Month: March 2012

Nigeria’s Porous Borders in Pictures

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I have always heard that Nigeria’s borders are porous, I never quite grasped the magnitude of the “porousness” until I received these pictures below of the Nigeria-Niger border at Birnin Kuka. I kept thinking afterwards, of a word synonymous with, yet which would signify an extreme form of “porousness”, combined with the words “Useless” “farce” “joke” and “ridiculous”  to capture this incredible scene, but I couldn’t quite come up with any.

Nigeria - Niger border post at Birnin Kuka, Katsina state

Just in case you still aren’t sure whether you saw the word “border” or not, or you think this is some rather early April Fool’s prank or that perhaps your eyes are playing tricks on you, its none of those things. This is actually Nigeria’s border with Niger Republic, at a small border town called Birnin Kuka in the North-Western state of Katsina. The person on the left wearing red and white trousers is an officer of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) while the one on the right is a “Camp boy”, a term describing locals of any border post or out station recruited by officers of NCS. And what you’re thinking at this moment is right on point: the tree logs in the pictures literally demarcate Nigeria from Niger Republic; crossing the logs means you’ve crossed over to the other country!

These pictures were sent by a source at the NCS and are very much authentic. The source  confirmed that apparently, with as little as N100 (less than $1), anyone can conveniently and comfortably cross the border to the other side.

So if like me, you’ve been wondering how the North African affiliate of Al-Qaeda, the “Al-Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel” (AQIM) wormed its way into Nigeria especially in light of the recent abduction and murder of the British and Italian hostages and the recent capture of a German hostage in Kano, then this is your answer right here. A large white mammoth from the prehistoric era could traverse this boundary without anyone raising an eye brow. So, for a highly sophisticated and secretive terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda, it would literally be a walk in the park, or in this case, a stroll in the desert!

Let me state categorically that not all of Nigeria’s border towns or entry points are this disorganized, poorly managed, poorly manned, insecure, and a throw-back to the medieval era. For instance the more well-known entry and exit points like the Seme border in Lagos, the Jibiya border station in the same Katsina state and a number of others are far more organized and relatively more secure than the Birnin-Kuka border in terms of having a proper border station, guards, sentries and immigration/customs/border officials and all the works. However, many of the less-known boundaries are like the Birnin-Kuka border post: poorly manned or in some cases just wide open, probably due to the lack of sufficient and trained officers, paucity of funds (But the government earmarked N922 billion or $6 billion for security in this year’s budget!) and just nonchalance and lack of foresight on the part of the authorities, that is the Nigeria Customs and Immigration Services respectively.

My source confirmed that even the relatively more organized border posts like the Jibiya station below “are OPEN” but in this case not to everyday individuals who can pay N100 but especially to “big men” and  “smugglers”. The source made particular reference to a renown, wealthy and influential smuggler whose trade is now flourishing more than ever as scores of his trucks laden with smuggled goods pass through weekly without being inspected.

The border station at Jibya in Katsina State

The source further confirmed that “Big Men are dreaded by officer(s)” who “earn little” and as for the renown smugglers, if an officer insists on searching their trucks, you “search and you risk getting sacked”.

The perviousness and porousness of Nigeria’s borders are an addition to the litany of shortcomings the Nigerian state is facing towards addressing security challenges. Already there’s the incapacity and mediocrity of the police and security agencies, dearth of intelligence gathering, politicization of insecurity by politicians, pervasive corruption and mismanagement of funds, widespread public paranoia and now to crown all these are our very porous borders.

These depressing facts further reveal the government’s weak position in combating the growing terrorist insurgency in Nigeria. For that, I’ve let my imagination become very active envisioning (nay hoping) a scenario unfolds where the various terrorist groups — the main Boko Haram, its various factions and AQIM — clash over turf and territory, and such turf war becomes very bloody where they mutually annihilate each other. This is a bit of a stretch I know, but you know how the saying goes: desperate times…!!

Nigeria, Boko Haram and Pervasive Distrust

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At around 01.30 am in the wee hours of Tuesday 13th March, while checking local Nigerian and global news as I usually do before heading to bed, I came across an article on the British daily’s website The Independent, titled “On the Trail of Boko Haram” by Andrew Stroehlein, the Communications Director of the International Crisis Group. Thinking it was one of those typically reductionist articles written by one of those foreign “experts” or “keen observers” of Nigeria, I initially dismissed it. However, my curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to skim through thinking that if I found it to repeat the same trite assertion of an impending apocalyptic implosion of a “Muslim-North and Christian-South” I would silently curse the author and go to bed.

As I read the article though, I had the exact opposite reaction, I felt it was brilliant and captured the situation in Nigeria accurately, objectively and succinctly. I had wanted to share it immediately on Facebook, Twitter and on several Nigerian online discussion boards, but my eyes were heavy, so I put it off for when I woke up in the morning. Not surprisingly, by the time I woke up, the article had gone viral, at least in Nigeria. Amidst glowing commendations, one interesting description of the article was thus: “one of the most accurate summary of the Boko Haram group in Nigeria, sadly by a foreigner”. What then is so spectacular about this piece when so much has already been written and said about Boko Haram and insecurity in Nigeria?

The insecurity in Nigeria especially with the orgy of violence unleashed by the group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad popularly known as Boko Haram, or what I prefer to call the Boko Haram plague has been escalating as the group’s tactics have similarly evolved. Local and international media agencies have been falling over themselves to report (accurately and inaccurately) the group’s deadliest and bloodiest attacks. Journalists, columnists, pundits, analysts, experts, and bloggers all claiming some knowledge and expertise over the group’s activities, it can be argued, have covered all possible angles of the Boko Haram insurgency. However, what Andrew Stroehlein seems to have done differently is to go straight to the heart of the issue without looking at any angle per se. He focuses on the cold hard facts and that is why his sounds like the gospel truth to many. The four salient points which I believe the author strongly makes are:

