THAT CHIBOK MEETING | A Quick Look by Ayo Sogunro

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Now that the president has met with the Chibok community, is he satisfied? Has his political paranoia been assuaged? Does he now believe the news of the abduction? Does the sad sight of despairing parents trigger some remorse for his late response? Has he drunk enough from the cup of their sorrow? Does he retract the negative statements made by his representatives in the last 100 days? Has the president learnt anything?

Probably not.

Probably, the president didn’t have the meeting to learn anything from the community. Probably he didn’t ask the parents what he could do to alleviate their pain. Most likely, he didn’t commend the ordinary Nigerians who kept the Chibok tragedy fresh in the local and international news. In fact, if the press statements of the event, and the pictures released by Reuben Abati are any indication, the meeting was called by the president as an opportunity, as the Christian idiom says, to fulfil all righteousness.

Look at the pictures.

If you can take your admiring gaze away from the starchy shine of the president’s attire, you will note that this was an unusual photo session. The faces in the pictures are a stark difference from the happy crowd and enthusiastic handshakes that characterize typical scenarios of presidential interaction.

Just look at the pictures.

The audience is sombre, still in shock. Some manage to look hopeful as they face the president; after all, they have been told, this is the man who can change everything for them. In one picture some women are crying. In another, a girl covers her face, presumably teary over the fate of her colleagues—or maybe just embarrassed at the shameful nature of the ceremony in which she was an involuntary participant.

For this event is a shameful one, whether or not we acknowledge the indecency of victims of a national tragedy being permitted to meet their ostensibly democratic leader. These are grieving men and women—and children too—and they have been compelled, despite their mood, to dress in their best and go see the president. And pictures are taken of them as they march past to see the leader. Not sympathetic pictures by bystanders—but professional photos taken by a paid staff.

And then these pictures are uploaded to the internet and tweeted to the world by a journalist-turned-hatchet man.

Pictures of a grieving people.

But hope is a powerful thing. And so the community went to Abuja with hope: never mind the insane display that has been made of their tragedy; never mind that Abuja is not Chibok; never mind the overwhelming opulence they are confronted with; never mind the soldiers, cameras and powerful officials that surround them; never mind their discomfort. Yes, they managed to dress fine, act sane and pose for the cameras. They stand still and act sane—in the hope that some definite and positive action would be taken to return their missing girls.

It takes a hard-hearted photographer to take these pictures without a lump in the throat. It takes a cynical journalist-turned-adviser to post these pictures and not hang himself afterwards. It takes a disbelieving president to meet with these parents and not lose composure. And why would the president lose composure? After all, his handlers chalk all policy criticism to opposition politics or mere disgruntlement, and so, they also have come to regard all policy decisions as an opportunity for counter politics, forgetting that humans—Nigerians—are affected by the outcome of their bloody games.

For no, we still have no guarantee that the president is convinced of the seriousness of the situation. A meeting is not an achievement; especially as the Presidency believes that, when it comes to Boko Haram, the evidence of presence is not the presence of evidence.

If Jonathan believes the truth of the abduction, he would immediately apologise to the parents and to Nigerians for the reactive tardiness, strip down to his work clothes, and preside over a 24 hour situation room to rescue the girls.

Instead, the president gave a lecture and the usual promises. Like royalty addressing the commoners, he graciously interacted with the community in the splendour of Abuja. And he took pictures with them over a red carpet.

Red carpet for a grieving community.

“Meet with the Chibok folks, you say? Well, we have met them. Now, smile for the cameras, everybody. Stand here, you stand there. Everyone say cheese!”

And so it is easy to conclude: the president isn’t that much concerned with the missing girls. The president is more interested in being seen to be gracious. This meeting was not a sympathetic gesture by the Presidency—this meeting was, as admitted by the Presidency, at the instance of Malala, and its outcome is a promissory speech and a photo-op session.

Meeting over.

To these members of the Presidency, the people of Chibok are not humans to be dignified, but votes to be counted and PR opportunities to be exploited. First they were dismissed as charlatans, next they were displayed as supplicants. These parents had to be seen to be believed.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed” the biblical Jesus told a hard-nosed Thomas. But we can forgive the quest for empirical evidence by the president, we can forgive his public relations exploitation, we can forgive his aspersions on the activists who kept vigil for the girls—all is forgivable if a positive result is achieved.

But when will a positive result be achieved? For how many more days will this community continue to wait for its girls? No answers.

