Monthly Archives: February 2013

AMERICA, ARE WE GONNA HAVE A PROBLEM?

I’ve just been re-reading Drones Alone Are Not The Answer, the brilliant New York Times op-ed by Dennis Blair, a former director of American National Intelligence. Written in 2011, I reckon most of the views aired by the retired admiral on the limitations of unilateral drone strikes in the fight against terrorists in Pakistan are still valid: Even in a post-US election world, a Pakistan UN council membership era, and a pre-Pakistan general elections clime, partnership with sovereign governments is still the best approach to fight al-Qaeda elements in the middle-eastern deserts. However, I must admit that when I first read that piece I skimmed through it rather mindlessly with the cool detachment of Tom Cruise playing the role of Maverick, the naval aviator, in the recently rereleased action drama, Top Gun. Two years later, I find myself poring through the archives, with the flustered mien of a man who just felt the sting of the red laser of an American drone – at least, that’s how I imagine drone sensors work. My hope is that I never have to find out the hard way.

No. I am not a terrorist but I live in Nigeria – of Boko Haram and her splinters. So, when I heard the announcement by President Barack Obama, that America was opening a drone base in Niger Republic, immediate north of Nigeria, I realised how non-quixotic the debates for or against the use of drones are. Before I composed myself to write this article I’d imagined a variety of grisly ‘what if’ scenarios: What if I’d just made a follow-through on a golf course and a drone in mid-air misconstrues my club as a long-barrelled gun? What if it was Christmas and I’m planting a firework rocket in the ground and the drone thinks my intents are more ballistic than festive? What if a drone malfunctions and crashes into my apartment? Of course, these are silly concoctions of a very wild imagination – or are they?

Before parsing the likely outcome of a malfunctioning drone I think analysing the actual facts is important.

Mr Obama in politic-speak has said only Air Force logistics officers and analysts will be at the new base. Also, he asserts the base will be for unarmed Predator aircrafts which will conduct surveillance in the region, namely West Africa. Besides that shocking oxymoron, the other mind-boggling part of the announcement is that the troops are actually armed for self-protection. That’s perhaps the most abused right any foreign contingent – yes, contingent – can ever claim. Scores of Iraqi civilians died under the guise of self-protection by American soldiers in the Iraq War. The veracity of self-protection claims always nestle in a grey, indistinct zone few removes from outright belligerence and is always difficult to investigate because more often than not the victim is a breathless corpse. It’s the flagpole upon which gun-rights advocates in America currently hoist their argument. Regardless of the correctness or otherwise of that domestic right, it is one that is best deployed within one’s own borders. I do admit West Africa is increasingly becoming a nest for Islamic terrorists and that there is an immediate need to curb the trend. But is the American way the right way? Tsk tsk.

In that popular article Mr Blair posited the best strategy in fighting terrorism is to “work with [the foreign] government as an equal partner to achieve our common goals.” He was referring to Pakistan but the same argument applies here. While Nigerien president, Mahamadou Issoufou has given his blessings for this deployment the big question is if the mandate of the drone and its surveillance will be limited to Niger. From all indications this is unlikely. After all, when President Issoufou was interviewed recently he expressed concern over two major regional security issues. One is the likely spill-over of the crisis from war-afflicted Mali into Niger; and, two is the fear of threats by Boko Haram, a militant group primarily resident in Nigeria. I am not privy to the agreement reached between Messrs Obama and Issoufou but as the drones begin to tour the African skies it must be made elaborately clear to both of their governments that if they deemed it fit to exclude Nigeria from the diplomatic talks that led to this announcement then they might as well respect our sovereign rights and steer clear of our airspace.

This is not to say Nigeria has already contained Boko Haram or that we would put bragging diplomatic rights over broader security issues. It is just a declaration of the role every government owes its people: protection of their interests. In this case, there is no guarantee that Boko Haram can be stopped with drones. The terrain of Northern Nigeria is largely different from Pakistan or Afghanistan. Bombs and explosives used by Boko Haram and terrorist groups of their ilk are often home-made with the support of wealthy patrons. The fight against Boko Haram is one that can be largely won by thinning their funding channel and improving the socioeconomic welfare of potential recruits. Also, for all the precision that drones are revered for, there is no real proof that innocent people have not accounted for the majority of casualties they have inflicted. What’s even worse is how these deaths go unaccounted for.  In the article A Reader’s War posted in The New Yorker, Nigerian author, Teju Cole asked “What makes certain Somali, Pakistani, Yemeni, and American people of so little account that even after killing them, the United States disavows all knowledge of their deaths? How much furious despair is generated from so much collateral damage?” If Nigerian citizens are not to be included in the national mix referred to in these questions we must speak out now.

