All posts by Zainab Usman

Nigeria inaugurates committee to implement restructuring of ministries, parastatals

Vice President Namadi Sambo

The Federal Government wants to embark on the restructuring of its parastatals, commissions and agencies.

The Federal Government has inaugurated an implementation committee for the White Paper on the restructuring and rationalisation of its agencies, parastatals and commissions.

In August 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated a Committee on the Restructuring and Rationalisation of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies to review previous efforts at restructuring federal parastatals, look at the mandates of existing agencies and parastatals and make appropriate recommendations to eliminate overlaps, duplications, and redundancies.

The committee was also to classify agencies, parastatals and commissions into sectors; and advise on ways to reduce the cost of governance. The Committee chaired by Stephen Oronsaye submitted its report in April 2012.

Subsequently, the Federal Government set up a White Paper Drafting Committee, headed by the Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke, to study the findings and produce a draft White Paper.

The White Paper was produced and gazetted and issued in March 2014, springing up another committee to implement the white paper.

Members of the implementation committee include: Secretary to the Government of the Federation– Chairman, Attorney General and Minister of Justice –Vice Chairman, Head of the Civil Service of the Federation – Member, Minister of Aviation – Member, Minister of Education – Member, Minister of Finance – Member, Minister of Health – Member, Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment – Member, Minister of Science and Technology – Member, Minister of Tourism, Culture & National Orientation-Member, Chairman, Federal Civil Service Commission- Member, Director General, Bureau of Public Service Reforms -Secretary

Speaking at the inauguration, Vice President Namadi Sambo listed the Terms of Reference of the Implementation Committee to include: exercising overall responsibility for the implementation of the White Paper on the Restructuring and Rationalisation of Federal Government Agencies, Parastatals and Commissions; Design guidelines, ensure effective coordination and monitoring of the implementation process; supervise, consider and decide on the recommendations of the four (4) Sub-Committees on the implementation of the White Paper; and to advise government on any other matter(s) that would further facilitate the achievement of the key objectives for the restructuring and rationalization of federal government’s agencies and parastatals

“The work of the Implementation Committee of the White Paper on Restructuring and Rationalization of Federal Government Agencies, Parastatals and Commissions is urgent and important.
“I urge members to pursue the terms of reference with the vigour, urgency and patriotism that the task requires,” the vice president said.

According to Mr. Sambo, “apart from reducing the cost of governance, government’s ultimate objective is to ensure that parastatals, commissions and agencies are performing optimally and delivering effective and efficient services to Nigerians, in line with Mr. President’s Transformation Agenda”.

He added that he was pleased to learn that the Bureau of Public Service Reforms is currently conducting a study on some of “our world-class parastatals and agencies, such as the Federal Inland Revenue Service, the Debt Management Office, the Bureau of Public Procurement, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency and the Central Bank of Nigeria, among others, to ascertain the reasons for their success, in order to pass on the lessons to other parastatals and agencies”.

On behalf of the committee, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Pius Anyim, thanked the Vice President for the confidence reposed on members of the committee and promised that the committee would deliver on its mandate.

Boko Haram and a nation gripped by fear, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

“The reality is that fighting such an entrenched insurgency anywhere will be a gruelling and bloody war of attrition”.

In most cultures of the world, a word exists for a frightening creature or the bogey man. In Hausa for instance, it is the dodo. A fiendish entity, other-worldly, yet beastly in its aggression and human in its scheming prowess, the dodo lurks, stalks and terrorises.

Stories of the bogey man are used strategically by parents to whip misbehaving children back into line, because no one knows quite what the bogeyman is – it is everything and nothing.

In Nigeria’s North-East, the heart of the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency, the bogeyman may have traversed the realm of fantasy into cold reality. Boko Haram militants lurk at night, to murder school children while they sleep. In the last few days, we have been held spellbound by the brutality unleashed on defenceless school children in Borno and Yobe. 43 young people were killed in the attack on a secondary school in Buni Yadi, Yobe. About 20 female students were abducted by the militants from a school in Konduga, Borno.

Survivors have recounted spine-chilling stories of dormitories set on fire and of escapees gunned down. The few that evaded gun fire were chased, and slaughtered like cattle. Photos of charred remains of adolescents and of bodies drenched in blood from sliced throats and bullet wounds have flooded the Internet. The massacres occur daily.
The bogeyman has come to life – it spares no one in its violent wake.

Naked fear is firmly embedded into the spines of most. The fear in part stems from the realisation that regardless of class or economic status, no one is safe. The ‘unknown gunmen’ who routinely terrorise others are hardly ever caught and prosecuted. The murders of prominent citizens such as Bola Ige, Saudatu Rimi and Sheikh Jafar are yet to be resolved years after, not to mention crimes against faceless and nameless ‘commoners’ in Bama or Baga. The Police, the Civil Defense Corps and the Army seem to be out-gunned, out-motivated and over-whelmed. In a country with massive economic and social inequalities, this collective insecurity is one area where all Nigerians are equal.

Mostly, this fear comes from confronting a deadly enemy which appears fluid, formless and extremely vengeful – a bogeyman. Boko Haram is a rapidly changing, complex and fragmented movement. Its doctrine is as fast changing as it is contradictory – anti-democracy, anti-secularism, and anti-establishment. Yet it liberally employs internet enabled smartphones and other tools of modernity and western education to perpetrate attacks. Any criticism of the group’s approach by ordinary citizens, Imams or traditional rulers in the North draws a swift and vicious response.

The eccentric pre-2009 hermetic ragtag sect, avenging the death of their slain leader Muhammad Yusuf from 2010, have quickly metamorphosed into a highly sophisticated terrorist group with deep local and global networks. From laying siege on police stations and army checkpoints, they have attacked churches, brothels, prominent Islamic clerics, mosques, northern traditional rulers and now they’ve added the murder of helpless school children to a blood-drenched résumé. It’s difficult to project what tactics they will adopt next.

So little credible information about the group is available. Boko Haram itself thrives on secrecy. The Army bragged about the leader, Abubakar Shekau’s death in August 2013 only for his taunting videos to resurface shortly. Whenever an evident victory is proclaimed by the authorities, a more daring attack is perpetrated. The insurgency has
become like the monster in Greek mythology, Scylla – when one head is sliced off, three more sprout up in its stead. As the rise of the ‘yan Gora or the Civilian Joint Task Force – the youth vigilante fishing out suspected insurgents from the community – is celebrated, Boko Haram ferociously retaliates against such communities working with the
authorities.

Where little information is available, speculation thrives. Where speculation is rife in the midst of unbridled fear about a formless enemy, conspiracy theories fill the gap. In Nigeria, these conspiracy theories are as numerous as they are destructive: Boko Haram is a creation of “disgruntled northern politicians to destabilise Goodluck Jonathan’s government”. “Boko Haram is a creation of the Federal Government in Abuja to destroy the North for political advantage”. The group “is a creation of the West to fulfil their prediction of a disintegrated Nigeria by 2015″. Some of these toxic opinions neatly overlap with people’s innate prejudices particularly in the wake of
the divisive 2011 elections.

While these conspiracy theories are mostly ludicrous, anecdotes of suspicious events give them weight. According to the Yobe state governor, the soldiers guarding the school in Buni Yadi were mysteriously withdrawn from their duty posts a few hours before. The traditional ruler of Bama bemoaned that while the town was sacked and torched over several hours in February, frantic efforts to call local Police and Army chiefs were futile as they were all mysteriously unavailable. Ground troops, whose courage must be appreciated, are known to be severely under equipped relative to the sophisticated weaponry carried by Boko Haram despite the over one trillion naira allocated to security in the national budget.

