Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Change is Necessary

Presidents are not judged simply by what they do but by how adroitly they respond to the peculiar exigencies of their time. It was always going to be the case that President Goodluck Jonathan would be judged by his handling of Nigeria’s national security crisis. Considering the tragic routinization of death and destruction and the privatization of violence by non-state actors, the commander-in-chief could not have expected any less. 

The constitution states that, “The security and welfare of the Nigerian people shall be the primary purpose of government.” The sequence is significant. Security is the basic condition of society without which there can be no welfare. Under Jonathan’s administration we have witnessed the mass murder of conservatively over ten thousand Nigerians, the displacement of 1.5 million people by terrorists, the dislodgement of 3.3 million people – the highest number of internally displaced people in Africa – and the loss of some 20, 000 square kilometers of sovereign Nigerian territory to insurgents.

While Jonathan points to his accomplishments (and they do exist) in agriculture and infrastructure, it is his miserable handling of the security crisis that will likely define his presidential legacy. His campaign ads may flaunt pictures of newly installed trains and highways but dead people cannot ride trains or appreciate macroeconomic abstractions. Undoubtedly, the Chibok girls and their grief-stricken parents – tragic symbols of Jonathan’s indifferent leadership – are unenthused by his administration’s infrastructural gains. Most Nigerians just want to regain a sense that their lives are worth protecting.          

Nigerians may have been willing to forgive Jonathan’s fatal dereliction of his duties as commander-in-chief had his responses to incidents like the Chibok abductions, the Nyanya bombings last year and the more recent slaughter in Baga not displayed such a blatant indifference to the plight of his compatriots. If the Chibok debacle witnessed his government responding with the haste of a paraplegic tortoise and the Nyanya bombings formed the morbid backdrop for a political rally the following day in Kano, where he bizarrely chose to dance on stage; observers were genuinely mystified when in the aftermath of the recent Baga massacres, Jonathan kept silent but swiftly sent a solidarity message to France over terror attacks in Paris.

Jonathan has been defended as a well-meaning neophyte in security matters, heavily reliant on his defence chiefs and security czars. However, the national security crisis has exposed much more than his lack of pedigree in security issues; it has highlighted a basic emotional unintelligence and an appalling failure to appreciate the crowd-pleasing optics and sonics that citizens expect of the man sworn to protect them.

The president has contrived to miss several opportunities to demonstrate executive resolve. Abba Moro, the Interior Minister who oversaw the fraudulent recruitment exercise into the immigration service that cost twenty young Nigerian lives in stampedes remains in the cabinet. Jonathan remains bafflingly beholden to the defence chiefs under whose tenure the insurgency metastasized into a programme of jihadist colonization. Vital national security functions such as maritime policing have been outsourced to a presidential crony – a transaction that has coincided with a spike in oil theft and piracy.

Whether through deliberate maleficence or involuntary incompetence or both, Jonathan’s abysmal statecraft is eroding Nigeria’s national security with an unacceptably heavy cost in Nigerian lives. The impression that this president was promoted beyond his competence by serendipity is unavoidable. In 2011, an unsuspecting electorate mistook his mild manners and self-effacement for virtues but the presidency demands far more than an avuncular disposition.  

An election is typically a referendum on the incumbent. Aware that their principal’s record cannot bear clear-eyed electoral scrutiny, Team Jonathan has tried to focus attention on the challenger. However the question is not whether Muhammadu Buhari is qualified for high office (which he undeniably is) but whether Jonathan deserves a second term. The Jonathan campaign has deployed libelous innuendo, ethno-religious chauvinism and character assassination – all vain but understandably necessitous diversions from the real issues such as the incipient economic crisis, the imminence of austerity measures, the administration’s dire financial stewardship, the promised forensic and evidently phantom audit of the opaque Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, his sanguine tolerance of high level graft, serial failed promises to end the insurgency and the unforced errors that have made Nigeria a global punch line.  

Jonathan has failed to weave his few modest achievements into a winsome narrative. A campaign which should have rebooted his presidency has instead yielded more counterproductive soundbites. Having criticized some politicians for sounding like touts, Jonathan’s campaign has itself frequently peddled the indecent and the indecorous. From Ayo Fayose’s repulsive death wish ad to Vice President Namadi Sambo’s abhorrent invocation of religious hatred, Jonathan’s men are plumbing the sewers for campaign material.

The most troubling aspect of Jonathan’s campaign is its cynical exploitation of our religious and ethnic fault lines to set Nigerians against each other – a ploy that detracts from the president’s already diminished stature. The ironic result is that the supposedly archaic opposition challenger has run the more issues-driven campaign while the incumbent traffics in disinformation, distractions and distortions. Thus, all that a purportedly transformative five-year presidency can offer is the backhanded argument that Jonathan is the certified devil to Buhari’s unknown angel. The leadership of the world’s sixth largest democracy deserves more edifying campaign rhetoric but Jonathan is clearly needs the debate mired in the gutter. This readiness to polarize the country and to appeal to our basest instincts rather than the better angels of our nature is one more reason why Jonathan does not deserve a second term.

