Friday, March 28, 2014

The Confounded Confab

The National Dialogue may have started but it is not too late to register an objection to the exercise. There is really no need to convene such a conference when there is a National Assembly in place. The common response to this assertion is that the National Assembly does not truly represent us and that its members’ priorities are not ours. This view reflects the pervasive disillusionment with our formal democratic institutions. Our young democracy is afflicted by a crisis of representation wherein Nigerians doubt that elected authorities are looking out for their interests. Advocates of a dialogue say that given the dereliction of those in authority, a national conference is necessary to address our problems.

To start with, the notion that millions of Nigerians troop out every four years to elect people who will not represent them warrants closer scrutiny. True, the quality of those in our legislature could be better. But if, for example, the good people of Plateau Central senatorial district elected Joshua Dariye, who admitted to theft as state governor, to the senate, it is hardly worth complaining about the quality of his representation.

Electoral malpractices do play a role in leadership selection but they are not the main determinant of leadership quality. Democracy presupposes a constant engagement between the governed and the governors by which the latter are held accountable. But our transactional political culture favours election year bargains in which voters trade their votes for short term pecuniary gains or for the ephemeral psychological benefit of being able to claim kinship with the winning party. Once electoral transactions are done, the electorates leave their representatives to their own devices. An ill-informed electorate, too easily swayed by cheap populism and provincial sentiments, is not likely to make intelligent electoral choices.
Secondly, the crisis of representation stems from a continued disdain for politics. Many honest and competent people in our society consider politics to be beneath them and have left it for knaves. Thus, it is no wonder that the critical mass of progressives necessary for a transformative shift in our nation is yet to emerge. In the electoral decision matrix of many Nigerians, honesty and competence are not the main considerations. What matters is primarily which person can, as a result of his heritage and identity, symbolically “represent” them in high places and ensure that prebendal channels of patronage to the kinfolk stay open.

Thirdly, one of the legacies of military dictatorship is our veneration of presidential power and our millennial expectations of a political messiah’s emergence in Aso Rock. We are largely indifferent to federal and state legislature elections and focus on presidential and gubernatorial polls. This partly accounts for the unimpressive quality of legislative representation. Even in our authoritarian presidential order, the national assembly retains considerable heft. Were it occupied by more progressive types, it would positively impact public policy-making and also curb executive recklessness.

A federal legislature with the likes of Femi Falana, Olisa Agbakoba and Pat Utomi among others would surely bring more intellectual rigour and sincerity of purpose to bear upon debating our future. But instead, people like Agbakoba, Utomi and lately, Sam Nda-Isaiah, engage in futile presidential bids that are dead on arrival. Due to either hubris or political miscalculation, many smart public figures aim for the presidency, when they should focus strategically on the real engine room of democracy – the legislature. Until we start to take politics more seriously, there will continue to be a schizophrenic gulf between our expectations and the sort of people we choose to fulfill them.

Our crisis of representation is also rooted in structural flaws in our federal architecture. The dialogues we need to be having should not be taking place only in Abuja but mostly in our communities and municipalities. The subversion of local governance by federal and state politicians is one of the most unremarked stressors of our system. Nigeria is simply too vast to be run from Abuja or from 36 state capitals. Municipal governance that unshackles local communities and empowers them to design their own solutions to their problems is absolutely vital. We can debate the efficacy of the uniform local government system but a first step has to be the restoration of municipal authorities to health, granting them autonomy and devolving more power to them.

