Monday, 20 April 2009

Mutilating The Truth

These are not easy times for Nigerian Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, Dr. Kemafo Nonyerem Chikwe. Caught in the web of a controversy in faraway Dublin, she is expected to defend herself over her denial of the existence of the spectre of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Nigeria. The whole saga began when a Nigerian illegal alien in Ireland, one Ms Pamela Izevbekhai, faced a threat of deportation back to Nigeria. She sued the Irish government, arguing that if she was forced back to this country, her two daughters, Naomi (7) and Jemima (6), would be subjected to female circumcision. She also claimed that another daughter, Elizabeth, died from blood loss as a result of the procedure.

Izevbekhai’s case caused a whirlwind of controversy, involving the media, human right groups, the government and the courts. The protracted legal battle raised a lot of many issues, all of which eventually defined what it means to be a Nigerian. Let’s start with Ambassador Chikwe’s defence of her country. In an interview she granted the Irish Times, published on Wednesday, April 1, 2009, the ambassador insisted that FGM was a “non-existent issue” in Nigeria and she accused Izevbekhai of “disparaging” her home country. Izevbekhai, she fumed, “has selfishly disparaged Nigeria. She has dented the image of the nation, making it look like a barbaric country . . . and she has also damaged the chances of people who may be seeking asylum through legitimate means by creating doubts in the minds of the authorities.” According to her, “FGM happens to be an ancient practice that is no longer in the consciousness of Nigerians. It is something that is completely insignificant in the present Nigerian culture.”

Now, that’s where Chikwe shot off the mark. The truth is that FGM is still prevalent in almost all communities in Nigeria, with differences only in the level of practice. While it is higher in some societies or sections of the country, it is less in others. Only yesterday I threw the question to a group of Nigerian journalists, who hailed from different cultural backgrounds, asking them if the FGM occurs in their communities. The answer was in the affirmative. They said even though the practice has reduced, it is still prevalent.

This confirms the official findings of the Federal Government last year, which told a United Nations committee that the prevalence rate of FGM in the country was 32 percent, and that in some regions the figure was as high as 65 percent. In a response to queries last May from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the government cited the findings of a survey carried out by its own National Bureau of Statistics in 2006. “The findings revealed that 32.6 percent was the prevalence rate of FGM in Nigeria. Surprisingly, the rate was higher in the urban (40.0 percent) than in the rural areas (29.0 percent) of the country,” the submission from the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development said. “It was also higher in the southern than in the northern states. While the South-South, South-West and South-East recorded 46.7 percent, 65 percent and 58.3 percent respectively, the North-Central, North-West and North-East recorded 14.5 percent, 2.0 percent and 1.7 percent respectively.”

Stressing its commitment to promote and protect women’s rights, the government pointed to several initiatives taken towards eliminating female circumcision. These included the passing of legislation in 11 states to prohibit the practice and training on prevention for nurse tutors. The report also mentioned that since 2004 the Federal Ministry of Health had marked the annual “FGM Day”, while information campaigns had increased public awareness on the issue.

Despite this commitment a separate report sent to the UN committee in October 2006 noted that the government’s aspirations that all citizens be treated as equal under the law were “limited in fulfilment” because of the complexity of the Nigerian legal system. “Even where statutory laws exist to outlaw some of these inimical customary and religious practices, practical experience and evidence abound that enforcement level is negligible,” it said, referring to practices such as early marriage, FGM and widowhood rites.

In its concluding observations, issued in July 2008, the UN committee noted the “continued high incidence of FGM in some areas of the country” and urged the government to prohibit the practice. A separate report published in 2007 by the World Health Organisation found that FGM was “widespread” in Nigeria, and varied from one state to another.

Where was Ambassador Chikwe when these official findings were compiled and published? Surprisingly, in her frantic effort to present Nigeria as a 21st century model of protecting women’s rights, she has questioned the veracity of the investigative reports cited above. “Whoever wrote that report is lying about Nigeria and is not patriotic. They are doing it for a purpose. I can assure you whoever wrote this report thought that it would be a way of attracting UN funds and that is the truth,” she told RTE’s ‘Would You Believe’ programme.

I agree with Amnesty International’s executive director Colm O’Gorman that these claims by Ambassador Chikwe are “bizarre and not credible”. It is clearly a case of an ostrich hiding its face in the sand, while leaving its rump in the air. This self-denial was couched in ignorance and supercilious pride in Chikwe’s Nigerianness. In an age of rebranding, our diplomats should research a position before making comments that could turn out to back-fire. Our ambassador in Ireland could have owned up to the truth about the actual existence of FGM in the country, which everyone knows about. Saying it doesn’t exist is a bare-faced lie, and to deny the veracity of the government’s own findings on the ugly practice is adding salt to injury.