Image sourced from www.pointblanknews.com               

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Trouble with Charlie

The attack on the premises of the Paris-based satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was a clash of two forms of absolutism. On one hand were the gunmen who claimed the right to summarily execute those they believed had insulted their faith. On the other hand were the artists of Charlie Hebdo who reserved the right to satirize whatever caught their fancy in an uncompromising exercise of their freedom of speech. From Islam’s founding prophet and Christianity’s holy trinity to France’s black female justice minister and the Chibok girls, no one has escaped the magazine’s irreverent depiction.

Without question, the murders were self-evidently wrong. The attack has been portrayed as an extremist assault on freedom of speech. Worldwide, there have been declarations of solidarity with France and affirmations of the sacredness of free speech.

The problem is that absolute free speech is a myth. If it truly existed, countries would not have laws against incitement, sedition, libel, defamation or slander. A world of such boundless liberty would not need Official Secrets Acts. Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Mordecai Vanunu and Wikileaks would be garlanded for liberating information.

In this parallel universe, racist chants by European football fans would be unobjectionable. There would be no need for censors and artistic license would be completely unfettered. There would be no laws protecting public decency or religious sensibilities from the travesties of the irreverent. Charlie Hebdo would not have fired a staffer in 2009 for anti-Semitism. It would be acceptable to scrawl swastikas and choice portions of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on synagogues. People would not be prosecuted for homophobia, holocaust denial or anti-Semitism. Xenophobia and racism would not carry the whiff of moral odium.

Ironically, barely a week after the Paris attacks, French authorities arrested and charged the comedian, Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, for a Facebook post “glorifying terrorism”. The contradictions and hypocrisies are obvious enough and if prosecuting a comedian for a facebook post seems inconsistent with the odes to free speech that have emanated from Paris in recent days, it can be easily explained. Freedom of speech is a relative term entirely dependent on national experience, the evolutionary trajectory of political institutions and the distribution of power among various classes and interests.

The French Revolution was a revolt not only against the corrupt Bourbon monarchy but also its ally, the Church. It was the insurgence of enlightenment values against the medieval horrors of a religiously-backed tyranny. The 19th Century French historian Jules Michelet believed that the French Republic would “take the place of the god who escapes us.” Thus, France is a fanatically secular realm whose Muslim population – the legacy of its imperial hey days – poses a particular challenge. Because of its history, France entertains a socio-cultural bias that enables a satirical magazine to caricature its religious and racial minorities (Muslims, Christians and those of African and Middle Eastern descent) under the cover of free speech while a comedian of colour who attempts to exercise the same right is charged with “glorifying terrorism.”

The West sees itself as the last outpost of rationality threatened by the superstitious idiocies of religion. In reality, when the nation-state supplanted religion as the West’s core communal principle, power and violence discarded their overtly religious vestments for secular garments. Secular ideologies appropriated popular devotion. As the English philosopher C.E.M. Joad observed, “Political doctrines such as fascism and communism assume for the twentieth century the status which religious doctrines possessed in the nineteenth.”

Our inherent blind spots prevent us from discerning the secular dogmas which approximate religion’s much vaunted irrationality. Consider Marxism’s assumption of the infallibility of an omniscient proletariat, capitalism’s assumption of the inerrancy of market forces and its veneration of the invisible hand, a metaphor of Calvinist origins that conflates an unfettered free market with providence; fascism’s deification of the state and secular liberalism’s divinization of the self and its sacralization of individual liberties including free speech.

Both religious and irreligious societies maintain speech codes. In the former, they may take the form of blasphemy laws and in the latter they take the form of utterances deemed threatening to the sociopolitical order. In secular France, cartoons that mock religion are not deemed dangerous to public order. Anti-Semitism is treated differently perhaps because of Europe’s lingering guilt over its complicity in the Nazi holocaust. Religious sensibilities are not protected from deliberate offence. Every society has its pet prejudices. France’s Muslim minority appears to be the convenient guinea pig for free speech absolutists but this trend also reflects France’s problem of racial and socio-cultural integration, European uncertainty about what multiculturalism and growing pluralism mean for national identity and coherence, and (largely Islamophobic and xenophobic) fears of a jihadist fifth column in Europe.

Absolute freedom of speech is a myth. There is no individual liberty that is not bounded by the responsibility of competent social being. It is impossible to simultaneously sustain absolute individual freedom and social cohesion. Our freedoms, even when not legally circumscribed, still need to be exercised with reason, empathy and responsibility. At what point does free speech morph into hate speech? This controversy is really about drawing the line between liberalism and extreme licentiousness and radical libertinism. How do we strike a fair balance between artistic license and decency, order and respect for all sensibilities? Isn’t such moderation the truly rational path in a diverse world?

It is possible to deplore the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and concurrently condemn the magazine’s heedless worship of bad taste. It is also possible to support freedom of speech and also advocate using it responsibly.

images sourced from labourlist.org

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Buharism and Its Discontents

Muhammadu Buhari’s emergence as the opposition challenger ahead of next year’s polls has set the stage for a keen contest. Buoyed by a morale-boosting primary win, and with his street popularity now hitched to a well-oiled political machine, Buhari has a firm base upon which to mount his fourth presidential bid.

