What’s a hairstyle got to do with freedom?

I’ve known about J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere‘s (died February 2014, aged 83) endlessly fascinating hairstyles documentary work for years.

Now the BBC World Service brings us a short piece highlighting one of the most iconic of those hairstyles. The one featured here is called “Onile gogoro”, which, in the Yoruba language of South Western Nigeria, literally means “tall house”, or more loosely, “high-rising.”

Art curator Bisi Silva explains that it was popular at the time of Nigeria’s Independence from Britain (1960), for the way it captured “the aspirations of a new nation.” 

It’s a reminder (in a somewhat sad way) that Nigeria has always been a nation of tall dreams. 

Now I’m wondering, fifty years on, what hairstyle would most fully capture contemporary Nigerian aspirations?

*

VISIT: An ongoing exhibition of Ojeikere’s hairstyle oeuvre, in London

Lessons from Durban

This piece originally appeared in NEXT in September 2009

By Tolu Ogunlesi

“Usually planning in cities is [done] around the egos of city managers who have [only] five years in office.” Those were the words of Dr. Mike Sutcliffe, City Manager, eThekwini Municipality, speaking in July in Durban, South Africa, at a recent media briefing on the challenges of preparing a city to host the biggest soccer event in the world. “Whatever we have to do in our city has to be sustainable… we really are looking at a strategy way beyond the Fifa World Cup next year.” Durban, South Africa’s second largest city, and part of the eThekwini Municipality, is currently developing 60 – 70 year city plans.

Nigeria, a country that builds for the present but never the future, would do well to replicate Durban’s foresight. It is worthy of note that the only airport in Lagos, the most populous city in Africa, was built thirty years ago, and has not been upgraded or expanded since then. “No rail project has been done in Lagos since I was born,” said Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, in a recent television interview.

The story is the same with bridges; the last ambitious bridge project in the state is now almost twenty years old.

Durban, self-acclaimed “Africa’s sporting and events capital” and first South African city to introduce free “basic services” as water and electricity, is using the World Cup opportunity to justify a long-term, city-wide infrastructure upgrade.

According to Sutcliffe, fibre optic cabling is being laid throughout the city; revenue generated from renting it out will be used to upgrade the bandwidth. The cabling is being laid along the sewerage system to enable it reach every part of the city. Similarly the city is experimenting with using the existing electricity cables to transmit voice. The principle of long-term thinking also extends to the ports. Durban is Africa’s busiest port city; there is a 30 to 40-year plan in place.

Further evidence of a long-term city vision: “This will be the only stadium in Africa that can host the Olympics,” said Dr. Sutcliffe. The stadium referred to is the US$370 million Moses Mabhida stadium, newly constructed for the World Cup. He added that the stadium is being built to be much more than a football stadium, that the plan is to ensure that “365 days a year, people will come here… for leisure sports.” Regarding the new lanes being planned for the city’s roads, Sutcliffe said “all of the future lanes are going to be for public transport” – the idea being to discourage private transport.

All of these developmental projects are providing new jobs. Thirty-thousand residents of Durban are currently employed to manage and maintain roads – mostly involving pothole-fixing; for 500 rand a month (approximately 9,891 naira) Durban is also putting in place a BRT system, as well as integrating all its transport systems – bus, rail, taxi. “In the next 5 – 10 years we want a single ticket that you can use to travel anywhere within the city,” Sutcliffe disclosed.

Faced with resistance from taxi drivers who think that the planned BRT system will negatively affect their business, the city took 30 of the “toughest and roughest” drivers to Colombia to see how an integrated transport system works.

There are lessons for the giant of Africa to learn from Durban. The cheering news is that the Lagos State Government, to cite the rare example, seems eager to genuinely transform the city. Governor Fashola, during a TV interview said “We are already looking beyond 2015… that’s why we have 15 – 20 – 25-year plans.” According to him, the population of Lagos is projected to be 25 million by 2025. He described the city as being “18 million people by the seaside; an underserved economy populated by people with a very high taste.” He also admitted that Lagos is in dire need of “a new airport, a new seaport, more roads and new bridges.”

That is not exactly rocket science; it is a given that every urban area will continually be in need of new infrastructure to match its growth rate. But perhaps we need to be thankful that at least one “state manager” has started by publicly diagnosing the problem, whilst many others are busy awarding contracts that hold maximum ‘self-enrichment’ possibilities, but no developmental value.

And as the Under-17 World Cup (to be hosted by Nigeria) approaches, we need our governments and LOCs to look beyond November 2009, as South Africa proudly proclaims its “2010 and Beyond” vision.

Sadly, amid the din of the disgraceful MRI test results, and the controversies regarding the NTA’s broadcast equipment upgrade, one imagines it will be hard to pass any message across at this time.

