A thanksgiving for Bro. George

By Tolu Ogunlesi

(Originally published in NEXT newspaper in March 2011)

Being the transcript of a sermon delivered at a thanksgiving service to mark Chief Olabode George’s release from prison

Beloved, we are gathered today, to celebrate the triumphant emergence of our dear brother, father, husband, friend, Chief, Chieftain, officer and gentleman, Olabode George, from the dreary depths of Kirikiri prison. Like Daniel in the den of lions, like Jonah in the belly of the whale, our dear brother was cast amidst great waves of tribulation, but emerged victorious. Hallelujah.

We have every reason in the world to be grateful to the Almighty. I hear – I myself have not been there – that at the gates of Kirikiri there is a sign that says: ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.’ But our brother entered, and now he has come out. Many entered and did not come out. Some entered and came out with tuberculosis and all manner of grievous infirmities. Some came out and their wives were nowhere to be found.  In the case of our brother, his wife is still here. His houses are here. His cars are here. His friends are here. Hallelujah somebody.

The Bible says the Lord shall prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies. In their presence, not behind their back. Brother George’s table is under construction. The angels have awarded the contract. If anybody likes let them come and accuse the angels of splitting that contract. They will gather, sayeth the Lord of hosts, but not in my name, and I will laugh at them. God will laugh at them the way our Baba here, Obasanjo has been laughing at his enemies.

Like Bro George, Baba knows what it is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He spent more than two years as a prisoner himself, before God elevated him to the most powerful position in the land. God placed him over and above his jailers. Bro George, God will lift you. The Almighty will elevate you.

Long before Baba Obasanjo’s travails, Obafemi Awolowo, our dear father and mentor, the man whose free education policy has made it possible for many of us to be where we are today, faced his own tribulation. They said he wanted to overthrow the government, that he wanted to blow the country up. They threw him in prison. When Pa Awolowo left prison it was to become the second most powerful man in the land.

Bro George, blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you, for yours will be the last laughter. You will laugh last. My prayer is that ‘I still dey laugh o’ will follow you all the days of your life, forever and ever, Amen.

Where was I? Yes. Bro George, blessed are you when men accuse you. They said you are a thief. It is their children that will become armed robbers. People of God, did Brother George steal any money? Did you see the word “thief” in the judgement with which they victimised our brother? For those who have not read the judgement, you can purchase your signed copy from the ushers at the end of the service.

I want you to read that judgement for yourself and tell me if Bro George was ever called a thief. What they said was “abuse of office.” ‘Abuse’ and ‘stealing’, are they the same thing? The Bible specifically says that thieves and liars shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven. Now tell me, does the Bible recognise anything called “abuse of office”?

People of God, did our brother abuse the House of God? Did he abuse the Church of God? Did he abuse the Servant of God? They said he split contracts. When God was creating heaven and earth didn’t he split the task into seven manageable portions, one for each day of the week, for managerial efficiency? Now they want to disgrace our brother for doing likewise.

Le t me say it loud and clear – the PDP is the party in whom the Lord is well pleased. The Bible says one with God is a majority. PDP is the majority party in this land and therefore we are one with God. We are the apple of God’s eye, the umbrella in his hands. We are not perfect, no, nobody is. Verily verily I say unto you, no one but God alone is good.

Bro George, the years that the EFCC and Selective Justice have eaten, God will restore. And for all of you gathered here this morning, Kirikiri will not be your portion in Jesus Name. When they are calling the roll-call of the next set of inmates for Kirikiri they will skip your name in Jesus Name.

Join me and let us sing this song of praise to the Almighty. As we sing the ushers will go round with our special Ghana-must-go bags, for a thanksgiving offering. Hallelujah.

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2011

November 2011 Regulatory Document Outlining 200,000 per SIM Card fine applied to MTN

The document is titled the ‘Nigerian Communications Commission (Registration of Telephone Subscribers) Regulations, 2011’

PART IV—PENALTIES

19.—

(1) Any licensee who fails to capture, register, deregister or transmit the details of any individual or corporate subscribers to the Central Database as specified in these Regulations or as may be stipulated from time to time by the Commission is liable to a penalty of N200,000.00 for each subscription medium.

(2) A licensee who activates any Subscription Medium without capturing, registering and transmitting the personal information to the Central Database commits an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine of N200,000.00 for each unregistered activated Subscription Medium.

