(Remarks made by Ayo Obe at the panel discussion on Nigeria's 2011 Elections and the Challenges Ahead held by the International Forum for Democratic Studies and the National Endowment for Democracy's Africa Program in Washington on Thursday the 15th of September 2011)
My original topic for this meeting had as its title "The challenges of democratisation in Nigeria". My thoughts on that subject had begun with the observation that "the trouble with that kind of topic is that one is tempted to dwell only on problems". But having since been advised that I should address "The Post-Election Agenda", I am still - in the actual situation in which Nigeria finds itself - obliged to start by accessing some of the problems that confront the nation.
The most urgent of these is the problem of security, or rather, insecurity. You probably all know what this means: terrorism of the kind that kills indiscriminately in pursuit of the goals of Boko Haram following hard on the heels of terrorism that claimed to have been undertaken to protest the injustices suffered by the people of the Niger Delta since ... well, since before Independence. A murderous sectarian war in Plateau State, in and around Jos. Kidnapping on such an industrialised scale that it reduced a major commercial town in the Eastern part of the country to a ghost town.
Nigerians have seen the kidnapping phenomenon move from political protest with posturing by kidnappers for CNN and virtual rest cure complete with "man no be wood" provision for the kidnapped and everything eventually resolved from the bottomless pockets of the oil industry, to a vicious business in which the victims, if they emerge alive at all, are subjected to beatings and near starvation in captivity while frantic relatives sell everything, including cars and even houses, to meet the demands of the kidnappers, all the while in fear of the law enforcement agencies to whom they ought to be able to turn for succour. The national conviction - reinforced by the failure of the Christmas Day bomber to detonate his underpants - that "Nigerians can never be stupid enough to engage in suicide bombing" has been rudely shattered by the bombing of Force Headquarters in Abuja, the head office of the Nigeria Police Force, and the bombing of the United Nations building. Although there are still some diehards who are trying to prove that the bombers in both those incidents were not really suicide bombers, but were just delayed ... taken unawares and had probably planned to escape before detonation, the majority of the population considers itself put on notice by the boast of Boko Haram that it has trained 100 suicide bombers who will launch a wave of similar attacks now that Ramadan is over.
As terrifying as these new threats to security are for Nigerians who are also no longer confident that they are peculiar to specific areas, be it Maiduguri, Jos or Aba, and of course, Abuja (where the only half unserious complaint is that the wrong people - ordinary Nigerians - are being targeted instead of the looters and freeloaders whose depredations have created the army of jobless young men who make up the cannon fodder for those behind the increased security threats) the country already faced huge challenges which the nation can hardly afford to put on hold while it deals with the security challenges. After all, while the indignation that met the Atlas Cove bombing in Lagos at the hands of Niger Delta militants (again, wrong target!) is now replaced with "they better not try it here" bluster from Lagosians, the fact is that not only must life go on, but that the development agenda must be pursued, and pursued vigorously for that matter in Lagos and the many other parts of the country - the majority - which have not suffered the kind of indiscriminate killing attacks of Boko Haram and indeed, in those parts which have.
The issues remain the same: electricity, jobs, agriculture, education, health, roads and the whole transport infrastructure. In the words of one commentator on the occasion of President Jonathan's 100 days in office (it being understood that this refers to the post-inauguration period, not the 500+ days that he has actually been in power as President):
"The president is at the head of perhaps the world’s most expensive bureaucracy. Elsewhere, governments are downsizing and pruning down costs; but in this country, the reverse is the case. The President must take a stand on reducing the cost of governance. Unfortunately, perhaps in an attempt to please everyone, he is creating additional structures of government, and he is being imitated by governors in the 36 states.