South Africa-Nigeria Relations: Game of Throes

By Tolu Ogunlesi

On a per-person basis, South Africans drink more four times as much beer as Nigerians. As a country, South Africa enjoys ten times as much electricity as thrice-as-populated Nigeria.

Even before leaving the starting blocks, that’s already two goals to nil, against Nigeria.

South Africa’s Universities are also better regarded, and are home to large numbers of young Nigerians on a quest for decent education.

And then this: at any point in time there’s a horde of Nigerians trooping to South Africa to shoot music videos and commercials. Nigerian talkshow host Mo Abudu says most of Nigeria’s multi-million-dollar annual TV advertising spend ends up in South Africa.

On to sports, for the blow-of-all-blows: in 2010 South Africa became the first African country to host the World Cup. And they did a damn good job, better than Nigeria did when she hosted the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship, and the FIFA Under 17 World Cup in 2009.

But you shouldn’t then assume that Nigeria has always had to play second fiddle. In the beginning it was not so. For a long time Nigeria was big brother to swaths of the continent. One example: In 1972 Nigerian Akinola Aguda was appointed as Botswana’s first African Chief Justice. During the fight against apartheid Nigerian scholarships went to thousands of South Africans.

The Nigerian Government was a key supporter of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s; and for a certain generation of Nigerian musicians, composing an anti-apartheid song was a rite of passage of sorts. No doubt Nigerians were very concerned about the predicament of their South African brothers and sisters. In the late 1980s former Nigerian President Obasanjo suggested employing voodoo in the battle for the liberation of South Africa.

But in 1994, the tables turned. South Africa emerged into democracy, and cast off its decades-old pariah status, while Nigeria started a descent from darkness into deeper darkness, supervised by a dark-goggled dictator called Sani Abacha. Incensed by Mandela’s role in the international campaign to save the lives of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, Abacha ordered Nigeria’s boycott of the 1996 Nations Cup hosted by South Africa.

It wasn’t until Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999 that tensions thawed, and Presidents Obasanjo and Mbeki (who both took office that year) forged a friendship that underpinned the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

In the thirteen years since then South African businesses have invaded Nigeria with the same aplomb with which we have invaded Ghana: MTN (which makes more money from Nigeria than anywhere else), Multichoice, Standard Bank, Shoprite. (Nandos and Nu-metro didn’t survive their Nigeria incursions, both have packed up and left).

Nigerians haven’t quite reciprocated on a similar scale; but worthy of mention is the historic 2005 listing of Nigerian oil company Oando on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

And of course the October 2003 launch of a South African edition of Nduka Obaigbena’s ThisDay newspaper, which, sadly, soon ran out of advertisers’ confidence, and money, and shut down in October 2004. According to Eno Bassey in a 2006 Wits University Masters dissertation on the “rise and fall” of the newspaper, “ThisDay represented the first major financial investment from Nigeria to South Africa as opposed to the huge influx of South African investment into Nigeria…”

In May 2008, South African citizens turned against immigrants, including but not limited to Nigerians, in a series of violent attacks. They complained that the foreigners were stealing jobs and diminishing economic opportunity. In the case of Nigerians the allegations were more to do with running criminal gangs of drug-dealers and fraudsters.

The following year, ‘District 9’ appeared, featuring as one of its main characters a paraplegic Nigerian weapons dealer and gang-leader named Obesandjo. (One is assuming it is only coincidental that a former Nigerian President is called “Obasanjo.”)

Nigerians protested. No less a person than our then Minister for Information, Dora Akunyili, protested (the movie was eventually banned). The film, she insisted, was a gross misrepresentation of Nigeria, and Nigerians. One of her complaints was that it portrayed Nigerians as people who “believe in the powers of ritual and voodoo.” It seemed that the Minister’s point was that only Nollywood – currently busy on a continent-wide cultural colonisation project – is allowed to portray Nigerians in a dim light.

District 9 will always stand as incontrovertible evidence of the way Nigerians are generally perceived in South Africa. As South Africa’s High Commissioner to Nigeria, Kingsley Mamabola, told Nigerian paper, NEXT, last year: “The perception South Africans have about Nigerians is not good at all. Those Nigerians of a very tiny percentage – I will say just about one percent – engage in crimes that are generally seen by all and which overshadow the good works of the majority of Nigerians.”

That perception might explain the treatment meted out to Nigerians at the dysfunctional South African embassy in Lagos, until recently, when the visa process was outsourced to the same firm that handles UK visa applications).