And so the president has seen the community, and Reuben Abati has tweeted the pictures. Is the president satisfied? Has his political paranoia been assuaged? Does he now believe the news of the abduction? Does the sad sight of despairing parents trigger some remorse for his late response? Has he drunk enough from the cup of their sorrow? Does he retract the negative statements made by his representatives in the last 100 days?

Has the president learnt anything?

 

 


Ayo Sogunro is the author of The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales. A lawyer by profession, he also indulges in socio-legal philosophy on this blog. Interact with him on Twitter via @ayosogunro.



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OF BOMBS AND THE LAGOSIAN | A few thoughts by Ayo Sogunro

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Nothing adequately prepares you for being a private citizen of a bomb-prone country. You don’t wake up in the morning and check off a list to confirm that your security is adequate—not unless you’re an airplane pilot, and maybe not even then. There is no transition period: one year you are a normal resident of a normal country with its share of normal violence—and the next year there is the serious possibility of a bomb being planted under your car.

In fact, you have to wonder if any mental preparation is possible in Nigeria, today. It seems that the sensitivity of the Nigerian public to destruction and death is declining in proportion to the increasing terrorism in the country.

So far, it seems as if the major Nigerian city—Lagos—has been spared from this reign of infantile terror. Consequently, economic and social activities are, superficially speaking, unaffected by the security crisis riding the north of the country.

And so it was that, recently, on my way to work on an early Tuesday morning, I found myself quite unprepared for what seemed, at the time, to be a confrontation with the maleficent forces that were running amok in the north-east of Nigeria.

That morning, I had parked my car by a local intersection, opposite the University of Lagos, while waiting for a colleague to join me in our daily commute. Along with another passenger, I sat in the car as the local traffic converged; around us, the suburban community nestling the University of Lagos came to life and diffused into the Lagos metropolis.

My other passenger was late, but the day was early enough to accommodate some delay. I flipped through radio channels and watched the road. Across from where I was parked, was a makeshift booth from which an official of the traffic agency—LASTMA—guided traffic through the intersection. From my side-mirror, I could see, behind me, the direction from which I expected my colleague to emerge. When the minutes lengthened and my patience trickled, I squinted at every appearing female figure in the mirror to ascertain if my expected company was close.

I performed this mirror gaze several times, alternating my attention between the road behind and the passenger beside. Shortly, a woman appeared in the mirror’s view and approached the car. Just as she leveled with the rear of the vehicle she stooped, briefly, then straightened up and walked on past me. She was middle aged and unremarkably dressed. She didn’t glance back after she passed but hurried on along.

I glanced at my passenger puzzlingly, but she seemed not to have noticed this external activity. Curious to see what had made the stranger pause by the car, I craned out of the window and saw nothing worrisome. I shrugged off my concerns and went back to the radio talk. The news discussed Malala and her visit to the President in sympathy to the cause for the rescue of the abducted girls. Bring back our girls, Malala also said. Fair enough.

Our colleague eventually arrived, and we were ready to continue the morning trip to work.

Suddenly, the traffic official was by my side—rapping the car window urgently and cautioning me to stop. I had not seen him come over. My engine was running and I had just started to turn into the road. Alarmed at the intrusion, I wound down the window.

“Is this for you?” the official said, holding up what appeared to be a laptop bag of typical size. It was a black leather bag and the texture looked rough and old.

“No. Not at all,” I responded, slightly mystified.

“But I saw this bag under your car. I picked it up just now to avoid you crushing it.”

“That’s not mine.” I said, while my brain struggled to make some sense from the emerging scenario.

“So who owns it?”

In the car, my two passengers were equally nonplussed. I gestured towards them for some confirmation that my brain was not missing a chunk of objective reality.

“No idea, officer. Thanks, but the bag’s not mine.” I said again.

“Who owns it?” The official repeated, expecting some sudden revelation from me. “Why was it under your car?”

Why was a bag under my car?

Some deep understanding of the security crisis in the country suddenly emerged in the morning air. Fresh attacks in Borno State had been in the news. Not long ago, a major district in the federal capital, Abuja had been targeted too. More recently, an explosion in the port area of Lagos had been claimed by Boko Haram as a bomb attack. The traffic official gently placed the bag down on the road and stepped back from the car. My passengers were now clearly alarmed but they kept mute and wide-eyed. I stammered out a response.

