Meeting Charles Robertson, ‘RENCAP Man’, in Lagos

By Tolu Ogunlesi

 

Charles Robertson (@RencapMan on Twitter) is Renaissance Capital’s Global Chief Economist and Head of Macro-strategy Unit. He was in Lagos recently for Rencap’s 4th Annual 1:1 Pan-Africa Investor Conference in Lagos, from February 11 to 13, 2013. I didn’t attend the conference itself, but got a chance to meet Mr. Robertson at a cocktail that Rencap hosted on the evening of Day 1, at Avenue Suites in Victoria Island.

It was my first time meeting him – in person. We’d previously exchanged a couple of emails in the past, and engaged in Twitter debate.

So it was a pleasure to finally meet the lead author of THE FASTEST BILLION: The Story Behind Africa’s Economic Revolution, launched November 2012, and with foreword written by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy. (I’m going to be reading and reviewing it in March – watch this space).

The week before Lagos he’d attended a UK-Nigeria Bilateral Banking, Finance and Investment Development Conference in London, at which the Nigerian junior Minister of Finance, Dr. Yerima Lawan Ngama, had spoken. 

Over wine and Chapman we talked about Arsenal, Twitter, and Nigeria – reforms, agriculture, and the Middle Class Question.

Robertson is an Arsenal fan, but he didn’t sound as angry and frustrated as Arsenal fans tend to (especially on Twitter). He spoke excitedly about the bliss of living close to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. 

We talked about Nigerian data, the ease of accessing it. He was impressed by the quality of statistics available online from Nigeria’s Central Bank (CBN) and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). According to him it’s much better than the data he had access to when he covered Greece as an analyst in the late 1990s.

Minister Akin Adesina came up in our conversation – I consider him one of the few inspiring, optimism-sustaining faces in the Goodluck Jonathan cabinet. [In my opinion it’s a tragedy that the phones-for-farmers scheme played out the way  it did. My feeling is that the Minister needs to pay as much attention to his communication strategy as to his reform agenda]. 

We also discussed the Nigerian government’s reform programme – originating of course in Obasanjo’s 1st term as President; clearly Nigeria is in a better place today – in terms of creditworthiness and investor perception – than ever before. Robertson pointed out that the fact that international markets will today lend to Nigeria at 4% interest rates is “remarkable.” 

He said something quite interesting about the “penalty of success” that tends to accompany reform programmes: that a time comes when “the  people creating success are [no longer] seen as necessary to sustain it.” Food for thought, definitely!

The African Middle Class

The question I most wanted to ask Robertson about was to do with Rencap’s report on the Nigerian Middle Class. I’ve always thought it unrealistic, saccharine. Rencap’s benchmark is of course much more realistic – and Robertson made sure to point it out in his response to me – than the ones put forward by the African Development Bank’s report, which considers $2 per day disposable income as the baseline for measuring the African Middle Class.

In that report, The Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the Middle Class in Africa, the AfDB defines the African Middle Class  as individuals with “per capita daily consumption of $2-$20 in 2005 PPP US dollars.”

The study classifies that middle-class into 3:

  1. a ‘“floating class” with per capita consumption levels of between $2-$4 per day…’
  2. a ‘“lower-middle” class with per capita consumption levels of $4-$10 per day…’
  3. an ‘“uppermiddle class” with per capita consumption levels of $10-$20 per day’…

Do you, like me, find that ridiculous? A Lagos or Nairobi upper middle class surviving on $20 a day? 

Rencap is more realistic, but even then, I still have issues with their assumptions. [Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not an economist, and not the most comfortable person in the presence of numbers. I did however enjoy, and if I recall correctly, excel in, secondary school Economics].

Rencap’s Middle Class report is based on a survey of only 1,004 Nigerians, in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.

Now, here are some highlights of Rencap’s “findings”: 

  • Their average monthly income is in the range NGN75,000-100,000 ($480-645, or roughly $6,000-7,000 pa).
  • Educating their children well is a top priority, and over half send their children abroad to complete their education.
  • A sizeable 76% of our sample work in the public sector; of those working in the private sector, 38% run their own businesses.

Put those two together, and you’ll be forgiven for being confused. How do you send a child abroad on an annual salary of $7,000 (less than N1.2  million per annum) – in LAGOS or ABUJA? Where’s the rest of the money coming from, o thou civil servant?