On March 2, 2012, the South Africans almost succeeded in launching World War 3, by turning back 125 Nigerians — an entire plane-load — at Oliver Tambo airport, allegedly for possessing fake yellow fever cards. An angry Nigerian government immediately triggered its emergency response system. Within days Nigeria equalised – and then some. 136 South Africans shown the way back to their beloved country, ostensibly to protect them from contracting the yellow fever that is responsible for Nigeria’s dysfunctional state. One of the most hilarious news reports from that time was the one that said 67 “South African prostitutes” were being deported from Nigeria. Until then few had any idea that South African business interests in Nigeria extended to the sex trade.

That contentious state of affairs ended as it should, with a South African apology to Big Brother Nigeria. “We wish to humbly apologise to [Nigeria], and we have,” South African deputy foreign Minister Ibrahim Ibrahim is quoted as saying, at a press conference called for that purpose.

Barely three months later the two countries were back in the trenches, this time over the bid of South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the chairpersonship of the African Union Commission. Citing a previous gentlemanly agreement between the five leading countries in the AU, agreeing to not put forward their nationals for the position, Nigeria campaigned for the incumbent Jean Ping, from Gabon. This time, however, it was Nigeria’s turn to capitulate. Dlamini-Zuma emerged the winner of the election in October 2012.

But no one should assume that the battle is over. As history has shown, there are only shaky ceasefires between Africa’s two largest economies; no lasting peace accords.

“Since the demise of apartheid, South Africans have not shown the kind of reciprocity one would expect of a brother,” Nigerian Wole Olaoye lamented in an editorial published in the Nigerian paper, Daily Trust, last August.

Nigerians who share his view of South Africans as lacking brotherly goodwill will point mockingly at O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg, world-leader in luggage theft. My friend, A, survived a robbery attempt in Johannesburg last December. A gun to his head, and a casual quip reminding him that his Nigerian-ness was, at that moment, likely to count against his survival chances. I recently had a Nigerian tell me that the difference between Nigerian and South African robbers was this: Nigerians asked questions and weren’t likely to shoot; South Africans concerned themselves with shooting alone.

I’m sure South Africa has its own lines of defence. These might or might not include the suggestion that the O.R. Tambo luggage thieves are actually Nigerians, or that the robbers at Lagos’ Murtala Mohammed Airport actually wear government-approved uniforms.

The truth is that at the moment South Africa remains a safer (yes!) and saner place to do business in, offering better infrastructure, and less confusion – and corruption! – than Nigeria.

What Nigeria offers are freakish investment returns, obeying no known or unknown economic theories, and guaranteed only to a fortunate, super-risk-taking few (which in the recent past has included South Africans).

It’d definitely be hard to find any Nigerian who can argue that South Africa, even with its several challenges, isn’t miles ahead of us. If we had any doubts, the World Cup hosting feat silenced them all.

Where Nigerians will instead find solace is in the recent declarations of economic prophets, who say we will displace South Africa as Africa’s largest economy very soon. Standard Chartered says that magic year, when South Africa will begin to eat the dust thrown up by Nigeria’s speeding economy, is 2018. Morgan Stanley says 2025.

We will patiently wait for that moment when BRICS will fall into inevitable disuse, to be replaced by BRI-N-C. Headlines like “Africa on the BRINC of Global Domination” will remind the world that, were the continent to be re-imagined as a pistol, Nigeria, not South Africa, lies where the trigger would be.

(Originally appeared in Chimurenga in 2013, before Nigeria displaced South Africa as Africa’s largest economy).

How Nigeria created Boko Haram

By Tolu Ogunlesi

How the failings of the Nigerian state, over the years, have conspired to create the conditions for the transformation of Boko Haram into the irredeemably violent organization it is today; one that now appears to lie well beyond the capacity of the country to confront and defeat.

Police and military abuses

The turning point in the drawn-out evolution of Boko Haram was the 2009 killing, by Nigerian police, of Boko Haram founder Yusuf Mohammed, hours after soldiers arrested and handed him over. His capture followed five days of clashes between sect members and the military, ordered in by the President when it became clear that the police could not contain it.

The group’s first violent uprising occurred long before then, in December 2003. Like the game-changing 2009 incident, it had retaliatory undertones. About 200 armed youth who styled themselves Al Sunna Wal Jamma (“Followers of the Prophet”) attacked police stations in two border towns in Yobe State, near Nigeria’s border with Yobe.

The attack on the police stations is now believed to have been planned as revenge for what the group – an early and short-lived splinter group of Boko Haram – perceived as mistreatment of its members by the police. For the next six years there were no other attacks on the scale of the 2003 uprisings, until the events of July 2009, in which the sect launched a series of brazen, coordinated attacks on police stations and government buildings in four states, in retaliation for an encounter weeks earlier with a team of security officers under the control of the Governor.

