Sunday, 25 December 2011

The North’s regression

Slowly and inexorably, the north is becoming like Somalia. The only small difference between us and Somalia is that whereas the latter has spent decades without a functional government, there are structures on the ground and people in the north whom we call leaders. Nevertherless, Compared to the south, the north as a political entity is fast sliding back into prehistoric times in terms of development and, indeed, worse than the colonial times in terms of home-grown violence. The situation is so bad that many a frustrated northern youngster is yearning for the British to return and recolonise the country in order to bring back the halcyon times. The solution to our problems is, of course, far from recolonisation. But if it isn’t, then, what is?

For the north, there have been four epochs in the march to (or away from) civilisation. There was the precolonial time when our forefathers engaged in internecine wars and the self-immolating practice of slavery. But then, in parts of the north, the Sokoto jihad came and put aright many things through the institutionalisation of Islamic law. Then came the Europeans, who colonised the area, imposed their crafty system of ‘indirect rule’ through which they milked the nation’s resources and pretended to be developing our people. But a word for colonialism: in spite of its self-serving ends, it put some sense into our people’s understanding of leadership and built a foundation for future progress, such as the railways, literacy and structures for democratic governance. Of course, the colonialists ultimately served themselves, at times employing brute force, while pretending to be serving the natives’ best interests. Hence the stiff resistance against it and the campaigns that uprooted it.

During the third epoch, the post-independence era, it was the natives that took over the mantle of leadership and used state resources in the service of the commonweal. In the north, proofs of their selfless service are legion even today. Even though they were called names by their opponents, we can see, in retrospect, that their dedication to serving the general populace was a thousand and one times better than that of our current leaders.

The fourth milestone is, indeed, today. This dates roughly from the end of the Nigerian civil war to the current reality. It is the worst span in the history of the region. After the violent eradication of those patriotic nation-builders and the 30-month civil war, came the various “corrective” military regimes that pretended, more than the colonialists, to be working in the interest of the nation. The truth is that, apart from the brief spasms of the Murtala and, later, the Buhari/Idiagbon regimes, they worked more for themselves. They institutionalised corruption, cronyism and nepotism. Most of them turned out to become among the richest and, by implication, the most influential people in the country. Because they benefited from a corrupt system, they sustained it and injected their bile into latter day rulers who came in civilian garbs. And because the civilians who inherited the mantle of leadership have been adequately coached in the dark arts of corruption, divisiveness and cronyism, they have carried on, marching within the system and resisting any move to change or overthrow it.

The cycle of violence the north is witnessing, including some of the worst yesterday, is a fall-out of the ruthless system foisted on the region by its selfish rulers of the military and post-military era. Many analysts have pointed at the crying poverty in the region as the primary reason for these volcanic eruptions that are causing the death of hundreds of innocent people, destroying edifices and disrupting the peace. Now what is the cause of the poverty itself? Is it not the tunnel vision – if there is vision at all – of the region’s leaders who have failed to unify the common people through their divisive politics and the misuse of the region’s resources?
The north is fast regressing in all indices of human development. Apart from poverty, illiteracy is growing; so also joblessness among the youth, with concomitant problems such as drug abuse and strange criminality (with many youngsters killing their own parents); collapse of morals and ethics, education, health care, etc. A combination of these problems has created a deep well of despondency among most youth in the region, who have lost confidence in the leadership. They are asking for a change – even away from democracy. Many are saying let’s go back to the sharia law which did well for the region under the Sokoto caliphate, not minding the cultural mix of the present times. Unsure of their success in such agitations in the face of resistance from the state’s coercive powers, many have resorted to hugely violent attacks.

What is the response of our so-called leaders to all this? They shirk their responsibility by simply passing the buck and engaging in histrionics. Appeals to conscience. Calls to prayers. Blandishments. Rhetoric. Trading blames. Peace conferences. Yesterday, all the chairman of the Northern Governors Forum, Governor Aliyu of Niger state, could do was an effeminate call on President Jonathan to “urgently convene a national security summit.” We have heard that before, and it won’t work. We are tired of talk shops. Northern leaders should develop the north. Rebuild the infrastructures bequethed to them by the post-independence leaders. Provide jobs. Educate the youth. Stop all the divisive politicking. And stop all the stealing. Try these, and see if the violence and the regression will not disappear fiam – one time!

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My column in today's Blueprint

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Are we glorifying gangsterism?


It can only happen in Nigeria. Two armed gangs, both outlawed, converge on two strategic locations, spewing threats against public peace. Police men look on helplessly, pleading with the men to sheath their swords, in manner of speaking, and go back home. The gangs insist on playing out their game to the end, on their own terms, insisting that it is their birthright to do what they must do. As of your laws, stuff them in your mouth and flush them down your dirty gullet.

This happens in Nigeria all the time. Because we have become used to gangsterism in every shade, we scarcely notice that some people are breaking the law with impunity.

It happened last Thursday. Two militias, as if by common acclamation, came out en masse in order to “protest” what they regarded as an abuse of their right. The first gang consisted of “former” Niger Delta militants, operating under disparate organisations jointly known as MEND. About 1,600 of them travelled upcountry in long buses and cars and were only accosted by the police at a bridge in Kogi state. The cops prevented them from reaching their destination – the nation’s capital. One of the militants’ leaders, one “General Ramseh,” had the patience to tell reporters and the police that his group was going to Abuja to ask the President why he failed to fulfill his promise to the men who agreed to stop destroying oil installations. The promise is a mouth-watering rehabilitation package for the militants who agreed to lay down their arms, come out of the creeks and receive training for a better civil life. The amnesty programme, as the package is best known, is floundering – judging from the General’s complaints – and the ‘boys’ are no longer being cared for. “While we have embraced the amnesty programme, but the federal government is frustrating it by refusing to pay us, and we don’t want to go back to the creeks or pick up arms any longer,” Ramsey told Blueprint in a story published on Friday.

Many newspapers reported about how these supposedly former fighters blocked the Lokoja-Abuja road for hours, causing a disturbing traffic gridlock, for which commuters suffered. The policemen who stopped the gang from reaching Abuja were apparently courageous, or lucky, as to be able to turn the tide of the hitherto dreaded militants back to whence they came. Not until the men of MEND, who seem to have been quietened down since Dr Jonathan assumed power, grabbed the headlines the following day. Their message has nonetheless sunk in: give the big boys more cash or else.

The second gang hit town in Lagos. Fighters of the Odu’a Peoples Congress (OPC), not less notorious or dreaded, held a big demonstration in the city. Their grouse, however, was not money – yet. Their leader, Dr Frederick Fasheun, explained that they were out to denounce the activities of the ‘north’s own’ militia, the Boko Haram. Fasheun said his gang was ready to defend the south against infiltration by the Maiduguri-based Islamic sect. The OPC’s threat was obviously a reaction to reports that BH may try to visit a devastating blow on a metropolis down south. As in the case on the Lokoja bridge, the police could only look on as the mainly Yoruba militia performed its show. No one was arrested.

In a normal country, the activities of these militias would be resisted, especially since they are not recognised by any section of the constitution. They are armed groups which the laws of the land have banned. They are becoming more dangerous by flying the ethnic and regional cards. Across time, they have been transformed by their leaders and supporters into cultural units of the communities in which they originated. A report in the Sunday Tribune yesterday even lamented that the OPC are not enjoying enough financial and moral support from the Yoruba elite. This claim, though disputable, clearly illustrates our dilemma as a nation that wishes to solve the intractable problems sectionalism (ethnic, religious and regional) has thrust on us. We are glorifying the actions of people that should otherwise be arrested and put behind bars. The Sunday Tribune report aptly summarised the problem this way: “When gun-totting youths besiege the streets in broad daylight, the action should rather be seen as a social problem that requires urgent attention. The daring display of gangsterism on the streets of Lokoja and Lagos is not merely a matter of security helplessness but a resultant effect of socio-economic problem in the country.”

These sectional gangs are indeed growing not only due to the economic problem, but also greatly due to the collapse of morality. Here is a nation where injustice and immorality fester, its leaders refusing to do much to ameliorate the difficult living conditions while illegally helping themselves to the commonweal and refusing to punish proven criminals. The youth should be helped out of militancy, of course, but that task ought to begin with the leaders. You cannot pretend to have the moral right to remove a speck from my eye while I know that there is a big log in yours.

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Published in my column in BLUEPRINT today.
Above photo: MEND members on Lokoja-Abuja road. Photo by Momoh Obansa

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Almajirai with guns


Almost on a daily basis, one reads at least one beautiful idea in the newspapers about what to do with with traditional Islamic school pupils known as almajirai. Many commentators, so much schooled in their biases and stereotypes, ignorantly blame the almajirai for a rash of crimes, including the murderous sectarian crises that have become the hallmark of life in the north. They argue that those ragged kids, who are usually armed with nothing but their begging bowls, are used by their teachers to kill and destroy.

