By Tolu Ogunlesi

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

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

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

That’s, in a nutshell, the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One might as well rephrase Dame Stocking as follows:

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

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

In whose interest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative images

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

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

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

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

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

Kudos where due. But still…

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

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

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

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

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


Is Oxfam stuck on a planet that no longer exists?

Oxfam Capital, anyone?


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



by Tolu Ogunlesi

(first published in NEXT in January 2009] 

Forget all evidence and gossip to the contrary; this present Government loves Nuhu Ribadu! And contrary to reports that they want to “finish” him, I am pleased to let you know that they will do no such thing!

All that the Yar’Adua administration was interested in (and which they have succeeded in doing) was redeploying Mallam Ribadu from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (and by extension, the Nigeria Police Force) to the newly-created National Distraction Commission (NDC), where they have since found him immensely useful as a ‘Brand Ambassador.’

This Commission is charged with (according to the bill that created it) “creating, regulating, reinforcing and institutionalizing significant National Distractions with a view to ensuring that citizens and the mass media are kept occupied to such an extent that they are left with no time or energy to ask relevant questions about the future of the country.”

The Government created this Commission in 2008, when it realized that the Obama Season would not last forever.

I know you’re now thinking: What the hell does Obama have to do with a newly-created Nigerian government parastatal? 

Simples. As long as Obama remained a ‘leading contender’ for the most powerful office in the world, the Nigerian Government did not need to unveil a National Distraction Commission. No! All through 2008, as Bro Barack ‘inspired’ his way towards the White House, people the world over forgot their problems. Hunger and AIDS and Global Warming all took the back seat. Nigerians, ever in need of reasons to jollificate, organized Obama-themed parties. They stayed glued to CNN and BBC, mesmerized by Obamagic. In their vicarious identification with America they consigned Yar’Adua to the dustbin of irrelevance. Good riddance, eh? They stopped allowing themselves to be disappointed by him. They unhitched their expectations from a green-and-white babanriga and instead affixed them to a purplish-blue designer tie.

Was Yar’Adua happy? Of course he was. He no longer had to carry the burden of his people’s foolish, unrealistic, unfair, nonsense expectations. He could disappear for three weeks confident that only a few people would miss him, because the bulk of his subjects had relocated to a virtual estate somewhere in suburban Obamaland, free from the terrorism of PHCN and armed robbers.

Yar’Adua could add PLC to Nigeria’s name for all Nigerians, sorry, Naimericans, cared.

But, as they say, whatever goes up must come down. It dawned on the Nigerian Government that all those millions of virtual visas that Obama had issued to Nigerians earlier in the year contained an expiry date.  November 5, 2008.

They realized they would need new ‘Weapons of Mass Distraction’. And in a fit of proactive and creative thinking the (in)famous kitchen cabinet decided that a new parastatal, devoted solely to this all important task, was the answer.

Yar’Adua’s government is one that understands the importance of ‘Distraction’. Which is why it is Number 4 on the 7-point agenda, behind Abdication, Banality and Confusion (in that order).

Ergo the National Distraction Commission. The commission has since been busy. Its first official action was to unveil Nuhu Ribadu as “The Face of Distraction 2009”. The Mallam has since gone on to grace the agency’s many billboards and print and news media advertisements.

And Nigerians are now busy talking. Ribadu this, Ribadu that. Why shouldn’t they talk, when the NDC is flooding the streets with original copies of its bestselling ‘Ribadu’ action movies – “No Induction”, shot in Kuru; “The Dismissal” and “No Going Back” shot in Abuja. And we hear more are currently in production. (“The Handcuff”?)

The months ahead are going to get even more interesting. If past performance is any indicator of the future, our government is cooking exciting surprises.

Don’t say I revealed this to you: I hear that if the NDC had had its way, Prof Dora Akunyili would not have been appointed Minister of Information and Communications. Their reason: “she was not controversial enough”. In other words, her appointment would not generate enough “opinions and counter-opinions necessary for the purposes of grand distraction” across the country.

Their recommendation?

Igwe Dapo Oyebanjo. Also known (by a few people) as D’Banj.

Brilliant stuff! Just imagine how cool it’d have been, to have Government press releases issued as hit singles. To enter Swe Bar and find a band of half-tipsy upwardly mobile young men and women dancing yahoozee to the lyrics of the 2009 budget.

To watch the NTA network news on a Wednesday and see D’Banj emerge from the Executive Council Chambers, harmonica in hand, and declare: “My name is D’Banj. My Jamaican friends call me Ski’banj. The President calls me ‘Minister Banj!’”

No long ting!

Back to blogging regularly, + recent work

It’s Independence Day in Nigeria, fifty two years since the British handed over.

I’ll be blogging regularly from now on.

This blog is delighted to be a member of the newly-launched Guardian Africa Network

Below are links to some of the work I’ve been doing lately:

ONGOING CONCERNS, my weekly column for YNaija

For Wings Magazine, on the filming of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun in Calabar, Nigeria

For Wings Magazine, on an Africa-inspired Olympics

For CNN, on how mobile phones are changing lives in Africa

For NSFW Corp, on the Nigerian obsession with American presidential elections (and octogenarian godfathers) (subscription required)

Inaugural blog (first of 12) for the Caine Prize

Er, How Many Nigerians Does It Take To Change A Light Bulb

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

By Tolu Ogunlesi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2011

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

By Tolu Ogunlesi

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.N. office in Nigeria bombed 

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

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

Continue reading, HERE


My previous CNN.com articles:

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

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

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

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

My Huffington Post article, on the #UKriots

Read it, Lessons for a Burning Britain, here


Last year the British Council released a report on Nigeria’s youth. One of its observations: “In the worst case, Nigeria will see: growing numbers of restless young people frustrated by lack of opportunity; […] and a political system discredited by its failure to improve lives…”

Talk about irony. Now, one imagines, is the time to commission a similar one on Britain’s youth – if the British Council still has enough funds, post-cuts, for such a venture. Mounting evidence points to the fact that today’s Britain is home to a generation of children and youth cast adrift on a sea of radicalising disenfranchisement. Not long ago the Evening Standard found that “1 in 4 children in London leaves primary school at 11 unable to read or write properly” and “1 in 5 leaves secondary school without being able to read or write with confidence.”

“Many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future,” criminologist John Pitts told the Guardian. “Much of this was opportunism but in the middle of it there is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.”

Read the full piece, here

(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.

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