Our indigenous democratic traditions were defined by a mass participatory ethic dramatized by the village square and the town hall. They were about consultation, dialogue and consensus-building with everyone having a voice in deliberations.
Participatory democracies are by definition micro-democracies; they function best at the grassroots because they ensure that policy and consensus are generated from the ground up rather than imposed from above in contrast to our presently over-centralized order that seeks to micromanage 170 million lives from Abuja. The diminished capacity for dialogue and consensus-building at the grassroots is one reason for the increase in communal conflicts. Without participatory democratic platforms where disagreements can be anticipated, deconstructed and defused, they are liable to escalate into violent conflict. Thus, we need to rebuild our town halls, village squares, market unions and residents’ associations and graft them into the matrix of municipal governance.
The cure for our crisis of representation is deepening our engagement with our formal democratic institutions, not creating a parallel legislature which is what the confab effectively is. The charge of non-representation or non-performance hurled at the national assembly can just as easily be thrown at the presidency. Yet no one is suggesting an alternative presidency or a parallel executive branch to run things. As it is, the confab delegates who were nominated rather than elected, do not even meet the test of democratic legitimacy. Demographically, the confab can scarcely be said to be representative of a nation whose young constitute 70 percent of the population. We cannot place much stock in a lot of geriatrics debating a future that they will not be part of. The fact that the confab’s “findings” will still be vetted by the National Assembly indicates that its conveners are aware of its doubtful legal standing and legitimacy. This begs the question – why not simply use the National Assembly as the institution of first resort? Why reinvent the wheel?
There is no magic bullet for nation-building. In our plural society with its multiple competing interests and its prebendal governance, democracy is often paralyzed by various rent-seeking demands, and is consequently slow and ponderous. This will continue to be the case until genuine ideological polarities emerge in our politics. If we want better people in our government, then we must put them there. Politics cannot leap ahead of a society’s insecurities, aspirations and prejudices. It is no surprise then that the confab is already mired in controversy over the use of prayers and the supposed numerical advantage of Christians. These are the inanities that Nigerian elites typically bicker and bloviate about.

Nation-building is hard and patient work. Deepening our democracy requires us to test our institutions to their limits and exhaust their potential instead of hastily declaring them useless and unfit for purpose. This confab is an inglorious distraction from the work at hand. 

(All images sourced online)   

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The State of the Future

The Enugu State Government’s recent full page advert congratulating Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British actor of Nigerian descent, for his BAFTA award was a waste of public funds but it calls for reflection. As with Sade, Seal, or David Alaba, we often try to appropriate the successes of foreigners of Nigerian ancestry in a bid to achieve some vicarious proprietary pride. If Barack Obama’s dad had been Nigerian, the world would never have heard the end of it. Consider another high achiever, Jelani Aliyu, lead designer of General Motors’ first electric car. Could Ejiofor and Aliyu have succeeded in their chosen endeavours if they lived here instead?  It is a pertinent question.
Since the 1980s, we have lamented brain drain without interrogating it seriously.
Talent flows from regions with natural resource-based economies to regions with knowledge economies. Countries with value-added economic activities offer greater scope for self-actualization and upward mobility. Extractive economies end up watching their young literally follow their oil or diamonds to foreign lands. Countries that build their economies around people clearly outperform those that base their economies on natural resources.
The world can be divided into countries oriented towards the past and those oriented towards the future. Talent flows from the former to the latter. In societies of the past, access to opportunity is determined by questions of identity and ancestry. “Where do you come from?” is the most significant question in such places and the answer to it carries bread and butter and life and death implications. In states of the future, access to opportunity is based on the individual’s potential. The operative question is not where he or she comes from but what he or she can become.
In states of the past, citizens are defined by their heritage; in states of the future, they are defined by their aspirations. In the former, ancestry is destiny; in the latter, potential is destiny. States of the past consider shared memory the basic raw material for nation-building. For states of the future, it is a shared destiny. Talent flows from the former to the latter because above all else people want to transcend the limits of social ascription and be masters of their fate.
America’s ascent towards superpower status gained momentum in the early 20th century when it absorbed talented Jewry fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in totalitarian European societies. These societies were states of the past where rabid identity politics excluded Jews and other minorities. That brain drain resulted in immense cultural, economic and military gains for America. Similarly, after Idi Amin expelled Indians from Uganda, the country’s economy tanked while many of the refugees made for England where they established businesses that boosted British commercial life.
When Martin Luther King declared his hope that his children would one day be judged not by their colour but by the content of their character he was urging America to more fully become a state of the future. Obama frequently says that his personal odyssey as an African-American in the White House could only have been possible in America. Given his Luo ancestry, Obama’s chances of similar success in his native Kenya would have been nil. A bitter joke which made the rounds in Nairobi after Kenya’s bloody 2007 polls held that a Luo could be elected president of America but not of Kenya.
In Nigeria, access to goods like public education and employment is shaped significantly by ethnicity and religion. Institutionalized discrimination in many places disqualifies Nigerians from accessing public goods that are theirs by right. Almost every official document defines us by our ancestry or “state of origin.” “Where do you come from?” is the most frequently asked question. Obviously, a culture of excellence and achievement cannot thrive where ethnocentric mediocrity and identity politics trump meritocracy.

