Tag Archives: Nigeria

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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VIOLENCE IS NOT AN OPTION

For five consecutive weekdays Nigeria was draped in green, white and red, the colours of the major workers’ union, NLC. The central government had removed subsidies on petroleum products imported into the country and that had sparked a nation-wide strike which literarily brought Nigeria to a pause. Streets which where normally boisterous with the hustle and bustle of commerce were silent except when an occasional convoy of union activists drove past chanting ‘Solidarity for ever!’ Usually, their vehicles where adorned in green figs and the banner of NLC.

On the fifth day of the strike I had volunteered to work since my house was close to the psychiatric hospital where I intern as a pharmacist. I had to walk down there considering the commercial bus drivers had joined in the strike protest. What struck me, however, was how lifeless a city like Lagos can become when the citizenry decide to revolt against the Federal government. It brought floods of written memory from articles I had read about the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Respective authors, with free-flowing lines, had painted pictures of boulevards, streets, and parks quiet for fear of stray bullets, snipers and assailants alike. That fear was palpable, crisp like loaf bread. Death had been in the air, obligatorily breathed in like oxygen. That admixture of corporeal fear and oxygenated death summoned a feeling which no writer could aptly describe with words…

When I managed to get to the clinic I was astounded to find a bevy of patients waiting in line to see the only physician on duty. The doctor was obviously very weary and I was pretty sure she could not be delivering her best as she attended to them. At the pharmacy, there was a long queue of patients with prescriptions to be filled. I was going to be working with a fellow intern. Normally, at least 10 pharmacists would be on ground to attend to the prescriptions. Today was different! So, even as I settled into my swivel chair I knew I had to be different too. I had to skip through details, make necessary compromises, and work as fast as I could.

Eventually, we rounded up for the day. I had done my part in the service to humanity but the grief was there. To see hundreds of patients flock to the hospital – some via foot, some from remote places – to consult with a physician because all services, from local healthcare delivery to BRT transportation were closed for the week brought sadness to my heart. The issue was big: Fuel subsidy: To be or not to be. However, as I listened to a sixty-seven-year-old woman narrate the tale of how she had trekked 20km to fill her prescriptions the issue seemed to be less about the subsidy. These were humans who had risked everything from heat stroke to brain stroke to get here. Of course, the implication of not using their medication implied they might relapse to full-blown schizophrenia so waiting out the strike action was not a viable option. They had put their lives on the line in order not to have their lives on the line.

So I pondered: This was merely a week-long strike. What if it was war: were instead of NLC buses revving past me it was armoured tanks slowly thundering through; were instead of the colourful flags of labour union being waved around it was AK47s held by armed rebels that jutted out of the jeeps; were instead of shouts of solidarity it was the crack of bullets that ripped through the still air waves; were instead of silent roads dirtied by bills, burnt tyres and fig leaves it was abandoned streets strewn with lifeless bodies in a pool of congealed blood? First of all, I would not have thought of going to the hospital. Secondly, and more importantly, I am not sure I would still be alive. These were the thoughts that shrieked me back to the present even as my patient, stricken with bipolar disorder, repeated over and over again, ‘Violence is not an option.’ Maybe it was just a symptom of his malady, or maybe that was the undeniable truth.

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IDLE TALK

After five years of painstakingly studying Pharmacy in the University of Ibadan (UI) , I still ask myself ‘As a graduate of UI can I hold a candle to a graduate of Oxford?’ My answer has always been, and still is ‘YES’, howbeit shaky, ‘YES’, nonetheless. It’s a question of mind over matter – or better still, a question of individual over institution. Granted such self-consolatory schemes the truth is, here at the university of Ibadan we are centuries – make that ‘light years’ – away from what obtains in the top universities of the world. (Of course, we still hold the patent to those legendary excuses: lack of government funding, power outage, inadequate private sector intervention… Who cares?) That should not hurt our pride though, because many alumni of this great – remember mind over matter? – university have gone on to accomplish great feats in the so-called Ivy League or Red brick institutions. But hold on. There’s the other side of the coin: Many alumni of this great university have also gone on to disgrace us over there. Perhaps, just perhaps, they weren’t our students; or they probably are – and I’m more inclined to think this way – those students whose winning formula was “La cram, la pour, la forget, la graduate.” Many of them finished summa cum laude here! Lord help those foreign universities who admit such thinking they’ve recruited assets!

Anyway, I reckon UI’s a great place to study. There’s always that air of inconvenient convenience: resumption is always delayed, calendar is never followed and we are most vulnerable to strikes: ASUU, SSANU, NASU, NLC, TUC, and even, Ghost workers’ strike. However, there’s that assurance that someday, somehow exams will start, senate will meet, tsunami list will be released… and your fate is in your hands. How convenient! Just tag along! And what do UI graduates always think of themselves when they go to the outside world? Product of the first and the best! Kassa final! That’s very true – in Ibadan at least. In wider Nigeria it’s subject to racketeering. I hate to wash down my own school. Is that not like shooting yourself in the foot? I think it is. So instead of pointing out the cracks and fixing them let’s just paint over them. We’ll forget they exist in no time. Again, how convenient!

We have many ills here in this school. The administration is doing its best to resolve them and I reckon that someday, somehow we’ll get there. (If you can’t handle the original Newton reflecting telescope at least you sha handled a telescope, no?) It’ll take some time but we’ll get there.

Ibadan’s no more than a springboard
The world is your oyster
So dare the free-fall
I’ll be in the foreground cheering you on.