Such ignorant postulations tend to ignore other professional beggers who have been visiting more pain and destruction than the almajirai – the gun-toting security men at the countless ‘check-points’ all over Nigeria. In the past, these fellows were stationed on the roads in order to fish out armed robbers, but with the worsening insecurity situation in the country, they were given the additional responsibility of finding potential bombers. Check-points on the approach to the nation’s capital have increased, so also the ferocity of the checks. And at night, in most cities, police men and sometimes soldiers are seen stopping drivers and asking them questions. “Wetin you carry” used to be the favourite joke of newspaper cartoonists; another was, “May I see your particulars.” These jokes portrayed our policemen not only as corrupt but also as foolish beggers for ‘something' to eat.

Today’s check-point beggers are not armed with bowls but with AK-47s. They tell you, in a mellifluous voice that belies their capacity for savagery: “Oga, your boys are here o! Na your work wey we dey do.” You have a choice to ‘dash’ them something or not. I have observed that most drivers do hand over some cash to these armed professional beggers, even if reluctantly. Which also persuaded me to think that they scarcely have a real choice, considering the fact that there have been incidents of ‘stray bullets’ hitting unsuspecting commuters in many parts of the country. I also observed that givers of such alms show more alacrity when they are stopped at night.

The question is: why should our security men be asking for money from drivers at check points? Even though some policemen think receiving from a willing giver is not really corruption, I think it is. They erroneously figure that corruption is when you steal from the public till; my more bookish friends have a word for this: extortion. Whatever you call it, it contributes to the myriad of actions that gave our police force a bad image not only in Nigeria but also internationally.

In 2006, the Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN), a non-governmental organisation, published the result of a survey which described the Nigeria police force as one of the country's most corrupt institutions in the country. That was a year after a former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun, was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to six months in prison. Only last year, the Human Rights Watch conclusively declared that widespread corruption in the Police Force was fueling abuses against ordinary citizens and severely undermining the rule of law in Nigeria. It wrote: “On a daily basis, countless ordinary Nigerians are accosted by armed police officers who demand bribes and commit human rights abuses against them as a means of extorting money. These abuses range from arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention to threats and acts of violence, including sexual assault, torture, and even extrajudicial killings. Police also routinely extort money from victims of crimes to initiate investigations and demand bribes from suspects to drop investigations.”

The international organisation’s damning 102-page report, titled “Everyone's in on the Game': Corruption and Human Rights Abuses by the Nigeria Police Force," documents the myriad forms of police corruption in Nigeria. It also shows how institutionalised extortion, a profound lack of political will to reform the force, and impunity combine to make police corruption a deeply embedded problem.

It is correct to say that not all policemen or ‘check-point soldiers’ are corrupt or begging commuters for ‘something to buy a loaf of bread.’ I know many who are pained to know that some people regard them “just like the others.” However, a Hausa proverb says that it is a single bad bean which spoils the soup. I also know that several reform programmes have been introduced in order to rid the police force of bad eggs. But it looks like none has succeeded yet. A level of success can be measured when ordinary policemen stop asking for pocket allowance from commuters or even reject it if offered.

This would, indeed, require a highly disciplined and motivated police force. To get such a force, money voted for security should be made to reach those for whom it was budgeted. A cop who knows that his Oga has commandeered his allowance and given him crumbs would not be willing to honour any espirit d’corps. A cop who knows that his take-home pay cannot take him even to the bus stop would find asking a driver for ‘something for the boys’ irresistible. It is the duty of the police high command to cater for the needs of their rank and file, with justice and fair play, before discipline can be imposed from the police station to the police check-point.

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Published in my COLUMN in BLUEPRINT, on Monday. Cartoon courtesy of Human Rights Watch

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Sallah, feast and pain


Yesterday was Sallah Day. Eid el-Kabir. The feast of sacrifice. It is the second largest Muslim festival, after Eid el-Fitr. This time, we commemorated the decision by Prophet Ibrahim (AS) to sacrifice his son Prophet Ismail (AS) in absolute obeisance to the Almighty Allah (SWT) who replaced the son with a ram.

Even though Sallah is a day feast, its festivities run for a minimum of three days. So, we are still celebrating – eating, drinking, exchanging visits and felicitations, and generally making merry. It is one of those rare moments when we forget our sorrows, failures and indiginities. Some of us even shelve their savagery and sink into mirth and laughter. It is momentary, but it reminds us of our sense of humanity, our capacity to love and be loved.

But should it be brief and guarded? Why should our sense of savagery, refusal to share love and our capacity for evil replace what we ought to be in the first place? Our humaneness ought not be momentary and guarded – it should be our essence!

These questions grew out of me on the eve of Eid el-Kabir. Bombs, deaths and wailings suddenly distorted the emerging convivial atmosphere. In Damaturu, Potiskum and Maiduguri, the now familiar occurence of bomb-blasts was witnessed. The death toll was horrifying. The official tally, issued by police, said 53 people were killed, comprising 36 civilians and 17 security agents (11 policemen, two soldiers, one Road Safety official, one fire service man, and two Civil Defence officials). Jama'atu Nasril Islam, the umbrella Muslim body, reported yesterday that 96 bodies were identified in the town. Add that to the ones recorded in the various skirmishes since 2009 when the Boko Haram War began and you will agree without hesitation that life has since become Hobbesian: "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

Violence, division, hatred and revenge are defining our essence; these base feelings are an army arrayed against our humaneness. We are no longer brother’s keepers even within our religion, much less between us and members of other faiths. Trust has all but disappeared, replaced by deep-seated suspicion and vengeful anger. You can see it in the market-place, the media and internet social networks.

In the past in the North, Sallah Day used to be enjoyed not only by Muslims but also by their Christian neighbours, who eat from the assortment of food and the sacrificial ram meat. Now even Muslims celebrate it in fear and hesitation. A similar situation defines Christmas. Now the walls of fear have gone up in our hearts, erecting barriers that seem to be growing in height and in thickness. Yesterday, my friend Prince Charles Dickson posted a comment on Facebook, reflecting this rueful situation. He wrote: “Sallah has been peaceful in Jos but sadly no exchange of visits. Boundaries being maintained, for how long do we live like this?”

Yeah, for how long? Even Charles cannot answer the question. But it is a question that needs to be answered and a solution found to the pertinent issues. Unfortunately, one cannot see genuine efforts by the powers that be towards confronting the ogre of intolerance, distrust and violence. I had expected to see a serious commentary on the state of affairs from President Jonathan in his Eid el-Kabir message. But the man was lame. His blandishments, communicated to the nation via a written statement, were the usual appeals, as well as a call on Nigerians to support his Transformation Agenda. The strongest point in the President’s Sallah Message was: “As we labour to grow and develop our country, it is important that we eschew all vices, including religious and social violence that can disrupt the peace and stability of our nation.”

The nail was, however, best hit on the head of the matter by the Etsu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar who, in his Sallah Message after the Eid prayers in Bida yesterday, spoke about the need for justice for all categories of people in the country. “Our people always rejoice to see justice done without fear or favour, hence the manifest result of social justice is usually peace and harmony,” His Royal Highness said, adding, “All those given responsibility to lead should promote peace through justice and fairness irrespective of religious and ethnic differences.”

Justice for all, then, is the keyword for attaining peace and tranquillity in this country. And to achieve that, our leaders must rule with the fear of God just as the leaders past – those in the 60s and the early 70s – did. Today, our leaders are another kettle of fish altogether. Everyone is for himself. And you cannot attain justice by stealing. According to Transparency International last week, Nigeria’s civil servants took $3 billion bribe in 2010 alone. God knows how much they stole so far this year. That’s from bribes alone, not to talk of other corrupt practices such as direct stealing from the public coffers, using all sorts of excuses and tricks.

With this kind of tendency, we shouldn’t be surprised that, as reprehensible as it is, violence has become a part and parcel of our life. Also, no one should be surprised that Sallah Day, in spite of pretences to the contrary, is low key. Don't be surprised if Christmas is similar.

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Published in my column on the back page of BLUEPRINT yesterday
Photo above shows a scene of devastation in the Damaturu attacks

Monday, 24 October 2011

After Libya, which country is next?


“We have Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Plan A is to live and die in Libya. Plan B is to live and die in Libya. Plan C is to live and die in Libya.”

– Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, talking to CNN on February 26 on the ruling family’s option in the wake of the deadly protests in the country.

By all accounts, Libya has just entered a new era, with the brutal killing of Col. Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi last Thursday by the country’s rebels at his hometown of Sirte. My predictions in two previous columns on Libya that the current status in that country would be reached in the months to come have now proved almost prescient. All the ingredients of this tragic end were there – some for decades. Gaddafi’s 42 years in power had made him the world’s fourth longest-ruling non-royal leader since 1900, as well as the longest-ruling Arab leader. No matter how benevolent his regime, his autocracy could no longer be sustained in the modern world.

In my first piece on the Libyan tumult, titled, “Men Without Ears,” published on the back page of Leadership on February 26, 2011, I argued, “As at now, the Libyan conundrum, which the world is watching more keenly because of the high stakes involved, appears to be going the way of the ones that took place in Tunisia and Egypt since January. Which makes it permissible to say that Gaddafi’s days in power are numbered. In spite of his and his son Saif al-Islam’s braggadocio, the president is gradually losing control of the levers of power, with large chunks of the country being taken over by rebellious protesters.”