20.—

(1) Any licensee who activates or fails to deactivate a subscription medium in violation of any provision of these Regulations is liable to a penalty of N200,000.00 for each unregistered but activated subscription medium.

Download it by clicking here: Legal-Regulations-Registration_Telecom_Subscribers_2011

Developing Story: How a kidnapping put MTN in trouble in Nigeria

Full version of a recent story of mine on the massive fine facing MTN in its biggest market, Nigeria – a shorter version appears in the November 1 edition of South Africa’s City Press newspaper

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How a kidnapping put MTN in trouble in Nigeria

Tolu Ogunlesi

MTN Nigeria would probably have got away with a much smaller fine for its reluctance to deactivate improperly registered SIM cards, had a high-profile kidnapping not happened in Nigeria. The incident occurred on September 21, in Akure, a sleepy town 300 kilometres northeast of Lagos, which is Nigeria’s commercial hub, and home to MTN’s Nigerian operations.

The target: Olu Falae, a former Nigerian Minister of Finance, and runner-up candidate in the 1999 presidential elections. Falae, who turned 77 on that day, was abducted from his farm, on the outskirts of the town, which is also the capital of Nigeria’s Ondo State. Eyewitness accounts from farm workers alleged that nomadic herdsmen had carried out the abduction. (The herdsmen, ethnic Fulanis from northern Nigeria, are to be found across large swathes of the savannah belt between the country’s arid north and the densely forested south. In recent years dwindling grazing territories have pushed them southwards, and triggered violent clashes with locals, who complain that the Fulanis’ cattle are destroying farmlands).

Newspapers reported that the kidnappers were asking for a 100 million naira ransom, and that negotiations were ongoing. And then three days later, on September 24, Falae was freed in Owo, fifty kilometres from Akure, amid confusion as to whether a ransom had indeed been paid or not. The police denied knowledge of a payment; Falae insisted his family paid a ransom.

It was one of the most high-profile kidnappings in Nigeria’s history; given explosive resonance by its ethnic and religious dimensions – a Christian Yoruba statesman from southwestern Nigeria abducted and harassed by alleged Muslim Fulani herdsmen from the north, in a country where people take pride in defining themselves along fault-lines of region and religion.

It is that incident that is now believed to be at the heart of the ongoing regulatory clampdown on a company that is one of Nigeria’s biggest tax payers. The NCC says that the phone lines with which the kidnappers carried out the ransom negotiations belonged to MTN. “[Falae’s] kidnappers used MTN SIM cards and MTN was unable to provide any registration data for those SIMs,” the Commission said in a report it submitted to the Presidency and security agencies.

At that point, NCC sources say, the decision on the severity of the sanction stopped being purely a regulatory issue, and became a matter of national security. “The government insisted they must be sanctioned to make the right statement,” said one official familiar with the matter. “In South Africa you can’t break their laws and get away with it. So why would you come to Nigeria and want to flout the laws.”

Even before the Falae kidnapping happened, the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), and the Department of State Security (DSS) had weighed into the SIM card registration, citing concerns the absence of registration data on SIM cards was being exploited by criminals: ranging from kidnappers and fraudsters, to Boko Haram terrorists.

On August 4, 2015 the NCC hosted, at its Abuja headquarters, a meeting that brought together the mobile phone companies as well as ONSA and DSS representatives. A statement from the NCC following that meeting gave the phone companies a seven-day ultimatum “for deactivation of all invalid/improperly registered SIM cards; these include all SIM cards without or improperly captured facial pictures and or finger prints.”

A week after the expiration of the August 11 deadline, the NCC’s Head of Compliance and Monitoring held a press conference in Lagos announcing that while other networks were taking steps to deactivate defaulting lines, MTN, which accounted for 18 million of the 38 million improperly registered cards, showed “no compliance.”

On September 4, another meeting took place, this time in the President’s office, chaired by his Chief of Staff. It was attended by the security services, including the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), as well as executives from the telecoms companies. According to the NCC, the executives were again warned about the security implications of improperly registered cards, as well as the resolve of the government to penalise defaulting operators.

Sentiment is widespread in Nigeria that the telcos have tended to get away with disreputable conduct, preferring to call the regulator’s bluff, and then paying slap-on-the-wrist fines, instead of immediately complying. It is being speculated that MTN chose to not disconnect the lines because it believed the resulting fines would pale next to the forgone revenues from the more than 5 million lines due for disconnection.