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FOR A FORLORN BACK-ROOM

I’ve heard that you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother. That prompted the decision I made on the present to get my grannie on her next birthday: An iPad. I’ve read that it’s a sleek gizmo with 3G enablement, memory size averaging about 80GB, wide touch-screen, wireless fidelity amidst many other innovative, finger-tingling features. Recently, when the volcanic ash from an Icelandic mount delayed transatlantic flights the president of Norway, stranded in the US, was caught on camera using the iPad and that led to a mad rave on the internet. A CNN headline blared: Stranded leader runs country by iPad. I reckon that must also have improved Apple’s NASDAQ standings and I was also tempted to consider what impact it’d have had if the president in question had been Obasanjo. I’ll let it rest there.

The iPad, Blu-ray, plasma TV and many other technological wonders of the 21st century are derivatives of modern research. The soaring economy of most developed countries of the world, from Japan to the US, is largely driven by technology inextricably tied to a culture of research and development. From the invention of the steam engine to the elucidation of sub-atomic nuclei, the role of R & D in every sphere of today’s world is simply overwhelming. With such an obvious merit, I’d be hard put to explain why no serious emphasis is placed on projects that relate to science and technology in Nigeria. I understand the many campaigns by major academic unions for increase in budgetary allocation to the education sector. While such calls are laudable, the one-million-petrodollar question is what chunk of the education fund goes into research? How well-funded are the scientists, researchers and other back-room boys? It seems to me that once education funds are ring-fenced for salary scheme there’s really nothing left. Even if there’s left-over, it’s spent on less worthy causes like buildings, zebra-lined roads and official cars. It’s received wisdom that this is so in order for politicians to have something to launch on official visits – and create an opportunity to voice some political ambitions, no? It must be drummed into the ears of our leaders – academic and non-academic – that when reference is made of Taiwan and South Korea as examples of nations where well-funded education has resulted in a booming economy, it wasn’t just foundation-laying and spurious luncheons that did the magic. Certain things were made right.

To whom it may concern,

One, we must institutionalize the art and culture of research into our educational curriculum whatever it is now, 6-3-3-4, 9-3-4, 4-4-2 or 0-4-1-9. Students and tutors must be adequately encouraged to adopt it as a way of life – a distinct subject or course on research would be a promising start to that effect. I reckon that there’s still the Junior Engineers, Technicians and Scientist (JETS) club in our colleges. I belonged to this club in the good old days and still remember that for the most part our meetings were spent explaining theories and solving complex mathematical equations with only little time spent handling tools or tasking our creative minds with actual practice. It was something though and I do wonder what obtains nowadays. (My cousin, a high school junior, penned in his journal, “29th Febrary: We were taught that a machine is any device that has a fulcrum, pivot and axle. I’ve found it hard extrapolating this definition to an MP3 player but I suppose it’s largely my fault: too busy flirting with the girl with braces to be atentive to the other definitions.” I wasn’t sure what appalled me more, his attitude to class or his dismal spelling abilities.) Our university system is fundamental in this regard. Research projects should not be restricted to final year of study alone. Students must have unlimited – and I do not use this word flippantly – access to both laboratory services (if they exist) and supervisory tutelage (if they are available). You only need to count the number of patents that have come from MIT alone to understand the importance of this. No field of study is excluded in this regard. However, I believe that for any successful result to be achieved from R & D we must imbibe the virtues of faith and patience. I hear Nigerians are the most religious people in the world so faith mightn’t be an issue – it’s our patience I have doubts about: ever queued for a Lagos BRT?

Two, the youths must be empowered. That sounds trite even to me but it’s true. I believe we have many industrious minds in this country many of whom are not even part of the formal education system. You’ll be inclined to agree with me if you’ve seen the footage of ABC news’ report on the Yahoo scam. (Pray, why didn’t that documentary receive commiserate condemnation from the information ministry as much as District 9? Is it because the facts were irrefutable or that no big man’s toes were stepped upon?) It’s incredible what Nigerians are capable of – for greener or for grimmer. My neighbor repairs phones for a living even though no one ever gave him any formal training. There are many other creative minds waiting for the right –‘right’ emphasized – platform to develop their budding talents. Somebody must provide that platform. I’d suggest the ministry of education be the mastermind but like every other thing associated with government, it’d be too bureaucratic to be effective. Hence it must be done closer home – at the grassroots. This means that every district must run community-based programmes that facilitate scientific creativity through an appropriate informal or formal education. While this would limit red tape, I’m concerned about the ‘Nigerian factor’, a phrase I first heard after erstwhile president Olusegun Obasanjo won a second term in office.

Finally, government funding is critical. I daresay that if as much money as is ploughed into the lacklustre Super Eagles team of Nigeria is put into R & D at research institutes we’d be at the zenith of development – or, at least on our way there. For a nation that imports practically everything, from television to toothpick –yes, toothpick! – we must redefine our sense of proportion if our lofty Vision 2020 goals are to be a reality. For this to happen we need visionary leaders. I’m not an advocate for technocracy. Politics, they preach, has a way of defiling captains of industry. Nigerian politics is replete with examples of sound experts of different fields who got embroiled in the politics in politics and ended as scapegoats of political witch-hunting. However, government’s – whoever government is – fiscal policy must include deliberate funding for research. This will not only boost the present crop of researchers but also ensure youths enroll for science-oriented disciplines and practise it (my stock broker is a trained physiotherapist!). I was almost tempted to drop out from the university when I compared the earnings of an average university scientist with that of Basketmouth – who doesn’t even have to work every day! My grannie was helpful in such times of desperation and that’s why I’m getting her such a lofty present. She’ll be 74 by the way. I reckon that while she mightn’t need an iPad to update her Facebook status (you know I know what you’re thinking) she’ll probably use it to show off to her friends at the village elders’ council. I’ll tell her the iPad can relieve her amnesia. Whether she’ll believe it or not is a function of mind over matter. Now isn’t that what drives R & D?

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