Category Archives: Op-Ed

FITCH AND KWARA

My youth leader used to tell me only my opinion of myself should matter. Up until I got my first real job as a pharmacy intern I used to believe this mantra was universal; but I was a paid employee with immediate superiors, and making the assumption that my personal assessment of myself using my own biased standards was the most valid report card was self-admittedly fallacious. Reading the news coming from Kwara state one hopes its government, accountable to the good people of Kwara, would be just as honest.

There are three most revered international financial ratings firms in the world: Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor’s (S&P). They have their limitations but still their seasonal assessment of financial institutions, government bodies and so on across the world have been a pointer to their clients’ fiscal healthiness or otherwise. In 2008/2009 bowing to pressure from opposition parties to declare its financial status in light of a N17 billion bond programme it wanted to secure at the capital market the incumbent Kwara state government called on Fitch to render its objective services in the state. Even if it was borne out of political pressure I felt this was a very laudable step by their government considering this is Nigeria where administrations hardly like objectiveness in reporting, whether journalistic or financial. This explains why our politicians hardly grant access to news outlets, local or foreign, except when the purpose is to blow their trumpet as loud as they can. President Jonathan’s interview with Christine Amanpour of Cable News Network (CNN) is the most recent example of that trait. Tax payers’ money was paid to get the 15 minute slot; Nigerians were furious at the half-truths the president told; the backlash was inevitable in social media. But I digress.

For three consecutive years Fitch produced unparalleled bond rating of Kwara state government’s financial status. They were given a long-term foreign and local currency B+ ratings and long-term national rating of AA- with stable outlooks. I could begin to tell you what these ratings mean but all you probably need to know is that Kwara state government is not financially mediocre but there is room for improvement. While that room may be the largest in the world, the lesson learned transcends their performance. Besides the fact that no other state (until Lagos state did much later) had got a similar rating and it would have been hard to conduct comparisons nationally. Kwara had demonstrated to the world that it had the temerity to open its cupboard for inspection without any fear of the discovery of skeletons.

You would expect continuity of this praise-worthy initiative but, as with many other mind-boggling scenarios we witness in Nigeria they have decided to terminate the trend. In his monthly address fittingly dubbed The Governor Explains, the current Kwara state governor, Abdulfatah Ahmed, who at the time of courting Fitch’s services was Commissioner of Finance and Economic Development, claimed they had initially subscribed to the idea of financial rating because at that time they needed to secure loans from the capital market. Now they don’t. If this is the sole reason why his administration is now revoking its contract with Fitch then it is very short-sighted and you wouldn’t blame me if I begin to develop conspiracy theories. But the governor did give me another reason to have a raised eye brow. He said the purpose of the original Fitch rating was to get the bond from the capital market and “also showcasing ourselves to the world as benchmarking against best practices.” So, again, why then stop it?

In a country where corruption is said to be the bane of national development it would only smack of tomfoolery for a government dedicated to positive change to chuck out the sole indicator of its financial prudence. Don’t get me wrong. Fitch’s report does not directly measure the presence or absence of corrupt practices in Kwara state. But in auto-mechanic-speak it is like a “check engine” light one should take seriously. Also, considering how foreign governments take this ratings seriously Kwara state deserves whatever flak it is now receiving for its action. In 2011, Standard and Poor’s cut the USA credit rating by a notch from AAA+ to AA+. S&P cited the government’s failure to cut spending or raise revenue enough to reduce budget deficits. The world did not end then but the American government knew they were certainly not heading in the right direction. It served as a timely reminder that they had to get back to the drawing board and get things right.

Now that Kwara state says it no longer needs the bond ratings of Fitch, against which template do we then rate its financial buoyancy? Last time I visited Ilorin, the state capital of Kwara, I was impressed at the capital projects being undertaken by the government. The presence of outside investment, notably the South African mall, Shoprite was also conspicuous. These however do not indicate anything regarding the health of Kwara’s economy or the standard of living of its citizens. In fact, it took me several minutes to locate Shoprite because many ordinary people who I asked on the roadside for direction had not even heard of it, let alone visited it. This may mean nothing. What’s incontrovertible is that new malls were still opening in Greece just before the financial crisis rocked and threatened the country’s existence. One may be tempted to counter by saying Greece did have the benefit of Fitch rating but, being a medical professional,  I always insist that a prognosis is better than none.