First of all, he desists from treading the simplistic path taken by many foreign “analysts” and “experts” of depicting Nigeria as hopelessly polarized along a “predominantly Muslim North and Christian South” fault line, subtly implying the two parts are irreconcilable and probably better off apart than together. Consequently, Stroehlein does not succumb to the tendency to portray Boko Haram as a manifestation of a disgruntled and increasingly alienated “Muslim-North” unhappy with and trying to undermine the Federal government largely under the control of the “Christian-South”. He says: “Like other political and armed movements that have sprung up in this country, including the recent fuel subsidy protests that brought the country to a standstill, Boko Haram is just a symptom of the crumbling Nigerian state.” He does admit that: “…the vast majority of Nigerians do not turn to armed militancy, of the Islamist variety or any other…

By so doing, Stroehlein depicts Boko Haram rightly, as a bye product of state failure, bad governance and especially rampant corruption which he argues needs to be addressed by pouring “the oil wealth into government services rather than officials’ overseas bank accounts”. This is one point many analysts have alluded to, but perhaps because of the high level of tension and paranoia in the Nigerian public sphere, those who have made this argument have been rashly labelled as Boko Haram supporters or “sympathisers”. This fierce rejection of alternative narratives reminds me of journalist Richard Hall’s op-ed on the UK riots last year, where he makes a clear distinction between attempting to understand something and condoning it. In particular, Hall says:

“The impression appears to be that the crimes committed were so great and so senseless that to try and understand them is to condone them… Any discussion about the potential causes of the riots become indistinguishable from excusing those who carried them out, and those who attempt to analyse become apologists.”

In Nigeria, sadly this seems to be the case.

Secondly, the author points out that Boko Haram should be dealt with as criminals and also harps on an urgent need for reform of the Police, the intelligence agencies and strengthening the Judiciary’s independence to deal with such criminal challenges. Even though, Stroehlein links Boko Haram to the wider problems of poverty, corruption, bad governance and predatory management of state funds, he avoids the pitfall many foreign analysts fall into of advocating for an “appeasement” of the “marginalized” Northern-Muslim establishment (purportedly the sponsors of Boko Haram) who lost out in the current political dispensation as a way of mitigating and addressing the Boko Haram plague.

Alleged Christian Bombers in Bauchi. Photo Courtesy Daily Times Nigeria

Thirdly, the author corroborates what many have said before, especially those with first-hand knowledge of the North, that there are splinter groups of Boko Haram and that “Boko Haram” is now a cover for criminal activity across a wide spectrum. Stroehlein notes: “anything that turns violent can be blamed on the Islamist movement, whether it has a link to it or not. It is a perfect alibi, one that prevents further questioning. Bank robbery? Boko Haram. Attack on political opponents? Boko Haram.”  This became more evident in the recent high-profile abduction and murder of the British and Italian hostages, the group’s denial of its culpability given that it wastes no time in bragging about its violent attacks and the emergence of a new player, Al Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel (AQIM) claiming responsibility for the abduction and murder. The argument about the existence of Boko Haram copycats is also given more credence especially when one considers that many of those caught-in-the-act whilst trying to burn churches in Bauchi in August 2011 and again in February 2012 and Bayelsa for instance are aggrieved church members or those who do not fit the typical Boko Haram profile.

Fourthly, Stroehlein makes a damning indictment of the media — both local and international — as concerned with being very sensationalist by misinformation and spreading fear and paranoia in covering the insurgency in Nigeria, typically spreading the now trite narrative that Boko Haram is a manifestation of the promise made by prominent “disgruntled Northern politicians who have vowed to make the country ungovernable for Goodluck Jonathan”. Stroehlein says: “the hype in much of the Nigerian media also contributes to the problem, as many media outlets chasing sales seem all too willing to fall for unsubstantiated rumour and outright lies proffered by political trouble-makers — or by nobody at all”. Of international media, he asserts their reports have: “also been more scare-mongering than substance, presenting this as a new terrorist threat to the West, when it is fundamentally a Nigerian issue.”

From these thrusts of Andrew Stroehlein’s piece and the reactions the article has elicited, it can be inferred that there is a deep-seated lack of trust in Nigeria between ordinary Nigerians of each other and of the government, fanned, aggravated and enabled by the local media feeding fat on public paranoia. The mutual distrust is symptomatic of the deep cleavages in Nigeria which have extended to the public sphere such that any attempt by traditional or religious leaders especially from the North where Boko Haram is most active to explain the context of group’s activity is misconstrued by a militant and sectional press, members of the public and even some politicians as trying to rationalise, sympathise or justify Boko Haram’s activities. Those who been persistently calling for dialogue with the group have been labelled Boko Haram “apologists“, even though the Federal Government has recently began talks with the group ostensibly out of realization that the purely militarized approach has done little if anything to contain the insurgency. Conversely, the general perception in the North, is that Boko Haram’s activities are a deliberate and calculated attempt at sabotage and destruction of the economy and social cohesion of the region from elsewhere.

The danger here is that this distrust is increasingly preventing sincere, meaningful, fruitful national discourse in the Nigerian public sphere on Boko Haram and insecurity in Nigeria. Consequently, analysts like Stroehlein who sum the facts we are all aware of and state the obvious are seen to have said something spectacular (and it is in many respects) precisely because in our national subconscious Stroehlein falls outside the categories and labels we are increasingly allowing ourselves to be boxed into — “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Northerner”, “Southerner” “Core North”, “Middle Belt”, “Minority” etc — he is regarded as a neutral party more capable of stating the unbiased facts apparent to everyone better than Nigerians themselves.

Effectively tackling Boko Haram requires a strategic, concerted, collective and coordinated action by all and sundry: not just the government and security agencies, but traditional and religious leaders, the media and members of the public. This would entail an adept combination of the military approach, dialogue and any other effective tactic as is required and is deemed fit. Unless Nigerians come to the realization that everyone is a stakeholder when it comes to Boko Haram and appreciate the need to engage in meaningful discourse on what Boko Haram stands for, the threats it poses to national security and social cohesion and ways of halting the orgy of violence, Boko Haram will continue “winning” against Nigerians.

Celebrating the Resilience of African Women

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Courtesy Mohaart: http://mohaart.deviantart.com/art/African-Women-204079160

“I should have known that ambition and success were not to be expected in an African woman. An African woman should be a good African woman whose qualities should be coyness, shyness, submissiveness, incompetence and crippling dependency. A highly educated independent African woman is bound to be dominant, aggressive, uncontrollable, a bad influence.

