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Playing Telemundo with a country

A look at Nigeria’s litany of presidential sob story

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

Despite our tough exterior and hard men and women disposition, deep down, Nigerians love melodrama and a good sob story. No wonder then that telenovelas with their ridiculous storyline and long, drawn-out dramas are big in Nigeria since they first made an appearance on Nigerian TV in the mid-1990s.

Incidentally, that was also around the same period that presidential candidates in Nigeria’s elections started pitching their personal sob stories as an alternative to the real substance in their campaigns. Often, this pity stories win over more supporters than anything their campaign teams can package in their manifesto.

For instance, when MKO Abiola was running for president in 1993, the pity story his campaign team pushed was concerning his sick dying mother. She was ill and the young Abiola, the first of his father’s 23 births to survive infancy, was so poor he could not afford the equivalent of the 50kobo medical bill needed to save her life. Unfortunately, she died and that, the story goes, was why MKO Abiola devoted his wealth to philanthropy and ensuring that no one’s mother dies from a disease that money could help cure.

This poignant story gave MKO Abiola personality and a 3D feel. It was inspiring for many Nigerians who thought well, here was someone who could not afford 50Kobo treatment for his mother then, but has risen to become one of the wealthiest men in the country. Not only that, but it also provided a very convincing motive for his philanthropy, which, to be fair to him, he has always had going on before he joined partisan politics. His philanthropy definitely saved many lives.

So when Abiola dubbed his campaign “Farewell to Poverty,” it was really easy for Nigerians to buy into the narrative and vote for him because they could see that he pulled it off in his personal life and they hoped he could do the same for the country.

Sadly, Abiola never had the chance to do this as his election was annulled and he would never live to become president. However, the trajectory of Nigeria’s fourth republic could be traced directly to those annulled elections.

When democracy finally made a return in 1999, it was through Olusegun Obasanjo, a man pushed forward as compensation to the Southwest for the loss of Abiola’s mandate, and eventually Abiola himself.

Obasanjo’s campaign was packaged differently since he did not have Abiola’s wider appeal. Stories of his life in penury as an orphan surfaced but the high point of his sob story was that here was a man who had been given up for dead when he was incarcerated in Abacha’s gulag for a phantom coup. Whether the coup plot was real or not was secondary to this campaign. What was paramount was that if you believed Obasanjo plotted against Abacha, it was because he cared enough about the country he bled for during the civil war, accepted the Biafran instrument of surrender on behalf of, and in retirement put his life on the line to save the country from Abacha’s vicious claw. That was the narrative.

So a man who had already risen to be Head of State was repackaged as the millennial grass to grace story. The tagline: From Prison to the Villa had a nice ring to it and Nigerians lapped it and cleaned the plate. Obasanjo became president.

For Obasanjo’s successor, Umaru Yar’adua, there wasn’t a rags to riches storyline to push. The Yar’adua family was reputable and titled. His father was a notable post-independence politician and a titleholder in the court of the Emir of Katsina. His brother, Shehu Musa, was a military strongman who was Gen. Obasanjo’s number two and would have been president in 1992 if Gen. Babangida hadn’t scrapped the transition programme at the time. He too, like Obasanjo, was jailed by Abacha for the same offence. Unlike Obasanjo, the older Yar’adua did not survive incarceration.

So, Umaru Yar’adua had to be packaged differently. Not in a way that would make it clear Obasanjo was compensating the family of his chum, or compensating the north for its support during his own presidential bid, or even as his way of holding onto power considering Yar’adua’s docile demeanour. Yar’adua had to be packaged as a sickly maverick from an old, moneyed family who shunned the trappings of wealth and its consequent flamboyance. Not much of a sob story, but the powers that be were determined to get their way.

But Goodluck Jonathan! Now that is a soap writer’s delight. Son of poor canoe makers who grew up without shoes, somehow had an education and ended up with a PhD. Never quite contested any election but somehow, through sheer providence, rose from deputy governor to governor to vice president and then acting president, all without running for a single office.

When Yar’adua exited the scene by way of death in 2010, Jonathan, his deputy, stepped up as acting president and come election time, threw his famed fedora in the arena. His sob story writers made his “I had no shoes” line a mystic, almost hypnotic chant that reeled in Nigerians. He won the 2011 presidential elections and the man who had no shoes now had the entire country at his feet. A dedicated team of Zee World and Telemundo scriptwriters, working over mugs of chai and maté, could not have come up with a better story.

And then Buhari wept!

In the 12 years Buhari ran for president between 2003 and 2015 when he eventually won, his narrative has had the consistency of the North Star. Here is a man who had the country at his disposal, first as minister of petroleum, then as Head of State then as Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund that controlled billions and simply, despite all the temptations, could not dip his saintly hands in the national cake. So resistant is he to corruption that despite achieving the highest office, his simplicity and lack of affinity for wealth and ostentation was celebrated and became the stuff of legends. The BBC even reported on the fact that he answered his door by himself. It was that big a deal. And photos of him making a beverage drink from a N50 sachet milk and Milo or watching the Super Eagles on a prudently small 32-inch TV became viral.

In 2015, because Buhari did not help himself to public funds, he could not afford the APC’s N55m nomination form. He had to rely on a bank loan to procure the form and on the one-one naira donations by the suffering masses of Nigeria, including a one million naira jackpot donated by a nonagenarian, her entire life savings, to fund his campaign.

So impressed were Nigerians by this simple president that they believed they had finally got an honest man into Aso Rock, one who could change the narrative of the country with his anti-corruption body language. It wasn’t as good a sob story as Jonathan’s (Telemundo probably wouldn’t come up with something like that) but it worked wonders for his campaign, consistently for the five times he ran for office, including the last time as sitting president where a group bought his nomination form on his behalf).

Nigerians are suckers for really good sob stories and get so caught up in the flux of them that the real issues, such as policies and manifestoes, are given a short shrift. They are not developed enough by candidates and are not considered prudently by electorates who should know better than to base their electoral choices on Zee World-inspired scripts. Look where these choices have led us.

