Nigeria: Of Rights, Patriotism and ‘Briefcase’ Activism

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It was a sad day.

I was sad for the innocent kids murdered in Yobe, just a few days after 20 girls were abducted in Borno, by the same bloodthirsty insurgents. I accepted an invitation to hang out with friends, which turned out to be a wrong move. They are from Borno; from the heart of the wrecked towns and villages. I was challenged by their lecture on the genesis and complexity of the radical ideology that has evolved into this irrational insurgency. I was dejected, and emotionally defeated!

Earlier in the day, I listened to the President, and his indirect concession of defeat in another of his promises to “prosecute (the) war against terror.” It dampened my spirit. His ‘threat’ to withdraw soldiers stationed in Borno to prove a point to Shettima was a extraordinarily dumb wisecrack, because I don’t think Shettima was actually being ungrateful; I think he was only crying, that the soldiers are exposed to undermined danger, yet ill-prepared.

Of course, I’d be similarly devastated and even suspicious, aware of how trillions of naira were obviously cornered in Abuja without me. The Borno issues were badly handled in that chat. They gave away Mr President’s wicked sense of humour. For that, he shouldn’t make any more effort to be funny outside his bedroom. There’s no honour in chuckling at a funeral!

Yet Nigerians remain in their bedrooms and offices tweeting at perceived injustice and incompetence, and expecting such cyber-venting to change the system. What I realise about us is, nobody wants to take the first bullet. Everybody just wants to queue behind you. We need to stand together as citizens, with our demands harmonised in the quest to reclaim the country.

My experience in organising #OccupyNigeria in Minna has taught me a lesson – that you need more than private citizens for an orderly demonstration of rage. The politicians, who have successfully scammed us, know this. Which is why they created so many forums and associations to remain powerful – for, divided they fall. Even a politician in his 90s is a member of a relevance-seeking “elders council”. I renounced membership of a writers association, a supposed intellectual powerhouse of the country, when it refused to be a part of OccupyNigeria protests in January, 2012. The absence of unions, which are ever not willing to hurt their financiers, the government, is always a predication that a proposed peaceful protest may be hijacked, and thus the authorities would give us a bad name just to use us for experiments in brutalities. This was why our OccupyNigeria campaign in Minna was the most destructive in Nigeria. It became a riot, checked only when a 24-hour curfew was imposed. At the end, the state government set up 13-man committee to assess the damage, and their reports will shock you. So, to check violence, we need unions, and all those dormant NGOs in Nigeria misleading, and, sorry to say, swindling, the West in the name of human rights advocacy.

This week, out of frustration with the massacres in the north-east, without a convincing assurance of an end soon, I reached out to some people for a possibility of a protest, to occupy, as they say in the streets of dysfunctional countries, this headquarters of political failures; there is no better time to face these remorseless clowns at Three Arms Zone, Abuja.

But the funny thing about these Abuja-based activists on Twitter is, when you call them and inform them that a certain ambassador or politician wants to have a lunch with them, they’ll be available. None will be in a meeting. None will be on the road driving. None will promise to call back when s/he’s done – with ongoing imaginary events. But, tell them of the possibility of a protest, you hear pim, a very loud silence. This is what we call “Briefcase” activism. Yes, the policemen could be on alert, and they will, as usual, announce on NTA that “all forms of protests are banned”; but, listen, we don’t need such censoring if we’re a team, unions, associations, organisations, and forums, not some cowards exhibiting hypocritical patriotism from air-conditioned offices and rooms.

Still I’m more betrayed by NGO owners and members of civil society organisations who, in the name of rights advocacies, receive huge grants to cover the miseries and protect the sanctity of the people they abandon in times of crises. Anytime you attend social events, you hear rich and pot-bellied Nigerians say, “My name is X, our NGO is into peace-building…” In which country?! I think we need a list of all NGOs and civil society organisations in Nigeria with sources of their funding in order to expose their frauds.

What do they do? You can’t be receiving grants from western institutions and governments to promote peace and human dignity, and we don’t hear or see you. That is fraud, uppercase fraud!