This does not, however, mean that Pamela Izevbekhai has a water-tight case against her deportation. The fact of the existence of FGM does not necessarily support her claim of a direct threat to her daughters. First, she’s fighting her deportation because she wants to remain in Europe at all costs where, I assume, she would continue to lead an easy life, which is probably more laid-back than the harsh realities of living in Nigeria. But then her claims are full of bare-faced propaganda and lies. They exposed her desire to live in Ireland even while hiding under the canopy of lies.

In her defence, Izevbekhai claims that her daughters would be circumcised upon arrival, as if girls are being lined up for circumcision all along the streets. The practice exists, yes, but it does so in more traditional communities and among less “educated” or less “exposed” people. With increased awareness, thanks to government initiatives and campaigns of enlightenment by many NGOs, the practice is fast waning. A woman of Izevbekhai’s standing, leading a middle class life in the city, would not have her daughters seized from her by fuming relatives bent on mutilating them.

Proof that Izevbakhai is lying was her recent attempt to sway the Irish Supreme Court with fake documents. Boxed into a corner, she admitted that the documents used in a series of legal challenges had been forged. The counterfeit documents include one purporting to be her daughter Elizabeth’s death certificate, and an affidavit from one Dr Joseph Unokanjo, an obstetrician who purportedly treated the child. In a recently lodged affidavit, Unokanjo of the Isioma Hospital in Lagos confirmed that Izevbekhai was his patient but denied he had signed the previous affidavit or the death certificate. “I can confirm that no baby called Elizabeth Izevbekhai was delivered by me at Isioma Hospital and no baby of that name has ever been treated by me for any ailment, including post-circumcision complications,” the affidavit reads. As a result of this admission, Izevbekhai’s two lawyers withdrew from the case in frustration. They could not do it “the Nigerian way.”

It is clear that one illegal alien’s lie, concocted to gain asylum in a rich country, was countered by a diplomat’s lie to puncture the first lie. Both have not done good to the image of Nigeria, which the government is bent on “rebranding.” They have both shown to the world that Nigerian citizens, at every level, can trade in untruth in order to score a cheap point, which is always self-serving. They consider it a duty. That is one way to define what it means to be a Nigerian.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Bashir Sanda, sabon jagoran tace finafinai a Zamfara

Gwamnatin Jihar Zamfara ta nada sabon Babban Shugaba (wato Executive Chairman) na sabuwar Hukumar Tace Finafinai da Dab'i ta Jihar Zamfara. Wanda aka nadan shi ne wani abokin mu, marubuci, mai suna Alhaji Bashir Sanda Gusau.

Wasun ku za su tuno da cewa Bashir marubucin littattafan hikaya ne, wadanda su ka hada da "Auren Zamani." To kuma ya k'ware a fagen aikin jarida, inda har ya kai matsayin Manajan Darakta a kamfanin jarida mallakar jihar su, wato "The Weekly Legacy."

Can kwanan baya Gwamna Mahmud Aliyu Shinkafi (MAS) ya tsige Bashir a kan dalilin wai ya yi rubutu a jaridar inda ya soki Shugaban Kasa Yar'Adua. Hakan ya bakanta ran 'ya'yan kungiyar mu ta editocin Nijeriya (wato Nigerian Guild of Editors) inda mu ke ganin an yi haka ne don a hana Bashir fadin albarkacin bakin sa.

To yanzu dai Gwamna MAS ya gane kuskuren sa, ya dawo da Bashir a jikin sa, ya dora shi kan sabuwar kujera. Sakataren gwamnatin jihar, Alhaji Mamman Bawa Gusau, shi ne ya sa hannu a takardar nad'in Malam Bashir. To, addu'ar mu ita ce: Allah Ya taya riko, kuma Ya kad'e fitina, sannan Ya hana sabon shugaba aikata duk wani nau'i na zaluntar bayin Allah, amin summa amin.

Will Yar'Adua ever become popular?

It is no longer news that our president’s popularity rating is very low. You don’t need a pollster to tell you that Malam Umaru is gaining a rating lower than Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s was between 1999 and 2003. Which means that Nigerians preferred Obasanjo during his first term than they do Yar’Adua during his own first term. And that’s bad enough for a leader whose coming onto the scene happened through a controversy. Amazingly, the environment was virtually similar. In 1999 when Obasanjo was drafted into the presidential race, the country was smarting from its biggest political catastrophe since the civil war–the threat of break-up following the June 12 debacle. Those that put their trust in Obasanjo did so largely because they saw in him a chance to appease the Yorubas and bring the country back from the precipice. I do not have to argue that Obasanjo later betrayed that trust, barely two years into his first term.