 We ought to know better than to play Telemundo with our children’s and our country’s future.

First Published in Daily Trust, June 17, 2020

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June 12, Nigeria and a history of failed promises

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim  

Every year on June 12, a rally is held to commemorate the events of 1993

Since the return to democracy in 1999, there hasn’t been a political campaign as colourful as that leading to the June 12, 1993 elections. It had funfair, pizzazz, drama and spectacle. In hindsight, these are also the elements one would find in a classical tragedy, which was what this episode in Nigeria’s history eventually became.

A generation has passed since the events of 1993, 27 years in which a brood of Nigerians have been born, bred and nurtured on an education that is fiercely silent on the history of the country. It is no surprise then that there are many young Nigerians for whom June 12 is only a mantra for dissent and a cry that represents, even if only whimsically, the dashed hopes Nigeria habitually visits on its citizens.

My memories of those campaigns comprised of planes flying over Jos and dropping campaign leaflets of “Hope 93” and MKO Abiola’s manifesto, with the “farewell to poverty” tagline-his promises of free healthcare for Nigerians and free education, among others. These flyers and the promises they contained fell like confetti and it was easy to imagine those days as a world cup final when the victors hoist the trophy in a shower of confetti and cheers.

The atmosphere then, even before those elections held, could not be more similar. There were fanfare and freebies-soaps, rice, milk, imported clothing items, all the things that would now qualify as “stomach infrastructure” which were being handed out to electorates.

Bashir Tofa, Abiola’s opponent in the election and candidate of the National Republican Convention (NRC) did not have Abiola’s flamboyance, could not match him for popularity or his philanthropy. His campaign simply could not match Abiola’s.

After a decade of uninterrupted military rule, since General Buhari toppled Shagari’s regime on New Year’s eve of 1983, the promise of a return to democracy seemed real, tangible even. The decision by General Ibrahim Babangida’s government to break the regional structure of Nigeria’s politics by setting up only two political parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), fund these parties and build secretariats for them in every corner of the country was tough love, one that the country needed. Every politician of any leaning would have to fit into these two-party system, and fit they did.

This was what made it possible for the SDP to field two Muslims, Abiola and Babagana Kingibe, as candidate and running mate. And they would have won—or they did, by some accounts, even though official results were never announced-defeating Bashir Tofa, even in his native Kano. It was universally acknowledged that the June 12, 1993 elections were free and fair.

What potentially could have been Nigeria’s finest hour, however soured within hours. First, there was a court ruling by Justice Dahiru Saleh of an Abuja High Court annulling the elections. Then General Babangida, in a nationwide broadcast, announced the annulment of the election, much to the shock and chagrin of Nigerians. And the international community. No one bought the story by military strongman IBB that he was “pressured” by his Armed Forces Ruling Council to annul the elections. Abiola himself, in his famous Epetedo Speech described the annulment as an “abominable act of naked political armed robbery.”

What we would never know is if June 12 would have been the moment that Nigerian electorates would have commenced the dismantling of the ethnic sentiments that had characterized our politics. Considering how religion, ethnicity and regionalism played second fiddle during the campaigns, it was shocking how quickly those sentiments made a return in the post-annulment soap opera that would follow, starting from the street protests that followed IBB’s announcement, where people from one part of the country were targeted, regardless of their support and votes for Abiola. “Hope ’93,” quickly turned to Despair ’93 and soon ended up as Outrage ’94.

Through the phases of the transitions, the narrative coming from the Abiola camp was that the north, which had overwhelmingly supported his candidacy and voted for him at the expense of one of their own, was against his election. The tension this generated forced many northerners in the southwest to flee and many south westerners made the opposite journey. Why they chose to push that narrative is unclear, why they chose not to contest his annulment in court will have to be revealed by those around him at the time.

However, one thing was clear. In the months following the annulment, and the changing narrative from saving Nigeria to pitting regions against each other, alliances were broken. So much so that when Gen. Sani Abacha upended businessman Chief Ernest Shonekan, whom Babangida had installed as interim president, in a palace coup, the divisions were clear. Abiola’s running mate, Kingibe, was appointed a minister in Abacha’s new cabinet. When the BBC Hausa Service asked him about June 12, his response in Hausa was: “Su waye za su yi maganan?” (Who are those who would talk about it?). Something about the tone, the way he kept repeating those words, the way the reporter cowered from his barrage that made that interview stick in my memory. It was one of the most shocking volte face in the history of Nigerian politics, perhaps on par with Abiola’s transformation from a figure of national unity across regions and religion to a regional state man.

If he was not in support of the regional slant of the post-election drama, he certainly did nothing to stop it. He would not be the only Nigerian politician to do that. In the months, Abiola was making extensive foreign trips to shore up support for his cause, the country was stewing in tension and the drums of a possible civil war rumbled. When Abiola returned to Lagos, and on June 12, 1994 in his Epetedo Speech declared himself president and was promptly arrested for treason by a convoy of 200 police and military vehicles on the orders of Gen. Abacha, the tension slipped underground. It would be the last time Abiola would breathe the air of freedom.

The message was clear. Abacha was not a man to be trifled with.

When this became clear even to pro-democracy activists, and that it would take a miracle to oust Abacha and enthrone Abiola as president, the call for “divine intervention” became the new mantra.

This intervention came from left field, and no one saw it coming, even those fervently praying for it. First, Abacha upped and died on June 8, 1998. After four years in detention, Abiola returned home, finally. Not as a free man, but as a dead one. While the process of releasing him from detention was under way, he suffered what an autopsy said was a heart attack and died on July 7, 1998, almost a month to the day Abacha died. This coming after Abiola’s wife, Kudirat, who had been rallying calls for her husband’s release, had been brutally murdered on June 9, 1996.

Yet, no one knew what to do with the divine interventions Nigerians sought and got. It didn’t come in the form we expected.