We need the unions, NGOs and rights advocacy groups in times like this because it’s very difficult for nonunion citizens to lead a protest, without a few elements losing their minds or having it hijacked by uncontrollably angry people. Nigerians are very angry right now, and if we must take to the street, we need to harmonise our demands – to check possible violence. We’re all stakeholders in the campaigns to understand the complexity of Boko Haram, and this defeat of our troops.

In this dilemma, we saw a public notice calling Abuja residents to converge at Unity Fountain on Thursday (27th February), just beside the city’s biggest hotel. I couldn’t authenticate the source of the unsigned broadcast. But as much as I’m wary of involvement in knee-jerk reactions to unpopular government (in)decisions, I thought it an opportunity to meet and discuss strategies to adopt in getting the government’s attention.

There was fear, the usual, especially when the police announced that “all forms of protests are banned in FCT” on NTA. And for that, they intercepted us, threw a canister of tear-gas at us, but we defied the threat. At the end, they had to arrest us and had us crammed inside their van. This is the beauty of our democracy – government of the powerful. But we were released, for the obvious reason: the fear of technology, the social media sensationalism, which, they have realised, can ruin their reputation and career with a tweet!

Though the protest ended much too soon, with hope of converging again when our strategies are better harmonised, it introduced me to the patriotism of fellow Nigerians in spite of the armchair critics to whom fault-finding is a permanent job. Whomever initiated the Unity Fountain protest is a genius. The intent was clear: to embarrass guests, from different countries, coming to Transcorp Hilton Hotel for the Centenary jamboree.

Still a mystery remains: even at the venue no one claimed authorship of the broadcast that had us converge- which means the initiator didn’t participate. May God save us from us!

By Gimba Kakanda

Blueprint Newspaper (28/02/2014)
@gimbakakanda (On Twitter)

This is How Nigeria Works

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You get a call from a Big Man who is kindhearted, or has been told remarkable things about you. He invites you over. You honour the invitation and there is a job offer. For you. No competition. No stated qualification. No test.

“I just like you!” Just like that.

In the past few months, three of such privileges came my way. And because I have a pending contract, I recommended ‘deserving’ friends – my own contribution to the corruption. God forgive me. None was considered. One response was classic: “Gimba, if I need just anybody I would’ve advertised this vacancy in a national daily!”

And this is the reason I get hurt anytime I read Nigerian public servants boasting about their exceptionalities, and what made them the best of a pack, in memoirs and authorised biographies. Nigeria is a fount of incredibly educated and talented people, and whoever makes it to the top should, at least for honesty’s sake, not romanticise such privilege or consider it proof that s/he is the best. We have all benefited from the corruption of this dysfunctional country in ways we may never wish to admit in public.

Any attempt by a citizen to portray his/her rise as an act of incomparable genius makes me sick. This is the reason I’m yet to forgive Mallam Nasir El-Rufai’s embarrassing masturbations in his terribly written memoirs. For a man who, before opportunism favoured and attracted him to public service, had never worked in an organisation where promotions are competitive – a man who, in a critical sense, may never pass for a technocrat – to have such audacity to boast is disquieting. We are all El-Rufais, local champions whose membership of, or fraternity with, a clique, ethnicity, religion and region, may bring good things.

But there’s always an understandable denial among Nigerians – most are quick to state that they have never benefitted from the system. This is understandable. Corruption is evil. And for fears of the strength of its destructive influence, we deny the benefits to protect our integrity. What we do not acknowledge is, we’re psychologically prone to be flippant or disregard the law in a system where impunity is easily acquired. And you don’t need Freud to tell you that. Scientifically, it’s impossible to not, even if unintentionally, be a scofflaw where laws are not enforced.

Sometimes, as a law-abiding citizen, you find yourself in a fix where obedience is not even possible. You visit a federal ministry to have a document stamped and you’re told the officer in charge is not available. You return the following day, there’s still nobody to attend to you. After many futile visits, you dial a relative who knows the man who knows a head of the ministry, and voila! your misery ends, and the others who have no “powerful” somebody to intervene in their case, the others who have been frequenting the same ministry for similar purpose, remain frustrated by that institutional collapse. Almost all government institutions are dominated by the relatives and children of the friends of the head, and only a few are variables of our federal character principles. In a sane country, the next step, after weeks of futile visits, may be to report the said ministry or officer to a relevant authority. But we know our system; heading to another government institution to report a dysfunctional one may be a more frustrating experience!