Also, we must question the explicit objective of the American drones which, as Mr Obama says, is to make surveillance across the African region. Besides the arrogance with which America often asserts to itself the role of world police one must also question the gross hypocrisy of the scheme. In early February this year the US city of Charlottesville in Virginia passed a resolution prohibiting the domestic use of drones. In support of the resolution councilmember Dede Smith said drones are “a threat to our constitutional right of privacy.” Of course, this is not a national consensus and cannot be used to calibrate the inclination of the entire American people – and so are my views herein. Mr Smith’s concerns are drones being privately invasive; mine are drones being both privately invasive and also being used for military invasion. Draw a mental picture of a weighing balance and see how lopsided the weights of both arguments are. If a little city in Virginia is being pro-active in fighting against the possible use of drones across its skies – and the US government is answerable to it under American laws – how much more should a sovereign nation be more wary and pre-emptive?

In all this one must wonder what the Nigerian government’s official position is on the matter is. As at the time of writing the website of Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been suspended. However, media reports suggested the Ministry of Defence is ‘currently reviewing’ the situation. This apparent apathy is not surprising for a nation whose Commander-in-Chief, President Goodluck Jonathan, infamously said in effect that Nigeria was presently having its fair share of terrorism. His cluelessness is a Nigerian affair. We shall handle it internally. Regardless of government indifference citizens of Nigeria are already speaking up. A recent editorial by indigenous newspaper, Leadership, emphasized the need for a “collaborative arrangement [between Nigeria and the US] not a mish-mash of hazy cooperation without specific rules of engagement.” This captures the spirit with which an American engagement in Nigerian airspace will, nay, may be tolerated.

Granted, at the end of this article you will most likely see a disclaimer stating the views expressed here are solely mine but what’s incontrovertible is that death is personal to everyone. In Pakistan, many innocent persons have died from drone strikes. For the survivors, the wound inflicted is nursed privately; for the murdered – yes, murdered – there is no state funeral. So, I may not speak for the generality of 170 million Nigerians but when I swing my golf-club on a misty Harmattan morning I need to know the only thing I should be afraid of is my ball landing in a sand bunker.

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A LEGAL WRONG OF 2011*

In November 2011, Nigerian senate and legislative house, packed with saintly men and women whose names are prefixed with ‘Honourable’, passed a new law which understandably did not shock most Nigerians. Rather, some people celebrated it, while others, busy with their daily struggle to survive, stroll along indifferently. I think I may classify myself as part of the latter but I reckon it is about time we give everything a rethink. Mistakes are made but some mistakes can easily be rectified. I speak of no other but the decision of the legislature to condemn any person involved in same-sex matrimony, people we generally call homosexuals, to 14 years imprisonment ; and 10 years incarceration for attendees of such a union.

Perhaps you are nodding your head in disgust or muttering to yourself “I thought this issue is done and dusted with.” Well it actually is, the same way slavery was before Abraham Lincoln came along. I do not mean to equate slavery to homosexuality. They are most dissimilar. However, we can always draw historical inferences from the past. The ground on which the punitive law was passed in Nigeria last year was largely moral. Nigerians, split between two religious groups, pride themselves in a religiosity that sometimes tethers along the brink of extremism. At the time the motion was moved certain law makers were quick to condemn the act of homosexuality as an iniquity which is against the tenets of our culture and norms. Our forefathers would shriek at the thought of two men kissing at the market square but good legislation is not based on popular opinion – or the take of our dead ancestors for that matter. In this age of knowledge and enlightenment we would naturally expect that seated members of both houses of parliament, largely celebrated as secular, would put sound reason and debate before the creeds of any ancient doctrine.

Secularism. It is on this principle the Nigerian 1999 constitution was founded; and the arguments for it continue to be made in every quarter. Once upon a time, Naira notes had Arabic inscriptions on it which many non-Moslems frowned at. Arguments were put forward about how unrepresentative such insignia was. Most recently, the Central Bank of Nigeria introduced a concept called Islamic Banking and again this fuelled furore in public circles. In the same vein, we are still embroiled in arguments over whether churches should be taxed or not. We should not be surprised; after all, even so-called established democracies are grappling with similar problems. In the United States of America the choice to allow prayers in public schools is still a moot point conservative and liberal groups wrestle over. So, we expect even more wrestling in budding democratic systems as ours. Rather, we have allowed ourselves become passive conservatives. Consequently, any issue which deviates from the central creed of either Christianity or Islam creates uproar. As a result, our legislators make it a point of duty to enshrine any issue which both religious groups mutually agree to with maximal pomp and flagrance. Same-sex romance so happened to be the unfortunate victim of this hypercritical and hypocritical collusion.