There we were, a baffled people, with a clean slate to start afresh on. What did we do with that chance? Return to old habits. Today, twenty-seven years have passed since that day in 1993 when Nigerians thought they would finally get the country they deserved, as they cast their ballots in those elections. In those 27 years, we had never been close to the Nigeria Abiola promised during his campaign, perhaps because Babangida did not fulfill his own promise to hand over to a duly elected president that year. The tragedy is not only losing that chance to finally get it right, it is also that we lost so many good men and women while failing to get it right.

That is the sad reality of our nation’s history. 

(First Published in Daily Trust of June 12, 2020)

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Thoughts on Things, Uncategorized

The paper tiger: Nigeria’s rising presidential condemnation count


By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

When in 1946, American journalist, Anna Louise Armstrong, interviewed Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, he deployed an ancient Chinese expression, zhilaohu, to dismiss the threat of the Atomic bomb. Ten years later, in another interview with the same reporter, Mao would use that phrase again to describe American imperialism. “In appearance, it is very powerful but in reality, it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain,” he said. That is how the phrase “paper tiger” became a common expression in English.
When Mao gifted that expression to the English language, what he did not know at the time was that he could have been addressing the penchant of Nigerian presidents, who would come decades later, to issue strongly-worded statements of condemnations in reaction to major attacks, acts of criminality or disasters that cause the deaths of Nigerian citizens: disasters that are often caused by neglect or failure of government and its agencies.
These statements of condemnation have become so rampant that a quick Google search for “Buhari condemns” instantly throws up 3, 070, 000 results. It would seem that while a lot is dwindling in Nigeria in these difficult times, our presidential condemnation count is steadily climbing, and is in no danger of declining anytime soon.
Of course, President Buhari borrowed a leaf from his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, who kicked the trend a notch higher after Boko Haram attacks became rampant. While many Nigerians expected the condemnation count to drop with Buhari’s tough posturing during his campaigns and his repeated promise to tackle insecurity, that, sadly, has not been the case.
No one can say precisely when Nigeria became a country at war because this thing, whatever is going on in Nigeria, has been going on for a while and nearly every Nigerian in nearly every part of the country has witnessed, survived or been traumatized by a violent life-threatening occurrence. Hundreds of civil attacks, hundreds of attacks by armed groups on civilian populations or on security personnel or installations, and in some cases, like Odi and Zaki Biam, attacks by the armed forces on civilian populations they should be protecting.
In the last five years of Buhari’s presidency, Nigeria’s unacknowledged war frontier has expanded with the rise of communal violence, herdsmen raids, banditry, kidnappings and other criminalities that pile on our daily casualty figures at the same rate as any conventional war. This means that presidential spokesmen Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu have had their jobs cut out, continuously issuing statement after statement, condemning one attack here, a gruesome murder there or a massacre here and there. There have been many attacks. There have been many, many condemnations.
When these attacks happen, except those that are often state-sanctioned, it has become a tradition for the president to issue a statement “condemning the attacks” often in strong terms and pledging to “leave no stone unturned” in a bid to “crush, decimate, apprehend, or rout” the “criminal elements” responsible for “such dastardly acts.” On paper, these words look strong, chivalrous and resolute, like tigers roaring off the pages, threatening to devour the perpetrators.
However, after years and years of practice, the language for these statements has become standard and it is easy to imagine that Shehu and Adesina have a standard template where they often only need to change dates and names of the places where these incidents occur. It is easy also to imagine that newspapers too should, if they don’t already, have a template of news stories derived from such statements.
Only last weakened, following the massacre in Sokoto, the president issued another condemnation, one of those backed with some promise. “We will not abandon you to your fate because we are determined to bring these mass murderers to their knees and crush them totally,’’ the statement read. On the January killing of an Adamawa cleric by Boko Haram, the president said, “We will ensure that these terrorists pay a heavy price for their evil actions.” And on the April massacre of 47 villagers in Katsina: “This administration is ever determined to defeat and crush these criminal elements taking advantage of the lockdown to attack their victims.”
Ordinarily, these are words that should encourage victims and reassure potential victims, but the reality is that more often than not, there never is any concerted hunt for the perpetrators, no state machinery is unleashed to run them down and bring them to face the law of the land. Even in the instance that the government, heckled by persistent reports of attacks on citizens, sends in the military to open fire, sometimes randomly, on the suspected hideouts of the perpetrators, rarely is there any attempt to investigate the crime, apprehend the culprits and put them through a trial, where victims could get closure.
The consistency with which these mechanical condemnations are issued means no one takes them seriously anymore-not the victims, not the journalists who have to publish them and definitely not the “perpetrators of the dastardly acts.” They have become routine, like the oft-quoted bark of the toothless bulldog. Like the paper tigers blown away by the softest breeze or washed away by the mildest rain. If this is ever going to change, then the government and the presidency especially needs to take serious actions and actually follow up on their pledges and show that justice will be done.
Until then, Shehu and Adesina will continue to issue this inane statements, newspapers will publish stories based on them and terrorists and bandits would read them and laugh.
In the end, Nigerians will continue dying.

(First published in Daily Trust, June 4, 2020)

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Justice Dahiru Saleh, June 12 and his ‘Special Order 191’

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

On the morning of September 13, 1862, two American Union soldiers, Sergeant John Bloss and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell, happened to be passing by a campsite that had, a few days before, hosted the rebellious Confederate troops. There, the two men found a piece of paper wrapped around three cigars containing the Confederate Army’s battle plan. They passed this on to their superiors, one of whom recognized the handwriting and knew the document, Special Order 191, was from the formidable Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. That piece of paper had the potential to change the cause of the war and American history. Unfortunately, despite initial optimism, the Union generals were too cautious, failed to take decisive actions and the advantage gleaned from that intelligence was eventually lost in the Battle of Antietam.

History is replete with people, who in the course of their regular, unremarkable business, like Corporal Barton, are thrown a Special Order 191, and are given the chance to affect the narrative and history of an entire country. People like Edith Ike, who saved the life of a certain Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon on the night of January 13, 1966, hours after he had returned to the country from the UK, and affected the history of a young country called Nigeria, who are barely recognized in the narration of the histories they influenced. It was principally thanks to providence and her intervention that Gowon survived that January coup to lead the Nigerian civil war that kept the country united.