The questions to ask our citified saints of denial are: did you go to the VIO office and then hit the road with the officers to test your driving skill – in applying for your Driver’s Licence as required by the law? Wait, did you even obtain a Learner’s Permit before being on the wheel to learn how to drive? How often have you delayed payments of your electricity bills – knowing you can beg or bribe when the marshals show up to disconnect your supply? How up to date is your tax record? Have your ever driven a car without, or with an expired, licence? When, say, policemen, stop you for a wrong, do you not say “Abeg, Officer” just to be let go?

Many of us use company property, especially cars, for personal and unofficial activities, abusing trust, perpetrating corruption. Please let’s be true to ourselves. Yes, as long as Nigeria is dysfunctional, we will all benefit from the system as much as it destroys us. The only difference here is, benefits are of various proportions.

Fellow countrymen in the villages whose benefits should be minimal for little or no relationship with the Law have shown us their sides of the civic sin in their vulnerability to monetary inducements by politicians during election campaigns. We have also seen how they subject themselves to accepting gifts instead of demanding for executions of promised projects by their political representatives. The statistical power of compromised Nigerians is not a proof that we’re genetically criminal; it’s just a statement that ours is a morally knocked down country!

Sometime in December last year, a friend contacted me on Facebook, said flattering things about my column and that his father has all of my essays printed out. He gave me the Dad’s number, that the old man would like to discuss with me. The old man, in his 60s, called, and we discussed almost 16 of my articles on, and with passing references to, moral corruption, corporate corruption, spiritual corruption and whatnot. At the end, he asked, “Do you fear that you’ll be corrupt if you ever find yourself managing public funds?”

“Yes,” I said.

“The people are not the trouble with Nigeria, it’s the system. Our institutions are so slimy that even a saint won’t come out of one unstained. Our sensitivity to gaining impunity on mismanaging funds encourages corruption. It’s a system that has turned an average good Nigerian into a psychological criminal or so to say. We are humans and we have our needs, and the pressure is always high in a prebendal system. Every Nigerian is potentially corrupt in a system where due process is perceived as the way of the politically naive!”

And I stand by those words; the only way to repair this country is by establishing a functional judiciary, adopting and enforcing rigid laws, and effecting capital punishment for the heavily corrupt.

It won’t be harsh to have a man who stole a hundred million naira dangling from the hangman’s noose. And many of us, as my big brother once highlighted, may suffer the day Nigeria starts functioning like a decent nation of “upright men.” May God save us from us!

By Gimba Kakanda
@gimbakakanda on Twitter

2015: What Do Nigerians Want?

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The next elections are just a fresh calendar away. And so far the chaos of our choices is loud, sufficient for even a stubborn optimist to admit to the cynicism of citizens who have long predicted another case of our vulnerability to polarisations. Observing the ongoing political drama, and interacting with fellow Nigerians from across various parties, religions and ethnic groups, validates the fears of the cynical.

I have challenged such cynicism on reading a commentary on the evil that is democracy in Nigeria by the poet Khalid Imam, who expressed a view shared by many Nigerians, thus:

“Politics is amoral! Politicians always defecate on the mat of morality. Politics is but a war fought by politicians to satiate the greedy … ogre they always worship. At whatever cost, what matters most in politics is the protection of present selfish interest and having an assured relevance in tomorrow’s political games. Nothing more, nothing less. Today, politics seems to be about self, for the self and the self alone. The dramatic defection of politicians from one party to the other is all motivated by selfish interest, not common interest of the majority. Democracy is insane as it always serves as a reliable vehicle for transportation of capitalism and godlessness to every clime. May God save the poor from the hands of his foes parading themselves as his leaders.” – Facebook (31/Janauary/2014: 16:59)

With this mindset, I highlighted, how would we redeem the system? Isn’t this defeatist? Aren’t we all politicians in our own different ways?