Indeed, all four of Nigeria’s major phone companies have previously been fined on more than one occasion for their failure to deactivate unregistered lines. The most recent fine came at the end of August, after an NCC enforcement team came out of a compliance check dissatisfied. The NCC slammed a total of 120 million naira in fines on the four biggest operators. MTN, with twice as many subscribers as Globacom, Nigeria’s second biggest operator, took the largest hit, with a fine of 102 million naira. Globacom, Etisalat and Airtel were fined 7.4 million naira, 7 million naira and 3.8 million naira respectively.

The penalties were based on a sum of 200,000 naira per defaulting SIM card, as outlined in a Telephone Subscribers Registration Regulations document issued by the regulator in 2011, when it launched the nationwide SIM registration. (Until then there were no obligations for mobile operators to obtain customer personal and biometric data for their SIM cards. The registration for existing SIM cards took place between March 2011 and January 2012; after that the NCC expected that any new cards would be registered at the time of sale).

While the previous fines were based on numbers emerging from random, limited-sample monitoring exercises by the NCC, in wielding the big stick this time it decided to penalise MTN for the total number of improperly registered cards. Hence the unprecedented size of the fine.

“In terms of ratio per subscriber, the amount is very big compared to fines recently imposed on telcos recently,” saysThecla Mbongue, Senior Analyst at Ovum, a research & consulting firm that focuses on IT, telecoms and media markets. “In July, UK’s EE was fine $1.5 million, which equates to far less than $1 per subscriber. In Iraq, Zain was fined $100 million in June this year, which equates to about $7 per subscriber. In the case of the $5.2 million imposed on MTN Nigeria, we are at a ratio of slightly over $80 per subscriber, if we use the total [subscriber] base and around $1,000 per incriminated SIM cards.”

MTN is by far Nigeria’s largest mobile phone network, with 62 million of Nigeria’s 148 million mobile phone subscribers in September 2015, according to NCC figures. That number is double that of Globacom, its nearest competitor, and more than double MTN’s 29m-subscriber base in South Africa, its home market. Nigeria also accounts for a third of the total revenues generated by the MTN Group across the twenty-four countries it operates in.

The company is however not listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. The MTN Group holds a 78.83 percent stake in MTN Nigeria through a wholly-owned Mauritius-based holding company known as MTN International (Mauritius) Limited. The rest is divided up among a group of private investors, including Nigerian businesspersons, and South African investment firm, Shanduka Group. Since the company announced, on October 26, that it was being fined, share price has fallen by 19 percent, wiping out about more than two billion dollars in market capitalisation. Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has since downgraded MTN’s credit rating.

Questions are already being asked regarding why the company’s announcement of the fine through the JSE’s Stock Exchange News Service (SENS) came a day after a Nigerian newspaper broke the news. On October 30 the Johannesburg Stock Exchange said it is investigating trading that went on before MTN’s Monday afternoon announcement, “in order to determine if there is any evidence of possible insider trading.”

MTN executives were scheduled to attend an October 29 meeting at the Nigerian presidential villa in Abuja, involving senior government and security services officials, as well as the NCC. “We assume that the NCC wants to be firm but they might also consider that the amount is huge and MTN would make better use of it, or at least part of it, in spending it in network expansions and upgrades at a time when connectivity is crucial to life and economic improvement in Africa,” says Ovum’s Mbongue.

It is also believed that the South African government has waded into the matter, and talks on the matter between Presidents Zuma and Buhari are likely to take place, against the backdrop of speculation regarding how the handling of the issue might affect diplomatic relations that are still on the mend following a string of high-profile face-offs in late 2014.

In a statement on Friday October 30, MTN said that “shareholders are advised that the Group CEO is engaging with the Nigerian authorities on the regulatory aspects of this matter.”

Agenda for Nigeria’s new government – perspectives from the Rencap Pan-Africa Conference 2015

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Every year since 2012 the investment bank Renaissance Capital has gathered investors and business executives in Lagos for its 3-day Pan-Africa 1:1 Investor Conference. (The first two editions held in London and Kigali in 2010 and 2011 respectively). This year’s edition, coming between Nigeria’s general elections in March and April, and the handover of power to a new central government (formed by the opposition All Progressives Congress Party (APC) which accomplished the unprecedented by defeating the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has expectedly been animated by the prospects of the sweeping changes in policy/administrative/ideological direction symbolized by the incoming government.
The opening day’s discussions tried to set an agenda for that government that will take office at the end of next week. First there was a keynote speech by Pat Utomi, businessman, politician, and a member of the policy team for the All Progressives Congress Party.