The findings above raise a lot of questions. $7,000 in salaries is Lagos is less than what a young entry-level employee in banking or telecoms or oil & gas will earn. It’s barely enough to pay for BOTH an apartment (minimum rent one year, Lagos-style, two in many cases) AND a car (which is a necessity for the Lagos middle-class, in the absence of mass transport services targeted at the middle-class). How does a middle-class male Lagosian afford accommodation, a car(s), fuel a generator, pay school fees (including at least one denominated in dollars or sterling), on N100,000 per month? Obviously we’re not getting the real picture. 

Robertson acknowledged the fact that the Rencap survey is not flawless – assembling data / statistics in a country like Nigeria is a tough and thankless job, and usually happens with minimal or no support from the government bureaucracy. But it is at least is a starting point in the direction we need to be heading. 

I have a couple of thoughts on the Middle Class.

1. No doubt there is a growing middle class in many African countries. The evidence is all around us. Compared to the late 1990s, when dictator Sani Abacha was in power. Civil service salaries have since risen appreciably (credit for this goes to President Obasanjo’s government), the country is awash with more money, on the back of rising oil prices, and over the last decade the explosive growth in sectors like telecommunications and entertainment (music, Nollywood) and ecommerce have helped create wealth. Nigeria is today a significant (sometimes the ‘leading’) growth market for a good number of consumer companies, from PZ Cussons to Diageo to Unilever, and for luxury brands like Hennessy and Porsche. [Robertson told me about an Economist Africa conference at which he spoke in January, in London, alongside Strive Masiyiwa, Founder and Chairman of Econet Wireless Holdings and President Diageo Africa, Nick Blazquez, on a panel focusing on the African Middle Class. There is clearly a lot of excitement about a “rising” African Middle Class and consumer spending.]

2. One of the oft-told stories about China and Brazil is one to do with how their governments have managed to lift millions of people out of poverty, into the middle class. Brazil’s happened under the watch of President Lula (2002 – 2010). I’m fascinated by these stories, and wonder why a country like Nigeria is failing to replicate that, despite the proliferation of schemes like NAPEP and PAP. (I’m assuming those were aimed at nudging people out of absolute poverty into a post-poverty-but-not-yet-middle-class class). Why is Nigeria spectacularly failing to achieve a mass uplift of its citizens into the middle-class, the way China and Brazil have done / are still doing?

Which leads me to my next point:

All the optimistic reports and the excitement aside I do not think  – and I may be mistaken – Nigeria is creating a statistically-significant new cadre of middle-classers. Emphasis on statistically-significant and new. No doubt there’s a growing middle class in Nigeria, but I suspect that this growth can be attributed mainly to 2 classes of individuals:

1. Ex-members of a once-thriving middle-class that was decimated by the mismanagement, Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), and all-out military repression of the 1980s and 1990s; and who are now being readmitted into the M-club (this would include civil servants ie school-teachers, University staff, Government health professionals; and Entrepreneurs/businesspersons/service-professionals ie tailors/fashion designers, shop-owners,  private-practice lawyers, accountants, architects, doctors, etc).

2. Young people who are leaving University and finding jobs in banking and telecoms and technology and construction and e-commerce and oil & gas, and earning salaries decent enough to sustain a comfortable life in Lagos: a car, an apartment, regular clubbing, summer holidays, etc. These people move from their student budgets to expenditure levels that are several multiples of the student budgets. I wish we had numbers for this class – I estimate it’ll be something in the region of the tens of thousands annually (no more than that), a negligible number placed against the size of the unemployed youth market. 

These young people are not a NEW middle-class, as far as I’m concerned. They are tertiary institution graduates already set up to belong to the middle-class. The new middle-class I’m looking for – and which I fear does not exist to any appreciable extent – is the one in which people are rising – in large numbers – out of poverty into middle-class wealth without the benefit of middle-class upbringings or a tertiary education starting point. I’m thinking of examples like the following:

a. A subsistence farmer in a rural area who graduates into mechanized farming, and sees a significant rise in his income (this is very important considering that agriculture is the largest employer of labour in Nigeria).

b. A young Nigerian with limited formal education who succeeds at a vocational entrepreneurial venture — plumbing, carpentry, welding, trading (succeeds enough to rise into middle-class and have the opportunity to give his children a life far better than the one he enjoyed). I’m thinking of a street-hawker who somehow graduates into owning a proper shop in a proper market. I’m thinking for example of all the young traders in Alaba International Market who go on to gain their “freedom” after years of apprenticeship and then set up thriving businesses of their own.

I did try to explain the POV above to Mr. Robertson (he told me he came out of a working-class English background), and he seemed to agree with me. 

I’d like to know what readers think of this African Middle Class concept. The AfDB report. The Rencap report. The unbridled optimism regarding the growth of an African Middle Class. Is this for real, or are there serious cognitive biases at play here? Do you agree with my argument – or have a different one? 