“A woman,” I started. “A woman was beside the car earlier. She acted very strangely. Then walked away.”

My right foot was on the brake pedal, and I felt a distinct quiver travel from my thighs to the base of the car. I switched off the car engine.

Why was a bag under my car?

All the while, the officer and I kept on staring at the bag, awaiting some self-explanatory logic to a mystery that was verging on the dangerous.

“Where’s this woman?” the traffic man asked.

I gestured helplessly: How could I know?

The official picked up the bag, and I automatically tensed.

“It feels heavy.”

It feels heavy.

The sweat that gathered on my forehead was not just from the morning heat. I thought of stepping out of the car to get some air but, in the circumstances, that didn’t seem a sensible proposition. On the other hand it didn’t make much sense to sit in the car, waiting for it to happen. One could always jump out of the car and run fast—but what about my colleagues? What about the people around?

How much damage could be done here?

My knowledge of improvised explosive devices was limited: the black bag looked nothing like any of the crude contraptions I had seen in newspaper tragedy pictures—but it looked very much like anything that could have been concocted in a spy movie worth its salt.

The sweat that gathered on my forehead was definitely not just from the morning heat.

The traffic official looked worse than I felt. He had put an arm against the car—not leaning against the vehicle as much as preventing me from making a dash for it. He looked at me and his telepathic message was clear: We are going to end this together.

I thought fast.

“Call the police”, I said. “Clear the area and call the police.”

The official looked at me askance, and I realized he didn’t know what police to call. He had no procedure for handling this situation. I shrugged; that was the best advice I could give. Vaguely, I remembered some public service announcement on handling suspicious circumstances. But it was a fragment of information, and the memory dissipated in the morning strain. I knew the official wouldn’t be releasing me. Whether or not I had any knowledge of the bag, the business still looked very bad.

Seconds are ticking. I thought. We stay here chatting and seconds are ticking.

A bus called passengers for the morning commute.

The traffic moved freely despite the absence of the traffic official.

Life went on around us. People moved on. Lagos was unconcerned by our little spectacle.

Lagos, Nigeria is safe; we had been led to believe this. Lagos was impenetrable. The terrorists would not dare to invade Lagos. The impervious activity that surrounded us confirmed this idea.

Strange, but even within that nervous scene, I understood the irony of our joint helplessness: the helplessness of both the official and the citizen. There we were, acting out a potentially tragic drama as the city passed by, ignorant of the destruction that the morning could suddenly unleash. Nothing had prepared us for how to be citizens of a bomb-prone country. The representative of the law was just as powerless as I—both of us trapped in the inefficiencies of Nigerian politics and government. Security had been politicized; terrorism had been given to bureaucracy.

On that Tuesday morning, as we all lay transfixed on the Lagos road, playing host to the bag of doom, I realized again that we, Nigerians, were already socio-political victims even before we became physical victims.

But the danger passed: from afar a well-dressed young lady came running towards us excitedly. It was her laptop bag, she said. She forgot it at the bus stop and it must have slipped to the side of the road. Now she had returned to claim it.

The spell that had immobilized our little group was broken, and the traffic official admonished the newcomer.

“We nearly arrested this man,” the official said with relief. “That was very careless of you.”

He was back on familiar territory—the omniscient government official—reigning supreme over the bumbling citizen.

I repackaged my emotional state and restarted the car; the potential for danger had passed. But it could easily have been another newsworthy event in Nigeria’s sorry tales. I drove off and joined the crowded traffic of workers on the Third Mainland Bridge, drove across the calm waters of the Lagos Lagoon, and the memory of the morning’s drama regressed as the day took over.


 

Ayo Sogunro is the author of The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales. A lawyer by profession, he also indulges in socio-legal philosophy on this blog. Interact with him on Twitter via @ayosogunro.



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THE ILIAD OF THE GREAT NIGERIAN POLITICIAN | BY AYO SOGUNRO

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An Oxymoronic Impossibility
Wait, before you dismiss this topic as an oxymoronic impossibility, try—difficult as it is when politicians are involved—to be open-minded. There are great Nigerian politicians—and they don’t necessarily make the news headlines. Of course, I understand the fact that politics and politicians are not exactly the best sort of intellectual discourse, and that the word “politics” awakens a mental image of the putrid; but then, this misconception exists only because the world is yet to study the ways of the Nigerian politician. Nigerians have perfected the art of politicking into a study worthy of intellectual interest. Now, let’s discuss Nigerian political philosophy and how to be a great Nigerian politician.