Utomi, who has himself been a presidential aspirant and is today touted as likely cabinet nominee, opened his presentation by highlighting the two areas on which the incoming government should focus: Conservation (“conserving what we have”) and Stimulation. (“stimulating what we can access.”) 

Expanding on this he listed a number of things the new government should prioritise:

  • A “massive reorientation” of the civil service
  • A reinvention of the mining sector 
  • “Strengthening property rights” (this always calls to mind Barack Obama’s famous words from his 2009 Accra trip: Africa needs strong institutions, not strongmen)
  • “Value for money audits” carried out by commissioned accountants. (This has never really been Nigeria’s problem; there’s a thriving probe culture; the problem is that most of the reports never see the light of day, and those that do
  • Diversification of the economy
  • Empowerment of the private sector to take the lead. (Utomi appears to hint that there will be an emphasis on Public Private Partnerships as a development model)

His most ambitious proposal was for the delineation of Nigeria into “six zones of development roughly similar to the six geopolitical zones”, identify the agricultural and mining opportunities (which constituted the bedrock of the Nigerian economy in colonial times, pre-oil) in these zones and then link them to relevant global value chains. He also pointed out that these economic development zones should be aligned longitudinally – that is, each one should stretch across (i.e. defy, not reinforce) Nigeria’s un-ignorable north-south divide. The government’s responsibility would be to create industrial parks in these zones, which would then develop into new pan-city centers of economic activity (“megalopolises”).

The examples he cited include Lagos-Ibadan, Port Harcourt-Aba, Kaduna-Kano. Finally this new configuration would then influence the design and development of new transport infrastructure links, like a waterway linking Kano in the north with Warri in the delta, or railway link between food basket Benue and southeastern center of commerce Onitsha. It’d be interesting to see more detail regarding this. What it suggests is that serious thinking and even more serious action by a Nigerian government has the potential to completely remodel the country as we currently know it.

The panel that followed was moderated by Rencap’s Global Chief Economist, Charlie Robertson; it featured Ayo Teriba, CEO of Economic Associates, a consultancy; Dave Uduanu, MD and CEO of the Pensions Alliance Limited, and Chairman of the Pension Fund Operators Association of Nigeria, Cyril Odu, former CFO of Exxon Mobil in Nigeria, and now a Partner at African Capital Alliance, Kamar Bakrin, Partner at Helios Investment Partners, and Michiel Buitelaar, Managing Director, Smile Communications Nigeria, a broadband services provider. 

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Odu kicked off, focusing on the oil and gas sector that accounts for upwards of 70 percent of oil revenues in Nigeria, and 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings.
He said that Nigeria’s primary constraining paradigm is its bundling up of oil and gas industry regulation, policy-making and operatorship in one entity, the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Add the NNPC’s opaqueness to its bureaucratic tardiness and there’s no way Nigeria can realise much benefit from its oil wealth. Regarding the fall in oil prices that will see Nigeria earning as much as thirty percent less this year than it did in 2014 (and which Rencap’s Charles Robertson described as “the single biggest challenge for the incoming government”), Odu said he believes that this will offer an opportunity for structural reforms in Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy.

For Odu, unbundling the NNPC and permanently separating the policy, regulatory and operational aspects of oil and gas production are must-dos for the Buhari government. He also said he supports a recent prescription by Central Bank Governor Godwin Emefiele that the new government sell down its stake in the Joint Ventures with International Oil Companies as well as in the Liquefied Natural Gas company, to raise much needed funds for infrastructural development. He added that the reforms should not end there, the NNPC’s subsidiaries need to be urgently privatised.

Dave Uduanu had interesting insight on Nigeria’s domestic savings market, outside of bank deposits. Nigeria still has a low propensity for domestic savings, he said, and this can be seen in the rudimentary states of the mortgage, pensions and insurance markets. Even then the pensions industry has seen tremendous progress in the last decade, with a series of important reforms. Today Nigeria’s pensions funds have a value of $25 billion, up from a negligible value at the turn of the century. And there is still great potential yet to be exploited, considering that only a handful of segments of the economy are currently contributing to the pool: federal civil servants, and the “organised private sector” – amounting to a total of about 6.5 million persons. Of Nigeria’s 36 states, Uduanu says only about seven have fully complied with the new ‘Contributory Pension Scheme’ (CPS). He believes that with efforts to expand the pension contributions net to the informal economy (which makes up the bulk of Nigeria’s economy), the number of contributors could rise to 15 million by 2020.