Justice Muhammad Dahiru Saleh, whose death, Thursday evening, was announced all over the media as that of the man “who annulled June 12 elections,” was leading the rather regular life of a Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja, until, like Corporal Mitchell and Miss Ike, providence threw him a Special Order 191.covid-19-justice-dahiru-saleh-dies-as-10-people-working-with-sanwo-olu-test-positive-1

That he was born on August 22, 1939, and was husband to Maria and Zainab, and father to their children, that he was educated at the famous Barewa College, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the Council of Legal Education, London, and had attended dozens of conferences across the world, and that he was, at his death, the Mattawalle of Katagum Emirate, has been subsumed into that singular decision he made that day in June of 1993.

His annulment of the June 12 elections, thought to have been the freest and fairest in Nigeria’s history, earned him a controversial place on the pedestals of the country’s history.

Though much of the blame for the invalidation of those polls had been placed squarely on the broad shoulders of General Ibrahim Babangida, the military president who had in a televised broadcast announced the annulment, Justice Saleh was not at all shy to take responsibility for his role in the abortion of a great national hope.

In a 2016 interview with The Interview Magazine, Justice Saleh, who was not even in charge of the case in 1993, had providence to thank for putting him at the crossroads of national history.

“There was the case against MKO Abiola and it was before one of my judges; she was Igbo but I can’t remember her name. She started the case, then fell sick and was flown out of the country for treatment.

“Then there was another case against him (MKO Abiola) and I had to transfer the case from the other judge’s court to my court. During that time, it turned [out] that Abiola didn’t even finish the case before he disappeared. Later, I learnt he had been arrested by authorities,” he had said.

Whatever happened in that courtroom, and the hours before his judgment, Justice Saleh insisted there was no contact, influence or pressure from the presidency. That he had no personal relationship with the general and his decision was not political but based purely on the law.

Ironically, it wasn’t his name or face that adorned the front pages the next day.

‘Nigeria’s Military Rulers Annul Elections’ the New York Times headlines proclaimed. Most newspapers carried similar headlines, except for few like the June 11 edition of The Independent that said, “Court Stops the Election.”

Whatever the case, the narrative of that history had already escaped the grasp of Justice Saleh from the moment he made that pronouncement. People saw beyond and through him to Gen. Babangida, that ‘Evil Genius.’

The impression one gets from the Justice Saleh interview is that of a man, unlike Corporal Barton and Ms Ike who faded quietly into history, who was keen to take credit for his decision and his role in that 1993 debacle. His insistence that he had no regrets for his decision, despite the benefit of hindsight and the furore that has trailed it in the last 27 years, suggests a cavalier man who believed he was on the right and could not be bothered about what others thought.

If MKO Abiola and his team had decided to challenge Justice Saleh’s ruling at the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court, perhaps the decision would have been reversed and his role in this infamous story would have amounted to only a footnote in history. It was clear he too had expected the decision to be challenged.

“If Abiola wasn’t happy with the case, he could have appealed to the Court of Appeal, to the Supreme Court. The judicial system was still open but he chose not to follow it. Why no one followed up the annulment of the elections in the higher courts is best known to members of Abiola’s party at that time. If he, as an individual, was not interested, there must have been other people who would be interested to see the end. . . And I have no regrets, none whatever. No regrets. I would repeat the same thing now,” he had said.

Whatever the case, Abiola and his team never challenged his decision and now history, and the newspapers and future generations, will remember Justice Saleh as the man “who annulled June 12.”

Very few outside his immediate personal circle would remember him as the man who when providence threw him a Special Order 191 acted upon it and owned up his decision and if fate deemed it fit to judge him on that, it was welcome to. And that was just fine with him.

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A Disaster Emporium

 

How Nigeria’s lockdown failed as much as it succeeded and how it did not prepare enough to open for business

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

In November 1918, just as World War I was ending in Europe, after claiming 40 million lives in nearly five years of fighting, the Spanish Flu, a respiratory infection very much like COVID-19, surfaced and was spreading rapidly across the world.

Within months spread between 1918 and 1919, it would claim 50 million lives globally, including 199, 325 in Nigeria, according to data from the Public Records Office.

The Spanish Flu, caused by a virus with avian origins, killed indiscriminately, with most casualties being between ages 20 and 40, some of whom exhibited no symptoms in the morning yet were dead by nightfall.

In the US city of San Francisco, authorities imposed a lockdown and made wearing facemasks mandatory, like most cities and countries in the world had done at the time. With cases dropping, San Francisco decided to end its lockdown, and on November 21, 1918, hundreds of San Franciscans without facemasks trooped to the streets to celebrate the end of four weeks of “muzzling.” They held street parties, flocked to theatres and sports centres, in the manner people in Kano attended the final of the infamous Corona Cup recently, defied medical advice and revelled to their hearts’ content. Two weeks later, there was a spike in new cases and by the time the Spanish Flu had burnt itself out, thousands of lives had been lost.

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Today, after five weeks, Nigerians in Lagos, Abuja and Ogun are being un-muzzled, freed from a lockdown that has been as effective as it has been a manual on how not contain a pandemic.

Coming after three consecutive days of recording over 200 daily COVID-19 new cases—a national high—and ample evidence of community spread, there are valid reasons to ask if this is the right time to end the lockdown.

The reality is that extending the lockdown any further might have led to civil unrest, as we are already seeing even in parts of the US. There is no greater motivation for recklessness than hunger and majority of Nigerians, without savings and food reserves, are at their wits end. Further extension of the lockdown would most likely have seen a rise in criminality, mass protest, looting and attacks on lawmen and women enforcing the lockdown. There was a viral video of an armed mob in a southern town chasing away officers enforcing lockdown.

