Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Is Watergate Possible Here?

This question was paraphrased from the piece by Leonard Downie Jr., who was executive editor of The Washington Post for 17 years, published in the same newspaper early this week. The piece, titled "Is Watergate Possible Now?", was an analysis of American journalism in the age of the Internet. It was a retrospection inspired by the death, last Thursday, of W. Mark Felt, the whistle-blower popularly known as Deep Throat in the scandal that blew President Richard Nixon out of office. Mark Felt was the anonymous source of most of the stories filed by the Post's reporter Bob Woodward after a break-in at the national headquarters of the opposition Democratic National Committee in Washington's Watergate hotel and office complex in June 1972.

Mr Felt, who was at that time the second-in-command at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, craftily led Woodward in unraveling the cover-ups that were traced back to the Nixon Administration, eventually forcing the President to resign two years later in ignominy. The newspaper faithfully hid the identity of its source, merely calling him Deep Throat -- after a porn movie. Mr Felt, who died at the age of 97, revealed himself only in May 2005. The Sunday Times of London this week aptly described him as "the most famous anonymous source in the history of journalism."

The Watergate scandal, an unforgettable milestone, did spawn a plethora of investigative journalism not only in America but also across the world. The spirit lives in many journalists today. Many a journalist now treats the powers that be with caution, dreaming of fishing things out about them, nasty, smelly things that could help bring them into disrepute or even out of power. The feeling is apparently mutual. The powers that be -- people in government, in business, in crime, in sports or even in the service of God -- find journalists barely tolerable; in most cases they find them intolerable -- and treat them so. Whenever they talk of mutual cooperation, you will out that the benefit is also mutual. Sad.

In America, the fall of Nixon created a frenzy in newsrooms as many news organs tried to equal or surpass The Washington Post's prowess. Indeed, very big exposes were made by bigger and smaller media. The spirit liveth, no doubt. However, none has equaled the impact and glory of that newspaper's epoch-making feat, not least because no President was forced out of office again but due to the watershed nature of the first case. President Bill Clinton was boxed into a very tight corner during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but he was able to weather the storm.

The news media have become transformed worldwide since the '70s. The biggest change came with the Internet. Apart from making journalism 'more democratic' by turning anyone on a keyboard with a connectivity into a newshound and publisher, the Internet has made sources of information more readily available and also made information dissemination easier, instant and more widespread. Leonard Downie Jr's concern is with making journalism not simply a medium of holding Presidents (and other leaders) accountable to the people, which is equally important, but a way of improving the life of the people. Journalists might be called "sons of whores" by powerful figures as Nixon's character in the new movie, "Frost/Nixon," played by Frank Langella, did. But it is worthwhile to continue doing the good work because in the long run it would be in the interest of the nation.

So is a Wategate-like scenario possible here in Nigeria? First, we have to examine the motive of anyone wishing for such a scandal. W. Mark Felt was suspected of having resentments, hoping, as the Sunday Times of London editorialised this week, "to elevate himself in the bureaucracy." It noted, however, that "there was his sense that something was wrong and needed to be exposed." Any Nigerian who dreams of seeing a President, governor or Local Government chairman felled should, first, have a motive which, ideally, should be in the best interest of the community rather than self. The same goes to the potential whistle-blower.

There are too many willing whistle-blowers in this country. Unfortunately, however, many a Nigerian 'Deep Throat' would usually want to step forward when he is left out of the booty-sharing after, say, a theft from the public till. Which means that most of our people would rather keep quiet when corrupt practices are committed as long as they are involved in eating the cake.

If most Nigerians were a moral lot, there would have been more exposes about election and examination malpractices, thefts and break-ins, robberies, infidelity by spouses and sexual pervasions, murders and assassinations, pay-offs and rip-offs, counterfeiting of currency and documents, smuggling and numerous other vices. But because the moral souls in our midst are arguably smaller in number than their opposites, or are beaten into the background, such exposes are few and far between. The result is the erosion of morality in the society and the frantic pursuit of material things. Hence the retrogression in the quality of relationships, family values, service delivery, capital projects, and total lack of direction in statecraft.

To get a scandal of Watergate proportions in this kind of environment of moral aridity can be quite a pipe dream. Besides, there are other factors. Granted that since the end of the Civil War there have been a great number of exposes made by the public-spirited Nigerian media. In pursuing the cause of public interest, our journalists have shown immense courage, working mostly under conditions not known to their counterparts in America; military rule, for example. Nigerian journalists have exposed numerous cases of corruption and fought dictatorship.