That incident, in which sect members were reportedly challenged by law enforcement agents for defying a state law and riding motorcycles without helmets, resulted in gunshot injuries to several sect members. After that incident, Yusuf reportedly wrote and circulated a letter to President Yar’Adua (hinted at in another letter attributed to Boko Haram two years later, shortly before another major attack).

The deaths of Yusuf, his father-in-law (who provided the land on which his mosque in Maiduguri was built), and alleged financier Buji Foi in controversial circumstances at the hands of the police, and after the violence had already subsided, marked the beginning of a new phase of the campaign waged by Boko Haram.

At that time local media reported that Muslim men were shaving their beards to avoid being rounded up for summary execution by the military. Also around the time of the clampdown, articles emerged in the media alleging that Boko Haram had received far more repressive treatment from the Nigerian media than the militants in the Niger delta, wondering if some Animals weren’t more equal than others. That sense of injustice appears to have been amplified among members of the sect, and spurred its re-emergence in a more virulent form, in 2011.

In an audio message released to the media in April 2013, following reports that the government was planning to extend amnesty to repentant militants, sect leader Abu Shekau is reported as saying: “We are the one to grant them pardon. Have you forgotten their atrocities against us?”

Human rights groups have continued to document accounts of abuses perpetrated by the Nigerian military, which end up alienating local communities and further radicalizing Boko Haram sympathizers.

Politics

The first hint of politics can be found in the rush by Northern State Governors to implement Sharia (Islamic law), as soon as democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, after sixteen years of military dictatorships. President Olusegun Obasanjo downplayed the concerns voiced by Christians regarding the rollout of Sharia laws in a secular country. “What we have now is what I call political Sharia. I am not afraid of it because I believe it will fizzle out,” he said in September 2000, after eight states had adopted the law.

He was right about the political impetus for the adoption; but there was an unforeseen and troubling implication: the political edge to the adoption of Sharia – manifesting in half-hearted commitment from most of the Governors after the initial thrill – ended up causing disillusionment which proselytizers like Yusuf capitalized on to burnish their credentials.

Politics also crops up as a possible explanation for the extrajudicial murder of Boko Haram leader Yusuf Mohammed – sect members appear to believe the police were pressured into murdering him by powerful politicians who did not want the truth regarding their connections to Boko Haram to come out. Mohammed, his championing of the poor and downtrodden in the face of elite corruption and decadence aside, presumably had the support of wealthy and influential citizens across Northern Nigeria where he operated.

The activities of Boko Haram certainly required funding. At the height of his influence in the mid-to-late 2000s Yusuf ran a mosque complex, a farm and micro-finance scheme – what one observer referred to as “a state within a state.”

Yusuf’s charismatic preaching and his philanthropy soon ensured that he was in control of a large and deeply devoted youth population, drawn to his attacks on secular Western education and on a decadent political system whose legacy was corruption and poverty. Multitudes left their families or quit education to follow him. And these were not always poor youth, it has been reported that many of his followers were from wealthy families.

With this youth army it is easy to see the attraction it held for politicians on a desperate quest to gain or retain political office. It is a pattern across Nigeria that politicians cultivate, for the purposes of winning elections, armies of youth whose job it is to intimidate opponents, and create the kind of chaos that makes rigging easy on election days.

Also alleged to be a member and major financier of Boko Haram was an influential politician called Buji Foi, who at one time served a Commissioner for Religious Affairs in Borno State – a powerful position that oversaw the implementation of Sharia Law in the State.

Since 2009 politicians across the political divide in Borno State have regularly exchanged accusations of Boko Haram sympathy and support. More recently, following the declaration of a state of emergency by the President in May 2013, the politicking has assumed a national dimension.

The ruling Peoples Democratic Party and the President’s advisers have long struggled to portray the opposition All Progressives Congress as a Muslim Brotherhood look-alike bent on “Islamising” Nigeria, while the APC suspects that the reluctance of the Federal Government to clamp down decisively on the insurgency is connected to its plan to keep the region – an APC stronghold – unstable and undermine chances of elections holding there in 2015. Amid the frenzy of accusations and counter-accusations, the protection of hapless citizens, like the students in Chibok, is not a priority.

Foreign arms and funding

One noticeable trend in Nigeria from the early 2000s was the proliferation of arms in the country, smuggled in across Nigeria’s porous four-thousand-mile-stretch of borders with Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

In response, Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 set up a Presidential Action Committee on Control of Violent Crimes and Illegal Weapons, which reportedly raised fears that extremist sects were gaining ground in the country. There is no evidence any actions were taken at that time, to address the very credible threats.