Most troubling is that recently, Reno Omokri, the President’s Special Assistant on New Media was identified as the author of a malicious article falsely alleging that the ‘suspended’ Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido is a Boko Haram financier. Many such unexplained events have planted suspicion in the minds of many in the North-East, and
allowed for dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.

The reality is that fighting such an entrenched insurgency anywhere will be a gruelling and bloody war of attrition. The difficult experiences of America in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, despite being a highly militarised super power are instructive. In this trying period, it is necessary to ensure that some semblance of national cohesion against the insurgency exists.

For a start, genuine efforts must be made at restoring the trust of residents in the North-East in the Federal Government. Symbolic gestures by the President to sincerely console victims of brutal murders would alleviate some of the widespread sense of alienation in the region. Greater efforts must be made to address lapses and incompetence by the security agencies in order to lay conspiracy theories to rest. Proper investigations of leakages in the security infrastructure must be made to understand why combat troops in the firing line are under-paid and under-equipped. President Jonathan must as a matter of urgency, take decisive and punitive action against the
despicable act of his aide- Reno Omokri, failure of which would send the message that the frame up attempt was sanctioned by the Presidency.

Finally, Nigerians must be commended for the resilience and the solidarity in expressing collective outrage in the wake of the recent escalation of violence in the entire North-East. Despite the prevalence of fear and the sense of helplessness, we have to Nigeria will somehow endure and emerge stronger from this all.

Make your new year worthwhile, enrol in a free online course, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

The onset of a New Year is usually accompanied by a tide of resolutions we typically abandon before the end of January. My efforts to resist the temptation of making elaborate plans for 2014 on New Year’s Eve were futile as I reflexively reflected on things I’d like to accomplish. The usual promises we make to ourselves such as more aesthetic reading and writing, less procrastination, more exercise, being more goal oriented, self chastisement to kick bad habits, spending more time with friends and family all featured. One of the resolutions I am enthusiastic about, is completing an online course I registered for in the twilight of 2013.

Taking this course had been on my agenda for a while. I flirted briefly, with the thought of enrolling in a part time master’s programme just for it. And then I stumbled upon Coursera, free online courses provider. All I had to do was register, wait for the commencement date, watch the video presentations and take their respective quizzes weekly during the 11 week period, take the final exam et voila, done! The best part: no required readings! Just watch the video, assimilate and conceptualise the information. At the end of 11 weeks, a statement of completion is given. Optionally, a Verified Certificate of completion from the sponsoring institution — the University of California Irvine in my case — is provided, for an additional fee of $49.

Online courses are no new phenomena. They are the latest in phase in the evolution of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) approaches which has came about in the 19th century. The ICT revolution of the 21st century has led to an expansion and greater liberalisation of this learning method. In particular, the rapid expansion of Web 2.0 tools was accompanied by an explosion of open access learning resources collectively referred to as the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Some of the notable MOOCs providers include Coursera, Udacity, edX and Courseware, all financed by top ranking global institutions. Coursera for instance has partnerships with Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania and scores of other elite institutions around the world. It offers a wide array of courses in fields such as engineering, medical sciences, economics and finance and languages all facilitated by globally renown academics. For instance, The Age of Sustainable Development, a course convened by the influential economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs starts soon on the platform. Coursera also uses a hybrid approach, with physical networks of spaces where students can access the Internet to take classes online.

It does all seem revolutionary. Digitising and liberalising education through the MOOCs hold great potential for spreading the best knowledge in the world to underprivileged demographics and regions. The Washington Post describes the MOOCs as “elite education for the masses”. Of course, certain prerequisites such as Internet infrastructure, electricity, certification, mainstreaming certificate acceptance must be sorted out particularly in developing countries.

To be candid, my previous reservations about open access learning on its accessibility, the digital divide and quality have watered down considerably. Coursera’s resources are easily accessible — material for each week consists of a series of short audio/video clips all under 10 minutes, with PDF summaries. Our restless youth in Africa can put their internet-enabled mobile phones to better use than Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger. The options are vast, the potential unlimited and so much is available just a click away.

As with most innovations, certain setbacks abound. The first is that MOOCs have a very low completion rate, typically lower than 10%! A survey by Open Culture, an online magazine finds the reasons include: courses take too much time, courses expect the candidate to have some background knowledge, lecture fatigue, students take courses to satisfy their curiosity and hidden charges.

Furthermore, it would seem the free nature of these courses provides little incentive for completion — if it’s free, then more urgent priorities easily take precedence. The absence of the traditional classroom environment to regulate interaction and discipline students worsens this situation. In my case, more than half of the day my course started was spent more in transit across two continents. I took advantage of my jet-lagged induced insomnia later to quickly catch up on the week’s videos and quiz.

All the shortcomings of MOOCs notwithstanding, my enthusiasm for my online course remains high. I would recommend that those interested in self improvement in 2014 should look up the options available on Coursera’s website.

Zainab blogs at @msszeeusman and www.zainabusman.wordpress.com

Mandela: The Personification of Humility, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

I am one of many who hoped to meet Nelson Mandela in person someday. I am one of millions of Africans in awe of his statesmanship. I am one of billions around the world who knew he would leave us one day, but was shocked by his passing never the less. As the sincere and hypocritical tributes flood in amidst the undignified presidential selfies, and as he is finally interred, I would like to reflect on Mandela’s virtue which inspired me the most. His humility.

The late Madiba’s role in fighting the brutally racist apartheid in South Africa earned him his liberation-hero credentials. His incarceration in prison for 27 years earned him respect. His reconciliatory approach in forging national unity conferred on him the role of Madiba, the father of the rainbow nation, and the Nobel Peace Prize. His decision to quit the seat of power after just one term in office in 1999, a marked departure from the ruler-for-life approach of the Mugabes, the Bongos, the Biyas, the Eyademas and other contemporaries sealed his status as a father to all Africans, and a global icon.

Significantly, his personal shortcomings such as his pre-prison militant life and his turbulent marriages reminded the world of Mandela’s fallibility. Yet he never shied away from these flaws. He acknowledged them and sometimes poked fun at himself with his unique sense of humour. “Self-mockery was a typically savvy Mandela ploy to ensure that people would relax around him”, says Robyn Curnow who has been in close proximity to him.

At an imposing 6ft 4in in height, Nelson Mandela towered both literally and figuratively, above the apartheid oppressors by his forgiving, unifying and reconciliatory approach, and above many other African leaders. Yet he never saw himself as a demi-god, a saint or a messiah superior to his people, whom they couldn’t do without. Indeed he was known to discourage the tendency to resort to hero-worship. He was quick to remind South Africans that he was very human, incapable of meeting all of their impossibly tall expectations.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Mandela’s response to her question of how he was managing this mythical perception of him was thus:

“…that is one of the things that worried me, to be raised to the position of a semi-God, because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental…especially because I knew, it was not the contribution of an individual which will bring about liberation, and the peaceful transformation of the country. And my first task when I came out was to destroy that myth, that I was something other than an ordinary human being. Whatever position I occupy, it was as a result of my colleagues and my comrades in the movement who had decided in their wisdom, to use me for the purpose of focusing the attention of the country and the international community, not because I had any better virtues than themselves, but because this was their decision.”