Indeed, given the political climate in the last four decades, they could be regarded as a more fearless and dogged lot. Whereas the American system guarantees all sorts of liberties and protections to journalists, we in Nigeria have operated mostly under military decrees; where a sort of democracy exists, such as during the Shagari and the Obasanjo/Yar'Adua eras, journalists are hamstrung by remnants of military-era edicts and mentalities that were lobbed into the constitution and our daily life respectively. In the American democracy no television station would be shut down overnight by government agents because of a faulty story aired or a newspaper sued by the President because the paper had reported something about his ill-health.

In this kind of climate it is easy not to witness a Watergate -- a cyclone of a political embarrassment massive enough to force the Number 1 Citizen to throw in the towel. To the best of my knowledge, not even a Local Government chairman in this country has ever resigned because of a newspaper story. If anything, certain exposes have only helped steel the grip of some of our leaders, such as the state governors and the President, on power. In saner climes, Stella Obasanjo's tummy tuck scandal could force a president to quit. But it only made the President a hero to sympathise with, and the late Stella a celebrated martyr.

Clearly, we are not there yet. We don't even seem to know exactly where we are. The Washington Post and its two reporters were called all sorts of names in the early days of the Watergate scandal, but they held out till the end, refusing to be fazed by the loud grumblings of presidential aides and government contractors. That helped ease "all the president's (bad) men" out of power. It helped the cause of American democracy. And journalism the world over is the better for it. That, in fact, is the greatest lesson for Nigerian journalists from the Watergate scandal.


Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Mission Impossible, Possible!

The Hajj is over. Over the past week 8,308 pilgrims have been flown back to Nigeria. But 76,692 of us are still in the holy land, waiting to be transported. (Hundreds more should have returned to Nigeria by the time you are reading this). In my case, two journeys are ahead of me: one to Medina and the other to Nigeria. I do not know when either will take place. Out of the 85,000 pilgrims that came to Saudi Arabia for Hajj through the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), only 44,600 have been to Medina to pay homage to the Prophet's mosque and other interesting religious sites, prior to the start of Hajj proper. The rest are in Mecca, waiting. In the house where I stay, and in many other houses dotted across Mecca, there is a great deal of uncertainty about just when we will be moved to Medina, after which we will wait to be taken to Jeddah and then Nigeria. Though the Medina visit is not a pillar of Hajj, it is nonetheless a significant aspect of the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) has stressed, as reported in so many Ahadith, the importance of visiting his mosque where his grave and those of his companions are located. One Hadith of Muslim says Abu Hurairah (RA) reported the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) saying: "A prayer in my mosque is a thousand times more excellent than a prayer in any other mosque, except Masjid-al-Haram (Makkah)". So we wait.

The wait can be excruciatingly annoying, though. It tugs at one's patience. We "kill" time by going to the nearby mosque for congregational prayers or to the Haram for circumambulation of the holy Ka'aba (Tawaf), window-shopping, visiting other pilgrims' houses, or simply taking a siesta. Some even watch movies on potable DVD players. Rumours have it that our batch of pilgrims that has not been to Medina may be moved there tomorrow or the following day. Or the next day. Or, maybe, next week! Those lucky pilgrims that have been to the Prophet's city are the ones being flown back to Nigeria. The way things stand, with pilgrims being jetted to Nigeria in trickles, we fear that we are going to be marooned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for the next three or four weeks. The stay would have otherwise been of great spiritual value because it affords one the rare opportunity to pray in Islam's holiest site. But because every pilgrim wants to return home after the satisfyingly grueling rites of Hajj, most would rather just leave.

Lack of information from officials compounds the situation. It reflects the uncertainty and disorganization that dogged the preparation for Hajj months back. In normal societies it is possible for a pilgrim to plan his trip - from the date of his embarkation to the holy land to the date of his departure there-from - but in our country it seems that keeping the pilgrim in the dark about almost everything is one of the major pastimes of the Hajj officials.

A mid-level Nigerian official was here last night. When someone complained about the painful anxiety of waiting in the dark, he explained off the situation by saying that it was caused by the airlines. If the companies given the contract of transporting the pilgrims had done their job properly - by providing enough aircraft the way, say, the Pakistanis, the Indonesians, the Malays and other "more civilized" countries have done - there wouldn't have been this problem. From his explanation, and the incriminating evidence one sees everywhere, one got the distinctive impression that Nigerian Hajj administration is the worst on Planet Earth.