Uduanu also had ideas on how Nigeria can expand its revenue base; highlighting that Lagos State – the only one of Nigeria’s 36 states that earns more from internally generated revenues than from the monthly handout from the federal government – ought to be adopted as a model for the federal government. The benefits of expanding the tax net of course go beyond a swollen piggy bank. “Taxes create an ownership society,” he said; when people pay taxes they tend to have higher expectations from their governments.

Kamar Bakrin of Helios Investment Partners focused on agriculture (his academic roots lie in agricultural economics). While acknowledging that there have been significant reforms in recent years (under outgoing Minister Akin Adesina), he insisted it was necessary to sift the success from the hype that has inflated it. He also said the reform mainly touched two layers of the sectors — subsistence farming and industrial agriculture — but left out a critical “middle” layer: commercial agriculture, which he defined as “significantly above subsistence but not as large as industrial agriculture” (in terms of farm size he put it at between 500 and 1,000 hectares; compared to the thousands or tens of thousands of hectares needed for industrial farming. As examples of industrial agriculture he mentioned the 26,000-hectare PZ-Wilmar oil palm project in Cross River and Dangote’s $25 million foray into tomato processing).

Commercial agriculture would also include ventures like food processing and cold chain logistics. Uduanu said the incoming government will have to do two main things to boost the commercial agriculture layer: fix rural roads and reform the land ownership and tenure system.

Panelist Ayo Teriba also touched on agriculture when he said he believes that fixing cargo rail transportation in Nigeria will unleash “explosive” growth. It’s a no-brainer, but somehow Nigeria has developed world-leading expertise in ignoring no-brainers. [The advantages of rail of course extend well beyond boosting agricultural production (reducing wastage, lowering food prices. It also reduces the pressure on the roads, resulting in lower maintenance costs.] In terms of must-dos for the incoming government Teriba says the efficiency of the public sector must be improved – especially when it comes to plugging leakages in revenue collection. He said Nigeria’s non-oil economy is seven times as large as its oil economy, even though the comparative revenue profiles do not in any way reflect this. He would like the new government to extend its leakage-plugging mandate to the non-oil economy as well. Like Uduanu he’s also all for replicating the Lagos revenue model at the federal level. [It’s important to point out that the Lagos model is not without its criticisms – several commentators have pointed out that it’s excessive and exploitative, and that it is a burden that many, especially small businesses, could do without).

Media and technology expert Michiel Buitelaar sees plenty of exciting action looming in Nigeria’s technology space, on the back of rising broadband penetration. There will be plenty of growth, he said, in everything from domestic Nollywood distribution (currently dominated by, in his words: “one TV provider and the guys at the traffic lights”) to e–commerce (he namechecked industry frontrunners Jumia and Konga).

It does seem on the whole that there is reason to be optimistic about Nigeria, even though my latest column in Nigeria’s Punch newspaper is doubtful. For investors, there is little question that Nigeria will always represent outsized opportunity in the frontier market spectrum, and might even soon graduate into solidly EM territory. Igor Vayn, Rencap CEO summed up the bank’s perspective this way: “We think Nigeria is at the cusp of a recovery, and the low oil price combined with a change in the government provides the best investment opportunity in years.”

[Archives] Osama, Anini and other Wars on Terror

Originally appeared in NEXT on May 12, 2011

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Osama, Anini and other Wars on Terror

By Tolu Ogunlesi

The killing of Osama bin Laden has shown just how obsessed Nigerians are with generating conspiracy theories about matters that do not concern them.

When the citizens of a country that consistently fails to correctly identify its own terrorists feel no sense of irony or shame in challenging one that takes its internal and external security seriously, you know it’s time to change the channel.

Do you find it hard to believe Nigerians were actually loving the sounds of their own voices as they issued all sorts of messages calling on President Obama to release visual evidence of the death of Osama bin Laden? 

I’m appealing to all newly-elected governors to please add mass payment of Blackberry/DSTV/HITV subscription fees to their annual WAEC/JAMB fee payments – we urgently need to find stimulating distractions for Nigerians, so they can keep their irritating opinions to themselves next time Serious Nations of the World are discussing law enforcement matters.