In my second column on the issue, titled “The Way the Cookie Crumbles,” published in Blueprint two months ago when Gaddafi finally went into hiding, I wrote: “One wonders what becomes of the North African country in the post-Gaddafi era. The West must avoid making its Iraq mistakes after it toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Since the purpose of Gaddafi’s ouster is to give Libya a better future, the change should not be geared solely towards serving Western interests. To achieve this, no foreign troops should be allowed in... Libya should become a democratic nation whose Islamic identity is preserved. It should never become a family-centred dictatorship with a tunnel vision for development again if the overthrow of Gaddafi’s superstructure must be justified.”

Now that Gaddafi is gone, Western countries that backed the insurrection against him are lining up to exact their interests with more zeal. The country has the largest oil reserves in Africa. Now we will see if Libya’s National Transitional Council, which is putting together a government, have done what they did out of patriotism. If they mortgage Libya’s sovereignty to foreigners, then it is up to the ordinary people to give them the “Gaddafi treatment.”

This means that it is not over yet in Libya until we see what the new leaders are going to do. Is it democracy or another dictatorship woven around some cabal with pecuniary interests? Are the new leaders, in order to fulfil their pledge of “modernising” the nation, going to build a system based on the cultural and religious values of the people? Or are they, as many analysts fear, going to make Libya the 53rd state of the U.S.? The 51st and the 52nd states are Israel and Afghanistan respectively, of course!
I have other worries. After Libya, which country is next? Syria quickly comes to mind. The country is also in the throes of the so-called Arab Spring that revolutionised Tunisia and Egypt. Beyond Syria, however, the West is expected to be looking around at other “soft” targets where its Dracula could find cheap blood or, if you will, oil. Look around, and you will see Iran in the horizon. Or Nigeria, for that matter, which a U.S. intelligence report predicted would fall apart in a few years’ time.

In a new poll by the daily Kommersant, Russian experts cited Syria, Iran, Yemen, Venezuela and Nigeria as possibly the next in the line of countries likely to follow in Libya’s footsteps. One of them, State Duma Deputy Vadim Solovyov of the Communist Party faction warned that the American economy is in need of inexpensive oil, so the U.S. is ready to wage wars in order to get it. He specifically argued that any country with large reserves of energy resources such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela or Nigeria could come next.

Another Russian expert polled by the newspaper was the deputy head of the Liberal Democratic Party faction, Maxim Rokhmistrov, who said: “What we have been witnessing is a redistribution of spheres of influence, where the United States is the main player.”

Are we ready to play a Gaddafi if such eventuality happens, knowing that we have many rebellious types? My take is that Nigeria’s divisive nature, plus the various militant wars going on, makes us an easier target than Libya or Iran, both of which had resisted decades of Western machinations. Surely for our leaders, the time to be sleeping with one eye open is here. Cold comfort, the Americans are already here.
Let’s pray.

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Published in BLUEPRINT today

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Kwankwaso’s policy on movies


When I met Governor Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso for the first time last month, I was eager to ask him a question on the policy of his government on movie production. During the final three years of the regime preceding his, there had been a cat-and-mouse contest between stakeholders in the Hausa movie industry and the Kano state government. Many actors, producers, musicians, marketers, etc., were arrested, heavily fined, jailed and or had their offices locked up and their property confiscated through dubious legal processes. Many were forced into exile in neighbouring states. One Abubakar Rabo, notorious for his near-crazy loathing for the movie trade, was heading the state Censorship Board in a Gestapo manner. He committed himself to the emasculation of the industry, using false propaganda and coercive instruments of the state. Consequently, Kano’s huge army of unemployed swelled. (The industry had employed thousands of school leavers and other layabouts for whom government could not provide jobs).

The reason adduced for this reign of terror by Governor Ibrahim Shekarau was that Hausa movies were corrupting morals and that movie industry stakeholders were not practising what they preached. He also claimed, during the last presidential debate, that he was responding to the demand of members of the society for the industry to be chained. Truly, there is a fringe view in Hausa land which holds that movies are sinful and should be banned – the kind of view imposed against women education in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

One of the comical regulations imposed by Rabo was that movies should not be shot at night so that men and women would not use the opportunity to commit fornication – as if those who engage in illicit sex (including top government officials) do so only at night!

The government’s stance wasn’t tenable because it was hypocritical. Many of its top guns were known to be living double lives, morally speaking. Nollywood flicks, which are more explicit, and even smuggled x-rated movies, were on sale in many parts of Kano. Moreover, during the run-up to the 2007 general election, Shekarau himself had exploited the film stars’ popularity to canvass votes. He held a lavish movie awards ceremony in government house where he extolled the virtues of film-making and distributed gifts. In the following months, he courted the industry through all manner of tricks, including donating a new bus to the film-makers’ association and, later, receiving an industry award at Arewa House, Kaduna. But when the Hiyana sex scandal broke out in 2007 and the anti-movie lobby found a louder voice, Shekarau launched his crackdown on the stars. After all, he had won his re-election and reckoned that he did not really need them. The latter view proved suicidal because the industry played a key role in defeating his party in the April 2011 polls when its crowd-pulling members like Sani Danja and Ibro joined the campaign train of his arch-rival, Kwankwaso.

Today, there is a sea change. Dr Kwankwaso is building a bridge of understanding between government and the industry. In response to my question during our interview with him, published in Blueprint on September 26, he said: “The film industry in Kano is very important for obvious reasons. For one, it is capital-intensive and has the capacity to boost the state’s economy. Secondly, and this is very crucial, it has the potential to create mass employment opportunity to the youths - both male and female - and this is one of our objectives: to provide job opportunity to as many people as possible. So, I have made it clear that our administration would give all the needed support to make sure the film industry thrives like any other industry in the real sector.”

In spite of his positive outlook, however, the governor is not blind to the need for the regulation of the business. He explained, “But be that as it may, we also have our religious and cultural values to protect against adulteration in any way by the filmmakers or any group of people.” He is setting up a Kano Film Institute in Tiga “so that the industry will be sanitised.” This is clearly a purposive and focused leadership. There are no frenzied, false claims or pretences. There is simply a clear urge to reduce unemployment while firmly minding cultural preservation.

The movie practitioners should repay this gesture by producing qualitative movies that are also sensitive to culture and religion. They should do away with their Indian copycat impulses and be professional. Hausa movies should be made to appeal to a universal audience through originality even if they have to be modern in outlook. It doesn’t have to take a Malam Rabo to remind the practitioners about this.

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Published in BLUEPRINT yesterday

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Suntai and the rest of us


These days it is easy for anyone to get angry over the slightest provocation. The daily grind of life in our country has made most people – “big and small” – to be on a short fuse. Our politicians are arguably the most harrassed, what with the hassle of winning an election and then maintaining “relevance” in the polity, as well as oiling one’s constituency using tons of currency on a ceaseless basis.

Given this background, perhaps Nigerian journalists would find Governor Danbaba Suntai’s diatribe against them excusable. Suntai (‘Pharm.’ to the uninitiated) last week made his true views about news men known to the world. The Daily Trust reported on October 5, 2011: “Taraba State Governor Danbaba Danfulani Suntai has said that he hates journalists and never wants to have anything to do with them.”

It was the kind of story that should make media managers (such as Suntai’s energetic information commissioner Emmanuel Bello) scramble to ‘manage the crisis’ through heated denials. So far, mum is the word from Jalingo, which tells me that the 50-year-old pharmacist-turned-politician was not misquoted after all. Well, well, sigh! So, someone out there in Taraba hates us, the pen-pushers. And to think that it is the chief security officer of the state! Are journalists now safe in Taraba? Now don’t bet on it!

The question is: why does His Excellency hate journalists so much? The report quoted him as saying it is “because they publish lies and are used by canny politicians to fight other politicians.” Journalism ethics in Nigeria, according to the governor, “are based on falsehood.”

Hitherto, Suntai used to strike me as a lover of the media, thanks to the efforts of his spin-doctors. Now I cannot say for sure why he showed his “true colours” in such a burst of anger. However, one can risk a guess that his current impression of journalists is a result of some unsavoury encounter with the media in the past. One of which could be his 2007 battle with Danladi Baido.

It will be recalled that Suntai did not participate in the PDP primaries of that year; the party’s candidate, Baido, was substituted with Suntai by the national headquarters of the party after Baido was disqualified two months to the election. In that strange era in our nationhood, any candidate on the ticket of the nation’s ruling party was favoured to “win” an election. With Baido’s backing, Suntai went ahead and won.

Their marriage of convenience did not last, though. What followed was a war of attrition, with the media being one of their major battle-grounds. With Baido accusing Suntai of plotting to kill him, it was an all-out propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the general public. Now, I don’t know who won the media war, but it is easy to surmise that Suntai was able to not only survive the four years of his first tenure but was also able to get re-elected last April. The media helped.

