Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Theatre of The Absurd V: Violence, The North and The NYSC

Set up in 1973 in an attempt at reconciling and rebuilding the country after the Civil War, the Nigerian Youth Service Corps stands today as one of the most effective unifying factors in a country split across deep ethno-religious fault lines.

As most Nigerian States tend to have a dominant ethnic group with their attendant tradition and cultural system, most graduates get their first real exposure to other ethnic groups and cultures during the one year period of compulsory Youth Service. Testimonies abound of the success of the scheme at: inculcating discipline; positioning graduates to give back to society; exposing youth to the many colourful cultures that make up the Nigerian nation; and most importantly promoting national unity and integration. Serving Corps members teach in schools, provide primary healthcare, staff offices and even voluntarily form associations in a bid to contribute to the quality of life in their host communities. By many standards, the Nigerian Youth Service Corps scheme has achieved a lot over the past few decades.

Therefore, it is disappointing that serving Corps members frequently fall victim to strife in their host communities – strife which most often arises out of the many differences in culture, religion, ethnicity and perspective they were sent there to bridge in the first place.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Presidential Elections, the past few days have seen irate youth in some parts of the North take to the streets in protest at the loss of their preferred candidate – General Muhammadu Buhari. Reportedly, the Sultan of Sokoto – widely accepted as the spiritual head of Nigerian Muslims – was pelted with sachets’ of water; mosques, churches, government buildings and INEC offices were burnt; even the residences of Vice-President Namadi Sambo and the Emir of Zazzau – among other notable Northern personalities – were also razed. Sadly, serving Corps members were not left out.

The Commissioner of Police in Bauchi State, Mr. John Abakasanga, has confirmed the death of at least four Corps members and maintains that others remain missing as of yet. Information from other Bauchi sources adds that nine other Corps members were gruesomely murdered last night. Only yesterday, 50 Corps members narrowly escaped being burnt to death in the NCCF Secretariat in Minna, Niger State. Other Corps members remain missing at the moment – unsettling parents and guardians across the nation.

A number of motives have been put forward for these protests, chief among which is that it is political in nature. I beg to disagree. From all indications, the uprisings that swept across the North – and which we may not have heard the last of – are not ENTIRELY political, ethnical, or religious in origin.

Despite the fact that people of Northern origin have ruled Nigeria for longer than any other region, the North still remains backward in many ways. Today, teeming masses in the North are: poor, hungry and semi-literate at best; do not have access to quality healthcare or free qualitative education; are held back from progress by rigid traditional institutions, and have no hope in the present or opportunity for the future. Of course, this is a single – but largely true – story of the North.

There is another North. There is the well digger who dug a well for my family thirteen years ago, yet continues to bring us onions from Sokoto every year. There is the beautiful Fulani woman with perfect skin who speaks such perfect English that I believed for most of my childhood that she grew up in Buckingham Palace. There is the Hausa family that protected my Mother and her family back in Makurdi during the pogrom leading to the civil war... Examples abound of the beauty of the North, if we choose to see beyond the more obvious strife and refuse to be caught up in the fallacy of hasty generalization.

In a country where ethnic and regional loyalties run deeper than national allegiance, the masses of the North have been underdeveloped by their regional leaders – and these protests are basically an attempt to overthrow the ‘old order’. As Salisu Suleiman explains, “the protests in northern Nigeria can be viewed as rebellion against a backward and anachronistic feudal system. Karshen Zalunci (End of Oppression) might be an apt description”. Sadly, these protests are hardly coherent – with no clear cut plans for achieving lasting change. The protesting youth have achieved nothing of value by indiscriminately turning on innocent people, particular emphasis laid on Corps members – who are in these areas for the singular purpose of serving the fatherland.

Are these the same Corps members expected to conduct Governorship elections on the 26th April – in these same areas? Are there enough security operatives to guarantee the safety of these Corps members over the next few days, and during the elections in the roughly 60,000 polling units spread across the North? Is it not safer to order their immediate return to their home States – in the greater interests of their safety? Will they not be in the right if they choose to boycott the Governorship elections next Tuesday in protest of these happenings?

Arrests must be made, and deserving punishments meted out. Urgent steps must be taken to ensure the safety and security of these Corps members – many of whom remain in these volatile areas solely because of their commitment to INEC. They are the future of this country, and that future must be preserved in good condition – by all means necessary. There is no point posting Corps members far away from their home States when their safety and security cannot be guaranteed in the new host communities.

Time and chance have conspired to grant President Jonathan a golden opportunity to assert his leadership and craft a new future for the North. May God help him to make the right choices, now and always. AMEN.

Nigeria shall arise!