                  — Professor Wangari Mathaai (1979) right after the collapse of her marriage with Mwangi Mathai

The month of March has a number of internationally recognized days celebrating women’s accomplishments, achievements and the special place women occupy in society. There is the International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrated globally on March 8th and the forthcoming Mother’s day celebrated between March and April depending on the country. In the case of the former, the IWD, despite (ironically) having its origins in socialist political events and worker’s movements in the early 1900s, by 1975, during International Women’s Year, the United Nations (UN) began celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March and by 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed by Member States. The official UN theme for International Women’s Day 2012 is “Empower Rural Women — End Hunger and Poverty.”

All over the world, women everyday are taking giant strides in breaking free of stereotypes and in improving their lives, those of their families and of their communities. In Sub-Saharan Africa as well, women are doing remarkable things – from Nobel Prize winners recognized by the international community to the ordinary women doing extra-ordinary things every day.

When strong African women are mentioned, heavy weights come to mind such as the late Kenyan activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Wangari Muta Maathai who passed away in September 2011. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 which planted over 30 million trees, she was an advocate for better sustainability in the management of natural resources, she worked with women to improve their livelihoods by increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water and was a pro-democracy and human rights activist.

Others include Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected African Head of State, who won the Nobel peace prize last year for her efforts in rebuilding post-conflict Liberia such as negotiating significant debt relief, anti-corruption efforts, starting the truth and reconciliation commission to address crimes committed during the Liberian civil war and overseeing a rise in school enrolment by 40%.

Sirleaf shared the Nobel laurel with fellow Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee who mobilised Christian and Muslim women in Liberia to call for an end to the brutal 14-year civil war by fasting, praying and campaigning for an immediate ceasefire and dialogue between the government and the rebels, and also convincing Charles Taylor to step down. The award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell  chronicles the incredible efforts of Gbowee and her women’s movement in ending the civil war. Others include internationally renowned Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working, Siza Mzimela the CEO of South African Airways, Mariéme Jamme a London-based philanthropist, technologist and social entrepreneur, and so many others.

Chimamanda Adichie

Coming closer home, in Nigeria, we have heavy weights such as Professor Dora Akunyili former Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) who has received international recognition and awards for her work in public health and pharmacology; Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala the Harvard-educated first female Minister of Finance in Nigeria, famous for negotiating the historic debt cancellation of $18 billion (60%) of Nigeria’s external debt with the Paris Club in 2005 and for fostering greater fiscal transparency in government. Though her reputation and popularity in Nigeria slightly plunged due to her prominent role in the Nigerian government’s recent removal of fuel subsidy, she still remains a powerful and brilliant woman who has made an indelible mark in a terrain dominated by men. Okonjo-Iweala is listed on the Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful Black Women and Forbes Africa’s list of the 20 Most Powerful Women in Africa.

There is also Mrs. Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, currently a World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region responsible for projects, economic and sectoral work in 47 Sub-Saharan countries; Mrs. Amina Ibrahim, a former Senior Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria on the Millennium Development Goals, described by BBC reporter Mark Doyle as a “frank and intelligent woman”. Also worthy of note is Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (CON) the first female Supreme Court justice in Nigeria, and Mrs. Ifueko Omogui the Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS)responsible for driving institutional changes to reform the tax system in Nigeria.Outside the public sector, we have young up and coming women who are blazing the trail in their various fields of endeavour such as the award winning writer Chimamanda Adichie  listed on the Forbes’ 20 Youngest Power Women of Africa and Nollywood movie stars such as Genevieve Nnaji, who is regarded as “Africa’s most revered actress” and one of the most influential celebrities in Africa. There are many more of such amazing and inspiring women in Nigeria and across Africa.

By far, one of the most remarkable and extraordinary instances of a woman’s resilience in the harsh terrain in Sub Saharan Africa is that of Rabi’atu Abubakar Mashi, the female truck-driver with Dangote Cement company, in the conservative Northern state of Katsina, perhaps the only female truck driver in Northern Nigeria. Hers is a story of courage as she defies stereotypes whilst eking out a living doing something traditionally not associated with women neither in the developed world nor in the developing world. Her interview with the Weekly Trust newspaper HERE reveals that:

Photo, courtesy Weekly Trust

As a divorcee with two children it can be inferred that Rabi’atu’s income comes in handy in catering to her basic needs and that of her children, keeping her self sufficient, in an environment where the rate of divorces is reaching alarming proportions and divorced women who are typically without meaningful sources of livelihoods end up as dependents and a liability to themselves and their families.

Interestingly, Rabi’atu acknowledges that she is doing something extraordinary and hopes that other women will follow the trail she has blazed. Having successfully trained and mentored another woman, she confirms that her protégé could soon start driving her own truck for the same company. Additionally, Rabi’atu is mindful of her deeply conservative environment built on mostly cultural and Islamic prescriptions which place a high level of importance on marriage. Thus she hopes to be remarry but prays that her husband doesn’t discourage her from the lucrative truck driving business she is very passionate about.

This is an amazing story of strength, courage and resilience. For pursuing her dreams in a tough environment and perhaps inspiring other women to take charge of their destinies and empower themselves, Rabi’atu deserves to be crowned woman of the year. I am probably over-excited and stretching it a bit, but a Nigerian Woman of the Year award would do. The fact that she is from my home state, Katsina is a plus and a feel-good factor for me ;-). There are certainly many more women like Rabi’atu all around the world setting the pace in their own unique way, yet it is their individual efforts which collectively make a difference.

Beaming the Spotlight Where it Matters Most

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Russian president-elect Vladmir Putin crying at his “victory” speech, with outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev behind him

With tears streaming down his cheeks, Vladmir Putin outgoing Prime Minister and now President-elect of Russia declared with great conviction, that his victory in the just concluded presidential elections was the outcome of an “open and honest battle”. While his speech attracted cheers and ovation from many supporters, members of the opposition like prominent anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, claim that Putin shed crocodile tears out of fear of public backlash from elections marred by irregularities. Not surprisingly, the international media has placed the Russian elections in the spotlight albeit with a cynical slant of how they were skewed heavily in favour of an easy Putin victory over other candidates. In all this, African observers like me on the fringe cannot help wondering if half of the critical scrutiny were directed towards elections in many Sub Saharan African countries, where it is needed most, then perhaps there might be considerable improvements in aspects of our electoral democracy in Africa.