Only a truly great individual could be this sincere and modest when he could simply claim all the credit! Humility underlies his pacifism, his struggle for justice and equality. Going by his speeches and manner of interactions, Mandela did not elevate himself above others. He made the effort to be humorous around everyone to make them comfortable, not intimidated, around him. Many an influential politician and Hollywood celebrity have been awed in his dignified presence, yet have been disarmed by his down to earth personality.

It would seem this modesty was driven by the self-recognition of his flaws. It in turn drove his commitment for justice and his pacifist approach towards those he regarded as equals. The combination of all these made him a globally influential icon inspiring billions from North America to South-East Asia, from South America to the Arab world.

Perhaps it was the acknowledgement of his past failings, particularly his previously militant approach to fighting apartheid which made Madiba conciliatory. If he regarded himself as fallible, then his oppressors had to be as well. They could be forgiven and everyone could join hands in working for a better future.

Similarly, this humility fueled his quest for dignity and equality. As an elite within his Xhosa nation he saw himself as ordinary, not driven by a myopic ethnic chauvinism so prevalent elsewhere in Africa and he expected to be treated with the same dignity. Consequently, he was one of the few individuals in the world to famously refer to the Queen of England by her first name “Elizabeth” rather than “Your Majesty”. He was one of the few who could wear the trademark Batik shirts as formal dress and get away with it — a feat even Indonesian politicians haven’t quite mastered!
The lesson here for other Africans is instructive. Humility is a critical factor in leadership. A leader ought to regard themselves as equal to those they claim to represent, else they’ll believe they’re doing some favour to their “inferior subjects”. Without humility, a political leader sees no need to be accountable to those whose mandate they hold; the Ivy-League trained technocrat is contemptuous of the people they represent because they are “inferior” beings incapable of understanding economic logic; the head of state ruthlessly crushes any dissent as a divinely-ordained purveyor of universal truth. Even social critics and activists who eke out a living faulting the establishment lash out fiercely at any interrogation of their failings or methods.

While many ordinary people do extraordinary things every day, very few are able to maintain the delicate balance when thrust on a stage of fame and recognition. It is the few who are truly able to take this in their stride, manage their over-sized egos, regard those they claim to speak for as equals, who are able to attain real greatness. This is where we have a lot to learn from Madiba as political and business leaders, academics, writers, activists and social critics. We are but only human.

I am thankful to have witnessed the life of this towering figure. I am grateful to the Divine Power that blessed Madiba with his wonderful gifts and enabled him to share them with the world. I am inspired to emulate Mandela’s modesty always. Thank you Madiba, for reminding us about the virtue of simplicity.
Rest in peace.

Zainab Usman, @msszeeusman blogs at www.zainabusman.wordpress.com

Thoughts on Nasir El-Rufai’s “The Accidental Public Servant”, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

“…to put on record my version of events…” is one of the reasons Nasir El-Rufai puts forward for writing his provocative autobiography, The Accidental Public Servant. It’s a book which could easily tie with Chinua Achebe’s memoirs, as the most debated in Nigeria’s recent history. Flipping through the pages, it was apparent that readers could choose to either verify or refute El-Rufai’s version of events in government, or appreciate its rare insight into the intricacies of Nigeria’s fourth democratic experience. I opted for the latter.

As the title suggests, the overall theme of the book revolves around the intriguing journey of an individual from very humble beginnings in an idyllic post-independence era, in a rural part of Katsina, northern Nigeria, to occupying one of the highest public offices in 21st century Nigeria. The reader glimpses into how El-Rufai’s fiercely independent, resolute, feisty and cerebral personality evolves from the tragedy of his father’s passing, the calculated attrition against Sunday, the primary school bully, the role-model influence of his brother in his early years and becoming a self-made private sector millionaire by his mid-twenties (p.36).

The “accidental” part of El-Rufai’s journey begins, from the age of 38 with his reluctant entry in government in 1998 as an adviser for the military government of Abdulsalam Abubakar. It continues through to his appointment as the Director-General of the main privatisation agency, the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) and then as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, and his membership of the elite corps of economic reformers between 2003 and 2007.

Along the way, lifelong friendships are built and broken, alliances are forged and betrayed and the gruelling challenge of public service and reform in the midst of entrenched practices and powerful vested interests takes its toll. He strives to balance public and personal interests with loyalties as he gets caught in the middle of altercations between a strong-willed President Olusegun Obasanjo and his equally powerful Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. At the height of these disagreements, El-Rufai inadvertently rises to a defacto Vice-President, a position which would ironically lead to his persecution and exile less than a year after leaving public office.

A refreshing aspect of the book is the revelation and demystification of the inner-workings of the highest levels of governance in Africa’s most populous country. For instance, El-Rufai stresses how appointments for the highest public offices, are mostly fortuitous, having little to do with meritocratic or rigorous processes. His narration of events during his first few days as FCT minister (p.199), what to expect after a ministerial nomination, the obstructive tactics of entrenched civil servants opposed to reform are insightful and invaluable details that offer a useful departure from textbook political theory or international ‘best practice.’

In particular, the author’s revelation that without a coherent plan, a new and mostly unprepared government minister could easily drown in administrative routine attending to “more than 100 visitors and 200 phone calls” daily for the duration of their tenure, is instructive (p.201). He discusses the immense influence such appointees wield and how they become devastated when they leave office, once the lucrative perks of office are withdrawn and the “hundreds of phone calls a day… drop to near zero” the very next day (p.393)! These are valuable disclosures for the younger generation planning to go into public service.

El-Rufai also underscores the absolute importance of political will by a president in effecting key reforms. With Obasanjo’s backing, the residence of the powerful chairman of the ruling party was demolished as part of the restoration of the FCT master plan (p.296) and a number of seemingly impossible tasks are implemented seamlessly. The reader thus gets a glimpse into Obasanjo’s ambivalent approach to governance: a wilful, ex-military leader, with an eye for good people, an ear for good advice and a vision for Nigeria despite his links with vested interests and rentier elite, but who was unfortunately consumed by his vindictiveness and narrow ambitions to run for a third term in office. The reader is likely to come off with a better informed and more respectable view of The Obasanjo personality.

El-Rufai also rightly reflects on a fundamental yet overlooked implication of the decline of Nigerian public education and constituent alumni networks which are critical to leadership and elite incubation (p.42-43). He stresses how friendship and alumni networks in Barewa College and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria proved useful in several instances in his life and in public service. He laments that the decline of hitherto elitist public institutions mean that their local and important alumni networks such as the Barewa Old Boys Association are now unavailable to foreign-educated Nigerians, his own children inclusive.

However, the scant mention of the highly controversial NITEL-Pentascope privatisation controversy is quite conspicuous. This is especially since El-Rufai studiously accounts for the key hallmarks and controversies of his stewardship of the BPE and the FCT Ministry. While the author does state that a full account of the NITEL saga would come in a BPE monograph (p.128), most readers would have appreciated at least a few paragraphs devoted to this contentious issue.

The author’s approach of divulging the inner workings of governance at the highest levels, and naming and shaming the key players irrespective of ethnic or religious affiliation is truly refreshing. Yet in a few instances, there’s a nagging feeling that he probably divulged too much. This ranges from revealing verbatim, some conversations which held in strict confidence to the extremely personal details about meeting and marrying his subsequent wives.

Notwithstanding, the rare insight El-Rufai provides into the highest echelons of power, politics and decision-making in Nigeria is unprecedented. The heated debate sparked by the book should prompt other key actors to document their own version of events, ultimately to the betterment of Nigerians outside the tight power circle. For Nasir El-Rufai the successful entrepreneur, technocrat, exiled student and now leading opposition politician, one can only wonder what the future holds.

