[Op-ed] Nigeria in the spotlight: ‘The Brinks’ vs ‘The Brincs’

By Tolu Ogunlesi

[originally published in Ongoing Concerns, a weekly column in NEXT newspaper, May 2011)

In one corner is John Campbell, diplomat, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria between 2004 and 2007, and now a Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

In the other corner is Jeffrey Sachs, economist, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and a Special Adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

I have chosen to name the Campbell camp “The BRINKS” – coined from the title of Mr Campbell’s unambiguously-titled book, “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink” (2010).

The Sachs camp I will refer to as “The BRINCS.” In a May 30 New York Times op-ed, Sachs wrote: “In practical terms, Nigeria would like to make the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the BRINCS by the end of the decade. To those who only know Nigeria as a country that squanders its oil wealth, this ambition might seem outlandish. But for those of us who have had the chance to work with its leadership, this goal seems fully within reach.”

Weeks before Sachs’ piece (May 2), Mr Campbell wrote an op-ed piece for the same paper, titled: “Nigeria: The Morning After” (which I somehow keep misreading as “The Mourning After”).

Coming from the author of “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink”, it is not a piece that will surprise many. When Campbell writes that “the elections have polarized Nigeria and resulted in likely underreported bloodshed in the northern parts of the country”, he unwittingly gives the impression that until April 2011, Nigeria was polarisation-free and the North was a haven of peace.

The pre-eminent weakness of Mr Campbell’s position, in my opinion, is his insistence on viewing Nigeria – and interpreting his observations – through a “predominantly Christian South versus predominantly Moslem North” frame.

I find that perspective utterly misleading, ignoring, for example, the fact that the not-insignificant south west (which includes the uber-populous Lagos) is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims.

Mr Sachs’ perspective is refreshingly different. In the opening paragraph of his piece, titled “Nigeria’s Historic Opportunity”, he declares:

“This country of nearly 160 million people, about one in five of sub-Saharan Africa, is on to something historic. The people feel it. After a sometimes agonizing half-century since independence, Nigeria is on the verge of a takeoff.”

He goes on to list “five solid reasons for optimism” (I’m sure you could easily pick “five solid reasons for pessimism” from any Campbell article).

Perhaps aware that those comments make him liable to accusations of being overly-optimistic, Sachs adds: “Of course, Nigeria still faces very real risks. The country’s population is enormously diverse, with sharp regional and religious divisions. Violence continues to flare…”

This helps create a much more balanced and nuanced picture than Mr Campbell’s jeremiad.

Nevertheless, you can’t help thinking that perhaps Sachs is still guilty of misreading the situation in some way, even if not as grievously as Campbell.

Sachs writes: “The president’s senior adviser on the Millennium Development Goals, working with the National Assembly, has been leading a bold mechanism to transfer federal funds to state and local governments in a robust and accountable manner. All over the country, schools, clinics and water points are being built.”

While there may be no doubt about the impressive work Amina az Zubair is doing with the MDGs (she has been publicly commended by Bill Gates, and NEXT columnist Jibrin Ibrahim recently wrote a tribute in which he referred to her as “a shining star”), I’m curious about that “bold mechanism to transfer federal funds to state and local governments in a robust and accountable manner.”

And which National Assembly is Sachs referring to? The same loan-and-allowance-and-contract-loving House-of-Bankole? I’d also like to know more about those schools and clinics being built “all over the country.”

While I essentially share Sachs’ optimistic stance, I am tempted to dissociate myself from some of his pronouncements. My own optimism is, at the moment, founded less on concrete achievement than on the ordinary, yet powerful possibilities for change that a relatively fresh beginning offers. (Hope-for-the-sake-of-hope is how I described it in a recent column).

Anyway, there we have them: Sachs versus Campbell. Two influential Americans, putting forward their thoughts about Africa’s most populous country and one of the leading exporters of crude oil to theirs.

One thinks Nigeria is falling apart (and his voice is unfailingly loudest whenever signs emerge that the end is near), the other thinks Nigeria is coming together.