The videos that apply to us, and that we’ve already seen – e.g. of that woman who, during the recent elections, was busy thumb-printing ballot papers like she was running a race against an approaching apocalypse – what have we done with them? Instead we forward those in chain emails (“Come and see INEC wonder!”) and then sit back to tie wrapper and postulate from chewing-stick-stuffed mouths: “Eh, unless Obama show us video, me I no dey believe say Osama don die o.” “Aha now, why the man no wan show us video sef?”

I continue to be baffled by our genius for failing to see the obvious indictments screaming at us in all of these. To evade detection by his technologically-sophisticated pursuers Osama bin Laden lived for years in a compound without internet or telephone lines. MEND’s Jomo Gbomo on the other hand, is in regular email contact with the Nigerian authorities and the media. I can imagine the National Security Adviser hissing and clicking on ‘SEND TO SPAM’ every time an email appears from Mr. Gbomo.

The last time we heard said from the office of that Adviser it was to issue unnecessary warnings to ordinary citizens regarding their conduct at polling units. When columnist and professor Okey Ndibe was invited for questioning early this year, the story (correct me if I’m wrong) was that his name featured on an SSS watch-list that had not been updated in a while.

We are the tail-less cow who has to depend on God for relief from flies. Frankly I think we’d be better off entrusting our national security to a joint committee of Divine Powers drawn from all our local and imported religions.

Now ask yourself: when was the last time Nigerians had any cause to be proud of efficiency of their law enforcement agencies? Anini’s era?

As an Armed Forces Ruling Council meeting drew to a close in October 1986, President Ibrahim Babangida reportedly turned to the Inspector General of Police, Etim Inyang, and snarled: “My friend, where is Anini?”

Three months later Anini was in the can, sealed and ready for execution. I don’t know if IBB watched the capture live from the “Situation Room” of Dodan Barracks. Neither do I know if he gave a triumphant televised speech to the nation. (One person I do know who was prevented from giving his own triumphant speech was Muhammadu Buhari, whose boys bungled the Umaru Dikko operation twenty-seven years ago.)

Ten years after Anini, one imagines Sani Abacha turning to Sgt. Rogers, his bloodshot eyes concealed behind his trademark dark glasses: “My friend, where is Wole Soyinka?” Thankfully, they never found Kongi.

But it continues to be a tragedy when a country’s intelligence agencies find their fullest expression in the oppression of ordinary, innocent citizens; as opposed to the criminals who daily wage war against the country.

I keep imagining that someday soon, President Jonathan will pleasantly surprise the nation with a midnight broadcast (a day or two after releasing the long-form / unabridged version of his PhD thesis, to quell Sahara Reporters rumours that he submitted a children’s story as dissertation):

“Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the Nigerian people and to the world that Nigeria has conducted a series of operations that disabled the largest generator-manufacturing factories on the planet. Today, at my direction, Nigeria launched a targeted operation against compounds in the cities of Guangzhou, Zhongshan and Shanghai in China. A small team of Nigerians carried out the operations with extraordinary courage and capability. No Nigerians were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they dealt what we believe is a significant blow to the manufacture of generators in China, thus guaranteeing that the end is in sight for power failure in Nigeria.”

Oh that will be the day. Imagine the rejoicing across the land; inebriated Nigerians trooping to the streets to celebrate a turning point in the War on the Terror of Darkness.

Until then, dream on, I tell myself. Meanwhile there are more important tasks to be done, like wondering if I should be concerned that a Diesel King is my president’s new best friend. Or checking to see if Jomo Gbomo has replied my latest email…

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi 2015

[Archives] KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, MR. PRESIDENT

Originally appeared in NEXT in October 2010, after President Jonathan tried to absolve MEND of responsibility for the October 1 (Independence Day) bombings in Abuja.

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KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, MR. PRESIDENT

By Tolu Ogunlesi

In 1939, at the beginning of the 2nd World War, the British Ministry of Information printed more than 2 million copies of a poster that bore the words KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, as one of a set of three posters designed to inspire a weary British public in the event of a German invasion. Today those words are famous – in Britain at least – despite the fact that the posters were never eventually distributed to the public.

