Travel, thoughts, and observations

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I AM writing these lines at the Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris. I’m on transit to Abuja, after a troubling transatlantic flight which started from Los Angeles, California, through Atlanta and over the eastern part of the US, which was literally in lockdown as a result of the hurricane. News of that dominated the airwaves in my last two days in America.

Practically every television station devoted attention to the likely consequences, what citizens should do, the expected damage, plans for evacuations, etc.

Even the politicians were forced to respond to the coming catastrophe and president Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, both took time away from the punishing schedules they had kept in the past week, in an electoral race that had become too close to call!

It was refreshing to see how the human condition overtook politics temporarily and that contrasts sharply with the way our leaders responded to the nationwide floods of the past month! NIMET warned for months of an impending crisis but our leaders were too busy to notice; after all, it was not about money to share or positions to grandstand about!

Our leaders have always had more important things to think about than to be bothered about the citizenry and it is that small matter of responsibility and responsiveness which defines the nature of our ruling class and their imperial puppeteers!

And talking about politics and electioneering, that was the dominant motif of my two week sojourn in the USA. And as I travelled between Texas, Arizona, California and Georgia, it was clear that the upcoming election will be a very defining moment in American history.

For one, the fate of its first black president is hanging precariously in the balance and it is a bit worrisome that Obama has gone through the meltdown of an almost definitive re-election, to the uncertainty of the past week.

Some pundits on TV said if he loses the election, then his uninspiring performance in the first TV debate will have returned to haunt him big time! But things are not often as simple as they appear in American politics.

The black vote which played a significant role in his election four years ago is becoming fractured as a result of the backlash from fundamentalist Christian evangelist groups that resent his approval of gay marriages and in a critical state like Ohio, these groups might tip the balance. Whoever wins Ohio often ends up winning the election. Then there is the subtle, sometimes ill-disguised efforts by white groups to ensure that Obama does not get a second term.

The Republican Party has rallied and all the rightwing pundits, their TV outfits and the general fear that the white population might no longer determine the presidency in an immigrant country whose demographic picture continues to alter to the detriment of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASPs), have all come together to play a significant, if unstated role, in the electoral race. American democracy has many contradictory sides to it; on the one hand is the role of money in the process.

It is the democracy of the rich and one in which the rich have increasingly used their dominant economic position to consolidate the inequalities in that society.

The statistics can be frightening indeed. Naomi Klein in her book SHOCK THERAPY reported that in 1980, when Reagan kicked off the Milton Friedman reforms, CEOs made 43 times what the average worker earned; but by 2005, they were making 411 times as much!

Economic power of the rich

The consolidation of the economic power of the rich has had direct bearing on the politics too. American politics has become more stridently right wing and on a worldwide scale, it has provided the basis for the imposition of the Washington Consensus on nations around the world, with its mantra of privatisation, the roll back of the state and cut back on social spending.

It is partly responsible for some of the conservative backlash which Obama has faced, with his healthcare programme, his demonization as a ‘socialist’ and the determined effort to wrest power from him.

A notable liberal talk show host sympathetic to Obama was reading out the worldwide polls of countries and who they would rather win the election.

Nigeria was included and overwhelmingly, people rooted for Obama, with the exception of Pakistan, where the population is very angry at the near-daily use of drones to kill people in the tribal areas which affronts their sense of national dignity.

As I told a couple of Nigerian friends over dinner on Monday night in Buena Park, the peoples of the world are not stupid; they retain vivid memories of what usually happens when Republicans come to power.

They seem so ready to invade countries around the world and Mitt Romney has pretended to have moved to the centre of the political spectrum just to win votes. Nevertheless, he retains a gung-ho support for Israel and with the controversy about non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons, it looks more likely that a Romney presidency might just be too willing to be part of the Israeli plan for war against Iran.

The next few days will bring things to a head. But having said that, it is also admirable to see how the candidates go around the country in search of the votes of the electorate. Americans elections have had their fair share of controversies, or who can forget in a hurry the hanging and dimpled cards of Florida in the 2000 election which brought George Bush to power and inflicted the neoconservatives on the world, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iran?!