Favourite Quote:

“Some mosques in particular consistently condemned me and prayed for my downfall. One or two declared me an apostate for daring to demolish a mosque, conveniently forgetting that Prophet Muhammad ordered the demolition of an illegal mosque in Madina Al-Munawwarah, some 1,400 years earlier. Many of the affected ‘churches’ prayed that “by God’s grace, El-Rufai will go down, El-Rufai will lose his job, El-Rufai will die in Jesus’ name.” I was there for nearly four years and we removed all of them.” (p.212)

Zainab Usman, @msszeeusman, blogs at www.zainabusman.wordpress.com

Time for Nigeria’s “Big Men” to Give Back to Society, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

Nigeria’s former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, recently announced that he is offering one undergraduate/postgraduate scholarship to young Nigerians, to cover study within Nigeria or in a foreign institution. The details of the scheme titled “Education Solutions” are available on his website here.

The scholarship scheme has been attracting mixed reactions on social media so far– applause and condemnation in almost equal proportion. Personally, I am very ambivalent about it. While I will not condemn it, I certainly think more can be done to improve education as a whole in Nigeria, through teacher training and workshops, provision of books and study materials, advocacy campaigns and so on, rather than giving out one scholarship.
To be fair to the former vice president though, he has emphasized that it is a nascent, pilot scheme, and he does own one of the most reputable private universities in the country, the American University of Nigeria.
Ultimately, there is no harm in our former public officials giving back to society. Giving out scholarships through a competitive process that selects the best and the brightest and changes someone’s life positively certainly beats sitting idly about, making self-serving, inflammatory and polarising press statements threatening that “Power Must Return to the North or Else…” or “Power Must Remain in the South or Else…” whilst sitting on a huge mound of fortune that is either frittered away in obscene and vainglorious consumption, or that lies dormant in Swiss Banks, South African hotels, Malibu mansions and Emirati apartment blocks. Call it the lesser of two evils if you must.
Now imagine if more of Nigeria’s “big men” were to invest in education, advocacy, and productive enterprises at home.
We probably wouldn’t be begging the Americans, Europeans and lately the Chinese to do OUR work for us: to come establish labour-intensive manufacturing firms on our shores. If only 10% of Nigeria’s $170 billion stashed in foreign accounts (these are 2003 figures, the current figures must be several multiples of this amount) were to be re-invested back home, the tremendous impact it would have on our economy is best left to the imagination.
I have argued severally that a lot of our former public officials need to make themselves useful. It has been 14 years since the transition to democracy.
These 14 years have created many former governors, former ministers, former senators, former ambassadors and others who have held influential positions (I haven’t even included the titans of the military era). These are individuals with the resources and the clout to make a direct positive impact on their communities in numerous ways.
A few of them have proceeded to establish consultancies, NGOs, think tanks or are still engaged in politics or policy. Some have chosen to retire in peace. Many others have temporarily skulked back into the depths of obscurity, resurfacing occasionally to rally young Nigerians to their ethno-centric, bigoted and self-serving causes.
There are so many productive ways to get involved.
One way is advocacy and enlightenment campaigns on leadership and good governance to ensure people at the grassroots stop selling their votes to the highest bidder.
Another is advocacy and enlightenment campaigns to ensure young women are enrolled and allowed to complete at the barest minimum secondary school education especially in the North East and North West.
A third could be the establishment of profit-making enterprises (if they can’t find competent local managers, they can hire qualified expatriates – there are many!) which will create value and jobs in their communities and make more money for them.
A fourth could be teaching and lecturing in many of our tertiary institutions that are wallowing in the dearth of expertise and learning equipment. Writing opinion pieces on the pages of newspapers is just not enough. Young Nigerians in tertiary institutions will benefit tremendously from the wealth of their experience in public service.
The list is endless. Most of them are influential. Many of them have the resources. Many of them can make a difference.
It is really tempting to dismiss Atiku Abubakar’s scholarship scheme or to question his motive. Indeed, one might even wonder whether the scheme will last beyond the 2014 elections primaries.
Nevertheless, society will definitely benefit from more of the well-to-do giving back in useful ways that will make a real difference to people’s lives.
Zainab Usman @msszeeusman blogs at www.zainabusman.wordpress.com

A Knee-Jerk Approach to Managing Immigration in the UK, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

A proposed scheme by the UK government that would require first-time visitors from certain Asian and African countries to deposit a £3,000 bond to obtain a visitor’s visa to the UK has provoked outrage from these countries, notably Nigeria and India. The pilot scheme to commence in November 2013 would initially cover a select number of “high risk” visitors from countries whose nationals have a higher probability of absconding, and if successful, would be extended over other visa categories. The affected countries feel unfairly targeted and the scheme itself could have profound implications.

Since the announcement by the UK Home Secretary Theresa May, some of the affected countries which include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ghana have reacted with indignation on the grounds that the proposal is selective. The Nigerian House of Representatives has described the policy as “discriminatory and capable of undermining the spirit of the Commonwealth”. The Confederation of Indian Industry has described the scheme as “highly discriminatory and very unfortunate”.

While tackling illegal immigration and managing legal migration is a key concern for any serious country to ensure adequate access by residents to infrastructure and public services, targeting those who contribute to the economy is not only discriminatory, but is plain disrespectful. This scheme is perceived to be unfairly selective, applying to those countries whose nationals actually contribute to the UK economy, struggling to bounce back in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Over 140,000 Nigerians and 340,000 Indians visit the UK annually contributing significantly to the tourism sector which is Britain’s fifth biggest industry and third largest foreign exchange earner. Nigeria in particular is not only the UK’s second largest trading partner in Africa, but Nigerian shoppers rank among the highest spending tourists in the UK, sometimes outspending their Chinese, Arab and Russian counterparts. Middle-class Nigerians annually flock to the UK, not only for sight-seeing, but mainly to get good bargains especially during the annual summer and winter sales, with the British economy typically witnessing a bump within this period.

Nationals of many non-European Union (EU) countries regard this proposed scheme as the latest in the long list of rapidly changing and increasingly hostile immigration policies by the UK. In 2012, the UK closed the Post-Study Work visa which allows non-EU university graduates to work for two years in the UK (and pay taxes). The badly managed brief suspension of London Metropolitan University’s license in 2012, with little thought for the thousands of international students who had already paid thousands of pounds in school fees, and all the wrong signals it sent out to prospective international students, cannot be easily forgotten.

Although David Cameron’s coalition government has insisted that Britain wants to attract the “best and the brightest” to its shores, this seems to be a euphemism for “attracting the richest only”, especially with such steeply expensive conditions for securing a UK visa. There is a growing feeling especially among Commonwealth countries that the familiar bond with the UK is deliberately being severed by such antagonistic policies. One of the reasons Britain has remained highly competitive as a tourism and shopping destination, despite higher VAT than the USA for instance, and as a higher education hub due to the historical link with former colonies. With this realisation, many have since been looking at more welcoming places to study and with this recent proposal, to spend their hard-earned money.

This proposed visa bond scheme is seen to be in reality, driven by the exigencies of domestic British politics, especially the Conservative Party’s campaign pledge of reducing net migration to the UK “from hundreds of thousands, to tens of thousands”. There is a sense that in a bid to stave off the growing threat posed by the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to the Conservative Party’s core electoral base, and unable to limit EU migration because its hands are tied by EU migration policies, the Coalition government has chosen to target non-EU immigrants.