It is now also known that funds have flowed into Northern Nigeria from abroad, to support an array of disruptive Muslim sects, since the turn of the century. Writing in 2011, Mai Yamani, author of Cradle of Islam noted that “despite the decade of the West’s war on terror, and Saudi Arabia’s longer-term alliance with the US, the Kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment has continued to bankroll Islamic extremist ideologies around the world.”

In 2002, a Nigerian associate of Osama Bin Laden reportedly received 300m naira (US$3m at that time) from him to donate to several Islamist sects across Northern Nigeria, including Boko Haram. Osama had himself broadcast a message around that time in which he cited Nigeria as one of six countries “ready for liberation.”

Investigations by Nigerian authorities after the December 2003 uprising led to the arrest of a Sudanese national alleged to be funding the sect (at that time an incarnation of it known as ‘Nigerian Taliban’) with monies received from wealthy Saudi backers. And then in December 2006 Yusuf was arrested on charges of trafficking in foreign currency. It apparently wasn’t the only time he spent time in custody. But every time he did he soon after emerged a free man. It has been reported that his powerful local backers always managed to secure his freedom.

Corruption and state apathy

If the authorities got any warnings about the July 2009 uprising – and there are suggestions they did – nothing pre-emptive was done, until the sect struck. Five years after the events of July 2009 not much seems to have changed; regarding the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok Amnesty International says: “Nigerian security forces knew about Boko Haram’s impending raid, but failed to take the immediate action needed to stop it.”

A culture of corruption deprives fighting personnel of weapons, equipment and welfare, resulting in a demoralized force. Rumours abound of Nigerian soldiers stealing and selling arms to criminals.

There have also been suggestions that Nigeria’s military bosses are interested in preserving the stalemate with Boko Haram to justify the continued allocation of billions of dollars to security in the Federal budget.

In February the Governor of Nigeria’s Borno State told journalists that “Boko Haram are better armed and are better motivated than our own troops.” The recent mutiny by soldiers on the frontlines against Boko Haram provides strong evidence of the levels of frustration within the military.

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi

Interview with Michael Clewley, Software Product Management Director at BlackBerry

On Wednesday I spoke to Michael Clewley, Director for Handheld Software Product Management at BlackBerry, after the company unveiled its latest device, the Passport. “My role is specifically to oversee the software aspects of our devices and launch,” he says. He played that role for the BlackBerry PlayBook, and the BlackBerry 10 phones, so it made sense for me to start my questioning with a glance at the company’s past.

***

Takeaways:

*Blackberry has tried to learn useful lessons from less-than-stellar past experiences

*The latest version of its Operating System – 10.3, making its debut appearance on the Passport – offers a potentially game-changing content partnership with Amazon

*Reports that BlackBerry is trying to quit the hardware (devices) space and reinvent itself as a wholly software company are exaggerated. 

***

Passport_black_front

Are there any lessons from the Playbook that influenced the Passport, considering that the PlayBook did not do quite as well as company would have liked. 

I think BlackBerry’s probably learned a couple of lessons in general from the PlayBook: Don’t overhype a product before its ready to launch; don’t launch a product before its ready to launch, [CEO] John Chen’s been very clear about that, [the need] to have the right product, the right quality, the right experience, when you’re launching a product. It’s very important to have all that as part of your holistic product launch. The other thing we’ve done for Passport is really articulate and identify who the product is for, upfront. It’s not something we necessarily did well for even the BlackBeryy 10 launch, and definitely didn’t do necessarily well for the Playbook – we touted it as this grandiose tablet when it was really more something that was a companion experience to your existing BlackBerry smartphone. With Passport, as a company we’ve done really well about talking about how it’s for a specific user, describing the user in detail and then building the story and all of our marketing messaging around that.

When I heard you talk about the newly launched BlackBerry Blend it seemed to me like it was a more sophisticated version of Bridge

Yes, Bridge is definitely an early ancestor for Blend. In multiple ways, both from a technology aspect and from a holistic product offering aspect. That idealism, this ability to have two devices working together in a way but [also] have the security be inside a particular aspect and not have to worry about your information on the other device. Bridge was about that and Blend inherited it and became this whole other thing. 

When the BlackBerry 10 launched app compatibility was a problem – there weren’t enough native apps, e.g. Instagram was missing. How do you think that might affect uptake of the Passport?

That’s why we’ve announced and are now seeing this partnership with Amazon happen. With 10.3 and Passport we have the dual app store strategy. BlackBerry World is what we’ll be using to focus our efforts on bringing the productivity and the business type of applications and [driving] those kinds of applications specifically, and then the Amazon app store is where you’re going to find the more consumer-oriented applications. Amazon is a large company;  they’ve got lots of muscle strength out there so they have the ability to go get the top names and top applications and bring those to their store, and we get the benefit of that. 