I think that this “politics is a dirty game” perception is the reason we’re still unable to rescue this country. These politicians are humans, like us, and thus I referenced Hon. Abdullahi I. Mahuta of Katsina State House of Assembly, our mutual friend on Facebook and a politician who has defied the logic Khalid appealed to in that post. Hon. Mahuta has shown us the merciful side of politics, and has paid a price as a victim of the game, for challenging flaws in budget allocations as the Minority Leader of the State Assembly—that allocations to named schools were not as proposed by the Governor. For this heroism, he earned a suspension.

But that isn’t what makes the Honourable Member a hero in my books. He also champions an advocacy called “Ni ma na yarda”, as reported by columnist Auwal Sani Anwar, that challenges public office holders to have their children enrolled in public schools, and his own children are already in these under-funded schools. This pro-education advocacy, expected to have adequate attention drawn to our structurally and academically collapsed public schools, will also demystify class divides, rousing the essence of a generation of the haves and the have-nots existing along blurred social strata.

You may think that the memories of all we have witnessed and experienced, including the disappointing stink of this government’s Fresh Air, may be hard lessons for us in this last year of a disastrous term? But our attitude indicates otherwise. Our attitude to the activities of the opposition parties and the stunts of candidates who have shown interest in the race to Aso Rock so far, assure me that we are still not serious, and for this baffling un-readiness to get it right this time, I ask: what do Nigerians want?

Obviously we don’t know what democracy is. Yet. We have taken democracy for a magic wand that makes everything all right with a streak of our criticisms from our air-conditioned rooms and offices, tweeting randomly against communal troubles that are also our responsibility to eliminate. This hatred towards, or misperception of, democracy, acquired from our history of misbehaving politicians, is no doubt the cause of this chaos in reaching a consensus on what we want, who we want, and how we want it realised.

If we want to practise democracy, we have to be democratic. How do we expect credible leaders when all we do is criticise without taking part? And because we see one another in the same image, every praise of a presidential aspirant is seen as sponsored. If I write in favour of one, I’m bought. If I announce my support for General Babangida as President, I’ll be accused. If I announce my support for Governor Rochas as President, I’ll be accused. If I announce my support for Mallam Ribadu as President, I’ll be accused. If I announce my support for Governor Fashola as President, I’ll be accused. If I announce my support for Alhaji Atiku as President, I’ll be accused. All because we do not understand that the product of politics are our effort and sacrifice. And the accusers, as usual, would not name a candidate decent enough to be a popular choice; this is where we undermine the power of our number and the possibilities of team work. Overseas, it’s patriotic to give your all in supporting an admired presidential candidate. Here, you mention “Buhari”, you’re an APC member or a northerner or a paid publicist!

Sometimes, the most stones are cast by the actual sinners: our journalists. Though it’s advisable for our journalists to remain reasonably objective in covering and gauging the pulse of the nation, this is hardly the case. Our journalists are more ethically confused. They preach against corruption, yet they won’t cover your story if they’re not paid. And the fact that they expect private citizens to not get involved in the political process, considering such as a compromise, is a disturbing delusion. Private citizens should free themselves from the lie that they are not allowed to express public support for candidates in whom they see their hope of a new Nigeria.

The second set of Nigerians that must never be our models are some of these critics overseas whose ideologies hardly encourage citizen participations in our political processes, as such is seen as complicity in the looting of the country. Some of us have been hoodwinked into adopting their “never join politics” development thesis as we celebrate these consistently loud voices that quote Karl Marx and Adam Smith in vilifying an entire nation for the sins of a few.

We are different from them. We are the direct victims of any failed political experiment, and screaming and writing about failed governments without struggling to infiltrate the ranks of our “laboratory politicians” whose incompetence cause these troubles means we are complicit in the fall of this nation.

If a UK-based critic, for instance, sets fire to his green passport, out of disappointments in Nigeria, it’s understandable. He has another home. You don’t. There’s a limit to his participation in the evolution of our democracy. You live in Nigeria, and so you must walk the talk!

So, dear countrymen, we have to change our methods of engagements. Politics is not as dirty as the fabric of the hypocrisy we exhibit in boycotting the system. Yes “all politicians are thieves”, but I have not seen your poster, nothing to tell me that you’re in the race. How can I vote for you, sir? Your absence, my most reverend saint, means my vote is invalid. May God save us from us!

By Gimba Kakanda
@gimbakakanda (On Twitter)