Friday, April 08, 2011

A Dance With Death II: The Human Side to A Nigerian Policeman

On my way home today, I came across two men of the Nigerian Mobile Police.
They looked haggard, dressed in loosely fitting police uniforms. One glance, and you could tell those uniforms had not been washed in quite some time. It was plain that they were tired, both their guns hanging at awkward angles – seeming more a burden than an instrument of their occupation.
It was a hot afternoon, and the mass of humanity that thronged the Gbagi market did not serve to help matters. Rivulets of sweat seemed to rise from their foreheads, crisscrossing their faces and running down into their already discoloured shirts – giving them an overall appearance of discomfort.
Other ‘street users’ seemed to pay them no attention. A toddler reached out to touch one of their guns, a hawker bumped into the taller of the two men - yet neither of them made any attempts to resist the ‘invasion’ of their ‘world’. Evidently, they were too tired, and as I later found out – hungry, to care.
One of them stopped at a stall to buy some raw meat – and the seller promptly disappeared. He shrugged indifferently, and moved to the next stall. From my vantage position in the traffic jam, I could observe the meat sellers signalling themselves – and ‘disappearing’ from their stalls in rapid succession. He ground his teeth so hard; I swear I could hear it. He turned from the stalls with downcast eyes, and I could literally see the pain etched into his face. Surely, it must hurt to be treated so.
It was a particularly nasty traffic jam. A truck carrying crates of Coca Cola, Fanta and the likes had broken down at a major junction, and all traffic headed towards the airport had come to a standstill. It was impossible to move forward – or backwards. So, I turned my attention back to the policemen.
In the interval that I had taken my mind off them and back onto the road, the fellow who wanted meat had given up trying. They had moved away from the meat stalls and closer to the road, and were trying to flag down commercial bikes. Again, I found that no bikes would stop. In fact, one biker ‘miraculously’ discovered a fault in his wheel spokes right about the time the policemen stretched forth their hands to wave him down.
The frustration was evident in their faces by now. The taller fellow staggered backwards, and leaned on a parked vehicle. His colleague stared hard at the road, seeming to will a car to appear out of the black tar and convey them to their destination. After some time, he shuffled towards his companion and they exchanged a few words. While they spoke, a female meat hawker on her regular beat approached. The man who wanted the meat promptly leaned forward, obstructing her motion – giving her no choice but to sell him meat.
The transaction completed, they prepared to move. The taller one removed his beret, seemed to debate whether to stuff it in his front pocket, and then put it back on. He handed over his gun to the shorter fellow, and adjusted his belt. He then collected both guns, and the shorter fellow adjusted his own khaki trousers. I noticed immediately that their trousers were baggy, evidently not their exact sizes. They would have to stop every once in a while to adjust the belts in order to keep the trousers from becoming uncomfortable.
It was evident that they were preparing to trek the distance to wherever they were going. After all, no bike men could deny them the use of their own legs.
That was when I made my decision.
The car right in front of me moved forward, and I made use of the available space to swing out of that lane and onto the other. As there was no oncoming traffic, I completed the tight turn – braking just abreast of the policemen.
As I rolled down the passenger window next to me, I asked “which way are you going, sirs?”
(To be continued...)

Monday, April 04, 2011

Theatre of The Absurd IV : INEC Goofed!

Yesterday, I received with much disappointment the news of the initial postponement of the NASS elections till Monday 4th April.

One thing was immediately obvious - Monday would not be feasible. Trying to conduct the elections on Monday would create a logistical logjam which would make the late delivery of result sheets on Saturday look like child's play by comparison. Also, it would raise serious questions about the fairness of the process, as the ballot papers and other materials already in circulation could already be compromised by then. It was plain that most likely, a new set of materials would need to be printed - making a longer postponement necessary.

With that in view, it was not particularly surprising that the NASS elections were further postponed to the 9th April. Holding those elections tomorrow would have been a recipe for disaster.

A truth remains that Professor Jega demonstrated great courage by going on air to announce the postponement of the elections, and he must be commended for that. Lesser men confronted with the same problem could have chosen a number of less honourable ways out. Some person might have chosen to continue with the process and simply have reruns in badly hit areas, while yet another might have chosen to brazenly proceed with the declaration of pre-decided outcomes - and risk kicking off serious civil strife.

That said - it remains that the excuse that result sheets were delivered late is by no means a tenable one.

While I am no Project Manager, I have a decent understanding of the basics and I posit that any Project Manager would have identified the delivery of result sheets as a 'critical path activity', and treated it as such. A critical path activity is one which if delayed for a period of time would delay the entire project by the same amount of time. However, in the assumed absence of a certified PMP on the INEC staff, common sense dictates that allowances be made for such "failure(s) on the part of the vendor". If such allowances were made in the selection of the date, the award of the contract, and the follow up monitoring of the "vendor" - that postponement would not have been necessary.

Professor Jega was definitely not directly responsible for communicating with the vendor and monitoring the delivery of those result sheets. Most likely, someone else was directly responsible - and that someone else would have provided him with continuous feedback. Of course, the fact that he is the overall head of INEC makes him responsible for all failures - and successes - that occur on his watch, whether he was directly responsible for making them happen or not.

The failure of INEC to ensure the smooth running of the NASS elections on Saturday speaks volumes of the gross ineptitude of most State run enterprises in Nigeria. The AVERAGE civil servant in Nigeria is grossly underpaid, ill-motivated, incompetent, and lacks all understanding of the concepts of punctuality, timelines, and deadlines. It is no wonder then that an organization staffed by AVERAGE civil servants cannot manage to put together a decent election.

It is also necessary to respond to those calling for the resignation of Professor Jega. Professor Jega's resignation at this moment would be sabotage of the electoral process. His resignation will necessitate the appointment of a new person, who would need time to learn the ropes and probably adjust some of the plans - rendering the constitutional handover date of May 29 impossible.

Professor Jega has done a good thing by taking responsibility and an even wiser thing by further postponing the elections till next Saturday - but he has failed horribly. Yet, he has a chance to redeem his image by ensuring that free and fair elections hold on the new dates.

Finally, I submit this quote by Plutarch for your consideration - "to criticize is easy, to do better may be difficult".


(Please go through my archive for earlier incarnations of my Theatre of the Absurd series).