Let’s talk about the tension between being a software and a hardware company. What are your thoughts on that, and do you think that tension is to be found across the entire industry  or does BlackBerry more acutely face that challenge of balancing the different identities?

We have always been a hardware-specific company – we have software, but it was definitely a smaller part of our business. What John [Chen] has been really great at doing is getting the company across the board to really think about a balanced approach to making money. It’s kind of like if you’re an investor, you’re going to invest in a balance of areas across the board. You’re not going to say I’m only going to invest in bonds, or I’m only going to invest in mutual funds, because you’re either not going to get returns or you’re not going to make as much money as you could. Or sometimes you’ll [even] lose money because you’re [overly] focused on a specific area.

For us the way John has really got us starting to think is that the handset division needs to make money, the software division needs to make money, and those two will make money and help the overall goal and the bottomline of the company. It’s sort of where our head is at, and because we have this end-to-end experience we’re able to have a great device and also have a great software solution that manages that device and other devices as well.

Do you think the same dilemma – of balancing hardware and software ambitions – would apply across the industry, i.e. among competition?

The android OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) vendors get the software from someone else and then they have to do something on top of it to make it differentiated, if they want. But they don’t own any other aspect. None of them are in the MDM (Mobile Device Managament) space like we are. And even Apple, yes they own both hardware and software, but they’re also not in the MDM space, so they rely on others to do things for them. Whereas we own software and  hardware and the management and security and the infrastructure that connects it all together, so we’re better positioned to do a lot [more].

Lessons from Rwanda, twenty years on

By Tolu Ogunlesi 

Surviving life after a war often turns out to be as arduous as surviving the war itself. Like colonial rule, the psychological wounds of armed conflict outlast the economic ones. The declaration of surrender by Biafran rebel forces in 1970 may have ended a 30-month civil war that claimed in excess of one million lives, but it did not suddenly bequeath to Nigeria’s seventy million citizens a post-ethnic configuration.

And the perpetrators and victims of Rwanda’s genocide (in the 100 days between April 7, 1994 and July 16, 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were murdered) were often not unknown to one another.

The question of what needs to be done in the aftermath of violence is a difficult yet inescapable one. Handled ineffectually, it becomes a bomb that ticks with ominous obstinacy. As one Angolan human rights activist told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2012, ten years after the Civil War ended (after almost thirty years of on-and-off fighting): “Our political intolerance remains. We have not forgotten the hatred that is stored in our hearts. There was no process of peace-making and no planning for the transition.”

Ditto Cote d’Ivoire. In a July 2013 interview, researcher Nora Sturm spoke of the “deep distrust” and “feelings of resentment and alienation” lingering beyond the Civil War. And in There Was A Country, his memoir of the Nigerian Civil War (1967 – 1970), published in 2012, forty two years after the war ended, the late Nigerian novelist and essayist Chinua Achebe lamented:

“Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, over forty years after its end. Are we perpetually doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past because we are too stubborn to learn from them?”

Retribution, Reconciliation and Religion

In Nigeria at first we turned to God. In his speech on January 15, 1970, Nigeria’s Head of State General Yakubu Gowon declared: “We must thank God for his mercies. We mourn the dead heroes. We thank God for sparing us to see his glorious dawn of national reconciliation. We have ordered that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday be national days of prayer. We must his guidance to do our duty to contribute our quota to the building of a great nation, founded on the concerted efforts of all its people and on justice and equality.”

In fairness to it the government went on to create a ‘National Youth Service Corps’ scheme to “promote national unity and integration.” The scheme made it mandatory for all Nigerian University graduates to spend 12 months on national assignment outside their “state of origin.” More than 30 years after the war ended my service took me hundreds of miles from home, to the Niger delta. It was my first time of living outside the southwest region where my ethnic roots lie. Thirty years before me my father had made a similar journey out of the South West; his took him much farther, to the northeastern town of Mubi, near the border with Cameroon.

But beyond the NYSC there was no real effort to face and deal with the feelings that had led to the war, and the devastation that ensued from it. This was a war that claimed an estimated one million lives, most of them ethnic Igbos from the South East, and in which the warring parties were both guilty of acts that probably should have been decisively brought to justice once the war ended.

This might explain why, more than forty years after the war, the wounds remain. It took the publication of There Was A Country, Achebe’s final book, a broadside against Nigeria and its mistreatment of the breakaway republic, Biafra, to reveal just how fresh the wounds were. The appearance of the book triggered bellicose debate amongst Nigerians on the Internet and in newspapers.

South Africa set up, in 1995, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (similar institutions existed in Chile and Argentina in the 1980s, to dig up the past and try to apportion blame and guilt). The country’s interim constitution, produced shortly after the first multiracial elections in 1994, had highlighted “a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not retaliation, a need for Ubuntu but not victimization.” The South Afrian example inspired other African countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, and even Nigeria (the final report from Nigeria’s Commission was never formally made public).

The biggest argument against Truth Commissions is that they are long on confessions and forgiveness but short on justice. “If truth has replaced justice in South Africa – has reconciliation then turned into an embrace of evil?” Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, one of its loudest critics, famously asked.

It would seem that in dealing with the legacy of Africa’s many conflicts people would prefer mechanisms that focus less on amnesty than on retribution, like the Nuremberg Trials, the military tribunals set up by the victorious Allied powers (US, Britain, France and Soviet Union) to try Nazi war criminals after the Second World War ended. The Nuremberg consisted in all of twelve trials conducted between 1945 and 1949.

The first and best known one saw twenty-two of Nazi Germany’s most powerful officials facing an ‘International Military Tribunal’ (IMT) between November 1945 and August 1946. On October 1, 1946, judgement was delivered. 12 of the defendants were sentenced to death, 3 got life sentences, 4 got jail terms while 3 were acquitted. A number of adhoc postwar criminal tribunals have since followed in the steps of Nuremberg, and that approach was formalised into a permanent court, the International Criminal Court (ICC), in 2002.

The Rwandan Example

But such formal internationally-instituted trials can prove expensive and time-consuming, and limited in their capacity. In the face of nationalistic fervor, the ICC often faces acccusations that it is an imperialist tool that disporportionately targets Africans. When the court stepped in to try six alleged perpetrators of Kenya’s post-election violence, which killed more than a thousand people in 2007-8, Kenya’s parliament voted to withdraw from the Court. (Two of the accused had been elected President and Vice President of Kenya in the intervening time). The Kenyan government and the African Union raised questions regarding why only African leaders have ever been slated for trial by the Court. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda set up in November 1994 has, in the twenty years since it was established, completed only about 80 cases (most resulted in convictions, and there are a handful appeals pending). The court is expected to wind up at the end of 2014.

To widen the nets of justice, and relieve the pressure on the conventional courts system (plagued by a scarcity of judges – the genocide almost wiped out judiciary) Rwanda settled for a home-grown approach, the community-based pre-colonial system of arbitration known as ‘Gacaca’ (“grass” in Kinyarwanda). Gacaca was first tried in 2002, and then formalized by Parliament in 2006. The courts are usually open-air affairs presided over by judges chosen from among the people. The courts wound up in 2012, after trying 2 million people, convicting an estimated 65 percent of them. (Rwanda’s population is currently 12 million). Crimes are punished with jail terms and/or community service; Rwanda has abolished the death penalty, as it has all personal and official markers of ethnic identity.

Gacaca attracted lots of controversy, especially from the international community. Critics described it as prone to abuse (there are no defence lawyers, and no cross-examination; and trials are relatively speedy). But the country’s authorities consider it a success. At the official closing ceremony for the Gacaca courts in 2012, Rwandan President Paul Kagame said: “We had three choices: first was the more dangerous path of revenge, or secondly, grant general amnesty, both of which would have led to further anarchy and destruction. But we chose the third and more difficult course of dealing with the matter decisively and restoring the unity and integrity of the nation.”

Alongside Gacaca there are a number of practices (all based on existing local traditions) around which contemporary Rwandan society is constructed: Ubudehe (participatory governance and decision-making), Umuganda (community service), Umusanzu (communal philanthropy) and Imihigo (performance contracts at local government level). All blend longstanding traditional practices with modern forms of governance.

And, unlike in Nigeria, Rwanda has incorporated the tragedy into its educational curriculum; even at primary school level students are encouraged to discuss the genocide.

The debate about balancing truth, justice and reconciliation is not one that will end anytime soon. Even now Nigeria is caught up in a fresh one, regarding the extent to which an amnesty would be justifiable in dealing with the all-too-real threat of Boko Haram.

What we have is the solid example of Rwanda – indeed the word genocide has come to be associated with Boko Haram in light of a recent surge in brutality – a country that boldly refused to shy away from dealing with the starkness of its past.

“Fifteen years removed from a mass genocide that resulted in the deaths of nearly one million people, Rwanda today presents a model for hope, justice, innovation and human development,“ write Margee Ensign and William Bertrand in their 2010 book, Rwanda: History and Hope. “[…] No society has ever attempted what this poor country is now facing – reconstructing individual lives and rebuilding an economy and political structures while including many of those who participated in the genocide.”

The ebb and flow of U.S.-Nigeria relations

By Tolu Ogunlesi

American popular culture has consistently captured the imagination of Nigerians for a while now. One of Lagos’ most notorious robbers in the 1990s styled himself ‘Shina Rambo’; and one well-known Nollywood trope is the recasting of Hollywood blockbusters.