So, let’s be objective. Members of the major religious groups generally interpret their scripts to condemn homosexuality as a damnable sin. Of course, there are outliers: certain churches have joined same-sex couples in holy matrimony. Also, there have been reports of male priests who secretly molested boys in a sexual manner. But these are outliers, the exception rather than the rule. So, it is received wisdom in our faith centres that homosexuality is sin, classified in the same category as prostitution, theft, fornication amongst many others. We are then forced to ask why we do not single out every offence unanimously agreed by both religious sects as sin and formulate bills condemning them. The reason is not far-fetched. In the ensemble of our senators and representatives neither the bible nor the Koran is used as a guide book. If that were the case every meeting of parliament would be no more than a beacon of religious bickering. Instead we let the facts stand for themselves. We hear the pros and cons of arguments and subject recommendations to vote. This is what democracy is about. Bearing that in mind we know at least two things went amiss in the homosexuality debates. First, we were hypocritical. Why does homosexuality get singled out of the many excesses in our society? Is it because the people who are involved are a minority? Aren’t minorities supposed to be represented in a democracy? These are not rhetorical questions in a society where the moral fabric has been eaten up by corruption and the Machiavellianism of our politicians. Till date we still wonder who was behind Okija shrine which was littered with several human body parts but our security agencies are all around idling in desperation to incarcerate soul sisters making out. Nude pictures of certain Ogun State law-makers apparently committing sins punishable by both God and Allah does not seem a feat worthy of a bill but two innocent people expressing their affections the best way they know how should be damned in a law embossed on the pages of our constitution. How hypocritical! If we are to use the benchmark of the bible, for instance, then certainly it is the first person with no sin who has the right to stone a homosexual with such a punishment! Our law makers, with their infamous atrocities, have no right to call anyone a sinner – or, advocate for a punishment – using the Holy Books as a standard!

Secondly, we were hypercritical. We never really debated the pros and the cons. To begin with, not every argument is about pros and cons. Introducing 5000 naira note is a matter worthy of arguments of economic merits and demerits. The best argument, if it gets the most votes, should win – and no one should complain. However, we cannot put homosexuality on the same pedestal as debates for new currency denominations. When the subject is punishing a lifestyle that has been adopted by two consenting adults, the argument cannot be concluded by “the ayes have it!” Certainly, the ayes will always have it considering we still live in a society where it would take the guts of a schizophrenic person to openly declare he or she is gay. We see it as a Western thing that is unacceptable in Africa. I disagree with this viewpoint but for the purpose of this argument let us assume this is the case. We would then have to list the other traits of Western influence and either condone or condemn them. Whether we like it or not we are becoming westernised in our ways. Our girls wear skimpy dresses, feminine apparel seeks to expose maximum cleavage and our men are having their ears pierced. At what point then do you draw the line on westernisation? Is it when men make marriage proposals by falling on their knees? Or is it when women decide to have children by in vitro fertilisation? The truth is culture is dynamic. It changes from time to time. Nigerian society once condemned females wearing trousers and slacks, now it is the norm. Unfortunately, our law makers have drawn that hypothetical line for us and homosexuality does not make it which is sad because those of us on the streets know how the trend is gathering pace. (Being a medical professional, many of my patients confide in me and I can attest that homosexuals come from practically all walks of life.) It will only be a while before one of our legislators finds out his child is gay and then be forced to have the child remain in his or her closet or banish the child to a lifetime of hatred – and yes, 14 years in prison.

In conclusion, homosexuality will always be a controversial issue; it still is everywhere. However, the correctness or incorrectness of the act should not fall under the prerogative of our secular law as long as no one is hurt. If not we might soon force our legislators to enact a law banning oral sex and masturbation too. At best, it comes under the purview of religious doctrines. Clerics should – if they so interpret their respective Writs – preach against it and if the homosexuals retain the lifestyle then they are just like any other ‘sinner’ who attends church or Jumat service. Spending 14 years in prison will not make a homosexual change, in fact, it even encourages that way of life but that’s not even the issue.