The World Changes for You
Why would you want to be a politician, you may wonder, if you consider yourself a sane person, at least. Even career politicians—and yes, that’s a profession—rarely describe themselves in those words. In Nigeria, the accepted nomenclature include: elder statesmen, public servants, regional leaders, concerned citizens, or maybe even party chieftains; but never politicians. So why should you dump a comfortable professional or vocational career and risk your sanity or more in the literally cutthroat world of Nigerian politics? The answer is simple: divinity. The prime mover in Nigerian—and African—politics is a walking god. That’s not an overstatement. And what human doesn’t want a chance to feel godlike?

Let me elaborate: when you become a great Nigerian politician, the world changes for you; and this happens even before you hold office. Your words get news coverage no matter how inane, the most mediocre of your opinions are seriously analysed by pundits, people who have never met you will kill, and if necessary, die for you. At events, you are the most respected personality: no matter how obnoxious you decide to be. You are the automatic speaker, the impromptu guest of honour, the definite chairperson. Think about this: The Chairperson. What will you not give to be the chairperson?

And if your ways are blessed with “divine favour” (as you will later call it), you get to hold a public office with: a salary of eight figures (or more), allocations and expense-paid trips, contractual opportunities—at best prices, a well serviced bank account at home and abroad, a chieftaincy title, honorary doctorates and professorships, everyday congratulations for just blinking from people you’ve never heard of, a national award, a life pension, and if you die in office—a public burial. If you are really good at your game, you could get buildings and streets renamed in your honour, or maybe even a university or two; or the greatest of all honours—your very own face on the currency.

Good gods, who wouldn’t want to be a Nigerian politician?

Gentlemen Are Not Wanted
What does it take to become a great Nigerian politician? How do you go about this arduous task? Not a few people have the, definitely insane, idea that the ideal politician is an honest, upright person whose delight is to oblige the people, and who places effective service before anything else. The impracticality of this idea is matched only by its baloney; and such fancies have no place in our democratic setting. If you attempt to follow this misguided ideal, your people you will disown you, label you as miserly and selfish, and frustrate you into an early grave.

Instead you should gather a reputation as a tout and a ruffian, someone capable of standing his own ground, a swindler with all appearance of a looter—then you can be sure of getting into office faster. You don’t even have to pretend to be good. Gentlemen are not wanted, and spiritually inclined people are disallowed (except pastors).  The intellectual people are not wanted. Career professionals (excluding lawyers) are not wanted. Economically successful businesspeople are not wanted. Writers, poets, artistes, sportspersons, scientists and innovators, Nobel Prize winners and their ilk are expressly forbidden. To be clear, these are not bad people, they are just bad politicians. A good Nigerian politician knows that he can hire them for use in the ministries and government departments as underpaid civil servants. But a great Nigerian politician knows how to ignore them totally. They may have the brains to excel in their fields, but they just don’t have the brains to run for, and run a, public office.

But if you are an academic pretender, an “area father”, a business failure, or if your business was built around some not-so-legal opportunities, or if you are a retired military man without any further ambition, or a former dictator, or a failing lawyer, you are exactly the kind of person needed in Nigerian politics. You were made to rule a country like Nigeria. Your past failures are the experience you need to captain this ship. You don’t even have to be demonstrably Nigerian. If you doubt these assertions, look around and you will find evidence in almost every public office, with a few accidental exceptions—who will soon be rectified.

The Safe Ideology is “No Ideology”
The most important requirement for a politician is that he joins a political party. Any party will do. A few strategic points should be considered before making this relatively flexible decision: a ruling party seems convenient, but it is an association of individuals who are owed political favours for work done in the past, so it might take quite some time before you achieve internal relevance, or nomination for an office. However, a relatively new or unknown party would not carry you far, unless the party leader is a fiery challenger who is making waves, and whose deputy—by some incredible luck—gets assassinated, then you are sure to go places with a new party. But generally, what you need is a moderately successful party that has a foot in the door of power and where you can still shine personally. The party’s ideology or philosophy—if it has one—does not matter. In fact, it is quite useless. No sensible political party sticks to an identifiable ideology, for in the long run, all parties will have to adapt to economic and social change. The safe ideology is “no ideology”.