Such anti-immigration policies have fuelled xenophobic rhetoric based on the mostly inaccurate assumption that African, Asian or other non-EU immigrants claim state benefits either legally or illegally depriving citizens, of these benefits, and jobs. For instance, a recent study by the British Department for Work and Pensions (PDF) reveals that only 6.4% or 371,000 of the 5.5 million people claiming work-related benefits in the UK are immigrants, and out of this 371,000, only 2% or about 7,500 have done so illegally. The number of non-EU immigrants claiming benefits will be much lower if the figures are disaggregated by EU and non-EU migrants. Obviously, it is incredibly difficult for undocumented illegal immigrants from outside the EU, who end up living on the fringes of society, to secure decent jobs, access the National Health Service (NHS) and other state benefits here because all these require detailed registration and identification.

Clearly, this policy ought to be considerably watered down or completely rescinded. Indeed, the backlash from the individual countries to be affected and the potential economic repercussions have prompted Cameron to embark on damage control by insisting that the policy hasn’t been finalised. If the British government does insist on pushing ahead with this Visa bond scheme, then the affected countries, especially, Nigeria, India and Pakistan which are hotspots for journalists and researchers, are well within their rights to diplomatically reciprocate by similarly demanding steep bonds for visiting Britons. A collective response, under the auspices of the Commonwealth for example, might be more effective in pressuring Britain to water down this discriminatory proposal. Either way, it is Britain that stands to lose more in the medium to long term by this knee-jerk approach to managing immigration.

Zainab Usman, @msszeeusman blogs at www.zainabusman.wordpress.com

Premature election fever and security challenges in Nigeria, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

 “…These actions amount to a declaration of war and a deliberate attempt to undermine the authority of the Nigerian state… As a responsible government, we will not tolerate this,” declared Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. This was during his recent imposition of a State of Emergency to mark the onset of army raids in parts of Nigeria’s North-East, the strong hold of the Jama’atul Ahlus Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad, commonly known as Boko Haram, which has waged a deadly insurgency war against the Nigerian state since 2009.

While Boko Haram is apparently the biggest security headache for Africa’s most populous country, it certainly isn’t its only security challenge. Pockets of violence in the oil-rich Niger-Delta, the rise of other militias in the South-West and the Middle-Belt, alarming incidents of kidnapping in the South-East, frequent eruptions of communal violence in Jos, and other forms of violent crime abound. Crucially, the increase in militant activity should be situated within the larger context of Nigeria’s political economy and the 2015 general elections, on which most of the political elite and their networks are now fixated.

Since the transition to democracy in 1999, Nigeria has experienced a period of sustained economic growth averaging 7.4%, driven partly by the rise in global oil prices. Lucrative oil revenues, accounting for 80% of government revenues, have heightened intensely competitive contestations for political office, to do-or-die proportions. Politicians frequently ratchet up identity-based rhetoric along North-South, Christian-Muslim, and other fault lines in the run up to elections. Predictably, with such fierce competition for public offices, election season is punctuated with violence. Events in the Western Region in 1964 and in parts of the North in 2011 serve as particularly notorious examples of the devastation such violence can cause.

Given the enormous (oil) revenues accruing to the government, political posturing towards 2015 elections seems to have started much earlier than usual. Presently, political discourse in Nigeria is feverishly centered on the potential candidates for president and the state governors. Heated political commentaries focus on what region’s “turn” it is to produce the president. The threats and counter-threats being made by various groups are indicative of the acrimony that followed the collapse in 2011 of the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) 12-year power-sharing formula between the North and the South. Steps towards a coalition by the main opposition parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC), add fuel to an already raging debate. Nigeria’s growing number of militant groups can only be understood within this context of fierce rhetoric and political re-alignments.

One thread that runs through the militias – Boko Haram, Niger-Delta militants, the Odudua People’s Congress (OPC) and others – is that despite their varied approaches, they provide platforms for those disillusioned with Nigeria’s narrow political system to express their grievances, albeit violently. For example, people in the Niger-Delta have long demanded that underdevelopment in the region be addressed by the government. However, it was only after young men from the area engaged in a sustained insurgency, which crippled oil production, that a government-backed Amnesty Programme was initiated in 2009 to address some of their grievances.

A similar pattern is observable with Boko Haram, where radicalised young men up North have now attained local and international infamy. Their goal is not just to secure the release of detained members but also to reach the unfeasible goal of usurping Nigeria’s secular constitution with Islamic law. Alongside ongoing military action, the government is also considering an amnesty proposal for Boko Haram.

Consequently, these groups cannot just be understood in terms of the security risk they pose or the criminal elements they harbour. They must also be read in political terms, and seen as platforms for the assertion of authority by sections of Nigerians. The country has an exclusionary political system dominated by ‘big men’ or ’godfathers’, and their associates and networks. Barring familial link or other ‘connections’ to these networks, direct participation in Nigeria’s political system depends on luck, or as these groups have discovered, by causing enough mayhem to get the attention of those who matter.

Without such violent mobilisation, members of these militia groups would, politically, be in the same boat as any of the 61% of Nigerians living below the poverty line, or the rest of the rising middle class, who are yet to constitute a critical mass that can effectively demand representation or accountability in decision-making.  The power, ‘fame’ and lucrative payoffs that insurgents have gained by carrying arms against the state undermines the sustainability of state interventions and begs the question: what can they realistically offer these groups, and those that will follow them, to pacify their actions in the long term?

Returning to the run-up to Nigeria’s elections in 2015, there are several ways in which militia groups might exercise their new-found power. Some may rally around a particular candidate, allowing them to benefit from the mix of legitimacy and fear that such groups bring. In Nigeria, where there is a long trend of political thugs being recruited by desperate politicians, this would not be an unexpected development. Conversely, Boko Haram, in particular, may try and prevent elections in the North East happening at all.  Finally, should these groups be co-opted or crushed, we may see the rise of counter-militias to fill the vacuum that they leave. The massive funds allocated to national security at just under N1 trillion ($4.5 billion) may well give the government the firepower it needs to temporarily destroy or buy-off these groups, but such large funding flows could, just as easily, create sectors of the government who have a vested interest in maintaining an atmosphere of insecurity.

Whatever course these government and militia groups take, the results of the election in 2015 will undoubtedly have immense implications for political stability and security in the country. Boko Haram, for example, is understood by many Southerners in Nigeria in terms of the country’s North-South divide. Currently, the group is split into three factions. The main group’s ‘war’ against the Nigerian state started in 2009, before Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner from the Niger-Delta, became President. However, the narrative that has gained currency in the South is that Boko Haram is a tool used by disgruntled northern politicians, in the fall-out of the PDP’s power-sharing agreement, to destabilise Jonathan’s government. In the unlikely event that the APC fields a northern-Muslim candidate who defeats Jonathan at the polls, the knock-on effects for Boko Haram will be huge.

Regardless of whether Jonathan is unseated, 2015 will also be an important moment for the oil-rich Niger-Delta. Ex-militants have been pacified by an expensive amnesty programme which co-incidentally expires in 2015. They have also benefitted immensely from government pay-outs and lucrative security contracts, in one instance worth $103 million. Whether these conciliatory measures continue will depend on who the incoming President needed to appease to secure their electoral victory.