Also, you may wonder why I have picked on Kwara state; after all, most other states in Nigeria have not even shown the will to get credit ratings in the first instance. I am aware of this and have already given credit where it’s due. It’s just that when you see a state government pioneer something so beautiful then relapse to mediocrity tongues should start wagging, fingers should start pointing, praise should be withdrawn. The “check engine” light should indeed be checked.  

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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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SHEEP IN WOLF’S CLOTHING

 Watching repeat footages of the president cutting the Independence Day cake at the low-key state house party, I couldn’t help but notice that the commander-in-chief fittingly cut the figure of a military leader. This thought, however flitting, may have been fanned by the garb he donned on this occasion: the full regalia of a field marshal. Granted that the military fatigues belies the wholesome truth that Mr Goodluck Jonathan is a democratically elected president it would not be wild to suggest from his mannerisms since he entered into office that he sometimes displays the trappings of a Babangida era administrator – and this time I am not referring to his sartorial tastes.

First, the January 1st removal of fuel subsidies still rankles with many of us, even if he eventually reversed the order after nationwide demonstrations and protests by civil right groups, labour unions, activists and ordinary citizens alike. Furthermore, the president unilaterally decided to change the name of a federal university on a day marked to celebrate the end of military rule in Nigeria. This paradox was another politburoesque move by the president that led to another round of protests. Key terms in these examples are ‘order’ and ‘unilaterally’

The common thread in both narratives is that Mr. President made outrageous declarations on landmark dates: New Year Day and Democracy Day respectively. This caused an expected sense of cynicism as he took to the podium on October 1st to make yet another gaffe. This time he claimed Transparency International ranked Nigeria second as the country with the most improved index in its fight against corruption. This is untrue. Transparency International has refuted the bogus claim. How pervasive corruption still is in the Nigerian polity given the way the recent Otedola-Lawan affair was swept under the carpet is subject for another day. Another important digression would be how telling it is that Mr. Jonathan did not prepare his own speech for an occasion as august as Nigeria’s birthday.

The episode suggests the presidential team made two assumptions. One is that Nigerians would not care to listen to the speech. The second is that even if they did they would not crosscheck the factitious facts. Both are insults to us. A probe has been instigated to find the root of this humiliating faux pas but it is one of those embarrassing national incidents that soon diffuse into the sub-conscious of our memories. I choose to see the bigger picture.

While sweeping declarations and orders are trademark vestiges of a military junta, feeding the nation with blatant lies certainly takes the biscuit. Now you may be tempted to believe this is much ado about nothing, making a mountain out of a molehill, or whatever idiom suits you fine, but we must understand this is a precedent that must be bellowed to the far-flung corners of Nigeria till everyone is aware that the president lied to Nigerians on national television. As minuscule as a lie may be, when it is uttered from the office of the presidency it negates everything that office and our democracy stands for.

So while the blame for this mishap has gone to misinformation from a national newspaper the incident transcends a honest mistake by the speech-writers, proof-readers or typists; rather, it is an innocuous attempt to sell garbage to the Nigerian masses. Furthermore, no clear-cut apology has been rendered to Nigerians since October 1st. That, my dear friends, is the hallmark of an autocracy!

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THE FIVE TRILLION NAIRA – A QUEST AND A QUESTION

The Punch newspaper recently reported that the sum of N5 trillion has been stolen under the watch of President Goodluck Jonathan. Given how toothless the Economic and Financial Crime Commission and other similar anti-graft agencies have become in the last couple of years; and how the petroleum subsidy scam was managed my only surprise was that the figure did not exceed that reported amount. What astounds me is how Nigeria’s current president seems to be unmoved at an allegation of this gravity. There are two ways to account for this unseemly indifference. One, it is either he is unaware of the unmitigated defalcation of tax-payers’ money under his leadership; or, two, he is aiding and abetting the fraud. I can bet my designer glasses the second option is truer.

For most Nigerians Mr Jonathan seems like a harmless, docile man who can ordinarily relate with the plight of Nigerians. His campaign in 2011 was predicated around a grass to grace story – almost literally. He asserted he often had to walk barefoot because he ‘had no shoes’. While that story resonated as a touching account of a peasant navigating his path to the peak of public service we often ask how special the narrative is. After all, Mr Jonathan grew up in a time when shoes were almost unaffordable luxuries for many of his peers; in fact, during his generation you would only be shocked to know a child actually had shoes! Still, we cannot discount the humble upbringing of the man. For some moments during his presidential campaign in 2011 I must admit I often made analogies between his story and that of Barack Obama. Couple of months on I will not demean one of America’s finest president by putting him on the same par as Mr Jonathan.