Today, those words are sorely needed on the other side of the Atlantic. Over the weekend, the man we assumed was our President, who only a few weeks ago moved us with lofty words of hope, and a vision of transformation, shot himself in the foot and then put the bloody foot in his mouth.

When, in the aftermath of the October 1 blasts the President insisted on absolving the alleged perpetrators of responsibility, in that instant he ceased to be the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and became something much smaller.

In April, after an ailing President Yar’Adua played host to Islamic clerics in Aso Rock, I wrote (in this column): “When a man [who’s] supposed to be the president of a multi-religious country chooses to secretly reveal himself only to Islamic clerics, five weeks after being smuggled into the country, one begins to wonder if he’s actually the president,  or merely the overrated leader of a shadowy Islamic sect.

Today, sadly, I am compelled to apply a modified version of those words to Mr. Yar’Adua’s successor.

“When a man [who’s] supposed to be the president of a multi-ethnic country chooses to transform himself into the spokesperson of a regional militant group with an incontrovertible reputation for violence, one begins to wonder if perhaps it isn’t time to acknowledge the fact that there is indeed a vacancy in the Presidential Palace.

Mr. Jonathan was quoted as saying: “What happened yesterday was a terrorist act and MEND was just used as a straw; MEND is not a terrorist group… It is erroneous to think that my people who have been agitating for good living will deliberately blow up the opportunity they have now.”

With those embarrassing words Mr. President missed out on an amazing opportunity to use the tragedy to send a powerful message to the Nigerian people; a message of comfort, a rallying cry to unite against shedders of blood and enemies of progress.

Imagine if the President had gone on air immediately (his speech accompanied by translations into all major Nigerian languages) and paid tribute to all the lives sacrificed in the name of Nigeria since 1960: including, but not limited to, Biafra’s war dead; the thousands who have died in religious crises in the last three decades; even the five persons who died when MEND attacked the Atlas Cove jetty in July 2009 (the same MEND that the President would like us to believe are meek as lambs and innocent as babies). Imagine if the President had sought to weave a sober narrative of hope and unity and righteous anger from the sorrow, tears and blood.

But no, instead of rising to the demands of the moment, Mr. Jonathan panicked, and sank, dragging the entire nation with him. The incident momentarily stripped him of his presidential garb and wrapped him in the gaudy garments of a ‘tribal’ chieftain.

Now I will leave the in-depth debate about ‘whether it was MEND or not’ for another time. My concern in this piece is less with ‘whodunit?’, than with ‘whatcanwelearn?’ You and I know that blowing Abuja up is hardly the most challenging task in a country where whole ships are liable to go missing, and where the original copy of the report of a probe into the disappearance of $12 billion can vanish without trace.

And for those who, like the President, insist that it was impostors using the name of MEND, I say ‘what have you been smoking?’ MEND has never been known to be silent. Jomo Gbomo – whoever he/she/they/it might be – may be guilty of many things, but tongue-biting is certainly not one of them.

If MEND is indeed being ‘impersonated’, why isn’t the real MEND proclaiming its innocence to the highest heavens. Shaped as my generation has been by conspiracy series like ‘24’ and movies like ‘Salt’, perhaps we should be willing to concede to the possibility that the entire senior hierarchy of the real MEND has been kidnapped, is being held incommunicado, and is hence unable to defend itself. Anything is indeed possible in a country whose President panics in the most public of ways.

The first victory of Friday’s attackers was to blow Abuja up. The second victory was to cause Mr. Jonathan to blow himself up (Words as WMDs?) – in panic, I insist – and to severely damage our confidence in his ability to be the strong leader Nigeria needs.

Let me warn him: he will be tested again. The least he can do in preparation is to learn from this incident. The buck will stop, as always, at his table. Nigeria needs a Commander-in-chief, not a Panicker-in-power.

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi 2015

[Archives] 2011 Elections: The battle continues

This originally appeared in NEXT newspaper on June 29, 2011

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2011 Elections: The battle continues

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Muhammadu Buhari, Tunde Bakare and Nasir El-Rufai were at Chatham House, London, on Monday, to speak at an event, “Nigeria’s 2011 Elections: Reflections on the process and prospects for Nigeria.”

A member of the audience asked Buhari why he cried at his final campaign event, days to the presidential election.

“I don’t remember ever coming to tears in public, until then,” the retired General said. Then he told a story.