As tremendous political and financial resources continue to pour into Nigeria’s security challenges and its upcoming elections, it is unclear who the winners will be. However, it is unlikely that they will include most ordinary Nigerians in the sun-scorched arid areas of the North-East or those in the oily creeks of the Niger-Delta

Zainab Usman, @msszeeusman blogs at www.zainabusman.wordpress.com

Boko Haram Rejects Amnesty Offer: What Now?, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

“Mr Shekau said his group had done no wrong and so an amnesty would not be applicable to them.

It was the Nigerian government that was committing atrocities against Muslims, he said. “Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty.

What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is we that should grant you [a] pardon,” AFP news agency quotes him as saying in the Hausa language audio recording.”

Read the full report on the BBC News website
Of course, this was to be expected and sadly, many of us “observers” were just waiting for this. Boko Haram NEVER requested or plead for amnesty, it has no use for it whatsoever. You don’t need a sophisticated anti-terrorism profiler from Mossad to tell you that Boko Haram thrives on and draws its strength from the fear it inflicts on those commanding the machinery of government and the people, in seeking its “vengeance” (however warped that quest for vengeance is). Amnesty as it stands, would rob it of its lifeblood (its ability to inflict fear and terror). By default, Boko Haram is wired to reject this offer, as it has.  Now what?

This phase of the Boko Haram insurgency against the Nigerian state and the offer of amnesty by the government is analagous to two people, Mr. A. and Mr. B., engaged in bloody physical combat with Mr. A gaining the upper hand against Mr. B. Upon realising how imminent his defeat is, Mr. B., proclaims in between steely punches smashing his face “I forgive you Mr. A., I grant you amnesty”. Of course at this point, Mr. A will realise how powerful he has become, and simply finish off Mr. B.

I have keenly followed the pro- and anti- amnesty debate over the past two weeks or so in Nigeria. I found it all rather confounding, disturbing, distracting and absolutely pathetic! The debate got so heated and was as usual, unnecessarily politicised by both sides. I actually supported the President’s initial position of “not granting amnesty to faceless ghosts” because Boko Haram did not request for it, has insisted that it doesn’t recognise the authority of the Nigerian state (not to mention its feeble amnesty offer) and has continued butchering innocent Nigerians. However, President Jonathan was cajoled and bullied by SOME northern leaders into offering the amnesty.

On the other side of the divide, even those who genuinely and naïvely assumed that an amnesty offer would be the magical elixir to solve this bloody insurgency quagmire, were viciously painted by vociferous anti-amnesty voices as Boko Haram “sympathisers”. Now Boko Haram has flipped the bird or as we Nigerians call it, did the “uwaka” sign to us all, by rejecting it!

Personally, I am more incensed at the folly of SOME of the proponents of amnesty and their gross inability to see how this would play out. I say a big Thank You for giving the world the opportunity once again, to laugh at your sheer recklessness. So, what next then? Start begging Boko Haram or bribe them with Hajj pilgrimage or Dubai trip offers?

The baby steps towards a sustainable solution should be clear and visible. In my opinion — based on my humble observations and from general discussions — I believe they include:

  • Implementation of recommendations of several reports by various commissions and committees set up, on this insurgency. Most of these reports have concrete recommendations proposed by committee members who are in the know, yet they have been dumped somewhere. Go back, pick them up, and start working from the recommendations, if they haven’t been eaten by dust mite that is. If the Federal Government seems unwilling or keeps dragging its foot, our “esteemed” and opinionated northern elders clearly have their advocacy work cut out for them;
  • The JTF needs to stop killing innocent people and thereby providing a ready supply of recruits and suicide bombers to Boko Haram from a pool of angry, spiteful, vengeful and disillusioned orphans. The logic here is so ridiculously simple and apparent: the more you kill fathers in the presence of their impressionable teenagers and brutalise innocent young men, the more likely the victims are to fall into the willing embrace of Boko Haram or just refuse to help the government. Government needs to realise the pivotal role of winning the hearts and minds of people caught in the midst of all this, and denying Boko Haram any sort of popular support;
  • In addition to spreading fear through its carnage, Boko Haram primarily thrives on spreading its warped and twisted ideology to angry, frustrated and hungry Nigerians. Its ideology needs to be countered by Muslim clerics all over the country, especially in northern Nigeria. Already, we have people like Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, who, despite his sometimes controversial statements, has come down hard on the sect, and because of that, he has been the target of several bomb-assassination attempts. Importantly this de-radicalisation needs to filter down to the grassroots, and shouldn’t be restricted to the elitist spheres such as the Sultan Bello mosque in Kaduna or the Indimi mosque in Maiduguri.The real recruitment takes place in inner-city districts, slums, suburbs and rural areas. This is where some of our noisy northern leaders could be helpful, rather than bullying the President to offer a hollow and meaningless amnesty, they should (if they are doing so already) continue convincing local imams in every street mosque and district, to preach fearlessly against this radical ideology, with credible evidence from the Holy Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), to expose the flaws in the ideological basis of Boko Haram and hopefully turn some of its members against it;
  • There might still be a chance for amnesty… but there has to be a different approach. Again related to (1) above, the government (Federal and States) should go back to those reports and their recommendations, importantly, to start prosecuting perpetrators especially those in the security agencies responsible for extra-judicial killings of innocent citizens. This might be a highly contested approach but yes, start by prosecuting the killers of Mohammed Yusuf and others, which Boko Haram has frequently cited as the reason for its war against the Nigerian state. Prosecution of these erring officers might draw whatever humanity is left in some of the sect members to the negotiating table.

Lastly, the main problem with Nigeria, as is evident from this insurgency is that of sheer and criminal impunity. People steal, plunder, rape, murder and do everything under the sun, yet they are allowed to get away with it. This not only sets a precedent for other members of society to do same or worse, but it leaves victims with malicious grievances and a thirst for vengeance. Mohammed Yusuf, the sect’s alleged founder was brutally murdered (captured by the lens of Aljazeera’s cameras), the perpetrators are still walking about freely. The various suspects of church, market, mosque and school bombings are still walking about freely. Soldiers who have snuffed the life out of innocent citizens are still walking about freely. This breeds nothing but hateful grievances while the cycle of bloodletting continues. In the case of the sect, Jama’atul ahlul Sunna Wal-Liddawati wal Jihad, or Boko Haram, it is quenching its thirst for vengeance with the blood of innocents and this is what needs to stop.

Zainab Usman writes and blogs on www.zainabusman.wordpress.com

APC: The Game Changer? By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

“This is a new dawn for our generation. This is unusual. It is gratifying that they are here to see and share with us,” the middle aged man remarked with tears of joy when he saw the nine state governors trekking through the volatile Monday Market in Boko Haram hotspot, Maiduguri, shaking hands with fish mongers, vegetable sellers and taxi drivers. To this middle aged man, to the yam-seller who exclaimed “unbelievable” and to countless other ordinary Nigerians in that market, interacting with the governors up-close was far beyond what they had come to expect from the detached, conceited and unapproachable persona Nigerian politicians have cultivated over the years.

This daring act by the opposition governors brought to life for many, the ongoing merger of five main opposition parties under the banner of the All Progressive Congress (APC). This merger has recently dominated the agenda of political calculations for the 2015 general elections, and is the favoured discussion point for many pundits. Importantly, many justifiably question the APC’s capability of providing a credible alternative to the norm, the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), focusing especially on the APC’s lack of a coherent ideology.