It is more than likely that Ejiofor and Aliyu would not have made it here. At some point, their ancestry would have proven a fatal roadblock to their aspirations as it has for millions of talented Nigerians. They might have been labeled “non-indigenes”, or found to be surplus to acceptable ethnic quotas or in contravention of federal character. But they have been accepted by societies where a person’s true worth is not divined from his bloodline but derived from his gifts and dreams. People do not choose where they are born but they can choose to maximize their potential. Societies that enable them to make those choices without the fear that their heritage is a hindrance will always lead the world. Conversely, nations that define identity as a weapon or weakness minimize both their people and their chances of growth. A nation cannot outgrow the existential constraints on its citizens.
Enterprising Nigerians are daily defying psychic and institutional barriers in pursuit of the better life. The key to unleashing our national genius is to redefine ourselves as a state of the future. This means ending the use of identity as a determinant of access to opportunity and defining ourselves by where we are headed rather than we come from. It also means practically creating a meritocratic environment where people can aspire to their best knowing that their country genuinely rewards excellence. 
To be sure, heritage matters. But what is heritage if not the stock of ancestral dreams and visions? We inherit from our forebears what they made of themselves and their times just as our children will inherit from us what we make of ourselves and our times. What better bequest to our progeny than a society in which their genius rather than their genes will speak for them?

(All images sourced online)
(Published in Thisday, March 9, 2014) 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Who is Responsible for this Mess?

It is true that time changes things. Hindsight has a way of doctoring our recollections. History is often kinder to political reputations than contemporary news cycles but none of this justifies the sort of amnesia that we habitually display. The list of honourees from the Centenary celebrations reflects the dangers of short memories. Let us leave aside the absurd acclamation of the racist Frederick Lugard and his consort Flora Shaw, or the irrationality of a free people feting their erstwhile colonial overlord or the fact that a civil war that claimed over a million casualties cannot really throw up “heroes.” It is the rendition of recent history that is of concern.

The list was a startlingly incongruent mishmash that purported to honour the human rights advocate, Gani Fawehinmi and the two men, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, who did the most to abbreviate his life through ceaseless persecution and incarceration. Was the Kuti clan supposed to be grateful to share honours with the men who killed their matriarch and serially jailed Fela and Beko?

MKO Abiola, the winner of the annulled 1993 election, was honoured as well as Babangida who annulled the election, Abacha who jailed him and murdered his wife, Kudirat, and Abdulsalam Abubakar on whose watch he died mysteriously. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua is honoured along with his murderer, Abacha. The list reconciled Olusegun Obasanjo with Abacha who jailed him on trumped-up charges of coup-plotting. Ernest Shonekan, who continues to parade himself as a former head of government even though a court declared his regime illegal, makes the list. It was under his watch that Abacha as minister of defence ordered troops to mow down scores of demonstrators protesting the annulment of June 12 and the imposition of Shonekan’s regime.  

With the list, Abacha’s rehabilitation is almost complete. In June 2008, Babangida, Abdulsalam and Muhammadu Buhari claimed that contrary to widespread belief, the begoggled dictator was not a thief. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of his demise, the inspiration, apparently a case of solidarity among despots. It was a bizarre claim, not least because only a week earlier, the Swiss government had returned $505 million of Abacha’s loot stashed in Swiss banks. It was Abdulsalam himself who had initiated investigations into Abacha’s thievery and launched efforts to recover his hidden loot. Moreover, as head of state, Abacha had set up an inquiry headed by Pius Okigbo which indicted Babangida for the theft of $12.3 billion of oil revenue. As for Buhari, his loyalty to a former employer clearly belied his reputation as an honest truth-teller who says it like it is.