Suntai was also a victim of another war of attrition early in 2009 when a nebulous group, Concerned Indigenes of Taraba State, petitioned President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, as well as the EFCC and the ICPC, accusing him of massive corruption. He was alleged to be a freak for foreign cars, that he was also importing foreigners to replace local workers and that he was inflating contracts for road constructions for self-enrichment. Of course, these charges turned out to be false, concocted by his detractors in order to do him in, especially in the run-up to the 2011 elections. But, again, like the cat with nine lives, he survived.

There could more of such encounters.

Clearly, the governor was bruised, even if psychologically, by such brushes with media propaganda. I will not go into disputes with him except on point of his generalisations. One has heard such claims before, that the enemies of politicians – who must also be politicians – use some journalists against their opponents. However, I make bold to say that it is not all journalists that are used that way. And it is not only a Nigerian thing. The love-hate relationship between politicians and the media is a universal phenomenon which has been a subject of study right from the day journalism – or politics itself – was born.

Ironically, Governor Suntai made his assertion when launching his state-owned newspaper, the Nigerian Sunrise, on October 4. In spite of his chest-thumping that he wouldn’t have sunk public funds into the project if not for the trust he has in the management consultant of the paper, Barrister Danjuma Adamu, the mere act of giving birth to a newspaper showed that, somehow, Suntai believes in the journalism profession. The fact that someone like Adamu exists to earn his respect and trust means that there are many others like the consultant.

I’m also persuaded to believe that Suntai hopes to use the Sunrise one way or the other to advance his own causes. Of course, I wouldn’t expect him to use it against his opponents in the state the way most politicians use the media under their control. If he does that now or in the future when he removes it from state control when he leaves offices, as he vowed to do, then it would be the turn of journalists to hate him in return. But for now, we will continue to regard him as a hostile friend.

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Published in BLUEPRINT last Monday

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Wangari Maathai was here


She was not expected to act that way. An African woman is supposed to keep quiet and be deaf and dumb. Speaking out against perceived injustices is not her fort. It is sad that Wangari Maathai, who rejected that stereotype and spent the better part of her life trying to make our planet a better habitat, is no more. The dark-skinned Kenyan professor, who died on Sunday last week at the age of 71, was a true African daughter who channeled her energy towards doing the general good.

Maathai’s milk of human kindness was spread far and wide in the course of promoting her beliefs. This woman, whom some called the Tree Mother of Africa, campaigned for the preservation of the environment for the sustainability of the species. She believed that a healthy environment helped improve lives by providing clean water and firewood for cooking, thereby decreasing conflict. Concerned for the abject condition in which all species live in Africa, she founded the Green Belt Movement, which planted 30 million trees in the hope of improving the chances for peace. This triumph for nature inspired the United Nations to launch a worldwide campaign that resulted in 11 billion trees planted.

Even though the Green Belt Movement started as an environmental sanity group, Maathai expanded it to accommodate issues of peace and democracy. She explained that over time it became clear to her that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy. “Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilised to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement,” Maathai said.

Was she wasting her time? The biggest destroyers of the human ecology – governments and Big Business – didn’t care. But, still, we as individuals – each one of us – have a role to play in making our habitat safe and long-lasting. If we fold our arms, the dangers posed by the depreciation of the habitat and corruption through our reckless activities would soon catch up with us.

Maathai explains this better in the film, ‘Dirt! The Movie,’ where she narrates the story of a hummingbird carrying one drop of water at a time to fight a forest fire, while animals like the elephant asked why the bird was wasting its energy. “It turns to them and tells them, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ And that to me is what all of us should do. We should always feel like a hummingbird,” Maathai said. “I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”

Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, which awarded Maathai the peace prize in 2004, said: “Many said, ‘She is just planting trees.’ But that was important, not only from an environmental perspective, to stop the desert from spreading, but also as a way to activate women and fight the Daniel arap Moi regime.” He added, “Wangari Maathai combined the protection of the environment with the struggle for women’s rights and fight for democracy.”

Not surprisingly, for this ‘unAfrican crime’ of a woman confronting those big destroyers, she soon began to pay a price. The then dictatorial President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, called her “a mad woman” who was a threat to national security. She was beaten up and vilified, and her husband threw out.

Maathai’s determination of continuing to live her beliefs did not go in vain, though. Her work was recognised by governments, organisations and institutions, as well as individuals, all over the world. She received many accolades and awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African woman to to do so.

Today, her great legacy is that there is more awareness about the ills of corruption, environmental degradation, the capacity of women to empower themselves without having to wait for droplets from men, and the fact that a focused and committed human spirit can never be defeated by repressive regimes. Today, we cannot say that we were not inspired by Wangari Maathai.
The question, however, is whether we will put this knowledge to use. Should we still continue to behave like those silly animals whose forest has caught fire, their habitat being inexorably consumed by the conflagration? Or should we act like the tiny bird which decided to give its widow’s mite towards containing the catastrophe? Your guess about where I stand is as good as mine, courtesy of the fact that Wangari Maathai was once here on this planet.


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Published in BLUEPRINT, on Monday

PHOTO CAPTION:

‘She only planted trees’: Wangari Maathai talking with President Barack Obama in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2006. Photo: AP

Free Palestine: Not on Obama’s watch

Published in Blueprint recently:

Free Palestine: Not on Obama’s watch

Come Friday, President Mahmoud Abbas is going to table a formal request to the U.N. for the recognition of Palestine as an independent nation. In a televised address three days ago, he declared: “We are going to the United Nations to request our legitimate right, obtaining full membership for Palestine in this organisation.”

This historic moment comes at an odd time for many in the two sides of the divide. Abbas is relying on the goodwill of some nations around the globe – including Britain – that regard the Palestinian Question as an anathema in a fast democratising world.

Israel was created in 1948 following the Nazi extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust.

As a result, millions of Palestinians were forced out of their land to live in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and in exile. For over six decades, Israel has occupied most of the land, using brute force and
snubbing all entreaties and U.N. resolutions.

In arriving at this week’s milestone, much of the world believes that Palestine has a legitimate right to full statehood based on the borders of June 4, 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The talk of an Arab spring and whatever promise it holds for the region rings hollow in the face of the gargantuan injustice being suffered by the Palestinians.

In his TV address Friday, Abbas pricked the conscience of the world when he said: “The United Nations was set up to protect the rights of the people, and to help people’s self-determination and to prevent occupation of others with force... As a Palestinian delegation, we take with us all the suffering and hope of our people to achieve this objective and to end the historic grievances so that we can enjoy freedom and independence inside a Palestinian state.”

The President’s going to New York is not the same thing as getting his wish, though. Already, the United States’ legendary foreign policy hypocrisy vis-à-vis the Palestinian Question is emerging. Uncle Sam is acting true to type, vowing to veto the Palestinian bid in the Security Council.

President Barack Obama has since caved in to the influence of the powerful Jewish lobby, making it clear that there shall be no statehood for Palestine now.

Those who recall Obama’s antecedent without matching it with America’s basic interest in the Middle East would be excused for getting surprised. In Cairo two years ago, the President enchanted the Muslim world when he stated emphatically, in that wondrous watershed speech, that the U.S. was going to enter into a new epoch of understanding and mutual respect with the Muslims wherever they live. Also last year, Obama stated that he hoped to see a sovereign state of Palestine join the U.N. by September 2011.

Though his stance is that Palestinian statehood should be achieved through direct talks, rather than through the U.N. bid, his comment did open a big window of hope for the beleaguered people. That window is going to be banged shut by the same leader of the free world when Abbas takes his case to the world body.

Doubting Thomases like me should not be surprised at this crude volte-face. In Cairo, Obama’s head was in the clouds about what it means to be a U.S. President, hence the lurid promises he made on peace. Two years down the line, he has woken up to the reality of what the Jewish lobby is capable of doing to an American presidency. The lobby has succeeded in arm-twisting him by portraying him as a near-enemy right from when he began to articulate his Middle East vision. At a time when the Republicans are gnawing at his hithero soar-away popularity and even snatching key Democratic enclaves in the run-up to the U.S. general elections, the President is proving his commitment to defending larger Israeli interests – principal of which is the denial of statehood to Palestine and preventing it from becoming the U.N.’s 194th member nation. Obama knows that the two-state solution cannot be achieved through direct negotiations, yet he insists on playing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s card of sticking to that unworkable formula. It is in line with America’s one-sided foreign policy of supporting the Jewish state and keeping the Palestinians in perpetual servitude.

As such, this week is bound to become just another of the many letdowns the Palestinians had seen in sixty years, including the aftermath of the now-foundering landmark 1993 Oslo peace accords. But for the Obama administration, this veto will expose the hollowness of the rhetoric about a new clime of understanding with the Muslim world. Already, many reversals have been witnessed. The veto will simply hit the final nail on the coffin of such deceptive rhetoric. One cringes to think that the world is getting back to square one.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

9/11: A decade of Islamophobia


Persecution of a people on account of their faith is as old as religion itself. Prophet Moses (A.S.) was hounded out of Egypt by Pharaoh when he preached the worship of none other than the One True God. Early Christianity suffered more under the Roman Empire. However, the ascendancy of Christianity as state religion from the eight century A.D. in most of Europe led to the persecution of various religious groups, including Jews and Muslims. All that was in the dark ages.