One of the notable commentaries critiquing the proposed APC is the one by former Central Bank Governor, Professor Charles Soludo titled “Where is the Political Party for (the) Nigerian Economy?” In it, he mirrors the sincere concern of many Nigerians – that the APC is an alliance of convenience by disgruntled politicians lacking any progressive ideology save their inordinate ambition to grab power at the centre, that the “soul of the party” is not really different from the much derided PDP, and that it lacks a sophisticated manifesto. As close to the truth as this description probably is, many do not quite appreciate that the dominance of the PDP behemoth and the emergence of its soon-to-be arch nemesis, the APC, are manifestations of the continuous evolution of our democratic process. The APC cannot be that which we are not.

The much cited APC’s lack of a coherent ideology is an interesting paradox. When many including Professor Soludo refer to ideology, they mean either or all of two things. One, they hark back to the left-wing right-wing parties of the 1960s to the 1980s whose class-based identities were critical elements of their mobilisation strategies. Two, they are also referring to the clear articulation of the vision, strategy and proposed programmes of such parties in an ideologically-driven manifesto. As ideal as these normative expectations of a what a party should be seem, they are neither entirely relevant to our present Nigerian reality, nor are they necessary requirements for the APC or any such movement to be agents of the much desired change in the Nigerian polity.

An ideologically-driven movement is not relevant to Nigerians because globally the ideological parties that pundits long for are no longer tenable in our present unipolar (yet increasingly multipolar) world. When those class-based political parties existed decades ago, the bipolar world had two superpowers representing rival systems of political and economic organisation – the American-led capitalist West and the Soviet-led socialist East. Countries and their constituent political parties, academics and civil society organisations strongly defined themselves on the basis of either of such doctrines. In Nigeria, progressive-pro-masses politics were personified, to varying degrees, by Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), and Aminu Kano’s Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), while conservative and aristocratic politics were the forte of the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and later, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Consequently, such parties articulated their manifestos and strategies for policy execution loosely based on the political orientations they subscribed to.

Presently, the exigencies of the global environment and Nigeria’s present realities have rendered such ideological movements – at least in the way many pundits envision – untenable. First, the global dominance of capitalism as the preferred system of economic organisation, means most of the world’s countries have adopted some variant of capitalism – whether its America’s free market capitalism, China’s state-led capitalism or Nigeria’s crony capitalism. Secondly, any movement that employs the rhetoric of a “proletariat revolution”, promising the usurpation of the “bourgeois hegemony” to appeal to the Nigerian masses – of which people under the age of 30 constitute almost 70% – will find itself left in the cold, dry winds of the Harmattan.

The basic needs of ordinary Nigerians which sadly haven’t changed that much, are to be met with pragmatic promises to be achieved via strategically crafted but importantly, easily accessible methods. Nigerians still need the basics: electricity, jobs, access to quality education and efficient healthcare services; Nigerians want to feel secure in this era of kidnappings, suicide bombs and diabolical killings by “unknown gun men”; marginalised swathes of Nigerians want to feel they matter too in the scheme of things beyond being used and dumped during elections and importantly, many are just fed up with the dysfunction and culture of impunity that pervades the polity, which the PDP symbolises.

Since grandiose ideologies and fancy manifestos will obviously not resonate with ordinary Nigerians, what the APC or any movement needs is the ability to tap into the collective yearnings of Nigerians from all walks of life. The enthusiasm and fervent idealism of young Nigerians from the 1960s to the 1990s fuelled by left wing political ideology has been replaced with brittle cynicism. This frustration stems mostly from our exclusionary and testosterone-driven political system especially at the core of decision-making. The archetypal decision-maker being an “Oga at the top” anywhere between 40 and 80 years, typically arrogant, accessible to cronies and colleagues, yet inaccessible to his constituency, gets away with defying many manmade, marital and divine laws with impunity, and retires to be celebrated in his local church or revered in his neighbourhood mosque rather than to the societal opprobrium he so deserves. It’s no wonder that some young Nigerians find an outlet for this frustration through Twitter and Facebook, others at markets and motor-parks perpetually feel like second-class citizens, while many in rural areas who hardly feel the impact of governance at any level just couldn’t be bothered until elections season. This cynicism pervades all segments of society.

The APC or any such movement ought to become a rallying point for Nigerians to coalesce around, at the barest minimum to set the tone for a more inclusive type of governance where ordinary Nigerians will be regarded as people who matter in the scheme of things. Such a movement could learn a thing or two from Zambia’s Patriotic Front (PF), the platform on which the current president, Michael Sata sailed to victory in 2011, thereby upstaging incumbent Rupiah Banda and his ruling party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD)’s 20 year hegemony. Observers such as Cambridge academic Alastair Fraser, attribute the PF’s victory to its ability to mobilise ordinary Zambians across ethnically diverse communities, especially the critical youth demographic, through a grassroots approach to politics. The PF focused not on socialist slogans, but on the unmet needs of individual communities especially employment and infrastructure, employed a fiery anti-Chinese rhetoric and the famous “Don’t Kubeba” (accept bribes from parties but vote for your choice at the polls) slogan.

Barring slight differences in context and dynamics, parallels can clearly be drawn between Zambia and Nigeria. Apparently, the key for any movement that seeks to mobilise ordinary citizens is its ability to reach out to and connect with marginalised segments of society, communicate through the language of their lived realities and basic needs, and importantly, make them feel relevant in deciding their own destinies. The brazen visit by APC governors to Maiduguri a few weeks ago, prompted President Jonathan to visit Maiduguri days later, his first visit since his election in 2011 despite the daily carnage there. This is healthy competition on both sides to score political points with the masses, and this competition is the stuff responsive democracies are made of.

Ultimately, Nigerians need a credible alternative, not just to replace the PDP in power, but an alternative way of doing things, an alternative to the dysfunctional and malevolent “do-or-die” politics that has characterised our polity throughout the past 13 years of democratic rule. In this quest, it matters little whether the APC is an alliance of convenience by “desperate” power mongers, as they have been variously described, all that matters is their ability to provide an inclusive platform and a reliable alternative that Nigerians can choose to either support or ignore. The quality of our politics needs to be lifted from the grubby bottom through healthy competition engendered by a worthy rival to the PDP. Whether the APC is capable of this arduous task, only time and the strategies it adopts will determine.

Zainab Usman blogs here. You can also follow her on twitter: @msszeeusman

Nigeria’s dual economy and its cosmetic economic growth, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman
Zainab Usman
Zainab Usman: There is certainly more to Nigeria than economic reports and figures do capture. The beautiful projections in the midst of widespread poverty often leave me confounded and confused and at times dismissive and cynical

Back in secondary school, I distinctly remember being taught in Social Studies class that Nigeria operates a mixed economy – an admixture of socialism and capitalism. It made little sense to me then, just as I am still struggling to understand what this mixed economy means now. More recently, I’ve had cause to believe that Nigeria does have a mixed or rather, a dual economy – not the capitalist-socialist variant my secondary school teacher mentioned – where parallel economies exist side by side within the national economy.

The Nigerian economy has evolved considerably since my secondary school days in the late 1990s to early 2000s. One such change is the wave of liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation that swept across significant parts of the public sector from the early 2000s under the Obasanjo regime. These include the privatisation of the Nigeria Telecommunications Limited (NITEL), liberalisation of the telecoms sector which led to the introduction of GSM mobile telephony, the re-capitalisation of the banking sector from 2005, the (on-going) process of deregulating the downstream sector of the oil industry which culminated in the contentious partial removal of subsidies and so on. All these should leave no one in doubt that Nigeria is on a steady path of full-fledged capitalism.