Let’s make one thing clear: sentiments will always be involved in the business of argument and debate. From his article we get a hint of Sachs’ closeness to Nigeria’s corridors of power, and specifically to Goodluck Jonathan.

Mr Campbell on his own part is closely associated with Jonathan-opponent Atiku Abubakar, and is a member of the board of Abubakar’s American University of Nigeria in Yola.

Perhaps that partly explains where both men are coming from.

So, back to the ring. Where do you belong? Are you a ‘BRINK’ or a ‘BRINC’? Is Nigeria coming together – or falling apart?

In 2015, which of these two Americans – Jeffrey Sachs and John Campbell – will say: “I told you so!”?

And, most important question of all, what role will President Jonathan play in the ring: Bricklayer – or Demolition Man?

(ON)GOING CONCERNS: December 16, 2006 – The night of the giant Tipp-Ex

excerpt from my most recent column article, published in Next, Wednesday June 15, 2011

Let’s turn to former FCT Minister, and Obasanjo-era insider Nasir El-Rufai, to hear his own account of that same December 16 night (contained in a now widely distributed profile of Yar’Adua, published online in 2009)

“At the night of the primaries, Umaru Yar’Adua sent for me and came out of the State Box at Eagle Square and intimated me of this. An acceptance speech had been prepared for him, containing the announcement of Peter Odili as running mate. This was not acceptable to him, but he was also unwilling to disagree with Obasanjo so early in the game. I suggested that he rallies the governors to oppose the decision to announce Odili as running mate, and decline the nomination if all else failed.”

So, while a meeting was going on in Uba’s house, another equally frantic one was going on at Eagle Square, between El-Rufai and a nervous Yar’Adua; both sharing the same purpose: “Odili Must Go!”

Never in the history of Nigeria have so many been united against the Aso Rock ambitions of one person (apart from Ibrahim Babangida, that is).

Absolute authority on the matter lay in the hands of god: Olusegun Obasanjo, ably supported, El-Rufai tells us, by “Tony Anenih, Ahmadu Ali and Ojo Maduekwe” – in my opinion the supreme council of lesser gods of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

El-Rufai tells us that he had to settle for a “last resort”, as follows: “I sent people to wake up Nuhu Ribadu, then Chairman of EFCC to help persuade Obasanjo since all else appeared to have failed. It was not until about 5am that Ribadu succeeded in getting Odili off the ticket.”

Read the full article here

(ON)GOING CONCERNS: Choosing the next president

(On)Going Concerns, my weekly column for NEXT, appears on Wednesdays, in print and online. This week’s piece (Feb 23, 2011) below:

Choosing the next president

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd recently told the Financial Times: “I believe in politics for the two questions it asks of us. One is: ‘What do you stand for and why?’ And the second is: ‘Do you know what you are talking about?”

These are excellent questions to carry over into the Nigerian situation.

Think of Nuhu Ribadu. What comes to mind is a man who came into public reckoning on the strength of his fearlessness, and determination to rid Nigeria of financial crime. Think Fola Adeola and Pat Utomi, and their impressive resumes speak for them, evidence of a consistently-manifested genius for visionary thinking, and for the management of people and resources. Tunde Bakare brings “conviction”, “fearlessness” and “integrity” to mind.

I think of Dele Momodu and of a certain drive and eclectic ambition; a man who, once he sets his eyes on a goal, will work to make it happen. Muhamadu Buhari evokes frugality and (to borrow from Wole Soyinka) “dis’plin” – qualities sorely needed in a country ravaged by lawlessness and recklessness.

Now think of Goodluck Jonathan, and what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s time to confess my confusion. Has Mr. President done a great job of letting us know what exactly he stands for, and to what extent he knows what he’s talking about. I honestly can’t say for sure.

Maybe it’s simply a personality issue. Mr. Jonathan does seem to be an introvert, which in itself is not a bad thing. But I fear that he is not doing a good enough job of asserting himself in the office he occupies. (Now, sadly, this is one of those lines that I fear someone in one of the anti-Jonathan camps will seize and proclaim on Facebook, for campaign purposes).

Continue reading here

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