Strangely, religious minorities suffer more today when there is enlightenment and rhetorics of freedom. The situation is worse in “civilised” nations after the unfortunate attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Religious persecution against adherents of Islam has defined the character of state policy in those countries as a “war on terror” is fought. Violent extremism against Muslims by ordinary Westerners has increased.

In a statement last Wednesday, Minority Rights Group International (MRG), a non-governmental organisation working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide, noted that in the ten years since the 9/11 attacks, ethnic and religious minorities have been targeted for large-scale human rights violations across the world, ranging from torture and extra-judicial executions to extra-ordinary rendition and restrictions on freedom of religion. In the statement, published to mark the 10th anniversary of the Al Qaida attacks, MRG (www.mrgmail.org) says the increased imposition of counter-terrorism measures by many states across the world has affected minority communities the most.

“Even though the rhetoric of ‘war on terror’ has been abandoned, the reality continues to affect minority communities worldwide,” MRG argues. “As we commemorate the terrible crimes committed on 9/11, we should also think of the tens of thousands of innocent victims killed in the wars that have followed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

In the U.S., as in parts of Europe, Muslims have come under attacks, with many killed by those who felt it was their duty to “purify” their countries of terrorists. Ethnic and religious slur, as well as racial profiling targeted at minorities, have increased, culminating into violent verbal and physical attacks, as well as various forms of discrimination. At work places, schools, airports and in the media, among others, Muslims are persecuted by bigots who look down upon them in abhorrent situations similar to those in the early years of Christianity when Christians were persecuted. One’s name or appearance is a give-away to theological fundamentalists who simply assume that anyone practising Islam is a terrorist. Examples abound, but one of the most prominent is that of Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan’s detention at the U.S. airport of Newark, New Jersey, in August 2009 simply because of his “Muslim-looking” name. Ironically, the high profile actor was in the U.S. to shoot a movie on discrimination against Muslims in the post-9/11 world, i.e. “My Name is Khan,” which eventually became a blockbuster. Also, the killing of Al Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden by U.S. forces this year was celebrated with glee in the U.S. and other non-Muslim societies not just because of his status as the leading sponsor of terrorism but more because he was a Muslim.

This kind of profiling has seeped into otherwise peaceful multicultural societies, pitching adherents of faiths against one another. In Nigeria, where Muslims cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered a minority, Muslims are viewed by many as terrorists because of the activities of some in sectarian violence, even if they are in it for revenge, and those who bomb places, such as the Boko Haram sect. It does not matter to theological fundamentalists that not all Muslims are terrorists and that in as much as there are Muslim terrorists, there are also non-Muslim terrorists.

It is sad that our nation has become more divided during the 9/11 decade. Leaders who ought to show good example are leading the charge in widening the gulf. Communities in Nigeria and other nations will not find peace unless all the various forms of prejudice and bigotry that trigger violence, mostly promoted by our colleagues in the media, are stopped forthwith.

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Published in my column in the current issue of BLUEPRINT

Monday, 22 August 2011

How to save the New Nigerian (3)

The original idea behind establishing the New Nigerian was that it should be a newspaper which would be qualitative, well written, well designed, well marketed and commercially successful. Its guiding philosophy was that it would be produced with conscience, based on the best values the Northern Region could offer, and it would tell the truth to power. Its huge success within a few years of its establishment was owed to its sticking to that vision, and its eventual collapse was due to the abandonment of the esteemed mission. To retrieve its glory, therefore, it must go back to that pedestal on which it was put by its founders.

I will suggest a two-pronged approach towards this end. One is what its present management can – and must – do, and two is what its owners can – and must – do.

What Management Must Do

• Management should first of all wake up to the reality that going cap in hand to the owners – the 19 northern state governors – virtually begging for alms is fruitless. The reason is that the corrosion of northern cohesiveness across the years has severed the emotional bond that kept the communal ownership of institutions like NNN a priority. Besides, the governors have their own media houses to contend with. They are also pressured by private media houses for expensive “special projects.” A northern governor would rather pay a privately run newspaper in Lagos a N10 million grant for “political” reasons than fullfil his N15 million pledge to the NN.

• Rather than press the governors for cash, it is better for the management to lobby them for approval to raise the much needed recapitalisation fund through the selling off of some of the company’s fixed assets. Knowing that such approval would not touch their own budgets, the governors would find it easier to grant.

• Management should raise not less than N800 million from the selling of both the staff quarters at Malali and the property on Isa Kaita Road. Taking a bank loan should be only the last resort. If absolutely necessary, a loan can be accessed using Nagwamatse House as a collateral.
The money is for the purchase of two modern printing presses to be installed in Lagos and Kaduna (N500 million), the settling of the backlog of unpaid salaries and other entitlements and the purchase of consummables such as newsprint and computers. What is the use of those landed assets while the company is virtually in its last gasps?

• Initiate and execute a new business plan aimed at making the company profitable and competitive within very few years. Remember that it is already a global brand whose glory is only fading. Such a plan will include an aggressive rebranding campaign aimed at retaining and reclaiming old clientage as well as capturing a new generation of readers and advertisers.

• A new editorial policy should be made, consisting of the paper’s old values of being ethical, sedate, qualitative, bold and fearless, as well as new ones of fierce competitiveness in a brave new clime of modern newspaper management. To achieve this, the company must recruit a fresh crop of writers and editorial managers whose remuneration is not below the industry standard.

• Redesign the paper from the masthead to the back page.

• Create new sections in the pages and even recreate some of the old ones.

• Increase pagination from the present 40 to a minimum of 56.

• Increase the print run to a modest 20,000 for a start.

• Discard what some critics regard as the praise-singing culture by becoming bolder in “telling the truth to power.” The pervasive self-censorship regimes that have been defining management control across the years, indicative in reluctance to admit non-staff columnists, has eroded the paper’s credibility. Under the new clime, the paper should not be a toothless bulldog or a megaphone of officialdom. However, this does not mean it should be reckless, dishonest or even given to blackmail in its coverage of issues and events and commentaries. In its editorial of September 9, 1975, soon after its takeover by the federal government, the NN vowed to remain courageous and independent, saying, “We intend to continue (because) no paper worth its name will be contented to sing the praises of incumbent rulers incessantly.” Those teeth, which were lost in the years to come, must be put back.

• Go for real colour printing. The NN was a pioneer in this regard. The present printing press is too old and does not give value for money because it was not manufactured for modern colour printing; it generates the “patch patch” colours we are seeing today only through the amazing ingenuity of the production staff. There is need for a new press.

• Why not transfer the NNN headquarters from Kaduna to Abuja, the new capital of the newspaper trade in northern Nigeria? In 1964, when Mr Charles Sharp, the Briton tasked with the onerous responsibility of establising the NN after the near-collapse of the Nigerian Citizen, arrived in Kaduna for the purpose, he realised that Zaria, where the Citizen was based, was no longer suitable for siting of a daily newspaper. One of his seven reasons, as captured in Malam Turi Muhammadu’s history of the NN, titled Courage and Conviction - New Nigerian: The First 20 Years, was: “Zaria is no longer a major commercial centre – an essential requirement in the background pattern of the town chosen for the location of a daily newspaper. Because of its importance as the centre of Government, its growing commerce and its communications with Lagos and the rest of the country, I would unhesitatingly nominate KADUNA as the best Northern location for a daily newspaper.”

There is no gain saying the fact that the move from Zaria to Kaduna had helped the NN’s growth and made it effective as a leader in intellectual discourse. Kaduna, the home of the fabled “Kaduna Mafia,” was the capital of northern intelligentsia. Today, that fame has all but gone. A tectonic shift on the political scene has since occurred. Members of that “mafia” are either no more or are in winter. They are being replaced by a new northern intelligentsia located in the nation’s capital. Above all, Abuja is the hub of the nation’s policymakers, diplomatic community, political parties and second only to Lagos as a hub of business. It is easier to meet any governor in Abuja than in his state capital.

Today, the NN and the Nigerian Tribune are the only major national dailies located outside Lagos and Abuja, hence their being considered provincial. Their managing directors are always on the road to these key cities in search of revenue, and their editors lack the critical access to major news sources. This has a telling effect on their effectiveness.

The NN has dithered too long at the crossroads. Moving it to Abuja will solve many problems, including its present limited access to sources of adverts. It can be done in phases, but prevarication is costly. Start by moving the editorial, administrative and commercial departments, leaving the printing press in Kaduna for the time being. The management staff and the editors should live permanently in Abuja. The internet has solved most of the technical problems that could arise from such move. Most dailies today are being printed at more than one location.

What the Owners Must Do

In the long run, the northern state governors must have to hands off the ownership of the NNN by selling majority of their stakes to private individuals. Their 100 percent ownership of NNN does not confer on them any special or strategic privileges. Instead, the NNN is bad PR for them, reflecting their failure to salvage one of the major legacies of the founding fathers of the Northern Region. They are too busy playing politics and funding their own media houses and the private ones as to bother about the moribund NNN. They are also so disunited amongst themselves as to consider the NNN a commonweal that should be sustained through communal effort.