Due to the straight-jacketed culture of corruption and partiality that has been entrenched in the system across the years, one of your greatest nightmares begins as soon as you've decided to perform the Hajj from Nigeria. You would soon discover that it is a mission impossible that is made possible only by Him whose exhortation you have ventured out to fulfill - the Almighty Himself. There are many stumbling blocks on your way. While some of them are natural and are, therefore, bound to happen, most are man-made. For instance, natural problems can (and do) occur from the overcrowding, which creates other cataclysms. You cannot have over three million people in a small field like Mina or Arafat or squeezed into small embankments like the Jamrah and not expect to encounter mountains of problems, more so when those millions hail from diverse cultural backgrounds.

The man-made problems are the ones that pilgrims grapple with. Nigerian governments at all levels do spend incredible sums of money every year in order to overcome or at best minimize those problems, all to no avail. Right from the registration of intending pilgrims to transporting them back at the end, the hurdles seem to defy solution. Why? Answer: no realistic solutions are applied.

The buck stops at the table of Hajj officials. From what I see here in the holy land, the whole exercise is run by semi-literate undertakers, supposedly superintended by the senior, more educated officials. Many of the so-called senior officials do not even know why they are here, or pretend not to know. Many of them appear to think that they are in KSA for their personal pursuits – some picnic away from Nigeria. Tales of their alleged unholy exploits abound. The obvious one is the cat-and-mouse game they play with confused pilgrims, disappearing just when they are most needed. Once in a while you catch sight of them cruising around town in big American cars (their favourite is GMC) with their women: their parents, wives and or sisters, I suppose, though a friend of mine derisively said "girlfriends". They wear an air of "hard at work" when they catch your eye and promptly zoom off, lest you would ask for 'lift.' An exception here are members of the medical team, who stay at their desks attending to the needs of pilgrims. I doff my hat to them.

Our Hajj officials should stop behaving like privileged brats, thinking they are doing a favour to the pilgrims. They are in this country enjoying all those unnamable perks courtesy of the poor pilgrims. They should, therefore, dedicate all their time to the service of the pilgrims even if they must miss their own Hajj. (Note that they are not here to perform Hajj themselves). They should know that if they perform creditably well, their reward isn't just in the hefty estacode they receive, the choice accommodation and transport they enjoy, etc., but it is also in heaven because they would be contributing positively to a religious duty.It is very important for them to constantly provide relevant information to the pilgrims: when Hajj airlifts will begin, where to go in the holy land, how and when to get there, what to do there, the exact date and time for returning home, etc. Some of these tasks can be accomplished in liaison with other agencies, such as the airlines and local authorities.

Can they do these? From what is presently on the ground, my verdict is a grim one: the present officials are incapable of a change because they are the beneficiaries of the corrupt, decadent system they had helped create. The huge sums of money they milk from the system, as well as the privileges they enjoy, would vanish if the system is reformed. Expectedly, they would stand in the way of any change, insisting on maintaining the status quo. To kick them out would require a visionary, fearless leader who is unattached to the system, someone who would divorce the Hajj administration from politics. I suggest that the President of Nigeria should get involved actively, possibly by assuming the title of Amirul Hajj for at least four years. This way he would see things first-hand instead of relying on the annual report of an appointed so-called Amirul Hajj, who is (as happened this year) an absentee politico in the holy land. State governors and local government chairmen in Muslim-populous states should do likewise. The time to start the new system is now, not later, when the 2008 Hajj exercise is being wrapped up amidst ceaseless uncertainty and disappointment.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

On Holy Ground

I am writing this piece from a house in Shahar 16 quarters of Mecca City, a walking distance from the Harami (Kaaba), Islam's holiest site. I am one of the millions of Muslim pilgrims taking part in one of the most personal journeys of all time -- the Hajj. So permit me if I sound personal, or even cocky, in this write-up. It's my personal one-off impression of life as I see it in the holy city, which I am visiting - together with my mother and wife - for the first time. Nothing original, of course, as many of you had seen it all before, in many cases several times over, across the years. But a writer always has an eye for unique things while in a strange place. And Mecca, the cradle of Islam, is unique in many tantalising, even if provocative, ways. For the first-time vcisitor, the attractions are doubly provocative.

Because of the unique things that abound, there is, ab initio, the problem of what to describe first. Is it the quietude which ushers in the break of day, punctuated by the occasional honking of vehicles, or the moving stream of human traffic? Or is it the multiparity of languages representing diverse cultures? Or is it the beauty of Arabic being spoken by almost everyone? Chances are you would find yourself rambling on and on, oscillating between a topic and another, and back again, until you are almost lost in the beehive of your emotions. I am a victim of that dilemma as I sit, here, by the window of my sixth floor room, watching the streets below coming back to life early on Wednesday morning. People -- the first spectacle of any adventurous writer -- have begun to walk by, clad in Islamic dress, with a majesty akin to that of the rulers of the land, whom I have not yet met (and can't possibly hope to).