Nigeria cannot afford this breakdown of order. As much as it cannot afford a full-scale outbreak of the virus. With over 2, 000 cases already, our flimsy healthcare system is struggling and deaths, unrelated to coronavirus, are spiking as a result, as is being witnessed in Kano.

At the end of a five-week lockdown, I suppose the question to ask is has the lockdown been effective in curbing the spread?

Those who passed by the Dutse Market in Abuja especially in the last week, might have witnessed a small crowd of people, hemmed in by a battery of security officials, huddling around a tent by the roadside.

Apparently, that is a mobile court to try lockdown defaulters. The very characteristic of this court, the way the people clustered without regards to social distancing is inimical to the reason of its existence. If this irony occurred to any of the officials, none of them did anything to alter the situation.

This seems to suggest that violations of social distancing rules are intolerable only if done outside the court premises.

Such scenes have played out in most courts that have tried defaulters of the lockdown.

When actor Funke Akindele Bello was tried in Lagos for hosting a party during lockdown, the crowd that jostled against each other at court left many wondering if the courthouse itself should not be tried for allowing such violations within its premises. What the court succeeded in doing by handing out an exemplary punishment to Mrs. Bello—community service and imposed isolation—was undone by the circumstances in which it was handed out.

It was also undone by the manner in which the late Chief of Staff of the president, Abba Kyari, was buried in the presence of members of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, who subsequently refused to go into isolation. It was also undone when the FCT minister of state, Dr. Ramatu Tijjani Aliyu, took a horde of government officials, aides and whatnots to fumigate some Abuja streets. It is being undone by the faceless security personnel who, for five hundred naira bribes, allowed passage on the Abuja-Jos Road, or that notorious female police officer who, for a fee, personally escorted travellers through checkpoints in and out of Kaduna State. Or the decision of various state governments to “repatriate” hundreds of almajiri children across state lines in the midst of a pandemic that has reached community spread. Or the throng of people in Kano this weekend who jostled to touch the corpse of the late Emir of Rano, Dr Tafida Abubakar Ila ll, whose palace had to deny rumours that he had COVID-19 just before his death.

Kano!

This same Kano which in 1919 recorded 52, 978 deaths during the Spanish Flu pandemic, the second highest in the country at the time, seems still primed to toe the same path.

The disaster emporium that Kano is turning out to be is a coming together of the various infringements seen in different parts of the country. The mindless defiance of social distancing, lockdown, the viral daylight video of people looting food supplies in the market and tragically, the mass deaths being recorded. All of this will, in the post-pandemic world, require a special study to understand a people whose leadership and followership seem keen to court tragedy and a manual on how not to impose a lockdown on a country.

No one ever said it was going to be easy to lockdown a country like Nigeria with failed systems, a weak economy and a corruption pandemic. It is this corruption pandemic that has undermined our lockdown in the acts of those policemen and soldiers, and the government officials who expended billions in palliatives and still failed to provide sustenance for less than one percent of the population, not to mention lifting them out of poverty.

Now we are easing the lockdown without the appropriate sensitization that the responsibility of preventing the virus spread is squarely placed in the court of average Nigerians who would swarm the streets from today in search of daily bread, without capacitating law enforcement to, in a firm and civil way, ensure compliance with social distancing. God knows our law enforcement sorely needs this sensitization. After all, these was the same law enforcement that in the early weeks of the pandemic, killed more Nigerians than the virus they were trying to keep them safe from. About 20 Nigerians have so lost their lives.

However, one of the heart-warming images of the last weeks has been that of a female police officer handing out free facemasks to people. Of course, considering the police’s reputation, it was no surprise that several people hesitated when presented with the gift.

But the action by that officer has done a lot for the image of our much-maligned police. It is also a reminder that as this lockdown eases, it is important Nigerians remember that we are responsible, now more than ever, for our personal safety and those of others around us and the people with whom we might have the briefest of interactions.

Hopefully—and this is a strong hope—the San Francisco disaster of 1918 would not reoccur a hundred years on, halfway across the world in a country like Nigeria that is in desperate need of a break.

Our inclination at this time is to pray for God’s grace. However, we must remember that irresponsible leadership coupled with irresponsible followership is a formidable force against the grace of God Nigeria is counting on to save it.

May God save us all.

First published in Daily Trust, May 4, 2020

https://www.dailytrust.com.ng/a-disaster-emporium.html

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The Gideon Orkar Coup thirty years on

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

 

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Thirty years ago today, on April 22, 1990, Nigerians woke up to a very disturbing speech on the Federal Radio Cooperation of Nigeria, FRCN, Lagos, by a man who introduced himself as Major Gideon Orkar who announced that he and his loyalists, had overthrown the government of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.

The most radical point in his rambling speech was his decision to “temporarily” excise some states from the country as if they were a bunch of badly behaved children being told by an angry parent to stay out of the house until they learn their manners.

While some Nigerians at the time found reasons to be excited by that speech, as they have been about other coups before, others deduced the reasoning and heard the voice of a radically naïve officer.

That speech alone was the switch to Orkar’s spotlight. The beginning, if you like, of his 15 minutes of fame. It was ironically also the speech that hanged him, and the 68 or so other officers executed alongside him on account of their actions that day in Lagos in 1990.

At the time Orkar came on air, the coup plotters were still far from achieving their objective of overthrowing the government. Yes, they had secured the radio station from where they made the broadcast, held, for a short period of time, Dodan Barracks, the seat of the military government at the time, and some other locations, but they had not secured or neutralized Gen. Babangida or his Chief of Army Staff, then Lt. Gen. Sani Abacha. They had not in fact secured any loyalties or positions outside of Lagos.

In those hours of uncertainty, with Abacha, who had survived an assassination attempt that morning, trying to rally troops and assess who was loyal to Gen. Babangida or not, Orkar went on air and blew out the candle of his own revolution.

He announced that “a temporary decision to excise the following states namely, Sokoto, Borno, Katsina, Kano and Bauchi states from the Federal Republic of Nigeria comes into effect immediately until [some] conditions are met.