Of course it will be naive to dismiss the importance of Russia as a major global player. Despite the collapse and disintegration of the defunct Soviet Republic into present day Russia and several other countries and its downgrade from a near equal of the US during the Cold War era Russia to middle income, developing country status, Russia is still the largest country in the world in terms of land mass; it has a huge population; it is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and one of the BRICS. Russia is a major player in geo politics especially due to its typically diametric stance with many Western countries on key international security issues such as Iran’s nuclear activity. Thus, elections in Russia are bound to attract global attention and scrutiny compared to say, elections in Malawi, Gambia or Cameroon.

The 85 year old incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal. It is widely believed that he is much older than he claims to be.

That said, the victory of Putin in the elections came as no surprise to any keen observer of events in Russia, whom it is widely believed was the real power wielder as Prime Minister to Dmitry Medvedev. According to a poll conducted in September 2009 by the Levada Center in which 1,600 Russians took part, 13% believed Medvedev held the most power, 32% Putin, and 48% both. Nevertheless, Putin’s overbearing influence and authority pale into insignificance in comparison with some of our octogenarian, yet energetic African despots – the Wades, the Biyas and the Mugabes.

Incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal for instance, despite being well over 85 years old and having exhausted his constitutionally permitted term limits, went to great lengths to ensure he contested in the February 26th 2012 Presidential elections. Wade altered the constitution in 2011 to enable him contest for a third term, and banned some rival candidates like Grammy award-winning singer Youssou N’dour from contesting. Wade’s violent crackdown on mass protests that trailed his refusal to back down which led to deaths of innocent, unarmed civilians betray his desperation to cling to power against popular will, willing to risk to his democratic credentials as a democratic reformer, jeopardizing the stability and cohesion of Senegal which has been a beacon of democratic stability in the region. Wade remains adamant despite entreaties by other African strong-men like former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo who have tested, tried and given up on the tenure elongation bid.

Certainly Putin’s strong-man tactics, “creeping authoritarianism”, and manipulation of the political system comes nowhere near Wade’s open secretive plans of paving the way for his son to ascend the Presidency once he secures his re-election bid constitutionally or extra-constitutionally. Nor does it compare with Joseph Kabila’s blatant nepotism in ensuring that his twin sister and brother were both elected to the parliament of the Democratic Republic of Congo in January 2012 in elections described as flawed and “chaotic” by local and international observers.

The criticism of the presidential elections in Russia stem from procedural and “voting irregularities” which ensured Putin’s victory was secured by fair or foul means, mostly the latter in the eyes of the international media, international election observers and Western governments. These irregularities included the “limited electoral choice” for the electorate according to Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors, “the conditions under which the campaign was conducted, the partisan use of government resources and procedural irregularities on election day” according to the official US statement, the dominance of the media and campaign space by Putin to the detriment of other candidates, and heavy handed tactics by the security forces towards those protesting the results.

Despite analysts’ and pundits’ claims that the margin of Putin’s victory was inflated and about 50% and not the 64% of the vote, it will by no means compare to the audacious inflation of figures in some parts of Nigeria during the 2011 Presidential elections. Some states in the South-East and South-South – the incumbent’s home base – recorded between 86%, according to the EU election monitors and up to 98% voter turn-out, a near impossibility in elections as the highest possible turn-out for the most enthusiastic and politically conscious electorate is usually pegged by political scientists at around 60 to 70%.

Of course this does not excuse the irregularities or manipulation of the electoral system by Putin as there is room for substantial improvement. Putin also stressed the need for a thorough investigation of all election violations. However, even the critics credit the Russian government for marginal improvements in elections in Russia. The US government acknowledged the Russian government’s efforts to reform the system while the French foreign minister in his reaction to Putin’s victory stated: “The election was not exemplary … [but] … there was no brutal repression during the campaign, as might have been the case in other times,”. In addition, the installation of 200,000 webcams at polling booths to prevent ballot stuffing and the ability of citizens to engage in peaceful protests are an indication of the improvements in the Russian public sphere unlike what obtained earlier.

(“Emperor”) Paul Biya of Cameroon, now in his sixth term in office

However, the key point here is that more countries around the world require this scrutiny and critical dissection of the electoral system which perhaps might propel their respective governments to conduct relatively credible elections at least that would meet minimum international standards. If the elections and “election-like events” in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa even measured-up to the standard of the Russian elections, warts and all, then many of our political problems might be more manageable.

Many African incumbents and closet autocrats get away with the farce and caricature of elections which consolidate their firm grip on power because they are able to escape the radar in their nefarious activities. For instance, with the little media attention the 2011 elections in Cameroon received, how many can even recall that Paul Biya, the autocrat in civilian garb (infamously nicknamed “The Sphinx”) has firmly held onto the reins of power in Cameroon for about 30 years, deftly succeeding himself in every election?

Clearly, there is undue emphasis on the elections in Russia to the detriment of elections in other Southern countries in the world, especially in Sub Saharan Africa where such attention, scrutiny and spotlight by the international community might actually assist civil society groups and activists in pressurising African leaders to embark on genuine electoral reforms. This is because there is a wide held view that many African leaders hardly respond to the demands of their electorate alone, so this international media scrutiny could assist civil society groups in this regard.

March 2012 NVS Q&A With Presidential Spokesman – Reuben Abati

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In last Saturday’s (03rd March) edition of the NOW WHAT weekly series by the Nigeria Village Square (NVS), we had Dr. Reuben Abati, the Nigerian President’s media spokesperson as our guest. Please find transcripts of Saturday’s edition of the show below, originally posted HERE. There is also a link with the audio clip of the session.

About The Q&A WIth The Presidency Program:

altThe monthly Questions and Answer sessions with the Presidency at Nigeria Village Square (NVS) mean to serve as avenue for members of the Nigerian Village Square and the public at large to submit questions and get direct responses from the  spokesman for the Nigerian President, Dr. Reuben Abati.

