The Guardian

This is a somewhat intimidating year for me. That is partly because President Umaru Yar’Adua has promised action.

But it is also because it is the 30th year since I first worked for a newspaper. On August 1, 1979, I assumed my first position at The Punch. Prior to that, as a student, I had earned bylines in almost every newspaper in the southern part of Nigeria, and in some magazines. For most of the past 30 years, I have maintained a presence in the press.

I speak of the intimidation of this year, therefore, because 30 is such a nice, respectable number. It evokes generational metaphors. It gives you some kind of contextual right to evaluate.

Having been in journalism for 30 years, I am often astonished that I am writing about the same things as I did in those days. The meaning of this is what we see in the streets: Nigeria has failed to move forward. I could write every article this year describing this phenomenon or ascribing reasons for it or prescribing a way out, just as I have done over the past generation.
But this year may be different. Nigeria’s current leader says he is about to visit a brighter future upon us. It is not the first time we are hearing this promise. But it means we can transport ourselves forward, and look back at 2009.

If Yar’Adua honours his extensive promises, the next 12 months will see Nigeria begin to demolish the walls of poverty and decadence that surround Nigeria. It would be interesting to see this happen, but will it?

Thirty years of observing Nigerian leaders and their promises caution me not to be too hopeful. In Mr. Yar’Adua’s case, he already owns two of the most forgettable years known to leadership. He is beginning the second part of his controversial term in controversial terrain: a ‘new’ cabinet loaded with people who do not inspire change.

But it is good to give him a chance and see whether he provides the kind of alchemy capable of forging hope from despair.
I will be watching very closely to see how Mr. Yar’Adua generates credibility from the bundle of contradictions and hypocrisy around his presidency. But it is obvious that unless he makes profound and immediate changes, 2007 will be our most disappointing year yet.
Among those changes, he must let his focus on policy and policy-implementation—and not on chasing his enemies, particularly in the press and civil society—speak for him. He cannot, therefore, permit the growing offensive against the press at the same time as he is telling the world he believes in the rule of law. He will be laughed into history.

He must probe his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo. There is far too little clarity about what actually happened to the Nigerian account between 1999 and 2008. If Mr. Yar’Adua does not undertake this task, chances are that a succeeding government will lump the era of both men together, and investigate them as such.

Mr. Yar’Adua should also replace Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice; Mrs. Farida Waziri, the chairperson of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC); and Mr. Mike Okiro, the Inspector-General of Police. Perhaps more than anyone else, these three summarize and symbolize the corruption, confusion and ineptitude of the Yar’Adua administration.

I believe that it is illogical to have these three continue in office given the debris of official impropriety they have each been accused of. For the president to ignore those allegations is either to suggest that they are true but that he does not care; or to dismiss them. It would be a shame to confirm that the president is in the ego business: a man who can harass and sue journalists on matters that affect him personally, while ignoring more serious matters that affect our country, as these allegations do. And it is curious that none of these officials has resigned. But perhaps they know something about Yar’Adua that is as yet not public knowledge.

Among the changes Mr. Yar’Adua must also make: ensure that the EFCC moves forward with the mountain of cases in front of it. Justice denied speaks eloquently, and the president should not be seen to be conniving with powerful individuals against the better interests of Nigeria. Two of those cases involve Mrs. Patience Jonathan, wife of the Vice-President, who has unfinished money-laundering matters that pre-date the current government.
As I am sure is clear to Mr. Yar’Adua, these are matters requiring a clear demonstration of political will (if any) of the government (if any). He will never enjoy the kindness of History unless he can demonstrate he pursued corruption from the very rafters.

Finally, of the curious manoeuvres made by President Yar’Adua as 2008 closed, the appointment to the cabinet of the former boss of NAFDAC, Mrs. Dora Akunyili, has generated a lot of interest. After a much-praised run at NAFDAC, Mrs. Akunyili was appointed to the Ministry of Information and Communication.
There are many people who consider this appointment to be wrong. They suggest other portfolios where she might have been a vibrant fit. Perhaps, but I am exceedingly happy with her choice for Information, a job that is the conceptual opposite of her last one. At NAFDAC, she was given the task of cleaning up a trash heap; at Information, she may find herself selling one.

No, the image of Nigeria is not really a trash heap, but Mrs. Akunyili may find herself feeling that way. It would be interesting to observe her propagate Nigeria’s policies at home and abroad, and I wish her well. I think she knows what I think about corruption in our country, and about governments that try to protect it in such high places as the cabinet. She knows I believe leaders should be honest with their people, and that people such as the spouses of the President and the Vice-President should either be above-board, or go down with their partners.

When we look back at 2009, I am sure we will have answers to these questions, largely through Mrs. Akunyili, one way or another. But if I am permitted one prediction, it is that she will remind us—sooner, not later—of a fellow traveler: Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Nigeria cries to be served, and it is comforting that people like Mrs. Akunyili have chosen to remain involved. But it is not Nigeria that is the problem, which is why I hope she has armed herself with a nice, long spoon.

2009 may be long on promises, but it will not be a long year. But if we continue to nurture poverty in the manure of hypocrisy, we may soon be investing in flak jackets, and larger prisons.

 By Sonala Olumhense
[email protected]

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