I was struck by the warning from Texas that electoral observers would not be welcome in the polling areas in the state and I couldn’t but recall the arrogant insistence that foreign electoral observers must validate elections in neocolonial countries. Different strokes are meant for different folks, especially in the imperial heartlands of the world.

For me it was also very difficult to be away from home during the Eid holiday, because I missed that once-in-a-year opportunity to be part of an elaborate family reunion. The obverse was that I got that unique opportunity which travel affords, away from one’s day-to-day routine, to examine work, life and choices.

What the French call auto critique can be done from the remove of a journey and it became even more imperative for me, because of the new professional aperture I am opening, trying to be an entrepreneur in the media, with a new multimedia venture which I have been nursing for a couple of years now, and which should start business in November.

A new venture

When I discussed the idea with an elderly friend of mine a couple of months ago, he reminded me of the hostile business environment in Nigeria, especially when one is committed to doing things honestly and honourably.

But I’ve always felt that having worked in radio and television broadcasting and print journalism, I occupy a unique place in the media firmament to push through a multimedia venture.

I also have no delusions that it would not be an easy thing to do; but my father used to say that every true beginning in life is difficult! Besides, I have been part of many pioneering endeavours in my 35 years of media life, that has seen me work for Radio Nigeria and Radio Kwara; report for Radio France International; Radio Netherlands International; the BBC World Service; serve as pioneer GM of Kwara Television; Editor and Chairman of the Editorial Board of DAILY TRUST and now writing for VANGUARD and BLUEPRINT newspapers. So this is within that continuum too, with the small twist of being one that I am originating!

The Nobel Peace price

I felt very happy during last week when I read of Bishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan’s elevation as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church(it is an item of news in the current edition of JEUNE AFRIQUE that I’ve just picked up here).

I had in fact written about his remarkable work for inter-faith harmony in Nigeria last week, which led to his joint nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize with the Sultan of Sokoto. His elevation was widely welcome around Nigeria as honour done an outstanding son of our country and a truly exemplary religious leader.

We were still in celebration mode when a suicide bomber rammed into a Catholic Church in Kaduna last Sunday, killing so many innocent worshippers and wounding dozens. It was almost as if whoever did that was issuing a cruel riposte to all people of faith who had rejoiced at Cardinal Onaiyekan’s elevation.

As has become the norm now, in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, equally innocent bystanders were promptly set upon and killed by the aggrieved from the bombing! It was a classic of two wrongs never making a right.

In a moment like that, I recall John Donne’s poem about every man’s death diminishing our humanity because we are involved in mankind. The intensity of emotions which religion triggers cannot be underrated and the fear and paralysis of terror trigger anger and the urge for revenge.

The fact that no one knows when next we might be harvesting terror-induced death further complicates our feelings of fear and paralysis as well as anger; and in sections of society, the urge for revenge. We then end up in a vicious circle of killings, revenge and deepened hatred; our society is further torn apart and the effort to build an inclusive society suffers.

The reality is complicated by the irresponsibility of the ruling class, the ruination consequent upon the socio-economic choices they have foisted on our country and the exploitative manipulation of ethno-religious identities! The hopelessness which envelopes our society and the increasing absence of the state in the lives of the majority of our people strengthen non-state forces of division.

And in the desperate search for power, ruling class factions continuously manipulate these divides as well as stoke base emotions which feed into fear, resentment, profiling of the other and retreat into divisive laagers. It is Nigeria which suffers the consequence in the loud rejection of patriotic harangues. These are not the best of times in our land.

Yet, I remain an incurable optimist at a time when optimism is becoming an endangered emotional attribute. If we give ourselves the pause, we can find those threads of inclusivity that can become the basis to build platforms of national cohesion and liberation. Let us cast our minds back to the unity of purpose which came in the wake of the national strike against the hike in the price of petroleum products last January, because it tells a story of what is possible.