The First edition of the Q&A Session was conducted on Sunday Feb.12, 2012 and the transcript can be found here: Reuben Abati’s NVS Round-table – February 2012

Last Sunday (March 4, 2011), Dr Abati, sat down for the March 2012 session. Below is the first transcript covering Ojukwu’s burial, SURE-P program and news of a World Bank Office in Aso Rock.


Click here to download Audio (mp3)

INTRODUCTION

Good day everyone, this is Ajibola Robinson welcoming you to the second edition of our monthly Question and Answer sessions with the spokesman for the Nigerian President, Dr. Reuben Abati.

Some of us have followed him from his days at the Guardian Newspapers; his appearances on Patitos Gang and also his various articles posted in our village. Dr. Reuben Abati, welcome back to the Nigerian Village Square.

Joining me today for our question and answer session are, as usual, Zainab Usman from the United Kingdom and Anwulika Emenanjo from Canada.

Our session today is split into two, first, questions that have been posted by members of the village directly on the forum, in Facebook and on Twitter for your response, Sir, and later we will open up the discussion to callers who have joined us in the podcast.

To our callers, we appreciate your keeping your microphones on mute until you are asked to join in the discussion to minimize call interference. Thank you.

OJUKWU’S BURIAL

Dr. Abati we want to get your initial reactions to the just concluded final ceremony for retired General Ojukwu who passed away, and we, members of the village, are really happy to see the way the federal government honored the memory of Ojukwu, and gave him a state burial, so to speak. We appreciate….

Abati: You’ll recall that the last time we spoke on this platform, the same issue came up, and I disclosed in that discussion that Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu will be given full military honors and that a federal government delegation would be at the burial, to be led by the Vice President. What I held back was to announce that the president himself will be there personally.

What has happened this time around is that the president was there personally, in fact before he attended the burial, the corpse of the late general was brought to Abuja, and it was received in Abuja by both members of the executive and the National Assembly, and you know, the First Lady and the Vice President, and was also given full military reception.

And then of course a day before the President was there, the Vice President led the delegation of the federal government. And then on the day itself, the President was there, we went to Nnewi, and the president made it clear he was there in dual capacity. One, as the President of Nigeria going to honor a very distinguished Nigerian, a national icon, a man whose very existence defined an essential part of our national history. And secondly he was there as a personal friend, as a son of the late Ojukwu, as someone who admired the late Ojukwu greatly, as someone who was very close and who is still very close to the Ojukwu family. And when he spoke in the church he made it very clear that Ojukwu is a legend, Ojukwu is a national icon, Ojukwu is a national treasure. And he also used the opportunity to remark upon the humanity of Ojukwu, not just as a military leader but as a human being, as an individual.He had pointed out that when his father died that Chief Ojukwu infact came to his village to attend his father’s burial, in spite of the fact that he was not feeling too well at the time. And he had been close to the family all along, and he made it clear that Ojukwu had been somebody who had always been guiding him in his position as President.

So the President went there to pay tribute to a nationalist, to a patriot, to a man who people describe as an Igbo icon, but who is in the real sense a completely detribalized Nigerian. And if you read many of the tributes to Ojukwu, you will see that many of the tributes come from Zungeru, they come from Yoruba land, his mates in secondary school, his friends in Yoruba land celebrate him as the true son of Nigeria and as a human being whose humanism is to be recommended to others.

NVS: Well thank you very much, several members of the village actually hold same views and like I said, the community very much appreciate that the federal government followed up just as you had promised us that he will be given a full military burial.

And now without further ado, I will hand over to Zainab to set forth the first set of questions we have for you sir. Zainab…….


The SURE-P Program

Zainab: Thank you Ajibola. Good evening everyone. Good evening Sir, it’s a pleasure to have you here again. I’ll get down to business straight away. The first set of questions that I have is on the SURE program…

NVS: It was reported last week that SURE/SURE-P program had been withdrawn/scrapped by Mr. President and then we got to find out that it hasn’t been scrapped but was simply being reviewed. This is all a bit confusing. Could you please clarify and inform us on what the real situation is?

Abati: Ok thank you very much for this question, because I have issued a press statement to offer a clarification. I think the confusion came from a headline in a newspaper, and the headline did not match the body of the story, but people just took the headline and they jumped to conclusions. If people have taken the pains to read the actual content they would have seen that the story was different from the headline, hence I issued a press release to offer a clarification.

But I’ve seen that since the press release people are still insisting that the president said this, the president said that, that the SURE-P has been withdrawn, its been scrapped, whereas the President never said so. I’ve also gone on television, AIT specifically, to offer further explanations.

The situation is as follows- the President attended the 58th national executive committee meeting of the Peoples Democratic Party, on that occasion, copies of the SURE-P document was being distributed to members, and then the president said No, these copies should be withdrawn, and that later a revised document will be made available. This was essentially what the President said, and I think that there shouldn’t have been any problem with this.

Because the truth of the matter is that that document was based on specific statistical calculations. The SURE program is based on the calculations that average crude oil price would be $90 USD per barrel. And that the total re-investible fund for the year will be about 1.134 billion. Out of this, the federal government will get 478.49 billion, the states will get about 416 billion, the local governments about 203 billion, the FCT 9.8 billion, and then 31.137 will be left for derivation, ecology stabilization fund.

So the SURE document deal essentially with the federal government’s share of the re-investible funds. Now it was also based on the principle that there would be full deregulation. But with the pump price of petrol being reduced from N141 per litre to N97 per litre it means that the re-investible funds that will be available to the government will be completely reduced. So if you now push out a document that is based on the calculation of 478.49 billion, with specific projects tied to that figure, then it means that later the calculation will no longer be realistic.

This was essentially what the President was drawing public attention to. He was being transparent, he was being accountable, he was being truthful, and he was saying simply that this document will have to be reviewed, and of course the president could not have said that the program is being ‘truncated’ to use and expression that was used by a labour chieftain, when only a week earlier on February 13, the NEC meeting was on February 13, only a week earlier he had inaugurated the Kolade committee which has a mandate to monitor the investment process. And the whole idea of that Kolade committee also is to ensure there is transparency, is to ensure that the representatives of the Nigerian people monitor how the money is spent.

I’ve had the view expressed that SURE-P, as a lot of people now call it, was meant to fail, and that the amount that had been earmarked will not be enough for most of the programs that were outlined. What people must realize is that the SURE-P is not a replacement for the normal business of government.

