[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?

[poetry] Pilgrim’s Progress – for Barack Obama

My poem, Pilgrim’s Progress, written in the weeks after Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential elections.

It appeared in Wasafiri’s 25th Anniversary Issue (Issue 59: Autumn 2009 | Everything to Declare)

It’s also quoted from, by Isabel Hofmeyr, to open her chapter in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan’, edited by Anne Dunan-Page.

*

Pilgrim’s Progress 

By Tolu Ogunlesi

 

On one side, an army of voluble Blackberrys, 

Translating King into textese; on the other 

A Klan of epithet dealers, sitting tauntingly 

  

On electric mules. Stretched out around them, 

A United Nations of graves and grave histories, watchful. 

Above, frames floating, studded with names 

  

Of members of an all-white dream team, possessors 

Of star-spangled genes. A mist, a burst 

Of bleak breath, rises, to dispossess a people 

  

Of their dreams. Into this carnival will walk 

A newborn, newly stranded 

On the shores of this wreck-laden river. 

  

Into this mist that roughly massages memory. 

He will not be one of them. Nor one of us. 

He will simply be the sepia-toned pilgrim who sailed 

  

In, by dawn’s early light, aboard a paper boat 

With a smudged name. His companions a straw hat, dust-flecked 

Overalls, and a bale of cotton, wounded with tears. 

  

None of these will belong to him. The only things he will own 

Will be a funny name, tattooed onto a skinny frame; 

The dust on his feet, passport of a pilgrim’s progress; 

  

And a Blackberry. He will be naked, to be clothed 

By all who see or hear of him. 

In his open mouth, we shall catch a glimpse of all 

  

The tomorrows that hold their seeds but no longer 

Their yellowed deeds; all the coming days 

That hold their breath, but no longer their weary debt. 

 

(c) 2009

[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

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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)