The sight of millions of Nigerians united to fight an unpatriotic project of the ruling regime, shook the nation. It was incredible to behold in Northern Nigerian cities, Christians holding hands of protection for Muslim demonstrators to pray and the same scene was enacted for Christians.

Similarly, the Kano community visited churches in the city to remind Christians that we are brothers and sisters, united in a patriotic indignation against the corruption and irresponsibility of the Nigerian ruling class. They then urged that we should resist efforts to divide us along religious lines!

Such a narrative of unity across the fault lines of Nigerian existence offer glimpses of what is possible. Unity across ethno-religious divide is also the best response to terror and the propensity for revenge attacks, terror-induced paralysis and fear. Those who exploit and manipulate the laagers they’ve forced Nigerians to retreat into will rue their decisions when the Nigerian people take the decision to repossess their country!

It is the optimism that such a possibility can happen which drives my passion to continue to write and observe our condition humain, as the French say.

I am literally catching a whiff of Nigeria again and it’s so good to be homewards bound. And as our flight took off from Charles De Gaulle,  I am also sinking teeth into Kofi Annan’s new book, INTERVENTION: A LIFE IN WAR AND PEACE; it is a marvelous  way to relieve the burden of a long flight from Paris to Abuja!


One of the questions I asked President Jonathan during the MEDIA CHAT of June 24th, was the issue of a daily theft of about 180,000 barrels of oil in the Niger Delta. He expressed embarrassment that such a level of theft takes place.

This is inspite of the fact that Niger Delta militants get paid to protect pipelines and Tom Polo has morphed into a Nigerian version of Blackwater, making millions of dollars, ostensibly for securing our maritime resources. The world of oil is absolutely murky, combustible and insanely lucrative.

Not just for those who steal by bursting pipelines or siphon the 180,00 BPD. The network of theft goes to the highest echelons of the Nigerian state, as shown in the report of the committee headed by Nuhu Ribadu.

When Malam Abba Kyari was nominated to be member of the committee earlier in the year, I felt it was right to accept to serve so we can at least get a sympathetic look into the entrails of the cash cow which a few people have turned into a source of the most mind-boggling theft of national resources. If NNPC has reached the level of stink everybody now talks about, we must especially interrogate its husbandry, especially since 1999.

The most poignant thing for me, is the level of indignation which we reach each time these different scandals come to the public space.

We were angry that Obasanjo spent $16B in the power sector without supplying us electricity; we lament the systematic stripping of national assets in a dubious privatization process; Nigerians are shocked about the pensions scandal; we are livid about the fuel subsidy scams and yet, we somehow don’t seem able or willing to see the interconnectedness in our social space.

As a tiny elite of Government-Approved Billionaires get richer by the day and deepen the corrupt linkage with the highest echelons of political power, the NBS says over 120million Nigerians live in Abject poverty; over 60% of our urban population lives in slums; there is increasing levels of anti-state violence; the deepening of religious fundamentalism; ethnoreligious crises and the state rolls over in incompetence and is hollowed out by corruption! Can’t we see that these things are interlinked? In truth, Nigeria has been privatized as a huge kleptocracy! Neoliberalism since 1999, and before it, SAP, merely became the handmaiden for the stripping of Nigeria in the service of the private acquisitiveness of our ruling class and their Governmet-Approved Billionaires allies.

The system we have now cannot be reformed in truth; it must be uprooted! It will not be uprooted with religious violence, because the ruling elite come from the different religious backgrounds; we won’t win by retreating into ethnic lagers or the delusion of regionalism, because those who exploit Nigeria come from all the regions or states! It is the democratic organization of the Nigerian working people, the poor and patriotic intellectuals that can breach the fortress of heist erected by the ruling class and frankly I see no better approach.

It is 1640HRS on Tuesday evening and our plane has just landed in Abuja. I’ve been airborne or transiting in different airports for the past 29 Hours! It’s so good be back to the existential reality of our country, warts and all.

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