OXFAM’S BOOK OF LAMENTATIONS

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Oxfam, the UK charity, recently released an updated version of the Book of Lamentations. Something about how “the relentless focus on ongoing problems at the expense of a more nuanced portrait of [Africa], is obscuring the progress that is being made towards a more secure and prosperous future.”

That’s Chief Executive Barbara Stocking, as quoted by the BBC. Apparently the charity’s been doing some polling recently (in the UK), and coming up with interesting results. In one poll half of the respondents confessed that Africa conjured for them images of hunger, famine and poverty. In another poll, almost half of the 2,000 respondents thought Africa’s biggest challenge was hunger. Three out of four were suffering from ‘Africa-fatigue’ – that debilitating condition that afflicts well-meaning foreign philanthropists exposed to an endless stream of images of suffering and torment originating from the dark continent.

A distressed Oxfam has since gone ahead to launch its latest Africa campaign, in a desperate bid to shift the world’s attention from African Hunger, to African-Hunger-Backdropped-By-Stunning-African-Landscapes.

That’s, in a nutshell, the story.

It left me a tad puzzled. A w-t-f puzzlement. As in: is Oxfam for real?

Let’s even forget, for a moment, the unforgettable fact that Oxfam has probably done far more than any other organisation in propagating these images.

Let’s focus on something else that struck me about the story: the way blame is being placed squarely on the shoulders of The Images.

Oxfam appears to be saying: Put All The Blame On The Images. Not the people hanging on stubbornly to those images in the face of alternative evidence.

Am I alone in thinking Oxfam’s lamentations suggest a British public that is at the mercy of what they are fed.

Helpless Brits who somehow cannot — despite all their efforts — rise beyond the bombardment of pity-evoking images of Africa,

One might as well rephrase Dame Stocking as follows:

Oh poor helpless people of Britain, all they’re being fed is harrowing, unhelpful images of Africa. We need to stop that. We need to feed them something different. We need to change their diet.

That’s the summary of the Oxfam Lamentation. It’s

In whose interest?

The whole set-up suggests that Britain is now guilty of the sort of intellectual laziness once associated (almost solely) with America (er, sorry). Clearly the surveys say far more about the British mind than they do about the African condition. Now we know, courtesy of Oxfam, that all along we’ve been depending on a bunch of wallet-opening puppets to deliver us from ourselves.

Now the puppets are growing weary, the strings fraying, the wallet-opening mechanisms aging. Now we have to refurbish the puppets, oil the creaking joints with a new, more positive type of ‘communication’. Landscapes, not Hunger!

A mindset that elevates what the British public thinks of Africa, over and above contemporary reality, and that suggests that it is in Africa’s interest for that thinking to change, is not only faulty but dangerous as well.

To put it less mildly, who — apart from Oxfam, obviously — really cares, in 2012, what the British public thinks about a continent from which they fled in varying stages of undress a half-century ago? What’s that proverb about crying more than the bereaved?

In the 21st century are people still allowed to be zombies gobbling up everything they’re fed by a collaboration of powerful media and NGOs?

I seriously doubt that it is in Africa’s interest for Brits to change their perception of Africa. Instead I think it is totally in Britain’s interests to change its perceptions of Africa. That problem, is Britain’s, and no one else’s. If the Brits insists on seeing Africa primarily through the lens of philanthropic intervention, in 2012, good for them.

Let them stay thinking that way; let Oxfam, with its its Africa-emblazoned super-hero capes, stay convincing itself that it has a duty to alter global perceptions of Africa, while the Russians and Chineseand diaspora Africans, who must have once assumed they’d left the continent for good — boldly head out to the continent to engage in potentially more useful ways.

Alternative images

Granted that those starving-children-and-dying-mothers images form a sizable part of African exports to the West. There may be little we can do about that, as long as we have a West obsessed with delivering Africa from itself. But what about the the tens of thousands of kwashiorkor-free, English-speaking, pocket-money-receiving African students who flock to the UK annually, to study (with a good number actually returning, to continue with the lives they left behind in Lagos and Nairobi and Accra and Freetown and Johannesburg etc).

How the British public fails to permit these alternative images to displace some of the “old stereotypes” (quoting Dame Stocking) should alarm many right-thinking people, and perhaps inspire an industry of academic theses on national delusions and epidemics of ostrich-in-sand-syndromes.

If those flesh-and-blood representations of contemporary Africa somehow don’t succeed in serving as a useful counterbalance to the stereotypes, then nothing will.