Government has this program specifically budgeted for. What will come from the removal of fuel subsidy or reduction of fuel subsidy is mainly additional. By setting up the Kolade committee, what the government wants to show is that look, this is what the money is being used for, this is how it has been used, either in a contributory sense or in a specific sense, but there is a lot of propaganda that has been generated against the… around this, by cynics, people who just want to use this to discredit president Jonathan.

So I put it to you that clearly the SURE program is an attempt at transparency, and you’ll recall that this is the first time that any administration will come forward and put in black and white an outline of what it intend to do with money saved from the removal of fuel subsidy. And government took that decision in other to address the confidence gap that exists between government and the governed.We all know there is a confidence gap, there is a trust gap. Because you’ll see that during all that conflict, if I may say so, over the removal of fuel subsidy, many Nigerians including Labour, including the opposition, said that, look, they have no problem with deregulation, which is the appropriate term for the intent of government, but what they have a problem with is that they’ve heard the same promises over and over again, and that they were not sure that this time around government will keep it’s promises, hence government prepared this document to say ‘give us the benefit of doubt’, this is what we will do, this is a committee representing the interest of the Nigerian people to monitor it, and hold us accountable. I would think that is something, that openness is to be commended rather than to be condemned.

NVS: Thanks for the explanation. You made mention of the trust and confidence that exist between the public and government and also that cynics are kind of capitalizing on this to embark on propaganda and pessimism. Maybe you might agree that, should I say on the side of government, there hasn’t really been much efforts to kind of carry the public along when these programs are being decided upon. I think the thing is a lot of Nigerians show that they are not well informed. So this… creates friction and tension  that creates all these conspiracy theories and gives room for this cynics to kind of spread the “propaganda” around.

Abati: Well, one thing I can say immediately is that the Jonathan administration did not invent or create the problem of alienation between government and the people, or if you like, we return to our initial phrases- confidence gap and trust gap. This is a cumulative effect of the nature of relationship between the Nigerian people and government. So its an inherited problem.

But the challenge that we face at this particular moment is that we need to change all of that. And to change all of that we need to keep explaining to people, to the Nigerian people the good face, the good intention of government, its programs, and to reach out to the people. And this is what government tried to do with the subsidy removal program. But I’ve heard the criticisms that not enough was done, that people were not well informed enough.

But I’ll repeat the same point I made in our last interaction, which is that the whole of that experience brought us many lessons, and we have learnt our lessons, and one key lesson that we have learnt is that we have to continue to explain to the Nigerian people, and just keep explaining, keep communicating, keep making issues clear, and that is a major challenge that we cannot shy away from.

So I take the criticism while making the point at the same time that we appeal for understanding, that people cannot hold President Jonathan responsible for things that has been there all this while. He is there as a transformational leader to effect changes, to move Nigeria forward, and all he is asking for is the support and understanding of Nigerians.

WORLD BANK OFFICE IN ASO ROCK

NVS: Ok, thank you. Moving on to the next set of questions, this is on the World bank office in Aso Rock. President Jonathan recently announced that a World Bank team would be invited to act in an advisory capacity to the Presidency to ensure due process is observed in awarding contracts and in procurement. Can you confirm (as reportedly stated by President Jonathan) that the World Bank would be having it’s own office in Aso Rock?

Abati: I think that this is something really that needs to be clarified. This is one of those issues again, that has been misrepresented to the public. I think we need to go back, to step back a bit in history and to note that the due process office which was set up by the Obasanjo administration in 2001. Well, it was introduced in 2001 and then the bill was sent to the National Assembly in 2003, and it was passed into law 2007, and president Yar’adua signed it into law in 2007.

It was that due process office that now automatically transmuted into the Bureau of Public Procurement. And the whole emphasis, the whole essence of BPP is to ensure due process, its to ensure transparency, and all of that.

Now, when the President refers to the World bank, he was doing so in two senses. One, to emphasize, to reiterate, to underline, to reiterate the point that his administration is committed to this original objective of ensuring due process in procurement processes, transparency and accountability, that all of these will be respected, and that his administration is committed to strengthening the process.

Two, it is important to note that the World bank was actively involved in the establishment of the due process office, now known as the BPP.  In fact due process BPP came about as part of a global agreement that the federal government signed in 2005, which was part of a whole package of general reforms, and incidentally it was signed by the present Minister of Finance who at that time was Minister of Finance who at this moment is coordinating minister of the economy and minister of finance.

Now, right from inception the World Bank had been working in collaboration with the Bureau of Public Procurement. But in a specific regard, because you know that there are World Bank projects in Nigeria, as part of this multilateral relationship… and the World bank is actively involved in the monitoring of World Bank projects, World Bank financed projects, in water, in irrigation, in infrastructure. And when the President referred to World bank desk in the Presidency, he was essentially drawing attention to this. In fact the national standard bidding document for World Bank financed projects were put together by both the Bureau of Public Procurement and the World Bank.

So the World Bank has always been actively involved in monitoring World Bank financed projects. Maybe that was one point that didn’t quite come out clearly in the interview in the process of editing, because all of this came out of the interview that the President granted. You know in the process of editing the editor may have edited out a specific sense of the message. But this clarification is very important, and it’s good that you have brought up this question.So, it is not about compromising the sovereignty of Nigeria, because that is the view I have heard a lot of people expressing. That if the World Bank seat in our offices this will happen, that will happen… The Bureau of Public Procurement is an agency under the Presidency, to start with. And the World Bank had always been working in collaboration with the BPP. So there is no contradiction here, ok.

NVS: So just to be clear, the World Bank advisory body will only focus on World Bank financed projects or…. just to be clear.

Abati: Yes World Bank financed projects, yes, specifically, because there are national standard bidding documents and also in the preparation of those documents the World Bank as I said earlier also played a role. And you cannot argue with this because part of the objectives is to ensure international best practices in our procurement processes.

NVS: Ok ok, so if may ask, just to be very clear, because like I said there’s always a lot of confusion. As you said, if the World bank has always worked in tandem with BPP, then I guess a lot of Nigerians will want to know what is the reason behind making this recent statement about establishing this World Bank advisory body if it has always been in existence?