The NNN has, throughout its history, relied on subvention from its owners, first the Northern regional government, then the six northern states and, from September 1975 the federal government. The situation no longer works nicely. The NNN can no longer be sustained through a committee of disparate governments, each with its own priorities. Therefore, it is in the governors’ interest to embark on a privatisation excercise of the NNN. It can be done in phases.

• First, sell of at least 80 percent of the shareholding to a group of patriotic, business-minded Nigerians of diverse backgrounds (e.g. media, business, legal, religious, political, and academic), who will regard their ownership of the company as a business concern motivated by profit and patriotism. Majority of these investors should be northerners, reflecting the region’s religious and ethnic diversity. To avoid the kind of fate that befell the Daily Times today, the shares should not be sold to one person or company.

• The private investors should execute a purposive business plan aimed at recreating the NNN’s editorial glory and commercial prowess. Their plan should include recapitalisation.

• After five to ten years, the governors may choose to divest completely from the company, its private investors having put it on the path of growth.

I am sure there are some other ways of moving the company forward. But whatever they are, they should not include full ownership and control by government. That business model no longer works in the modern world.


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Published in the current issue of BLUEPRINT, on sale from today

Saturday, 20 August 2011

How to save the New Nigerian (2)

It would be superfluous to list the major achievements of the New Nigerian which made it the most influential newspaper in this country from the mid-1960s to the late ’80s. Suffice it to say that for about three decades after its debut on January 1, 1966, the NN was in terms of circulation, readership, believability and clout the number one newspaper of record in the country. This, of course, translates into its being the second most authoritative newspaper in Africa, after Eqypt’s Al-Ahram. Business-wise, the company owned landed property and other assets that placed it almost at par with some of the leading business conglomerates of the time.

The NN grew in leaps and bounds in its first ten years. On Wednesday, December 31, 1975, i.e. the eve of its tenth anniversary, the then Federal Commissioner of Information, Brigadier IBM Haruna, noted that the NN had won for itself “the reputation of being one of the leading and seriously regarded national dailies in this relatively short period.” He urged the company to strive and improve on its standards, adding that “the ensuing years will bear further record of higher attainments and that your conscience, integrity, wisdom and maturity, coupled with God’s blessings, shall always be realised in the country.”

Haruna’s views proved prophetic. For the next twenty years the NN continued to grow. Up till the year 2000, in spite of its deteriorating fortune, it enjoyed a relative dominance of the newspaper business, though this time in the north rather than in the whole country. But then, a lot happened which broke such dominance and brought down the paper from its high pedestal. Today, many newcomers have surpassed it by all reckoning. Its being seen on the news-stands is a miracle that is due to the doggedness of its management and other staff. Yet, circulation is low; salaries have not been paid for six months, further wrecking the morale of staff. The company is crying for help.

Many ideas have been proffered towards resuscitating the company. The NNN management insists that all it requires is big cash. This thinking, which is erroneous, has made it difficult for the management to look beyond its nose. While money makes the world go round, it does not make it a better place in which to live. Money can be gotten and finished. What the company requires is a strategic thinking of what should be done with money. Strategies are needed to re-implant the NN in the minds of its readers and capture a new generation of readers and advertisers, many of whom were not there in the paper’s apogee. The NN needs a second coming, a relaunch that would purposively put it on the path of competitiveness not only as a major news institution but also as a business enterprise. To me, in order to attain this newness, we must return to the oldness of this northern behemoth. To create a future for the NN, we must return to its past. We must examine the ashes of its faded glory in order to reinvent a solid foundation for its tomorrow.

We must remember that the NN was founded on the ashes of the Nigerian Citizen, a daily owned by the government of the Northern Region. By the late 1950s, that newspaper’s fate had become similar to that of the NN of the late 80s; its glory was crashing in an age of propaganda between the north and the south, one targeted at maximising control of the political and economic realm of the new nation. Meanwhile, as the Nigerian Citizen was going down, more gutsy southern newspapers were having a field day setting agenda for governance. The NN was conceived and set up to replace the Nigerian Citizen as a bulwark against the merciless buffeting the north was receiving from the more funded and better designed Lagos-Ibadan publications. Within a few years, it achieved huge success in its task. The measures taken to make it so are just what the NN needs today to rise from its ashes.

I will mention them (and more) in the final part of this piece, next week.

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Published in the current issue of BLUEPRINT

Monday, 8 August 2011

How to save the New Nigerian (1)


Last week, the Blueprint published the story of how the Managing Director of the New Nigerian Newspapers Limited (NNN), Alhaji Tukur Abdulrahman, led his management team to the Emir of Zazzau on a courtesy call. During the visit, the MD revealed what apparently was the main purpose of the visit, i.e. to solicit the emir’s intervention in the financial crisis rocking the company. Abdulrahman was quoted to have told the emir, Alhaji Shehu Idris, that the crisis was caused by the failure of most of the 11 northern state governments to redeem their pledge of N15 million each to the company after its transfer to them from the federal government. He also told the emir that the financial crunch has affected the payment of gratuity and pension, adding, “This crisis also affects our production. Most of our machines are aged, which contributed to the backwardness of the papers.” The emir kindly directed the management to submit a written report to him for onward submission to the “appropriate quarters.”

It is sad that the company which used to be the flagship of Nigerian journalism has slid to this low ebb, forcing its management to be going round cap in hand like the ubiquitous almajirai dotting the north, looking for sadaka. The NNN was from the 1960s to the early 1980s one of the leading lights not only of the journalism profession in the country but also a huge commercial success. Its clout is symbolised in the number of seasoned journalists it produced or inspired, many of whom are still some of the major voices in our journalism, and in its landed property such as Nagwamatse House – the tallest building in Kaduna – and residential houses in Kaduna and elsewhere. Indeed, in spite of the success recorded by latter day media enterprises in the region such as Media Trust and Leadership Newspapers, NNN has retained its lead as the newspaper company with the more landed assets in the north.

The crash of the New Nigerian (NN) is an old story, dating back three decades. Spurts of a rebound and promise of a return to its past glory were shortlived and deceptive. Those of us who once worked at the NN with pride and gusto are left with agonising nostalgia over the poor state of affairs at our “journalistic alma mater.” Anyone associated with the paper, wherever he/she has moved to, looks back with pain at the inability of this bedraggled old cow to get off its hinds and sprint like in the good old days. One is bound to wonder ceaselessly why the NN remains down almost perpetually even with increased knowledge in the profession and new communication technology, as well as more literacy and expansion in social infrastructure. In the past, when it was more difficult to gather news, set it on compugraphic machines, print newspapers and distribute them, the NN had the second highest circulation figures in Nigeria, with 100,000 copies daily. It was easily the most influential newspaper in the country. Today, what one hears in the grapevine is that the company can hardly print 5,000 copies a day.

The NN is still being produced by talented and hard working staff, yet, something is missing; an evil force seems to have held it down, preventing it from rising from the ashes. It glaringly lacks the essential ingredients that made it a must read in the past: articulate writers of reckoning, modern production facilities and new editorial and managerial approaches to compete within its immediate environment in particular and the nation in general. Thus the NN is no longer well-written, well-designed and well-produced. It hardly serves any noteworthy exclusives, scintillating news features, great photography or earth-shaking interviews. Not many readers take its news and views serious, with the consequence being its poor market share in intellectual discourse and advertisement revenue. This beautiful dream of the founding fathers of the Northern Region no longer inspires awe and reverence. With this beggarly mien, it is scarcely surprising that the northern state governors don’t care to drop a coin in the NNN management’s dish to fund the newspaper’s sustenance.

To be continued

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Published in my column in BLUEPRINT today.
The above photo, by Bashir Bello Dollars of the New Nigerian, shows Alhaji Tukur Abdulrahman and the Emir of Zazzau, Alhaji Shehu Idris, during the visit.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Why It's Hard to Believe Jonathan

The issue of single term tenure for the president and state governors is a natural divisive factor in Nigerian politics. The reason is due to the mutual distrust and back-stabbing which characterise our type of politics. Both President Jonathan and his spokesman Reuben Abati were miffed by what they described as the opposition parties’s “abusive” and “insulting” reaction to the President’s proposal.

The bitterness in our politics is unfortunate, but it has a history and everybody is guilty. It started right from day one when the colonialists were leaving and the race for political power became a matter of life and death amongst the various ethnic and regional blocs. The trend worsened after the British had gone as the sectional struggle – fanned by the ruling classes – continued to inflame passions among the ordinary people, culminating in death and destruction. Successive governments have failed to stem the tide. We are always pushed back to square one, always talking about “starting anew.”

Jonathan’s move to introduce a single-term tenure is all about starting afresh as he himself indicated during his speech at the Peoples Democratic Party national secretariat on Thursday. Speaking while declaring open the 56th National Executive Committee meeting of the ruling party, the President said, “If you look at the evolution of the political system, the two-tenure (term) is the ultimate. Because even countries which have single tenures, after some time go for the double tenure. So, it is like evolutionary process.”