According to Richard Joseph, under Babangida and Abacha, Nigeria shifted from mere Prebendalism – the appropriation of state resources under the cover of legal rules and procedures – to outright confiscation in which government officials simply seize public assets without bothering to camouflage their larcenies with rules or procedures. Abacha’s prodigious kleptomania placed him in the ignominious company of Africa’s most notorious plundering potentates such as Mobutu and Bokassa. The general and his associates stole over $2 billion amounting to more than a million dollars for every day Abacha was in office, including weekends.

One of President Goodluck Jonathan’s favourite ripostes to his critics is that he inherited a mess from his derelict predecessors. The honours list begs the question: who is responsible for the mess? How does a country so universally acknowledged to be scarred by bad leadership constantly fete a dazzling array of supposedly exemplary leaders? Strangely, Abacha’s son, Mohammed is currently facing federal prosecution for being in possession of federal property stolen by the late dictator. What does it tell us that Mohammed was also part of a delegation of Northwestern leaders to Aso Rock this past January, an occasion on which Jonathan claimed that his administration had performed better than any other in Nigerian history?

If Abacha was truly responsible for an economic miracle, as his citation read, then the implication is that his successors, Abdulsalam and Obasanjo, in particular, destroyed that legacy. Thus, neither of them should have been on the list. Historical revisionists are obviously trying to burnish putrid reputations. Abacha left Nigeria as the world’s 13th poorest country, a pariah nation with a $30 billion debt and a wretched income per head of $345. Oddly, while Jonathan was exonerating Abacha, Nigeria was paralyzed by fuel scarcity – a legacy of the tyrant’s era along with failed refineries and toxic fuel imports.

The irony is that Abacha and Babangida seem retrospectively tolerable only in the light of the inadequacies of their successors including the current administration. Not long ago, we were treated to Obasanjo and Babangida publicly accusing each other of running the country’s most corrupt regimes. The celebration of these former leaders raises questions about how we define accomplishment and heroism in these parts. Already, upon their assumption of office, Nigerian heads of state and presidents are decorated with the Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic, the nation’s highest honour, for little more than successfully staging coups and rigging elections. It is a system that rewards the attainment of office by any means rather than what is actually achieved while in office. 

The singular message of the centennial honours list is that might is right and that power is its own justification. Where in our algorithm of hero-making does the sanctity of life fit in? Babangida and Abacha led two of Nigeria’s most murderous regimes. Honouring them airbrushes a grim and bloody chapter of our history that was marked by coup plots and state violence. Does anyone now remember the massacre of protesting students at Ahmadu Bello University in 1986? Dele Giwa, Bagauda Kaltho, Alfred Rewane, Ken Saro-Wiwa and many others would obviously have had very different perspectives on the list.

Obasanjo visited death and destruction on Odi and Zaki Biam. Unsurprisingly, T.Y. Danjuma who as his defence minister oversaw those military assaults made the list. Courts have since recognized those expeditions as crimes and awarded a multi-billion compensation package to the two communities – a clear indictment of both Obasanjo and Danjuma. In 2012, Jonathan deployed troops to suppress Occupy Nigeria protests in which close to 20 Nigerians were killed nationwide despite the protests being essentially peaceful.

Leaders that casually terminate their citizens either by commission or omission, negligence or intent, are not heroes regardless of what economic miracles they perform. They can be simultaneously applauded for their dexterity and censured for their brutality. At a time when there is much handwringing over Boko Haram’s atrocities, it should not be forgotten that bomb attacks were actually pioneered by Abacha’s security establishment in the mid 1990s. The disregard for human life that we see today is the latest iteration of a culture of violence authored by the political figures that are now uncritically festooned with national honours. No amount of hagiographical detergent can whitewash the bloodstained legacies of these men.

We are now paying a high price for being too forgiving of the sins of the powerful and too forgetful of their victims. We need to regain a sense of history for memory is our shield against perpetual oppression and posterity is a harsh judge of the forgetful.  

(All images sourced online)