Abati: No, that statement was made in the sense of strengthening that desk further. I have a letter here before me, for example which was written on September 22, 2011 by the World bank. Well let me not go into the details, because that will be like reading to you an official document. But what the document says essentially is about the deepening the partnership for the procurement reform agenda in Nigeria.

Now what the President was trying to draw our attention to is about deepening the procurement reform agenda in Nigeria. And as I told you earlier, the role of the World bank in all of this, also in relation to World bank financed projects, and in revising the national standard bidding documents, just to make sure that international standards, best practices, are maintained.

And we must realize that we are living in a global community, all of these international things about finance and procurement, there are protocols, there are existing protocols. So what the President was talking about does not amount in any anyway to ceding Nigerian sovereignty to World Bank- to quote some people who have been saying so. Definitely not.

NVS: Thank you for that. So in this regard then,  are there other kind of similar partnership with other government agencies and foreign organizations, perhaps maybe the IMF? Do they also have this kind of advisory desk……?

Abati: Well you know, really, in the normal course of government business, there are bilateral relations, there are multilateral relations. And there are government departments that are actively involved in multilateral relations, that are involved in bilateral relations. I mean Nigeria has bi-national commissions, for example, with many Countries. We have with the United States, the Nigerian/ German bi-national commission is to be set up. Now, under such issues as health, agriculture, and MBG, we have multilateral partnerships.

What people must realize is that Nigeria does not exist in isolation, we are part of an international community, an international community, we now live in a global community where there are expectations, where there are standards about the human development index, and Nigeria is engaged in partnership with so many organizations, and groups in the World.

But doing this does not amount to Nigeria subordinating itself to other countries or to other organizations.  That point must be made very clear. Nigeria is an important Country, and its probably only Nigerians that are not aware of the importance of their own country. But we are a very important country, and one of the things that President Jonathan has done is to strengthen our relationships at both bilateral and multilateral levels. But that does not amount to ceding the authority of Nigeria as a sovereign entity, rather it amounts to getting opportunity for Nigerians, it amount to building relationships for Nigeria, it amount to promoting Nigeria on the World map.

… 

You can find the second part of the Interview with Dr. Abati focusing on Boko Haram, Petroleum Industry Bill, Power Generation etc HERE

Part 2: Interview with Mallam Nasir El-Rufai on Sovereign National Conference and Other Matters

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The is  the second part of the interview with Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, with focus on calls for a National Conference and Sharia Law. As with the first part of the interview, this was originally posted on Nigeria Village Square website HERE. Enjoy!!

 

Now What Podcasts : The NOW WHAT podcasts Series are initiated by a desire to chart a way forward for Nigeria following the January 2012 Occupy protests, Boko Haram and other security challenges and the seeming slide to anarchy in Nigeria. Each week, members of the NVS forum will exchange ideas in a round-table and will also invite high profile guests to offer ideas

On Saturday February 25, 2012, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai was our guest. Mallam Nasir El-Rufai spoke on Boko Haram, Sovereign National Conference, Security, and so much more in a very frank manner.

The following is transcript of the second part of the interview, with focus on National Conference and Sharia.


Mallam Nasir El-Rufai (Part 2)


SOVEREIGN NATIONAL CONFERENCE

Anchor: Thank you Sir. The next series of questions will be taken on by Ajibola Robinson and they will be on Sovereign National Conference and other general questions. Mr. Robinson…

NVS: I’ll like to start off with a few questions about the National Conference. You’ll notice I started off removing the word Sovereign from the statement. With that said, let me go on to the first question which is: It appears a large groups of Nigerians have become increasingly frustrated with the current state of affairs in Nigeria. As an example, yesterday, even the 19 Northern governors called for a review of the revenue allocation formula to states. A number of Nigerians both home and abroad believe thatthese are legitimate issues to be discussed in a wider forum, at the national level and in a discussion that involves all Nigerian nationalities.

We are at a point where we should sit down as a nation and have some kind of dialogue. This wider discussion will allow all stakeholders to bring their various grievances to the table. Issues like State police, revenue allocation, resource control, state agitation, and even as yu mentioned earlier, states that want to have Sharia law. What are your views on this? And would you be willing to take part in a process to discuss these issues?

El-Rufai: I support the national conference. I think that any opportunity we have to sit and discuss the terms of our federation is a welcome step. I have issues with “sovereign” and I’m happy you didn’t even mention the word because I think its impossible when you have a sitting Government that is elected no matter how flawed the elections are to have a sovereign National Conference.

Yes we should have a National Conference, yes we should agree on who should represent various parts of Nigeria to that conference. And I think we should discuss everything, nothing should be pulled off the table. I support that. As to whether I’ll be part of it? It depends on how the membership of those that will attend the conference is determined.

If the people of Kaduna or the FCT where I live elect me to represent them, or select me or in whatever way, I’ll be happy to be part of it. That is not an issue at all, I think there many issues for discussion in the Nigerian federation, and we should talk about them and negotiate them.

 

NATIONAL SUMMIT GROUP

NVS: In line with the above, I’m sure you’re aware there is a National Summit Group that had their first meeting. Dr. Reuben Abati was here 2 weeks ago and he said government is looking to engage in dialogue with the National summit group. Are you a member of this group? And when can the group be ready for a real national discussion and on what key action points?

El-Rufai: No I’m not part of any National Summit group. The National Summit group, I think is something that’s being promoted by Tony Uranta who is a Jonathan ally. I was invited and did not attend because I will not attend any summit that the government has a hand in putting together because I don’t trust this government. I don’t trust the agenda of this government and I will not be part of anything that they have a hand in putting together. So I didn’t participate, and in fact I think that the whole thing was a choreographed arrangement to lead to a certain conclusion. What the conclusion is, we are waiting because we know there is an agenda somewhere.

 

NVS: That is an interesting point, but it appears you support the wider national conference, but just not the summit group…

El-Rufai: It is, it is. In fact at that summit, a professor, I can’t remember her name, asked the question- ‘who is paying for this? 3 nights in the Sheraton, this big hall, who is paying?’ and Chukwuemeka Ezeife, one of the organizers of the summit seized the microphone and said ‘I will talk to you off camera’ and to me that smells of government sponsorship. And the fact that those that are sitting there, if you look at their faces you’ll know that they don’t have the money to sponsor this kind of thing clearly proves it. I support a wider conference, that is not being engineered and sponsored or directed by the government.