*This article by Folorunso David was first published by Rise Network in The Guardian Newspaper.

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PRICELESS OFFICE HOLDERS

Tafa Balogun has an extensive biographical page on Wikipedia. So does Robocop, the police cyborg that formed a crucial part of my childhood couch potato years. Fifty years from now we’ll probably remember both Tafa and Robocop by only Wikipedia entries that can be tweaked by any faceless junkie doodling around the internet. However, for Robocop it won’t matter. We could always download reruns of scenes of him promising to deal with bad guys and him actually doing it with his semi-automatic rifle. For Tafa the situation is a little different. Google search engine will probably still hold records of his crimes while at the helms of affair at Nigerian police. This shall be his legacy, his lasting testimony for all posterity to remember him by.

Not everyone of us live our life constantly thinking about what society would think of us after we are dead, buried and forgotten but for policy-makers, our dear political office holders, it should be a source of daily meditation and self-reappraisal. This is not because politicians are different from the rest of us but because, collectively they ultimately shape and direct the course our future shall take. When Lagos legislators make it mandatory for our kids to learn Chinese the implications extend beyond their lifespans; when senators pass bills that allow for the creation of new states the effect does not die with their generation. At every point in time our political office holders must live with the consciousness that the good and evil men do always live after them. Unfortunately, Nigerian politicians from their attitudes cannot be bothered.

Some time in 2011 there was a well-publicised spat between erstwhile presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. One called the other a fool. The other replied with a similar expletive. If anything that high-level bandy was reminiscent of the sort of ribbing we traded as pre-schoolers but that was not the lesson I took out of it. Looking at both men, it is incontrovertible they are both essential elements of Nigeria’s history. We cannot discuss Nigerian nascent history without referring to the duo but in what context? Mention IBB and many Westerners are quick to bring up the annulled elections of 1992. Mention OBJ and people of Benue state will refer to the atrocious killings of civilians during unfettered military raids. I have used two negative examples for both IBB and OBJ. They do have their positives but it takes a greater stretch of imagination to remember them. I shall, however, not forget the bogus headline that read ‘OBJ AND IBB TRADE WORDS’. That, for me is a lasting legacy for both leaders.

OBJ and IBB are now retired – so, I presume – so the message of generational modelling should be directed to the present pool of politicians we have in the land, from the executive president to the local government councillors. Many of them have ventured into politics as a career, a profession. So, a senator will tell you he is a politician with the same air of professionalism as a resident doctor introducing himself. This may be the bane of society: Political leaders who have sworn to pursue their profession with a devil-may-care aggression which soon gives way to open malpractices and closed consciences. Remedying this is not an easy task. A career in politics is a luscious offer when you hear that a Nigerian senator pockets close to N30 million every month. Which resident doctor earns that much?

There is a way to turn things around. It is audacious, but I shall suggest it nonetheless: stop paying the politicians. No basic salary, just a puny allowance on the same scale as a middle-tier civil servant. I hear the mumbling: “It will not work! Do you really expect Nigerian senators to reduce their own salaries?” Well, all naysayers will have a valid point but at the end of the day we must accept two things. One, the current cost of Nigeria’s democracy is unsustainable. Two, and more relevant to the objective of this article, is that only persons genuinely willing to serve Nigeria and leave positive footmarks in the sands of time will embark on the political journey of servitude to Nigerians. Recently Uruguayan president was tagged the world’s poorest president.  It’s not a reputation to envy but place it alongside statistics that suggests it takes just five procedures and seven days to start a business in Uruguay; its economy is the 29th freest in the world in 2012 (compared to Nigeria’s 116th position). Emulating this Uruguayan narrative is almost a taboo discussion in our elitist circles but the facts speak for themselves.  Chances that it ever happens are slim but if ever that slimness is a mere 1% we must dedicate our resources, zest and QWERTY keyboards to bringing it to fruition.

Our political office holders must understand that they are not elected to enrich themselves. Rather, they are sacrificing their own convenience to serve Nigeria. If Nigerian  graduates can dedicate one year of their life mandatorily serving Nigeria with less than N20,000 as a monthly allowance why not a person who voluntarily comes out to render service to his motherland. Things should change. Our politicians should serve the millions of Nigerians – for free. Perhaps, their legacies will then become timeless positive changes to the Nigerian landscape and not just one-page Wikipedia entries.