“We want to make sure people have a really better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa. Of course we have to show what the reality is in the situations in those countries. But we also need to show the other places where things are actually changing, where things are different,” Dame Stocking says.

I wish her and Oxfam the very best. Must be awful to have to take on that job of saving people from self-inflicted ignorance. In an age in which Google, Twitter and the news media lie at most fingertips, delivering, alongside stories of African suffering, narratives of determined recovery from tragedy and technology-driven change and emboldened youth and rising political awareness and growing intolerance for tyranny — is there still room for getting way with blaming with fixating on photos of begging bowls and the oxfamished children attached to them?

Kudos where due. But still…

I might also add that this is not to disparage the useful work that Oxfam has done and is still doing across the continent. The effects of aid, like AIDS, are real, no doubt. George W. Bush’s PEPFAR saved, and continues to save, millions of Africans lives.

But stories also abound of the startling stupidities and failures of aid projects whose origins lie in a mentality belonging to a world that appears to have vanished. Misguided Messiahs and their T-shirt donation and Shoe donation schemes, money-grabbing consultants, corrupt practices, high-profile-nil-value baby adoptions, etc etc.

It’s important that the Oxfams of this world do not allow themselves to get overly caught up in the myth of their impact. In the larger scheme of things, perhaps they’ve been overestimating their messianic abilities. Consider this: In his posthumously published collection of essays pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem says, of Nigeria’s 2006 debt relief deal: “What kind of success is debt relief that sees Nigeria paying back over three billion dollars to Britain alone, a figure more than the total aid budget of Britain in the same year?”

You could of course argue that that is oil-rich Nigeria, and choose instead to focus on the Rwandas and Malawis where close to half the national budgets are donor-funded. And I could remind you of what the late Malawian President did with chunks of his country’s money. Or the mystery of the vanishing dollars in the Ugandan Prime Minister’s office.

I’m also somewhat surprised we’re still having this ‘African aid’ argument at the end of 2012, after the eloquent arguments of books like Dead Aid and The Fastest Billion. And after the Economist already publicly regretted its silliness.

Shame.

Is Oxfam stuck on a planet that no longer exists?

Oxfam Capital, anyone?

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Watch out for Part 2 of this piece, focusing on how Oxfam can shift its focus from cajoling donation-weary Westerners and tap into African wealth to fund its Africa-transformation drive (not kidding).

 

THE LAST KING OF AFRICA

By Tolu Ogunlesi 

There’s no escaping Africa, no matter how far from it you are. From England’s supermarket shelves bottled water leaps at you, chanting “Buy me and save a continent!”

You blink, once, twice, to be sure you’re not hallucinating. You’re not. The voices are as real as they are earnest: by buying a bottle of water you can help build a borehole in the remotest jungles of Africa. And so you hearken to the plea; a black person taking on guilt once monopolised by whites.

There’s even more fascinating stuff in print. I’ve been coming across a call-for-donations insert in UK magazines, in which a circular hole sits in the middle of the page, accompanied by the chilling line: “The upper arm of a child who has severe acute malnutrition would fit through this hole.”

Talk about shock therapy.

But let it not sound as if I’m complaining, I‘m not. Hey world, Africa is indeed grateful for the aid, and even more so for the headlines and media mentions. (Father of ‘em all: the May 13 – 19, 2000 issue of The Economist which paid tribute, on its cover, to “The Hopeless Continent”).

Bono and Bob Geldof also have a place in my Hall of Fame; celebrities who could have busied themselves checking in and out of rehab, but have instead chosen to work tirelessly saving Africa and its citizens. Unlike fad-hunters Madonna and Angelina Jolie who simply want to parachute in for a quickie adoption (“Err, jus’ gimme the baby and keep the change darling…”) – with a photo-shoot to boot – Bono and Bob Gee are commendable long-distance ‘activists’.

If like me you are worried about who will take the baton from them, worry no more. We have Britain’s Prince William to thank for making plans to order the over-sized shoes of the Irishmen.

Late last year Sky1 aired a documentary titled ‘Prince William’s Africa.’ In it TV presenter Ben Fogle followed the Prince to ‘Africa’, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Tusk Trust (a UK charity devoted to the protection and conservation of wildlife in Africa), of which the Prince is Patron Saint.

Prince William’s Africa… never mind that Botswana is the only African ‘province’ they visit.

I recently realised that of my many foolish (random) assumptions, the biggest has been this – thinking that Africa is what the atlas says it is. No, Africa is what Tourists say it is: the jungle and its gorillas/guerrillas (same difference!); the game park and its sunsets, elephants, lions and zebras. Kabisa!

