There comes a time in every writer’s life when there is just so much to write about that they just want to lie down and do nothing — and just let all the news stories and analyses wash over them and evaporate. This is a little of how it must feel to be the president of Nigeria — inundated and harried by the competing urgencies and wondering which one of the thousand molehills and mountains of problems to tackle first. This week, there is no room to pick just one topic; it is more about prioritising the top contenders for Nigeria’s theatre of the absurd.
Northern governors and federal allocation
As the National Assembly concluded their public hearings on the ongoing constitution reform, according to ThisDay, it has become clear that the north and the south are divided on the focus of amendments within the constitution. It seems the south is focused on state creation and state police while the north is focused on reviewing the revenue allocation formula and single terms for presidents and governors. In one of the reports, the governors of northern states are worried about the southern states becoming richer while the north is becoming impoverished. There are many ways to look at this issue, but one angle from which to address this cry for more money is to ask: what the northern governors have done with what they have received so far and what they are doing to raise internally generated revenue (IGR). On the first question, the answer is arguably clear to the public – they have spent it irresponsibly. While the north is still one of the few places in the world battling polio, it is also that part of the country where a governor authorizes millions on state-sponsored weddings and governors use scarce state funds to buy people rams during religious celebrations and sponsor the elite and a smattering of those who make up the masses on annual pilgrimages. But what is absolutely batty when juxtaposed with the northern governors’ Dickensian cries is the story of Governor Shema of Katsina spending N60m on building a befitting house for the governor of Niamey, Niger Republic. Katsina is one of the poorest states in Nigeria, with IGR of N3.2b in 2011 and owing billions to its employees and banks. Crazy!
Of private jets and values
The discussion about the proliferation of private jets (PJs) in the Nigerian airspace has taken up a bit of air time lately. Starting with Governor Suntai’s crash in his PJ, we moved into the flooded states and some governors who had the prescence to order million-dollar PJs just in time to fly around the flood-stricken areas; a CNN documentary on the PJ market in Nigeria and, most recently, to the self-proclaimed men of God who serve the god of plenty.
Two key absurdities arise with the case of the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria’s PJ. The first is easy to dispense with – the impropriety of President Jonathan being at the celebration where Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor received his PJ as a gift for 40 years of service. How does the president of one of the most corrupt countries in the world, who says he is committed to fighting corruption, justify to himself the source of this gift in a country as poor and underdeveloped as Nigeria? How does he think a David Cameron, for example, would explain such a scenario to the citizens of Britain whom he works for?
The second and more interesting absurdity though is the presence and speech of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi at the same celebration of Pastor Oritsejafor. In a lecture entitled “The Nigeria of my dream: towards the consolidation of national unity”, the former external affairs minister under Ibrahim Babangida waxed on about values and berated past and present leaders for the blight of corruption in Nigeria. According to him: “I call for values that lay less emphasis on greed and corruption…That is not a Nigeria that can long survive especially if that is juxtaposed with the excessive looting of the national wealth by both the political and the economic elite. The Nigeria of our dreams should be a Nigeria without the indecent flaunting of wealth. Nigeria is a country that can sustain a corruption level of 10% and still care for the needs of its population. But what is the point of fewer than 500, 000 people cornering 95% of the national wealth only to squander it on private jets, exotic cars and mansions which they will never use. Just a primitive acquisition of wealth.” Did he give this speech before or after the presentation of the gift to the good pastor? And how did he feel his audience received the lecture? Ludicrous.
Halliburton & the generals
This is the scandal that keeps on giving and won’t go away. New evidence is surfacing about the bank transactions which saw about $200m divvied up between Nigerians in high and strategic positions, and while anyone would be hesitant to quote Sahara Reporters, there is little smoke without fire. Ironically, one of the most senior Nigerians (in terms of age and position acquired) implicated in the story was recently lauded by President Jonathan as “the person who stabilized Nigeria’s democracy”. And the other, “outed” himself last week as a true friend of democracy when he praised himself for the restraint he showed in not changing electoral results in 2003. Preposterous.
Death by committee
Long ago in the Kingdom of Phrygia, the founder, an old countryman, was driving his ox-cart into the city when two eagles settled on the yoke. The people thought this was a sign from the gods. The cart was kept in a temple and it was prophesied that whoever loosened the knot that fastened the yoke to the pole should become King of Asia.
Fable has it that Alexander the Great came across the knot and the story. He studied the knot for a long time, but could see neither a beginning nor an end to its twists and turns. The story goes that he drew his sword and cut it with a decisive blow. And this is where “cutting the Gordian knot” (when someone solves a complicated problem by bold and decisive action) came from. It seems President Jonathan would rather kill an issue with inaction than take a decision…and thus each of the committees he set up earlier this year to look into aspects of the petroleum sector will have their reports reviewed by another committee which will also write reports which will have to be reviewed. Ridiculous.
The media charade
And, this Sunday, we were treated to a no-holds-barred media chat between the president and some well-selected journalists. The concept is progressive and could have done a lot to bridge the gap between rumours and reality, but sadly the opportunity was squandered. In the end, the media chat reinforced the yawning chasm between those in elected and appointed office and those they “rule” and no amount of media whitewashing can change this fact. Until those responsible for managing the affairs of Nigeria learn to genuinely empathise with the majority of Nigerians, we’ll continue to be entertained with a string of absurdities.