The impression is also rife that the president is not rigorously tackling the key problems of Nigeria. The fire ignited by the introduction of the new minimum wage is still smoldering, with organised labour spoiling for a fight. And now, the judiciary – the last hope of the common man – is in crisis. Agriculture, which should create employment and reduce the cost of living, is not receiving sufficient attention. For an agrarian society, what is our agricultural policy? Almost all federal roads are in bad state, and the prospect of a modern railway system, which would have created employment for thousands of Nigerians, is still a dream. Nigerian education is degrading, with massive failures at public examinations. Health care delivery has not shown much improvement.
No one expects quick solutions to these problems, but 100 days is long enough time to signal the direction of connective policies.". (Editorial comment in The Punch, 6th September 2011)
Others who commented on the President's 100 days also mentioned the issue of corruption, but here too, Nigerians have become tired of 'fights' against corruption which not only fail to defeat corruption, but also bring every other aspect of the nation's agenda to a stuttering halt.
Before I proceed further, I should make it clear that I am not a member of Goodluck Jonathan's inner circle. He marked his 100 post inauguration days in office with a statement which emphasised that he had promised less but, according to his spokesperson, "delivered more". The content of that delivery however, won little applause from the Nigerian people. Yes, it included matters like slight improvements in the public electricity supply, but on the whole, the President has been congratulating himself for matters that cannot, as another commentator* put it, by any stretch of the imagination constitute "achievements".
Since Mr. President has hardly set himself any benchmarks, it is difficult to really say what his agenda is. The list of issues referred to above are hardly new in Nigeria, indeed, they crop up with depressing regularity. But what to do about them?
As a member of the first post-military Police Service Commission from 2001-2006, we were more occupied with trying to redress the imbalances and injustices that had been caused by the long near-freeze in promotions and disposal of disciplinary matters as well as setting up the PSC itself. But among the other matters that we found time for was a tour of police training institutions across the country. The picture we saw was not just depressing, it was alarming. Predictably, our report which called for urgent action to repair and upgrade these institutions was received with a moderate amount of fanfare by the Obasanjo administration, and then shelved.
Yet such training remains vitally important if the myriad security threats to the country and its citizens are to be contained. It is all very well to invite the FBI to assist in the investigation of the UN bombing, but the FBI is here, in the United States. If the first responders in Nigeria have no knowledge of how to preserve a crime scene because they are not trained to do so, the FBI may be ineffective. Perhaps we can still remember the embarrassment of the NPF in 2006 when Scotland Yard was called in to investigate the assassination of Funso Williams (a contender for the PDP Lagos gubernatorial ticket), and had to wait outside while the family member who had locked up the room was sought. Our own policemen had not even taken control of the crime scene, through which the whole world and his wife had traipsed for a goggle. Naturally, the detectives from London pronounced the eventually opened crime scene "hopelessly compromised". A series of political murders including that of Federal Attorney-General Bola Ige remain unsolved, with barely even the pretence at investigation.
But even more than crime detection, the NPF needs urgent training in the prevention of crime, and to find means of doing this that neither breach human rights nor bring normal life to a halt. For example, last Saturday, President Jonathan was in Lagos with his National Security Adviser Patrick Aziza for the wedding of one of the latter's children. Major roads in Lagos were closed down in the name of security, with mini-trucks full of soldiers careering up and down the place. Lagosians should perhaps be grateful that this time, the disruption was on a Saturday; previous presidential trips to the commercial capital have left the whole place grounded with the working population resentful and convinced that to our rulers, only their own safety is important (yes I know that that is probably what they do think, but they should have the decency to pretend otherwise,)
On Sunday my daughter and I were stopped in the name of 'stop and search'. Well, it is possible that Boko Haram is using women in trousers and tee shirts to carry out their nefarious activities, but I can't quite shake the feeling that the inspector just wanted to ogle my daughter who is young and beautiful.
In short, a much more sophisticated approach is needed, and any post-election agenda must address the gross deficiency of police training. We have only to see the trajectory of how the Boko Haram group was converted into the terrorist outfit that it now presents as by the inability of the NPF to make out a forensic case that will lead to convictions in court, to understand that Nigeria simply can not continue with the half-trained police force that is now possesses. Yes, Nigerian police may win plaudits when sent on overseas missions (at least, that is what they tell us and that is what we hear about them) but on such missions they are possibly less involved with the kind of policing that is required for their home country right now.