Lagos’s concrete jungles are not “Africa”, they are “Nigeria”. Ibadan’s “running splash of rust and gold” is not Africa, it belongs to the “predominantly Christian South” (as opposed to a “largely Muslim North”) of “oil-rich Nigeria”.

Unless we can convince Prince William that ‘observing’ our politicians – especially caged in their convoys – will provide as much entertainment as a Southern Africa safari; unless we can convince him that what we lack in real pachyderms we more than make up for in (cashnivorous) ‘White Elephant’ projects; we should give up any hopes of seeing his Royal Highness’ Africa extend in the direction of Nigeria.

The Prince’s interest in Africa is clearly not a mere Tweenage fad.  He’s been into this continent since like forever. His 21st birthday party, held seven years ago at WindsorCastle, was, according to the BBC, “African-themed.”

“As the party started, outfits spotted arriving at the castle included a furry lion, Tarzan and a banana. The castle’s ancient rooms were transformed into scenes from the African bush, which include a life-sized elephant made out of papier mache,” the BBC tells us. “Other outfits seen on arriving guests included a lion suit topped with a gold crown, a full foreign legion uniform, a Biggles-esque pilot, a banana and a top-hatted witch-doctor.”

I’m hoping the future King will choose to have his Coronation staged in his beloved Africa. Dignitaries – faces painted of course – will arrive at Africa’s International Airport (named after none other than the most famous living citizen of Africa, Nelson Mandela), waving ‘iSpears’ (trust Steve Jobs to cash in on this) and singing ‘God Save The King’ in ‘African’.

It’ll be like the 2010 World Cup all over again! All we’d need to do in terms of security would be to prevent the Swazi king Mswati III from coming near the new King – we don’t want anyone extolling the virtues of Royal polygamy to the head of the Church of England do we?

The Africa that the Prince will be ‘inheriting’ when he becomes King will of course be vastly different from the one his grandmother inherited when she became Queen almost sixty years ago. But who cares? Prince William’s Africa – full as it will be of elephants, witch-doctors, Tarzans, vast farms and BBC and SkyTV cameras – will be, for most of Europe and America, a vastly recognisable Africa.

I’m betting The Economist will want to atone for past sins. Atop an image of frenzied crowds lining the streets of Africa to hail the brand new King William V, our beloved newsmagazine will plaster these words (a marked improvement on a decade ago): “Africa: The Hopeless BUT Happy Continent!” 

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This first appeared in NEXT on Wednesday 27th October, 2010

[REVIEW] SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER: Selected Pan-African Postcards, by Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

By Tolu Ogunlesi

(originally appeared in Harvard Africa Policy Journal, 2011 edition)

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem’s sudden death in a car crash in Nairobi in 2009 coincided with a day set aside to commemorate the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU) – May 25. It was an overwhelming irony: the untimely demise (he was 48) of a leading pan-Africanist thinker and activist on a day appropriated for celebration and stock-taking.

In the years before his death Abdul-Raheem – who held Nigerian and Ugandan passports (by birth and residence respectively) and was married to a Tunisian-born woman – wrote a weekly “postcard” which was syndicated in newspapers across the continent, as well as published online in Pambazuka, the pan-African online network.

Now Pambazuka has made a selection of those articles and published them as “Speaking Truth to Power: Selected pan-African Postcards.” That the preface was written by Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, former Prime Minister of Tanzania and Secretary General of the OAU, hints at the depth of the personal and professional connections that Tajudeen built across Africa during his lifetime.

The ‘postcards’ are arranged thematically, not chronologically. This has an obvious advantage – grouping similar pieces together reinforces the message and instantly throws Abdul-Raheem’s most beloved concerns, and his passionate commitment to them, into sharp relief: gender equality, African unity, the fate of democracy and democratic institutions, imperialism and neo-colonialism, globalisation, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

But there’s also a drawback to this thematic delineation – by distorting the order in which they were written, the selection sacrifices the possibility of creating a ‘real-time’, moment-succeeding-moment profile of Africa and its major happenings as encountered and responded to by Tajudeen, during the years the selected postcards were written. (The earliest of them is dated January 8, 2003; the latest, May 25, 2009, the day Abdul-Raheem died).

A sharply observant and strikingly knowledgeable mind is at work – offering perceptive commentary on why Africa is the way it is, who is responsible, and what it must do to chart a new course for itself.
The concern for Africa that emanates from these pieces is that of a frustrated father for a wayward child – but without condescension. The helplessness of the continent is a constant source of grief. “We’re not even experts on our own poverty,” Abdul-Raheem laments.