I think that we must find a way for every part of Nigeria to come together to discuss about these issues and agree on them, but not when the Jonathan administration is the hand behind it. I would not be part of it, I would not be part of it.

 

DOCTRINE OF SETTLED ISSUES

NVS: In an interview, the ex-President mentioned the “Doctrine of Settled Issues” Just like IBB today, Obasanjo in the past also informed the National Conference that discussions on the unity of Nigeria was a no go area, a settled issue as Nigeria was to remain a singular united country under all circumstances.

Recent reports from for twitter account, indicate you support a return to a pre-1966 Nigeria set up, with strong regions and a weaker center. Can you clarify the validity of this statement and if true, how will a 2012 and beyond Nigeria look like based on your pre-1966 ideas and more importantly how do you suggest we go about the process to restructure Nigeria?

El-Rufai: Well, look, both General Babangida and General Obasanjo were people that fought to keep Nigeria one, they were at the Civil War. Babangida took a bullet to maintain Nigerian unity. So you can understand his position, and I believe that Nigeria is better off together as one country, because the bigger we are the better, and I think our unity in diversity is better for all of us.

But that’s my point of view. I’ll prefer to see one Nigeria, I’ll hate to need a visa to visit Obi Ezekwesili or Dele Olojede or Ighodalo. These are my friends that are not from my part of the country but I want to assure you that if people want to put on the table the breakup of Nigeria, then it would be a legitimate topic. There’s nothing that cannot be discussed because there is no part of Nigeria that cannot survive on its own. So nobody should threaten the other. We must remain together if it is beneficial to all of us.

The situation where some people look at me because I’m from the north and say I’m a parasite is unacceptable, I’ll rather live with my poverty and dignity than to be insulted every day. So, those that are threatening to break up Nigeria should know that there are the Babangidas and Obasanjos of this world that are ready to take up arm to keep Nigeria one. But there are people like us that are willing to discuss it, so I do not fully agree with the Babangida’s doctrine of settled issues. That is his generation – he is a General and he had his reasons, and we all have our reasons for taking one belief or another.

Now, I have a preference for the pre-1966 Nigeria because we had strong regions, a fairly well functioning central government that was not too strong, and it worked. It engendered regional competition; it made all the regions of the country to develop their own internal resources. It had very little room for the kind of laid-back; wait-every-month-for-the-oil-money-to-flow. I think it worked better for Nigeria, it worked better for the North, for the West, the East and for the Midwest. How do we get there? I don’t know

The matter is we have 36 states in the federation with governors, with legislators and with Local Government chairmen, and you know what? They call the reins of power, they will not easily allow Nigeria to go back to the pre-1966 arrangement. But if I’m to have my wish we should be talking about Nigeria along those lines because I think that arrangement worked. Now we may need to tweak it and adjust it to take into account that we are in the 21st century and many things have passed under the bridge since then, but I think it worked, and I think if we put our heads together and think about a way, I’m sure we’ll find a way to negotiate and get to that end point. Do I have a road map? No, I don’t have.

 

SHARIA AND MINORITY RIGHTS

NVS: I think quite a number of people will appreciate that response. It cannot be of course argued that Northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim and also it cannot be of course argued that the Nigerian constitution recognizes the practice of Sharia law. Hence one can see why those states would want to be ruled by Sharia law.

What is not apparent is that a number of people will take issue with your statement the rights of the minority Northern Christian people, like the huge populations of parts of Kebbi State, Southern Zaria et al are being respected as well as the rights of the non-Muslim Southerners by also not being subjected to Sharia law. Do you have some comments on this? As this is a major complaint of those people within Northern Nigeria.

El-Rufai: Look, listen, I am from Kaduna state, and we have Christian minority in my state, and we had Sharia under Governor Madaki. Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims, as it is all over. There is nowhere, I challenge you to bring out the case of any non-Muslim brought to Sharia court to settle a dispute or to subject him to the criminal law, it’s not true. There isn’t one case, not one, people just say these things without looking at the facts…

We know the case of Amina Lawal, we know the case of Fatima the woman that was convicted for adultery which was quashed at the Court of Appeal. So, even for the Muslims that appealed (their cases) ultimately Sharia law didn’t apply to them. But there is not one single case, and I challenge anyone in your forum and in the Village Square, to produce a situation in which a Christian was brought before a Sharia court and tried under Sharia law, it doesn’t happen.

 

NVS: ……I lived in Samaru we have the sharia court of law near the market. So I know Sharia has always been there, but it just looked like, with the advent of civilian government it took a different dimension, it became like the law of the land.

El-Rufai: No no no no, let me explain Ajibola. What we have in the Northern states from time is the Penal Code. The Penal Code… of Northern Nigeria is based on Sharia. It was brought from Pakistan and Sudan, and modified and enacted for Nigeria. That’s what we have, the Penal Code that apply to all the northern states.

But the penal code is not strict Sharia, it’s a mix of customary law, a bit of Sharia and the common law. But you have Sharia court and Area court, and so on and so forth.

Sharia court then deals with only personal Islamic law- marriage, inheritance, divorce and so on and so forth. That was the scope of Sharia court then. What happened in the first Obasanjo term was, starting with Zamfara state and then across 11 northern state, the governors decided to expand the scope of Sharia law to include the criminal law, so when you steal a goat instead of going to prison for 3 months as it obtained in the penal code for instance, they cut off your hand. That is the only addition. And in all these laws, in all the Northern states that I know adopting Sharia, there were clear caveat that this does not apply to non-Muslims. The Penal code is the one that still applies to non-Muslims, and you have in many states in the North like Benue state, certain aspects of even the Penal code like the aspect relating to adultery, are not applicable.

So the penal code is a very flexible form of legal system, which I think, as a Muslim, I think have gone far enough to take care most aspect of Sharia as they relate to our personal lives as Muslims. But those governors crossed the line and went into criminal law, and that’s what this is all about. But like I said, even when they did cross the line and many of us disagree with them – even then, it did not apply to non-Muslims.