Yar’Adua didn’t have any shred of luck to begin with. Like Obasanjo, he was drafted into the presidential race most likely against his rumoured wish of retiring into farming, where he would nurse his ill-health. He became president through a heavily rigged election. Because of that, he was unpopular from day one. The fact that the man he was said to have defeated, Muhammadu Buhari, is a disciplinarian and incorrigible did not help his image. Those that cautiously trusted him hoped that he would prove his adversaries wrong by turning the nation’s ill-fortune around. They are now pained to realise that, legitimacy problem apart, the president is simply a hard sell. Many have accused him of “sleeping on duty,” a euphemism for inaction. Not without some justification. The country appears to be static, with the marriage of the president’s two daughters to state governors being counted as some of the administration’s major achievements.

Meanwhile, the sticking problems that the past government failed to solve have worsened. All the points in Yar’Adua’s de facto holy mantra–the Seven-Point Agenda–have become pointless because nothing substantial has been achieved in executing them. They are: education, power and energy, land reforms, food security, wealth creation, transportation, and security of life and property. One of them, electricity generation, is at its all-time low, leading to the collapse of businesses and unspeakable discomfort to citizens. Yar’Adua’s vow to declare an emergency in the power sector has not been fulfilled.

An issue that is not in the Agenda but is nonetheless a major thumb for the administration–the war against corruption–appears to be stuck in legalese and propaganda. Graft is endemic in spite of the EFCC’s struggle to fight it. Nigeria remains one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. While many do not regard Yar’Adua as personally corrupt, but the fact that he is surrounded by characters that are regarded as corrupt has put a question-mark on his government’s sincerity to fight corruption.

Let’s look at the basics. Nigerian roads are still death-traps. Hospitals are mere consulting clinics. Our refineries are not functioning. Armed robbery is on the increase. Prices of foodstuff have shot through the roof. As the ruling Peoples Democratic Party forces its winning streak forward, insisting on winning all the states and ruling for 60 years, the next general election has been programmed to be more heavily rigged than the last one.

The poverty index has jumped, threatening to wipe out the middle class. Majority of Nigerians hold Yar’Adua responsible for their economic woes even though this country is blighted by the global financial crisis. The world recession is, indeed, responsible for the fall in the price of oil to an abject $50 a barrel today, but what concrete achievements were made with the windfall of the past year when, by July 2008, oil sold for as high as $147 a barrel? Many believe that the windfall was frittered away on white elephant projects that have not lessened our woes.

In contrast, most Americans do not blame President Barack Obama for the poor state of the U.S. economy. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published last Tuesday, 80 percent of Americans in the poll blamed banks, financial institutions and corporations for the economic meltdown. Some 70 percent also blamed consumers for taking on too much debt and the former Bush administration for lax regulation. Only 26 percent said the Obama administration was not doing enough to turn the situation around, and this is in spite of the clear action Obama is putting in a-righting the wrongs in the U.S. economy. Still, because of his action, 64 percent said they were confident Obama’s policies will improve the economy, down from 72 percent just before he took office in January. Forty-two percent said the country was now heading in the right direction, a five-year high. Late last year, when the government of then-President George W. Bush was in its final months, as many as nine in 10 Americans said the country was heading in the wrong direction.

What would a Nigerian poll say about Yar’Adua’s role in our economy? Your guess is as good as mine. Today most Nigerians are groping in the dark, unsure of what tomorrow may bring. Almost all hope in this administration has been lost. Apart from those that benefit from the spoils of power, every other Nigerian does not see Yar’Adua as a saviour or capable of taking the country out of the present miasma. That is the verdict even in his home state of Katsina.

Does our president care about his plummeting popularity? Hardly. If he did, he would have done some things to correct his image. He would have been taking some actions, even if they are unpopular, as long as they are in the interest of the nation. But the sad fact is that the president does not seem to care about his unpopularity. Almost every step he takes is unpopular and appears self-serving. One such step was the recent rejection of the key recommendations of the Political Reform Committee. Another is the manner his rule of law jargon has given further metallic protection to high-wire criminals, many of whom are thumbing their noses at the EFCC.

To answer the question whether the president would ever become popular, we must look back on his antecedents. When he was governor, Malam Umaru did not do much in terms of performance during his first three years. That disappointed many indigenes of the state. It was only in the final year of his first term that he began to mobilise the billions of naira he had saved to develop the state. Securing a second term, he used the four years to continue with his development projects. Katsina, as a result, became a showpiece in many facets of life.

But the tiny Katsina State, almost mono-cultural, is not Nigeria. The vastness of the nation’s problems and their complexity appear to be too overwhelming for Yar’Adua. The health situation of the president does not help matters, too. If at all he harbours a secret plan to repeat the Katsina magic, it is high time he got cracking. There is no time to waste. Nigerians cannot afford to wait till his second term (which he is determined to get at all costs) before he could begin to address their problems. In the absence of that determination–and there is no evidence that anything of such nature is in the works–most Nigerians would be more comfortable with the president starting to implement just one agenda for the nation–his leaving office at the end of his first term in 2011.

Published in LEADERSHIP on Friday.
Pix above shows a rather unpresidential Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, his wife Turai and their daughter many decades ago