The candour is affecting; Abdul-Raheem confesses his admiration for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, (like Gaddafi, Abdul-Raheem was a supporter of the push for a ‘United States of Africa’) while simultaneously admitting that Gaddafi is “a very difficult friend to have”, and “vulnerable to flatterers, charlatans and opportunists…” Gaddafi also gets censured for refusing to let go of power; for creating a “highly personalised” political system in Libya.

Abdul-Raheem is an ‘equal opportunity’ critic – apportioning blame wherever it is needed, whether at the feet of imperialists and neo-colonialists, or Africa’s shame-inducing leadership elite, or Afro-pessimists. Charles Taylor is a “gangster of a President”, Robert Mugabe is a “rigger and robber”, Colin Powell is George Bush’s “top guard-dog.” Powell and British cabinet secretary (for ‘International Development’) Baroness Amos bask in the “‘house nigger’ status” conferred on them by their white bosses, while John Bolton is the “UN-hating” United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
But no one gets as much fury as former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, George Bush’s “poodle dog”. Elsewhere he is Queen Elizabeth’s “arrogant but thankfully expiring PM” or a “compulsive serial liar.” Tony Blair and Bob Geldof are “busybodies running around like headless chickens claiming they want to help Africa.” “Blair, Brown, Bob and Bono” are “B stars in poverty pornography.”

It’s hard to resist chuckling at this mischievously indirect question: “If George Bush can be trusted with nuclear weapons, why not anybody else?” Vivid metaphors reinforce the biting humour that shines through the articles: African leaders are invited to G8 summits as “side salads” and end up resembling “an NGO lobby group at the Summit of Rich White Men”

Those Rich White Men show up in Gleneagles, Scotland, as “eight white men in dark suits meeting… to save Africa.” The modern NGO industry doesn’t escape satire; Abdul-Raheem classifies them as “MONGOs (My Own NGOs), GONGOs (Governmental NGOs), BONGOs (Business NGOs) and PONGOs (Private NGOs).”

No doubt, Abdul-Raheem, DPhil graduate of Oxford University (where he was a Rhodes Scholar) did not think very highly of the West, or of Africa’s political elite.

Embedded in his intellect is a powerful hypocrisy-detector. He is perplexed by the deceptions and blind-spots and double-standards and of the West in its dealings with Africa: “What kind of success is debt relief that sees Nigeria paying back over three billion dollars to Britain alone, a figure more than the total aid budget of Britain in the same year?”

Abdul-Raheem is generous with pointed questions like this. “How come the nationalists freed [Africa] from the yoke of colonialism without writing proposals to any funder?” he asks, in a meditation on the politics of NGO-funding and “donor-driven agendas.”

A determined historicising takes place in these pages, to prove that the past is – to borrow William Faulkner’s words – never actually past. Slavery therefore merely cunningly mutated into “modern slave-reliant economic system forced on humanity by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation” and globalisation is no more than colonialism in rebranded garb.

The danger with writing from a perspective of absolute commitment to the ideals of pan-Africanism is that it becomes very easy to tar the continent – and foreigners often get accused of this – with a brush so thickly woven it is helplessly indiscriminate; reducing a complex structure into a series of statistic-studded sketches of poverty, corruption, strife and disease.

But Abdul-Raheem’s skilful touch resists this. The level of detail is that which you would expect from someone who has travelled the continent extensively, and has met its leaders often enough for each one to stand out as a unique personality, not an indistinct version of a generic African strongman. Tajudeen displays an encyclopaedic yet intimate knowledge of the continent, its cities, bloodsheds, illogicalities – and glimmers of hope. The Africa that therefore emerges in these postcards is a richly tapestried one.

Reading these articles one comes to realise how maddeningly ambiguous (in moral terms) the territory occupied by African politics is – dominated as it is by people like Robert Mugabe, who can manage to be all of these and more at once: freedom fighter, intellectual (holder of seven earned academic degrees) and tyrant. One of the postcards is titled “Brown is wrong on Zimbabwe – but that does not make Mugabe right.” Here is Abdul-Raheem at work actively resisting the kind of lazy binarism that manifests as “Britain is wrong/evil so Mugabe must be right/good!” – or vice versa.

On the whole wit and lively intelligence leaven these postcards and ensures they do not degenerate into that clichéd incoherence to which passionate rhetoric is always liable. The perpetually wagging finger indeed manages to not point out not only problems, but solutions as well.

Abdul-Raheem celebrates progress wherever he finds it: Nigeria’s debt reforms, and its “reintroduction [of] compulsory Universal Basic Education”, Uganda’s success in fighting HIV/AIDS, and its extension “[of] universal primary education to the secondary level”, Malawi’s reduction of maternal mortality rates, the East African Community’s (EAC) trade and immigration policy reforms, amongst many others.