For sheer persistence, Buhari most resembles Obafemi Awolowo, who also serially sought national leadership unsuccessfully. Like Buhari, Awolowo was of somewhat ascetic bearing, Spartan self-discipline, inflexible will and dogged conviction in his worthiness for high office. However, despite his intellectual and administrative acumen, aspects of Awolowo’s political record undermined his chances of national leadership. His political platform was deemed too provincial to generate a national following. A similar limitation arguably accounted for Buhari’s previous electoral failures.

Unable to gainsay Buhari’s reputation for honesty, his adversaries have resorted to the favoured tactic of smearing him as an ethnic and a religious extremist – a bogus charge which endures because of some of Buhari’s own inopportune gaffes. This time though, the politics of smear and fear is of limited utility. The incumbent is running not only against Buhari but also against his own dismal presidential record.

The allegation that Buhari is a closet ethno-religious bigot is simply not borne out by his record as Head of State. Though he and his deputy, Major General Tunde Idiagbon, were both Muslims, they were favourably perceived by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). In his book, A Dangerous Awakening: The Politicization of Religion in Nigeria, Catholic priest and scholar, Iheanyi Enwerem cites a 1988 publication by CAN’s northern zonal chapter which hailed Buhari’s regime as the first to acknowledge “that the North was not predominantly Islamic.” It also expressed satisfaction with the fairness of Buhari’s political appointments and praised him for carrying out his war against indiscipline “without fear or favour.”

Ironically, Buhari’s most implacable opponent from the religious fold was the influential Islamic cleric Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, who earned the regime’s wrath for opposing its draconian punishment of Second Republic politicians. Arguably, the two principal victims of Buhari’s ascent to power were northern Muslims – the deposed President Shehu Shagari and his ally, Umaru Dikko, who very narrowly escaped being abducted from Britain by the regime’s agents to stand trial at home.    

Unlike Awolowo who wrote prolifically, Buhari’s decades-long public career has yielded little literature in his name outlining his ideas, convictions and policy preferences. This literary deficit has aided the character assassins and libelous hacks commissioned to defame him. But this gap is offset by the fact that Buhari’s opponent is by no means a fecund intellectual colossus.

In a 2002 essay, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi coined the term “Buharism” to capture the ideals extrapolated from Buhari’s time as Head of State and argued that Buharism is an ideology of bourgeois nationalism that aims to replace a political economy dominated by parasitic elites beholden to global capital with a new order in which a nationalist and productive class gains ascendancy. Buhari certainly has the credentials to tackle elite impunity and the rent-seeking political culture that is now in kleptomaniacal overdrive. Indeed, the persistent slandering of Buhari as a bigot stems less from his occasional tin ear for Nigeria’s polyphonic diversity than from kleptocrats’ fears of a certain reckoning for their crimes should he clinch the presidency.  

As a battle-tested infantry corps veteran, Buhari will surely frontally confront the terrorist insurgency that has killed conservatively over 9, 000 Nigerians, displaced over 1.5 million more and claimed vast swathes of Nigerian territory. As an officer who famously led a military incursion into Chad in pursuit of rebels, he will be especially concerned by the institutional weaknesses that have brought the armed forces into disrepute. Having crushed the Maitatsine insurgency as Head of State, he will certainly bring a warrior’s resolve to the office of the commander-in-chief. Regarding the key issues of security and corruption, Buhari’s record is compelling.                     

Buhari’s near obsessive focus on graft may be an insufficient critique of all that ails Nigeria but his unequivocal anti-corruption stance is a welcome departure from the incumbent’s bizarre insistence that corruption is not Nigeria’s problem or his much lampooned attempt to articulate a little known distinction between corruption and stealing. Buhari’s policy-lite deportment suggests that his main interest is cleansing the Augean stables. Restoring propriety to public life is vital. But his party has an impressive cast of policy wonks and its campaign battle cry of security and jobs is gratifyingly current.             

Buhari’s support is more pan-Nigerian than in previous campaigns. Popular disgust with the incumbent’s ineptitude competes favourably with whatever phobia for Buhari that the ruling party can marshal. Opposing partisans have taken to feverishly reminding Nigerians of Buhari’s previous failed candidacies. Their frenzied negative attacks are telling. Rarely have so much time and effort been expended to convince an electorate that an aged “serial loser” that supposedly has no chance will lose again.

Those who argued before the primaries for a younger opposition candidate than Buhari (as I did) had a point. But clearly the incumbent is not an advertisement of the radiant possibilities of youth. Given the available options, Buhari, warts and all, is the viable alternative. The resort to a figure who last led Nigeria thirty years ago indicates the scale of our predicament. That liberal elites who ordinarily should be opposed to an ex-dictator have made common cause with him suggests that we have reached that nadir at which extreme necessity sires creative expediency. This may not be the contest we want but it is the contest we deserve.

Images sourced from premiumtimesng.com and bellanaija.com.