The post-election agenda cannot be only that of the President and the Federal government. In education it is true that or universities have lost a lot of ground and that the quality of the graduates produced is unreliable without further testing, but the figures for literacy rates across the country showed an alarmingly high proportion of children in the northern states who are unable to read or write in any language. The blame for this must be laid squarely at the feet of the Governors of those states. Which is not to say that at only 60% literacy, the figures for the southern states are anything to write home about, while the federal government also needs to explain its shameful inaction over the wholesale looting of the funds for nomadic education. But even though the army of unemployed graduates presents not only its twin tragedies of wasted lives and possible security challenges, an even bigger army of uneducated children growing up into adulthood only multiplies and projects those tragedies into an already uncertain future, and any Governor with eyes in his head ought to be making it a priority to immediately arrest and reverse that situation. They have more than sufficient means to do so.
I will mention agriculture, not because of the obvious issues about fertiliser, but because a government that is alive to the projected population growth for the country cannot afford to play ducks and drakes with its agricultural policy, talking sentimental whatnot about groundnut pyramids and regrets about how Malaysians came to collect palm oil nut seedlings from Nigeria in the 1960s, and instead to start - like yesterday - to create the structures necessary for those who are willing to invest their time and talents in increasing the agricultural yield for the country, from the top and the whole approach to agricultural finance to the bottom and the kind of training that that huge army of unemployed young people, boys and girls but most especially the boys, need to make them employable in a genuinely revamped agricultural sector, not just a pretend agriculture on the top of which a few Zimbabwean farmers are plumped like cherries on a yet-to-be-baked cake.
The other item that ought to be on the post-election Agenda is the Constitutional issue. By this, I do not mean the six year term that Jonathan so unwisely introduced into the national discourse at such an inopportune time, but the question of what happens in Nigeria after him. Will he, like those who have ruled Nigeria before him, do so as though there's no tomorrow, in an "après moi le deluge" fashion? Or will his goal be the devising of a formula that will be fair to all when he is gone? It was certainly part of what he wooed ethnic groups such as Afenifere and Ohaneze with before the elections. Because it will involve reducing the power of the presidency, this might require a strength of character that President Jonathan's admirers and supporters, and even the rest of us, his hapless subjects, are only left hoping that he possesses. A brief 100 days has shown us that the few promises that were made during the election season are meaningless to the President. Yet if the issue is not tackled when, as he eventually must, Jonathan leaves power, the condition of the South-South and for that matter, the rest of the ordinary people of Nigeria, will be as bad as it ever was, or worse.
Of course, the four areas that I have concentrated on are not the alpha and omega of what needs to be done. The economy and infrastructure are too obviously cases needing attention to require further mention and in any case, I can say little about either save perhaps that the government's ambition of becoming one of the 20 leading economies in the world (which frankly, with our population is really a very modest ambition in any case) is in danger of being meaningless to most of the Nigerian people, and that a more people-oriented government should be thinking more along the lines, as they are in countries like Zambia or Kenya, of joining the ranks of middle-income countries and - admittedly against the grain of trends in most countries - really tackling income disparities. I have said before that our 'big men' have a tendency to measure their height by the distance between themselves and those at the bottom, rather than their closeness to the ceiling. 'Trickle down' economic policies have barely worked in the West. They certainly won't work in a Nigeria where an uneducated majority is in no position to catch the drips which in any case, are not falling on them. Nigeria's growth must be specifically skewed towards boosting the lowest in our society precisely because we have no genuine social security or welfare safety net.
Of course, there are other issues that must be tackled. But we have seen multi-point agendas before and we know what happened (or rather, did not happen) to them. This is enough to be going on with, and the right place for me too, to stop talking. Thank you for your attention.
*Sonala Olumhense in The Guardian 11th September 2011