It was, in all honesty, a speech that was Trumpish—before Donald Trump himself invented that genre of absurdity. It was chaotic, puerile and vindictive. It was also conflating where it described Gen. Babangida as a power-grabbing self-perpetuating tyrant while in the same breath accused a clique of hijacking Babangida’s government.

The conditions for the reabsorption of these temporarily excised states were also infantile. Unlike other coup plotters, like Maj. Chukwuma Nzeogwu for instance, who were careful to put the country and its unity front and centre in their speeches, Orkar, who lacked Nzeogwu’s charisma and popularity within the army, reduced his speech to projecting regional sentiments ahead of the country. There was a persistent reference to perceived injustices to the Middle Belt [where he was from] and the South and officers from those regions.

The greatest accomplishment of Orkar’s speech ironically was to unravel his unsteady grip on power and galvanise officers and military formations that were hitherto waiting to see which way to throw their loyalty. Orkar made the choice simple. “The Evil Genius” or the “Unhinged and Unknown.” The soldiers chose the devil they knew, to borrow a common adage.

Hours later, Col. Mohammed Dansofo, holding fort for Maj. Gen. Ike Nwachukwu (who was on leave at the time) as the GOC 1 Division in Kaduna, pledged loyalty to Gen. Babangida. As did Col. Chris Alli, who was commanding the 3rd Infantry Brigade in Kano. Soon a rallying point for the resistance against the Orkar-led coup emerged and it was a formidable one, led by Gen. Abacha himself.

Other than Orkar’s speech, which Lt. Gen Abacha in his own broadcast later that day would describe as “an embarrassing radio broadcast,” other factors contributed to the failure of that coup.

There was the fact that the coup had to be launched in a hurry. The plotters, mostly mid-level officers, feared there had been a leak within their ranks and did not want to be rounded up, as the Mamman Vatsa-plotters had been four years before. They began an offensive that eventually delivered a premature baby.

There were tactical failures as well. Capt. N. H Empere’s failure to secure the T-55 tanks at Dodan Barracks when he had the chance to do so was fatal. Those same tanks would be used by the Abacha-led troops to decimate the coupists. Also, failure to neutralize Gen. Babangida and Abacha were also key factors in a day of many failures for Orkar’s men.

Lt. SOS Echendu, who led the assault on Dodan Barracks, would years later, admit that he watched Babangida, whom he admired, escape Dodan Barracks in a 504 vehicle while he was within his range.

“I was in my 20s, I was intellectually advanced. I wanted him captured alive and tried. I wanted the nation to see him and read his crimes during his trial so that our citizens would see where we were coming from….I wanted to set a different standard from what used to obtain: Kill him and the case  would be closed, but capture him and set him on trial, then the Nigerian people  would be able to hear his crimes,” Echendu said in an 2014 interview.

Babangida survived, and is still alive today. As is Echendu who escaped to the US after the failed coup. As did the alleged principal plotter, Major Saliba Mukoro. As did Col. Tony Nyiam, the most senior officer on the side of the coup plotters. He too would say years later that the coup did not fail because it wasn’t a coup in the first place.

“We did not see the action as a coup but as an uprising, to correct some anomalies,” he said.

Many others saw it as a failed attempt to dismember a country.

With the benefit of hindsight, Echendu and Nyiam and the other plotters who managed to escape that night have had time to reflect on their actions thirty years ago. Nyiam, for instance, believed that some of the issues they kicked against that night had been addressed and this made their sacrifices worth it. In different words, Echendu would say something similar.

But what did that attempt do for Nigeria?

Did it hasten Gen. Babangida’s relocation of the capital to Abuja? Many people think so. Did it secure Abacha’s place as Babangida’s right hand and heir apparent? Pretty much so. Did it force the army to close ranks? That is tough to say.

In the 28 years Abuja has been the seat of power, there has been only one other coup plot since then, depending on where one stands on the Diya ‘phantom or not phantom’ coup. And then there has been Abacha’s 1993 palace displacement of Shonekan.

What would Nigeria have been like today if that Orkar coup had succeeded?

The surviving plotters think it would have been a far better country, others think it would have been a disaster, a string of broken up territories that once formed a country.

Hardly any revolution in history had stayed the cause and most often become what they fought against, or worse. The coup might have followed the well-worn path of history or perhaps be one of the few exceptions.

The reality is that it is hard to tell. It has fallen into the realm of speculation alongside other what ifs: such as what would the world have been like if the Nazis had won? Or if communism had triumphed over capitalism? Perhaps we would have known if Orkar had held off that speech for a few more hours.

What we do know for certain is that Nigeria as a country tottered dangerously on the precipice of disintegration on this day 30 years ago, as it had several times in its history before. And somehow, it is still trundling on the fringes like a stoned giant waiting the next trip or slip.

[This article was first published on Daily Trust, April 22, 2020.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Abba Kyari: Another death in power

A brief history of Nigeria’s abusive relationship with the powerful

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

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Abba Kyari, President Buhari’s trusted Chief of Staff died of COVID-19 on Friday

That Abba Kyari is dead is no longer news. Neither is it news that his death has triggered the usual Nigerian reaction to the passing of powerful men in the country—a ying-yang of empathy and elation.

Mr. Kyari’s death has been occasioned by social media comments celebrating his demise, a trend that began when he tested positive for coronavirus on March 23.

As probably the most powerful man in President Buhari’s government, Mr. Kyari has been a lightning rod for the resentment many Nigerians feel for a government they believe, rightly or otherwise, has failed them in many ways. These insensitive comments have been countered by those calling for empathy for the deceased and his family. The result has been ethnic-tinted bitter and divisive arguments between those calling for Kyari to enjoy at least the basic empathy that the dead and their relatives deserve, and those who, because of their hatred for what they think he represents believe he is not entitled to.