Many observers have argued that because of the many wrong things about our system, it is better to discard it. The merit, as Jonathan argued on this matter of tenures, is that it will reduce acrimony, cut cost and lessen the desperation that comes with a two-term tenure. This, many also agreed. Where the President is distrusted is his promise that he would not become a beneficiary of the proposed single term, five-year tenure. Most Nigerians are wont to think that there is something fishy about the proposal, which appears set on consuming valuable time and some resources and diverting attention from governance.

Jonathan has the dubious record of being a president who changes the rules in the middle of the game. He is also adept at doublespeak – all with a straight face. It is too early in the day to forget how he rail-roaded his party into giving him its ticket to run for office during the April elections. The party had zoned the presidency to the north, but because Jonathan was desperate to continue ruling, all means fair and foul were employed to make him the party’s sole candidate.

Now, the factors that made him so desperate to contest in 2011 are the same that would make him want to secure a second term. One is his inability to achieve much in terms of developmental programmes during the year he ruled after Yar’Adua’s demise. Another, of course, is sweet, raw power, the prospects of which are almost endless. The third is the crowd around the President, many of whom are permanent residents in the corridors of power.

Jonathan appears deliberately confused about what the constitution provides for him. Clarifying on why he will not run for office in 2015, he said at the PDP headquarters: “The tenure of Goodluck Jonathan and Namadi Sambo will end on May 29, 2015. That is the constitution.” The truth, however, is that it wasn’t the Nigerian constitution which prevented Jonathan from running in 2015. The constitution provides for two-term tenure for the president and state governors. It was Jonathan himself who, during the 2011 presidential campaign, promised the electorate that he would not contest the election after he might have done one term. This promise was made in the heat of the hustings, at a time when victory did not appear guaranteed, a time of desperation, a time when the electorate’s trust was all that mattered. Clearly, we are back to similar times when a desperate cabal can do anything, the easiest of which is changing the rules in the middle of a game – including denying covenants solemnly made earlier – in order to cling to power.

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Published in my column in the current edition of the weekly newspaper, BLUEPRINT.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Lessons from the phone-hacking scandal


The phone-hacking scandal rocking Britain – and inexorably moving to America, where Rupert Murdoch has substantial investment – may appear a far-off phenomenon to us here in Africa, but it really has lessons for the rest of us. The reason is that not only has the world shrunk into a global village, where parliamentary sessions on the ill-fated News of the World (NOTW) tabloid were beamed live to the whole world by satellite television, but also because journalism as it is being practised in the West is being aped everywhere on earth. We may argue that our newspapers, radio and TV stations are unique in many ways because of our different cultural backgrounds; the truth, however, is that the line separating Western thought and practice in most modern professions and those in other nations is very thin indeed.

That is to say there is a Murdoch in almost every nation, even in Lilliputian terms. There is also a NOTW in most of our newspapers, in as much as there is a CNN or a BBC in most TV and radio stations around the world. Moreover, there is an Andy Coulson and a Rebekah Brooks in many an editor and media executive. This is because the profit-motive has, over the years, tended to overshadow the ancient purpose of the journalism profession which says newspapers are established in order to inform, educate and entertain. They are now set up, in the main, in order to make financial gain and garner political clout.

Murdoch and his tabloid bunch have been skewered by most commentators as a rabid lot instigated by the profit motive, hence their unchecked intrusion into the private lives of politicians and celebrities. The commentators have, by taking this stand, committed the offence of someone, as a Hausa proverb says, who stands tall on the mountain of their own excesses in order to look at other people’s mountain. It’s like a person who holds a torchlight in your face and not turning it on themselves. The NOTW is just a part of the UK’s loquacious tabloid system. Its closure does not spell the end of the down-market tradition in the British press or even abroad where it is being emulated. Other tabloids, which have been as audacious in their intrusion practices as the defunct market leader, will continue to push the envelope. In short, we are all guilty. That is, every journalist or media owner.

In Nigeria, the mountain of guilt is so huge that it obfuscates our view and prevents us from seeing beyond our noses. So many media people are driven by the profit motive, thereby regarding theirs as any other business. They believe that they must make money and or accummulate political power at all cost. Hence the mad rush to outdo each other in committing many of the abhorrent unethical practices. The situation is not helped by the lack of standardisation of the profession so that only those trained in it (even at a rudimentary level) could partake in it. Worse, many half-baked or semi-literate persons have made a foray into journalism, committing all sorts of offensive practices.

Today, for all their grandstanding as anti-corruption and pro-democracy crusaders, journalists and their sponsors stand accused of all sorts of unbecoming actions. Many who write against corruption are in the forefront of not only condoning it but are also eating from corrupt practices. The saddest aspect of this is what I call the journalism of blackmail whereby persons in positions of authority are threatened with exposure/disclosure if they refuse to play ball.

Unfortunately, journalism cannot be made a profession like law, engineering and medicine because it is among the liberal arts. All attempts to achieve this through the Nigerian Press Council have failed. Now anybody who can write well and probably make some sense can become one. The option, then, is for journalists and media owners to appeal to their conscience. Without conscience, the mass media is doomed wherever it exists, more so in this part of the world where development challenges have stultified our progress as human species.

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Published in my column in the current edition of the weekly newspaper, BLUEPRINT.
Picture above shows Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah being accosted by journalists in London

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Welcome, Juba, but...


"After the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible." – President Barack Obama on South Sudan independence on Saturday

At last, the long-awaited independence of South Sudan has come. Last Saturday, the region became the world's 196th nation, extricating itself from the control of Sudan in the north. Independence came at a price. Over five decades of two civil wars (1983-2005) had caused the killing of at least two million South Sudanese, who have also suffered ruin occasioned by discrimination, deep-seated distrust and other troubles.

Africa's longest-running conflict is indeed over, but what does independence really mean to South Sudan? The immeasurable joy and high expectations which manifested from far-flung villages all the way to the John Garang mausoleum in the capital Juba were understandable. Most analysts hope that the new continental baby will eventually meet the expectations of the traumatised nation.

U.S. President Barack Obama captured this sentiment poignantly when he told the South Sudanese: "A proud flag flies over Juba and the map of the world has been redrawn. These symbols speak to the blood that has been spilled, the tears that have been shed, the ballots that have been cast, and the hopes that have been realised by so many millions of people." Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and American envoy at Saturday's celebration, hit the nail on the head when she urged the people to begin to think towards building a country worthy of the sacrifice of all the lives lost during the five decades of conflict. "Independence was not a gift you were given. Independence is a prize you have won," she said. "Yet even on this day of jubilee we remain mindful of the challenges that await us. No true friend would offer false comfort. The path ahead will be steep... but the Republic of South Sudan is being born amid great hopes."

Indeed, the path to South Sudan’s future is strewn with thorns. The new baby has to learn to walk. In doing this, it has to grapple with internal problems like provision of critical infrastructure and regional issues relating to its unresolved conflict over the border region of Abyei — where northern and southern troops are sparring for a fight.

South Sudan being oil-rich, there are hopes and fears about what petro-dollar could bring. On one hand is the good life wealth can bring, and on the other is the social dislocation such money usually brings to oil-rich African countries. We all lament the corruption and injustices, aside the environmental pollution, which oil wealth has brought to many African nations. It is oil wealthwhich has made Nigeria one of the most corrupt and one of the poorest countries in the world.

South Sudan should try and manage its wealth very well. Its more than 8 million citizens must enjoy basic needs such as education, health services, water and electricity. It should also manage the challenges of democratic governance and insist on observing the rule of law. Conceiving a workable power-sharing system for its dozens of ethnic and military factions would go a long way in ensuring political stability, which is sorely needed for economic prosperity. Of equal importance, it must begin to diversify its oil-based economy.

The young government also faces the challenge of relating with its former overlord, Sudan. It should quickly resolve all border claims between them. Sudan may not be a great team player in that regard, more so when more than 75 percent of what was its daily oil production now belongs to the South. The two countries can ill afford to continue with their age-long enmity. As U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said just before flying to Juba for the celebrations, "I know secession is painful, emotionally and financially... While the people of north and south Sudan will soon live in different countries, their future will be closely linked."

Ban was right.

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Published in my column in BLUEPRINT weekly newspaper, this week

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Censorship: Kano's smouldering cauldron (2)

The abject failure of the censorship regime in Kano State under Governor Ibrahim Shekarau was due to the lack of sincerity that dogged the whole project, as well as a deliberate policy of subjugation which aimed at throwing away the baby with the bathwater. The notion that the people appointed to administer the Kano State Censorship Board were on a pedestal where they could not be faulted was erroneous; just because the they were brandishing religious cards did not mean that they were unassailable. They were promoted as saints because doing so fitted snugly with the simple mentality of the common man, who is thought to be manipulatable by the false prophets in that government.

Had the censorship board wanted to promote Hausa film-making and make it amenable to the cultural and religious heritage of the people of northern Nigeria, it could have done any of the few of ways to go about it. It board would have formed a partnership with the right stakeholders in the industry in order to, first, put a stop to all the “undesirable elements” of movie content and, second, replace them with more wholesome productions. Instead, the chief censor, Rabo, adopted divide and rule tactics, selecting only yes-men though they could not help spearhead genuine changes. At the same time, he waged a brutal campaign against those he regarded as rebels, arresting and jailing them at will, as well as tarnishing the image of the industry in general. What followed was counter-attacks between him and his opponents; the war of attrition led to nowhere but the eventual failure of the board to sanitise the industry. At the end, Rabo himself was demystified, his holier-than-thou mien discredited.