He also doesn’t shy away from making radical recommendations. “The first thing we need to do is to reconcile our states to the diversity of our peoples by giving African citizenship to all Africans wherever they may be,” he writes, in “The demand for common citizenship.” He also demands for an end to the criminalising of cross-border African trade as “smuggling”.

Further evidence of the fact that he was much more than a fire-breathing activist or mayhem-monitor is to be found in what he occupied his final years with: from April 2006 until his death he served as the deputy Director for Africa of the United Nations Millennium Campaign, which “supports and inspires people from around the world to take action in support of the Millennium Development Goals.”

He confesses that his career detour from civil society activist to United Nations bureaucrat surprised many of his friends and colleagues, and tells of his struggle to convince them that he wasn’t “selling out.” At times like these we glimpse the sensitive side of the radical; the personal shining forth amidst the policies and the politics. There is a touching account of how an early morning rebuke from his ten-year-old daughter compelled him to instantly give up a twenty-year-old smoking habit.

Readers will no doubt find a lot of repetition of arguments and ideas in the pages of this book, but that is only to be expected considering its nature as a collection of pieces written at different times and in varying circumstances. And there will be those who will see excess in Abdul-Raheem’s unfailingly dim view of Western governments and leaders. In his defence it should be pointed out that a selection of five dozen pieces out of the hundreds he must have written should not be expected to provide the most balanced view of his oeuvre.

These immensely readable postcards (clearly written with an audience of non-specialists in mind) come together to tell a story of a continent caught between the trauma of a painfully present past, and a future that it seems to be making absolutely no plans for – or is abandoning to outsiders to fashion on its behalf.

Hopefully they will inspire a new generation of thinkers and activists who will carry on from where Abdul-Raheem stopped. It’s high time we realised that there can never be too many people sending echoes of the truth bouncing around the shadowy catacombs in which Africa’s complicated politics continues to play itself out.

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2011

My CNN piece: Who was behind the bombing in Nigeria?

By Tolu Ogunlesi

(CNN) — On Friday a car bomb exploded at the United Nations compound, in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, killing at least 18 people and injuring several others. It is the latest, and most ambitious in a series of bomb explosions that have hit the city in the last year.

The last one, in June, targeted the police headquarters in Abuja, killing two people.

Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group (sometimes referred to as “the Nigerian Taliban”) has been claiming responsibility for these bombings. “Boko Haram” translates loosely as “Western education is forbidden/sinful.”

The group holds all government authority in contempt and wants to establish a Sharia state in Northern Nigeria. Boko Haram has been in existence for several years, proselytising, and running a mosque and religious school, but did not rise to national prominence until it attacked police stations and prisons in parts of Northern Nigeria in July, 2009.

In retaliation, Nigerian security forces launched a ruthless crackdown. Hundreds of people were killed; the Boko Haram camp destroyed, and its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, arrested. He would later die in police custody, and a number of officers are currently facing trial. (Some of the group’s anger is traceable to what it claims is the highhandedness of the Nigerian police and military).

U.N. Secy.-Gen. condemns Nigeria attack
 

U.N. office in Nigeria bombed 

The violence perpetrated by Boko Haram is typically cast by the international media as evidence of tensions between Nigeria’s “predominantly Christian South” and its “predominantly Muslim North.” There have also been suggestions that the Muslim North is unhappy that a Southern Christian is president, at a time when, according to the terms of an informal North-South power-rotating pact in the ruling party, a Northerner ought to be president; and that Boko Haram’s activities are a manifestation of that unhappiness.

At best this is an oversimplification of issues, and at worst dangerously misleading.

Continue reading, HERE

***

My previous CNN.com articles:

We will fight for the soul of Nigeria (March 11, 2010)

The Nigerian president’s ‘Obama moment’ (July 5, 2010)

‘Africa needs to drive a harder bargain with China’ (September 10, 2010)

When will North Africa’s revolutions spread south? (March 3, 2011) 

An ‘Evening of kingmakers’ – PDP Presidential Primaries 2011

My article, An ‘Evening of kingmakers’ – PDP Presidential Primaries 2011, has just appeared in Y! online, here

President Goodluck Jonathan (right) and V. P. Namadi Sambo (left) - Photo Courtesy http://www.thisdaylive.com

An excerpt:

There must have been millions of Nigerians watching through the traditional media – the live TV and radio broadcasts.