The tradition of celebrating deaths of the powerful has a long history in Nigeria. In 1966, the gruesome murders of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Samuel Akintola and the other victims of the January 15 coup was met with street parades and banner waving in some quarters. Celebratory songs were written and one particular inciting one became a hit that the Ironsi government had to ban it. The same scenes played out in July of that year when Gen. Thomas Ironsi himself along with dozens of officers were murdered in the counter coup. The 1976 assassination of Gen. Murtala Mohammed was also received in some quarters with joyousness, especially by the many civil servants that the Murtala administration had retrenched and people who suffered at the hands of Gen. Mohammed’s notorious 2 Division during the civil war.

The same scenes would play out in 1998 when Gen. Sani Abacha died after five years of iron-fist rule as Head of State with impromptu wild street parties in some cities of the country while in others, the thick mists of mourning prevailed. Even the self-effacing Umaru Yar’adua suffered the same fate after his death in May 2010, maybe to a lesser degree. Many who felt that his election was the most fraudulent in the country’s history barely stopped short of throwing parties.

Now Abba Kyari. A man who made no promises to Nigerians, had no compact with them as he did not seek any elective office and was unlike the others, a political appointee of a president who invested absolute trust in him.

Understanding the nature of this perverted behaviour of celebrating the deaths of powerful men, and on rare occasions women, will require understanding the relationship between Nigerians and their leaders, and vice versa.

This country has always been a country of weak institutions and all too powerful individuals. So powerful are these individuals they become and are perceived as not humans but as the institutions that have failed the country, stifled its potentials, frustrated its citizens and smashed their hopes. These men become one with power and their families and relatives are seen as mere appendages of these oppressive institutions. Sadly, most times, the overzealous conduct of family members of the powerful often give credence to these claims.

So when this powerful individuals die, it is not often remembered that a father, a son, a husband had died but rather an oppressive, corrupt and dysfunctional institution has fallen. Or maybe sometimes some people just don’t care.

It doesn’t help that when these men get into office and wield all the powers that make the people they are sworn to serve resent them so much, they become distant, inaccessible, disconnected from the realities of the average Nigerian and their toils and losses. They drive policies perceived as inhumane, policies they sometimes back with shockingly callous utterances. In this process, they are often deemed to have lost their humanity.

A twitter user, @DoubleEph who said he was until recently a vocal critic of Abba Kyari, last night shared a thread about his encounter with the late CoS. He said he received a call from an unknown number sometime in December.

“This is Abba Kyari. I’ll like to meet you and show you I’m not a monster.”

They met in Cambridge a few weeks later, exchanged the gift of books, had conversations over tea and carried on exchanging correspondences and messages up until Mr. Kyari’s COVID-19 diagnosis.

When Kyari’s death was announced, that twitter user said he was deeply saddened by the loss and shared the story of this encounter with Mr. Kyari because he too realized that most people did not know Abba Kyari the human, but Abba Kyari the institution they love to loath.

In his taciturn way, that is what Kyari had become in Buhari’s government. He wielded powers perhaps akin to Major Hamza al-Mustapha’s during the Abacha regime. He was shielded by the president from accusations of corruption and manipulation by both the First Lady and the National Security Adviser. He had been described as a loyalist to the president, a competent administrator and I am sure his family would speak glowingly of his qualities as a father and an individual. Somewhere between the margins of these character profiles, the image of the real Abba Kyari lay. Not many people, like @DoubleEph, would have the chance to see him as a man, especially since Kyari himself enjoyed the shadows.

Five years in power, not as an elected official but as a powerful political appointee, yet not nearly enough is known of Mr. Kyari.

Since news of his death broke, journalists have been scrambling to ascertain his actual year of birth, and there is no public record immediately available of his education or his life before 1980.

He had managed successfully to keep his family life away from the public eye. The photo that emerged eventually of Mr. Kyari, his wife and their four children now seemed to possess a magical quality—a simple family portrait of a smiling, content man, his smiling wife, both flanked on each side by their two daughters with their two sons standing behind the couple, all smiling. A family man. Sadly, that is not the Abba Kyari most Nigerians know.

If Kyari’s death demonstrates anything, other than the tragedy that it is, and the sad state of our health care system, it is the fact that Nigerians and their leaders, elected or otherwise, have always been in a viciously abusive relationship.

Where the populace feels that the death of ordinary Nigerians in terrorist attacks, in avoidable accidents and explosions such as the March 15 incident in Lagos should resonate with the leadership beyond the usual automated “condemnation” and “regrets,” a negligence some insensitive Nigerians often reciprocate by gloating at the death of a powerful figure in government. And sometimes even at the death of other ordinary Nigerians as well.

This lack of consideration for each other is legendary. It manifests itself in the desire to share gory pictures of the dead and dying for social media likes rather than protecting the dignity of the deceased. It manifest in the aloofness of leadership to the suffering and needless deaths of the people whose lives and well-being they are responsible for. It manifest also in the often ethnically charged gloating at the death of a powerful figure like Abba Kyari.

For this to change, the leaders and the led will have to end this abusive relationship they have for each other, and the powerful need to be, well, more human and humane.

In closing, the words of English poet John Donne from his Meditation resonates: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

May Abba Kyari rest in peace.

 

 

 

 

 

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Today is Independence Day

Today is Independence Day. A day to once again reflect on the fragments of the promise upon which we thought a country was born. On the violence that has tainted our journey and the oasis of joy and euphoria we occasionally stumble upon. On the cycle of disappointments that has continued to revolve with dizzying familiarity. Today is a day to ask: when shall we ever get it right? When shall we rise beyond 10-kobo sentiments and be the people and country we are capable of being? When shall we stop being silent about the disappearance of our people in the bloodstained hands of the government and in the dust of the insecurity that has grown on their watch? Today is a day to reflect. On how we transitioned from a business enterprise that serviced a colonial power to one that services men who bear names like ours, carry faces that are familiar and speak in our own tongues. Men who have been there when the British left before we were born. Who have been there when we were born, were still there when we became men and women, when we became fathers of children. Men who would not go away and would not make things right. Because they don’t know how to make things right. Because they don’t know how to let go. Because they don’t want to. Because these failure and failed dreams and broken promises profit them. Men who come from different corners of the country and call God by different names but become a clan. A Tribe of Corruption. Of exploitation. Of bloodsuckers and money guzzlers. An unbreakable clan of thieves.
Today is a day to reflect. On the little things we could do to make a difference. To change the narrative. To stop preying on each other. To do right by each other. To understand that we are not each others’ enemies because of the circumstances of our birth or the language of our divinities. Today is a day to realise that a country is not built by looters on high tables behind high fences but by men and women and children who through little words and gestures string together their hearts and destinies and become a people. Today is Independence Day.

