many national conference advocates have failed at the ballot and are aiming for relevance through the backdoor as ethno-nationalist representatives by fabricating political constituencies based on primordial solidarities. In so doing, they try to rhetorically undermine and delegitimize our democratic institutions by alleging that elected politicians do not represent the people. 

There is also a conceptual problem with a conference of ethnic nationalities based on the attempt to supplant the social contract defined in the constitution between the state and the citizen with one between the state and so-called ethnic nationalities. This effort to shepherd all of us into ethnic ghettoes to be represented by tribal oligarchs, on the puerile assumption that ethnicity is a predictor of political values, ideology and affinities, is especially reprehensible. It defines us as ethnic drones parroting sectarian shibboleths rather than the free-thinking men and women of good conscience envisaged by the constitution as citizens.

The idea that an expensively convened conclave of big shots can choreograph the destiny of 170 million people is an elitist conceit. The most important dialogues that we should be having right now should be citizen-led at the community and municipal levels. It at these levels that our ability to cooperate, and build social capital have been degraded.

Jonathan’s national dialogue coheres with a tradition of distractive political stagecraft. In ancient Rome, decadent elites plied the citizenry with gladiatorial contests to distract them from the debaucheries of their rulers. Nigerian politicians use committees, panels of inquiry, riveting probes, summits and white papers that are never released, as elaborate soap operas designed to capture public attention and exhaust us emotionally while changing nothing. We prefer the low drama of big budget elite histrionics to the subtle understated rigour of diligently working our institutions. Much spittle and ink will now be squandered on sterile debates at a time when the parlous state of our public finances, unemployment and the paralysis of public healthcare and education, among other serious issues, should command our attention.

In the mid 1980s, General Babangida held a national dialogue over International Monetary Fund conditionalities which were roundly rejected by the public. He made a great show of abiding by public opinion and rejecting the IMF prescriptions only to implement its key tenets under a supposedly “home-grown” structural adjustment programme. Subsequently, he set up a Political Bureau to design a national political blueprint by painstakingly collating memoranda from all over the country. The Bureau’s recommendations were ignored and Newswatch magazine was proscribed for publishing them. This has been the general pattern from Abacha’s constitutional conference and Obasanjo’s Oputa Panel to the Oronsaye Committee report on scaling down government and Obasanjo’s political reform conference – all of whose recommendations are in official limbo. The constitution review process initiated last year has similarly stalled.       

A national conference is an expensively contrived waste of time that reflects our penchant for talking ourselves to death when action is required. A more judicious enterprise would be to implement the recommendations of previous conferences and inquiries and even submit them to a plebiscitary process. Taking Nigeria forward requires the political will of those in authority not costly talk shops.

All Images sourced online

Saturday, September 14, 2013

2015: Who Speaks for Nigeria?

The first shots on the road to the 2015 elections were fired in January 2011 during the Occupy Nigeria protests. As President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration reeled from nationwide demonstrations against the unpopular hike in fuel prices, a previously unknown conclave of so-called Niger Delta elders issued an alarm over an alleged threat to Jonathan’s life. It was a classic instance of ethno-regional elites crying wolf over one of their own. Jonathan had campaigned for the presidency as a nationalistic everyman. The rhetorical appropriation of his presidency by a Niger Delta clique marked the beginning of the diminution of his stature.
Since then Jonathan’s presidency has been colonized by an increasingly provincial circle. He has failed to disavow Kingsley Kuku and Asari Dokubo who have threatened violence in the Niger Delta if he is not re-elected. Defacto spokesmen like Edwin Clark and Ayo Oritsejafor have only alienated people with their belligerence. The recourse to ethno-regional polemicists reflects Jonathan’s limitations as a politician who spent his entire working life in his home region and was suddenly thrust onto the national stage to handle a far more complex geometry of interests than he ever encountered in the homogenous Ijaw country. He was genuinely shaken by the ferocious opposition to his candidacy by some Northern elites, and the bloody aftermath of his electoral victory in some Northern states. The challenge of Islamist anarchist terror posed by Boko Haram seemed to fortify provincial paranoia within his inner circle in the early days of his administration. Since then, Jonathan has steadily de-evolved from a president with a fairly national support base to one whose loudest allies are in his home region. 

The close identification of Jonathan’s presidency with the Niger Delta struggle is ironic, if not fraudulent, because he has no history of involvement with the struggle at any level. The quest for equity in the Niger Delta never included “capturing” the national presidency. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the intellectual patron saint of the Niger Delta movement, advocated fiscal federalism, resource control and communal autonomy and essentially wanted communities to control their resources. Isaac Adaka Boro, who first sounded the trumpet for the rights of Niger Delta minorities in the 1960s, similarly sought autonomy for the region in the Nigerian federation. Neither of these figures thought an Ijaw president would be a victory for the Niger Delta and neither advocated such symbolic tokenism.  

That the Niger Delta question has been reduced to Jonathan’s political prospects signifies the supplanting of the intellectual spine of agitation in the region by brigands and political opportunists. Unsurprisingly, the Jonathan administration has not altered the material conditions of the Delta so much as it has transformed the fortunes of a small band of ex-militant chieftains and their acolytes. Tellingly, oil theft and piracy have skyrocketed since the administration outsourced coastal policing to an ex-militant. 
Jonathan’s 2015 campaign is likely to feature ethno-regional irredentism laced with militant gangsterism. It will not make for an edifying campaign. This is a shame because despite torrents of criticism, Jonathan actually has a few achievements which he could argue for an opportunity to consolidate in a second term without resorting to counterproductive threats.

This brings us to Jonathan’s adversaries. The subtext of the schism in the ruling People’s Democratic Party is the belief by some northern politicians that 2015 is “the turn of the North to rule”. As with the “Niger Delta Elders”, this “Northern” claim refers not to the region but to an elite formation simply casting its narrow ambitions in sectional language for greater appeal. At this stage of Nigeria’s history, any claim to power based on ethno-regional entitlement is a nonstarter. 

  Atiku Abubakar, an arrowhead of the current revolt had sought the PDP’s presidential nomination in 2011 as the “Northern candidate” but was defeated by Jonathan. At the time, Jonathan refused to engage in the reciprocal idiocy of declaring himself the “southern candidate”. Had he not subsequently compromised himself with his provincialism and his sorry cast of defenders, he could have made a compelling case for why Nigeria should look beyond primordial considerations in its leadership selection. Jonathan’s opponents evidently aim to raise the standard of northern irredentism against him. 

Neither Jonathan’s provincialism nor the northern irredentism of his traducers promises anything other than a bitterly polarized election. Neither offers a progressive future and neither even pretends to be remotely about the Nigerian people. With politics deadlocked between two equally ugly provincialisms, the stage is set for a third force. The opposition All Progressive Congress could conceivably be that third force. But it must avoid the very strong temptation to opt for northern populism; the calculation that merely fielding a Muslim northerner that can electrify the North is all that is required to defeat Jonathan. Any party that panders to our basest political instincts rather than our highest is unworthy of the progressive tag.

  A progressive third force would articulate a post-sectarian, pan-Nigerian argument for national leadership harping on themes like social justice, human security, education, healthcare, and job creation. We need an agenda that speaks to Nigerians in their generality rather than in their fragments. Decadent identity politics has only yielded atrocious leadership thus far. Only the best, regardless of religion or ethnicity, will do. 2015 should not be about the turn of the North or the South; it should be the turn of the Nigerian people.

(All images sourced online)