Mecca is a city that bubbles and rumbles with life. A lugubrious quietude belies its surging energy. At night it is a city of lights; bright neons done in wonderful calligraphy; street lights that never go off; well-lit houses with their tiny, zig-zagging streets, and bazaars decked with expensive clothes and other (expensive) ornaments. In the daytime it throbs brilliantly with people and vehicles. And you can't help but marvel at the topography, which I see as "central" Middle Eastern even if it's needless for me to say so in the spirit of "Don't tell us there is water in the Atlantic Ocean." The buildings out there are stylish. Mosques dot the atmosphere, and readings from the holy Qur'an blare out at prayer times.

And talking about cosmopolitanism, the great influx of foreigners for the Hajj has made the city a place of diversity. It has always been that way because pilgrimage here is not necessarily an annual ritual but a round-the-year exercise: apart from Hajj, there is the Umra, or lesser pilgrimage, which one can embark on at any time of the year. Apart from the pilgrims, many nationals have made Mecca their home. Especially West Africans. Now, talking about West Africans is more or less talking about Nigerians. In Mecca, any black person is regarded as a Nigerian even if he/she has never been there. It's like the Northerner in the South, whom people see as a "Hausa" Muslim person. That is because of the role of Nigerians living here play -- good or bad. I have heard incredible tales about the mostly negative exploits my compatriots are credited with doing here -- stealing, touting, prostitution, drugs and other forms of vice. I am still searching for someone to tell me the good things that they do. On my part I know two, at least. First, there are many Islamic scholars teaching in big schools and professionals such as doctors, English teachers and oil engineers contributing to the Saudi economy and society. No one talks about these, of course. Second, Diaspora Nigerians in Mecca have created a "Little Nigeria" here, or a "Little Kano." Once you are in the "Little Kano" areas of the city (and I hear that the Saudis have ensured that your level of education determines whether you live in these parts or not), you are home. Hausa is widely spoken. Even some Arabs speak it. And you can eat "Hausa" food, including very pristine ones like tuwo, danwake, kunu, the ubiquitous shinkafa da kaza, and even fura da nono. All these are sold right at the door of our house. Indeed, some of these delicacies are harder to find in parts of northern Nigerian cities than in Mecca. Home sickness? It's non-existent, sir. The "Little Kano" residents, majority of whom live in Mecca illegally, playing a Tom & Jerry game with policemen and immigration officers, have nonetheless made the Arab citizens in these parts look like illegal aliens.

Am I comfortable in Meca? This question reminds me about the Hausa truism which says that once you have left home on a journey, it is the journey that "owns" you, and not the other way round. Which means that the nature of the journey determines your comfort or otherwise. The journey for Hajj is not designed to be a cozy one. About three million people converge in Saudi Arabia during Hajj. And they come from different nations of the world, forming the biggest melting pot of cultures on earth. It is obvious that the Saudi authorities have put in place stringent measures to deal with the situation, providing comfort and security. Their efforts are complemented by those of the authorities of various nations and states. Even so, it's impossible to create an atmosphere that could give each pilgrim 100% comfort.

I did not expect to find comfort even though I have heard on the radio about the wonderful preparations made by the various pilgrim boards to make everybody happy. Personal contacts with other been-tos and the reading of Hajj literatures prior to my departure, especially the book, "Getting the Best Out of Al-Hajj" by Abu Muneer Ismail Davids, have warned me never to expect too much. So my renown optimism has been tempered by a huge dose of expectant realism. So I am happy. I am not one of those Nigerians that moan about lack of this or that. Not yet, though. Thank God.

What of worship? That is why we are here. We, the tourists of God, are here to complete one of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj. Hajj is a journey of renewal of faith, couched in the absolute belief in the oneness of God and obeisance to Him. It is also one of the greatest opportunities of all time, the chance to visit the holy sites, perform both the compulsory and the recommended rituals therein. Ultimately, one hopes to gain Allah's forgiveness and mercies. This hope is not vain, especially when you are performing the Hajj. Those who have accomplished Hajj should be grateful for the opportunity, and those who are here are excited, while those who have never been here should pray to be here. Hence our spending time in piety, going to the Kaaba every day to perform the Tawaaf (circumambulation of the Kaaba) and the five daily prayers.

I could write about this enchanting journey endlessly. The big comfort here is that this is a great lesson in piety, in the belief in the oneness and mortality of mankind, in the hope that life will change for the better, not only for oneself but also for all men and women seeking to do good in life, with the overall prayer that salvation will come through good deeds like this journey to Islam's very origin. If you can come next year, please do so.