Still dwelling on the past I must say that it was almost inevitable that Mr Jonathan would win in 2011. This was not hard to fathom given the array of persons who contested alongside him. First, there was Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, Nigeria’s most wanton opportunist. He was in many respects a distraction, the equivalent of an MTN ad displayed during a live English premiership game. I am not saying Mr Ribadu is not intellectually sound. To his credit, during the presidential debates he was able to string words you could applaud to – if you looked at things from the literary point of view. For instance he famously said in effect, “Nigerians are not corrupt; it is the system that is corrupt.” Such semantic gibberish only goes to show he did not and still does not understand the uniqueness of Nigeria and Nigerians.  The recent episode of how his subsidy- probe committee concluded their findings is another testament of a quixotic, opportunistic man who lacks the wiles that defines Nigerian politics. But this article is not about Ribadu.

The other option was Mohammad Buhari. He seemed to spit fire everywhere he went. Running alongside Tunde Bakare, it was a combination of firebrands, which in some respects represent something we would like to see in a Nigerian presidency. However, Buhari said little of how much difference there would be if he became president. He never really discussed issues affecting Nigeria and how much differently he would tackle them without resorting to a de facto dictatorship – something akin to what Mohammed Mursi has become in Egypt. At any rate, Buhari surely had the trappings of an ex-serviceman who could not stand to see ‘bloody’ civilians take charge of government and needed to come and show them what discipline is. Nigerians surely need discipline but to what measure Buhari would have enforced it is what tilted the tides against him.

Of course, there were other aspirants:  Shekarau et al who really did not have a shot at anything beyond their places of birth. Like Ribadu, they were all distractions.

The five-trillion-naira question is this: Who comes up against Goodluck Jonathan – forget all those political façade of him not yet declaring his intention – in 2015? Before I describe the ideal opponent let me emphasise how important that question is. In 2011, civil rights group achieved something significant in Nigeria: they emphasised the need for Nigerians to cast their votes and protect it. This was largely achieved. However, they forgot another element of efficient electioneering: ensuring you have the right candidates. If James Ibori and Diepreye Alamiesiegha came out for a particular office, it won’t be enough to have free and fair elections. A further step will be to emphasize their non-eligibility and fine-tune a process that will bring out a worthier contestant. It is the latter we failed to discuss in 2011 and should start doing something about now. Yes, now.

I am not going to publicly endorse anyone even though I know some Nigerians who would be perfect as Nigeria’s president. The risk of an endorsement is that it compromises the quality of the bigger message which I wish to pass across. But for an ideal Nigerian president we need

1. Someone stainless. I’ll be the first to admit that it will be tough. Is it impossible? No. It takes only a spotless man to point out dirt in others.

2. Someone detribalised. Enough with talks of what tribe should produce the next president. Would you rather we enforced federal character or personal character? It’s 2012. Nigerians cannot afford to have another effete president all in the name of zoning.

3. Someone with ideas. Goodluck Jonathan is famously described as clueless not because he is uneducated but because he does not resonate with flourishing ideas: Ideas about how to transform the power sector, how to use intelligence and counter-intelligence to end terrorism and financial crimes, how to invest in research and development etc etc. Goodluck Jonathan’s default solution to all problem is to set up committees, an act that, given how Farouk Lawan went scot-free,  has become synonymous with sweeping under the carpet.

4. Pragmatic. It’s not all about having ideas. Ensuring those ideas become beneficial economic tools is far more important. Also, pragmatism would involve cutting the cost of governance in every possible way. Ideally, we would want someone who has successfully managed people and resources at a large scale beforehand.

5. Someone who does not give a damn about whose axe is gored for doing right. Goodluck Jonathan has godfathers who call the shots from behind. It’s sickening! If a president cannot do what is right without considering how someone like Mr Edwin Clark will react he deserves to remain shoeless.

6. Someone willing to accept nothing in return. If our senators and legislators will be forced to reduce their salaries and allowances then they need a president who leads by example. A Nigerian president who accepts nothing but the mandate of Nigerians to lead them will not tolerate financial inefficiencies. Write that down!

7. Someone who knows government owes the people nothing but the best. Enough of that “it’s not what your country can do for you” crap! Our country is blessed with plenty of mineral resources. Our country can – and must – do things for us. If those in charge cannot use it to develop Nigeria then don’t quote JFK to me. Quote Chairman Mao!