As a teenager in 1961, he was selected by the shipping line, Elder Dempster, for an expenses-paid holiday trip to the United Kingdom. By the standards of today’s Nigeria he wasn’t the likeliest of candidates – he was an ethnic minority (Fulani origins in Daura, a Hausa Emirate), and classmates with persons who had influence-wielding parents (like the late Shehu Yar’Adua, whose father was a Federal Minister).

But Buhari, the orphan, got the single slot allocated to the Northern region that year.

“That was when there was social justice [in Nigeria],” Buhari told the Chatham House audience

Back in April the media made a big deal out of the crying-General incident. No one seemed to notice that it was actually – according to Bakare – a CPC weepfest.

“It wasn’t the General alone who wept that day,” the pastor confessed. “I did [too], and I rarely weep in public. I turned around and saw my friend El-Rufai weeping. We were not weeping for ourselves, we were weeping for a nation called a giant, but which has remained in a coma.”

The story of Nigeria is no doubt a tragic, tear-deserving one. The future that awaited the orphaned Buhariand the shoeless Jonathan is far brighter than that which awaits today’s un-privileged hordes.

There is no doubt that there is a link between that tragic state of affairs, and the quality of our electoral process. Flawed elections throw up the sort of candidates who go on to pave, with utmost dedication, a country’s road to perdition.

“The 2011 election, on the surface, appears to have been free and fair until you begin to dig in and discover that a lot more happened than meets the eye,” Bakare said. According to him, the accreditation of voters, voting proper, and counting of votes were largely “free”.

“But that’s about where it ended,” he said. The CPC’s view is that from then on the devil took charge of the collating.

And so, in protest, the party has hired forensics experts, and gone to the election petition tribunal.

It will be Buhari’s third presidential election tribunal journey, after 2003 and 2007.

The CPC accuses the PDP of recklessly manipulating (inflating) electoral results, and using violence to intimidate its supporters during the presidential elections. It is also holding INEC responsible for a software error (during the collation of votes) that caused CPC votes to be “short-changed” by forty percent. It says INEC, while acknowledging the error, has refused to correct it.

Two messages seemed to crystallise from what Buhari and Bakare were saying: One, the PDP massively rigged that election, and Goodluck Jonathan is an illegal occupier of Aso Rock. Two, this is not merely about getting the flawed elections overturned; it is also a quest for true electoral reform.

“Our concern is not with winning [the] election, but with the future of our country,” Bakare said.

Both goals are admirable, and connected. Proving allegations of rigging against the PDP (as the ACN successfully did in Ekiti, Edo and Osun states) will certainly go a long way towards serving the overall quest for electoral reform.

And the CPC does indeed have a case when it argues that PDP voting patterns raise eyebrows in many instances – especially in the South-South, long notorious for its logic-defying voter turnout numbers, and its ‘landslide’ allegiance to the PDP.

But in its shrill cry for justice it does often seem though that the CPC is imputing a form of sainthood – blameless electoral conduct – to itself, something not in any way borne out by the facts on ground. 

For instance, the famous ‘last words’ of youth corper Ukeoma Ikechukwu, murdered while on INEC assignment in Bauchi:

“Na wao! This CPC suporters would hv killed me yesterday, no see threat oooo. Even after forcing underaged voters on me they wanted me to give them the remaining ballot paper to thiumb print,” he posted on Facebook the day after the elections.

A few days later, he was dead. Those who sought to kill him eventually succeeded.

Asked if the CPC can vow that it didn’t use underaged voters in its strongholds, Bakare said: “To be honest with you, I don’t know.”

He went on to insist that underage voting, whether by the PDP or the CPC, is “illegal”, and that it raises disturbing questions about the integrity of INEC. “If underage voters voted, who registered them?”

Buhari sought to cast doubt on the PDP’s counter-allegations of widespread underage voting by the CPC. “The forces of coercion are at the disposal of the ruling party,” he said.

For what seemed to be an opposition-party event, the Jonathan camp was well represented. Presidential aides Oronto Douglas, Ken Wiwa, and Von Kemedi attended.

After the event, Jonathan campaign consultant, Reno Omokri, enthusiastically handed out hardback copies of collections of Goodluck Jonathan quotes and campaign photos. 

I wonder if he made any offers to the CPC chieftains.

What’s a hairstyle got to do with freedom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Durban

This piece originally appeared in NEXT in September 2009

By Tolu Ogunlesi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Africa-Nigeria Relations: Game of Throes

By Tolu Ogunlesi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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