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Men of Anointed Rods

Rapists

Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo, Alfa Abdulsalam Salaudeen and Malam Aminu Musa have all been accused of raping minors entrusted to their care

Religious leaders, imams and pastors, are humans and therefore fallible. But they have been ascribed, and some more than gladly have taken on a responsibility of being guardians of moral values. When allegations of moral infringements, such as the rape allegations against the likes of Biodun Fatoyinbo come up, we must realize several things:

1) It is an allegation until otherwise proven

2.) There is a need for these allegations to be investigated impartially, and that people are within their rights to demand an investigation into them.

3.) If found guilty, the perpetrator must be made to face the law.

Our rush to stifle investigations by branding the allegations as “an attack on the body of Christ”, or an attempt to “pull him down” is ludicrous, to say the least. All this is a counter attack on a man alleged to have viciously attacked the chastity of a child. The issue here is that for long, the cloaks of the religious order have been used to hoodwink the world from the atrocities men in the garbs and turbans have been committing.

Some months ago, 40-year-old Aminu Musa, who taught Qur’an memorization in Kano was caught, to borrow a recently remodeled expression, crimson-handed in the act of defiling his eight-year-old pupil. In his defense, and this was in a confessional video, the father of two blamed the devil for using him, blamed God because He decreed that such a thing would happen. Then he blamed the girl, because every time she didn’t understand her lessons, he would go over to explain and she would lean into him. He did not blame himself.

It is unnecessary to discuss my urge to do grievous violence to this man, who at that time was already in police custody.

Some months back in Lagos, Alfa Abdulsalam Salaudeen, 43, was caught on tape raping his five year-old pupil. He too has been arrested and is facing prosecution. In his confession, he admitted there was a prior allegation against him for raping another pupil in a place he used to live in. He blamed his enemies for casting spells on him. He too, like his colleague in Kano, did not take responsibility for his crime.

Because religion and religious institutions demand a higher moral standard from us, it is natural to expect more from them in return. And because people have always trusted these institutions and the individuals representing them, often without supervision over their children, the likelihood of such cases happening are very high. Get the scale off your eyes. This is a social problem, not an attack on the body of Christ or the sanctity of a mosque. This is not something to be hushed, not in this age.

Recently, I visited Germany and learnt how the Lutheran church in Berlin has taken measures to regulate conduct of its clergy and to provide a safe space for its members, especially the children. They investigate allegations of abuse, put measures in place to prevent such cases and created a channel where people who have been abused can safely and quietly report these cases to the committee. The pastor heading this committee is married to a woman who had been abused by a priest and is very passionate about this fight.

Our belief in religion, is principally driven by emotion and then logic, which is why the initial reaction to allegations of “men of God” committing such savagery is often an emotional, not rational, attempt to defend the faith with comebacks like “attack on the body of Christ or attack on OUR faith by enemies of God.” It is not.

Until religious institutions stop protecting culprits and start siding with victims, until they put in place measures to protect their members, and their clergy too, investigate rationally all allegations of abuse, desist from hushing these cases, suppressing the victims and allow justice to take its cause, we will be at this loggerhead for a while. Eventually, reason will prevail and religious institutions and their representatives will lose all relevance and reverence. Their futures are, as they say, entirely in their hands. Act now or live with the consequences.

Winter is coming, and it is going to be a long and complicated one.

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Nigeria’s Quadrennial Hunger Games

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A youth corps member carrying an injured colleague while policemen watch during Nigeria’s 2019 elections.

Every four years we offer a sacrifice of peasants and dreamers, gilded maidens and prized fellows, young ones in their prime on the altar of our politicians’ avarice. Every four years the leaders we (s)elect dance over the casket of our country’s children, our dreams and our hopes to sit on thrones too high for our cries to reach, too sturdy for our anguish and grief to shake, too fleet for our wrath to catch. Every four years we bleed to choose a leader.

Every four years our (s)intellectuals bleed their brains and senses, their own sacrifice in our quadrennial ritual. They are afflicted by verbal diarrhea, desperate to seek, remain relevant. Our sheikhs and pastors preach hate, not love. Professors of journalism champion fake news, and the PhDs peddle cheap propaganda like charlatans. Every one sacrifice their senses to become SM analyst who can’t look beyond their keyboards. Fake prophets mistake the voice of their own pervasive minds for the voice of God and rise chanting, “He will die! He will die! He will die!”

The only ones dying are us.

Every four years half the country, this time this half, the next time the other, offer a sacrifice of disappointment, of long faces, broken hearts, stained thumbs, tainted sentiments and resentment.

When they ask you why there is no winter here, know that it exists in the collective cold sigh we heave at the end of every Hunger Games.

Before the stains on your thumbs disappear, there will be calls for breakup, a permanent divorce from a marriage contracted in a white man’s shrine. These calls will echo and fade. The professors and priests and failed politicians will realign, they will find their voices, and we will gift some of them back their honour even when they have no rights to them, because we don’t know how to hold them in shame. We groan for another four years and cheer when the bells toll for another Hunger Games. Again we will send our country’s children into the arena, to die for a country and leaders who will not remember their names or what they died for. And we will sit and hope that someday we will learn to vote without spilling blood and hate and our senses.

The only thing we have in abundance here is hope. Not even the mad priests, looting politicians and the river of blood we shed can steal that from us.

Return to your senses. Return.

 

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