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THE ‘CLUELESS’ SHOE NO LONGER FITS HIS EXCELLENCY

I take no pleasure in insulting Mr Goodluck Jonathan. The story of his ascent to the presidency when isolated from his performance so far in that office is one that has the semblance of Old Testament rhapsody (reserve your Hallelujah for later). Some people extend that analogy further to suggest that he is God’s anointed one – with an eponym and a grass-to-grace story that overwhelmingly match, most Nigerians were coaxed into voting him in 2011 without actually parsing the facts. Two questions: First, how do you isolate a man’s deeds from his personality at the polls? Second, does God really hate us that much as to anoint and then impose (?) a clueless – I shall come to that shortly – leader on us? These questions, however relevant, have the sour taste of the proverbial spilt milk. For now, I am saddled with a contemporary bother, one that hinges on semantics but is at the same time frightening.

I pride myself in an etymological pastime so early this year I tried to find out how Mr Goodluck Jonathan’s critics collectively decided to adopt the word ‘clueless’ as his most unflattering moniker.  I wanted to know who first used the adjective, who next used it and how it caught on with other Nigerians. My research is on-going but besides my collection of newspaper clippings, bookmarked internet pages and random discourse with self-styled pundits it is no more than a pastime. However, in pursuing this harmless and purely academic endeavour I realised we have been wrong all along. We have been fooled to disguise our president’s true nature with a mild description that doesn’t even scratch the surface.

A relevant digression:  As an undergraduate pharmacy student I had a lecturer who always held her shoulders high – both figuratively and literally. She never really stood out in my regard or disregard until I noticed a pattern with her. Whenever one of my classmates made a ‘mistake’ of asking a relevant question which she was unsure of; instead of politely admitting that she did not know the answer and promise to get back to him or her later (we’re all humans, aren’t we?) she would go into overdrive, filibuster about the effrontery of the student to have asked the question, lambast his or her sartorial taste and when she’d spoken at length without any reference to the hanging question she would move on with the lecture. Covering her ignorance with her arrogance was her default way to overcome the distress of her cluelessness. Except for the ‘her’ that last statement may as well be referring to a certain Goodluck Jonathan. After all, if the shoe fits he might as well wear it. But my assertion is borne out of mundane reasons.

First, there is the issue of the police college in Lagos. Without the unbiased reportage of Channels Television the college and its decadence would not have got the deserving attention it did in national media. How does Mr President react to all this? First and very much to his credit, he visited the college in the wake of the report. Second, but disgustingly out of sync with the first, he implicitly blames Channels Television and the party officials of opposition parties for the calamities that have befallen that citadel of police-training. My reaction was a thought-out-loud bollocks. Pardon my French. I simply could not put one and two together. Could our president be the king of dimwits? More pertinent to this write-up, this episode illustrates lack of clues but more so trademark arrogance that belies the barefoot-to-Versace story which we all ate during his presidential campaign.

Second, there is the issue of University of Lagos. Renaming a federal university that was founded by the provisions of the Nigerian constitution to something you thought of after having your morning cereal is a storyline best suited for an episode of Tinsels. Still it happened that on a day most ironically set apart to mark the end of military-style autocracy and unilateralism Mr Goodluck Jonathan announced a change of a university’s name without following due process. For days students of the university protested around the Yaba suburbs of Lagos and we thought His Excellency the Name-Changer would realise the folly of his action. No he hasn’t. Rather he has apparently denied the institution the right to host its annual convocation ceremony until the name change is implemented. You still call him clueless? All I see is arrogance.

Fellow Nigerians, while it does not detract from his overall cluelessness, we are dealing with the most arrogant president in the history of Nigeria – arguably, of course. Again, I do not take pleasure in insulting our president but it would be tomfoolery to analyse his overall personality and not point out his flaws. Cluelessness I can deal with relatively (again, we’re all humans, aren’t we?); it’s the arrogance that is eating me up. An arrogant president would not have the modesty to ask his critics to proffer solutions in times of national crisis; would not listen to the voice of better reasoning because the speaker is from another political party; would not see fellow Nigerians as equal; would not heed the warnings of time-tested experts seriously. An arrogant leader would only do one thing: lead others blindly in a headlong rush to failure. (As an aside, I did ace the course that arrogant university lecturer took me thanks to textbooks). It may count as insulting to classify Mr Goodluck Jonathan as arrogant but the truth needs to be said: Better a purely clueless president than one who alloys it up with arrogance. You may now shout Hallelujah.  

Folorunso David can be reached on twitter @funsodavid

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