Unlike four years ago, however, there was another community observing – those tuned in through social networking media. What that group may have lacked in size (the truth is that there are far fewer people within than outside it) they more than made up for in the aggressive energy with which they pushed out their opinions – on Twitter, 140 unruly characters at a time.

This community didn’t exist when the PDP selected the late Umar Yar’Adua as its Presidential candidate in December 2006. Its members did exist of course, but the ‘wiring’ and ‘platform’ that made it possible for them to ‘network’ and aggregate their voices into one raucous, witty, irreverent conversation didn’t exist back then.

Read the full piece here

Nigeria’s ruling party presidential primaries #2011

by Tolu Ogunlesi

This is the first of a series of articles that will be appearing between now and April, on Nigeria’s 2011 general elections.

Update: You may also read this on the Nigerian daily, NEXT’s website, here

Anyone would be forgiven for assuming that Nigeria’s presidential elections will actually be holding in Abuja today, and not in April as advertised by INEC. Five thousand persons – imagine an outsized papal conclave – will assemble at the Eagle Square cast ballots to decide on the candidate that will run for presidency on the platform of the PDP.

The attention being focused on the primaries by local and international media suggests that there is an assumption that Presidency is the PDP’s birthright, and that whoever wins today will easily go on to become Nigeria’s next President. The reason for this is simple: the PDP has held the position since 1999, and despite recent judicial losses of a number of state governorships, still maintains an overwhelming majority in executive and legislative offices at Federal and State levels across the country. There is no real opposition to the party’s hegemony at national level.

When, at the end of today, a chieftain of the PDP counts the ballots publicly, many watchers will recall the 2003 primaries, when incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Vice President Alex Ekwueme (this time again the leading contenders are an incumbent President and a former Vice President) were the top contenders for the party’s presidential ticket. Instead of a hotly-contested race, what emerged was a very predictable – and overwhelming – victory for Obasanjo.

Cash and carry

Party primaries in Nigeria are typically cash-and-carry affairs; the only rule being the absence of rules. Delegates ‘eat’ from all contending camps, and keep their options open till the last minute. This can make it a most frustrating exercise for candidates, requiring an endless supply of cash, often denominated in dollars. (Richard Dowden has a fascinating account in the chapter on Nigeria in his book “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles”)

There is no evidence that today will be different, whether in how the battle will be fought (with cash), or in the outcome (victory to the ‘incumbent’). No incumbent Nigerian President has ever lost a re-election bid. In a political system in which the President is seen as “leader” of the party, it is hard to imagine how a challenger would succeed staging an upset, and dislodging the person from whom all patronage – contracts and appointments – flows. Already a number of party leaders have insisted that there is “no vacancy” in Aso Rock.

But it is worth pointing out that the Atiku of eight years ago would certainly have floored Goodluck Jonathan, or anyone else, in a contest for the PDP presidential ticket. Indeed Atiku, as a super-powerful Vice President in 2003, was on his way to snatching the ticket from his boss, President Obasanjo, in the primaries of that year.

It took much pleading on Obasanjo’s part to convince his deputy to give up his ambitions. Today, Atiku probably realises, regretfully, that in 2003 he passed up his most viable chance to become President of Nigeria.

In the years since then his influence within the PDP has diminished considerably. Between 2007 and 2010 he was a member of the opposition Action Congress (later ACN), to which he defected when it became clear Obasanjo did not have any plans of handing over to him. Having returned to the ruling party only a few months ago, it is doubtful that he has had any time to (re)build the sort of structure and network that could pose a noticeable challenge to an incumbent.

The Obasanjo factor

One person who may play a deciding role in today’s outcome will be the 73-year-old former President. Obasanjo’s influence within the PDP may have suffered a massive whittling-down since he left office, but anyone who thinks him down-and-out will be greatly mistaken. For one he remains the Chairman of the party’s influential Board of Trustees.

There is no doubt that Mr. Obasanjo will throw his weight behind Mr. Jonathan, who he handpicked as Vice President in 2007. A bitter fight between Obasanjo and Atiku, dating back to the 2003 primaries incident (presumably Obasanjo is still smarting from the humiliation Atiku subjected him to), and which consumed their second term in office, suggests that Obasanjo is not likely to sit back and watch his one-time deputy clinch the PDP ticket.

Atiku will be counting on his vast wealth, the fact that he emerged as the ‘consensus candidate’ of the ‘North’, and on the residue of his once intimidating influence on the PDP; Jonathan on his incumbency advantage, and the endorsement of most of the PDP Governors, who will be providing the delegates.

But if the past is anything to go by, today’s winner will be the person whose cash speaks loudest.

Follow me on Twitter at @toluogunlesi