Now, a new era appears to be on the horizon. Engineer Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso was the one who created the censorship board in 2001, during his first tenure as governor. Under him, the board was said to be lax, thus giving way to all sorts of misdemeanours which critics linked to the deterioration of both the quality of Hausa movies and the moral rectitude of movie practitoners. Shekarau tolerated much of the lapses, probably because he needed a re-election in 2007. It took the Hiyana sex scandal of 2007 to startle him into action, with the view to pleasing the mullahs.

Now that Kwankwaso is back, expectations in the industry are high. Stakeholders see him as their won. Some of them want him to appoint one of them as DG of the censorship board. They are almost doubly sure he will not “betray” them. But will he? Or won’t he?

However, it would be foolhardy of anyone in the industry to suppose that the carefree days of the past will return in this dispensation. The films will be censored because they are a veritable weapon of commiunicating ideas that impact on the society, with overarching consequences. Kwankwaso is expected should a technocrat who knows the movie business and the relevant matters of censorship. It should be somebody who can midwife the industry towards a level of professionalism not usually seen in these parts. It should be someone who will make our films competitive not only on the national scene but also continentally, from where they will be uniquely attractive universally.

This task should have no name-calling, campaign of calumny and policies that could weaken the business. Remember that one of the serious challenges facing the new government in Kano, and by extension all governments in the North, is reducing the huge army of unemployed youths roaming the streets. Kano has the largest population of unemployed youth, many of whom are not indigenes of the state – or even Nigerians. The movie-making industry has sucked in thousands of such men and women, thus contributing to the economy of the state and to its wellbeing. Governor Kwankwaso should create ways of encouraging this entrepreneurship while ensuring that it conforms to the norms of the society. There are many competent hands in Kano who can do it. Any attempt to kill the film-making business would be counterproductive and futile, just as we saw during the last censorship regime in the state.

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Published in my column in the current issue of BLUEPRINT, the weekly newspaper

Friday, 1 July 2011

Censorship: Kano’s smouldering cauldron (1)

Schadenfreude, which means delighting in other people's misery, best describes the feeling of those who oppose film-making in the Hausa language when an extremist Mullah was appointed to head the Kano State Censorship Board in 2007. The man, Abubakar Rabo Abdulkareem, had made a name as a fighter against various forms of immoral acts pervading the largest city in northern Nigeria, when he worked as a commander of the Sharia police. I was one of those, I must admit, who welcomed the appointment and soon became an adviser of sorts to him on how best to go about his new job. The movie industry, of which I’m an insider, had derailed from the path carved out for it by its pioneers, most of whom had been shoved aside by get-rich-quick youths who had succeeded in capturing the market with slapdash flicks that provided ample entertainment without much intellectual value.

Then a video clip, taken with a cell phone, of an A-class Hausa actress in a sex act with an unknown money changer based in Lagos, suddenly appeared. The resultant scandal almost brought the industry to its knees due to the outcry it generated. The scandal, known as the Hiyana Affair, inspired a sense of outrage among Muslims, at the same time engendering one of the deepest wells of schadenfreude I have ever seen in my life. Responding faithfully to the gallery hubbub, Governor Ibrahim Shekarau swung into action and appointed Malam Rabo to minister to the industry. The false prophets in and outside the state government went to town, promoting the self-righteous assumption that Hausa land could do without a movie industry. Only a few months earlier, however, the warmest of romances had existed between the government and the industry. On different occasions, Malam Shekarau and the movie industry had given each other awards.

Rabo happened to be one of those false prophets. No wonder, those who initially supported him were soon disappointed. They had expected him to midwife an industry that could be modelled into a bulwark against the frightening cultural invasion by foreign films in Hausa land, by devising standards and using the established stakeholders for the purpose. Besides, this was an industry of self-employed thousands in a state with the worst employment record in the north. They realised that either the man did not understand the basic reason for his appointment or he was dutifully carrying out a hidden agenda of his paymasters’ – which was to emasculate the budgeoning industry. His stock-in-trade was ceaseless harassment of actors, producers, directors, music composers, singers, marketers, etc. In the dubious name of cleansing the industry of immorality and lawlessness, he caused many to be jailed over spurious charges, just as his agents locked up studios, retail shops and cinemas. This reign of terror forced many industry stakeholders into exile in neighbouring states, where they continued producing and marketing their products, which ironically sneaked back to Kano, the biggest market in the business.

In the long run, Rabo failed woefully. The movie-making business could not be killed in spite of the hate campaign he and his agents mounted, using false pretences. The movies never stopped rolling out, and their audience never stopped patronising them. Also, aside their propaganda value and the scoring of cheap points, the Censorship Board’s court cases did not record any remarkable success. In fact, the bright-eyed knight in shining armour was soon derobed when he was arrested by the police in an uncompromising situation with a young woman on a Ramadan night last year.

The industry finally outlived its detractors, with the voting out of the Shekarau superstructure in the recent gubernatorial election. Now another government is in place, and movie-makers, many of whom had participated actively in Governor Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso’s campaigns, are hopeful. They believe that Kwankwaso, who established the Censorship Board in the first place during his first tenure as governor, is their own and will not “betray” them. But will he really turn out to be the saviour they think he is? This is the question I wish to tackle in this column next week. God’s willing.

Published in my column in the current edition of BLUEPRINT newspaper.

Monday, 20 June 2011

On the neglect of Imam and Shata


















In some sections of this week’s Blueprint, there are stories about Hausa land’s foremost artistes in the areas of music and literature. Alhaji Abubakar Imam, who was born in 1911 and died in a hospital in Zaria, Kaduna State, on June 19, 1981, was the leading creative writer in Hausa land. Alhaji Mamman Shata Katsina, who died in a hospital in Kano at dawn on Friday, June 18, 1999 at the age of 76, was the leading Hausa musician of our time.

Both men showed promise in their art forms right from a very young age -- barely 16 to 19 years. By the end of each artiste’s life, he was able to attain a level of dignity, acclaim and command of a huge following, a prowess which has outlived him. Each became a fabled member of the ruling elite. Each was awarded the enviable national honour of Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) by the federal government and an honorary doctorate degree by Ahmadu Bello University.

This was because each had contributed immensely to the development of our country, using his God-given talents. As a journalist, Imam had waged a war against what he called the “three evils” militating against progress in northern Nigeria -- ignorance, indolence and poverty. He also participated in the nascent political awakening in the region. In addition, his books have remained a yardstick for measuring the sophistication of creative writing in the Hausa language.

Shata, on his part, is still entertaining us even though he is no more. His songs are played on radio and television, and they are available on CDs (courtesy of pirates) for use at home and in our cars. In them, he titillates, educates and enlightens us on all those three evils that ailed Imam during his journalism days. Shata was also an active politician in the Second Republic. He chaired the Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) in Kankia Local Government Area and was the chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in Funtua LGA during the Third Republic. He must have, therefore, contributed to political awakening through his participation.

An interesting aspect of the life of these two geniuses is that while they had great opportunities to accumulate wealth, they didn’t. Many would be surprised to know that Shata in particular, whom some think was stinkingly rich, died almost a pauper. He lived as a humble man who would give away the monies and goods he received from his benefactors to lesser mortals, the way his father Alhaji Ibrahim Yaro did in his own lifetime.

Last week, Imam clocked 30 years in death and Shata clocked 12. This year also marks the centenary anniversary of the birth of Imam. While it is a matter of joy that we are still around to witness this epoch, a careful look at the family of each of these men shows that the memory of each one of them has not been given its due by those who should do so. In fact, it is sad that their families are left to fend for themselves without having an opportunity to reap from the fruits of their father’s/husband’s labour.

While Imam’s children live a comparatively better life because of the education they acquired, most of Shata’s sons -- and the wives he left behind -- are struggling. Some of Shata’s daughters are better off because they got higher education (at least four have acquired university degrees), but generally the family seems to have been abandoned by our thankless society.

This sob-story is similar to those of many other artistes in this country. My association with a variety of artistes has exposed me to many situations that make me sad any time I recall their fate. Almost all the artistes who were a cynosure of the society’s eyes at one time or the other have been left to their own devices; many are sickly or existing on the verge of penury.

Governments at local, state and federal levels should do something to redeem this ugly situation. There should be a hall of fame funded by various levels of government, and NGOs dedicated to the betterment of the life of artistes who have reached old age and their families when they are no more. It is an insult to the memory of people like Shata that even the name of the street where he lived for decades has not been changed to his name. The Katsina State government should find a way to not only immortalise this music giant but also assist his family; Imam, who was originally from Niger State, also had strong links to Katsina. With the right will, it can be done.

Published in my column in this week's edition edition of our weekly newspaper, BLUEPRINT, out today.

Photos above: Alhaji Abubakar Imam; Alhaji Mamman Shata (right) with a former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Dr Aliyu Modibbo Umar, who was a Shata benefactor