These liberalisation policies along with the boom in global commodity prices, mainly oil, which Nigeria heavily relies on as a primary source of foreign exchange (90%) and government revenues (85%) along with the booming banking and telecoms sector, have led to massive inflow of revenue and steady economic growth, averaging 6 to 7 per cent per annum. It is reportedly, one of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. According to global investment bank, Goldman Sachs, Nigeria is one of the Next Eleven or N-11 emerging countries driving the global economy, after the BRICS countries. With the upcoming revision of GDP figures, Nigeria, like Ghana in 2010, could overnight be upgraded to an upper middle income country.

Without being overly pessimistic, it is easy to be confounded (I certainly am) by these figures and projections, especially when one considers the stark reality on ground that sometimes contradicts the figures. Looking at Abuja or Lagos, one could easily conclude that Nigeria is an emerging country and the next big driver of the global economy. The new shopping malls, the exclusive hotels, the “happening” joints, the brightly painted duplexes and the endless stream of air conditioned SUVs on the wide roads can give the impression that Nigeria is catching-up with the UAE, and we do hope it is. However our optimism should be tampered with pragmatism over our real pace of development.

There is the general perception that Abuja, the capital city, and Lagos, the commercial nerve-centre are anomalies – they are the exception rather than the norm – and are far removed from the realities of the other 35 states in Nigeria. It is not uncommon to hear people in other parts of Nigeria speak of Abuja and Lagos with such awe and fascination, as they would, of a Western capital. This could also explain the high rate of not just rural-urban migration, but also urban to urban migration, particularly to these two cities. Many of my friends and classmates from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria are now domiciled in Abuja and Lagos because this is where the “opportunities” and “infrastructure” are. If I were living in Nigeria, I would most likely be living and working in either of these two cities.

The fact is that there is just so much more to Nigeria than Abuja and Lagos both of which account for less than 20% of its over 170 million people. Sometimes, it’s tempting to assume that some consultancies and development organizations go to Abuja and Lagos, interview a few bankers, high-ranking civil servants and successful “business owners” and then conclude that Nigeria is “emerging” and rubbing shoulders with Malaysia and Indonesia. A huge bulk of the population is engaged in the informal sector which data and projections do not sufficiently capture.

In many parts of Nigeria, a traditional and informal economy exists side by side with the trappings of modernity; and by implication, grinding poverty and stupendous wealth paradoxically coexist. In the north-western city of Birnin-Kebbi, the capital of Kebbi state, it is not uncommon to see peasant farmers use donkeys, camels and other beasts of burden as a mode of transportation while big Japanese and German SUVs carrying public officials, politicians and business men zoom past. In Kano, spacious, and exquisitely-designed elegant mansions abound in tree-lined GRA areas, while bright yellow tricycles, reminiscent of New Delhi in India, popularly referred to as KEKE-NAPEP (named after a poverty alleviation program that introduced it) dot the busy streets.

Overall, there is certainly more to Nigeria which these reports and figures arguably fail to capture, and of course which leave many like me at best deeply confounded and confused, and at worst dismissive and cynical at such projections. While certain parts of the economy might appear to be “growing”, the same cannot be said of other sectors where the bulk of the population is engaged, leaving the impression that there are parallel economies within the national economy and conclusions drawn from the “booming” sectors are conflated to cover other sectors as well. Global consultancies and international development organizations would do well to factor in and capture these nuances.

Zainab Usman is a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford

The burden of souvenirs, and the fear of coming home, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

I just made it to Nigeria yesterday morning. I am finally home for a visit, after what seemed like eternity because the last time I was in the motherland was August 2011. I put off my trip home several times last year, and in the interim, I “endured” concerned, cheeky and some downright snide remarks such as: ” … it seems you have no intention of coming back home” “…you are busy ‘enjoying’ and you have abandoned your country”. In fact, one concerned and angry fellow a few months back, in an email, accused me and other “Nigerians in the diaspora” of “…staying abroad and abandoning the comrade struggle in Nigeria…”

As most Africans in the diaspora will confirm, “going home” can be quite an ordeal for one major reason — Souvenirs! One is expected and/or obligated to get gifts from “abroad” for legions of immediate, extended, and distant relatives. Add neighbours, friends, acquaintances, former colleagues and many others to that list.

Now, getting a gift or souvenir shouldn’t ordinarily be a problem if most people would appreciate thoughtful items such as beautifully worded and crafted greeting cards, little ornaments and miniature depictions of famous land marks or flags, vintage books, exotic scarves or funky embossed mugs. Few appreciate these things — maybe the elderly. Many expect designer-brand perfumes, shoes and bags, shirts and apparel, wristwatches and jewelry among other things. The mind-set behind these expectations is that since one is based in a rich, developed, and industrialized country, then one is also “rich” with easy and affordable access to all the developed and industrialized goodies.

Even if these items are as ridiculously cheap as many erroneously think, consider a student or a young professional with an immediate family of four back home, plus two parents, making six people. Then add at least four cousins, four aunts and uncles, minimum of four close friends, four neighbours, four acquaintances and four in-laws. That’s about 30 people. Typically, the people expecting or those who one feels obliged to get “stuff” for exceed this estimate. I didn’t even factor in extended family in a polygamous setting or “significant other(s)”. Woe betide those who play around with several “significant others”. So if one is to get designer brand or at least decent quality “stuff” for these thirty people, then do the math.

Now consider a single student on a restricted budget or a young professional on a comparatively fairly decent budget, with monthly bills such as rent, all sorts of insurance, telephone and Internet bills, layers of taxes, feeding, transportation and entertainment. More deductions apply if said person has a spouse with children. Now consider that travelling back home means paying thousands of pounds for the airfare.

If the person is expected to bring souvenirs for an average of thirty people as outlined above and if one spends an average of £20 (N5000, taking the exchange rate as £1:N250) per person, then £20 multiplied by thirty people equals £600 or N150,000. Assuming one gets their flight ticket for an average of £700 or N175, 000, plus £600 or N150,000 minimum for the souvenirs, it all adds up to £1500 or N375,000.

Depending on one’s responsibilities, when one finally makes it back home, there is likely to be legions of country folk expecting hard currency because living abroad means you have an endless supply of Forex to freely distribute. In the end one budgets about £1500+x minimum, x here being a variable, to get a true picture of what going back home costs.

The expectations and the sense of entitlement they create of what the traveller should bring account for only half of the story. There are also obligations, mostly self-imposed, due to the norm of giving gifts in many African societies especially when one is away for a while. This obligation also is a way of expressing appreciation to family and friends for invaluable love, support, friendship and advice in times of need which no amount of expensive gifts will ever make up for. It is one way of showing them that they have not been forgotten. For some, this obligation is also a “yes-you-can” attitude.

These expectations and obligations borne out of our African sense of community have been further enhanced by the trappings of global capitalism. People want you to get them what they see in ads on TV, magazines and on the Internet since you’re in close proximity to these things. Thus, the few days before one goes back home are usually extremely stressful, entailing a lot of running around, endless shopping and hunting for souvenirs. Some people start this gift hunting months before.

So dear Nigerians and fellow Africans, please give your sibling, cousin or friend a break next time they are visiting “from abroad” by appreciating whatever they get you. Whether it’s just a not-so-expensive shirt, a single bottle of perfume, a vintage cookery book or a Gypsy inspired exotic sarong, consider the time, effort and hard-earned resources that went into obtaining that.

And I am not just speaking for myself. Seriously, money doesn’t fall from the sky here, few people are super rich and Queen Elizabeth doesn’t give migrants a hefty monthly allowance to splash around.

That said, I am happy to be home.

Zainab Usman is a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford