INTERVIEW: Muhammad Ali Pate on Primary Health Care reforms, the fight against Polio, and the new generation of innovative players emerging in Nigerian healthcare

Image courtesy QQdotcom

Muhammad Ali Pate was Nigeria’s Minister of State for Health, and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Polio Eradication, until July 2013, when he resigned to take up an appointment as a Professor at the Duke University’s Global Health Institute. Before he appointment as Minister in 2011 he was, from 2008, Executive Director of Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency. Of him Bill Gates said, in 2011: “One of the polio leaders I respect most is Dr. Muhammad Pate, who directs Nigeria’s national eradication effort. […] Muhammad Pate [has] demonstrated that the best leaders can overcome the worst circumstances.”


I interviewed him at the Economist’s Nigeria Summit in March 2014.


What governance reforms do you think Nigeria needs but haven’t been implemented? What would you like to see in place?

In 2004 the Health Policy delegated Primary Health Care to the Local Governments, and in most states the responsibility for Primary Health Care still is on the back of LGs, and yet they don’t have the resources, and the institutions are weak. 

The Primary Health Care Under One Roof policy that we passed at the National Council of Health a few years ago actually offers the best opportunity for states to have a much more active hands-on control over delivery of Primary Health Care services, bringing in the human resources and also the investments to improve the delivery of Primary Health Care at the front-lines. That is critical. Most states and Local Governments have joint accounts, so local governments don’t have the money to [buy] vaccines, or recruit the right kinds of human resources or train or incentivize them, or [buy] basic equipment. The consequence of that is that everything falls back to the hospitals and the Federal Government. 

I think if the Primary Health Care Under One Roof policy were to be uniformly applied by all state governments and the fiscal space for health is improved at the subnational level, then the delivery of Primary Health Care on the supply side will get a lot better.

What is that Primary Health Care Under One Roof Policy?

Before that policy what you had was that the Ministries of Health at the state level were responsible for Primary Health Care programmes, but the staff that delivered Primary Health Care were staff of the Local Government Service Commissions, and so there was a bit of a disconnect. The Local Governments also had responsibility for hiring for Primary Health Care, and they don’t always hire the right people, or allocate the right levels of resources.

The Primary Health Care Under One Roof policy basically was to bring the delivery of Primary Health Care under one umbrella between states and their LGs – funded through a joint mechanism where 40% of the funding for Primary Health Care was directly coming from the state government and 60% from the Local Government all at once – and then have State Primary Health Care Development Agencies or State Primary Health Care Boards that then oversee the implementation to ensure the facilities are appropriately sited, functional, that the human resource is available.

Why is Nigeria one of the few remaining countries in the world still struggling with polio? What role is religion playing in this?

Five years ago there were twenty-seven states of Nigeria that had polio. We used to have thousands of cases a year, so Nigeria has made progress given that it has interrupted Type-3 polio, for almost eighteen months we’ve not had a case of Type 3. Even Type-1, there’s only been one case this year (2014), which is a lot of progress. So in the global context when we’re talking of polio

Nigeria is no longer the issue. A few years ago Nigeria was the issue.

When you look at population immunity, from almost 42% in 2008, by the end of 2013 it was almost getting to ninety-something percent. So polio has been localized, there are only pockets of the country that continue to transmit, and even in those pockets we’ve only had one case in 2014. Which means that Nigeria can interrupt even Type-1 polio by the end of 2014.

But all the effort that has been put in over the last several years has to be sustained for that to happen because reversals would not be anything anyone would one at the global level or the national level.

When India was struggling to do this people thought maybe the vaccine was not efficacious because of the frequency of diarrheal diseases, but that turned out to be not the case. Now in Nigeria are there those factors that have to do with the nature of the interaction between the virus and the population? I don’t think there’s evidence to support that. There was misinformation, which has been cleared and that’s why people are now bringing their children, that’s why the progress that we’ve made is actually real.

Of course there are Christian and Muslim countries that have been polio-free for a very long time, so it’s not about religion. It’s about delivery of public health programmes in an effective manner, and ensuring accountability,

What we did with the Presidential Task Force was to restore accountability within the system, meaning that we had good information, and we used that good information to make decisions, to hold people accountable where things were going right and where things were not going right.

Provided that accountability is in place you can do a lot of things. Information is core to accountability. Accountability is core to governance. Without information you cannot have accountability and without accountability there’s no governance. Information will not flow anyhow by itself. It has to be demanded.

Why are we not at the moment seeing any substantial private investment in healthcare in Nigeria, targeting the 1 billion dollars you’ve said is going into medical tourism annually?

A year and a half ago – in 2012 – when this conversation started it was a turning point, and since then I think there’s been interest shown more so than in the past. The environment is imperfect, but from the conversations we’re hearing even the domestic private health sector is beginning to look at how to improve the game such that they retain some of these revenues going abroad. Why would you allow a private provider in India deliver services that a private provider in Lagos or Abuja can provide?

So the argument is that there are things governments that can do on the policy and regulatory side, and also things that the markets can do in terms of providing access to capital.

We have had some private equity funds targeting health, so I think that tells you that there’s good response. The private health sector has to organize itself; the [current] fragmentation means that lots of people are small-scale, solo providers. They may not be able to raise or utilize the capital that will be required to improve on their infrastructure, buy the large equipment, but if they come together as groups they might be able to do something. But that’s not something that government will force on them.

But at the end of it all I have a lot of confidence in the Nigerian spirit, and that a generation of Nigerian players is coming to the stage. We’ve seen it with the Private Sector Health Alliance, with the Innovation Marketplace, with the young people that are coming out to contribute. I think [there’s an energy that] can be unleashed. It has not yet been unleashed but I think we’ve started, and I hope that will be sustained.

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014

Brazil in 10 points

By Tolu Ogunlesi

I’m in Brazil for two weeks, on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the International Reporting Project of the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. Over the next two weeks we – there are ten of us; journalists and bloggers from the US, India, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – will be visiting Sao Paolo, Recife and Rio de Janeiro.

Before I left Lagos, every time I mentioned to people I was coming to Brazil, they assumed it was to do with the World Cup. Understandably, considering that kick-off is only two months away. But no, this is not a World Cup trip; instead it’s to explore and better understand Brazil’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) progress. Brazil’s MDGs performance has been  a remarkable one. The MDG Progress Index assigns values to low- and middle-income countries, and Brazil has consistently performed well above the average for middle-income countries. (Nigeria on the other hand has had a lacklustre performance).

I will be writing about the trip in the coming days, but I thought I should start with my first thoughts about Brazil, a country I’m visiting for the first time, but which has for a while occupied space in my imagination. A lot of my interpretation of Brazil will be happening against the backdrop of Nigeria, my home country.

  1. English is hardly spoken in Brazil. I didn’t quite realize this until I got here. For English speakers this sort of culture shock is a welcome prick of the arrogant Anglospheric bubble. You can speak English fluently and yet still be an ‘illiterate’ traveller (or something like that).
  2. Brazil’s transformational story has a lot to do with the Constitution developed in 1988 (updated several times since then); three years into its experiment with democracy, after 21 years of military rule. “it was pretty much a social democratic constitution,” says Sergio Fausto, one-time presidential adviser and now Executive Director of a think-tank and presidential library named for the doctorate-wielding (Sociology) former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The constitution, according to Ana Borges, an Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, deemed health “as a citizen’s right and the state’s duty.”
  3. If 1988 was an important date, 1994 was equally important. That year marked the launch of the ‘Plano Real’ (Real Plan), the economic programme that helped end hyperinflation. It was also the year Cardoso was elected President. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s Brazil experienced hyperinflation, rising in excess of 1,000% in 1989 and 30,000 % in 1990. Sanity returned in 1995, dropping to double-digits from the 2,000% rate the year before.
  4. Brazil has achieved remarkable success in human development indices – health and education especially – in the last two decades. The Primary Health Care system is well-developed, and forms the foundation of the advances in health outcomes in the last two decades. Adult HIV prevalence in Brazil is currently 0.4%, amounting to less than one million persons living with HIV/AIDS. Compare that with Nigeria’s figure in excess of 3%. Brazil experienced its last case of polio in 1990, while Nigeria is still struggling to eradicate polio. In 2014 Brazil launched a vaccination programme to protect young girls (11 – 13) against the STD- and cancer-causing Human papillomavirus (HPV). More than half of all girls in the country now vaccinated. The country is full of these kinds of ambitious health management stories.
  5. Brazil has an extensive Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme (“Bolsa Familia“) that is widely seen as a model for emerging economies. The scheme transfers cash sums to beneficiaries – drawn from the poor segments of the population – on monthly basis, tying receipt of payments to the fulfillment of any number of conditions/commitments e.g. school attendance, medical check-ups, immunization, attendance at antenatal clinics, etc. Bolsa Familia, while far from being perfect, is a safety net that ensures that millions of Brazilians can live above poverty. In terms of the fiscal burden of Bolsa Familia, Fausto says that the CCTs amount to less than 1% of GDP, and that public pensions are a much bigger drain.
  6. Inequality is still a major problem. “The poorest Brazilians are the poorest in the world. The richest Brazilians are almost as rich as the richest Americans,” says Alexandre Chiavegatto Filho, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Sao Paolo.
  7. There are state and regional differences in the development indices of Brazil. The North East is the poorest region, and the one with the highest national rates of infant mortality (maternal and infant mortality generally correlate with poverty). But it also saw the most impressive decline in infant mortality – an almost 50% decrease – between 2000 and 2010.
  8. Race also plays a crucial role in Brazil, and has to be taken into account when interpreting social data. For example, AIDS mortality rates are almost twice as high for black people as they are for white. Poverty is also often closely allied with race, the bulk of extremely poor Brazilians are black. [It should however be pointed out that centuries of intermarriage mean that the terms “black” and “white” exist at the ends of a continuum. “Most of the Brazilian population [exists] in-between, so it is very difficult to know who is black or white,” Fausto says].
  9. There are affirmative-action (“quota”) programmes in Brazil, based on race and social factors like poverty. These guide everything from allocation of University spaces to government recruitments. It appears that there is much debate and controversy surrounding these schemes.
  10. Brazil’s economic progress has slowed in recent years, marked by slowing growth, rising inflation, a currency devaluation, and a diversion from investing in critical public infrastructure to focus instead on the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016). The country appears to be at a crossroads, wondering if there’s a new prosperity model to be unlocked, or if instead its fate will be stagnation or regression. It must be like 1994 all over again.

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014

“Let them spend the GDP!”: Rebasing and the ordinary Nigerian

The rebasing of the Nigerian economy is set to benefit everyone but the ordinary Nigerian citizen.

Tolu Ogunlesi

After months of delays, and mounting anticipation, Nigeria’s economy has been officially “rebased”. It is now worth $510 billion (2013 figures) – an eighty-nine percent rise, far in excess of analysts’ predictions. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy, pushing South Africa to a distant second place.

But what it does it really mean for the country’s citizens?

First, a simple explanation of the concept of rebasing. Rebasing has a number of different meanings in economics. Rebasing a currency means adjusting currency denominations, as Zambia did to the Kwacha in 2013 when it sliced off three zeroes. A GDP rebasing (as with Nigeria this year, or Ghana in 2010) on the other hand refers to an adjustment in the “base year” or “benchmark year” from which GDP – roughly the value of all goods and services produced in a country in a given year – is calculated.

What is the base year and why does it matter? 

Let’s go hypothetical. I’m a bookseller. In 2012 I sold one thousand books, at 100 naira per book, earning revenues of N100,000. In 2013 book prices rose to 110 naira. Even though I sold the same 1,000 books as 2012, my revenues will be N110,000. Ignoring inflation, it will appear as though I have been more productive in 2013. But account for inflation and you immediately realize that nothing has changed. 

Now let’s apply this to GDP. Let’s assume Nigeria’s 1990 GDP was $100 billion, and in 2000 $110 billion. One would immediately seek to conclude that there was a 10% increase in GDP, over the ten years. But the real picture could simply be that the 10% increase is wholly explained by inflation, and not increased productivity, and that if one adjusted that surface-level 2000 value (known as “nominal GDP”) for all the inflation that has happened since 1990, a different – typically smaller, believably more accurate – picture of 2000 economic productivity would emerge (“real GDP”).

This is where the Base Year or Benchmark Year concept comes in. The Base Year is the statistical tool employed to achieve that all-important adjustment-for-inflation. It works thus: Economists select a particular year as “base” (it is recommended that the base year be one for which significant amounts of data can be found), and then recast every succeeding year’s nominal GDP in terms of the prices of goods and services in that base year. Applying the prices of the base year to nominal GDP in a subsequent year is what produces the real GDP value for that subsequent year. 

The United Nations Statistical Commission recommends a rebasing every 5 years, to a) account for changes in the patterns of economic activity (consumption and production), e.g. a country discovering new mineral wealth, or getting an infusion of broadband, or launching a local car manufacturing industry, or seeing an industry lapse into obsolescence; and b) update base prices to a more recent year (“Price structure less representative of base year structure as time progresses,” explains one UN Statistics Division presentation) 

In Nigeria’s case, we have not rebased since 1990 – a whole quarter of a century ago. By updating the base year from 1990 to 2010, apart from the necessary 20-year updating of prices, we have also had to take into account all the changes that have taken place in the economy in the intervening time – the impact of the internet and the telecommunications industry, Nollywood, the music industry, the sizable expansion of the services industry, etc.

The implication of all this complicated re-calculating that has just taken place is that what we thought was a $270 billion economy is actually worth $510 billion. It’s the equivalent of suddenly discovering the existence of six Ghanas within Nigeria. 

The change is noteworthy for, in the words of Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala), the “psychological impact” it will have on foreign investors. They will pay greater attention to Nigeria, now that its economy casts a larger shadow than South Africa’s, and display new confidence that will potentially be rewarded with lucrative gains in a market that is Africa’s largest, especially at a time when value-laden sectors like power are opening up in unprecedented ways.

Business will also boom for hotel owners, travel agents, airlines, and events planners, as the number of Nigeria-focused trips and investment conferences (already a booming industry since 2013) swell. Scammers might even be expected to cash in as well. (“Good Day dear friend, I am Lamido Sanusi, Governor of the Central Bank of the newly rebased West African nation of Nigeria…”)

And you just wait to see what will happen as the rebasing placebo begins to take effect in the government’s bloodstream. The President’s 2015 re-election campaign has just been swelled by a stand-alone chapter. Even though the story worth celebrating here is really the one about the boldness demonstrated by the National Bureau of Statistics in finally facing up to the long-overdue challenge of revising the country’s near-useless economic data, in the weeks ahead traditional Nigerian praise-singing will predictably morph it into an economic miracle for which the credit belongs to the President’s “Transformation Agenda” (pdf).

The one class of people who have nothing to gain will be ordinary Nigerians: the market woman in Ibadan, the itinerant shoe cleaner in Lagos, the motorcycle taxi rider in Makurdi, the cattle merchant in Potiskum, the shoe maker in Aba, the newspaper vendor in Abuja; the sprawling class of ‘bottom millions’ condemned by their country to extreme poverty).

The $1,200 by which Nigeria’s per-capita income has suddenly risen will not somehow magically appear in their pockets. For this crowd the news is the sort of sleight-of-mouth that they’ve since grown to expect from the government. In the aftermath of protests against the removal of fuel subsidies in 2012, President Jonathan announced, in a public broadcast, the creation of 370,000 jobs. Just like that, because everyone knows jobs are created when well-meaning presidential words mix with faith in the hearts of job-hungry citizens.

As one person tweeted at me: “Our rebasing story is like the story of a woman that decided to give her husband four pieces of meat by dividing the tiny one into four.”

Even the positive implications of better quality statistical information, which should support, in the words of one analyst, “better decision-making” by the government means little when one considers the track record of the Nigerian government.

In March, more than 700,000 applicants registered online for a recruitment exercise into the Immigration service. Knowing that they were expecting 700,000 candidates did nothing to influence the preparation levels of the test’s organisers. Stampedes ensued. By the end of that day, at least 18 people lay dead. Interior Minister Abba Moro, brain behind the recruitment, somehow still managed to blame the dead.

Which is why no one should be surprised when, weeks from now, a Moro-type (Nigeria’s bureaucracy is laden with them) is quoted as quipping, again predictably – and not tongue-in-cheek: “Nigerians don’t have money? Let them spend the GDP!”

 Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014


Interview: Andrew Alli, CEO of Africa Finance Corporation (AFC)

I spoke with Mr. Alli on the sidelines of the Africa Finance Corporation’s Infrastructure Summit in Lagos, Nigeria, on March 25, 2014. 

Andrew Alli, CEO, Africa Finance Corporation (Photo courtesy AFC website)

Andrew Alli, CEO, Africa Finance Corporation (Photo courtesy AFC website)


  •  The optimism of ‘Africa Rising’ needs to be balanced with reality
  •  Investors should be paying more attention to smaller African countries which often get overlooked in the scramble for economic opportunity
  •  If selling African goods abroad was the past, selling to Africans is the future
  •  Lots of potential in selling to the lower classes, on account of relative size. 
  •  PPP approach to infrastructure is more likely to produce efficiency, and reduce corruption, than direct government spending. Corruption is hardly ever the biggest issue in privately-delivered projects. 

The full interview below:

On ‘Africa Rising’ 

I believe in the general theme of ‘Africa Rising’ and ‘Nigeria Rising’. In some ways Africa Finance Corporation is predicated on the fact that there is going to continue to be progress across Africa. But I also think that should be blended with a dose of reality. Not all African countries are going to rise at the same time. Some are going to misstep. Some will misstep in terms of political violence, what we’re seeing in Central African Republic, some will misstep economically – as we can see Ghana is going through some tough economic times with their currency falling because of the [budget] deficits.

But in the long term Ghana is still going to do well but there are short-term ups and downs. There’s clearly a reason to be optimistic, but that needs to be tempered with a certain degree of realism as well.

On best-kept investment secrets, and overlooked investment opportunities and hotspots across Africa

If you’re a small(er) country you’re less competitive in some respects and therefore there’s a stronger incentive for you to improve your business environment. It’s not surprising that actually the best-rated countries in Africa, for doing business, for credit ratings, tend to be the smaller countries. So Botswana has the best credit rating of an African country. Mauritius is well rated in terms of doing business, Rwanda is well rated in terms of doing business. There are investment opportunities in smaller countries which often get overlooked.

[One] other thing which people are catching on to – but I still think there are opportunities there – is selling things to Africans. For a long time a lot of the investment themes have been revolving around exports. Take African things, and sell them to foreigners. But I think that selling stuff to Africans is actually in some ways more profitable. Certainly those who people have done very well financially – and obviously Aliko Dangote comes straight to mind – generally have done it not through export businesses but actually selling goods to Africans.

Building on that theme, I think that another overlooked market is selling things to middle-class and even below-middle-class Africans. In my previous life when I used to finance hotels in the International Finance Corporation (IFC), you’d get a hundred people come in and want to build a 5-star hotel in Lagos or in Abuja for every one person who comes in and says I want to build a 2-star hotel in Benin City that would cater to salesmen travelling; whereas in reality the latter is actually a much bigger market, and if you can figure out how to address that market profitably you can make a killing.

As I said these are not totally undiscovered things; I think this is essentially the business model that Indomie has, that the mobile phone companies have; they make the bulk of their money from the middle class and lower classes, simply because of numbers. On a per-person basis maybe it’s the rich business-people, but how many of them are there compared with the University students who are scratching N500 recharge cards at a time?

I think financial inclusion is another area. There’s a bank in Kenya called Equity Bank. This bank was a failed or failing mortgage bank. It was taken over by some people and turned around, and its business model was really about financial inclusion, bringing people in who were not part of the banking system. Today this bank is the biggest bank in Kenya, it has overtaken the likes of Barclays who have been well established in that market, and done so by going for a not-so-affluent customer base. To put it in another perspective I’d much rather be selling Alomo Bitters than crude champagne, because the market is just far bigger.

To put it in another perspective I’d much rather be selling Alomo Bitters than crude champagne, because the market is just far bigger.

On corruption in large-scale infrastructure projects 

What we in AFC focus on are really private-sector ways of delivering infrastructure; either the private sector just doing it, or Public Private Partnership (PPP) type of structures. To be frank in those there isn’t that much corruption, at least not in the spending of the money. Because at the end of the day, the private company is borrowing the money. Their incentive is to get that infrastructure as cheaply as possible, to a certain standard, because the money is coming out of their pocket, it’s not somebody else’s money.

The other incentive is for the infrastructure to work, because if it doesn’t work they’re not going to get paid, and therefore they’re not going to make any profit. This is quite different from where the government is spending money on infrastructure, where you have civil servants who are essentially spending other people’s money and the incentives are very different. That also is one of the major advantages of private provision of infrastructure.

There are disadvantages of that as well, to be balanced, but I think that as a way of bypassing a large amount of corruption that is a very positive thing. That is not to say that there is no corruption in privately-delivered projects, of course there is, but you don’t find for example that it is the major issue in what we do. It is an issue but it is not the major issue. 

On benchmarking infrastructure costs across countries/regions

It is possible to benchmark, obviously, but it does have its complications, and I will give you an example. If you’re building a road in Kano, and you’re building the same road in Yenagoa, the cost in Yenagoa is likely to be a lot higher for two or three reasons. One, the ground is more likely to be swampy, so you may have to do piles [etc], which obviously adds to the cost. Secondly, because it rains more in Yenagoa, the possibility of erosion would be higher and therefore the road may have to be built to a tougher standard than in Kano where it hardly rains and you’re not so bothered by erosion. So while it’s easy to go and compare a kilometer of road in Accra versus a kilometer of road in Lagos, and it does tell you something, you’d also need to be a little bit careful about the differences.

It’s a fact that general price levels in Lagos are higher than the general price levels in Accra. So if you kept everything equal you wouldn’t expect a road in Lagos to cost the same as a road in Accra, if every other price is higher in Lagos. 

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014

The Men Who Want To Lead Nigeria [2010]

[Originally published in YNAIJA Magazine, Q4 2010]

By Tolu Ogunlesi

1984 was a momentous year in the life of Kris (now Chris) Okotie: he graduated with a degree in law from the University of Nigeria, and got married to Tina, who would be his wife for the next 17 years. At that time he was already a household name, at the peak of a successful music career that kicked off half a decade earlier with the hit single, “I Need Someone.”

Also that year, twenty-four year old Nuhu Ribadu graduated from the Nigerian Law School, and was called to the Bar, kicking off a remarkable career in the Nigeria Police Force.

For Mohammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, 1984 was also a milestone year. Buhari started the new year as the most powerful man in Nigeria, after successfully overthrowing, in a bloodless coup on the last day of 1983, the four year old civilian government of President Shehu Shagari.

Babangida was also a principal participant in that coup, and was rewarded with the position of Chief of Army Staff; making him one of the most powerful members of the Supreme Military Council, the highest policy-making body in the junta.

The December 31, 1983 coup that brought Buhari and Babangida new jobs made Pat Utomi a jobless man. The twenty-seven year old, who returned to Nigeria in 1982 with a doctorate degree in Political Economy from Indiana University had recently taken up a position as a Special Assistant to the President on Political Affairs. Late in the morning of New Year’s eve, he woke up to find out that the government he worked for no longer existed.

Dele Momodu, like Pat Utomi, got his first feel of life in the corridors of power as a twenty-something year old. Between 1983 and 1985 he worked as Private Secretary to Akin Omoboriowo, who served as Deputy Governor of Ondo State (1979 – 1983), and then had his 1983 election as Governor annulled by a court before he was sworn in.

Momodu and Utomi gained some prominence in the 1980s on the strength of their journalism. The Concord newspapers, owned by one of Nigeria’s richest men, M.K.O. Abiola provided a platform for both men. Momodu’s full-time journalism career commenced in 1988 with The African Concord.

At the time that Okotie and Ribadu completed their law degrees, and Utomi made a return to his private businesses (a public policy consultancy and a communications firm) and Buhari unleashed a reign of terror on citizens, journalists and foreigners (close to a million Ghanaians were deported by the government in 1985), and Babangida settled into his new position as the chief of the Nigerian Army, Abubakar Atiku found himself in the eye of a storm.

In 1984 the thirty-eight year old was the Area Comptroller of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport Command of the Nigeria Customs Service when it was alleged, by the media, that an influential Northern Emir had smuggled into the country, dozens of suitcases laden with foreign currency, in a scandal has come to stand as one of the defining features of the Buhari regime.

On your marks…

Today, these men are lined up at the starting blocks, warming up for the race to Aso Rock, the command center of Africa’s most populated country. Whoever emerges President will preside over the spending of more than a hundred billion dollars over the course of a four-year tenure (2011 – 2015).

Two generations are immediately discernible from the assemblage of the man who want to rule Nigeria in 2011. One comprises the warhorses: Buhari, Babangida and Atiku, all born in the 1940s, and now in their sixties.

The other is the clan of the new breed – Utomi, Momodu, Ribadu and Okotie; ‘Independence Children’ – born in and around 1960, and now in their early fifties, or on the cusp of fifty (Momodu was fifty in May, Ribadu the youngest of the lot, will be fifty in November).

Utomi, in Keeping Faith, his “authorized” biography, recalls how, on October 1, 1960, his father dressed him up (he was four years old) in a Fulani robe outside their house on Aba Road, Kano, and put him atop a horse, in celebration of Nigeria’s emergence as Africa’s newest independent state.

All have been busy in the two-and-half decades since 1984. In August 1985 Babangida seized power from Buhari, a betrayal for which Buhari has reportedly never forgiven him, and went on to rule Nigeria for eight years, before being forced out of office not long after he annulled the 1993 Presidential elections. He largely disappeared from public view until 1998 when he played a prominent role in installing Olusegun Obasanjo as Nigeria’s first democratic leader in sixteen years.

Babangida first indicated his interest in returning to power during the run-up to the 2007 elections. But he soon announced that he was stepping down for Umar Yar’Adua, the PDP candidate. Four years later, Babangida is back, this time more determined than ever.

A Time Magazine profile published shortly after he became Nigeria’s military ruler in August 1985 described him as “a man who always seems to be at the center of the action.” Nothing has changed in the twenty-five years since the Time description. Today he remains the most talked about Presidential candidate, for good or for ill.

Buhari, active during the Abacha era as the head of the enormously influential Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) contested in the 2003 and 2007 presidential elections, on the platform of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP). On both occasions he placed second, defeated by the candidates of the ruling PDP.

Okotie is perhaps the candidate with the most intriguing capacity for self-reinvention. As the 1980s rolled to an end he transformed from pop star to cleric, founding the Household of God Church. And then he surprised Nigerians again with his political ambition. Like Buhari he’s also contested in the last two Presidential elections, in 2003 on the platform of the Justice Party, and four years later as a Fresh Democratic Party candidate. His colourful personal life – a penchant for flamboyance in speech and in deed, and his divorce from Tina and subsequent remarriage – however appears to interest the public a lot more than his Presidential ambitions.

Atiku was a prominent contender for the Presidential ticket of the Social Democratic Party in 1992/3, and was elected Governor of Adamawa State in 1999, before relinquishing that position to become Vice President. In 2007, Atiku contested the presidential elections as the candidate of the Action Congress candidate, placing third.

Utomi, since his days as Presidential aide, has become one of Nigeria’s most recognisable faces: boardroom guru, TV personality, entrepreneur and philanthropist. His first shot at the Presidency was in 2007, under the banner of the African Democratic Congress.

Ribadu and Momodu, apart from being the youngest of the lot, are first-time aspirants. They also appear to be the ones most committed to having a youth-driven campaign.

“[Ribadu] is working on a project that will bring millions of young people into the mainstream,” Dapo Olorunyomi, an senior member of the Ribadu campaign team told me recently in Lagos.

The idea, he says, is to build a “volunteer corps” to serve as the “fulcrum” of a mobilisation programme that will target young Nigerians, Obama-style. Even the funding mechanisms will be patterned after the Obama model – Olorunyomi says a “technologically-driven funding arrangement” is being set up.

Ribadu came to national prominence as the pioneer head of what is arguably Nigeria’s most successful law enforcement agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. He was also a member of the team that managed the Nigerian economy and introduced a string of unprecedented reforms during the Obasanjo years. This, says Olorunyomi, places him in good stead to offer value to Nigerians as President.

Momodu, on the other hand is depending on his ‘outsider’ status as a major selling point. “I’m the only aspirant today who has never worked in Government,” he tells me, by phone from the United Kingdom. When I ask about his “experience”, he fires a series of rhetorical questions at me: “What experience has Nick Clegg got in Britain? What experience did Atiku Abubakar have when he became Vice President of Nigeria? What experience has David Cameron got? What experience did Arnold Schwarzenegger have to become Governor of California, one of the largest economies in the world?”

Momodu’s view is that experience is over-rated (“people just talk about experience; experience to do what? To achieve or to fail?”). He believes that leadership is about “management of people and resources, not about politicking.”

He points to his record – twenty-five years of journalism, pro-democracy activism, public relations, entrepreneurship and publishing – as the testament to a capability for success. “There is nothing I’ve managed in my life that I did not manage successfully,” he says.

And he says that in terms of campaign funding possibilities, he is the man to beat. “I don’t know anybody in Nigeria who can get better funding than me, apart from [President] Jonathan. There’s nobody Babangida knows that I don’t know. And I’m credible. Most of these guys are not credible.” He adds that the only edge Mr. Jonathan has is “access to our money – public funds.”

The man to beat

It is this man, Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent President – variously described as a “reluctant” and “accidental” President – who stands as arguably the greatest obstacle to the ambitions of Atiku, Babangida, Okotie, Momodu, Ribadu and Utomi.

Twelve years ago Jonathan was a civil servant, a doctorate-wielding bureaucrat in the Oil Minerals Producing and Development Commission (OMPADEC). In the time since then he has been deputy governor, Governor, Vice President and now President – arguably the most remarkable political career in recent Nigerian history.

Tied to any mention of the name ‘Goodluck Jonathan’ is an awareness of a sense of ‘destiny’, a feeling that “Goodluck” is more than just a name. In a country so enamoured with the supernatural, there are many who would look at the trajectory that Jonathan’s life has taken over the last decade and conclude that it would be futile trying to challenge the invisible hands of a Higher Power(s) that seem to be all out in Jonathan’s favour.

Add to this the fact that he is the incumbent President – no civilian president has ever lost a re-election bid in Nigeria – and it seems more and more evident that Jonathan is indeed the man to beat in 2011. With the oil wealth of Africa’s largest producer of oil firmly in his grip, and his control over Nigeria’s most prominent political party, it appears that it would take several extra spells of bad luck to derail Goodluck Jonathan’s record-books good fortune.

But none of the other candidates is fazed. An Atiku aide recently declared that the Jonathan camp was “afraid” of the former Vice President. Nothing however matches the confidence of the IBB campaign team.

“IBB cannot lose,” Babangida spokesperson, Kassim Afegbua, was quoted as saying in August.

That, surely, is one assertion that Nigerians are more than eager to put to the test.

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014 

[Archives] Opinion: Time to reform the PDP

By Tolu Ogunlesi

(Originally appeared in my NEXT Column, ONGOING CONCERNS, in May 2011)

Joseph Chukwuyenum has been a “card-carrying” member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Lagos State for more than ten years. In that time he has risen to become a “Unit leader” in Ward H1 of the Etio-Osa Local Government. I met him at his polling unit during the April 26 elections. He was in a good mood.

“This is the first time [the PDP is] having it so good. It’s never happened like this before… without spending ten kobo on the electorate,” he told me. Voting had just ended, and it emerged that the PDP had defeated the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in the state house of assembly ballot at that unit.

I was curious. Why were those people voting for the PDP? “People are doing what their conscience has said to them; it is the decision of their hearts they’ve taken,” he said.

I was also eager to know why he joined the PDP. “I see PDP as an open party, a party that does not discriminate,” he said, gesturing at his crutches. “You can’t say it is a party where [a single] person has a say. No matter your tribe, we are one. Some parties are sectional. Immediately the name of the party is mentioned you know their godfather. In PDP there’s nothing like that.”

Now, you may quibble with parts of that assertion, but there’s no denying the essential validity of it. The PDP is the only truly “national” party we’ve got in Nigeria. 

Now let’s quickly face the deep irony embedded in that statement. You have to admit that it is a tragedy of monumental proportions when your only national party is not even a real party.

NEXT once described it as “Africa’s largest party – and everyone’s invited.” For Nasir El-Rufai it’s a “franchise” (“There is nothing apart from the symbol that unites – it is like MacDonalds, although at least in MacDonalds the quality of the food is the same.”). Thanks to Wikileaks we know the Americans regard it as an “opportunistic coalition of interests.” Wole Soyinka called it “a nest of killers.”

All true. The one-eyed man of our democracy sadly wears a patch on the good eye. Also true, however, are these: that, one, the opposition platforms seeking to be the PDP’s undertakers mostly lack the moral credentials for that task; and two; the ruling party is not beyond fundamental reform.

For a start the PDP ought to overhaul its Board of Trustees. If you click on the “Board of Trustees” link on its website, what you will get is a message that says: “This page is under construction.”

Is that perhaps deliberate? Are they too ashamed to let us see the calibre of people leading them? Mr. Obasanjo (the Chairman) and other aged, tired faces should voluntarily step down from the Board. The PDP needs an infusion of new, younger, thinking leaders; it needs to give ideas a chance to replace intrigues as the party’s leading propellant.

Isn’t this the time to clamour for the redemption of the party that will rule us for the next four years – now that we it severely chastened; a world away from the days when Vincent Ogbulafor never failed to remind us it would rule Nigeria for sixty years?

The now-total reversal of the party’s 2003 conquest of southwest Nigeria, coupled with the severe rattling its governorship candidates have faced in states like Imo and Delta, as well as the violent backlash (utterly condemnable in its murderous outplaying) against it in parts of Northern Nigeria should have sent a message to the party that the days of taking Nigerians for granted are over.

Eventually, when the votes were tallied across the constituency, Chukwuyenum’s candidate lost to the ACN candidate, cutting short the party agent’s joy. 

There’ll be another chance in 2015. There is evidence of a growing sophistication amongst the Nigerian electorate; more people voting for – or against – candidate(s) fielded, as opposed to blind commitments to party symbols. This was clear in the southwest where people voted overwhelmingly for the presidential candidate of the PDP seemingly because they liked and wanted him, but wasted no time in turning against the governorship candidates.

At a polling unit down the road from Chukwuyenum’s I watched a man walk up to the pasted results sheet (again the ACN led in the governorship but lost the legislative ballot to the PDP) and say, triumphantly: “The two results are good… I want the PDP guy to win in this constituency.”

What this means is that Nigeria’s parties will soon begin to compete for “talent” the way Europe’s football clubs do; knowing that the future of Nigerian politics is one in which competence, not godfathers, not financial inducement, will make the difference between winning and losing elections. 

The ACN would do well to learn from the failings of the PDP, shun ethnic insularity, and curb a growing propensity for arrogance and dictatorial action. The CPC should by now be working hard to transform itself from the “Special Purpose Entity” cum ‘vote-cache’ it currently is, into a properly-structured nationwide party that can outlast the Buhari mystique. Other ‘platforms’ also need to start building now, instead of waiting for the 2015 frenzy.

True democracy will never be built in the absence of real political parties.   

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014


(Originally appeared in my NEXT Column in May 2011)

By Tolu Ogunlesi

One Tweeter to tweet a link to an article in Reuters disclosing that the last time Nigeria changed the bulb was 2001, and that the budget for changing that bulb would have been sufficient to cover the cost of changing all the bulbs in sub-Saharan Africa at that time.

One Tweeter to tweet at @abati1990 and @renoomokri: Y U NO change bulb?

Seventy-two LOLing, LMFAOing tweeters to RT above tweet.

One Twitter activist to start a #ChangeTheBulb campaign. Another Twitter activist to start a #LightTheBulb campaign. 

One influential (Friday) newspaper columnist to, inspired by the momentum on Twitter, write a hard–hitting piece on the matter, and catch the attention of the presidency.

Twelve “eminent” persons (all bearers of National Honours) to form a Presidential Panel of Inquiry “to establish the immediate and remote causes of the blackout, and prescribe appropriate recommendations.”

Three dozen Ministers (sitting under the Chairmanship of the President, on a Wednesday morning) to award a contract “for the supply of 1 Nos. light bulb.”

One Minister to announce at the end of the FEC meeting that “Council this morning approved the release of X million naira for the purchase of 1 Nos. bulb as part of its commitment to ensuring government’s implementation of the National Light Bulb Policy.”

Six enterprising persons to rush to the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) to register six separate companies for the special purpose of tendering for, and bagging, the contract for supply of the new light bulb. Two hundred placard-carriers to march to the premises of the National Assembly to protest the marginalisation of their geo-political zone in the national bulb-allocation formula. 

One person to approach Abuja Federal High Court seeking an order “compelling the Federal Government to ensure equitable national distribution of light bulbs.” One person to approach Federal High Court in Lagos seeking “a stay of execution on the ruling of the Abuja High Court pending determination of a substantive suit on the matter.” One judge at the Court of Appeal to throw out all suits on grounds that they “are frivolous and lacking in merit.”

Six members of the Board of the National Light Bulb Allocation Agency (NLBAA) to screen tenders for the supply of light bulb and select a “preferred” and “reserve” contractor. These six persons to proceed to Shanghai , China to inspect the factory producing said light bulb. Six mobile policemen to guard National Bulb Allocation Agency warehouse, upon importation of bulb, to prevent a repeat of previous scenario where imported light bulb vanished two days after delivery.

One Engineer to commence and abandon installation of light bulb. No project is deemed successful in Nigeria unless it has been abandoned at least once. (Joke: The National Independent Power Project (NIPP) and the Sagamu-Benin Expressway are in heated debate over who’s the most abandoned: “Shut up there!” NIPP says to Sag-Ben. “We summoned the ‘Sculptor’, the woodpecker too is saying ‘Present Sir!’ What do you know about abandonment?” They argue violently. And then ‘Ajaokuta’ shows up, silent. The warring projects shut their mouths and before you can say “mobilisation fee”, have sneaked away in shame. Case closed.)

Back to our light bulb change personnel calculation.

One government official to inspect bulb installation site, express displeasure “at the slow pace of work on the project site”, and vow to “ensure that the defaulting contractor is made to face the full weight of the law.”

Twelve plain-clothed EFCC officials to storm the office of the defaulting engineer to arrest him and cart away laptops and contract documents. One Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) to apply for bail on behalf of the arrested engineer. One engineer from “reserve contractor” to complete the installation of the light bulb, and then realise that the bulb cannot be tested because there is no electricity, and no diesel in generator. One contractor to supply a tanker of diesel to the generator required to power the light bulb.

One senior government functionary (preferably Mr. President) to commission the newly installed light bulb. Twenty-three photographers and camera-men to cover the commissioning ceremony. One NTA newscaster to announce to 30 million Nigerians that the President has just commissioned “an ultra-modern, state-of-the-art light bulb.”

One petitioner to allege that the newly-installed bulb was supplied by a company fronting for the Chairman of the Board of the National Light Bulb Allocation Agency, and that contract was “grossly inflated.” One NLBAA spokesperson to refute the “wicked and malicious allegations” levelled against the “esteemed and honourable Chairman” of the Agency, and threaten a libel case.

A delegation of fourteen traditional rulers and community elders from benefiting community to pay a courtesy visit to the President to thank him for bringing the dividends of democracy to the area, and to express their “unalloyed loyalty” to him and his administration. 

One anonymous Sahara Reporters reporter to write a story on ‘lightbulbgate’, entitled: “ Nigeria ’s Illuminati – The Corrupt Cabal running the National Light Bulb Allocation Agency.” One commentator on the Sahara Reporters website to suggest that the light bulb probably didn’t even need changing in the first place.

Now at this point we have to do the math. Let’s see what number we come up with. That figure, ladies and gentlemen, is Nigeria ’s Light Bulb Index (LBI). The World Bank says that a country’s LBI is a very accurate indicator of its readiness for transparency, and for economic development.

Nigeria and Iraq are reputed to be jostling for first place in the global LBI rankings. And that’s because (apart from the fact that the sale and use of light bulbs is already being banned in several countries, due to dismal energy efficiency), in Iraq it takes an entire Halliburton Division to change – and bill the Iraqi government for – a single light bulb…

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2014