And, as surely as the snake sheds its skin, you should also have a capacity to change parties, easily and conveniently, without conscientious scruples. If you get into office through one party, you can cross carpet to another: unschooled observers may call it cross-carpeting, but it is no more than a shortcut to relevance. In fact, it is ideal to get nominated and elected on the ticket of a small party, ramp up your nuisance value and then join the other, more important, party afterwards. Nothing personal, it’s just politics.

Godfathers and Platforms
You need a godfather, and preferably one with a Mario Puzo predilection. This is for a simple reason: the godfather is feared by the people. And by “people”, we mean the trade unions, labour unions, and other amorphous social and commercial associations that make up 70% of the voting public. These people will vote—consciously or not—according to the desires of the godfather. Be warned, however, when you assume office, do not forget your godfather—even if you change parties. Remember your obligations, and pay your dues to him. The scriptures are clear: the godfather giveth, and the godfather taketh away.

You must learn to make deals and swap promises. Never give something for nothing and if you can swing it, never give something for anything. Do not worry about leadership or service: if you can get some well liquidated youths to cause a furore now and then, spray money at public parties, donate visibly to churches and mosques, then you have satisfied the expectations of the people. People expect nothing better from you, and in any case, no sensible Nigerian would believe your promises or expect you to fulfil them. The mass media is malleable, and the intellectuals and professionals will not bother you, at least, not until you get to power and, in that case, it would be too late for these eggheads to control you.

Look for a platform from which to launch your career. In Nigeria, things are so bad that it is very easy to succeed as a politician—traffic, bad roads, unstable electricity, non-existent water supply, insecurity, Niger Delta issues, terrorism, shaky education, unpaid minimum wages, excitable labour union, recalcitrant fuel prices, payment of taxes, non-payment of taxes, missing pensions, greedy banking sector, currency devaluation, past military rule, potential military comeback, the presidency, the National Assembly, the judiciary, anything, and everything will do. Nigeria is a gold mine of opportunity for the eager statesman. Pick your topic, publicise your views in the media, stage a protest—or criticise a protest, kick some dust, express strong opinions at law events, at student events, at labour union events. If you are a militant type, organise a public palaver and then solve it: a garage fight, a religious riot, union strikes—commission some trouble and then be seen to put it to a stop.

Do all of these and you will certainly get elected.

After Your Election
After your election, the first thing you do: get a battery of lawyers.

A lawyer is a politician’s best friend, to phrase it mildly. Do not be stingy with the law: and this rule will save your neck someday. Lawyers will handle your election petitions, sort out the allegations of non-qualification, dismiss the claims of corruption, and possibly frustrate the attempts at an impeachment. You can bet that these trials will come your way, not from the people you govern—they are not bothered—but from envious, less successful, fellow politicians.

Next, and this is even before you settle into the office, plan for your re-election. The road to re-election is paved with good appointments and strategic alliances. You must fulfil all obligations to party leaders and godfathers, accommodate their suggestions for appointees, award contracts to them at not-so-commercial prices, and pretend, good-naturedly, to be a loyalist. Now that you have the office, you don’t need to show that you have it.

And finally—pay day. You have money, then spend it. Spend public money. Spend it as though money was going out of fashion. Here’s a tip: prioritise recurrent expenditure, and spend only on capital expenditure that requires consistent maintenance and repairs. Generate contracts for your people to execute. A good government is a government of family and friends: insert your people—friends and relatives—in subtle, but key, positions and obstruct people who refused you support when you started out. Reward your friends and frustrate your enemies: this is the full meaning of justice.

And that is how you attain divinity.

The Great Nigerian Politician is, as Achebe describes, “A Man of the People”. Reject the foregoing guidelines and you will begin to gain a reputation as, in Ibsen’s words, “An Enemy of the People”.

Caveat Emptor
On a worrisome note, remember that the people cannot always be trusted to be docile. You may push them around—but not too much. Otherwise, they will wake up, recover their senses and their dignity, and fight back. Then things will get ugly: unsponsored protests will rage in the streets, the mob will pull you out of your office and set fire to your mansions, the crowd will strip the clothes off your family, and the country will make you a spectacle and a laughing stock. So, avoid investing in any type of education—for if their minds are open, the fury of the people will be limitless. They will rise against you and put an end to your time.

But, really, every great Nigerian politician knows that this is a very unlikely scenario.

 


 

Ayo Sogunro is the author of The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales. A lawyer by profession, he also indulges in socio-legal philosophy on this blog. Interact with him on Twitter via @ayosogunro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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