2015 is upon us. We cannot continue to tweet Nigeria’s problem without doing anything about it. Nigerians should know that at the rate we are going with the current administration our futures are at stake. Let all of us: civil right groups, activists, political commentators and so on look from amongst ourselves. Surely, there is a man or woman who fits this description and can steer our rudder to greater heights!  

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GOOGLE OR NIGERIAN GRAINS: MONOPOLY’S THE DRIVE

If Larry Page had his way we would live in a world where we used chromebooks to send gmails about the latest posts on YouTube. In this world of his, we would not need to stray too far to know when our friends’ birthdays are because Google calendar would sync that information from our Google+ account; then Google maps would direct us to the closest gift store. And yes, we would only make calls with Android-enabled Google smartphones. Larry Page, co-founder and chief executive officer of Google, would not just rock our world, he would rule it!

Some may call it entrepreneurial genius but with that graphic description of how a monopolistic technology industry would look like I can exclaim with free-market pride, “Thank God for competition!” In truth, however, I am not really bothered about the economics and dynamics of Google’s ravenous disposition. Even though I had to cross-check several facts in this article by googling – Microsoft Office join the times: ‘google’ is now a verb! – as a free-lancer living in Africa’s most populous nation, namely Nigeria, the most immediate concern I have about monopolistic tendencies is that currently held by the Dangote Group of Companies. Often heralded as the beacon of entrepreneurial success in Africa, the Dangote Group has business concerns in a number of industries ranging from oil and gas to agricultural products. Unconfirmed Wikileak reports in 2007 show that the group got the exclusive rights to import cement, sugar and rice into Nigeria, a country known for its culture of consumerism. This import-driven business sense has been tagged as a laudable entrepreneurial manoeuvre. While that accolade reeks of controversy, a clear indicator of how well Dangote group is doing is seen in the personal fortune of the president and chief executive officer, Alhaji Aiiko Dangote. Forbes Magazine recently tagged him as the richest man in Africa. His wealth, how it was acquired and how he expends it has been exhaustively covered in the media, most famously in that glittering MTV interview on YouTube where he tells of buying a $50 million private jet, referring to it as a toy. In fairness to Mr Dangote, in this same interview he told the bevy of young panellists that he worked 18 hours a day!

What’s particularly fascinating about Aliko Dangote’s business acumen is how he handles the craft of business in an economically-hostile terrain where others have tried and failed. Not a keen politician, he is, however, never out of the political picture completely, courting political rapport explicitly, like when he made huge donations to ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo’s library project; and, implicitly, like he did when he was recently made the co-chairman of the National Committee on Flood Relief and Rehabilitation and made a N200 million donation to the victims. Passive lookers-on have described this as a well-meaning gesture by the man famously described as Africa’s Richard Branson while cynics reckon this is just a façade, a front to his exploitative intentions. An online commentator responded to that with the quip, ‘One man’s meat is another’s poison.’

For the most part, I reckon Dangote and his company may have genuine interests in helping victims of the floods. The Dangote group is renowned for its donations to charities and other CSR acts. Still, the conspiracy theory making the rounds that the company only intends to benefit from the impending food shortage following the massive destruction of several hectares of farmlands in the floods may not be far-fetched. Some days ago Reuter’s news agency reported the assertion by Nigeria’s president, Mr Goodluck Jonathan that the country had “enough grains in our reserves.” The country’s minister of Agriculture has corroborated this report but therein lays the fan for the rumour mill. Enough grains in our reserves?  Really? I am just a netizen who knows little about Nigerian agricultural stock but living in a country where measures taken by government are almost always reactionary and hardly ever pre-emptive, I am forced to regard the claim with the minutest pinch of salt. One would have been a little placated if the president had given details of where these reserves are rather than just smile lopsidedly as he patronised gullible Nigerians.

For now I choose to keep an open mind. Perhaps somewhere in Abuja, or Kano or Calabar there are pyramids of grains waiting to be deployed to the markets. If that is not true then it may just be a credible hunch that our president is fiddling with some businessmen to exploit the misfortune of Nigerians. If that is the case, then perhaps the reserves being referred to are container-load of grains to be imported from some neighbouring countries. Perhaps, Dangote group, firm of the kindly donor, Aliko Dangote, may be awarded the monopolistic contract to make such importation. The key words are ‘perhaps’ and ‘monopolistic’ but even Google’s Larry Page would agree that would be exploitation not entrepreneurship.

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