That Nigerian fascination with America reached its apogee in the age of Barack Obama, son of an African father. On election night in 2012, the US Mission in Nigeria assembled guests at Eko Hotel for an evening to commemorate the presidential elections that would be taking place across America later that day. Speaker after speaker what America meant to them. In the mock voting that followed Barack Obama floored Mitt Romney with 219 votes to 30.

Americans on their own part might trace a collective interest in Nigeria to the Nigerian Civil War, when President Lyndon Johnson, overwhelmed by his citizens protesting the widespread starvation in the war zones, reportedly ordered aides to “just get those nigger babies off my TV set.”

In the decades since the image of Nigeria has evolved considerably: Biafra’s helpless children have been replaced by an immigrant community of high-achieving professionals and students on the one hand, and on the other an obsession with the ‘Nigerian Letter’ – to wit US Senator Ted Cruz’ October 2013 quip about the Obamacare website being run by “Nigerian email scammers.”

Changing equation

America opened its first Consulate in Nigeria in 1928, but did not begin to show active interest until Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960. Trade volumes between Nigeria and America tripled between 1960 and 1970.

But even then, writes Ayo Olukotun in a 1992 paper for the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, “the general tendency of officialdom in the United States was to continue to treat Nigeria as mainly a British responsibility for which the United States had only token interests, and this was linked to its global mission in these years of keeping communism at bay.”

Until the 1970s, when Nigeria first emerged as an oil power. Tensions in the Middle East in October 1973 raised the price of oil, almost quadrupling Nigeria’s monthly oil revenues by May 1974, when prices peaked.

Since then Nigeria, one of the world’s ten biggest producers of crude oil, has been of strategic economic importance to the US, the world’s leading importer.
That dynamic has altered dramatically in recent years; US oil imports from Nigeria have dropped 70 percent in the last decade.

“Given the continuous rise in the price of crude oil to the point where it’s now profitable for it to develop shale oil, and the tweaking of policy to focus on being a strategic reservoir for oil and gas as a way of dealing with future possible global conflicts, right now there’s a change in the equation,” says Sam Ohuabunwa, President of the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, founded in the 1960s, and based in Lagos.

Problems Inc.

In recent years relations between the two countries have ebbed dramatically on occasion, largely on account of two issues – security and corruption.

“The challenge we have is that there is a feeling in the United States that the Nigerian government is not doing its best in dealing with security issues,” says Ohuabunwa.

Similar sentiments exist regarding corruption. The 2013 presidential pardon granted Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former Governor of the oil-producing Bayelsa state convicted of money laundering, elicited a disapproving tweet from the US Embassy in Abuja. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly railed against “massive, widespread and pervasive corruption” within the Nigerian government.

But she was also the driving force behind the launch, on April 6, 2010, of the US–Nigeria Binational Commission, created to focus on partnerships across issues like transparency, good governance, security, agriculture, and the Niger delta. The Commission came at a difficult time for Nigeria; caught up in a constitutional crisis triggered by the extended absence of President Yar’Adua from office on account of ill-health.

When the then Secretary of State Clinton and Nigeria’s Secretary to the Federal Government Yayale Ahmed signed the commission agreement the President had not been sighted in public for five months.

It was during that time that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – the ‘Underwear bomber’ as he would come to be know – tried to blow up a US airliner travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit, earning Nigeria a place in America’s list of “countries of interest” in the global war on terror.

Aid and trade

Away from geopolitics and hard diplomacy things have been far less tumultuous. The United States runs an active range of aid, educational and cultural diplomacy programmes in Nigeria. One of the latest is a training project in filmmaking targeted at young people in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region; the site, between 2006 and 2009 of a militant insurgency that almost crippled the country’s oil industry.

The project, funded by the US government through its Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, is in anticipation of the winding down next year of an amnesty programme that has seen the government issuing generous monthly payouts to surrendering militants.

Gbenga Sesan, an activist and social entrepreneur who sits on the board overseeing the project says the aim is to keep “at-risk” youth busy and prevent them from returning to militancy.

Since America emerged as Nigeria’s biggest sovereign provider of aid in the early 1960s, there have been several philanthropic interventions of this nature. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is very visible in the country, most recently in the power sector.

But amid a growing emphasis across the continent on the “trade, not aid” mantra, a focus on previously unexplored commercial frontiers is to be expected. Mr. Ohuabunwa for example sees Nigeria’s loss of the American oil market as “an opportunity for Nigeria to revamp the [access] offered by the US through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), to take advantage of that that preferential opportunity to export agriculture-related products: leather, garments, textile products.”